Fintan O’Toole: Progressives must be the first to call out treachery
After Trump and the Brexiteers betray their voters, who will channel the anger?
Theresa May and Donald Trump: “Using the Conservative and Republican parties as vehicles for revolutionary social protest is putting diesel in a petrol car: it will go for a while, but breakdown is inevitable.” Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The fate of progressive democracy over the next few years may be determined by the struggle to control a single word: betrayal.
We can be certain that the people who voted for Brexit and Donald Trump will be betrayed. The great uncertainty is who gets to define that treachery. The answer will determine whether the current crisis comes to be a seen as a warning that produced a healthy response – or as a prelude to a far deeper shift away from democratic values.
Brexit and Trump’s victory are complex phenomena. But there is considerable truth to the idea that both were driven by the anger of people who feel left behind by economic globalisation. Theresa May’s JAMs (people who are “just about managing”) and Trump’s “forgotten men and women” do actually exist.
They are not necessarily the people at the bottom of the pile – they are those who have something but are terrified of losing it. They have images in their heads of a former world (part real, part imagined) in which there were enough good, unionised industrial jobs to keep their communities thriving and enough access to education to make it possible for their kids to have better prospects.
Brexit and Trump gave these people opportunities to signal their distress in the most dramatic ways, by kicking political elites who seemed not to care about their lives.
This revenge has its immediate satisfactions. But after a good kicking has been delivered, what are these people left with? A phoney populism, an anti-elitist cover worn by elites who are “of the people” in the way a sad oul’ lad’s comb over is on his head. Using the Conservative and Republican parties as vehicles for revolutionary social protest is putting diesel in a petrol car: it will go for a while, but breakdown is inevitable.
Neither of these parties has the slightest intention of seriously tackling the economic inequality at the root of the anger they have exploited – they exist primarily to do the opposite. And it has therefore always been a certainty that they will sell out their core supporters, that the forgotten men and women will be forgotten.
It was, admittedly, harder to predict just how fast and total Trump’s betrayal of his own fans would be. The health care “reform” he is championing is quite breathtaking in its assault on his own base. If it were actually designed by a vengeful God to punish those people marked for destruction by their red trucker caps, it would look exactly as it does. It devastates older, poorer, unhealthier people in rural areas – precisely the most enthusiastic Trump voters. And it benefits younger, healthier, better-off people in cities – most of whom voted for Hillary Clinton.
If this is populist, tattoo a gorilla on my chest and call me Conor McGregor. The truth, of course, is that the Trump administration’s policies of transferring unprecedented amounts of money and power from the poor to the ultra-rich are so elitist they make Downton Abbey look like Shameless.
Exactly how Brexit will play out is less obvious for now. But there is little doubt that, when the dust settles, many of the JAMs will not be managing at all. Economic insecurity and inequality will rise still further. The nonpartisan Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons real median incomes will not grow at all in the next two years. Average real incomes (after housing costs) for the poorest 15 per cent are actually set to fall. Income inequality will rise as Brexit-fuelled inflation erodes the value of benefits for the poorest people.
For all Theresa May’s rhetoric, there is no evidence at all that the Tories will do anything much to improve the economic lot of the disgruntled outsiders – and there is every chance that Brexit will change it for the worse.
So, in the next few years there will be a rain of metal as all the pennies start to drop. People may have been stupefied, but they are not stupid. They will see that they have been lied to and taken for fools. Hence the crucial question: Who manages to give that sense of betrayal “a local habitation and a name”? Who does the best job of explaining why people have been sold out and what they can do about it?
Stab in the back
Going by history, you’d have to give a pessimistic answer – authoritarian nationalist movements are much better than progressive democrats at wielding treachery as a weapon against their enemies. The “stab in the back” has been a central motif of Nazism, Stalinism and all the most virulent forms of reactionary nationalism.
And precisely because progressives know this history, they have a proper distaste for cries of treachery. They don’t like handling this most radioactive of political materials. They are too decent to set up this dangerous cry.
They will have to overcome their distaste very fast. There really is a great betrayal going on, and the far right has readymade traitors to blame for the inevitable failure of phoney populism. Progressives need to get in first, talk to those who are being betrayed, and put the blame where it really lies.