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20 November 2017

By accepting that everything was a mess, we opened the door for Donald Trump

The narrative that western governments are systematically failing is taken as a given, rather than confronted.

By Ed Smith

Earlier this year, as Donald Trump was embarking on his executive order to restrict certain travellers from entering America, I got stuck for hours in a queue at airport immigration in Boston. The cause was obvious. So this was how prejudice trickled down into everyday life, a simplistic worldview translated into heavy-handed border controls. I was wrong. The delay had been caused by a routine computer crash.

It was a revealing assumption, my rush to blame the head of state for what turned out to be an ideologically neutral mechanical failure. So much of what happens inside a country carries on, irrespective of its political leadership. Good people continue doing good work, whatever the political weather. But it doesn’t feel that way. And perceptions are real. The concept of a brand in the context of nationhood seems trite, but it is unavoidable. A traveller’s experiences, so often random, cleave to PR hooks: that is the process by which superficial impressions harden into wider perceptions.

A leader is a figurehead as well as a decision-maker. Medieval kingdoms worried about the health of their sovereign for good reason. It wasn’t only justified fear of uncertain succession, but also anxiety about ill health as a damaging metaphor: an ailing head of a sick body.

Which leads me to New York in the age of Trump. I spent five winters in America in my early twenties. I admired all the usual things (energy, vibrancy, optimism) but much else besides. Manners seemed to be less bound up with negative associations of privilege: it wasn’t cool to be impolite. And while it was easy to pick holes in the American dream, myths of meritocracy were partly offset by a more engaged establishment. My American counterparts (fortunate young graduates) seemed more drawn towards civic life, a manifestation of a less embarrassed sense of duty and patriotism.

As I write in New York, I’m trying to reconcile the America I perceived back then with the country that could elect Trump. Has it suffered a bout of temporary insanity? Or was I mistaken in the first place? You begin to unpick the whole love affair, from the first mistaken glance.

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It is a strange feeling to visit a country and feel a sense of total bafflement at its political leadership and decision-making. (Anglophiles are doubtless asking similar questions about Britain.)

On one level, New York hasn’t changed a jot and never will. Yet there is something different that is hard to block out. Trump casts a shadow on the horizon, darker and more sombre than the ghastly, vulgar rectangles he has inflicted on the skyline.

A counter-argument is that people get the leaders they deserve. From that perspective, Trumpism is the real America – the red beast of the interior – and the cosmopolitan coastal pockets should be reclassified as sissy liberal outliers. Perhaps authentic America has cut loose and finally found its voice. Matthew Parris, a Times and Spectator columnist, hinted that would happen 15 years ago. Parris answered a letter I’d written to him in the form of his Spectator column. We were disagreeing about America and its influence on British politics – he was more sceptical, I was more Atlanticist. One of his paragraphs comes close to predicting the rise of Trump, or someone like him:

“Well-born Wasps are not the future of the United States. The Eastern Seaboard is not the future of the United States. The future of the United States will be guided by individuals and ideas of a coarser sort. Texas and California, not Vermont and Massachusetts, are the template. Be clear, Atlantic-leaning Tories, which America you are going to have to learn to love and respect.”

Following that logic, it would be too convenient to blame Trump’s ascent on technology – television for making him famous, or social media for disseminating his lies. Trump is not the malaise, but the shadow of the malaise – the creation of anger and resentment.

That raises a second question, relevant in both Britain and America: how justified is that anger, or could it have been tempered and rechannelled by a more confident and deft political class?

Conventional wisdom here, especially advisable for privileged writers, is to say that elites – journalistic as well as political – had grown shockingly out of touch and disengaged from the populations they were supposed to represent. There is some truth in that criticism.

It is also possible that a rattled and guilty-feeling establishment may concede too much ground, reinforcing the perception of entrenched incompetence and neglect. For economic uncertainty and status resentment are only two sides of the populist triangle, held together by a third: the collapsing confidence in the political class.

The narrative that western governments are systematically failing is taken as a given rather than confronted head on. Presumably, professional politicians thought it was a vote-winner to accept the proposition that everything was a mess and that they would, by listening better, be able to fix it. Listening and acquiescence are now what we demand from our mainstream leaders – leaders, in other words, are being turned into followers. But that opens the door for shouty non-listeners like Trump: confidence is their point of difference.

Trump’s rise to power on the perception of a broken establishment playing a rigged game shows the risks of failing to fight back from first principles. Before the president was elected, I asked in the New Statesman whether anti-politics “was a parlour game that had got out of control”.

I’m also despondent about the current state of politics. But perhaps the first step towards fixing things is to push back against over-simplifying difficult choices and overstating past mistakes. 

This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit