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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

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game