With a Bound, He was Free?
Donald Trump and the Nature of Victory
by Sean Gabb
(13th April 2017)
Since I am pushing myself into a debate between foreigners, I must begin by explaining myself. I am not an American, and do not wish to be one. I do not live in America, and do not wish to live there. The only country I love and know well is England. This being said, I have an obvious right of audience in the debate on Donald Trump. England and America share a language. Any impartial observer looking at the two countries will see two ruling classes, almost joined at the hip, facing two subject peoples whose assumptions about the good life and how it may be promoted largely overlap. If the relationship is unbalanced by an inequality of size and wealth, what happens in either country has an inescapable effect on what happens in the other. Rules of politeness that hold me from commenting on affairs in France or Germany do not apply to America. Here, then, are my thoughts on what has happened in America during the past week.
I am disturbed my Mr Trump’s apparent breaking of his election promises. He promised no more interventions in the Middle East. He has attacked Government forces in Syria, and on grounds that seem dubious in themselves. He promised better relations with Russia. These relations now seem lower than they were when Mr Obama was the American President. He denounced NATO as “obsolete.” He is now happy with NATO. American healthcare is not my proper concern. But it is worth observing, in the light of his foreign policy, that he seemed to promise his working class supporters a system less dominated by entrenched special interests. It is a mercy, I am told by friends whose judgement I trust, that his only attempt at reform was frustrated.
It may be that he has no intention of keeping his promises. Perhaps he never had any intention of keeping them. Perhaps he has seen the scale of resistance to what he promised, and has given up. Or it may be that he is playing some clever game, and will, once more, come out unexpectedly triumphant. I think it will take a year to know the truth beyond reasonable doubt. For the moment, however, I will assume the former possibility. I first voted in a general election in 1979, and paid close attention, over the next decade, to a woman who, in breach of every actual or implied promise, made my country more regulated, more heavily taxed, more diverse, more subservient to foreign interests, and generally more enslaved than she found it. Ronald Reagan followed roughly the same course. It strikes me as more likely than not that Mr Trump is now doing the same.
If so, this would be a disappointment. But it is no cause for despair. 2017 is not the early 1980s. The differences go far beyond changes of fashion and an updating of lies. They are roughly as follows:
First, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan took up the rhetoric of market liberalism. Many of us looked at the chapter headings, and assumed the promise was of radical deregulation and a general penumbra of changes that seemed to follow from this. We ignored the main text, or the alternative meanings that could be placed on words. I realised what was happening earlier than most. Even I took till after the 1983 general election to understand that the real agenda was one of corporatism and the beginnings of a police state. It took me longer still to see that this would be a politically correct police state.
The rhetoric that Donald Trump took up in his campaign was of populism – and a populism that took account of all that had been done to his country since about 1980 or before. There is no unread text in the promises he made. His words have no alternative meanings. He promised an end to foreign intervention, and an end to political correctness, and an end to domination by special interests. After a very short time – and, I grant again, that this short time may not yet be over – broken promises stand out as plainly as a wrong answer in arithmetic.
Second, in the 1980s, we faced a narrative constructed and maintained from the centre. There was a centralised media that allowed only certain issues to be discussed, and that ensured they were discussed only in certain ways. This is not to say that control of the media was monolithic. Debates were lively, and even acrimonious. But important facts were often withheld, and the public was encouraged to look at those facts that were published through various kinds of partisan lens that kept the truth from being perceived. Of equal and associated importance, the media in those days were organised to broadcast from the centre to the periphery. They did little to enable a conversation between the centre and the periphery, and conversations within the periphery were localised and compartmentalised. What has happened since then is too obvious to need describing. When Mr Trump ordered those missiles to be launched, Facebook and Twitter and the blogs began an unmanaged and unmanageable debate in which ordinary people could discuss in public whether and to what extent they had been lied to.
Third, and following from the above, Mr Trump’s supporters have the advantage of hindsight. I will boast again that I rumbled Mrs Thatcher earlier than most. Even so, it took years for it to dawn on me fully that she was fronting an elaborate fraud – or, at least, a mistake. Here, I speak from English experience, though I believe it was much the same in America. The Enemy she and her friends pointed us toward was a coalition of pro-Soviet union leaders and alleged degenerates. The remedy involved vast military spending, and an attack on the working class, and things like the prepublication censorship of video recordings. The actual enemy was a coalition of university graduates who wore suits, had at best a lingering taste for Marxism-Leninism, were not hostile to certain kinds of corporate enterprise, were out of love with the social liberalism of the 1960s, and whose own agenda can be summarised as political correctness plus the constable. Whether or not they noticed these people until it was too late, the Thatcherites did nothing to stop them, and tended to promote them. The rest of us were encouraged to laugh now and again at their linguistic tricks – and then go back to fretting over Arthur Scargill’s plan to make England into a copy of East Germany.
Nowadays, we know exactly who the Enemy is. These people run education and the media, and criminal justice and the administration, and most of big business. If they are not perfectly united, they stand together in a project to make the rest of us into denatured tax serf-consumers. Just because some of them work in the formally private sector does not make them into friends of private enterprise. Just because some of them want to make pornography illegal does not make them into social conservatives.
Fourth, and again following from the above, the Enemy is getting old. When I was a student, these people were in their thirties or my own age. They had a messianic belief in their own self-righteousness, and considerable networking abilities. Most of us, on the other hand, were old farts, pining for the 1950s, or semi-autistic libertarians, prepared to shun each other for taking a wrong view of the non-aggression principle. Those who were neither were chancers or shills. Hardly surprising if we were shoved aside or simply ignored.
The Enemy is now old and discredited. The successor generation is stuffed with mediocrities. The new generation of dissidents is young and not particularly bound by considerations of ideological purity. Open borders? Shut them! Socialised healthcare? If our own working classes want it, let it be! Trade policy? Whatever is politically useful! The managerial state? Shut down what we cannot take over; what we can take over use before we shut it down! Though I wrote one of its early texts, I am not sure if I qualify for membership of the Alternative Right. But I recognise quality when I see it. None of my old friends ever made the Enemy hysterical with fright. None of us ever reduced the Enemy to a laughing stock. I doubt if we ever did much, beyond voting for them, to help our clay-footed idols get elected.
The two big events of 2016 were the British Referendum and the election of Donald Trump. For a moment, it looked as if with a bound, we were free. We are now finding that not all may be as it then seemed. At the same time, those elections were won. They were won explicitly as rejections of the present order of things. Unlike in the 1980s, the correlation of forces is on our side. If Donald Trump sells out, that is unfortunate. But there will be other chances.