The Trump disaster and lessons for Labour


Donald Trump


“[A]t the moment I am in anguish, frightened for my country and for our unity. And for the first time, I feel homeless in America.” – Thomas J Friedman, New York Times, 9 Nov.

After nearly three weeks in New York before and after the Trump election, following pre- and post-election coverage in the US press and television and talking to local people of varying kinds, I am struck by factors that differ little from those reported in the serious UK media. Here are a few of them, with my suggested implications for UK Labour.

Hillary Rodham Clinton won more of the national vote than Donald Trump but lost the election and the presidency in the electoral college. (Before Britons cluck at such a perverse system, remember that ours is similar: we elect an electoral college, the house of commons, which periodically elects a government that won fewer votes than its opponent in the election). Clinton won clear majorities in the following categories: black, Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic minorities (but not whites); voters under 45 (but not those older); the university educated (but not those with less education); those earning under $50,000 p.a. (but not those earning more, a somewhat counter-intuitive result); those in cities of over 50,000 population (but not the small town or rural votes); the unmarried (but not the married); those for whom the economy and foreign policy were the most important issues (but not those concentrating on immigration or terrorism), the New York Times tells me.

The incomes statistic raises a question-mark over the generally accepted and probably generally valid impression of a working-class revolt against globalism, immigration, de-industrialisation and the Establishment: the revolutionaries seem not to have been the poorest of the workers, but rather perhaps the somewhat better off, including the petite bourgeoisie, traditional bedrock of the right. Until too late the Clinton campaign took for granted victory in some crucial and historically Democratic states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump won them all. And US voters rarely award a third term to a party that has held the presidency for the previous two.

The parallels with Britain’s Brexit vote are obvious although inexact. There are also parallels, as well as major differences, between Trump and Jeremy Corbyn – both enjoying support from a substantial number of people disenchanted by globalisation, voters blaming their stagnating or deteriorating standards of living and prospects for their children on immigration and failure of their governments to protect local industries against foreign competition, both men instinctively hostile to NATO and the western security system (Trump explicitly questioning the US commitment to the NATO promise to treat an attack on any member as an attack on all, Corbyn undermining the nuclear deterrent principle by saying – quite unnecessarily – that as prime minister he would never press the nuclear button), both apparently favouring protectionism rather than an open liberal trading system, both inclined to sympathise with Russia. Many of us have long assumed that Labour is unelectable as long as Corbyn leads it. Many Americans made the same assumption about Trump. Perhaps we need to revise our assumptions, especially if the tide of anti-establishment resentment sweeps away Angela Merkel and the mainstream presidential candidates in France and Holland next year.

Clinton amassed and spent a far bigger war-chest of campaign money than Trump, who did relatively little paid television advertising and relied mainly on the huge television and other media coverage of his more outrageous and politically incorrect and therefore headline-grabbing utterances at his huge supportive rallies, coverage for which he paid not a cent. His own adopted party, the Republicans, gave him only limited election support and the Democrats relied heavily on attacking Trump’s obvious and undenied defects: his misogyny, xenophobia, racism, his insults against Mexicans, the disabled, war veterans and women, the accusations of abuse of young women. He owed his success to his preceding fame as an entertainingly outrageous television personality with not a single day’s experience in public office.

Clinton owed her failure in large part not only to her gender and strangely widespread unpopularity, but also to the baggage she carried as a former first lady, senator and Secretary of State, inevitably involving some quite trivial mistakes and misjudgements, all unscrupulously magnified and exploited by Trump with his demand that Clinton should be locked up and his threat to have her sent to prison if he won the election.

Corbyn would have few of such discreditable weapons in his armoury at a UK general election, but it’s not hard to imagine another Labour or UKIP leader, not a politician but famous as a television or sporting personality, mounting a similarly effective campaign to Trump’s, ignoring the hallowed conventions of political campaigning, shamelessly exploiting the British resentment of political correctness, to come up from the outside to win an election. The Brexit and Trump (and to a lesser extent the Corbyn) campaigns, all representing a triumph of hope over experience, show how favourable the current atmosphere in the west seems to be to a modern form of populism.

None of this supports the disreputable case for Labour to pander to the point of view, however widespread, that blames the plight of those who are denied their share of the benefits of globalisation on immigration or on international free trade. Freedom of movement between and within countries is an obvious good, and its benefits can only be reduced by unnecessarily limiting it. The threatened movement away from international free trade and towards nationalist protectionism, a trend likely to be hugely accelerated by the election of Trump and potentially by the Brexit vote, can do huge damage to millions of people around the globe, most seriously in the developing world who have been the most obvious beneficiaries of globalisation and a liberal trade order: it would be a tragedy for Labour to do anything to support or advance that menacing trend.

Opposing globalisation is like opposing summer. It’s a fact of life that has brought huge benefits to mankind. Labour’s task must be to demonstrate these benefits and, even more importantly, to promise radical action to spread those benefits far more equally by infrastructure programmes to create post-industrial jobs; education and training to spread the skills needed for employment in modern sophisticated service industries; government-funded free tertiary education open to people from all social and economic backgrounds — all funded by radically increased taxation of enormous wealth as well as incomes, with measures fiercely penalising tax avoidance and managerial malpractices designed to cream off a wholly unacceptable proportion of the proceeds of growth. Labour should stick to a policy of unqualified opposition to Brexit – which can only mean voting decisively against any measures in parliament to authorise the government to activate article 50, which would probably lead inexorably to Britain’s irrevocable isolation from its main trading partner and cultural friends. Allow maximum time for the disastrous effects of Brexit to become more widely understood and let the referendum vote eventually be reversed!

On the national security and international security fronts, Britain’s task will be to support the powerful forces in Washington that will seek to contain and control Trump’s most reckless excesses, to defend the principle of collective security embodied in NATO, and – for the time being at least – to resist the temptation to discredit the policy of nuclear deterrence in ways that could undermine the security of the Baltic states and others and, indeed, the stability of the whole post-war mutual security framework. Labour should support any government efforts in this endeavour. Similarly, the risks of Trump’s election to collective action against the environmental effects of climate change, global poverty and international terrorism must be countered by unstinting non-partisan support for current international campaigns to combat those three evils.

The emergence of understandable but ultimately irrational forces rejecting conventional politics and politicians, reflected in the Corbyn, Brexit and above all the Trump phenomena, make an already dangerous world more dangerous. Labour’s role must be to hold fast to fact-based policies, liberal and humane principles, and radical remedies, however fiercely resisted.

“There has been much talk of the similarities between Brexit and the Trump victory. As Peggy Noonan puts it in the Wall Street Journal, they have both been ‘an uprising of the unprotected’. The old class politics has been reversed. Clinton could win the rich but lost the workers. Labour can win London, the richest part of the UK, but has lost the workers to UKIP and the SNP”. RW Johnson, London Review of Books, 14 November 2016

Brian Barder is a former civil servant and diplomat, now retired after stints as a hospital governor and a member of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. He campaigns on civil rights issues, writes a blog and is the author of What Diplomats Do.

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