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Stop Staring At Trump; Start Building The Future

18/01/2017 15:40
Bastiaan Slabbers via Getty Images

The genius of Donald Trump is his ability to hold our gaze. We are like moths dancing in front of his flame. He has us where he wants us.

Nigel Farage - Sideshow Bob to Trump's Krusty - has a similar ability to attract our attention.

Neither Trump nor Farage have ever been popular; they are as divisive as a jar of yeast extract. But they are always there. From tweeting out bilious message at 3am and deriding journalists to picking fights with the recently-bereaved and suggesting there will be unrest if they don't win votes, they reach parts of politics others dare not.

At some point, however, we have to stop staring and do something.

As of Friday, Trump will be the US President and will have pulled off this most unlikely of feats by running his campaign as if it were reality TV. We lap it up because we all know, consciously or otherwise, the semiology of the genre; the heroes and villains, the uncompromising host, the Hobson's choices and - more than anything - the manufactured moments of drama.

Of course, some aspects of Trump and Farage and their ilk ring true to people. However intellectually preposterous, they've very successfully sported the anti-globalisation clothing that was tailor-made for the left. But mostly these demagogues are a dangerous sham.

And while there may not be many of their 'ilk', like an oil slick they're rising to the top.

Le Pen in France may yet seize power in this year's elections (the smart money is almost unanimous in believing she will not, so just watch it happen). Austria only narrowly avoided electing Norbert Hofer, a far right party leader with strong fascist connections, for a president. Germany's ultra-right AFD is in its ascendency.

Not since the 1930s has politics been so polarised and troubled and dangerous and farcical.

Unify opposition politics

The paradox of acting now is that much of what really needs to be done will take time, and yet that is precisely the commodity we have so little of. With Brexit of some sort and Trump for some time now inevitable and France and Germany waiting in the wings, it's already five-to-midnight on the face of the populists' clock.

The women's marches planned for Saturday are a very good place to start and will hopefully demonstrate that opposition and resistance will come from a very broad political spectrum. The acid test for such events both in the US and Europe, is whether people can take part who consider themselves conservatives but share the same sense of alarm at the rise of the populist right.

If this and other waves of activism are successful, then people will need somewhere to go. There is evidence from polling, such as GQR's work for the New Economics Foundation, that Labour-inclined voters growingly want a new party.

In lieu of this, Paul Mason's recent, public call for a united front across the left and centre of politics is a good place to start once this first wave of marching is over. Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and nationalist parties must work together to face down the much greater threat from right-wing populism.

It is an approach that succeeded in London's Richmond Park by-election last year, with Labour - defying its tribally-inclined leadership - and the Greens backing Sarah Olney, the winning Liberal Democrat candidate. Zac Goldsmith, an otherwise popular incumbent, paid the price for supporting Brexit and signing off on a Tory Central Office race-tinged London Mayoral election campaign. He was made a victim of his party's lurch to the right by cross-opposition cooperation for the common good.

It will mean compromise, but fascism will be far, far worse. There is no world in which refusing to cooperate to stop this beast taking hold because of party tribalism or a wild perception of an opportunity for the left is acceptable. If centrist Conservatives can join in then all the better, especially while the party's majority remains so small, which is why the proposed anti-Tory alliance per se is not quite what's needed (though in effect, while the sitting Conservative government is in thrall to the populist right, that is the job at hand).

A new intellectual case

As well as unity across left and centre, the movement needs substance.

The problems that the populists have tapped into - and that the fascists will if we let them - are not issues of communication or presentation alone. Sometimes stories ring true because they are rooted in real and substantial losses, especially in post-industrial towns and cities.

For two decades, centrist politicians have assumed that neo-liberal economic globalisation - opening trade and joining trading blocs, greasing the palms of big finance, peeling government away from the economy, leaving Adam Smith's 'invisible' hand of the market to do its work - will be an innately good thing, both politically and in the real economy.

Thatcher and Reagan tore down the barriers and uprooted industries to usher in the neo-liberal era. Subsequently, whatever party has been in power (Labour, Conservative, Republican, Democrat) has pursued the project.

Clinton and Blair espoused neo-liberalism with evangelical zeal. But, to paraphrase US economist Joseph Stiglitz, the invisible hand of the market has often been invisible because it hasn't been there. Government retreat and latterly austerity, plus the flagrant and largely unpunished abuse of the system by the finance sector, has left many feeling as though they have merely been palmed off with a second-tier globalisation.

There are banks of servers creaking under the weight of analysis of this. Jim O'Neil's excellent contribution to BBC Radio 4's recent series 'The New World' rehearsed many of the arguments. But as yet there has been no coherent attempt to bring this together into some sort of intellectual thesis to counter the populist right and, as economist Dani Rodrik puts it, 'rescue globalisation from the populists and its cheerleaders'.

The case for this mercy mission needs building coherently and quickly.

Meeting across the divide

Perhaps most importantly of all, as part of creating both unity and purpose people must meet face-to-face across whatever political divides exist and find proximate causes to share. This is indispensable but it's a massive ask.

Although the divisions created by the binary nature of the EU referendum in the UK are often overstated, there are deep class, income, age, rural-urban and technological chasms that are the perfect breeding-ground for the social and political bacteria we are seeing infect our politics.

The only way to tackle this, and to find out why whole regions have been drawn towards the populist flame, is to go to where people are and start a purposeful conversation.

The populists have no solutions to the problems faced by people for whom globalisation has not proven inherently and magically good. In fact, the likes of Farage and Trump are uniformly beneficiaries of the kind of 'hyper-globalisation' that has maligned the rest; it is not in their interests to make material changes that benefit those who are not.

Organisations such as Citizens UK and Hope not Hate have been at this for some time; it's painstaking work. But now it must happen in all of the locations that the populists may otherwise pick off and it must amount to something nationally as well as locally. The effort must benefit from conscious coordination so that neighbourhood leadership can find a wider channel and a common cause.

Building a new, 'radical' politics - one that is rooted in people's experiences and prioritises their solutions - will take time, but there is no way around it and the price of trying to short cut to a new politics will be that it may fail to address people's real concerns because it will not have understood them and the new leaders will not have been found and nurtured.

Turning point

Trump's inauguration must not be seen as a victory for populism and a further episode in the reality show. It should be a turning point.

Much grit and grist lies on the political road ahead; it will have to be used to slow and obstruct the machinery of Trumpism and any other populists that take power.

But while the real discontents of people remain unheeded and the forces that can oppose right wing populism divided and disorganised, there is a very real risk that, as today's populists fail and their bright flames die down, tomorrow's sham show - the next bearers of the populist flame - will be even more extreme.

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