Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Maziki Thame | Rise of Trump and Jamaican political context

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2016 | 11:00 AM
A supporter of the People's National Party shows off a wristwatch with the image of leader Portia Simpson Miller, outside the nomination centre at the Greenwich All-Age School in Kingston on November 11.
President-elect Donald Trump (left) and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr (right) appear during a meeting with editors and reporters at The New York Times building on November 22.
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The victory of Donald Trump is a victory of right-wing populism, and in this case, the Right is also aimed at returning white people, especially men, to their 'rightful place' - above everyone else.

Those on the political Right believe that socio-economic hierarchies are a natural outgrowth of human difference and are, therefore, unlikely to support political efforts to create conditions of social equality.

Trump's victory emerged out of the distance between the party machinery (both Republican and Democratic) and 'the people', especially those at the bottom. On election night, Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told Fox News that Trump rescued the Republican Party from its elitism by drawing the working class into the political conversation.

John Nicols' article, 'It Really Is That Bad, in The Nation, declared, "White working-class voters were so desperate for change that they embraced an oligarch."

What we now know from exit polls is that Trump did not only bring out the white working class, he also outperformed Clinton among whites in all social classes. His populist rhetoric spoke to white racism, to working-class alienation, and to male supremacy. Most of all, though, racism's appeal brought whites across class into the fold of 'Make America Great [White] Again'.

There are lessons to be learned by comparing these elections to the Jamaican political situation. What was the change that we voted for on February 25? Voter apathy can be countered by populist messages that meet people where they are at. Catchy numbers like 1.5 and 5-in-4 can mobilise people by speaking to the core of what is missing from their political realities - opportunities.

Everyone wants more, but those at the bottom, especially, seek social mobility and a more just and egalitarian society. Jamaican voters' apathy has to do with a view that political engagement has no real impact on their lives, except in cases where they are direct beneficiaries of clientelism. Many quickly realise, however, that those promises or even real material gains are momentary, not sustainable, because in the end, there is little within the larger structure of Jamaican politics that is aimed at reducing inequality and injustice.

Whether it is called Progress or Prosperity, attachment to the IMF and neo-liberal economics is unlikely to produce an end to social injustice. We know that neo-liberal economics, which contributed to the Obama-Clinton defeat and Brexit, has deepened inequality around the globe and has led to the rise of the Right in Europe and now, America.

Portia Simpson Miller is the only politician across parties who represents the plight of the poor. I do not mean this in reference to her politics, since Simpson Miller, like all leaders since 1980, has not advanced pro-poor or egalitarian economics. Rather, I'm referring to what she symbolises - as Annie Paul put it in her Gleaner article, 'Trump does not equal Portia': "The ascent of Portia in Jamaica to the pinnacle of representational politics represents the rise of an underclass that had never held power before." The reality, however, is that they have not risen to power.

 

COMING TO TERMS

 

Simpson Miller's reality is that of a black Jamaican woman from the grass roots in the midst of power but without the power to advance an agenda for the poor. No party has come to terms with the meaning of her and her place in Jamaican politics.

In the 1990s, the PNP became an electoral machine. Patterson oversaw the fastest opening up of the Jamaican economy (liberalisation) and relied on symbolic politics ('black man time') in elections because there was very little ideological difference between the parties.

I heard Karl Samuda say, at a forum on political leadership at the UWI recently, that the JLP's challenge after Michael Manley returned to power in the late 1980s was that they were "out-Labouriting' the Labourites, reflecting the fact that the ideological differences between the parties had virtually disappeared.

It was in that context that Simpson Miller came to power as representing a group that no longer felt that the defence of their interest could continue to be left in the hands of the male middle class. But she can be seen as a tool of electioneering or symbolic manipulation by the PNP. For a party doing little to improve the conditions of those at the bottom, they could rely on support for Simpson Miller given by the most disenfranchised, who would see one of their own in the highest political office.

This manipulation of the symbolism of Simpson Miller, without any serious attention to the condition of those at the bottom, has defined the PNP.

The JLP may have learned a partial lesson from losing to her in 2011 when almost their entire campaign sought to denigrate her. They may have learned not to allow their elitism to take over their rhetoric, but they, too, have not devised a politics aimed at addressing matters of justice and inequality in Jamaica.

Simpson Miller's beleaguered leadership, on the other hand, is representative of her party's distance from those at the bottom and their failure to meet them where they are at. Her place in the political context mirrors that of other black Jamaican women and those below the middle class.

 

UNIQUE POSITION

 

Portia sits in an intersection of class, gender, and race that tells us much about our society and what is likely to happen to women like her who ascend to the top. Sexism is not something to which men alone subscribe. White women rallied behind Trump despite his admission of sexually assaulting women.

Many men and women believe that women do not belong in power. To understand Clinton's defeat, we have to be clear that men typically get more support than women in their bids for leadership. Many whites who voted for the black man (Obama) did not vote for Hillary, and Trump outperformed Mitt Romney among blacks, Latinos, and Asians by seven, eight, and 11 points, respectively. Those groups could not have been inspired by white nationalism.

We cannot rule out gender concerns in our assessment of Clinton's performance in spite of her shortcomings. Similarly, Simpson Miller does not get a pass when the men do in Jamaican politics. She has performed no worse than other politicians if we assess her in terms of the direction of public policy, which has remained consistent since the 1980s or in electoral contests - Edward Seaga only won one general election, if we eliminate the 1983 elections; which the PNP did not contest, and Norman Manley lost four of six elections to Bustamante since adult suffrage in 1944.

She is constantly called out as vulgar and unbefiting leadership, even while men perform equal or more vulgarities and face no sanctions for them. I would argue that this tells us more about the sexism, racism, and classism of the people assessing her than Simpson Miller herself.

The Right will win, in the US and in Jamaica, until we reject the idea that those at the bottom do not deserve equal rights and justice or to be at the negotiating table.

• Dr Maziki Thame is a research fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and maziki.thame@gmail.com.