Expert Opinion

Trump, white nativism and economic populism: a new (r)age for western politics

In today's post, Andrew Morton, a part-time lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and PhD student, reflects on Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US election.

Throw it all out. The model and rule book we have long used to understand how voters interact with the process of elections are junk – all of it. Throw it all out.

After Trump’s victory, an entire polling industry and punditry class have been made to look stupid. With this result, America’s social and political map has been recast. Academics in the states traditionally call a moment like this a ‘Realignment’, but this sounds too orderly for describe this mess!

But was the result really that much of a mess? A good deal of the American map did in fact conform to the expectations of a ‘normal’ election. Florida was close, it usually is, as was North Carolina. Virginia and Colorado behaved as expected and didn’t ‘break the rules’ either. The Latino vote won Clinton Nevada and gave her a good showing in usually Republican Arizona. Most of it did look fairly normal. The only part of the map that angrily threw out the rule book was the ex-industrial areas of the northern “rust-belt” - Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio. This was the real stunner. Minus Ohio (a bit more Republican than the rest), Clinton was meant to win the lot. No Republican has won these states in decades: Wisconsin 1984, Pennsylvania and Michigan – 1988, Minnesota, 1972. These were all taken-for-granted bricks of the Democrats’ vaunted ‘blue wall’. The final results have yet to decide Michigan and Minnesota, it doesn’t matter -  The blue wall Obama built has been smashed to pieces.

Why? how?

Economic populism has long been the not-so-secret-weapon in the rust-belt. Obama won with these rustbelt states in 2012 as he pushed a government bailout for the treasured (but declining) American car industry. The auto industry has become a symbol of America’s once powerful Fordist production regime. Obama’s opponent in 2012, corporate stooge Mitt Romney, was against the bailout and wanted to let the auto industry fall. This decided Ohio’s result in 2012 and it took the rest of the rust belt with it. That year, Romney was the corporate stooge, Obama - the defender of peoples’ economic interests, the champion of the people. This year the party roles were reversed: Democrat Clinton – the face of Wall Street, and anti-trade Billionaire Trump (implausibly) – the ‘champion of the people’.

This does to some extent mask a longer term, slow burning trend. These industrial areas have slowly turned into ex-industrial areas. There is a reason it’s called the ‘rustbelt’. Once the home of the ‘labor union’-member “Reagan Democrat”, most of the rust-belt started voting Democratic again in 1992 (electing Bill Clinton) and never looked back, at least until they rejected his wife 24 years later. Bill in 92’ combined a centrism with an empathetic economic populism to win the rust-belt. Donald Trump combined a different brand of economic populism with a counter-culture white nativism that, as right-wing populists usually do, included a heavy dose racially charged anti-immigrant rhetoric. The challenge for Democrats is to return to their own brand of economic populism. Some will point to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as the party’s populist standard bearers. Some have already noted in the aftermath of Trump’s victory Sanders’ own come-from-behind win in the Michigan primary against Clinton earlier this year. It perhaps was a precursor for what was to come. America has perhaps greater traditions of leftist populist. It doesn’t make their left shudder like ours here. Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan are the two examples often pointed to including in two books by Michael Kazin: A Populist Persuasion and A Godly Hero. Jackson and Bryan railed against the corporate interests of America in favour of an earthy, agrarian evocative populism that that spoke to the economic interests of the downtrodden, to an ‘idealised version of a chosen people’ (Taggart 2000).

Donald Trump
By Michael Vadon - Own workCC BY-SA 4.0Link

Trump is not a self-contained ‘American problem’. A pincer of economic nationalism and white nativist populism has emerged across Europe too. This demands these countries’ mainstream parties look at their own experiences of industrial decline.  Diagnoses must also include a ‘Brexit comparison’, something I rejected for months before the morning of November 9th. The role of class has violently re-emerged in both Britain and the US with these same ex-industrial areas in Britain also becoming a focus as a result of the June 23rd referendum. These ex-industrial areas have declined without alternative means of economic production (and survival!) to replace them, at least to the extent that people can retain a sense of self and place in modern society. Much of the anger and rancour Britain has had much of this at its root. Neo-liberalism has much to answer for. It is a painful irony the deliverers of neo-liberalism-induced economic change now reap the political benefit.

Understanding this industrial epicentre of these shocks points to a new politics of inequality and an anti-globalism that has to be part of this story. Even if not explicitly acknowledged by voters, this must to be part of the story. In offering a direct response to Sophia Price’s article what is to be done? (Sorry for predictions Soph!) and combining these themes of inequality and industrial decline, concerns of class, class agency and worker voice are raised. Trade union decline has been pronounced in Britain and the United states, much more than in mainland Europe. With this, trade union identities and working class identity have unavoidably declined with it. Trade unions long provided that conduit between working people, their economic interests and partisan politics. The identities of the modern working class no longer are represented by this form of class agency. This has collapsed in Britain and, at least in relation to the rust-belt, the US. What is interesting is that unions have become invaluable to American Democrats amongst Latinos even if this trade union influence has declined in ‘old’ industries in the rust-belt. This was part of Obama’s celebrated ‘ground game’ that helped this ‘blue wall’. Maybe Clinton was the wrong person to hand over the baton to, but the problems are far more fundamental than this. The point in short: unions as an expression of class agency The challenge for any sort of social democratic party is immense. Will it being able to embrace a form of worker populism through adapted means of class agency? Will it work if it did?

Sorry, predictions are not my game anymore.