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On the election of Donald J Trump

If the elites have been vanquished, they don't seem to have caught on just yet.

The writing was on the wall, for those who knew how to read it. Specifically, it was on the wall of a black church in Mississippi, which was set on fire last week and spray painted with the words “Vote Trump.” It was plastered across the rolling news when voters were shot down outside a polling booth in California last night. The democratic sentiment in the United States has been tortured and twisted into a dark, violent thing. That does not make it undemocratic. It also doesn’t make it right, or just, or fair. Donald Trump has short-conned his way into the White House by saying what a lot of people were thinking, but just because a lot of people are thinking something doesn’t make it right. The people have spoken. That does not mean all the other people have to shut up.

Even on a clear day when a giant evil baby isn’t trashing the system because he saw a shiny desk he wanted, representative democracy doesn’t always deliver fairness and justice. Representative democracy does not always deliver a fair and decent society. That takes a different sort of democratic work, work that does not begin and end at the ballot box, work that will resume right after we relearn how to look our friends and neighbours in the eye.

Today, all over America, black, brown and Muslim children are too frightened to go to school. Facts and figures may not win votes the way feelings do, but today's polling tell us that this election was not just about class, or gender, or partisan positioning. This election was, more than anything, about race. It was about white resentment, which is now among the greatest threats to global security. It was about white rage, and there are a lot of us who need to own that inconvenient truth today lest it own us all tomorrow.

When they told liberals and journalists and policymakers and anyone with the cheek to suggest that maybe immigrants weren’t the problem that we weren’t listening to “ordinary people”, they meant we weren’t listening to white people. When they told us we didn’t pay enough attention to “real Americans”, they meant to white Americans. When they told us that we didn’t take their concerns seriously, they meant that we didn’t agree with them. “White working class” voters have been given plenty of airtime in this election, just as they were in the EU Referendum, including in the mainstream press that they claim to despise, because sober facts don’t sell adverts like a mean-drunk playing with matches next to an arsenal of incoherent rage.

The time for complacency is long gone. So too is the time for cowing to the hurt feelings of those who were willing to fire at the elite directly through the stomachs of their neighbours. Every effort has been made to sympathise with their distress at perceived loss of privilege that is felt, wrongly, as prejudice. The media on both sides of the pond has fallen over itself to consider whether the boiling bigotry on display might somehow conceal “legitimate concerns.” Somehow, the concerns of working-class people are only considered legitimate when they reflect a reactionary strain that does not threaten vested interests. Somehow, the concerns of working-class women who want basic reproductive rights, the concerns of working-class people of colour who want the police to stop shooting them with impunity, the concerns of working-class trans people who don't want to be beaten up in bathrooms, have been landscaped into the territory of the “liberal elite”. That rubbish needs to stop right now. If you’re angry and upset right, that does not make you out of touch. If you suspect that a great wrong has been done today, that does not make you a bourgeois shill. It makes you sensible.

Today, hundreds of millions of people in America and around the world have woken up afraid — for themselves, for their children, for the future of a planet where an authoritarian psychopath has his hands on the nuclear codes and the fate of a burning world waiting on his pleasure. Those people are being told that they are sore losers. That they should shut up and accept it. That their fear is somehow funny. Laughing at the pain of the most vulnerable. Squealing with glee when the bully lands a blow. That’s the world millions of notionally decent human beings voted for, and don’t tell me for a second they didn’t know what they were buying.

The President Elect told us who he was right from the get-go. If the lacquered, lying sack of personality disorders that is Donald Trump has any redeeming feature, that is it. He made no attempt to hide his narcissism, his hard-on for dictators, his vision of the entire damn world as the next acquisition in his dodgy property portfolio. He was openly racist, sexist, xenophobic, and openly willing to become more so as long as it played well with the crabbed, frightened part of his base that just wants to know someone else is hurting worse. He has vowed to jail his political and personal opponents, destroy freedom of the press, deport Muslims and give his donors free rein to frack as they please so he can carry on gaslighting the world. This is the man America elected. This, today, is what Democracy looks like. If you’re disgusted, that doesn’t mean you hate freedom.

It is not elitist to look fascism in the face and reject it. It is not anti-democratic to carry on believing in a society where there is space for everyone. Fighting for tolerance, justice and dignity for women, queer people and people of colour is not frivolous and or vain. Who decided that it was? Who decided that only those who place fear over faith in their fellow human beings are real, legitimate citizens whose voices matter? That’s not a rhetorical question. I want to know. Give me names.

This election was phrased as a populist revolt against a nebulous and nefarious “elite” which somehow also included the parts of society who have had the least for the longest. Resentment against the political class is real, and it was fatally underestimated by those within the Democratic machine who were determined to have their anointed successor at any cost. It was decreed that the only alternative to naked screaming fascism was the status quo. Despite her gender, Hillary Clinton was the status quo candidate, the legacy candidate, the dynasty candidate. She also looks like what she is — a woman in politics — and that enraged as many people as it inspired.

It is hard enough to tell an exciting story about the status quo at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. These are anxious, febrile times where millions see their future closing down around them like a great dark mouth, the status quo is a roll-call of vacillating neoliberal technocrats who are unable to offer any alternative to kamikaze capitalism and its discontents. It was hard to cheer unequivocally for Clinton, just as it was hard for conscientious British progressives to bang the drum for the European Union. But the actual elite — the people with real money and power — are not the ones struggling to retain their breakfasts today.

I happen to be in a conference room with a few hundred of them right now, at a tech convention bustling with lobbyists, businessmen and venture capitalists. I’m looking around me, and they’re still making deals over finger-food. If they’ve been vanquished, they don’t seem to have caught on just yet. The elites are going to be fine.

America has always transposed its class tensions into cultural violence, and that, more than anything, is how racism and xenophobia serve the same “corrupt elite” that Trump voters claim today to have given what for. Donald Trump is still a reality TV star, and he knew just how to rig the glittering gameshow of American realpolitik to his advantage, and now we all get to see what we’ve won. Let me give you a clue: it isn’t money.

It is no longer accurate to speak of dogwhistle racism. The whistle is now audible to everyone, and it’s a screaming air-raid siren, and there aren’t enough shelters to run to. A number of people have taken the time to let me know, on this of all days, that despite voting for the preferred candidate of every neo-fascist with a network connection, despite voting for a man who has whipped up a wave of racial hatred and surfed it all the way to the White House, they do not feel that they are racist, and would prefer that nobody said so. They didn’t put it delicately, and nor will I: I am done caring what the people prefer.

I am done listening to my liberal friends contort themselves to take into account the notional opinions of the “white working class”. What does that even mean? How did we come to the craven consensus that the “white working class” is a homogenous mass of blustering bigots who must be pandered to as one might pander to a toddler having a tantrum at the edge of a cliff? A great many white people who are far from wealthy take issue with that particular patronising strain of self-scourgery on the left. A great many non-wealthy white people manage not to blame all their problems on feminazis, immigrants and their black and brown neighbours. Those people are real Americans, too.

So, no more of this nonsense. I’m done. I am done pretending that the good intentions of white patriarchy are more important than the consequences enacted on the bodies of others. Good intentions aren’t the issue here. Feel free to be as racist as you like in the privacy of your own heart, if you can live with yourself but not — and this is very important — in the privacy of your own tank.

I understand that a great many people are aggrieved that women, migrants and people of colour no longer seem to know their proper place. I understand that a great many otherwise decent humans believe that more rights for black, brown and female people mean fewer rights for “ordinary people”, by which they mean white people.  But just because you’re angry doesn’t mean you’re right. Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean you get to burn down the farm to make yourself feel better. It’s okay to be annoyed that you didn’t get a seat on the bus. What it’s not okay to do is to rage out, trash the aisle, smash the windows, snatch the wheel and steer the whole damn bus off a bridge along with yourself and everyone you know.

Because let’s be very clear: this was a revolt by white Americans and their allies, but it is not going to be a victory for most of them. In the extended chuckle of smuggery that passed for an acceptance speech, Trump promised his supporters that all of them would get the chance to realise their dreams, even and especially the weird angry horny ones that don’t make sense when you explain them. He promised to double growth, even as stock markets tumbled around the world. Those promises will not be delivered upon. The moment when that becomes clear is not the moment when Trump and his followers get humble. It’s the moment when people start looking for scapegoats.

It’s also the moment when we get serious. The rest of us, I mean. Because there are a lot of us, and we’re “the people”, too. Now is when we get serious. Not right now, obviously. Speaking personally, the end of this article is all that stands between me and the bottle of vodka in my immediate future, but that is not a sound long-term strategy for dealing with the days ahead. Now is when we get together and get to work, because the bullies have been given a license to act out, and that cannot go unanswered. I understand if you want to shout at a few friends right now. I know I do, although I haven’t yet. But be ready to reach out to them tomorrow, because the fight against despair continues, and alliances matter, and so does basic self-care. We need to be serious. I need to be serious, and I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry that the time for witty barbs about the President Elect, his hands, his hair and the howling ideological void of opportunistic narcissism behind his megalomaniac clown-mask is over, because inappropriate as those witty barbs are right now, they will probably be actively illegal before long. Nonetheless, we need to be serious. Some of us worked very hard to turn this ship around. Now we need to work even harder to stop it sinking.


I’m not going to give you any fluff about hope at this point in history. Hope is possible, and necessary, and remarkably tenacious, but in the meantime there is always spite. We can carry on living, carry on looking after one another, carry on working towards a world beyond this trash fire to spite those who would see everyone who looks and thinks differently from them cowed and silent. We can carry on to spite them, and in spite of them.

The bullies have won today. They will not win forever, unless we let them into our hearts and souls as well as the seat of government of the nominally free world, and that is something I am not prepared to countenance. “The people” have spoken. “The people” will continue to speak. But if freedom means a thing anymore, the other people — all of the other people, all those inconvenient millions of us all over America and all over the world — cannot and will not be silent.


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

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