Populists, Nationalists and Trump

Men, whites, the uneducated (or poorly educated). Misogynists, racists, xenophobes, homophobes. We already have our labels, our packages, our explanations for “understanding” Trump’s victory, or the ascension of the populist and nationalist movements of the extreme right or left that are at times also anti-traditional politicians, anti-free trade, anti-global, anti-European and anti-all the other categories that we give them. The major problem is that those categories fall short. For example, they fail to explain, in the U.S., the vote of the educated-non-urban-Rust Belt-women, the vote of people of immigrant origin, or the vote of so many people that don’t fall into any of the “anti-” labels mentioned above and who only want the best for their neighbors and themselves, their families and their country.

At times it would seem that one looks down on those who have chosen options that go beyond traditional politics or who propose alternative discourses. Perhaps it is time to listen and begin to enhance our understanding of the phenomena we are experiencing. Complexity, as Edgar Morin tells us, means understanding what is woven together (“COM”—together, “PLEXUS”—woven), that is, on the multiple levels, multiple dimensions, interwoven vectors, that make up our social problems. I don’t intend, of course, to elaborate a treatise on something that, without a doubt, will be discussed and written about in upcoming years, but simply to, starting from what has until today been analyzed in different places, synthesize and support a few ideas by thinking globally and connecting three distinct but intimately related threads.

First, the economic strand. You don’t need to know much to understand that, as the 2008 crisis was affecting the employment and well-being of the middle class in countries like Spain, Italy or Greece, anti-European sentiment was increasing, and with it, the backing of movements that proposed the exit of countries from the European Union. But one must go further since the issue is not just limited to Europe. From youth unemployment in the Arab world—that, along with other factors, ended up producing a wave of demonstrations and riots in 18 countries in the region in 2011—to the disenchantment of workers in states such as Ohio or Michigan, we have faced and continue to face a deep and long-term crisis in the global financial capitalist system. This is a system that has been incapable of including certain sectors struck by the transnational segmentation of production processes—which causes production phases to be transferred from country to country, as is convenient—or affected by technological advances that reduced the need for manual labor (Mead, 2016). This doesn’t explain the totality of the rise of support for populist movements. However, it explains one part, especially if we consider the ability of certain leaders to channel the discontent that economic circumstances generate and to develop a compelling discourse of simple messages and “solutions” in order to resolve this perceived abandonment of certain strata of the population.

Second, the fear and security strand. It is not a coincidence that, given the rise in terrorism in the last few years, Republicans are much more anxious about the possibility of a terrorist attack than Democrats, according to a survey taken this summer. And of all those people who felt most vulnerable were those who said that they would vote for Trump: 96 percent of those voters thought that a terrorist attack was likely to occur sooner or later, compared with 64 percent of those who said they would vote for Clinton (Quinnipac U., 2016). But again, this is much deeper. According to the Global Terrorism Index (2016), one of the most fundamental drivers for the growth of this type of violence is instability in places like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Those three countries are, and by no accident, the first to expel refugees who have tried to reach Europe in recent years. So, adding the pieces together, another aspect of the increased support for nationalist or populist movements relates not only to the rise of feelings of vulnerability at the borders and of individual or family security, but, once again, to discourses rooted in simple messages, which suggest rapid response and little complexity but which are attractive because they attend to this fear and this perception of fragility: “Bomb ISIS to hell,” “Close the borders in the face of risks.” If, in addition to this, we connect these notions with the aforementioned economic theme, we then have a doubly seductive discourse: foreigners not only violate our security, they also steal our jobs; therefore, it is enough only to close the passageway, and both problems are solved in a single blow.

The third strand, the political, is broadly linked to the other two. Traditional political classes lack credibility in all types of countries, either because of the perception that they are corrupt or because they are downright ineffective for solving the problems of our era. Today, politicians only need to convince the electorate that they are candidates who are not part of the establishment or that they are “citizen” candidates—to use the term “citizen” as a way of distinguishing, of separating themselves from the “politician”—free of the vices and evils that characterize typical rulers of all persuasions, in order to automatically gain the bonds of credibility, which, combined with proposals of transparency and economic, social, and/or security effectiveness, have a significant potential for success.

So, more than just labeling or categorizing, looking as usual with disdain at the increasingly broad strata of the population who have chosen to elect alternative options, sometimes extreme and equally from the right and the left, it is worth trying to listen and reflect more deeply on the social frustration, fear, and distrust in our institutions and traditional mechanisms, on the inability of our political and economic systems to provide answers to citizens who today feel vulnerable and abandoned—and perhaps from there, from a higher level of humility, to try to think of more comprehensive and deeper solutions.

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