Trump, denial and the end of normal
from Peter Radford
Shocking is an understatement. Donald Trump is unfit for public office, be it town clerk or president of the US. He’s an unbalanced egomaniac. He’s a racist. He’s an immature misogynist. He’s many other awful things. Presidential, he is not.
How did we get here?
Failure. But a particular kind of failure. Failure dressed as success. A success so sweeping and deep that we hardly recognize the extent of the change that it wrought. Naturally I am speaking of the victory of neoliberal thought. Perhaps you were thinking of something else.
For a brief moment after World War II, for a generation and a bit, the western world basked in a quiescence of steady growth, political solidarity, industrial calm, and rising living standards. That much of this was an illusion, or rather a reflection of the prior chaos of the spasmodic ending of the elongated nineteenth century, we ignored. Instead we imagined that a new normal had emerged. Economic depressions had been defeated. Western Europe had settled its ancient scores. And America had emerged as a beacon of democratic freedom, albeit one willing to exert quasi-imperial tendencies in its foreign dealings. Compared with the authoritarian alternative of the Marxist east, America’s heavy hand was tolerable for a generation able to recall the terrors of 1914 through 1945.
This period, though, was bound to end. Within its fabric was an unrest bound to tear at the fragility of the apparent unity.
That unrest was the desire of many to return to the chaos of a more unfettered way of life. They disliked the growing tendency of post-war governments to intrude into spheres of life and activities that previously had been private domains. They especially regarded such intrusions as obstacles to personal enrichment.
They questioned social democracy as if it were Marxist authoritarianism. They asked: Where was the private incentive? Where was the opportunity? What was the intellectual footing upon which those intrusions stood? And: were those footings not insecure against the tide of uncertainty best dealt with by private initiative?
The rebellion, when it finally burst into open life, swept away the temporary stability of that generation and a bit. And like all movements recapturing some imagined version of a glorious past it was even more radical than the original. It preached ideas producing an ever growing insecurity, constantly accelerating change, wrenching social re-aligments, and loss of opportunity for anyone incapable of being the kind of calculating insensitive and morally ambiguous trooper in its corporate divisions.
At its core the rebellion has one theme: liberty. A return to an idealized version of liberty such as that taught by the likes of Hayek and his most potent student Milton Friedman. Others, like von Mises, Peter Drucker, as well as Hayek were members of what the essayist Tony Judt so eloquently called the Austrian cabal. They all grew up within the fetid declining years of the old Hapsburg Empire. They all misunderstood the causes of that decline. They all witnessed the horror of demagoguery of Hitler. They all feared the repression of Marxism, Lenin and Stalin. So they all overcompensated.
Their error, as they built the intellectual features of neoliberalism, was to mistake democracy as a form of socialism. In this they echoed the fears of their intellectual ancestors. The founders of the American republic were just as fearful of the people. The phrase “we the people” refers to a select few: those entitled to participate. It does not refer to the vast mass who were thought unfit to participate.
By making this error Hayek and his ilk debauched liberalism. No: they tore it in two. They ripped away any references to equality or the dignity of community, leaving only the much rawer individuality to stand alone as a beacon of freedom. This primitive liberalism was then packaged as economic and political theory to stand against any attempts to leaven it with those lost, yet appropriate, features of mature liberalism.
So that’s how we arrived here.
The consequences of the neoliberal rebellion are all around us. Trump. Brett. La Pen. Haider. Berlusconi. The people’s reaction to insecurity, austerity, globalization, deregulation, and the decay of social cohesion wrought by the single minded pursuit of the individual ideal.
With respect to Brexit, let me quote at length from Jonathan Freedland’s essay in the New York review of Books:
“There is an overlap here with those white working-class voters in the US who are backing Donald Trump. In both cases, they are often people who once enjoyed secure, relatively well-paid work and who have seen their jobs, and their factories, shipped eastward. Working low-status jobs on zero-hours contracts, they live in places that have been hollowed out and left behind … While London and other major cities gleam and sparkle with investment and regeneration, many of these English towns — post-mining, post-industrial, post-their-best — are still reeling from the Thatcher-era policy of privatization, which saw the state shut down industries it had once propped up. They have grown derelict. In each wave of change — Thatcherism, globalization, automatization [sic] — they have lost out.
It meant that the Remain campaign’s central argument — that Brexit risked Britain’s prosperity — cut no ice with these voters, because they had no prosperity to risk.”
A little later Freedland quotes a Conservative minister, Michael Gove, as saying:
“I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
And that’s also why we are where we are.
The experts blew it.
The elite. The center. The experts.
They are the people who brought us rising inequality, globalization, shareholder value, austerity, infrastructure neglect, rotting schools, dilapidated cities, insecurity in retirement, health, and personal finances, stagnant wages, and all the other ailments of an economy and society run solely in the name of private profit.
Worse still: those experts are scarcely attached to democracy because they, like Hayek and his confreres, believe that popular will is akin to a chaos imposed by an unwashed undereducated mob. Those experts believe that they alone understand the so-called “national interest”.
But why is it in the national interest for almost half the population to live perilously close to poverty?
As it turns out, that fleeting glimpse of normal back in the immediate post-war years was no illusion. It was simply a threat to the old establishment and to big business. It was a democratic moment that had to be ended not extended. It had to be ended so profits could be made as they had back in the Golden Era. So ended it was.
Which is why we are where we are.