Inequality isn't the only explanation for the victory of Trump and for Brexit. Identity and a rejection of outsiders also help to explain what has happened.
"Inequality," "globalization," "the left behind." Not a day passes without the repetition of these phrases, without us being told that these are the sources of the populist current behind Brexit in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump's rise to the presidency in the United States, and factors which could result in success for Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in the upcoming general elections in the Netherlands and France.
It is not a convincing argument. Yes, the economy will always play its part in any election, but it is not the main driving force behind the political phenomenon that will define this era in the West. This isn't a question of a classic class war between rich and poor. Instead, we are playing witness to the evolution of a new meaning of the concept of division—one defined not by wealth but by values and by two opposing concepts, the resolution of which ought to be the moral priority in our society.
Eric Kaufmann, a Canadian professor of politics at Birkbeck College in England, is currently writing a book on the topic. "What we are seeing," he says, "is a growing polarization of values in Western societies. So while the political divide used to be about Left vs Right, economic redistribution and the free market, the new emerging polarization is what you may call culturally open vs closed, or cosmopolitan vs nationalist."
Kaufmann has based his work on a detailed study conducted by his university on the priorities of the electorate in the U.S. election in November. The most important conclusion was that immigration was a topic of much greater concern for Trump followers than inequality, an issue about which they felt all but indifferently. This helps to explain their devotion to a business magnate who has made no attempt to hide his vast riches.
It also serves to explain why the wall wasn't merely a message that resonated most on the campaign trail, but also a metaphor for a rejection of immigration and cosmopolitanism in general on behalf of his American followers and their European counterparts. The new class war is not between those who have and have not prospered economically, but rather between those who have an open vision of the world and those who wish to seek refuge in their old tribes; between those who comfortably navigate the waters of modernity and those who want to turn the ship around and return to the safe port of the past.
It is for this reason that the other message that made its mark on Trump voters, much more than any reflection on his fiscal plans, was “Make America Great Again.” It is a slogan that appeals to the nationalist sentiment of those who yearn for a golden age in which the racial integrity of their tribe hadn't been contaminated by the arrival of people from far-flung cultures.
This “golden age” provokes memories of the 1950s in the collective imagination. Figures show that at the end of that decade, 90 percent of Americans were white; today that figure stands at 63 percent. America was great, so goes the Trump narrative, before the cultural revolution that sparked the downfall of the old order in the 1970s. It is no coincidence that Geert Wilders, the Dutch populist and favorite to win this month’s elections, has chosen as his main electoral slogan “Make The Netherlands Great Again.”
Wilders, Le Pen and Nigel Farage, the spiritual leader of Brexit, are admirers of Trump, as they are of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines and serial killer, and Vladmir Putin; but that is a story for another time. They all insist that those who sympathize with them are the “real people”—Le Pen’s electoral slogan is “In the Name of the People”—all others are heretics or traitors who live on the other side of the wall, do not yearn for the past and feel at ease living in a world without borders.
I fall on the same side as, I suspect, many who read publications such as The New York Times and Le Monde. Regardless of wealth, we belong, whether we like the phrase or not, to the so-called “cosmopolitan elite,” typically represented by those who live in big cities whose values and customs clash with the more rural and conservative sections of society who surrender themselves to the siren calls of right wing populists.
Let us make a list of some of the values that seem favorable, and even admirable, in some cases, to those like me, but dubious, ridiculous or, even abhorrent to those in the Trump axis.
In first place is “internationalism,” a word covering immigration, the welcoming of refugees, the European Union and foreign cultures in general. To this we can add, with a greater or lesser degree of emphasis depending on the individual, human rights, intellectuals, feminism, homosexuality and the protection of the environment.
It comes as no surprise that a recent study by the Financial Times shows that those voting for Wilders tended to have ended their education earlier than those voting against him. Let us not forget Trump’s claim on the campaign trail that he “loves the uneducated,” nor the claim of those who backed Brexit that “we’re fed up with experts.”
Toppling the wall that separates us will be difficult. If the problem were merely economic, sooner or later the facts would overcome false promises. However, given that this is a battle over values, we do not find ourselves on the terrain of reason but on that of beliefs. Trump, Le Pen and Wilders are seen by their followers as redeemers. Brexit represents a return to the glory days of the empire. Religious thinking is being mixed with political, the secret to the success of the communist gospel for a large part of the 20th century. Populism is now the new religion in rich Western countries and only time will tell if it takes longer than communism to fade from the hearts of its faithful followers.