On the message side, it is gratifying that even EJ Dionne, the foremost of the liberal literati, writing for the Washington Post, finally recognises that there is a legitimate cause for the political revolt that has ignited Donald Trump’s unlikely ascendency.
That this acknowledgement has taken so long is a measure of the deafness of the US political establishment to the pain of economic dislocation when it arises from an inconvenient cultural dimension.
Civil rights, equal rights, individual rights have long been the American mantra, while socialism, class struggle and privilege have been the preoccupations of Europe and the UK.
Both perspectives were revolutionary, but in different dimensions.
Eric Foner, that great American historian, once postulated that this American/European divide could be encapsulated in the relativities of cultural issues versus economic issues. The US heavy on the former; Europe and the UK heavy on the latter. And his prognostication was a switch-over:
Perhaps, in the dissipation of class ideologies, Europe is now catching up with a historical process already experienced in the United States. Perhaps future expressions of radicalism in Europe will embody less a traditional socialist ideology than an “American” appeal to libertarian and moral values and resistance to disabilities based upon race and gender. Or perhaps a continuing world economic crisis will propel politics both in Western Europe and in America down a more class-oriented path. Only time will tell whether the United States has been behind Europe in the development of socialism, or ahead of it in socialism’s decline.
What has actually happened is not one set of issues displacing the other, as Foner imagined, but a rebalancing in which both preoccupations become more evident in both environments: more cultural issues in Europe via immigration and more economic issues in the US via a new class divide within the white population.
Western Europe’s and the UK’s convulsion over immigration and cultural divergence is strikingly American. The arrival of cultural diversity in small nations long defined by their culturally homogeneity has meant that many of those nations, long given to sanctimonious preaching about how easy it is to be the world’s good societies, now find themselves with conservative rather than socialist governments and anti-immigration politics, with all of their cultural rifts, on full display.
The Brexit vote and economic dismay in much of the rest of Europe speak to a continuation of an older European theme of economic dislocation, re-enforced by the flawed base of the European Union, where the combination of an economic union and political decentralisation has prevented economically distressed members from triggering the currency devaluation they require.
On the Atlantic’s western shore, in Antonin Dvorak’s “New World,” the US has experienced the most successful “socialist” candidate for president since Eugene Debs was running for that office (once from prison) on the Socialist Party ticket almost exactly 100 years ago.
Despite his disdain for “losers”, Donald Trump has led a culturally defined movement of “losers” in the globalisation tidal wave: those white men (and white women, too) not riding the wave but washed up by it, on islands defined by poverty, social and cultural isolation, hopelessness, drug abuse and radically increasing suicide rates.
If these castaways had been from the approved cultural group of non-white, non-male sufferers there might have been some interest from Dionne’s “liberati literati”. But these victims were white, middle aged, poorly educated, heavily male and thus, while embarrassing, were deserving of their fate.
If a clear class polarisation among white Americans is new to modern America, the cultural issues focused on identity continue to roil the body politic.
Every conceivable collection of folks who can imagine themselves as a culturally defined group advances their group civil rights to the fore, whether they be gun owners naked without their side arms or transgendered folk in search of a culturally appropriate bathroom, demanding an end to discrimination.
So has the Atlantic finally been politically bridged? Yes, in the sense that Bernie Sanders, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump reside together on the distant side of the economic moon.
They agree on the need to address both the economic dislocations flowing from globalisation and the cultural issues of heterogeneous immigration, exacerbated by highly uneven economic opportunity.
Sanders did not last long enough to have to explain his cultural politics, but Trump and Johnson developed a successful amalgam of economic and cultural issues.
As an American by birth (a New Yorker, like Trump) who became a political leader in the UK, perhaps it is to be expected that Boris Johnson would carry the perfectly modulated message of both nations.
Not so Trump, who remains an outrageous and probably a politically disastrous carrier of an important message.
Trump alone is willing to break away from the conservative Republican economic policies of cutting back welfare, cutting the deficit, balancing the budget, and reducing the size and reach of government. Trump is about as far from the Tea Party as any Republican candidate can be.
Trump cannily senses that his band of “losers” demands exactly the opposite policy recipe.
And, insofar as he is able to momentarily suppress his egomania to concentrate on any policy platform, this is the one to which he has most consistently held. Would he be interested or able to put that platform in place? Probably not.
In politics as in life, character is all. And Trump has none. He is defined by dishonesty and an appalling lack of integrity. He has never been loyal to anyone. He possesses the sociopath’s lack of empathy; he mocks disabilities and the disabled. He is a bully and he is cruel. Above all he deplores “losers” – his constituency.
Who could have succeeded? Marco Rubio, if he had possessed the courage to stand up against the Republican establishment and been true to his Hispanic roots. Boris Johnson, if he had returned to New York City, leaving behind his modulated accent.
Who might succeed in 2020 following Trump’s well-deserved defeat? Some aspiring young Republican who seizes the possibility of creating a new Republican Party. How?
By preserving Trump’s economic message of support for the sub-ducting portion of new white lower class while recognising among Hispanics, America’s largest minority, many features of the quintessential Republican voter: hard-working, family-centered, deeply religious, and idealistically patriotic.
Professor Donald A. DeBats is director of American Studies at Flinders University’s Centre for United States and Asia Policy Studies in the School of History and International Relations. He coordinates the Flinders Washington Internship Program. Professor DeBats also chairs the Board of Directors of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of Carnegie Mellon University Australia. His research appointments include the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Humanities Center of the US, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia.
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