Sun | Jan 21, 2018

Ian Boyne | Lessons from Trump's victory

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Ian Boyne
A triumphant Trump.

Identity trumps ideology. This is one of the most significant lessons from the victory of Donald Trump in the US elections. White nationalism, nativism and ethnic solidarity matter. We are in a post-ideological age in which issues of identity - including sexual orientation and gender - count for more than ideology or philosophy. Metanarratives are dead.

There is one distinguished academic who is now dead but whose theory is very much alive: former Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington who, in 1996, wrote the pivotal book, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remarking of World Order. This was in response to his former student, Francis Fukuyama's, seminal work, The End of History and the Last Man. Huntington sagely pointed out that in the post-Cold war era, the clash would not be over ideology but a clash between Western and non-Western civilisations.

The rise of militant Islam and Islamic terrorism had deepened interest in Huntington's scholarship. But the backlash - or 'whitelash' - of right-wing populism in Europe and now America shows that his thesis is even more poignantly relevant. Which brings me to a book just published in September this year by liberal sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The book speaks to the anger and angst among rural white folk who feel left behind by liberal, coastal elites whose agenda and values are radically different from theirs. They feel culturally displaced and adrift in the sea of multiculturalism being promoted by America's elite.

Strangers in Their Own Land forms part of a genre of scholarly literature that addresses the pain, distress and dis-ease of white, principally rural Americans who are saying, in effect, white lives matter. There's a fascinating article published last week on The Atlantic website, 'How the election revealed the divide between city and country', with the subheading, 'The 2016 election exposed a chasm between urban and non-urban America that will likely widen under a Trump administration'.

Says the article: "Trump's victory was an empire-strikes-back moment for all the places and voters that felt left behind in an increasingly diverse, post-industrial and urbanised America. Squeezing bigger margins from smaller places, Trump overcame a tide of resistance in the largest metropolitan areas that allowed Clinton to carry the national vote but not the decisive Electoral College."

Hilary Clinton did well in most urban centres and among many educated white-collar suburbs. Says the piece: "Clinton has won only about 420 counties total far fewer than any popular vote winner over the past century. In the roughly 3,000 counties beyond the largest 100, Trump trounced Clinton by about 11.5 million votes. In the decisive states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the electoral map was a sea of Republican red, interrupted only by lonely blue islands in big cities and college towns."

Non-college-educated whites in rural areas who identify with conservative values and who had seen not only those values eroded nationally, but their jobs and living standards also, fought back by voting out the business-as-usual Democratic Party with its Ultimate Insider candidate, Hillary Clinton.




More than 80 per cent of Evangelicals, mainly whites, voted for Trump. That was about identity, not strictly ideology. A vote against more than a vote for. It was a vote against liberal ideology, multiculturalism, gay rights, pro-choice views and what Evangelicals saw as a drift toward "another America", not God's pure, white America; His nation of Manifest Destiny.

Trump is no ideologue. He is not a classical right-winger who opposes all public spending, for he is an advocate of big infrastructural spending (US$1 trillion, he has proposed) as well as an advocate of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He wants to raise the minimum wage to US$10 an hour and he rails against Wall Street and would re-establish the Glass-Steagall legislation that Bill Canton repealed and that laid the groundwork for the excesses which resulted in the financial meltdown.

Right-wingers are usually free-traders. Trump is anti-free trade and anti-globalisation. He is not a hawk who believes in 'defending democracy' all over the world and making the world safe for global capitalism. He is even calling on NATO allies to foot their own bill rather than rely on the American umbrella. One could argue that he is not strictly a Republican.

But he suits an era that downplays ideology and exalts crude pragmatism and white nationalism. 'America First' and 'Making America Great Again' are code phrases for white power. Small wonder than alt-right Dean Steve Bannon has been appointed chief strategist, amid howls from various quarters. Bannon will forge alliances with all the right-wing groups around country, and, indeed, in Europe forming one grand coalition of people defending Western civilisation against its assorted despisers.




The Trump victory also exposed the vulnerability of globalisations, which is not a tide that lifts all boats. That is a myth. It produces many losers, principally in the developing world, but also in the industrialised world, and that is why Europe is seeing a populist upsurge, too. Globalisation, mismanaged as it is and in need of a new international economic order, is producing chaos. Progressives have been warning for years about the ill-effects of untrammeled free trade, financialisation of the global economy, and neo-liberalism. No one was listening, with the rejoinder that progressives were anti-progress, socialists caught in a time warp or useless ideologues.

We are going to pay a huge price for that arrogance. Those in power in America, including its black president of the last eight years who made timidity into a virtue, continued with the status quo, not listening to the cries of the forgotten. Now they will be forgotten. With Obama worried about his legacy being dismantled by Trump.

Fifty-two per cent of the American electorate said the economy was the most important issue in the election. Sixty-eight per cent said their financial position was the same or worse than the last eight years. (There is a strong dialectic between the economic and the cultural as greater economic resources going to whites in rural America would have moderated their nativism.)

But keep in mind that Obama did an excellent job in steering the economy out of recession and in creating jobs. His administration was not economically disastrous as far as macroeconomic performance goes. But that is usually the problem with capitalist development: It is uneven and unequal. The market alone cannot fix the needs of the society. There has to be deliberate, concrete action by the state to ensure that the fruits of growth are shared by all groups. Neo-liberalism is contemptuous of that notion. The Democrats have paid the price for not being taking more bold pro-poor policies.

An important lesson from this election, too, is the number of persons who manifested their disdain of both the Republican and Democratic parties. More than 99 million eligible voters did not vote or voted for a third party. Clinton received 26.6 per cent of the vote, Trump 25.9 per cent, but a whopping 43.2 per cent chose neither.

In an excellent article in The Guardian last Monday titled 'Neo-liberalism: The Deep Story That Lies Beneath Donald Trump's victory', George Monbiot writes, "It was inevitable that the blazing, insurrectionary confidence of neo-liberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pull than the dying star of social democracy ... . The result is first disempowerment and then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people's lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation."

That was what this US election was about: Slogans, symbols, sensation - and the superficial. No wonder a reality-TV producer emerged president. Clinton, the sophisticated intellectual, could not dislodge a man no one would accuse of being an intellectual, to put it most respectfully. He didn't have to know what the nuclear triad is or the names of certain leaders of countries or even that there is no such word as 'phenomenas'. The people to whom he was appealing to couldn't care less.

This election also proved that character and charisma can help. Many voters believed Hillary Clinton had neither. They saw her as both crooked and uninspiring. She laboured under too much baggage and is part of a dynasty that is too wedded to the Establishment when the country knew Washington and Wall Street were broken. As Professor Jefferson Cowie says in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs, "Until one or both parties find a way to address the problems faced by poor and working-class whites, Trumpism is here to stay."

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and