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In the age of reaction, a neo-fascist has taken the White House

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency is yet another blow to the liberal world order.

Whatever happened to the politics of hope? Even before Donald Trump’s astounding victory in the US presidential election no one in America I know spoke of the potential for progressive social and political transformation as they did in the early days of the Obama presidency. The mood in America, as in Britain, France, Sweden and other Western countries, is one of foreboding, even resignation. Destabilised by spree killings, a rising murder rate, Islamist terror, mass immigration, the coarsening of its political discourse and multiple foreign policy failures, America has long since ceased to be a shining symbol of hope. By electing Trump as its president, it has come to represent the obverse. If the implications weren’t so serious for the post-Cold War liberal global order, the outcome could be described as laughable.

The self-mythologising United States purports to be the world’s greatest democracy, the land of the free, in which the tech utopians of Silicon Valley conjure up improbable futures for the rest of humanity (even as African Americans are being incarcerated in record numbers). There is so much to admire about America – its great universities, its capacity for innovation and scientific advance, its wonderful newspapers and magazines and publishing houses, its creative industries. But too many Americans feel betrayed or left behind and too much of the country’s infrastructure – its roads, railways, bridges, public housing stock, schools – is second rate.

For all his vulgarity and bombast, Trump – who will be the first US president never to have held elected office or served in the military – understood that something fundamental had gone wrong in America, which was why his often unhinged tirades against immigration and free trade resonated with a class that felt alienated by liberals’ embrace of identity politics and wearied by the constant, low-level, daily struggle to get by. Through the long, dispiriting campaign, Trump raised their expectations, and now that the Republicans have retained control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, he will have the opportunity to deliver on his boasts and promises. If he fails, as he will, he can blame no one but himself, because the electorate has cleared a path for him. You reap what you sow.

Radical reactionary

There’s no doubt in my mind that Trump is a neo-fascist. He boasts that he will “make America great again”, and his nativist rhetoric consciously echoes that of Charles Lindbergh and the America First isolationists who agitated to keep the United States out of what became the Second World War. Reactionaries such as Trump, writes the American academic Mark Lilla in his new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, “dream of stepping back in history to recover what they imagine was lost”. But what exactly has been lost and by which measure does Trump define greatness?

Lilla has written that “Make X Great Again” is the demagogic slogan of our time, and many march under that banner, from Trumpians to political Islamists. Here in Britain, a longing for a lost though indefinable greatness energises the Hard Brexiteers, with their fantasies of a lost sovereignty (Trump said that his anti-system revolt was “Brexit-plus-plus-plus”).

Professor Lilla draws a distinction between the conservative and the reactionary mind. Reactionaries are, in their way, “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as destructive”. Trump is radical and destructive – in this, he closely resembles Nigel Farage. The furies Trump has unleashed will contaminate American politics for years to come. His triumph will embolden racists and misogynists everywhere.

Living in isolation

How the skies have darkened since that day eight years ago when the president-elect, Barack Obama, spoke so thrillingly of the change that he would bring to the world. We wanted to believe him. I know I did. Now, as we survey the consequences of US failure in Syria and the belligerence and military adventurism of Putin’s Russia, the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to award Obama its peace prize in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples” seems even more strange and premature than it did at the time. That prize was a wager on hope, on the promise of a better tomorrow that never arrived.

In their different ways, the presidential campaigns of Clinton and Trump were reactions to American decline, the weakness of the West and the fragmentation of globalisation. We inhabit a disenchanted world. Hillary Clinton was not a harbinger of hope as Obama had been but her “realism”, especially on foreign policy – she was hawkish on China and spoke of the need to impose no-fly zones in Syria, and her administration would have stood up to Putin – would have been infinitely preferable to Trump’s ignorance and isolationist instincts.

Opposed by a venal, anti-government conservative movement, Clinton was forced to run a grim and attritional campaign. Responding with dignity to Trump’s abusive, demotic style and humiliated by the FBI, she showed grace under pressure. No one would question her fortitude, not even Trump. But Clinton was a desperately poor candidate all the same. To many voters, the Clintons (aka, Clinton Inc) represent the worst of corporate-politico America: in thrall to big finance, secretive, conspiratorial. This was one reason why Bernie Sanders, the veteran socialist senator, emerged as an improbable insurgent to challenge Clinton without ever fully discomforting her during the Democratic presidential primaries.

Sanders’s unabashed socialism was nevertheless an inspiration for many young Americans who yearn for a fairer, more decent and compassionate politics. Their yearning shows there’s a big, progressive-shaped hole in American politics and society – but Hillary Clinton, for all her experience and commitment to public service, could never fill it. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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