Will Angry Politics and Bitter Voters Floor the US?

The World Today, October/November 2016 | Go to article overview

Will Angry Politics and Bitter Voters Floor the US?


Daniel T Rodgers charts the rise of the angry right and an anti-politics politician

In a US election season filled with the bizarre and unexpected, a particularly striking event was the appearance of Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, before a cheering Donald Trump crowd in Jackson, Mississippi.

No US presidential candidate since 1945 has been more dismissive of foreign alliances than Donald Trump. None has insisted so strongly that America must go it alone in a world of feckless friends and existential terror threats. But here, in a city that had been an epicentre of the Ku Klux Klan movement in the 1960s, Donald Trump looked on benignly as Nigel Farage relished in the parallels between Trump's candidacy and his own Brexit campaign, all in language appropriated from the 'Yes we can' rhetoric of Barack Obama, a man they both profess to despise.

Borrowing political support from abroad is not new in US politics. In the first part of the 20th century, exchange of political endorsements across national lines was common particularly on the left, where progressives and socialists saw themselves as part of an international movement of ideas and solidarities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, neo-liberal conservatives heralded the forward march of deregulated markets from Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's United States to Pinochet's Chile. Since the turn of the current century, a new kind of conservatism - nationalist, anti-foreign, fearful, and deeply aggrieved - has risen internationally.

Fuelled by the economic displacements of financial globalization, this new conservatism has channelled its resentments down three main paths of least resistance: a generalized anger at the international bureaucrats and corporations who are blamed for the destruction of jobs and the restructuring of wealth; a pointed critique of open trade and border agreements; and, most virulently, a resurgent xenophobia and racist-tinged cultural nationalism with refugees and immigrant workers as its most vulnerable targets.

None of these phenomena is new to US political history. Protectionist economic policies run as deep in United States economic history as do free trade convictions. Anti-immigrant sentiments like those on display at Donald Trump's rallies flared even more intensely in the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic politics of the 1850s, the vicious anti-Asian vigilante movements and exclusion policies of the late 19th century, and the massive anti-foreign hysteria triggered by the First World War. But never has this kind of economic and cultural nationalism in the United States coincided with as strong an international tide of right-wing nationalist movements as now. From the Brexit forces in the UK, to Nicolas Sarkozy's resurgence on the French political scene, to the Alternative for Germany voters and beyond, cultural nationalism is on the rise.

As distinctive as Donald Trump's idiosyncrasies may seem to the world beyond the United States, he did not invent the cultural-political movement on whose tides he now rides. They are a transnational undertow of the past decades' restructuring of the global economy.

Other forces have shaped the current American political moment as well, some of them more distinctive to the US. Throughout most of the 19th century, politics in the United States was fiercely partisan, driven by regionally, religiously and ethnically entrenched political loyalties. It was the work of progressive reformers in the early 20th century to begin to pry governance away from the political bosses through the open primaries and legislative referendums they hoped would bring the forces of society more closely to bear on the dynamics of politics.

A gift for self-promotion

With Donald Trump's candidacy, however, a figure has emerged who would have been a nightmare to those whose reforms made his political candidacy possible: a serious candidate for the presidency without any experience at all in public affairs or public office. …

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