The Trump Phenomenon, Populism, and the Death of Liberal Certainties

Recent times have certainly provided much needed lessons to those with the eyes to see, in what unfolds once official rhetoric and practical realities are bifurcated into uncomfortable contrasts. The Western world has long been lulled into sleep by the same lullaby of a liberal consensus on certain dogmas that, so we were told, were as settled on firm foundations as they were conducive to a reign of concord and prosperity.

The rhetorical orchestra has always been faithfully summoned to sing from the liberal hymn sheet, the litany of human rights and freedoms. That ,for instance, no matter what trials and circumstances come by, Voltaire’s apocryphal assertion that he’d die to preserve another’s right to speak would always prevail as inspiration in our enlightened discourses over those dark spells of tyranny which occasionally would threaten to manifest. However it appears increasingly to be the case that when the going gets tough, not only do self-professed liberals throw Voltaire under the bus, but prodigiously they labor to concoct rationalizations of censorship.

More recently we’ve seen this come to the surface through the petition, signed by thousands of British residents, that demanded presidential candidate Donald Trump to be physically banned from the UK on account of his remarks, most notably calling for a temporary ban on Muslims traveling to the US. The wisdom or lack thereof of Trump’s policy proposal aside, it’s noteworthy that the petition was popular enough to warrant Parliamentary consideration by British MPs, most of whom ultimately agreed that the measure was foolish, but not without offering the obligatory nods to the thousands who presumably held that silencing opponents with the rulebook is an acceptable way of maintaining public discourse.

Of the people who put their names to the petition, it can be reasonably said that there are two possible interpretations to this move. One, that these people, out of naivety, opt for a ‘tit-for-tat’ in this banning business that is childish, counterproductive, and indeed, undignified of a free society, if only to spite people like Trump, or two, that these people sincerely believe that Trump is physically surrounded by such a miasma of hatred that his very presence on British soil could disrupt public order and harmony to a degree that is unacceptable. Either way, the honest observer would note how opponents of ‘bigotry’ in liberal circles in Britain are very discriminate in the way public condemnation is directed. One has to wonder after all, where was the petition, publicized by mainstream newspapers and social media, to ban Anjem Choudary, the radical Islamist terrorist recruiter who still resides in London, or to ban for that matter the Saudi royals or political figures from all over the world who are known to endorse positions which these British liberals would naturally find problematic.

Instead we see public ridicule, mockery, and abuse, from members of the public and MPs alike, to coalesce around the figure of Donald Trump, as indeed was the case with his slightly less impressive British equivalent, Nigel Farage. It should be noted that I in no way would endorse a petition to ban anyone purely on the basis of his opinions, whether it be Choudary or Trump, nor do I raise these names to indicate my support for specific proposals of theirs. My observation is simply that what liberals continually fail to understand is that the currency which the ideas of the likes of Trump enjoys, as a manifestation of a peculiar kind of populism of courageously ‘tough-talking’ mavericks going against the grain, is precisely an ideological fire that is stoked rather than put out by measures devised to silence and denigrate- as opposed to address and debate. It should be noted that it would be erroneous as well to see the radical ideas in circulation as oddities; while many people have focused on Trump as somehow uniquely devious (which is ironic, given by comparison to others he’s rather an affable figure), not many after all have said much about the fact that other Republican candidates like Jeb Bush have for example suggested their intention to bomb Iran (something that could conceivably herald WWIII).

Ordinary people are not given enough credit by the political and media establishment, and they can notice when official rhetoric and reality don’t coincide, even if more often than not their apprehension of the problem and prescribed solution might prove to be simplistic, monochrome and/or simply foolish.

The rise of demagoguery, I believe, can in a way serve as a purifier of public discourse, which can cleanse the political process of the well-rehearsed theatrics and pre-packaged narratives that career politicians too often fall back on, until a moment of crisis emerges that requires radical reevaluation. This can be said to be the case regardless of ideological persuasion, as is illustrated perfectly by the fact that the Trump phenomenon exists concurrently with the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left side of the political spectrum in America, and in the UK perhaps the same could be said of the unlikely election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Demagogues and the populist movements they endeavor to harness don’t necessarily point towards the right solutions, but they do reveal the underlying problems which mainstream political narratives simply fail to address. Donald Trump, and indeed the far-right in Europe, owes their appeal to the simple reason that there is a burgeoning constituency of people who see a problem with the consistent denialism concerning the merits of a multiculturalism that sees mass immigration from countries with vastly dissimilar cultures as thoroughly unproblematic and even a positive good. Similarly, Bernie Sanders and the left in Europe, like Corbyn’s Labour socialists or Spain’s Podemos, cater to those who in growing numbers realize the structural inequalities of late modern capitalism and its associated evils of displacement destabilization of nation-states and corrupt financial practices.

The US protagonists I refer to however, significantly point to an even more pernicious problem, which is the way in which the political machinery behind campaigns is driven by special interests groups, in such a way that candidates for all intents and purposes are “bought” by the highest bidders. This can’t be ignored as a crucial factor behind Trump’s and Sanders’ appeal, after all, Trump is self-funded by virtue of being a billionaire whose name is a well-known brand- while Sanders relies entirely on grassroots organizing with little or no corporate backing; both have successfully dodged the super PAC system in America, much to their credit.

For a considerable amount of time, the liberal hymn sheet from where mainstream politics found its familiar refrains, spoke not only of freedoms and rights, but similarly, of the merits of free markets and the free movement of people- the latter of course, which made no distinction on what kind of movements would undermine or bolster existing social cohesion. These refrains were always in one way or another sung with a sentimentality that eschewed a calm and objective analysis of potential drawbacks that would make themselves felt sooner or later.

Certainly we’ve seen this for example with the humanitarian crisis regarding refugees, where making distinctions between Syrians fleeing from war and annihilation and North Africans and other Arabs who were really just economic migrants was a social faux pas, and certain to draw the toxic accusation of xenophobia. Perhaps similarly, on the left, to raise the obvious observation that income inequality in the 21st century is a problem, and one that is growing in size and dimension, to say for instance that its demonstrable that the people who caused the 2008 crisis not only were not sufficiently held responsible but came out of it better than before, is regarded as heresy in mainstream circles, and often welcomes ridicule and stale accusations of “Marxism”.

The variety of populism that is whipped up by people like Trump emerges out of very tangible worries, ones that can be very easily instrumentalized by anybody who enters the fray with anything resembling a solution, as long as it appears that they’re acknowledging something ignored by elites. Sometimes the sheer veneer of a solution is enough, Donald Trump’s whole campaign for instance has catapulted him to double digit poll figures that put establishment Republicans to shame, despite the fact his platform is rather nebulous to say the least, and that the main proposal he’s trying to peddle to the American people is himself.
In any case, the marriage of populism and radical figures that have emerged is only possible in the backdrop of the funeral of liberal certainties; these are but the necessary filling of the glaring gaps between official rhetoric and reality that characterize the political landscape of 2016.Facebooktwitter

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