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.
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.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse