Fear. There is no other word to describe how progressives around the world are feeling in the face of the political earthquake that has struck the most powerful democracy in the world. This earthquake has allowed a brutal candidate with insane, sexist, racist and authoritarian ideas, who preaches hard line nationalism, insults his opponents, despises women and turns minorities into scapegoats for the country’s problems, who wants to close off America’s borders, and who has shattered the limits of decency and reason, to win an election that he entered as a complete political outsider.
An entire chapter of American history has been denied today, that of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Obama, that of a country of immigration, openness, civil rights and tolerance. The Clinton era too, as both of Bill’s terms are remembered as a sort of Golden Age, albeit too closely-linked to the establishment of the East Coast.
We have to go far back in the history of the country to find a wave like this one; back to the racist candidates of the Deep South, to Charles Lindberg and his reactionary campaigns in the 1930s, or even to the grim saga of Joseph McCarthy. Some might mention Ronald Reagan, who also sounded the death knell of the Democrats. But that was a conservative revolution – liberal in the French sense of the term – that did not challenge the American traditions of immigration and openness to the world. The election of Trump marks the beginning of a very different story.
First and foremost, this is a white revolution. Trump’s victory is the result of the mass mobilization, which has been partly invisible, of white America against the risk of downward social mobility, against minorities, immigration and cultural mixing, and against the push for equality by African-Americans and Latinos. However, Trump’s result gives us reason to believe that he was able to recruit some supporters among recent immigrants, who are fascinated by the American myth of individual success.
Secondly, this is a middle-class revolution. Reagan’s policy of trickle-down wealth, from the top to the bottom of society, only benefited the richest. Blue collar workers, traders in small towns, employees of large firms or indebted farmers in rural areas have seen their purchasing power stagnate for thirty years and their position threatened by the insecurity that a system based on competition and relentless opening causes for the most fragile. Rather than blaming a market system that has no brakes, this America has, in a way that is typical of times of crisis, accused outsiders.
It is a revolution against the elite, not just the wealthy financial elite, but also the cultural, political and media elite, whose culture of openness, diversity, arrogance and hedonism, which is based on affluence, ended up disgusting “hard-working Americans.” “Main Street” rebelled against “Wall Street,” but also against Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Californian irenics. We will still hear talk of “populism,” a disastrous term that excludes the bulk of the electorate from a system that is, above all, contemptuous. During the campaign, a Trump voter gave a pithy response to this accusation: “Populism is great. It means that we are looking out for the people and not for the elite.”*
Finally, this is a nationalist revolution. A certain faction of the left tends to underestimate this factor, which has nevertheless been decisive, in favor of social and economic matters. However, the wave that is sweeping the United States hit Europe first, through Brexit in Great Britain, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Pegida in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Northern League in Italy, Scandinavian xenophobes, and the National Front, whose specter will now dominate the French election campaign like a vague but ever present threat. Everywhere this happens, the reaction of identity politics against globalization, against immigration, against the opening of borders and culture, has the same effect: it favors non-mainstream parties and feeds the demagoguery of those who want to close the borders.
For progressives, this is a hard lesson. They have failed to find the right social and economic solutions to reassure the middle and working classes. They have not been able to respond to this identity revolt that has brought democracy into the dark times of triumphant nationalism. Liberalism without rules has messed up society. But the policies of the left have not alleviated the anxiety that fuels the nationalist revolution. The soul searching will now begin – and it must be fast and effective: the American example has broken down new barriers. Time is of the essence.
*Editor’s Note: The original quotation, while accurately translated, could not be verified.