I’m no authority on American politics, though I follow them closely – staying up all night to watch presidential election results, for example (all week in November 2000, over the ‘hanging chads’) – and have lived and worked in the USA. I was there when the clearly inadequate George W Bush was selected as Republican candidate, to the puzzlement – to say the least – of most Europeans, as well as many Americans. We didn’t think things could get crazier on the Republican front; but now – hey! – we have ‘The Donald’ heading the field. How on earth could that happen? As I say, I have no special expertise on this event worth sharing, especially with Americans, who must know their own affairs far better than even a fairly genned-up and sympathetic Brit can. What I may be able to contribute, however, is some broader historical perspective. For the current American election is not just about America. It also has global roots, as well as possible – and possibly frightening – global repercussions. These are relevant, too.
The first ‘global’ thing to say is that this is a phenomenon not confined to America, but manifested also in several European countries, albeit in different – less brashly ‘American’ – forms. There are pretty extreme right-wing parties and people emerging powerfully in every European country, some of them with leaders almost as silly as Trump (e.g. our own Nigel Farage); together with left-of-centre movements in some: Greece and Spain notably, but also Corbyn’s in the UK. The latter have their American equivalent in the ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders’s surge among Democrats there: just as unexpected as Trump’s was on the Right, and in one way its polar opposite; but also emerging from the same political, economic and historical soil, and expressing a vague sense of grievance which is common to both wings.
That, of course, is the feeling that is rife on both sides of the Atlantic against ‘establishment’ or ‘conventional’ or ‘elite’ politics – ‘Washington’ or the ‘Westminster bubble’ – born of a feeling that those elites, and the big business that funds them, no longer represent ‘real people’, but only themselves. That may be true in a quite literal sense, in those countries like the USA and Britain whose electoral systems create complex barriers against the proportional representation of people’s opinions (see below, February 29). It is also aggravated by economic factors – the struggle that so many Americans and Europeans now have to maintain their living standards, let alone improve them, as was taken for granted in the past; by perceived threats from aliens – Mexicans in Trump’s America, Poles and refugees in Farage’s Britain; and – in America certainly, and on the European Right possibly – by discomfort at recent perceived national humiliations. ‘Make America Great Again’ is Trump’s main election slogan. Just imagine the shudders that would go down our spines if a German on even a British political leader fought an election on the slogan ‘Make Germany’, or ‘the British Empire’, ‘Great’ again. Look at Putin’s Russia. ‘Great’ is scary. It was Hitler’s big appeal.
Indeed, one alarming aspect of this, which I and many others have mentioned before, is the echoes it carries of the situation in the 1930s, which of course was what gave rise to European Fascism. Critics of this historical analogy object that it’s far-fetched to try and paint Trump as an identikit Hitler, or even a Mussolini, the more favoured candidate – it must be the jutting lower jaw and curling lip. But that is not what we’re saying; only that the situation now could give rise to a form of Fascism, in a very different American garb: probably for example leaving the Jews well alone. Fascisms, like other political ideologies, are rooted in material circumstances, but take their particular colours from the cultures around them. From the tasters we’ve had already – McCarthyism in the 1950s, for instance, and even Trump’s own statements on torture and suppressing press criticism – Trumpian Fascism would be coloured rather differently.
At the very core of his appeal, as well as of Bernie Sanders’s, must lie the obvious failures of the world economic system since the turn of the present century; just as the Great Depression is universally acknowledged to have lain behind the rise of the ‘extremist’ politics of the 1930s. The clue to this is Trump’s frequent references to what he regards as unfair free trade agreements with foreign countries, and the outsourcing of products that could be made in America – smartphones are his favourite example – to, typically, China. The racism may be incidental to this, so far as his fundamental appeal is concerned, except insofar as it also presses the ‘cheap foreign competition’ button. Mexicans undercut the wages of American workers. This is a reasonable fear in Britain too, if we substitute Poles for Mexicans.
That of course is an argument against international capitalism, or ‘globalisation’, au fond; and one that resonates with Bernie Sanders’s followers too. I’ve seen Trumpists (Trumpeters?) interviewed on TV who say that if they couldn’t vote for Trump they’d vote for Sanders, over and above Cruz or Clinton, who are perceived as representing the neo-liberal elite that both are standing against. What unites these two apparent opposites is, basically, anti-capitalism, though the Trumpists may not realise it yet. Otherwise what would they be doing supporting one of their most outspoken, and richest (though that is disputed), capitalists for President?
That is the other aspect of this horribly fascinating contest that requires a broad historical perspective to make sense of it. And also an understanding, I’d say, of that great analyst of the successive ‘stages’ of economic development and society, Karl Marx. For could there be anything more essentially Marxist than a capitalist’s actually becoming President of the most capitalist country in the world, as capitalism approaches its Götterdämmerung? In the past you had plenty of enthusiastic pro-capitalists attaining high office – Thatcher was the prime example in Britain – and political leaders who dabbled in business, like George W; but businessmen themselves usually shied clear of political responsibility, if only because it wasn’t – or shouldn’t be, in strict free market theory – a very profitable enterprise. If they used their position to earn more money than they could do through industry or finance, it could only be because they could rig the market thereby, which was regarded as corruption. Besides, they tended not to believe in ‘government’, which they regarded as an incubus on enterprise, generally, and so felt uncomfortable participating in it.
That was how things were arranged in Britain during her increasingly capitalist nineteenth century, with middle-class industrialists and financiers happy to allow the remnants of their feudal upper classes to take on the burdens – and monetary sacrifices – of government, so long as the latter did roughly the former’s will. There were one or two capitalist MPs. (The newspaper store owner WH Smith was one.) But none of them ever became Prime Minister, as Donald Trump could well become President of the United States; and, moreover, because they were capitalists, with their bruited successes as capitalists being regarded as – alone, and without their boasting any other qualifications – fitting them for that role. That’s what you hear again and again from both him, and his supporters. His personal financial success can be translated into success for his country. ‘I’m rich, so I can make America rich.’ It also, he claims, makes him less beholden to other businesspeople – ‘I’m my own man.’ ‘What this country needs is a successful entrepreneur, not another politician.’ ‘He’s negotiated with stockholders, so he can negotiate with Putin.’ ‘He gets things done.’ These are his selling points. Literally.
This is an extraordinary development; the apogee, or, if you like, the reductio ad absurdum, of the political development of capitalism in the modern world. It’s difficult to imagine how much further in a Marxian direction it could go. For those who believe that capitalism has to advance to this ultimate stage before it can collapse under the pressure of its own contradictions, it’s almost as though the old KGB put him there. But then, if they were true Marxists, the KGB wouldn’t have felt that was necessary. Trump is a natural culmination, a product of impersonal historical forces – ‘scientific determinism’ – not of human conspiracies.
Of course that’s not all there is to it, and I’m not confident enough of any over-arching historical theories to want to insist that this quasi-Marxist one is the most important explanation of Trump’s rise. For the others, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) is still I think the best guide to the mid-Western state of mind that supported Bush in his two victorious elections, with ‘family’ issues like anti-abortion playing what would seem to Europeans to be a disproportionate part, and anti-elitism and even anti-intellectualism an even greater one, encouraging working Americans to vote against what appeared to Frank to be their obvious self-interest – a classic case, if you will, of ‘false consciousness’. Then it bolstered the ‘conservatives’ in the Republican Party; now it’s for their more radical outriders. These have to be factored in; as well of course as more recent concerns, anti-Islamism and a not unreasonable fear of terrorism being probably the most important; and broader cultural and historical ones, like those that fuel many Americans’ love of their guns, and residual white supremacism in the South. Plus sheer anger: you can see that on Trump’s face. And, of course, the extraordinary popular American psychology that actually warms to his bluster and bluff. Is that peculiarly capitalist? Salesmanship?
Or you could regard economics as lying behind all these, if you’re a more rigid Marxist than I am. At any rate, it seems to me that the latter – the broad economic factor, the rise of global capitalism – must be one of the factors behind these anti-establishment movements both of the Left and of the Right in the Western world, with Donald Trump being its ugly face.