Morgan Godfrey: Our dangerous Donald Trump interregnum
OPINION: "This is a victory for the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people," said former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a mob of wild-eyed Brexiters roaring with delight after securing a come-from-behind victory in the referendum to abandon the European Union. "We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks [and] we have fought against big politics." 2016 is a reckoning – and the little bloke just got even.
Or so the popular narrative goes. The truth sits somewhere in between. While we can point to a Brexit here or a Le Pen there, the idea that the great political conflict is not over the shape of society but the principles of justice governing it remains intact: we still seem to agree on private ownership of the means of production, a market system for exchange and an elected government to enforce it all (and do some redistribution, just don't ask to whom and how much). The establishment is under threat, but the established ways of doing things are not.
Except President Trump just happened. Whether this is a reckoning or not, 2016 is beginning to feel more and more like a Hollywood horror film, a fiction so improbable that any scriptwriter would be ridiculed if she dreamed it up. Here's a president advocating for a return to nineteenth century mercantilism, someone who promises to impose capital controls when companies displease him, and a person who openly brags about sexually assaulting women (but Mexicans are the "rapists," go figure).
Presidents like this happen, the television pundits tell us after predicting the wrong result, when "the people" feel left out of politics. I think the reverse is true: President Trumps happen when reactionaries, racists and sexists feel empowered. It's fashionable to argue Trump's messages mustered the white working class, but Trump's voters were better off than most Americans. Working people aren't closet bigots, turning out every four years for candidates who refuse to even commit to lifting the minimum wage.
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It's astonishing to think that only a couple of years ago think piece writers were celebrating the "new Democratic majority" and the emerging "post-racial age," as if at the end of history things would be linear. But history doesn't work so cleanly, erasing itself as it marches forward. The supposedly stable assumptions of liberal democracy and ever-increasing prosperity are under threat across the world, from the world's largest democracy, India, and its trash-talking president Narenda Modi to the world's oldest democracy, the US, and its new president Trump.
Reactionaries are enjoying their moment. "Today, the establishment is in deep shock," declared Nigel Farage after Trump delivered his victory speech. "Prepare for further political shocks in the years to come," he warned. The response from liberals and progressives is a retreat to the old certainties. The truth will triumph in "the market place of ideas"! If only we could transform public policy from partisan contest to scientific inquiry! This account understands politics as the discipline of enlightened technocrats, not the chaos of the demos.
To this Bill Clinton might snap "it's the economy, stupid." Perhaps he's right. In today's world it seems as if most people, even the comfortable middle classes, experience the economy as a kind of out-of-control external force, even as we talk about it as a rather changeable member of the family. The stock market is "confident" or "jittery". The dollar is "robust" or "suffering from an attack of nerves". Companies are "shedding" jobs, as if working people are useless skin. The economy seems cut off from the democratic will, a heartless Mammon god.
With this context in mind some leftists confidently predict capitalism is about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. But episodic upheavals are part of the system's rhythm, destabilising people's lives with the enclosure of the commons and the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, to the age of empires and the shift of productive industry from the developed to the developing world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today's uncertainty and instability isn't unprecedented.
Or maybe it is. The current crisis – of which Trump is a symptom, not a cause – is beginning to undermine the establishment's traditional institutions, from government and the legal system to universities and the media. Trust and confidence in each institution is low, perhaps signalling this is as much an economic crisis as a crisis of authority. "People have had enough of experts," declared Michael Gove. Trump promises to return confidence and stability to the country's traditional institutions. He also promises to punch-up its current occupants.
Not that this is the full story. Trump's appeal is as much about racial and gender grievances as it is about things like the "Case Deaton effect" (that is, rising mortality rates among white workers in the US). Talk of "walls" and "floods" speaks to the fear of demographic and political irrelevance – it speaks to the middle class whites who went to sleep in one country and woke up in another. None of this is meant to deny the role of economic hardship, only to argue that competing social forces shape politics, and that includes the political and racial.
"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born," said the Italian political theorist and leader Antonio Gramsci, "in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." In the interregnum, that uncertain time and space between birth of a new political order and the death of a new one, Trump is all morbid symptom. It would be dangerous to mistake him as a cause.
After all, Ted Cruz - the runner-up in this year's Republican nomination contest - pledged his support for Trump's plan to deport 11 million undocumented migrants immediately, except he wouldn't permit what Trump called the "good ones" to reapply. He also vowed to abolish the tax department. Even the supposedly moderate Marco Rubio has said that abortion is an "industry" creating "an incentive for people to be pushed into abortions so that those tissues can be harvested and sold for a profit."
This is the moment we live in. More and more politicians are pushing the nightmare of a Hobbesian world, one where hard working people are ripped off and ignored. No one should think New Zealand is immune to this kind of turn and responding to these dramatic upheavals with the centrepieces of late twentieth-century governance – a tax credit here, a royal commission there, a bold statement to the Press Gallery – is inadequate. Those left still using them might as well try to find their balance in an storm-whipped sea.
Morgan Godfrey is a writer and trade unionist based in Wellington and the editor of The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand published by Bridget Williams Books.