Donald Trump’s victory is a Revolt against Globalism

The vote for Donald Trump signals that the working classes are clamouring to reclaim their identities and eschew the displacement created by globalization
Marc Saxer Delhi

Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States. Not many saw this coming. Which is odd, given the wave of middle and working class anger raging against ‘globalism’ around the world for a decade. Some thoughts on the elections in the post-liberal age.  

This election was a ‘rustbelt’ race. Trump’s bet on the old manufacturing centers in the Midwest paid-off handsomely. As in the United Kingdom, this election marks the beginning of a new era for the United States: from now on, the losers of globalisation are in the majority. And this majority seeks a #strongman who can fix a world which seems to have gone completely off the rails.

Whoever believes that this demographic’s rage is only fuelled by irrational fears and age-old resentment still hasn’t quite understood what happened on November 8. Yes, globalisation has made the lives of millions around the world better. But the redundant workers in the old manufacturing industries as well as the McJobbers of the new service industries are not amongst them. If you don’t believe this have a look at Milanovic’s famous elephant curve. The middle and working classes in all Western countries lost out when it came to status, prosperity and social security. And it is this new alliance between angry blue-collar workers and white-collar employees who have voted Trump into office.  

This new majority is dismissed as right-wing nutcases because they voice their frustrations with racist, sexist, anti-semitic and violent vitriol. To add insult to injury, the losers of globalisation are accused of lacking morality. Accordingly, neoliberals put the blame for their misery not only on their personal failure, but believe that these communities deserve to be marginalised. Like the Brexiters, the Trumpists wanted to send a signal to the political, economic, media and academic elites: “We are the majority, and we are sick of this!“. Or, it is as if the middle and working classes point a gun to their heads and threaten to pull the trigger unless their grievances are recognised. And make no mistake: simply because these grievances are articulated in cultural terms does not mean they have no socio-economic roots.

This race was for Hillary to lose and she lost it.  Please note that depending on the final count, Trump’s total votes are roughly in the same ballpark as Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008. Clinton did win the popular vote, but Democrat turn-out collapsed compared to Obama’s numbers.  How could the mighty Clinton machine lose against an entirely unqualified racist, sexist and populist?

There seems to be a larger trend at play. US Democrats are reliving the trauma of the Dixie exodus, when they lost the South for a generation. Today, the exodus of the white working class reflects a trend which reshapes the electoral landscapes in all Western countries. Like no other, the name Clinton stands for the third way which has alienated centre-left parties from their historical roots. How far this alienation has progressed could be witnessed when in the midst of an anti-establishment storm, the party leadership rammed through a Wall Street endorsed establishment figure against a progressive challenger. What failed in this election is not only Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the third way social democratic model.

This fear and anger of the new majority will surely give a boost to right-wing populists in Europe and all over the world. Wherever elections can be framed as protest votes against ‘The Establishment’, we need to hold our breath. This spells trouble for the upcoming Presidential elections in Austria and France.

Governments, no matter what their political colour, have no choice but to react to this anti-globalist mood. The question, therefore, is not if the pendulum will swing towards protectionism, but only how far it will swing. The liberal world order with the free exchange of goods, services, capital and people thus comes under pressure. The main victims will undoubtedly be the people in emerging economies who are dependent on open export markets to continue their race to development.  

This rebellion against globalism may give us a taste of what is coming once digital automations starts to eliminate middle class jobs. Again, it will not matter if the net sum of employment created by the digital revolution is positive. Just as in the case of trade, what matters is the perception of who wins or loses.  

Hence it is high time for social democrat parties and progressive movements to learn from their strategic plunders over recent decades, and start a strategy debate over the question how to shape digital capitalism. This means first to stop demonizing the “Deplorables” and start to take their grievances beyond the racist hyperbole seriously. This means further that the Left must stop to lend itself as the repair shop of capitalism, and show pathways to the good life in the digital age. Not only must capital contribute its fair share to the public good. In the long run, it will be necessary to put a price on the currency of the knowledge society: information.

Finally, it means a new narrative is needed which combines security with a pioneering spirit.  Only if we succeed in reassuring those who fear for their material and cultural status, will they find the courage to embrace the digital revolution. This cannot work without beefed-up material social security. Redistribution alone, however, is not enough to bring back to the flock those who mourn the lack of cultural recognition. What is needed is a progressive identity which can provide an anchor in the vertigo of change. The old labour movement had a tightly woven network of community-based organisations which created its very own world, offering a strong identity. Today, progressives embrace minority identities, but seem oddly put off by the need to offer a progressive identity narrative for the majority population. We need new mechanisms of recognition for those who provide good services to the community. And we need the promise of a good society which offers more than the mere administration of past achievements.