Donald Trump’s election is utterly shocking. A misogynist, racist has been elected to the most powerful office on earth. He could carry the day even though he had to fight the top echelons of the two major US parties, and most newspapers and media outlets were opposing his candidature. After the shock and astonishment, the time has come, especially for the Left (whatever that means), to make a serious assessment of why the Trump phenomena could come about. Trump’s election does not simply constitute a defeat to mainstream politics (not necessarily a bad thing.); his election as well as various forms of religious fundamentalism and resurgent forms of nationalisms around the globe, constitute an even greater set back to the Left. They demonstrate the general impasse of progressive politics, despite the crisis of the Neo-liberal economic model, which is now being felt more than ever even in the traditional centres of capitalism. The greatest defeat to the Left is not Trump’s victory per se; it is the fact that large swathes of the American population, especially amongst the country’s poorest sections, saw a millionaire as the anti-establishment candidate; the one who would take on Wall Street and represent some form of hope.
Even if one considers particular issues that traditionally were championed by the Left, Trump’s election indicates a resounding defeat. Consider feminist issues, to which the Left has traditionally been more sensible. Trump’s election shows that even in mainstream Western societies, women do not simply face issues of implicit bias and glass barriers behind inclusive and just language. Large sections of the population within the West’s most powerful country, including many women, had no misgivings about voting a candidate who is explicitly misogynist.
Elitisim instead of reflection.
Some eighty years ago, following the takeover of the Italian government by Mussolini and his thugs, the Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci carried out a masterly analysis as to why fascism could come into being and take power at the time, how it could consolidate its powers in the years that followed, what were the failures of the Italian Left and what could be done in the future. A similar analysis ought to be carried out today in relation to Trump, Brexit and similar phenomena. There are some Left-leaning thinkers, organisations and politicians who have obviously have undertaken this hard and problematical task The attitude of most however, has been markedly different.
The attitude taken by most left-wing commentators, thinkers and analysts has generally been self-righteous, contradictory and elitist. For instance simplistic analyses indicating the restoring of white privilege as a major cause of Trump’s election have been concocted. Obviously such people do exist. Yet, most of these had already voted against Obama 4 and 8 years ago, and their vote did not prove decisive.
Rather than confessing to a failure of not even understanding how the peripheries of the countries in which they live and work differ from the centres where they are inevitably employed; a division reflected in voting patterns in the US election, Brexit and elsewhere; many high-ground Left-wing analysts have pointed to the lack of education or initiative of the inhabitants of these margins as major causes of undesired results. Not possessing a degree, being of a certain age and living in the country-side have almost become sins to some on the Left; forgetting that in the 30’s and 40’s it was mainly working class people, with little academic education and no shinning degrees, who in places like Britain fought fascism in the streets. (The assumption behind this line of thought is that having a degree is per se an indicator of political maturity; an obviously mistaken assumption since a top engineer or a highly qualified IT technician or Medical Practitioner may not know an iota about political thought or political economy.)
The fact that many supposedly critical thinkers and commentators have jumped on the recent post-truth myth bandwagon then, is evidence of total absence of analytical juices. Trump is not paradigm of sincerity. Yet, he did not invent political lies. How sincere was Obama’s Cairo discourse or Hilary’s claim to fight Al Qaeda? Singling Trump out somehow exhonerates mainstream politicians who bear an important responsibility for the current situation, especially their attitude of keeping one foot on each side in a number of issues; jockeying left and right elements of discourse in their rhetoric and policies. Trump’s talk about the Mexican wall was really sickening, as was the Xenophobic and Little-Englander attitude of many who campaigned for Brexit. But Obama, despite all democratic rhetoric, presided over the one of the most militarised boarders in the world. Similarly the European Union whom Brexiters fought, keeps tightening its boarders and referring to immigrants as ‘burdens’ to be shared, even though, concomitantly, it uses compassionate language.
I believe that there is a way forward for the Left – political, trade-unionist and academic – not in terms of some abstract prescription that fits all contexts, but in terms of particular and different initiatives that are nonetheless characterised by three features – awareness, concern and engagement – which features are apparently missing at the moment. It is highly important for Left wing militants – whether in politics, the academic world or trade unions – not to cocoon themselves in cultural and economic safe havens, as is the case now. Most radical militants tend to be middle-class individuals who can engage only with, other radical middle class individuals. The same hold for intellectuals. These may toy with issues like gay rights, globalisations and the environment without linking these to the realities of the white American working class and the small towns in Yorkshire or Teesside. The world, even in the West, is also made up of the US Rust Belt and of the Yorkshire outskirts who votes Brexit. People in these areas have concrete concerns, interests, fears and (possibly misguided) views of the world. These have to be recognised and acknowledged (though not necessarily accepted). Political proposals and suggestions should be considered in light of such realities, not the other way round, as has frequently happened. Consider once again the US election, particularly the Democratic Party’s proposal to shut the coal industry The proposal should receive full marks for environmental reasons. Yet, it failed to recognise or cater for situations on the ground like the existence of whole communities that are organised around coal mines (a situation reminiscent of the anger against similar proposals by the Tory government in Britain in the 70s and 80s, though the reasons here were economic.)
The Left, academic and militant, should engage critically with such realities. It needs to rediscover, re-invent and re-propose critical encounters with what, in some cases, was its traditional constituency. We need contemporary equivalents of Ernesto Boal, Septima Poinsette Clark, Paolo Freire, Gabriel Garcia Lorca and Lorenzo Milani.
Micheal Grech is Philosophy Lecturer at Junior Collage