Trumpocalypse Now

So, Trump won.

There will be a lot of ink spilled over who voted for him, where and why, mixed with uncomprehending despair. But before you crack open the whiskey and start guzzling paracetamol, let me outline a possible silver lining.

My impression is that a large number of people who voted for Trump felt that the system was ignoring them. It was being run for a cosmopolitan, urban and liberal elite. They, and their way of life, were behind left behind by the snazzy, global, tech-train, for which all the tickets had already been sold. I know this is the stock standard liberal theory, which only partly explains the story. There are, of course, lots of Trump voters who resent the rising status of women, ethnic minorities and gay people. There’s not much we can do to please them other than disenfranchise women and minorities and return to some sort of “Mad Men” 1950s world. Which is not my plan A, shall we say.

However lots of voters – certainly enough to have swung the White House to Trump – are probably not-particularly-misogynist-or-racist people who feel that they’re simply not part of the group calling the shots. They felt that someone like Hillary Clinton – global, sophisticated, connected, and elite – could never genuinely act on their behalf or in their interests. Every article of disdain, fright or scorn poured on Trump by the media served to reinforce – indeed create – the belief that the Donald really was not part of the liberal elite.

So we, the liberal “elite”, were unwittingly recruited by the man we called a fool. We did the hard work for him, and convinced a lot of working (and middle) class people that a billionaire heir was “one of them”. Not bad eh?

Indeed I started to get this uneasy feeling quite a while back; all the rich and famous actors, editors, journalists, writers, intellectuals and politicians who lined up to denounce Trump felt like a Soviet show trial. They duly marched in and denounced him, and neatly demonstrated to his supporters that the Donald was indeed, their guy. Every additional plea not to vote for him further convinced them that Trump was the genuine article. Every pussy (and headline) grabbing gaffe made him seem more real, less elite.

How could we – who are so smart – be so dumb? My hypothesis is that Donald goaded us into it with his illiberal dog whistles. All that stuff about “lock her up”, the “second amendment people”, deporting illegal migrants, Mexican judges, “rigged elections” (and polls), not accepting defeat, etc. We thought this shit was for his supporters, but actually, we are the dogs he was whistling to. Of course, some of his supporters loved the message. But I think a lot of his supporters didn’t even listen to what he was saying. What they liked was our apoplectic reaction.

Anyway – American liberals must now recognise that they have been played. I’m not sure how they could have reacted better – perhaps by remaining calm, by standing up and supporting some of his stuff (e.g. the protectionist stuff). Above all, by making him look “establishment”. Perhaps Sanders was the better candidate to field, after all, because he could more credibly cut Trump’s anti-establishment grass.

That’s history. What about this silver lining?

Let’s imagine what would have happened if Trump had lost. This would have fed perfectly into the narrative that his supporters “have no voice”, the “system is broken / controlled by the elite” etc. As it happens, that narrative is now defunct. They do have a voice. As was the case with the Brexit vote, I suspect the winners in the US election are just as surprised as the losers.

This represents an opportunity for liberals. The narrative that “liberal democracy” doesn’t work has just received a massive blow. Against all expectations, it did actually work. People voted, they protested, they were heard. The system made sure they were heard.

The worst thing liberals could do, at this point, is to let themselves believe that the system is broken, and to withdraw civic participation or cooperation. Of course we didn’t want Trump to win; but we do want to keep the liberal democracy that allowed him to win. So, now is the time to accept his win and his program.

OK let me explain that.

Liberals obviously cannot accept any parts of his program which will attempt to dismantle liberal democracy. But my hypothesis above is that this was never his intended program – that stuff was a dog whistle for us (and the deplorables, of course). Accepting his “genuine” program – by which I mean protectionist trade, restricting migration, and isolationist geopolitics – as legitimate will serve to show that “the system” works. People can vote for an outsider, who can get elected and then can actually implement (some of) what he promised without it being sabotaged by “the elite”.

Yes it will hurt the US and the world. Brexit will hurt the UK and Europe. But our prime concern now should not be about GDP, it should be about maintaining faith in liberal democracy. Both of these political upheavals should be used to show that “yes, we can bitterly disagree with each other, but remain loyal to our institutions and systems despite not getting our way”.

The evidence that the system can work for the victors should decrease the appetite to dismantle things like the independence of the judiciary, to strengthen the executive, or to bypass parliament. Indeed arguably it is the refusal of some remainers in Britain to accept the result of the referendum which is fuelling the attacks on the liberal institutions of parliament and the judiciary. If the victors feel that the system is still controlled by the elite, they will continue trying to tear it down.

I certainly do not want Brexit to happen, but I recognise that most British MPs should vote for it, given the views of their constituents as reflected in the referendum. So, a genuine liberal would support (or at least gracefully accept) this outcome. Perhaps when the Brexiteers feel more secure in their project – secure that the liberal “system” and institutions are working for them – they will stop their project to tear the joint down.

If this theory is correct, US liberals would do well to learn the lesson: attempting to stymie the populist “revolt” will fuel further attacks on liberal institutions. What is more important: winning a political contest about trade and migration, or protecting our liberal democracies?

To the extent that the populist policies do not attack liberal institutions, we should perhaps gracefully accept defeat. It’s rather counter-intuitive; accepting something that weakens our economies may end up strengthening our political institutions. But we should give it a go, because the alternative risks our institutions, without which there is no economy.

Although I thought Trump would win, I have no idea what happens next. I am hoping “not much”. This is perhaps naïve – everything I read in the media is forecasting a catastrophe. But given the establishment was so wrong about predicting a Trump victory, they could be wrong again about the dire consequences.

It is of course possible that Trump’s rantings about attacks on liberal institutions (and ethnic minorities) will turn into a reality, regardless of the magnanimity of the losers.

In which case liberals will need to stand up and be counted. In fact last count, we were half the population. Attacks on minorities, the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, press freedoms, civil servants, elected officials, are an attack on all of us.

If we stick to that principle, nothing (more) can go wrong.