The only question that matters at the moment is: now what? What should the left do after Trump won the elections, against all expectations?
One thing is clear: the great mudslinging about this question began right on election night. On one side are the people who blame the whole thing on racism. This is the position which you see in many left-liberal circles. Bluntly put: white workers are just nazi’s, so why would you allow them any political influence? You see this way of thinking with people who support Wilders’ hate speech trial. In the US you see it with people who proclaim they will move to Canada. They have given up.
On the other side are people who attribute everything to the failing economy. If only we’d stopped free trade and closed the borders, support for Trump would collapse instantly. This opinion is more popular among socialists than it is among liberals.
I think both stances are useless. If you take the first, you are stuck with no other political option but repression. That’ll only make matters worse. If there is one thing both this election and Brexit has shown, it’s that you will lose if you manage to turn the narrative into a people-vs-elite situation.
The big risk of the second strategy is that you very quickly end up with a programme that is indistinguishable from Trumpism. If you uncritically copy the economic programme of the populists, it is very easy to swallow their whole story. We have seen this in the Netherlands with Jacques Monasch, who started out as a maveric social democrat and ended up with a programme that was indistinguishable from Wilders.
If you take the stance that it’s all economics, you completely miss the point that social and economic injustice amplify each other. Moreover, in order to get this position to work, you have to posit that the trump voters are essentially deluded – a ham-fisted attempt to impose some notion of false class consciousness (a useless concept if there ever was one) on the problem. As Peter Breedveld rightfully pointed out, you are deluded if you think that Trump voters would stop being racists if their economic problems would be solved.
But the most important reason why the ‘economy or racism’-discussion is pointless is this: both positions are meant as a crudgel for the back of your nearest political opponents, not to defeat the right. The racism-camp would like to dismiss everyone to the left of them as hidebound, workerist nostalgians. This is the trick which Clinton succesfully applied to Bernie in the primaries, and it’s what the Labour right has tried to do with Corbyn. Conversely, the socialists can use their economics-only story to play their trump card against the liberals: that the latter neglected the common man’s interest in the economy for decades. Both stories are not meant to beat the right, but to sideline political opponents much nearer to home.
The best thing – I think – is to let the actual Trump voters speak. Fortunately a book has just appeared by Arlie Russel Hochschild, a sociologist, who spent five years among Republicans in the Deep South. I have not read it yet, but extensive reviews in various periodicals have honed in on the crux of the problem: the worldview of Trump supporters.
Just like everyone else, Trump-supporters experience politics as a story, as a metaphor. The story that resonates with them goes as follows: “Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls]. Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.”
This makes clear what a meaningless distinction the discussion about racism vs economy really is. Both of them play a role in the worldview of the Trump-supporter. After all, if the line would move at a decent speed (that is: if the economy would work for ordinary people), it wouldn’t be such a problem that people ‘cut in line’. On the other hand, the underlying assumption of the metaphor – that white men have the automatic right to be at the front of the line – is obviously deeply racist.
But – and this is the crucial point – both factors are necessary to mobilize someone politically. Economic problems are the political catalyst of racism. At the same time, it’s racism that makes the economic problems into anti-goverment politics. After all, if there wouldn’t be anti-discrimination laws, there would be no reason for the trump supporter to direct the problem at them. And note: I do not deny that there’s a group of people in the world who are deeply racist no matter what. What I care about for the moment is not whether people are racist but whether that racism is politically activated.
And there is another lesson to be drawn from this metaphor: it’s the people who are still in the queue, the people who feel that the dream is within arm’s reach, who are susceptible to this ‘cutting in line’ metaphor. The numbers reinforce this idea. Even though the racism-blamers love to bring up the fact that non-colege educated whites overwhelmingly voted against trump, this relation flips if you look at income not education. People who make 50K or less voted clinton, people who make more voted Trump. The same is true if you look at the states which he won: Iowa isn’t doing particularly badly, yet he won there. Even in Michigan, the heart of the rust belt, do you see this pattern: Flint and Detroit went for Clinton, and the rest of the state (with the exception of Ann Arbor – a university town) went Trump.
In short, the average trump voter is not someone who is at the bottom of the labour market. It’s someone who works with his hands, but who makes a reasonable living off of that (someone in the oil industry, perhaps?) who is afraid of losing his job and wants to prevent someone else from getting what he (and it’s mostly a he) gets an unfair advantage.
And that tells us how we should move on after this shock victory. The claim that leftist parties cannot deal with workers without losing their progressive character is based on cheap prejudices which are fabricated for near-sighted political gain. We have to get rid of the idea that the economic left and the social justice left are each other’s natural opponents. The opposite is true. We can only disentangle Trump’s economic-racist tangle if we take this as a starting point.