North America

Will angry politics and bitter voters floor the US?

Daniel T Rodgers charts the rise of the angry right and an anti-politics politician

In a US election season filled with the bizarre and unexpected, a particularly striking event was the appearance of Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, before a cheering Donald Trump crowd in Jackson, Mississippi.

No US presidential candidate since 1945 has been more dismissive of foreign alliances than Donald Trump. None has insisted so strongly that America must go it alone in a world of feckless friends and existential terror threats. But here, in a city that had been an epicentre of the Ku Klux Klan movement in the 1960s, Donald Trump looked on benignly as Nigel Farage relished in the parallels between Trump’s candidacy and his own Brexit campaign, all in language appropriated from the ‘Yes we can’ rhetoric of Barack Obama, a man they both profess to despise.

Borrowing political support from abroad is not new in US politics. In the first part of the 20th century, exchange of political endorsements across national lines was common particularly on the left, where progressives and socialists saw themselves as part of an international movement of ideas and solidarities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, neo-liberal conservatives heralded the forward march of deregulated markets from Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s United States to Pinochet’s Chile. Since the turn of the current century, a new kind of conservatism − nationalist, anti-foreign, fearful, and deeply aggrieved − has risen internationally.

Fuelled by the economic displacements of financial globalization, this new conservatism has channelled its resentments down three main paths of least resistance: a generalized anger at the international bureaucrats and corporations who are blamed for the destruction of jobs and the restructuring of wealth; a pointed critique of open trade and border agreements; and, most virulently, a resurgent xenophobia and racist-tinged cultural nationalism with refugees and immigrant workers as its most vulnerable targets.

None of these phenomena is new to US political history. Protectionist economic policies run as deep in United States economic history as do free trade convictions. Anti-immigrant sentiments like those on display at Donald Trump’s rallies flared even more intensely in the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic politics of the 1850s, the vicious anti-Asian vigilante movements and exclusion policies of the late 19th century, and the massive anti-foreign hysteria triggered by the First World War. But never has this kind of economic and cultural nationalism in the United States coincided with as strong an international tide of right-wing nationalist movements as now. From the Brexit forces in the UK, to Nicolas Sarkozy’s resurgence on the French political scene, to the Alternative for Germany voters and beyond, cultural nationalism is on the rise.

‘Barack Obama’s speeches were saturated with the word we ... but in Donald Trump’s ego-driven rhetoric there is only I’

As distinctive as Donald Trump’s idiosyncrasies may seem to the world beyond the United States, he did not invent the cultural-political movement on whose tides he now rides. They are a transnational undertow of the past decades’ restructuring of the global economy.

Other forces have shaped the current American political moment as well, some of them more distinctive to the US. Throughout most of the 19th century, politics in the United States was fiercely partisan, driven by regionally, religiously and ethnically entrenched political loyalties. It was the work of progressive reformers in the early 20th century to begin to pry governance away from the political bosses through the open primaries and legislative referendums they hoped would bring the forces of society more closely to bear on the dynamics of politics.

A gift for self-promotion
With Donald Trump’s candidacy, however, a figure has emerged who would have been a nightmare to those whose reforms made his political candidacy possible: a serious candidate for the presidency without any experience at all in public affairs or public office. The consummate anti-politics politician, Trump has not even a term on a school board or zoning commission on his resumé. His corporations, answerable for the most part to no shareholders beyond his own partners and family members, are not arenas of collective deliberation either. He is a figure almost entirely made by his gifts for self-promotion and enabled by a culture in which the celebrity industry now far exceeds the place of government in popular consciousness.

Political party loyalties are not dead in the US, of course, as the partisan gridlock in the recent Congresses and American state houses so vividly shows. The mystique that surrounded John F Kennedy foreshadowed some of today’s blurring of celebrity appeal and governing experience; in its own way, so did the Barack Obama campaign in 2008. But never before has the line between experience in public affairs and forcefulness of personality been so fully erased. What celebrity culture makes, a more porous political system now increasingly absorbs.

The current moment in American politics is also shaped by the fact that in no presidential election in the 20th century has the electorate’s sources of fact and information been as deeply divided as this one. As the technologies of modern media culture have exploded in scale, fissure has been the almost inevitable consequence. Centrist newspapers, journals, and radio and television outlets no longer carry even a fraction of the power to referee public debate that they held at the beginning of the television age.

Fragmentation is now the rule, abetted by the Fox network’s invention of openly partisan television news, the centrifugal effects of the internet and smartphone revolutions, and the paradoxical ways in which a superabundance of media choices encourages media users to double down on the conduits they already know and with which they already agree.

Fragmentation of the ‘social’ idea
As information in this new media configuration is increasingly siloed, debates over the ways in which the conditions of the day might be managed do not disappear, but they are increasingly overshadowed by disagreements over the very nature of those conditions. Have criminal arrests and undocumented border crossings radically increased in the past decade? Has unemployment risen to a new peak? Official statistics in the US say definitively no. The disbelievers, tuned to their own counter-authoritative conduits of information, say the official facts can’t be trusted. In this regard, too, the progressive architects of the early 20th-century American state would feel betrayed. Dismayed by the exaggerations and distortions that fuelled the rhetoric of 19th-century partisan politics, they dedicated themselves to expanding the state’s capacity for fact collecting. In the neutral agencies of expert-led government they saw a vital new resource for deliberative politics. The modern data age was largely their invention, too. But they did not anticipate that media technology and money might bring back an information system as resistant to dialogue and deliberation as the one they hoped they had dismantled.

Behind all of these shifts in structure lies a fundamental shift in ideas while the idea of the ‘social’ continues to fragment. The 20th century began differently to our own. In the United States and Europe the first half of the 20th century saw a blossoming of the concept of ‘society’. Spurred in part by a sense of the economic and social interdependencies that industrial economies were producing, sociologists, economists, political reformers, social gospel preachers, civic action groups and even fiction writers set out to map the world of the social, the terra incognita just beyond the consciousness of any single individual. While William Graham Sumner, the liberal social scientist, had told a generation of Yale undergraduates in the 1880s that the drunkard they would pass in a New Haven gutter was just where he should be, paying the consequences of his inability to cope with modern society, to Sumner’s successors the man in the gutter was a terrible social cost, an outcome with roots deep in the structures of the economy, culture, and social organization.

Not all the uses of the idea of the ‘social’ were benign. Eugenicists leaned on it as strongly as a fighter for racial justice like WEB DuBois, the sociologist and civil rights activist. But what the discovery of the social did at its best was to keep alive a sense of collective interdependence among all those whom society threw together, a sense that human problems had social dimensions that only collective deliberation could fully address.

Since the 1980s the field of social thought has thinned dramatically in modern American intellectual life. Microeconomics, with the cost-calculating individual actor at its core, has all but eclipsed research and teaching in macroeconomics. Sociologists increasingly eschew social field work for small group and laboratory experiments.

The philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey’s community-based idea of the school as a little democracy has been almost completely displaced by a calculus in which schools are nothing more or less than the averaged results of their individual pupils’ test scores. A sense of collective labour and compromise does persist in areas of American politics. Barack Obama’s speeches were saturated with the word ‘we’ from the beginning, even as the term’s practical realization became more and more deeply frustrated. It can be heard in some of Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric, too. But in Donald Trump’s ego-driven rhetoric there is only ‘I’. The unapologetic self-referentiality that Trump displays is his own personal creation, of course. But the fact that his indifference to evidence-based social data, his detachment from any social movement larger than his own polling and viewership figures, and his failure to offer any policy gesture beyond his own insistence that, whatever the problem may be, he will ‘take care of it’, did not drop him from consideration at the very beginning of the primary process, speaks to an erosion of ideas and language that runs deeper than Trump itself. When all politics is personal and all facts relative to the information preferences of the voter, there can be no politics at all.

How close at hand is that event? How much should we read into the US election of 2016? Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries was, by most counts, an accident. In a field of too many candidates in which insult and brashness proved critically important in cutting through the general noise, a figure like Trump had enormous advantages. A coalescing of his rivals through the back-stage negotiations common in more normal political times would almost certainly have stopped him short of a majority in the primaries.

Impact on the Republican Party
But accident or not, Trump’s candidacy is sure to have a transformative impact on the Republican Party. If he were to win the election in November and were he to remain as deeply at odds with the party’s established leadership and as loyal to his own mercurial instincts as now, there is no telling what his presidency would be like.

Certainly the Republican Party as it is now constituted would have a difficult time surviving. He would carry with him the Tea Party groups and a part of the conservative media establishment. Where the business elites who have been the financial base of the party would go in the face of as uncontrollable a presidency as Trump would oversee is hard to imagine. Those who have worked so hard to open the global economy to free flows of capital and labour would face a particularly acute dilemma. Realignment with a more business and investment-friendly Democratic Party ‘triangulated’ towards the centre, as Bill Clinton termed it, though the shift would leave those energized by the Bernie Sanders campaign adrift, is a real possibility.

But if Trump loses, the impact on the Republican Party may be no less large. In the US political system, losing candidates do not always lose in the long run. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 whose candidacy proved a fiasco, helped give voice to a libertarian turn that had been all but unthinkable within the Eisenhower Republican Party. George McGovern helped complete the break-up of the foreign policy consensus that had united Democratic presidential administrations since the outset of the Cold War. Whatever other legacy Donald Trump leaves behind, he has already opened the gates to a fury at women, African Americans, Hispanics and religious minorities that had been largely closeted since the civil rights victories of the 1960s and 1970s. He has made a new style of ‘America first’ isolationism respectable for the first time since the 1930s.

But the party that nominated him may not survive. Since the massive shift of Southern white voters away from their historic Democratic Party base in the wake of the civil rights movement, the Republican Party has been an uneasy amalgam of three sharply disparate groups: business interests, small and large, which still chafe at the taxation and regulation regimes the New Deal set in motion (when they cannot turn them to their advantage); religious conservatives for whom the moral decay of an increasingly diverse and tolerant society is the overriding issue; and the angry, anti-government, anti-establishment, blue-collar forces the Tea Party helped to mobilize after the stock market crash and bank bailouts of 2008-9, who feel the social contract no longer has a place for them. A pledge to cut taxes has been the glue between these, but it may not be enough to keep the angry, the pious, the small business owners, and the finance capitalists together. Decampment of the most alienated of the Trump supporters into a series of nationalist or libertarian third party movements is not unlikely.

If the Republican Party splits, it will not be the first such instance in US history. A two-party system is less vulnerable to fissure than the multi-party parliamentary ones that are under such severe pressure elsewhere, but it is not unprecedented. Donald Trump may be the first of a new, abrasive string of anger-backed candidates. He may equally be the last candidate of the Republican Party as we have known it