That the United States of America will inaugurate a President Trump in January 2017 feels surreal to me. The President of the United States will be a hollow, incurious relic of the 1980’s. This monumentally shallow narcissist will be the Commander in Chief. President Donald J Trump…really? Him? He is the big white Dr Daddy who will come and restore you to wealth, and status and privilege? He sees your pain, he hears you scream, he alone can fix you. But he manifestly fails in his diagnosis of who is to blame and the prescription he offers will make you even sicker.
But along he has come, with Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France and Hanson in Australia. These “mavericks”. Here they are in their respective Western liberal democracies. Here they fucking relentlessly are, channeling convulsions of pain and howls of rage and fury. All caused by rampant corporate capitalism and the terrible failures of successive governments. But here they are blaming enfranchisement, women’s liberation and global competition. Here they are, posing as the answer to the breakdown of economic management by the neoliberal consensus.
The taboo that is dying.
And I deliberately choose the word “posing”. Along come these shouty anti-experts, with their “common touch” and their ruthless, stop-at-nothing political ambition. Their diagnoses of your ailments are easy, self-serving, no complexity or ambiguity allowed. They are cynical to a person. Do not believe, even for a hot second, that these pigs aren’t at the trough. You can tell a political pig from a mile away. They’re the ones telling you that your economic prospects have been suffering decline for 20 years because of the “other” and the “elites”.
This latest batch of populists, in a heart attack inducing 1930’s throwback, have dispensed with the niceties when it comes to demonising the “other”. I would contend that since the end of WWII and the discovery of Auschwitz a taboo has prevailed in Western democracies. To wit: the explicit naming of the “other” as the source of an electorate’s pain and woe.
This is not to say that various conservatives haven’t dog-whistled their way to political gain; John Howard with his “children overboard”, Reagan and his “welfare mothers”, Thatcher and her fear of being “swamped by (other) cultures”. This dog-whistling (while vile) at least demonstrated that overt prejudice was taboo in politics. However, history recedes further from us, and WWII veterans die, and Holocaust survivors die. And this taboo against explicit prejudice feels as if it’s falling away.
Who is to blame?
And so, Mexican immigrants are coming to rape you. Muslims must be banned, or “extremely vetted”. Jewish cabals are conniving at the levers of world government to steal all of your money. We must punish women who have abortions. Or their doctor. Their access to contraception should be limited. Women must be castigated for ambition and rewarded for submission. Gay conversion therapy is put up as the solution to a non-existent problem. No, black lives don’t matter, #AllLivesMatter. Syrian refugees are terrorists, or some are terrorists, so we must intern them all indefinitely, and so on and so on.
When right wing populists say “elite” they tend to mean career politician, intellectual, writer. Or journalist, artist, critic. Or wealthy person, or Jew. Handily, Jews serve as both elite and other in this particular fervid imagining, which goes quite some way towards explaining their persistent starring role in all the best conspiracy theories. These elites are out of touch. They can’t possibly know your pain or your suffering. They live in ivory towers, insulated by their education, their money and their access. Or they’re corrupt insiders, in politics or business. City dwellers, rolling in privilege, worrying about political correctness. Godless. Hedonistic. Snobs.
Let’s take a closer look.
So now you know, your problems are the fault of the other and the fault of the elite or some combination of both. So what next? Well, once you start down the road of what next, the reasons for the taboo mentioned above do tend to reveal themselves. Although it must feel good to diagnose your problem in this way…? It must feel true. Otherwise these politicians wouldn’t be having this success. But, guess what? It’s bullshit. How about we examine some facts.
A fact is an assertion that is empirically provable. Whether or not these populists bother with facts, facts still exist. It is a fact that manufacturing and industrial jobs are never coming back. This is because of a combination of technological advances and rampant free-market capitalism. However, surely our governments could have seen some of that coming and prepared us?
Governments control the levers of an economy. Governments can ensure that other industries are prioritised when job sectors die. They can promote innovation, up-skilling; they can subsidise creativity. Governments can create jobs. If they fail at this, if we fail to elect the politicians who will do this and your towns or your cities are in decline? It isn’t the fault of immigrants and foreigners.
More facts – the leading indicator of prosperity and stability in a civil society is it’s treatment of women. When women’s rights to education, contraception and safe, legal abortion are upheld, women can participate in the workforce. Women are bound to the domestic without these rights. Women’s rights are not only fair and just but necessary in the economies of the West.
Aging population demographics like the baby boomers need all of us to fund their retirements and hospital stays. Federal and state governments and councils need the tax money that comes from full female workforce participation. Without working women our economies will not survive. Any attempt to placate male anxiety by promising to return women to the domestic sphere is dangerous. And fucking nonsense.
Another fact: unionised workers have collective bargaining power. The only way workers can have any power in the face of these wealthy global or even local corporations is to unionise. Various political parties in the West have gone on a politically motivated de-unionisation programme over the past 40 years. It’s been in their self-interest. They’ve been lobbied and bought off. All so these corporations can acquire profit and yet more profit. So they don’t have to accommodate the needs of their work-forces. This is why you feel powerless – you’ve been relentlessly persuaded that unions are the problem when they are the solution.
It is a fact that the reckless de-regulation of financial markets led to the global economy becoming an insane casino. This batshit crazy casino almost broke down completely in 2008. Imagine all the ATM’s broken. Imagine all the banks closed down. You can’t get your money because all the money has disappeared. That nearly happened. The neoliberal consensus – pragmatic, centre-left/centre-right Western governments that we elected – almost let that happen. Because a very powerful and enormously wealthy finance industry did not want to be regulated or overseen. That caused the Great Financial Crisis. It wasn’t the Rothschilds or the Elders of Zion plotting over their matzo-balls.
More facts, and greed.
It is also a fact that a relentless, greed driven, ideological push to cut taxes has impoverished the middle class in the West. Cutting taxes does not make you wealthier. People keep the money. Infrastructure rots and falls away. Municipalities cannot fund schools or hospitals. Fuck me, it isn’t rocket science. The tax cut you put in your pocket means your kid at the state school doesn’t get new computers. Or your mum dies at the under-staffed hospital. This happens because we are greedy. The 1% are especially greedy for tax cuts.
If you privatise the fuck out of everything we all need you just hand more money to corporations. Corporations care about profit and pleasing their share-holders. Why would we ever think otherwise? Handing over civic institutions and public services to private companies is madness. Punctual, reliable transport services or energy grids requiring constant maintenance, or hospitals tending to all the sick people – these are not profitable. So they are run into the ground, or stripped of their assets, or both. Or they are made ever more expensive, till they become the provenance of those who can afford them. And the rest of us can walk, or live in a dark cave and then die. Immigrants or foreigners aren’t crowding you out of schools, hospitals and drivable roads. Governmental mismanagement and corporate greed are to blame.
I love an expert.
Which brings me to the experts. How do we know all of this? How do we even know that we know all of this? Because critical thinking is a skill. The analysis of socio-economic factors and political actors, and reading history are skills. Knowing how to support an argument, qualify an assertion, and place all of it in context is a skill. Knowing which source is reputable is a skill. And yes, when I elect a political representative I would like them to possess some or all of these skills. I want the author to possess these skills when I read an opinion piece. I have a deep suspicion of any politician who wants me to disregard expertise. Why? Why do you want me in the dark? So you can feed me shit like a mushroom? Fuck off.
It seems to me that people in the West are struggling with the pace of change. It seems to me that it is easy and convenient to blame the “other” or the “elites”. If there has been terrible decline in the industrial north of the UK, or the middle of the USA, or in the ex-urbs of Australia…well haven’t we all been adults living in functioning democracies all this time? The point and purpose of a democracy is that when we don’t like something we can change it.
So, in the end, who’s to blame for all of it?
We could have elected politicians who put working people first, who would stand up to the insane finance industry and global corporate greed. But we didn’t. We could have refused damaging tax cuts with our votes, we could have refused wholesale privatisation with our votes. And we could have insisted on policies and practises that made reversing this decline the priority. But we didn’t. We went on treating politics like a game, or a team sport, instead of what it is. Which, as dramatic as this sounds, is life and death.
And along comes only I can fix it Trump, and Farage with his crumpets and pints, and Hanson and her interchangeable foreign targets. They all diagnose women, immigrants, minorities and experts as the problem. And we want the demagogues to fix it and make it all better? They will only ever make it worse. But we don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to make the financial sacrifices necessary so that everyone can prosper. We don’t want to put the research into politics or the thought into history that’s required for a society that takes care of each other. As long as we can keep on consuming and competing we don’t care. And look what it’s come to. One Nation controlling the Australian Senate. Brexit. President Trump. It seems to me that we only have ourselves to blame.