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Laurie Penny: A divided society

The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right, but between rich and poor.

For all the talk of one-nation Conservatism, the shadow-play of social injustice begins as soon as you step on to the train to the Tory party conference. Flinging my huge rucksack between the nearest doors just as the Birmingham train is about to pull away, I find myself moving through the low-lit hush of the first-class carriages. Wobbling through the half-empty aisles, I spot two Conservative councillors and several well-known columnists from the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph curled comfortably in the spacious armchairs, over newspapers and coffee -- but through two sets of sliding doors are the cheaper seats.

Back here, it's stressful and there's not enough space. Standard class on the 8.50 Virgin Trains service is crowded with shift workers, students heading back to college after weekends at home -- and protesters. People from all corners of the country have given up their weekends to attend the national anti-cuts, pro-welfare demonstration convened by the Right to Work campaign and many of them are squeezed into the narrow red pens of Virgin's stock, shut off from the elbow-room of first class by a surcharge that makes all the difference. I drift off into a disturbing dream that Richard Branson is now running the welfare state, and several lurching delays later the denizens of standard class stumble out into Birmingham New Street, rumpled and irritable as only the British public can be after two hours crammed into a rolling metaphor for the state of the nation.

By noon, I am huddled in a car park under a dirty formica sky with several thousand welfare recipients, public-sector workers, local kids and union reps, getting thoroughly and miserably rained on. The press has dismissed the protest as union-led and union-run, because we now live in a world where "trade-union member" is a term of insult, but most of those I meet walking to the march assembly point are unaffiliated citizens. Kathryn, a teacher, says that this is her first protest since the Stop The War march in 2003. "It's mine, too," says Margaret, a retired social worker, who is marching alongside a gang of teenagers from local comprehensive schools. "I don't normally get involved in things like this, but this time, with these cuts, I just felt like I had to say something." "We've got to say something," agrees Kathryn. "It's better than staying quiet."

Everything's entirely quiet in the foyer of the Jury's Inn hotel where politicians and lobbyists are sipping tea in between fringe events. "It's hard to see how any protest will make much of a difference," says one Conservative MP, who refuses to be named. "Everybody knows that we have to make cuts anyway, so nobody's going to take much notice." Other delegates at the bar have heard that there's some sort of ruckus going on in the street, but the retreat into Tory bunker mentality has already begun. Despite this being the first conference in power the Conservatives have held for 14 years, the mood is far from triumphant -- at the fringe events, ministers are already on the back foot, defending the coalition's planned cuts to welfare and public services as calmly as possible.

Back at the march, a crosspatch cross section of British society is voicing its soggy dissent: pensioners grumble about the vehemence of some of the speakers while eating scotch eggs from plastic bags, and dreadlocked students share flasks of tea and foil-wrapped sandwiches with middle-aged mothers pushing prams. There's a curious sense of timelessness to the event. Some of the union reps clearly think they're back in the 1980s, and a dour close-harmony folk band is telling us all about the Hard Times of Olde England, but as the march moves off, it is led by disabled people in wheelchairs and their carers, determined to "show that we're suffering, too". At back of the folk band, moreover, is a man who everyone is trying very hard to ignore, because he is brandishing and occasionally honking through a vuvuzela, an item that seems in 2010 to have finally replaced the pitchfork as the prop of choice for the global working class attempting to annoy and terrify the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, just feet away inside the secure zone, behind a wall of steel cordons and police dogs, about the same number of warm, dry conference delegates are, and I'm not making this up, watching some contemporary dance. Specifically, a trio of twee pseudo-ballerinas in floaty saris from something called the Arts Conference, enacting modern interpretations of North Indian traditional dances with very serious expressions. They have been hired to twirl very slowly around the main stage before Francis Maude comes on to explain the "big society", and as he hasn't got a lot to say, they've clearly been instructed to take their time. The audience clap, polite and bewildered. Outside in the rain, the people who actually have to live in the "big society" are already howling for reprieve.

You couldn't have asked for a starker, more cliched illustration of the difference between the political elites and the rest of us if you'd given a toddler a fistful of red and blue crayons and told it to draw a picture of a divided society. The lines being drawn are wobbly and childish, but they are lines of pain and anger, and like the etchings of a traumatised child, they deserve to be paid attention to. The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right. The chasm is between rich and poor, and it's growing, dividing those members of the elite, including the liberal elite, for whom the coming cuts are an abstract if regrettable concept, and the people whose jobs and homes and families are under threat.

Most of the latter have not been able to afford the £400 accreditation process for access to the Conservative conference centre, with its finger-food receptions and winsome catered round tables to discuss whether central government should pull an awkward or merely resolved expression while tearing the heart out of the welfare state and refusing to share the financial burden amongst the wealthy. As delegates and journalists at the Demos grill nibble profiteroles and ask Greg Clark MP why he won't be slightly more forthright about shrinking the state, they seem not to have realised how much they are already resented by a good deal of ordinary people. Either that, or they simply don't care.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Under Trump, American democracy will change – with the whole world at stake

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Is this the collapse of the pluralist order?

In the weeks since 8 November, when Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by three million, the culture of informed, participatory, representative democracy has taken one hit after another.

Before our eyes, the American republic, that most durable of representative democratic experiments, is morphing into something unrecognisable. At the federal level, the mediating, moderating institutions are withering away, leaving an abyss in the centre of US politics that Trump threatens to fill with a toxic appeal to race and religion baiting. Day after day, one reads reports of hate crimes and a surge in incivility – of Muslim women attacked in the streets, of swastikas painted on buildings, of Latino kids in schools being taunted about the wall that Trump has promised to build on the Mexican border. The Ku Klux Klan has rallied in several cities. “Alt-right” groups – some of which share members with neo-Nazi organisations – have held triumphalist events in Washington, DC.

Through it all, Trump has spent his time not trying to show that he will be a unifying president, not condemning this wave of violence, but instead holding his own rolling series of triumphalist rallies designed to shore up his personality cult.

Trump is only nominally a Grand Old Party Republican. His power derives not from understanding the ins and outs of party politics, playing by the long-established rules of a two-party system, nor from having studied the workings of the constitution, nor from any specialised legal or diplomatic knowledge. Rather, it stems from direct appeals to “the people”. Though a billionaire, Trump has fashioned himself as a far-right populist, a leader who speaks to the sensibilities of the mob with no time or patience for nuance.

He has enthusiastically endorsed “the torture” against terrorism suspects; collective punishment and executions; religious tests of entry for would-be immigrants; registries of Muslims; the jailing of his political opponents; clampdowns on free speech and on the functioning of investigative media outlets; stop-and-frisk policing strategies against minorities; wholesale deportation policies; and many other noxious ideas. He has deliberately coarsened America’s political language – systematically humiliating opponents and bringing his crowds down with him into the political sewers in which he thrives. His project is that of the classic totalitarian: make everyone and every major institution of state so grubby, so complicit, that, over time, they come to feel that they have no choice but to collaborate with an agenda of oppression.

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Totalitarian projects garner support until they throw entire populations into disaster – into economic calamity, into spiralling conflicts and wars, into civil strife. Trump, as he makes policy on the hoof and hires a cabinet that seems to be made up of equal parts fanatics, conspiracy theorists, incompetents and generals, shows no sign of understanding this. He is a leader without internal limits.

Using his Twitter platform, in particular, Trump spent the weeks between election day and his inauguration wielding a wrecking ball against everything from environmental policy to gender equality regulations; from the “one China” policy carefully respected by leaders of both parties for more than 40 years to policies against expanded Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Three days before Christmas, he suggested that the US would be expanding its nuclear arsenal under his leadership.

This isn’t just dangerous; it’s beyond idiotic – a man who will soon wield unholy power over the lives of everyone on this planet intervening in the most delicate of policy areas with the bluntest of cudgels. The idea of making nuclear policy through 140-character tweets is insane, the stuff of bad late-night comedy rather than serious international diplomacy. And yet, intellectually, this is where America’s incoming leadership now resides.

Trump’s actions over these past weeks indicate that he is a person of staggering hubris, of thoughtlessness, of impulsiveness – and that, as he presented himself time and again during the election season, he is a boy-man, with the sensibilities of a teenager rather than a mature adult. He comes across as someone megalomaniacally confident that he can think and do no wrong; who wants to listen only to sycophants; and who is convinced that his brand of instinctual politics (the kind that has no need for dreary, real-world interventions such as daily security briefings) will triumph over all.

On the night of the election, the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, wrote an impassioned essay about what he identified as an “American tragedy”. But this doesn’t do full justice to the catastrophe that Trump’s election represents. His is a triumph of the will, as surely as was Hitler’s rise to power in 1932-33. He has ridden and will continue to try to ride roughshod over his opponents – both within the craven GOP, which has sacrificed all semblance of democratic credibility in pursuit of power, and in the Democratic Party and beyond.

Because he enters the White House as a conqueror rather than a product of years of politicking within the existing governing structures, he knows that he can appeal to “the people” – not all of the people but those white, conservative, mainly rural and suburban residents who make up the core of his support – to get his way.

Will Trump succeed in this mad re-imagining of what the United States is? There will be large opposition – on the streets, on university campuses, in the courts and in the state houses of liberal states up and down both coasts. In wealthy and large states such as California, where the cities, state legislatures and the governor’s offices are united in opposition to huge parts of Trump’s agenda, it is likely that on a day-to-day basis residents will avoid the brunt of the impact.

It is entirely possible that there will be a flowering of radical politics in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York and Boston, as well as inward migration from the heartlands of large numbers of political progressives and members of racial and religious minorities. Yet in more conservative parts of the country – in Texas, say, or Oklahoma, Mississippi or Alabama, or a host of other states dominated by reactionary political leaders – life for immigrants, the working poor, single mothers and Muslims (just to take a few examples) will become harsher. In many states, it is not at all clear that the political leadership will be willing or able to stand up to Trump’s mob.

It’s also far from certain that local police forces or county sheriffs will be able, or even particularly inclined, to stop the unleashing of pogroms. After all, these are places where law enforcement long turned a blind eye to lynch mobs directed against black residents and black-run businesses. It is not such a stretch to imagine a similar passivity in the face of anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican violence today.

Nor, on the international stage, is it likely that this troupe of political novices will be able to control the forces of resentment they are unleashing. Trump’s cabinet is full of Islamophobes who believe that the entire Muslim world is now America’s enemy. It is dominated by China-haters and climate change deniers. By the time Trump assumes the presidency, he will have done an almighty job of pissing off swaths of the world’s population.

The optimistic scenario is that the world turns its back on an inward-looking America, getting on with the serious business of international affairs while the pre-eminent superpower throws a four-to-eight-year tantrum. It is more likely, however, that there will be a scramble for influence as US soft power wanes and other powerful countries and non-state organisations seek to fill a vacuum created by the dearth of sensible American voices and policies. Such players could range from economic powerhouses such as China and Germany, seeking, or being forced to accept, a bigger military and geopolitical role, to resurgent powers such as Russia – as well as non-state actors ranging from terrorist entities such as Isis to techno-anarchist groups such as WikiLeaks.

As America’s image mutates, they will have a growing opportunity either to sow instability or to reshape regions of the world in their own image. The nightmare scenario is that Trump, relying on his instincts in place of the counsel of experts, seeks to shore up America’s declining influence through spasmodic demonstrations of military power – bullying and threatening one country after another, much as fascist regimes did in the 1930s. The consequences could be disastrous: US nationalism unleashed could plunge the world into conflict.

Thus we hover on the edge of a catastrophe: a great democracy that has come to be controlled by demagogues, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation, itching for an excuse to implement emergency measures against Muslims and others, convinced that its military might will cow the rest of the world into toeing the Trumpian line.

Sasha Abramsky writes for the Nation magazine and is the author of “The American Way of Poverty” (Nation Books)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era