Trump has won, confounding the predictions of his defeat by most of the liberal intelligentsia and the media. Two interrelated but distinct questions arise: first, is Trump’s victory merely due to the inadequacies of Hillary Clinton or are there deeper political trends not perceived by the pundits? Second, what is the nature of the historic moment which will define the choices available as well as the constraints when President Trump assumes office in January next year? Let us examine each of these questions in turn.
Consider the seismic shift in the balance of political narratives. Over the last decade, the Western world has been in the grip of the deepest and most protracted recession since the 1930s. Three features characterised the earlier recession as much as they do the present one. First, in the face of high levels of unemployment, rising inequality and the financial incapacity of the state to provide social security benefits to the deprived, there has been a rightward shift in the political narrative.
As in the 1930s, at the present juncture too, this narrative has taken the form of race based nationalism and the populist rhetoric of a return to an imagined past glory. In the 1930s Hitler propounded the idea of an Aryan, German master race. During the recent elections the idea of ‘Make America great again’ was proffered by Trump. This was reinforced by extreme right-wing groups who claimed that this greatness depended on the reassertion of white supremacy.
Second, a sense of xenophobia emerges whereby another race (the Jews in the case of Nazi Germany), or immigrants and Muslims as in present-day USA, are perceived to threaten the domestic security and economic wellbeing of the nationalist majority. Hitler, having demonised the Jews, sought the ‘final solution’ through their genocide.
In the case of Trump, having scapegoated Muslims and Mexicans, he promised to deport 11 million immigrants, ban Muslims from the US and build a wall to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico.
Third, the ruling elite is seen to have demonstrably failed to effectively address the problems of unemployment, inequality and the sense of physical insecurity of citizens. This happened in the case of popular disenchantment with the Weimar Republic in Germany of the 1930s. It is also apparent in the widespread anger against the US establishment that Trump harnessed so successfully during his election campaign.
The anti-establishment rhetoric adopted by the Nazi movement in Germany of the 1930s was accompanied by discrediting left wing and liberal tendencies and their effacement from the dominant political narrative. In contemporary US, this role is being attempted by the ‘alt-right’ movement that fuelled the Trump campaign. The alt-right believes in reclaiming a majoritarian America from weak-kneed wishy-washy liberals, subversive leftists and minorities who sully the purity of an exclusive white supremacist vision.
It is significant that the rightward shift in political trends manifested in the recent elections in the US were apparent earlier in Europe which is also in the grip of a recession. The tendency towards an inward-looking nationalism and resentment against both immigrants and the establishment was expressed in the form of the vote for Brexit in Britain, the rise of extreme right-wing nationalist parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AFD) party in Germany and the National Front in France. So the epicentre of the tectonic shift of politics generated by the present recession in Europe has carried shock waves into the political sphere in the US.
Despite the ominous similarities between the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the social and political forces in the West triggered by the present recession, the historical context in the two moments was very different. The early 20th century was the apogee of the rise of the nation-state. At that time the structure of the world capitalist economy was defined by large national corporations backed by their respective nation-states in the industrialised West, competing to establish control over sources of raw materials and exclusive markets for their finished products in the Third World.
So an aggressive nationalism in the process of capital accumulation was pursued within what was seen as a zero sum game. Of course, this conflict induced by the structure of the world economy ultimately resulted in the catastrophe of two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century.
Now it is a different context. The emergence of multinational corporations as the typical production unit requires contention for economic power to be pursued within a framework of collaboration amongst the advanced capitalist countries. The processes of production, sale, forms of consumption and indeed social life have been globalised. Since national capital has given way to multinational capital, the earlier unmitigated conflict between Western countries has been replaced by a recognition of inter dependence. The new structure of the world capitalist economy requires cooperation to ensure the free flow of raw materials, finished goods and capital across national boundaries.
A new imperative for international cooperation and restraining aggressive nationalism has emerged due to the environmental crisis. It is a threat to the life support system of the planet that is functioning within an eco-system that knows no political boundaries. Therefore if production, sale, consumption and indeed life itself is to be sustained, then narrow national interests have to be modulated by the imperative to protect the physical environment. This recognition is embodied in the UN’s Climate Change Treaty and the Sustainable Development Goals agenda to which almost all countries are signatories.
It can be argued that a new dialectic is at play in the present historic moment. The rise of nationalism is constrained by the imperatives of international cooperation. The way president-elect Trump and his administration navigate this dialectic will shape the future of the world. Thus, the US cannot be made great without making the world greater. Human actions in the present, for better or for worse, will make history.
The writer is dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Information Technology University Lahore.