Donald Trump’s appeal tells us that something is wrong with America and the West
Sunday Mail, December 13th 2015
Only a generation ago, just after the Berlin Wall fell, liberal democratic opinion across the West was confident about the future.
This was the era of the long boom across the West, the Clinton era of ‘Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow’ in the US, and the Blair’s ‘Dreams Can Only Get Better’ in the UK. All of this hubris and hype was brought down to earth by the banker’s crash of 2008, but this was only the start of things going wrong.
Today a very different mood exists across the developed world – one of anxiety, foreboding, fear and nervousness. The top issues in the UK according to Ipsos MORI are immigration at 49%, the NHS on 34% and the economy on 27% with defence, foreign affairs and terrorism on 13%. After a spate of recent terrorist attacks, people are feeling insecure, looking for quick answers, and open to the allure of populist politicians.
It isn’t a surprise that Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Front National won the recent French local elections. Or that UKIP has ongoing appeal and resilience – Scotland and London apart. Across Europe, racist, xenophobic parties have won significant support such as Golden Dawn in Greece. The Hungarian PM Viktor Orban says that we must ‘keep Europe Christian’ in response to the refugee crisis, while the Polish Law and Justice Party government promises an era of authoritarianism and curbing immigration.
The emergence and appeal of Donald Trump has to be seen in this light. This is one of consistent demonisation of the Muslim communities, identity and culture, because of the barbarism of a tiny sect of terrorists who invoke the Koran and declare jihad. It is like holding Christianity responsible for the crimes of the IRA during the Northern Irish ‘troubles’.
Across the West, to differing degrees, non-Muslim populations have become more intolerant of Muslims. Trump has played into, and amplified, all of this. There is widespread confusion and ambiguity in much debate in the US and elsewhere between the ‘Muslim terrorist’, ‘Muslim radicalisation’, ‘illegal immigration’ – and the Eastern European plumber and their family.
The US has special circumstances – 30 years of an increasingly right wing, toxic Republicanism, which began under Ronald Reagan’s homilies, but which now believes a simplified version of his Presidential era. In reality Reagan, like Thatcher, was an arch pragmatist.
If government and public spending is debated as ‘evil’ or the equal of Communism; if Barack Obama is called socialist, Muslim and anti-American, and if cheap solutions (such as shutting down all federal government to force the President’s hand) are peddled, you end up with Donald Trump. This produces a politics of promising to deport 11 million American migrants, build a 1,954 mile wall along the Mexican border, and this week, ban Muslims from entering the US.
Scotland doesn’t have such a political strain, but we are not immune to the charms of populism. Donald Trump was welcomed here by politicians of all the main parties – the Scottish Greens exempted. Along with all the business bodies, they declared, ‘Scotland open for business’, as Trump proposed to bring £1 billion of investment to the North East with his Menie golf course and development; the reality turned out to be closer to £25 million.
Anthony Baxter’s award winning film ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ highlighted the resistance of some of the local residents to Trump, alongside his harassment and intimidation. Worse was the collusion of a whole swathe of public bodies in the North East – from Grampian Police (who arrested Baxter while he was making his film), to the local newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, and Robert Gordon University – who awarded Trump an honorary degree.
Most UK institutions are currently showing their disapproval for his latest remarks – with Robert Gordon rescinding their award, and Nicola Sturgeon revoking his Global Scot ambassadorial role, given by Jack McConnell. But the bigger question is what type of public figures and businesspeople do we think it appropriate to associate with?
Labour, SNP and Tories have all had their array of shady business characters and deals – from Labour and SNP fighting to prove most who could do Rupert Murdoch’s bidding. This week the Tories have lost one party chairman, Grant Shapps, and don’t want to lose another, Lord Feldman, because of his access to City funds and raising a £78 million war chest to fight the recent election.
It is no wonder we feel a long way from the supposed warm glow of the Blair and Clinton era of hope and believing in the future. But in reality, part of the corrosion of liberal values began under their watch: from the rise of corporate power and dodgy business deals, to turning a blind eye on inequality, and the beginning of the war on terror. Donald Trump is a warning of what happens when you lose sight of your values and grounding. He is unlikely to become US President, but his politics could be the future, unless we act now.