Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s victory

The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections is a symptom of a common American and European problem, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Al-Ahram Weekly

I am no expert on the USA, and I look at it through European and Egyptian lenses.  But I have read a lot, and what I have read has rung a bell. Déjà vu – the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections is a symptom of a problem that is both European and American. Maybe my European lenses are obscuring my judgement, but maybe they are not.

The problem, as readers of this column already know, is that in Western countries a growing minority of the population thinks, rightly or wrongly, that they are being impoverished by globalisation. Moreover, they think that the globalised elites that run their countries have not noticed and do not pay attention to their plight. They think that these elites have developed and endorsed an ideology that may fit the needs of globalisation, but that does not fit theirs. For globalised capitalism, the framework of the nation-state is an obstacle that should be removed. For them, the nation-state is a protection.

Of course, there are differences between the US and Europe. In the latter, the welfare state counts. In the US, Obamacare is unpopular with those who are not poor enough to be eligible, but who are too poor to pay for private insurance. This became more expensive after Obamacare. Some Europeans and Americans think that many migrants are coming to their countries in order to benefit from the system’s generosity, and some have grown racist and xenophobic as a result.

There are two kinds of populism, the first one of which demonises the rich elite without drawing ethnic distinctions among the poor. A poor man is a poor man regardless of his religion or the colour of his skin. This stance is Bernie Sanders’s view in the US, an old communist from the Bronx, or left-wing politician Jean Luc Mélenchon’s view in France. But another form of populism targets both the rich and the migrants. This is French Front National politician Marine Le Pen’s form of populism, and it is also Donald Trump’s.

It should be noticed that some poor sons of migrants who arrived decades ago in the US share the same hostility towards the new “invaders”. They may feel that they are being made to pay for the newcomers’ “bad reputation”. It is interesting to note that Sanders has not ruled out the possibility of supporting Trump if he implements his “economic programme,” being policies funding public works that would modernise and update US infrastructure which is in bad shape after years of austerity. Protectionism would protect jobs, Sanders has said, while Democratic Party politician Nancy Pelosi, more cautious, has said similar things.

Trump has clearly captured the white poor’s mood. He has understood that the apparently good performance of the US economy hid a sharp deterioration in the poor’s and middle classes’ living conditions. He displayed considerable ability in showing that he saw the plight of those who have had to work more and earn less and who are constantly threatened by the relocation overseas of their work places. Some of his remarks have been horrible and many aspects of his programme are frightening, but we should not forget his impressive feat of winning the primaries despite the Republican Party’s hostility and going on to win the presidency, defying the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party was in crisis because it had been unable to broaden its social base.

We should compare the problem of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France, since she firmly controls her political party, which can, probably rightly, claim to be the “first political party in France,” but nevertheless the pundits think she has no chance of winning the country’s next presidential elections because they say she has been unable to decisively broaden her electoral base or build coalitions.

Trump did not even have his Party’s support, and he seemed to have a special gift for antagonising its leadership and donors. I met a prominent American academic some weeks ago who told me that democracy in the US was wounded as Trump had destroyed the Republican Party, which was in tatters.

Six months ago, the pundits mocked Trump’s gamble. I remember hearing a political commentator telling us that he was gambling and that he wanted to convince those who had never voted or who had stopped voting after Reagan’s presidency. This commentator said that Trump’s gamble would “never work” and that he was “not credible wearing the mantle of the advocate of the poor”. Yet, the gamble worked, even if the fact that many Democrat constituencies did not mobilise in the elections helped him a lot.

Like in France, we have been witnessing a major change in the US. The poor have stopped voting for centre-left or leftist parties, and the “extreme right” or “hard right” has become their main spokesman. The Republican Party is now the party of the white poor and the impoverished middle classes in the US. Trump’s economic programme is tailored to attract them with lower taxes on the poor (and the rich) and more public spending on infrastructure. A zero tolerance approach on security issues also seems to be popular.

We should not underestimate the unpleasant fact of Trump’s gruesome xenophobia and racism. I do not know the US well, but I do not think Trump will be able to do the necessary repair work. On the contrary, he will have to offer something to those who voted for him in order to support his discourse. And he will probably have to pick some fights with the powerful elite in Washington in order to please his constituencies.

The mainstream Democrats in the US, like the French Socialists, have tried to combine a multiculturalist agenda and active or reluctant support for globalisation with the defence of blue-collar workers and the poor. This has not worked, and it could not have done. The poor perceive globalisation as a threat and see the nation-state as their protector.

Many of them do not like migrants, as they rightly or wrongly consider them to be a threat to their jobs, and they are not fond of multiculturalism. Last but not least, they feel insecure, and the centre-left has failed to address their concerns.

It seems the left and the right will now have to choose: Either they remain committed to globalisation and liberalisation, being the agenda of the well-to-do middle classes and the rich, or they try to integrate the poor and the losers into the political game. Trump made his choice: It remains to be seen if he stands alone and how he will deal with the Washington elites.

In this column I have not paid much attention to Trump’s inexperience, his discourse and his dangerous ideas. But of course I do not forget them. Trump is not Ronald Reagan, who was an exceptionally gifted politician. Let us hope Trump is just a populist and not something worse.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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