The contagion was spreading among the multitude, when, all at once, it seized upon Robin, and he sent forth a shout of laughter that echoed through the street; every man shook his sides, every man emptied his lungs, but Robin’s shout was the loudest there. The cloud-spirits peeped from their silvery islands, as the congregated mirth went roaring up the sky! The Man in the Moon heard the far bellow; “Oho,” quoth he, “the old earth is frolicsome tonight!”
Nathaniel Hawthorne was writing about the American Revolution, but even today nothing can give the planet quite such a shake as American democracy in action. What does the election of Donald Trump mean for the future of democracy? And what should someone who thinks of themselves as progressive think of Donald Trump?
It is hard to picture any modern socialist, a Jeremy Corbyn or a François Hollande, being carried to power on such a wave of undiluted working class support. The margin of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton is so tight that you could not squeeze a small city between them, with both candidates winning 59 million votes apiece. It is extraordinary that such a gigantic electorate could agree to be split so evenly down the middle. Clinton is in fact 0.1% ahead in the popular vote, which in any democracy which had been updated since the eighteenth century would hand her the Presidency. Yet a breakdown of the exit poll shows that Trump has won overwhelmingly amongst white voters without college qualifications. He has also won the revolutionary vote: three-fourths of voters who described themselves as “angry” backed Trump.
Journalists and the sea of commentators on Twitter daily took note of all of the individuals and minorities who Trump has insulted (278 according to a recent tot up in the New York Times). The Rust Belt probably perceived that he has never insulted them, or indeed, that he is uniquely respectful when it comes to what he today called their “untapped potential.” Alec Baldwin, when evoking Trump for Saturday Night Live, portrayed a fumbling billionaire who dwells in his own sad little world of celebrity trivia and Twitter spats. The Rust Belt has evidently looked beyond this level of detail to decide that Trump’s moneyed voice is theirs also.
Tychy’s favourite newspaper, the Guardian, is going to be completely unreadable for the next four years. In today’s morning hyperbole, for example, readers were urged to “hold your loved ones close,” as though we were already in the grip of a genocide. Every day, every gaffe, every time that Trump makes some adolescent observation about the size of Angela Merkel’s posterior, there is going to be the same shrieking headlines, the same earnest comment pieces which squander the terms “racist” and “misogynist” as if they were pennies, and then the tweets. All of the tweets, the billions and trillions of them, all of them scolding, all of them with noses pointed in the air, all of them declaring that the days of the Third Reich are back and that common decency is dead. If some of these young activists had spent less time polishing themselves on Twitter and more time in the Rust Belt, then perhaps Trump would not be currently President.
Is it good for democracy that the most powerful elected official in the most powerful democracy in the world is Donald Trump? It is hardly ideal and you might think it humiliating that democracy has acquired such an unlovely global representative. Or perhaps “warts and all” is the essence of democracy (the phrase originates from Oliver Cromwell’s instructions to his own spin doctor). Nobody would dare to suggest that Trump’s radiant orange physiognomy is home to a single wart, but, metaphorically, he boasts a Cromwellian collection.
On the day after the Brexit vote, I was confronted at work by some colleagues who were aghast at my cheerfulness. Had I really voted for this nightmare – was I insane – was it a joke? I was taken aback by their amazement but in the end I managed to spit out that, “the people voted for Brexit… the people have shown everyone who is in charge… in a democracy people are meant to be in charge.” This loses something in translation in a US context, since Clinton was actually first past the post, but the spirit is there even if the letter is not. For Obama and Clinton, for all of these beautiful managers and technocrats who have dined at the top table, Trump has loomed like the gaunt incarnation of memento mori: the slave who whispers in the ear of the victorious general “look after you and remember you’re a man”; or the skull in Holbein’s painting of the sumptuous ambassadors. Except that Trump portends a political death rather than a literal one. He has inspired such terror in the political class not because he is a racist, or a misogynist, or a buffoon, but because he is a persistent reminder that there are millions of working people out there who the system cannot enrich. And these people have been waiting and watching with their sharpened votes.
Once upon a time, some genuine socialists might have been available to represent the Rust Belt, so that the people out there would not have had to hitch a ride with a passing demagogue to be smuggled back into politics. Trump’s tenure will potentially leave the Left with even more road to cover on the long journey back to relevancy. Trump has been put in power by the politically organised working class; his first address after the vote called for massive infrastructure spending. Is there enough here for the traditional Left to engage with? The problem is that so many American progressives have considered Trump only through the prism of identity politics, deploring his racism and xenophobia. His hostility to abortion rights and his threat to deport over two million people indeed make the light turn to darkness in my eyes. But if only Clinton had listened to Clinton: it’s the economy, stupid! Might a Trump Presidency actually benefit the masses, not morally or in terms of the message that it sends about transgender injustices, but materially?
I doubt it. It looks like a recipe for disaster to me, with Trump’s plan to Make America Great Again apparently involving protectionism, a trade war, and then a global recession for dessert. Nonetheless, many Americans have concluded that this economics is the freshest thing in the fridge. Once we have proceeded through the lengthy process of seeing it being discredited, then there will be nothing left at all.
Had Clinton secured the Presidency, then she would have been elected in uniquely humiliating circumstances for a US President. She would be viewed as being simultaneously untested by a normal Presidential contest and as having almost lost to a clown. You might hold Clinton wholly responsible for putting Trump in the White House. You might think that she should have sacrificed her own career and stood down and handed the nomination to Joe Biden, who would have thrashed the pants off Trump. I am not so sure. Rather than letting down the side, the aloof and corrupt former First Lady was the perfect representative of the political class which has been today defeated. She played out the historical role which she had been given.
There is nothing to be gained with nostalgia for a discredited politics. Remain campaigners in the Brexit referendum sometimes still speak as if we can be magically transported back to 2006, to live all over again within an economic system which has been shown, through millions of ruined lives, not to work. Politically, today’s centrists and social democrats have no answers to anything. Until they can come up with the economics to guarantee serious prosperity for the majority of society, then they cannot expect to be given power simply because they are inoffensive or managerial. Today’s progressives are possibly yet to appreciate the true scale on which they have to fight Trump.