by Richard King
Of all the flags seen at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month – the Gadsden, the Confederate, the National Socialist – none so caught the media's attention as the one raised in its immediate aftermath. Responding to the far-right rally, and to the atrocity committed by one of the protestors, the Cheeto Jesus equivocated. There was, he said, blame on “many sides” – a claim he reiterated a few days later in an impromptu press conference at Trump Tower in New York. Indeed he went further, describing as “fine people” many of the protestors who'd attended the march and more than implying that their central grievance, the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, was based on solid reasoning. Even by Trump's standards this was a shock, and rival politicians and mainstream media wasted no time in denouncing his comments. In his response to the violence in Virginia, they said, the president had revealed his “true colours”.
Personally I doubt Trump has any true colours. He is too chaotic an individual to have a consistent ideology, save for the usual dog-eat-dog shtick that passes for wisdom at the big end of town. But there's no doubt he represents something in the minds of the millions of Americans who voted for him, and the question of what that is is crucial. One doesn't need to have read Sun Tzu to know that in order to defeat an enemy it is first necessary to understand it, and at the moment we are presented with very different interpretations of the reasons for Trump's ascendancy and the rise of rightwing populism more generally. To a great extent these interpretations reflect broader ideological frameworks. These, too, need to be named and delineated before liberals and leftists can begin to construct a coherent platform from which to fight back against right-wing populism in the US and beyond.
In what follows I want to offer an overview of what I take to be the two main analyses, and suggest, not only that both are limited, but also that the simplistic opposition of the two is based on a false antithesis. As tempting as such posturing is at present, crude characterisations of Trump's constituency as reflexively racist, economically neglected, or just plain dumb do nobody any good. God knows, I'm not proposing to Unite the Left, or suggesting that “the left” can be united. But I do think a more granular analysis of this question has the potential to instil a bit of solidarity in the shadow of this ongoing calamity. So, with your indulgence comrades…
The key question can be simply stated: How do we characterise – is it possible to characterise – the Trump ascendency/insurgency and the broader politics of which it is an example? At present most analyses of this question fall into one of two broad camps, both of which, amusingly, tend to cast the other as dominant. Either you think that populism is an essentially racialised/cultural phenomenon, based in “white fright”, Islamophobia, misogyny, fear of change etc. Or you think it's a response to “globalisation” and the economic stress that accompanies it. Emerging from these analyses, and moving between them, are “false consciousness” arguments, the thrust of which is that while you may think you're mad about A, or B, or C, you're actually really mad about X. This analysis is more common on the “globalisation” side, stemming as it does from a more “materialist” conception of society as organised around an economic base that colours the superstructural sphere and underlies the conflicts within it.
The first case – the “race/cultural” case – has been put forcefully by the political scientist Christopher Parker, who, in a recent interview with Salon, dismissed the idea that Trump's victory had anything to do with globalisation, describing it as “nonsensical”. Noting that 48% of college-educated whites cast their votes for the current president, he characterised the Trump catastrophe as a symptom of white identity politics. That Hillary Clinton received 53% support from voters earning less than $50,000 is, for Parker, further evidence that racial and cultural resentment, not class, was the fuel that propelled Hair Force One towards the White House. Writing in The Conversation shortly after the election result, he set out his case in strenuous terms:
Rapidly changing demographics means that America will transition to a “majority-minority” country no later than 2044. Women are now more visible in public life than ever. Three serve on the Supreme Court. One even ran for president – twice. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. Last, but not least, we've had a black president for almost eight years.
With this in mind, many Trump supporters believe themselves to be losing “their” country, something that leads them to prefer a social milieu more consistent with days gone by – one in which primarily white, middle- and upper-class, heterosexual, native-born men reigned supreme.
For Parker it follows that any strategic response to this kind of white identity politics should itself be grounded in identity, not class. As he puts it in his Salon interview, progressives need to stop agonising about how to win back white working-class voters and concentrate on “fear and identity politics as an organisational tool on the left”.
Though Parker is something of an outlier in his total rejection of the economic/globalisation analysis, there is no doubt that his basic argument is one to which many people would subscribe. Certainly it chimes with the temper of the “resistance” that has emerged as a reaction to Trump's presidency, focused as it tends to be on issues of race, misogyny etc. As for evidence from outside the US that the rise of rightwing populism is steeped in racial and cultural anxiety – that is not in short supply.The Brexit result was widely characterised as a victory for nationalism, and there are good reasons to think that such attitudes were strongly represented in that vote. The loud appeals to nativism from the UK Independence Party found fallow ground in the north especially, and there's little doubt that the overrepresentation of older voters skewed the poll in favour of more nativist attitudes. Nor is there any doubt at all that anti-immigration sentiment sits right at the heart of the populist upsurge on the European continent. It takes many different forms, of course – from the “illiberal liberalism” of Marine Le Pen to the hard-right rhetoric of Hungary's Jobbik. But that it's there, and that it has deep roots, is obvious.
So plenty to be going on with here. But there are also problems with this argument, not the least of which is the fact that voters who switched from Democrat to Republican were located almost exclusively in middle and lower income groups. Indeed, and according to Torsten Bell of the UK-based Resolution Foundation, 16% of voters earning less than $30,000 switched their allegiance from Democrat to Republican, and this would certainly help to explain the Donald's success in those de-industrialised states hit hardest by the China shock. Surely it is stretching credulity to suggest that Americans from Michigan or Wisconsin who'd voted for Obama twice would vote for Trump for racist reasons, or reasons of a purely cultural character. The role of race in US politics should never be underestimated, and I think Parker is right to suggest that the Tea Party was steeped in white anxiety and resentment. Nor is there any doubt that Trump, with his “blue lives matter”/birther shtick, was attempting to channel this sentiment. But to reduce the Trump ascendancy to such nativist attitudes strikes me as a stretch. There is clearly more going on than that.
This brings us to the second analysis, which rejects this “whitelash” argument in favour of an economic explanation. According to this thesis the election result was a rejection of a status quo that had failed to improve the material lot of working and middleclass Americans – a system of which Clinton 2.0, as a multimillionaire and political insider, was and is the living symbol. Its advocates point to the surge in voting on the part of non-college-educated whites aged 45-64 and suggest that it is precisely this cohort that has suffered as a result of neoliberal globalisation, with its layoffs, offshoring, anti-union legislation, stagnant wages and declining conditions. They note that Clinton's share of these votes fell sharply as compared to Obama's, point to exit polls showing widespread anxiety about the economy, and suggest that it was the promise of import tariffs and infrastructure spending in the Midwestern states, and not the slurs against Mexicans and Muslims, that explained the Republican surge in the rustbelt. Moreover they suggest that those who seek to deny or downplay economic factors are afflicted by a guilty conscience stemming from the fact that in the 1990s the centre-left ceased to oppose neoliberalism, adopting instead a “trickledown” model of social and economic justice based around education, meritocracy, social engineering and the like. Doubling down on identity politics gives Clinton and her analogues an “out”.
Well, I don't disagree with that. But, again, this argument in its stripped-down form does strike me as rather too simplistic, and even in its “false consciousness” form – viz. “If workers can be shown that it's capitalism that makes their lives intolerable they'd stop being so racist, sexist etc.” – as less than satisfactory in the light of the data collated by Parker. So: Is there a way to explain the rise of Trump and rightwing populism that can accommodate both explanations without simply subordinating one to the other in the manner of a “vulgar” Marxism?
I think there is, but it involves a rather more subtle approach to issues of economics and culture, and to the character of globalisation, than has so far been advanced in the great majority of analyses. In what follows I'll sketch what I take to be the broad parameters of such an approach and identify some recent work that I think moves us in the right direction.
Economics is about more than income. This simple but often neglected point is of the utmost importance to the current predicament. The exposure of the US economy, and indeed of the European economy, to competition from outside markets not only leads to plant closures in the Midwest; it also leads to the threat of such closures and thus to the kind of competition-focused policies that serve to minimise risk for employers at the cost of increasing it for employees, usually under the rubric of greater “flexibility”. It leads, in other words, to job insecurity, a quantity much harder to measure than income. Moreover, and as David Harvey has argued in a number of books on the character of modern capitalism, the way in which many western economies emerged from the labour crisis of the 1970s laid the groundwork for the crisis of 2008. Essentially the policy was to compensate for falling wages by encouraging people to take on debt, and that, too, leads not only to crisis (as with the subprime housing bubble) but also to deep changes in the nature of social life. Life and work are much more precarious than they were in the decades after the Second World War, even for those outside the “precariat” defined by Professor Guy Standing. Even in my native Australia, which was largely protected from the global debt crisis by dint of its mineral exports to China, it is clear from recent qualitative research that people feel pinched and pressed and pushed in a way that it is hard for quantitative data to get at.
Underlying these issues of insecurity and debt is the fact that the transition from a largely industrial to a largely postindustrial economy was achieved through an expansion of higher education and a broad consensus about the desirability and efficacy of meritocracy. This was of course a great thing for many people, but it also sharpened and altered the relationship between the well educated and the less well educated in ways that are only beginning to be understood, and are almost certainly related to Trump's insouciance in point of verifiable evidence, and the broader politicisation of knowledge of which that is an (outstanding) example. As Thomas Frank has argued in Listen, Liberal, those who now sit at the well-paid centre of the knowledge economy, the “professionals”, tend to be drawn from the same social backgrounds as those at the centre of political life, and share with them a view of the world that is increasingly alien to many voters – one in which a good degree or diploma is the ticket to success and in which mobility and flexibility are held in greater esteem than tradition and community. One can take Parker's point about the percentage of college-educated whites who voted for Trump in 2016 and still recognise the fertile ground this opens up for demagogues of the rightwing populist variety.
In The Road to Somewhere David Goodhart describes the knowledge class's view of the world as an “anywhere” ideology – an ideology stemming in part from the kind of work its members do and the kind of education they required to get it. Such work is organised around cognitive ability, creativity, systemic thinking and so on, and the kind of world-picture to which it gives rise is one to which “human capital” and an attitude of openness are increasingly central. Politically that ethic translates into a focus on “achieved” identities as opposed to “ascribed” ones, and into what Goodhart calls “progressive individualism” – a political outlook that is broadly accepting of the “double liberalism” (economic and social) represented by Clinton and politicians of her ilk. This is, it should be obvious, precisely the sort of ideology globalisation needs to function. Abstract rights and ideas of equality are placed above more “grounded” politics, and openness preferred to closedness in both the economic and social spheres. Fluidity, flexibility, becoming – these concepts are increasingly central to the knowledge economy and the knowledge class, occupationally and politically.
What Goodhart calls the “somewhere” ideology is in large part a reaction to this new reality. And while there are “hard authoritarians” to be found within the populist insurgency, it seems that most “somewhere” sentiment is not aggressively racist or xenophobic but rather nostalgic for a more settled society in which social roles were more strictly defined. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, bear in mind that the progressive unwillingness to distinguish between implicit and explicit racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and so on is itself a symptom of the “postmaterial” politics that many somewheres regard as alien. When they report that they feel like “strangers in their own land” it is to this moving of the moral goalposts, as much as to race and immigration, that they're referring.
It seems to me that what we are dealing with here is neither a class war nor a culture war but a combination of the two. Which is not, to reiterate, to insist that the one thing is a symptom or mere projection of the other, but that the two are, finally, inseparable, and that only a politics that recognises that fact has a hope of sending the populists packing. It should not be a controversial conclusion. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement needed no convincing of the deep connection between identity and the economy. How could they, given that their fight was with the legacy of a mode of production called “slavery”?
Neither a vulgar class analysis nor a narrowly cultural one will suffice in the political battles ahead. Both the material left and liberal progressives need to accept that at the current moment issues of economic insecurity and feelings of cultural dispossession are largely indivisible. People need money, but they also need meaning, and a program offering only one of these things is doomed to almost certain failure. Trump's program, which combined nativist rhetoric with the promise of economic rejuvenation, was itself a recognition of this reality. When that program fails, as it surely will, the broad spectrum of progressive forces had better be ready with some “colours” of its own.
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