Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump

This has been a pretty bad year. What we’ve lost includes Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, George Martin, Garry Shandling, Merle Haggard, Elie Wiesel, and Micheal Cimino. (And then Leonard Cohen too…)

Oh, and, potentially, centrist politics – at least for a time. Brexit was at least in part a triumph of the political right, fueled by fears of immigrants and a nationalistic fervor, by contrast to the vision of a world united by common values and open (in both the legal and cultural senses) borders.

Trump’s victory in yesterday’s elections was similarly a rejection of business as usual, where voters in the USA (as per the Electoral College, though not popular majority) demanded something completely different to the “establishment” offering of Hilary Clinton, choosing to instead elect a candidate who has openly espoused xenophobia, sexism and Islamophobia.

University politics in South Africa are part of the same pattern. Not because student protests are motivated by the same noxious values, but because they also tell us that people are fed up with the status quo.

A general point worth making in response to all these cases is that – no matter where you stand on any of the particular issues involved – politicians, pollsters and media practitioners have underestimated the depths of disaffection so many people are experiencing.

As a friend said on Facebook, Trump was not a “triumph of the angry white right”, but a result of “liberal arrogance and apathy”.

It was inconceivable to many that he might win – how could he, as such an unashamedly noxious character? But he did, in part because too many Democrats didn’t bother voting – just as many “Millennials” didn’t bother voting against Brexit.

This is what happens when one gets complacent. Not only complacent in the sense of not turning out to defend your values in a democratic election, but more importantly, complacent in assuming that everyone is roughly happy with human progress, and trusts in the narrative whereby the world is slowly getting richer and happier.

Because some people don’t feel like they are getting richer and happier, and they need someone to blame. Yes, there are racists and sexists and xenophobes in the camp, and those folks belong in the “basket of deplorables”. But there are also people who simply feel ignored and left behind, still working-class and still poor, after hearing decades of politicians promising them a better life.

It’s true that there are too many “low-information” voters, and also true that voters can and have been lied to. The question we need to attend to, though, is how to fix this given that we know the usual methods aren’t working.

There was no shortage of media coverage of Trump’s failings, nor of the negative implications of Brexit. But these were the voices and opinions of “experts” – the same experts who have (according to populist perception) been selling us a false dream for far too long.

The answer to this is not to embrace the “wisdom of the crowd“, as folks like Prof. Noakes would have us do, because having legitimate grievances does not amount to having cogent solutions to problems.

But the grievances do need to be addressed. The most obvious and important response is to stop being so complacent. It’s not obvious to everyone, as it might be to me or you, that liberal humanism and constitutional democracy are the answer. These are conclusions rather than axioms, in need of argument and defense today, as much as ever.

So, people need to vote, rather than be apathetic. The polling percentage dropped by around 7% in yesterdays election, and most of those who stayed away were Democrats, who couldn’t imagine it plausible that Trump could win.

Then, the left needs its own populism, as Owen Jones argues in the Guardian today:

Unless the left is rooted in working-class communities – from the diverse boroughs of London to the ex-mill towns of the north, unless it speaks a language that resonates with those it once saw as its natural constituency, shorn of contempt for working-class values or priorities, then it has no political future.

Lastly, it’s politically ill-advised, or even disastrous, to respond to those who vote against the status quo by demonising them as stupid, uninformed or evil.

Yes, many Trump voters may well be sexists, and many Brexit voters might have been xenophobes. When you encounter someone who is a sexist or a xenophobe, I’d hope that you’d call them out on it. But that’s a different matter to making a group judgment, smugly asserting that the idiots are taking over the shop.

It’s not facts that always change people’s minds, as we should know well by now. And, as per the “backfire effect“, simply pointing the facts out might not make that data persuasive in terms of voting behaviour – it can simply entrench existing attitudes. To return to Jones:

Centrism has failed these and many other voters. Clinton was not handpicked by the Democratic party’s elite: she defeated an unexpectedly successful challenge by self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, partly because of his failure to inspire African Americans. But her political machine did make it virtually impossible for other candidates – say, Elizabeth Warren – to stand.

At a time of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the west, a dynastic establishment candidate – close to Wall Street, close to foreign despots, the backer of calamitous foreign wars – was a disastrous choice.

And every time we sit back and try to make people ashamed of being pissed off for not doing the thing you think they should obviously do, you’re sending the message that their pain and frustration doesn’t matter to you.

When that’s followed up by a political offering that represents more of what they’ve become used to – that promises no hope for change – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they vote for change instead. Even if it’s a change to a Trump or a Theresa May.


Also published on Medium.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    And now for something completely different…

    There is an assumption by many of those who consider themselves liberal, that the working class poor are in need of and, therefore, want a hand out. I grew up as part of the working class poor and my parents’ friends and associates were also working class poor. Through the years I have maintained friendships with many whom liberals would describe as working class poor.

    Those people I know who are considered the working class poor want politicians to stay out of their lives. They don’t want a handout and they aren’t opposed to capitalism because they know that capitalism provides them the best opportunity for success. If liberals think the working class poor don’t know what’s in their own self-interest, liberals are mistaken.

    My husband and I are no longer part of the working class poor because we learned how to manage our money from a good friend whom many liberals would consider in need of their help – a man who does not have a college education and has worked full-time since he was 18 as a truck driver. He’s 68 years old now and a multimillionaire. So how does a truck driver, who earned a salary many liberals would consider insufficient, own a home and raise two children whose college educations he paid for in full, end up a multimillionaire? He learned how to manage his money appropriately while fully embracing the capitalist system which allows his money to make more money.

    Liberals think that the working poor despise capitalism because it’s screwing them over. Our truck driving friend believes capitalism is the best system in the world because it allowed him to invest small amounts of money over time and, as a result of these small investments over 40 years, he is now a multimillionaire. He thought Bernie Sanders was the worst possible presidential candidate because Bernie would have made it impossible for people like our friend to enjoy retirement free of money worries.

    “Tax the rich” is a misleading slogan because taxes are on income not wealth. The more we tax people based on an income we decide makes them rich, the less opportunity people have to actually become rich. Our friend’s motto is “It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you keep.” He wants the government to keep their hands out of people’s wallets so people have the ability to invest their own money as they see fit. He votes for politicians who are most likely not to increase his tax burden. There are more working class people who vote with their wallet than most liberals realize. Quite frankly, it makes perfect sense. Why would someone want to destroy their opportunity to attain the wealth they need to live comfortably and fully enjoy their leisure time because a politician has decided that if they use their money wisely, they don’t get to keep the money that their investments generate?

    More liberals need to understand capitalism and realize that you don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the ‘ability to invest’ that capitalism provides. You can start earning money through investing in the market with as little as $10 a month. That’s what our friend and his friends have done – people who started life dirt poor and who are no longer so. They dislike being told that they can’t succeed and, therefore, the government needs to take care of them.