“I grabbed America by the p***y, and she said yes.”
I just invented that Trumpism, yet it sums up the crudity, misogyny and contempt for civic values and political correctness that has propelled Donald Trump into the White House.
In two years of campaigning for the primaries and the presidential election, Trump exposed himself as a boor, groping womaniser, serial liar, Muslim hater, Hispanic hater, tax escapist, and constant shifter of policy positions.
Yet he won because voters were sick and tired of the status quo that had left them mired in stagnant wages and fears of robotisation, job offshoring and ethnic marginalisation. Trump has ridden the wave of what is called the alt-right (or alternative right), representing a frightening ultra-nationalism based on race and religion, bereft of the usual civilities of a graceful democracy. This echoes similar trends in Europe.
Opinion polls show that Americans and Europeans fear they will be worse off in future than the past. This has driven voters from the political centre to both the left (Sanders, Corbyn) and right (Trump, Farage, Le Pen).
This revulsion against the status quo has drowned out the usual norms of civility, family values and respect for minorities and women. After his boast caught on video about grabbing women by the genitals, opinion polls suggested that barely 20% of US women would vote for Trump. In fact 42% did, and that clinched his victory.
This is not a Marxist uprising of the bottom 99% against the top 1%. Trump is among the richest men ever elected, and has promised to slash tax rates. But he represents contempt for the values, policies and political correctness of the status quo.
He has led an uprising of the poorly educated white masses that used to be called rednecks or white trash. His victory marks the end of the civic values that became the dominant ideology with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Once, a small liberal intelligentsia could lead the masses because it delivered brilliantly in economic terms for three decades after World War II.
Wage stagnation started in the 1970s and led to fears of being overtaken by Japan in the 1980s, but these fears ended when Japan fell into an economic rut. US wages rose in Bill Clinton’s boom years. They stagnated again in the 2000s, but that was shrugged off because an unprecedented lending boom enabled households to go on a spending spree despite stagnant wages. That bubble burst in 2008, and the damage is still widespread.
The US economy has picked up and unemployment is down, but people are resentful of the lack of the good jobs of old, fearful of the future, and utterly distrustful of the liberal economics and politics that delivered for decades but seem to deliver no more. When things go wrong, blaming the foreigner is an easy psychological escape route. So we are witnessing a widespread backlash against liberal economics and globalisation.
We are now in a “post-truth” era, where experts and fact checkers are no longer trusted, and gut feelings are more important than facts. The vitriolfilled social media have create closed opinion loops that eliminate rival views and promote crude fundamentalism of every kind. The alt-right has a messianic certitude that is intolerant and uncivil.
The end of Western military dominance and serial failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya have deepened the Western sense of lost status. The relentless rise of Jihadi Islam and repeated Western inability to control this hydra-headed monster have stoked primordial ethno-religious fears. Brexit and the Trump victory were driven by similar forces. These could yet bring Le Pen to power in France.
The West faces a civilizational crisis, no less. Will Trump or Le Pen be able to deliver where centrists have failed? Almost certainly not. Problems caused by new technology and the rise of highly competitive Asian economies cannot be solved by protectionism, border walls or ethnofundamentalism.
Difficult days lie ahead.