There were two messages on the back of Melania Trump’s now famous jacket (no, one of them was not an Italian fascist slogan). The first was the one aimed at the US media – “I really don’t care; do U?” That is, in the age of 24 hour news and the attention economy, the media will have moved onto something else long before the political left’s blood pressure has returned to normal. And, of course, none of the journalists and editors crying faux tears for the camera were about to invite a migrant family to come and live with them.
The second message was, however, far more chilling – “we’ve seen the opinion polls and your side lost.” Immigration, after all, has been a political hot potato on both sides of the Atlantic for the best part of a decade. Unless you were in a coma, you cannot have failed to notice that the images of Middle Eastern migrants trekking across Europe in 2016 sealed the fate of the Remain campaign in Britain’s EU Referendum. Immigration played a similar role in propelling Donald Trump into the White House. It is also responsible for the rise of the populist right across southern and eastern Europe, together with the imminent political demise of the once unstoppable Frau Merkel.
Set aside for a moment whether you support or oppose controls on migration; whether you believe immigration benefits or harms an economy; or whether you believe governments rather than migrants are the root cause of the problem. The one thing – I think – we can agree on is that immigration control is an important (if not the most important) policy of the political right. Indeed, Trump Administration insider Stephen Miller confirmed as much in an interview with The Atlantic:
“The American people were warned—let me [be] sarcastic when I remark on that—[they] were quote-unquote warned by Hillary Clinton that if they elected Donald Trump, he would enforce an extremely tough immigration policy, crack down on illegal immigration, deport people who were here illegally, improve our vetting and screening, and all these other things. And many people replied to that by voting for Donald Trump.”
This presents the political left on both sides of the pond with a problem. Immigration is now so toxic an issue that anything short of the hard-line controls proposed by the populist right is a guaranteed vote-loser. All of the arguments of the past about migration being good for the economy and about how we are socially enriched by multiculturalism have failed. Not least because those arguments were only correct for the affluent salaried class that includes most of the journalists and opinion-shapers of yore. As US historian and political journalist Thomas Frank puts it:
“History wasn’t just a nice centrist monotone before Trump and the gang got started. There was a momentous turn in the west that began about 40 years ago; it involved the triumph of business interests over rivals such as the unions and the regulatory state. You know: Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton, Blair and so on. Take my word for it: the rightward turn was a big deal. And it’s still going. It dwarfs Trump; indeed, it subsumes him. Trump’s presidency is just the latest chapter in this ugly story, not some new thing altogether.”
For the people in America’s flyover states, as with the people in Britain’s ex-industrial, rural and rundown seaside towns, the four decades since 1979 have been years of almost uninterrupted economic decline. The political prescription – get an education/retrain and move to the affluent cities – has resulted in a mountain of unrepayable student debt and the best qualified Starbucks baristas the world has ever seen. What it failed to do was to restore prosperity to those benighted places.
The betrayal came in the 1990s with the election of Slick Willy Clinton in 1992 and his British counterpart Tony Blair in 1997. Both men were the creatures of corporate capitalism. Both shunned the working people whose parties had become little more than tame vehicles for maintaining their cronies in positions of power. This betrayal led directly to Brexit and Trump in 2016. In the aftermath of the 2016 debacle, Thomas Frank aimed his fire at a Democrat Party that was out of touch with millions of people that they considered to be their core voters:
“The tragedy of the 2016 election is connected closely, at least for me, to the larger tragedy of the industrial midwest. It was in the ruined industrial city of Cleveland that the Republican Party came together in convention last July, and it was the deindustrialized, addiction-harrowed precincts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that switched sides in November and delivered Donald Trump to the Oval Office…
“I have spent many of the last 15 years trying to understand my region’s gradual drift to the political right. And I have spent the last three weeks driving around the deindustrialized midwest, visiting 13 different cities to talk about the appeal of Donald Trump and what ails the Democratic Party…
“Along the way I gawked at abandoned factory complexes and at Gothic-style water filtration plants. I visited affluent college towns and crumbling relics of twentieth-century prosperity…
“And what I am here to say is that the midwest is not an exotic place. It isn’t a benighted region of unknowable people and mysterious urges. It isn’t backward or hopelessly superstitious or hostile to learning. It is solid, familiar, ordinary America, and Democrats can have no excuse for not seeing the wave of heartland rage that swamped them last November.
“Another thing that is inexcusable from Democrats: surprise at the economic disasters that have befallen the midwestern cities and states that they used to represent.”
I made a similar criticism of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party; which arguably sowed the seeds of Brexit in 2015:
“If I were going to hold a protest today, it would not be outside Downing Street, it would be outside Ed Miliband’s kitchen… Here’s why:
“There is no other way of reading the results. The fact is that the Labour party took a kicking from the electorate on May 7th. Seats that should have been a shoe-in for Labour fell easily to the Tories, aided by a collapse in the LibDem vote which mostly benefited the Tories. Even the Tories seemed genuinely surprised by the results having, it is rumoured, already put out informal feelers to the LibDems about the possibility of another coalition.”
Just days before the vote – with Labour needing as many votes as it could muster, Blairite Rachel Reeves announced that:
“We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.”
Is anyone really surprised that millions of supposedly core Labour voters barely making ends meet on a hotchpotch of in-work benefits chose to sit that election out, while several thousand in key seats switched to the hard right UK Independence Party?
Forget the nonsense conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton dreamed up to try to explain how she managed to lose a rigged election. The political landscape of 2018 is the creation of the political left; and it is not about to change just because we might wish it was different. What the left has signally failed to do – on both sides of the Atlantic – is to sit down and think through why they lost among voters who should have been their natural constituents. The reason for this, I believe, can be found in a statement made by the Dark Lord himself regarding the possible election of Jeremy Corbyn:
“Let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
In this, at least, Britain has the potential to develop an alternative left-wing populism that addresses the concerns of the mass of people who shifted allegiance to UKIP and Brexit. No such alternative is available to the American left; whose leaders now see themselves as a “resistance” rather than an “opposition.” It is a subtle difference, but it means that the Democrat Party no longer regards itself as a government-in-waiting. Rather, it intends to use what few electoral victories it can garner to obstruct and prevent the policies and legislation of the political right without the need for an alternative programme of government.
On key issues like the economy, America’s tendency to start new wars before finishing the ones they’ve already got, corporate trade deals and, yes, illegal immigration, The Democrat party has nothing constructive to say. This was most obvious in Hillary’s inane response to Trump’s MAGA – “America is already great.” Good God Hillary, have you been to Wisconsin recently? Oh no, that’s right, your campaign advisors told you not to bother.
Since 2016, the best the Democrat party has managed is a succession of wild allegations based on lies and half-truths from Russia, Russia, Russia via Stormy Daniels (remember her?) to children in (Obama’s) cages. All of which, ironically, have served to shine a spotlight on their own absence of policies while failing to lay a glove on Trump himself.
Winston Churchill had a saying born out of warfare that he applied to politics:
“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw rocks at every dog that barks.”
If the political left actually had an alternative programme of government, this would be good advice to follow. That is, you don’t just draw attention to Trump’s trade and tariff antics and then walk away; you set out how you would implement alternative policies in order to re-energise the flyover state economies. You don’t focus on Trump’s hard line on illegal immigration if your only alternative is to tear down the borders and allow anyone from child traffickers to the MS13 gang to stroll across the border unimpeded. Indeed, if you do not have any policies to address these issues – which, after all, were at the heart of Trump’s election victory – then the best thing to do is avoid throwing stones at them.
This, however, is Trump’s greatest strength and the left’s greatest weakness. It was hardly a secret that the left allows itself to get “triggered” at the smallest perceived sleight. And Donald Trump is a grandmaster when it comes to triggering people. That twitter account of his was created for a purpose; and that purpose was not to demonstrate his stupidity (although it often seems that way). As philosopher Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Trump is a distraction designed to draw your attention away from what his administration is actually doing. This is something that right wing commentators also agree with (although they differ about the purpose of Trump’s reform programme). Tucker Carlson – the Fox News presenter who voiced the words the left should have spoken about the march to war in Syria earlier this year – argues that Trump drives his opponents mad:
“The end game [for America’s elite] is always the same, which is to take back power. And Trump is offensive to them probably for a bunch of reasons, but the core offense is taking power away from them, disempowering the technocratic class.
“Trump is the candidate for people who didn’t go to Choate and Princeton and Harvard Business School, and work at McKinsey. Those are his voters. The people who did buy into the system—with the expectation they would be in charge—are deeply offended by that, deeply offended by the power transfer.
“So the point always is to take back control. But below that, a bunch of different things are going on. And politically, I think it’s pretty obvious now there’s no actual agenda. It’s not like they’re mad about trade.
“They don’t like Trump, and Trump’s weird kind of unintentional political genius is to drive his opponents crazy. So all of a sudden you have liberals, some of whom are kind of reasonable, smart people, defending MS-13 and the dignity of porn stars. They basically are pivoting against Trump in such a way where whatever he’s for, they’re against and vice versa. Whatever he’s against, they’re for.”
As Thomas Frank has pointed out, the problem with Trump is not populism; it is that he is a liar. He isn’t about to make America great again and restore the fortunes of the working class. Much of what Trump claims to be about, however, is precisely what the left used to be about before Clinton and Blair threw their respective working classes under the bus:
“Today Trump is president, and the connection between his rise and the Democrats’ renunciation of their historical identity should be obvious. He squats in their old place in the political ecosystem, pretending to care about ordinary Americans and preposterously claiming to be our instrument for getting even with the rich and the strong. The right name for Trump’s politics is “demagoguery” or “pseudo-populism”. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.
“Reduced to its essentials, populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism. It is a tradition of rhetorical protest that extends from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to Bernie Sanders and on to the guy who just cooked your hamburger or filled your gas tank. It is powerful stuff. But protest isn’t the property of any particular party. Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up.
“All of which suggests a different answer to the question with which we began. Why is our traditional left failing? It is true that the other side doesn’t play fair any more, but it’s also true that the Democrats are lost in a fantasy of white-collar benevolence. For all their algorithms and their lavishly detailed position papers, their leaders have little personal sympathy any longer with the travails of working people. Populism isn’t the name for this disease; it’s the cure.”
A week, as the saying goes, is a long time in politics; and much may happen between now and the US mid-term elections in November. Nevertheless, what Melania’s jacket was telling us is that the Democrat party’s latest stone throwing at an immigration issue for which they have no answer has more or less sealed their electoral defeat. We can only guess what Trump will do with a new Congress populated by “his” Republicans. But the Democrat wet dream of winning the Congress, impeaching Trump, and installing the Christian Fundamentalist Mike Pence in his place is hardly any better.
In Britain, by contrast, the Blairite’s own-goal of allowing Corbyn onto the leadership ballot has opened the path to an alternative political future… provided Labour can re-connect with the large part of its traditional supporter base that deserted it after years of maltreatment in 2010… the question is, can Labour drop their hostility to populism and wrest it back from the grip of the political right?
As you made it to the end…
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