US: rise of populism 07-Dec-16 56

First Brexit, the referendum in Britain to leave the European Union, and now Donald Trump’s election as the US president, show how far populism has come to in developed (for want of a better word) western societies. It is the world that prided itself on ‘enlightenment’ — the triumph of reason over ignorance and prejudice — even though it also coincided with European colonialism and much worse. This too had perversely become, in the eyes of many, a part of the enlightenment’ process, whereby the rest of the world was ‘civilised’. And even when colonialism had ended — with or without the civilising mission — it took a new and different form. And this was because the old colonialism that ruled over distant people and lands was not profitable and feasible any longer for a number of reasons; chief amongst them being the weariness and destruction wrought by the WW-II.

Precisely because of this, there was a need to create a new international order where the old colonial powers, led by a new imperial centre, the US, could continue to exercise their dominance economically, politically and militarily. But the challenge to this dominance came in the form of the Cold War that pitted the west against the Soviet Union, which the US and its allies had portrayed as a struggle between good and evil; the ‘free world’ and ‘iron curtain’. The ‘free world’ was built on democracy and ‘free’ trade, an ideal global society with the free movement of capital but a restricted movement of labour to maintain and enrich western countries.

However, the stupendous task of reconstruction after WW11 required an import of labour, whose short supply in these countries had led to a regulated immigration. It served two purposes. Firstly, it filled acute labour shortages. And, at the same time, it also kept a lid on the excessive wage growth. This was largely fine with the first generation of imported labour as they kept their heads down and worked hard to enrich their new societies. In the process, they did not make any extravagant demands and generally lived in their ghettoes. But, all this started to change in second and third generations, particularly in Europe, as they were much more conscious of discrimination in all aspects of life. Even as this was happening, the al Qaeda-inspired 9/11 terrorist bombing in the US added a new and much more dangerous dimension to a growing crisis in western societies, where its immigrant population was starting to loom large and was seen as threatening its privileged white population.

About the same time, the so-called ‘free trade’ wasn’t entirely working to the advantage of advanced industrial economies. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization had enabled it to flood the world with cheaper goods, particularly to the US in the early stages, growing trade balances in China’s favour. It was a boon for consumers in western countries, but had also led to the deindustrialization of vast swathes of regions in the US with the shifting of industrial production; increasing the number of the US corporations in China to partake in the reduction of the production costs, and exporting them back to the home country. In the process, all sorts of dodgy tax evasion practices became the hallmark of these companies, thus depriving the US of much-needed tax receipts even as it accumulated a huge debt by way of trade surpluses in favour of China.

It affected the poorer and middle classes in two ways. First, with de-industrialisation, unemployment had increased. Even where workers were able to hold their jobs, their incomes were largely stagnant. The unemployment, indeed, was even worse, going by under-employment and because many people had stopped looking for work when there was not much work available anyway. Combined with the global financial crisis — when banks, insurance companies and others responsible for bringing the financial system into virtual ruin were not only rescued but even prospered at the cost of the taxpayers — there was an overwhelming sense of despair among many people.

It seemed like two parallel universes seemed to exist in the US, one where the rich and the powerful ruled and prospered and felt virtuous and the other where the rest were regarded as whiners and contemptible. The presidential candidate in 2012 US election, Mitt Romney, as well as Hillary Clinton during her 2016 candidacy campaign, aptly described this divide in their own self-virtuous way. Romney had patronisingly said that 47 per cent of the people in the US had come to depend on welfare while not paying any taxes. And Clinton talked of Donald Trump’s supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’, which did not go well with many Americans; not necessarily supporters of Trump. In other words, many aggrieved voters with varying degree of grievances, chief amongst them being the economic insecurity for which they blamed anyone and everyone, found in Trump an aggregator and articulator of their anxious state of mind.

In her profile of a small West Virginia Logan County, which once used to solidly vote Democratic and now turned to Trump, New Yorker reporter Larissa MacFarquhar interviewed a local history professor, Brandon Kirk, who in his defence of Trump gives an interesting insight into the sort of people, across the board, falling for populism. As MacFarquhar reports, like everyone in West Virginia, Kirk is distressed by the poverty he sees around him and thinks that Trump’s protectionism by slapping high tariffs on exports from China, Mexico and elsewhere is worth trying. Kirk also likes building a big wall to seal off the immigration route from Mexico.

His reasoning is multi-pronged. MacFarquhar quotes him at length to give a sense of what has motivated so many people to vote for Trump. According to Kirk, despite the craziness of the idea of building a wall, “You’ve got to have something big you build… there is a grandness to it. And I think it could do a lot of good. I think it would deter illegal immigration. I think it surely would help with the illegal drug trade… I think a wall would help with control…”

And he is worried about the direction the country is taking. He adds, “For me as a historian, it is the heritage. I like borders, whether it is a country or a locality. You’re open to diversity, you welcome people, but you don’t want to give up everything you are. And that can happen. History teaches that mass migrations of people, they caused great stress for the Roman Empire, maybe caused it to collapse.” Here we have it: a profound sense of disquiet and despair among many Americans that unless something big is done to retake charge of the country, its people might lose everything they prize, and Trump is the guy who is promising to make “America Great Again.”

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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