Donald Trump’s unlikely election is a Brexit-like blow to the global elites who espoused an arrogant mix of neocon foreign policy and neoliberal economics that has hurt many common citizens, says ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.
By Alastair Crooke
So, there it is: Brexit, as I had earlier suggested, was no extraneous “flash in the pan,” but a manifestation of wider and deeper discontents in Western society. Let us be clear: not only did 60 million Americans vote for Donald Trump, but a further 13 million, who voted for Bernie Sanders (in the primaries) similarly voted for strategic change – albeit from within a different political orientation.
I do not intend, here, to attempt any post-mortem on the U.S. election, but rather to try to see what may stand hidden behind the Brexit and Trump events – obscured for now by their overly prominent presence on the forestage of the media and politics.
The first concerns Donald Trump: Unsurprisingly, his personal foibles and his billionaire background have become the focus of a hostile media who question whether he has the ability to bring about strategic change, or not. This is an important question, but still it misses the point. The point here is that there are few – very few – opportunities for elected officials to challenge the status quo – especially when Western centrist parties have patently conspired to offer voters mere nuanced variants of the same “progressive,” liberal, globalized agenda.
In short, there evidently has been a constituency building up, so exasperated at the imperviousness of the elites to the true situation of this constituency, that they want the status quo gone, by whomsoever’s hand is there. Whomsoever: that is the point. It was never some sort of chief executive beauty contest: Would Bernie Sanders have been an ideal President? Would Nigel Farage have been one? Will Trump be able to deliver a new era? — we do not know (but should not foreclose on that possibility). The Whomsoever aspect rather speaks to the depth of alienation that lay latent in American society.
But the message that is in danger of being obscured by the outsize focus on the outsize personality of Mr. Trump is precisely that the “discontents” at democracy, at cultural “identity” politics, at globalization and its sufferings, will not simply disappear now. Mr. Trump will succeed or fail, but the uprising will persist in one form or another – and is likely to spread to other parts of Europe, leaving the latter in turmoil and politically incapacitated.
It represents a profound alienation. We should not expect any early return of the liberal world, should Mr. Trump somehow fail.
Nor should Mr. Trump be viewed as some sort of outlandish political freak. In fact, he fits quite closely to one of the mainstream orientations of American conservatism. It is an orientation that is, by instinct, doubtful of grandiose schemes of political or social re-engineering, preferring to take human nature as it is; it is more inclined to focus on domestic needs, rather than uncertain foreign adventures; is financially conservative; is not economically determinist; and tends to see the family as the indispensable building-block of society. It is a Zeitgeist that sees other countries (say Russia or China) as normal countries with whom one should talk, and to pursue common interests.
That Trump should be regarded as some bizarre oddity, rather than as being in the line of Burke and thrice Presidential contender Pat Buchanan (who admits to a certain paternity, as it were) – speaks more to the success of the neoconservative hijack of American conservatism beginning in the 1960s than reflects the historic spectrum of this intellectual current.
One might say that the neoconservatives were never Conservative, in the sense that neoliberals were never Liberal, in the traditional understanding of these terms. What is new is that the President-elect seems to have put together a new Republican constituency of half the American electorate. And this new constituency is not just one of “red-necks” (white, blue-collar workers). It has cut across social classes and ethnic divisions. Even Wall Street traders (supposedly aligned with the Clintons) reportedly were enthusiastically yelling “lock her up” during Mrs. Clinton’s concession speech – and college-educated women only gave Mrs. Clinton a 6 percent edge over those who voted Trump.
It is possible “that this election [originally] was intended to facilitate the triumphant return of the neoconservative-neoliberal paradigm all wrapped up in ‘new packaging.’ For various reasons, the decision was made to assign this role to Hillary Clinton,” according to the Oriental Review.
Perhaps this was because she was viewed as well placed to fuse the liberal-interventionist and the neoconservative trends to the Clintonite “cultural identity politics” base – or possibly, simply because it was “her turn” at the Presidency. If so, it has failed spectacularly.
The Clinton Failure
Why did it fail? One aspect of the discontent (as I have outlined before – see here) relates to the slow demise of our financialized, neoliberal, debt-driven growth model. For many in America and Europe, the reality has not been one of economic prosperity, but one of anxiety – and for the first time in the post-World War II era – a sense that the next generations’ prospects will be much tougher, and worse, than ours were.
Here (no friend to Trump) is Naomi Klein’s assessment: “They will blame James Comey and the FBI. They will blame voter suppression and racism. They will blame ‘Bernie or bust’ and misogyny. They will blame third parties and independent candidates. They will blame the corporate media for giving him the platform, social media for being a bullhorn, and WikiLeaks for airing the laundry.
“But this leaves out the force most responsible for creating the nightmare in which we now find ourselves … [financialized] neoliberalism. Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.
“At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cozy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.
“For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable. Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain. The Brexit campaign spoke to that pain.”
Here it is represented visually:
Of course, this was not the case for the urban élites:
The second aspect to the present discontent has been cultural oppression (or, in the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, “identity politics” – one of the mainstays of the Clintonite electoral base). Its roots are complex, and lie with philosophic currents emerging out of Germany during WWII that somehow fused with American Trotskyist intellectual thinking (which then migrated to the Right). But, in gist, this current of political thought borrowed from the emerging discipline of psychology the concept of clearing the human mind – shocking it, or forcing it into becoming the “clean slate” on which a new mental program could be written by the psychiatric (or political) therapist respectively.
The political aim here was to eliminate totalitarian thinking, and fascist mental “programming,” and to replace it with a liberal-democracy circuit board.
Indeed, the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was promoted by this intellectual group precisely in furtherance of the notion that concepts such as “national culture” would become meaningless as a result of immigrant cultural dilution. By the 1970s and 1980s, the objective had evolved to implant the idea that there was really no politics to modernity (Fukuyama’s End of History) since all governance somehow had boiled down to technocracy: ensuring effective liberal market functioning — a matter best left to experts.
In political terms, the “clearing” of the mind’s inherited cultural clutter was to be achieved by cultural wars of political correctness. The class war had become discredited, but there were other “victims” on whose behalf war could be waged: the war on gender discrimination, on racism, on denial of gay rights and sexual orientation stereotyping, on verbal micro-aggressions, on sexist language, or any ideas or language which disturbed the individual’s sense of “safe space” were used as tools to clear away old cultural “brush” of inherited national culture, and open the way for an American-led, globalized world.
The ostensible factor linking all these notions of victim “wars” was that their antonym amounted either to fascism or authoritarianism. The problem with this has been that any white American blue-collar worker who attended church, who believed in family life, and was patriotic, became potentially a fascist, a racist, a sexist or a bigot.
Many ordinary Americans (and Europeans) disdain this “cultural” war which places him or her (according to Hillary Clinton), in the “‘basket of deplorables’ Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, islamophobic, you name it,” and who looked upon his or her community as representing nothing more than a “fly-over” state in the view of the U.S. coastal élites.
The deplorables have now risen up. Donald Trump’s salty language was no liability – it was an electoral asset by thumbing his nose at this correctness, and at so-called ”snowflake” sensibilities. Trump’s ‘incorrectness’ touched on a deep vein of resentment within American traditional society.
Not only does “flyover America” resent being termed “deplorables,” they feel too clearly the disdain in which the American and European elites hold them – and dislike their arrogance in suggesting that there is only one rational, sensible way of doing things, and that they – the elites, being the experts and a part of the Davos set – should tell the rest of us what it is: (despite their decades of failures).
Emotions are high on both sides. To gain a sense of how bitterly the cultural war will be fought, listen to this from the partly-Soros-funded populist mobilization movement Azaaz (linked to America’s Move On organization): “Dear Mr. Trump: This is not what greatness looks like. The world rejects your fear, hate-mongering, and bigotry. We reject your support for torture, your calls for murdering civilians, and your general encouragement of violence. We reject your denigration of women, Muslims, Mexicans, and millions of others who don’t look like you, talk like you, or pray to the same god as you. Facing your fear we choose compassion. Hearing your despair we choose hope. Seeing your ignorance we choose understanding. As citizens of the world, we stand united against your brand of division.”
In short, with Brexit and the Trump victory, we are witnessing an historic point of inflexion. As I noted in mid-October (quoting British political philosopher John Gray): “If the tension between [the globalization project on one hand] and the [sovereign] nation state, [on the other] was one of the contradictions of Thatcherism … From Bill Clinton and Tony Blair onwards, the center-left embraced the project of a global free market with an enthusiasm as ardent as any on the right. If globalization was at odds with social cohesion, society had to be re-engineered to become an adjunct of the market. The result was that large sections of the population were left to moulder in stagnation or poverty, some without any prospect of finding a productive place in society.”
“If Gray is correct that when globalized economics strikes trouble, people will demand that the state must pay attention to their own parochial, national economic situation (and not to the utopian concerns of the centralizing elite), it suggests that just as globalization is over – so too is centralization (in all its many manifestations).”
Well, the global trend does not seem to be going in the Avaaz direction. It seems rather to be heading toward prioritizing the recovery of the state, of state sovereignty, and of state engagement in the pursuit of economic policies appropriate to the particular circumstances of the state, and in the state’s ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the community as a whole.
The question is what does this mean geo-strategically? And, secondly, can and will, Trump be able to deliver the new era? The short answer is that this new era seems to presage a period of political volatility, financial volatility and in Europe and the Middle East, the prospect of continued political “shock.”
It is clear that Mr. Trump is not a globalist. It is also clear that he is aware of some of the dangers of the present global monetarist policy. He has spoken of the U.S. Federal Reserve creating “big ugly bubbles” and that the next economic and financial crisis has been “kicked down the road” by Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen – and clearly awaits whomsoever becomes U.S. President on Jan. 20, 2017.
Painted into a Corner
But three decades of debt-led, financialized “growth policies” leave the President-elect effectively painted into a corner: global debt has spiraled; the bubbles are there still (kept afloat by Central Bank coordinated intervention), and bubbles are infamously difficult to deflate gently; zero or negative interest rates are undermining many a business model, but cannot easily be foregone, without crashing the bond market; and QE (printing money) is systematically eating away at consumer purchasing power through the dilution of its newly created purchasing power, and the latter’s re-direction from “main street” into the financial sector – lifting nominal asset values – but creating no tangible wealth.
America and Europe effectively are in debt-deflation. How then to grow incomes so that producers of goods and services can also afford then subsequently to purchase these goods and services? Trump’s answer is to spend on domestic infrastructure projects. This may help a bit, but is unlikely – in itself – to lift and float the entire U.S. economy.
The reality is that there is no obvious global engine of growth (now that China’s “industrial revolution” has stalled at best). Every nation now is in search of new engines of growth. And it is not easy to imagine that Europe or America will succeed in retrieving all those jobs lost through globalization. Indeed, the attempt so to do – in, and of itself – might just precipitate a further deceleration of world trade, and a consequent decline in output.
In brief, the global economy may see a brief “honeymoon period” thanks to a likely spurt of U.S. fiscal indulgence and a concomitant psychological lift, stemming from – at least – the U.S. construction sector enjoying something of a boom. But ultimately the very economic crisis which Mr. Trump anticipates may prove to be the only way to cut the Gordian knot in which three decades of unprecedented debt and money printing have fettered us.
And if he is to steer through the expected crisis, Mr. Trump will have to eschew the Siren voices of the present elites telling him “TINA” (there is no alternative, but to continue as before).
Where Mr Trump might look for an early (and relatively easy) success however, may be in foreign policy. As “Nixon went to China,” so Trump can go to Russia and China, and begin to treat them as normal nations with whom it is possible to find an intersection of interests (as well as areas of disagreement).
This would be revolutionary. It could change the geo-strategical map. And as President Putin keeps repeating … the door is open (at least for now). Nothing is forever in politics.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum, which advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West.