Donald Trump’s campaign has been like a disaster movie about an asteroid crashing into earth. At first, experts dismiss the possibility of a collision as the ravings of a few lunatics. Soon, it becomes a gathering threat, and finally a potential extinction-level event. In a movie, a few heroes would band together to counter the danger, saving the planet at the last minute. In real life, the asteroid seemed to be flying past to the relief of the world, but at the last moment, as a result of gravitational forces that had not been properly calculated, scored a direct hit.
Obama’s Dark Shadow
The next US president is the current one’s dark shadow, a malevolent entity antithetical in every way to the current US president, rising to prominence in the wake of the calamitous failure of Barack Obama’s most optimistic promises. The two represent fundamentally opposed versions of America’s symbolic journey. Obama’s begins with a deeply flawed nation founded upon dispossession and slavery, but also on a set of worthy ideals. He sees a country gradually working towards the fulfilment of those ideals by securing equity and justice for women, racial and sexual minorities.
Trump’s vision begins with perfect possession and unity, and is a tale of continual loss and fracture. His first important political statement appeared in 1987, when he placed full-page ads in prominent newspapers in 1987 criticising Ronald Reagan for supposedly letting Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait rip off the United States. Through a series of Republican and Democratic administrations since then, he remained consistently pessimistic. In contrast to the soaring and uplifting rhetoric of Obama’s 2008 campaign, he conducted the most vicious campaign in recent history , hurling personal insults at all adversaries and critics.
The Trump-Obama opposition extends to everything from their attitude to women to their comprehension of history and geopolitics. Obama, born to a father black as pitch and a mother white as milk (his words), grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, and became cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. Trump, of immaculate European heritage, was bred in a racially riven city, and developed a zero sum view of the world, where every person and every nation is either a winner or a loser.
The door to his candidacy was opened by the failure of Obama’s message of hope. As a candidate, Obama insisted there were no blue states or red states, only the United States, but found his promise to work across the aisle with the opposition running aground on the rocks of partisanship and legislative gridlock. The manifest failure of bipartisan negotiation and compromise created fertile conditions for a candidate whose every speech played upon division and discord. In place of a President who has written eloquent books and speeches, and who frequently pauses while answering questions, stringing together subordinate clauses to capture the complexity of situations, we got a man who has commissioned ghost writers to pen hagiographies, who shoots his mouth off in person and online at the least provocation, and who displays an astonishing indifference to facts, and hostility to nuance.
The Receptive Middle
It is a truism that the people most strongly attracted to Donald Trump’s message were working class white males. That group has been the bedrock of the Republican party for decades, but as the nation has grown more diverse it seemed the Republicans were driving to a dead end. Yet, Trump ended up depending even more heavily on that group than his predecessors had done, and succeeded in squeezing enough votes from them to offset his losses among Hispanics, a fast-growing community he alienated at the very inception of his campaign.
One reason why so many whites in the working and middle classes supported a right-wing billionaire is simple racism, the ‘basket of deplorables’ explanation. However, a number of economic and social factors underlay the white anger that fuelled Trump’s insurrection. For decades since the United States became the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, workers’ real wages moved in lockstep with increases in productivity. Beginning in the 1970s, a sharp divergence occurred, not mirrored in nations like Germany and Canada, where the working classes continued to fare reasonably well. By the 1980s, the market for industrial jobs began to crater. Billy Joel’s 1982 song Allentown was a dirge for Pennsylvania steel mills:
"Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line"
The next year, Bruce Springsteen composed My Hometown, based on his experiences growing up in New Jersey.
"Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back"
Even as manufacturing jobs were ceasing to be lucrative and plentiful, women moved into the labour force in large numbers, taking up many of the new service jobs on offer. Median income increases for females have closely tracked US GDP growth, even as median male incomes trended downwards relative to it. Of course, women’s incomes began from a lower base and on average continue to be below male earnings, but the relative position of women has improved tremendously, leaving them more optimistic about the present and future.
As final garnishes to this bitter dish, we can add the end of the era of American small towns being job creating engines following the great recession of 2008; a massive chasm opening up between affluent graduates and those without degrees in marriage rates and babies born out of wedlock; and an epidemic of opiate abuse among poor and working class white communities. There is more than enough grist for any demagogue’s mill in this tale of stagnation and decline. Trump had an entirely wrong analysis of the job and wages problem, blaming treaties like NAFTA though the rot set in well over a decade before that agreement. His prescriptions will almost certainly do more harm than good. The problem is that nobody on the Right or Left has a workable plan to improve conditions for the men of Middle America.
Middle England, Middle Europe, Middle India
The parallels between Trump’s support and the success of Brexit are obvious, and have been alluded to by a number of commentators. Continental Europe is already feeling the effects, with right-wing, anti-immigrant parties increasing vote share dramatically in Austria and Germany, and a reactionary regime installed in Hungary. The big test of the Right’s strength will be the French Presidential election next year.
It is less easy to draw parallels with the situation in India. The demographic and economic structure of this nation is too different from the US to suggest any straightforward lessons. Obviously, there is a global trend towards authoritarianism visible in Russia, Turkey, India, and the Philippines, among other nations, but Trump was not the first to that party.
With these caveats, I hazard that we face a threat of a similar wave of anger from Middle India. I refer to the wave of protests by members of intermediate castes demanding a share of government job quotas. India’s Patels, Jats, and Marathas in some ways reflect the status of small town white Americans. They are communities that have historically possessed a fair share of political and economic power, but are being threatened by the rise of hitherto depressed caste groups at the same time as job opportunities appear to be shrinking. It might not be possible to shape this Middle India into a viable or cohesive political group, considering how fragmented India’s communities are, but on the other hand our first-past-the-post system provides a relatively low electoral threshold, making such coalitions a tempting prospect. That, in turn, raises the spectre of a caste war of a scale previously unseen in India.
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