The Triumph of Impotent Populism

Election of Trump

The election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America is the third successive major brake on the dominant trend of globalization since the advent of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008 caused by financial deregulation and the subsequent sub-prime scandals. Then came the Brexit which surprised even the sharpest observers and whose aftershocks are still hugely destabilizing for the economic and political prospects of the UK and the European Union. Finally the recent elections which have been won by the most controversial candidate on a platform of anti-trade liberalization and protectionism. 

These events happening in timely succession are arguably also feeding on each other, leading to the most sombre perspectives for future socio-economic global developments. Heralded as an epoch marking event just as was the case for the fateful referendum in the United Kingdom leading to the Brexit some months ago, an immediate noticeable impact of these two events put together is that it would need a brave person indeed to predict with any conviction that Marine Le Pen could not emerge as the next President of the French Republic in the elections of May next year.

The US Elections

The complexity of the reasons and the motivations of the electorate which have led to these events have been amply demonstrated in the torrent of comments which have followed these two “unexpected” turn of events. The common thread however seems to be that the haplessness of the large numbers of hitherto passive “losers” of the globalization regime in the developed countries, especially among the working and quickly disappearing middle classes, is steadily turning into hopelessness and fear. Failure of the political and economic elites to grasp this essential phenomenon was illustrated in the US presidential elections by the reactions of the Republican establishment towards the Trump candidacy as well as the general attitude of the Clinton campaign towards it.

The Grand Old Party (GOP), a name attributed to the traditional conservative Republican Party, is clearly losing ground in favour of the Tea Party wing – consisting of the New Right and Neo Conservatives who emphasize the importance of traditional national, religious and family values bent on reconstructing a strong America. (‘Making America Great’ was the theme of the Trump campaign). What is damning is that the Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities such as the LBGT community seem to find no place in this new America in the making.

As for the Democratic Party, it is now statistically established that the large number of former voters of the Democratic Party in the rustbelt and rural areas who were contemptuously treated and dismissed during the campaign as “stupid” or “racist” for having turned into Donald Trump supporters have actually made the difference in the marginal constituencies such as Florida, Pennsylvania and others. It is also observed that in those constituencies where Bernie Sanders won the primaries against Hillary Clinton, the transfer of votes from the former to the latter during the presidential elections has been limited by considerable abstention on the part of traditional democratic voters.

The point here is that the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties opposing the Donald Trump candidacy could not come to terms with the “changing mood” of the country because doing so would have called for a radical questioning of many of the “conventional wisdoms” shaping their world views on issues such as excessive global trade liberalization, fiscal and monetary policies, the deregulation of the global financial services industry and foreign policy.

The infamous American establishment

For the swing voters, and the polls for all their failings did indicate a considerable number of undecided voters close to the date of the election. The nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate against Bernie Sanders served to further blur the distinction between the two party’s leaderships and their electoral propositions. In spite of the fact that following the Sanders campaign Hillary Clinton did try to assuage his supporters by adopting a less liberal stand on some issues, she was still viewed as to be embedded into the traditional Washington political machinery and to the desiderata of Wall Street firms – the quintessential two legs of the infamous American establishment which the disillusioned and despondent voters identified as the cause of all their miseries.

In the event the candidacy of the maverick Donald Trump, who had no political experience to speak of and therefore no baggage as opposed to the huge legacy of his adversary, provided the ideal opportunity to give vent to the deep frustrations of those victims of globalization and liberalization. Populism, it has been said, is more of a mentality rather than a philosophy or ideology. The difference lies in the absence of a coherent thinking process and the almost instinctive reactions to problems posed by changes in the traditional way of life due to powerful economic and social forces.

Through his personality and history as a businessman, Donald Trump has proven to be the incarnation of the “populist” mentality and his whole campaign was marked by extreme pronouncements — racist, xenophobic and myogenic — appealing to the fringe electorate as well as an increasing number of the mainstream voters, disoriented and weakened by the extreme changes in their living standards and loss of hope in the future. Daily protests around the US and kilometres of editorials will not change the fact that Mr Trump has been elected the President of the most powerful nation on earth and the world will have to reckon with him and his policies over at least the next four years.

A credible alternative

A serious mistake would be for liberal politicians and intellectuals to blame the electorate for having acted “stupidly” or to have succumbed blindly to the racist and other similar arguments of candidate Trump. Only a deep retrospection of the more progressive elements of society and the willingness to re-assess their own responsibility in the present state of affairs can start to mitigate the cumulative effects of such events as the Brexit and the US election results.

Left and centre-left parties are in fact the first to have failed to oppose a credible and acceptable alternative to the impersonal and dehumanizing onslaught of market forces and the accompanying abdication of governments in taking care of the needs of the most vulnerable sections of society through provision of a reassuring environment even for those who are temporarily afflicted by rapid and all powerful social and economic changes.

Rajiv Servansingh

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