Donald Trump is not a normal politician. That, at least, both his detractors and supporters agree on. To the former, it’s a sign of his dangerous unpredictability and callow inexperience; to the latter, a token of his status as one unaffected by the rot of the Washington bubble. But if that’s what he’s not, the question remains of what he is.
To answer that, we must journey back in time long before a Trump presidency was ever anything other than a punchline to a particularly bad joke. For before Trump the politician, there was Trump the businessman; the blond-haired bruiser from New York’s Midtown, clad in a sharp suit, beautiful supermodel in tow, butting heads with rivals across boardrooms. Times may have changed, the tawdry glitz of Trump Tower may have been exchanged for the grandeur of the White House, but at heart Donald J. Trump is best understood as a businessman.
Seeing him as this rather than a politician helps explain much that is bewildering about him. Trump is not bound by the conventions that politicians are normally constrained by; the expectations to speak truthfully, to fulfil promises, to act in a measured way. Businessmen have no truck with any of this. A Manhattan real estate investor, sitting across a table from his competitors, doesn’t act like a politician; he curses at them and cajoles them, he slams the table, he insults them, and eventually he wins.
All the bombast of Trump – all the gratuitous offensiveness, the rude tweets, the childish appellations he attaches to his rivals (of which ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ are the highlights) should be seen through this lens – as a posture Trump adopts in order to help him win. He doesn’t even seem to believe much of it; witness how fast the vitriol directed at Ben Carson, for instance, was replaced by the warm embrace of an offer of a job on his campaign. We’ve all been taken in by the act of a showman.
But this act extends to far more than Trump’s pugnacious demeanour. Far too many people – on both sides of the political spectrum – were taken in by Trump’s grandiose statements of policy during the campaign. Perhaps reasonably, they viewed them as they viewed policy announcements by prior politicians – that is to stay, statements of intent that, if elected, he would follow through on.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, their true nature becomes clear. They were not statements but opening gambits in negotiations. Take Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ Trump made his ‘offer’ to the American people, so to speak, with his call for ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ The reaction was mostly shock and disgust – but the initial bid had been made.
Upon Trump’s election as President, opposing ‘offers’ were made in the form of vociferous opposition both Congressional and judicial. What took place next – the wrangling between Trump and various judges – might be termed the ‘negotiations’, much as an aggressive property developer might argue with a tenant over a disputed term in a contract. What eventually emerged was a travel ban that is, by all sane accounts, very reasonable – common-sense, time-limited restrictions on emigration from a handful of notoriously dangerous countries.
This isn’t how politicians operate; it’s precisely how businessmen do. No self-respecting businessman worth his salt will walk into negotiations and state the price he wants, knowing that the cut and thrust of negotiations will drive it down. Instead he names a figure twice as high as he wants, knowing the response will be half as much as he wants. Through slow back-and-forth argumentation, eventually the two parties arrive at a price both consider ‘fair.’ It’s an almost dialectical style of governing, one which has never really been tried before.
The same applies with Trump’s flagship policy – fighting illegal immigration. When Trump started talking about building ‘a big beautiful wall with Mexico’ and repealing DACA, he almost certainly never wanted to do anything of the sort. Instead, he was seeking to do two things; firstly to make illegal immigration (by all accounts a genuine issue) part of the national debate, and also to make an extreme initial demand, knowing that he’ll never get it but that negotiations are now open.
Upon his election, Trump immediately faced pushback from liberal voices in Congress. What most failed to realise was that Trump intended for this to happen. Trump is not a moron; he employs many undocumented workers himself, and recognises that a blanket deportation would be economically damaging to the country. But by demanding a huge amount initially, he was able to pull negotiations in his favour and eventually conclude an agreement with Democratic leadership which meant that key provisions of DACA would be kept in place, with funding for a wall highly unlikely.
One of the few people who understood all this about him was the Democrat who worked alongside him on hammering out this deal, Chuck Schumer. Schumer, like Trump, is a New Yorker, and like all New Yorkers he’s steeped in the commerciality of that city. He recognises Trump for what he is; a negotiator willing to brawl a bit to get the deal he wants. Though politically he seems the antithesis of Trump, Schumer is more similar to the man than many realise. Neither are beyond a bit of chest-thumping and posturing, but fundamentally both are nothing more than negotiators. By all accounts the two have a good personal rapport – an indication that Trump’s aggressively partisan demeanour is an artfully-constructed artifice.
‘We are not wholly bad or good,’ Dylan Thomas reminds us. The same might be said to hold true for Donald Trump. It’s beyond dispute that he’s a thin-skinned sexist who will do or say pretty much anything to attain wealth and power. It’s also true that politically he’s proving to be far more nuanced than anyone had assumed. He has at least three more years left (and, who knows, perhaps even seven) and the world would be advised to prepare themselves for more surprises.
Though the tortuous process of appeals, recounts and formalities will no doubt continue for several days more, the result now seems certain; Donald J. Trump is to become the next President of the United States. When he announced his candidacy in June 2015, the reaction was one of mild amusement. By the time he won the Republican nomination in May of 2016, the amusement had turned to panic. But even at that juncture, few imagined that Trump would eventually succeed in his quixotic quest for the presidency. And yet.
This result is all the more surprising in the wake of weeks of polling suggesting that Hillary Clinton had a small but consistent lead in most swing states, something which led most analysts to predict a fairly comfortable victory. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did Trump win in heavily contested states such as Florida or North Carolina, he also carried states such as Wisconsin and Michigan – both states considered ‘safe’ by the Clinton campaign. A 300+ total of electoral votes seems entirely plausible.
How did this happen? Throughout the campaign, various theories have been offered for Trump’s appeal – some economic, some sociological, some cultural. All are true to a certain extent, but Trump’s victory cannot be reduced to any of them. Perhaps the only explanation for it is that it is non-explainable. In the words of David Axelrod, a certain class of voters have uttered a ‘primal scream’ at the ballot box – a cri de coeur of rage and embitterment, channelled through the person of Donald Trump. To these voters, Trump is a symbol of resistance to everything which they oppose, and as such is worthy of the vote no matter what.
Their rage is directed at a multitude of things; feminism, immigration, sexual tolerance, intellectualism, ‘the elite.’ All of this can be summed up in a word; modernity. Donald Trump is a radical reactionary, insofar as his attitude and policies reflect a desire to take America back to a putative ‘golden age.’ Of course, this ‘golden age’ was far from golden for many – the African Americans living under Jim Crow, the women expected to abandon all aspirations and raise families, the labourers working under atrocious conditions without union rights. But – and this is the fact that won Trump the election – for a significant number of people this was a golden age. For white lower-middle class men in particular, this was a fairly blissful period, and moreover considerably preferable to modernity.
They voted to attempt to reconstruct this idealised 1950s America, and they did so in 2016 because the vestiges of it are being lost. It is no coincidence that the most fervent Trump supporters come from what might be termed ‘transition areas’ – ones which were formerly all-white, but which are slowly experiencing inward migration of African-Americans and Hispanics. Though the civil rights movement and the social changes of the 1970s/80s altered America’s landscape, there were enough enclaves of traditionalism left that voters could simply ignore the ‘winds of change.’ But when these last areas appear to be slipping away to multiculturalism and liberalism, panic sets in – the result is Donald Trump.
As such, this should inform how we – the rest of the world – react to Mr Trump’s victory. Trump has won through harnessing the rage of small-town bigots and reactionaries. He has done so by offering a vision of America inimical to modern values, and by intentionally pandering to these reactionaries. This is evidenced in his policies – from his grotesque plan to ‘ban Muslims’ from entering America, to his misinformed and economically naïve views on free trade. America has elected an emissary of parochial bigotry and suburban prejudice.
It is imperative, therefore, that we do not attempt to normalise this election. This is emphatically not ‘just another vote’, and a reality which we will have to attune ourselves to sooner rather than later. This is a fundamental alteration of America’s political climate, and a token of the ascendency of a very dangerous ideology.
The legitimacy of the vote cannot be challenged. Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America, and will remain so for the next four years at least. Attempts to contest the results, or declare them ‘rigged’, are foolhardy and childish. Furthermore, governments around the world should not attempt to shun President Trump, but must tirelessly work with him to ensure that they can influence his policy – domestically and abroad – as much as is possible. The criticism of Theresa May’s message of congratulations to Mr Trump is misplaced, albeit understandable – she has a duty to get the best deal for her citizens, and unnecessarily antagonising Trump will not get such a deal.
Areas in which foreign states can positively influence Trump include trade, defence and security. With regards the latter, Europe can (and almost certainly will) make it clear that the only loser from a breakdown of the free trade system will be the USA – if America withdraws from NAFTA, Mexican industries will just start taking orders from Germany and France. Similarly, foreign influence can be leveraged to encourage Trump to avoid provoking Iran, or attempting to ‘take the oil’ in Syria – Trump will soon come up against the limits of unilateralism, and the guiding hand of other NATO states can prevent him from taking rash steps. In all these areas, we have an obligation to work constructively with Trump’s America; if we do not, then we risk allowing a hard-right regime to run riot without any checks or balances.
But equally, the forces of enlightened liberalism must not let the people of America – and indeed the world – forget that this is an unnatural state of affairs. They must not allow Trump’s presidency to be normalised. This entails countering his divisive rhetoric vigorously and effectively. Not only must Trump’s ideology be disproven; it must be discredited and defeated conclusively. He is not right, nor is his worldview ‘just another way of viewing things.’ This fashionable relativism has no place in as serious a situation as this; we must not be afraid to decry his views as wrong, no matter how many people believe in it. Popular acclamation does not have any impact upon moral truth.
And what of 2020? Certain commentators are already attempting to mount a revisionist critique of the Hillary campaign, offering inanities about ‘appealing to the disillusioned.’ This is patently false. The white lower-middle classes didn’t vote for Trump because of specific policies; they voted because they despised modernity in general. No amount of tinkering with platforms will convince them. Fortunately, that looks unlikely to be necessary. Two demographic changes will have taken place by 2020. Firstly, America (and particularly states such as Arizona, Florida, Texas and Georgia) will have become much more diverse – this is ascribable to immigration from Latin America, as well as from Asia and the Middle East. This demographic change should put many of these states in play, just as the white middle-class population begins to plateau or decline. Secondly, millions of the ‘millennial’ generation will have grown to voting age. This generation is fundamentally inclined towards liberalism and modernity.The only risk here lies in the possibility of an ascendant right developing a ‘youth’ following; this appears unlikely, but the growth of the ‘alt-right’ over the last few years demonstrates a risk. As such, a stridently liberal voice must exist amongst the youth, one unafraid to confront alt-right and neofascist forces attempting to garner votes amongst millennials.
Work with Trump to negate his worst policies; oppose Trump whenever possible. This is the only way forward. Where it is possible to wrench a compromise from him and the GOP, do so – but do not give in to normalisation and acquiescence. Trump is presiding over a movement of people with a fundamentally wrong view of the world, and if he is greeted with silence then we will all be guilty of allowing that wrong view to become entrenched.
This is a dark moment for America and the world; the election of a racist, sexist, wilfully offensive oaf as Commander-in-Chief. But it doesn’t need to be the beginning of an apocalypse, and if Trump is opposed vocally enough then it won’t. As Shakespeare put it, “the worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” As long as we keep speaking out, this is not an end, but a beginning of sorts.
Those of you active on social media will inevitably have run into them at some point. They’re easily recognisable by their dodgy grammar and spelling, their love of memes and ‘internet humour’, and their apparently perpetual aggression. You’ll find them in places like 4Chan or the darker recesses of Reddit; on Twitter they might be seen adoringly retweeting people like Donald Trump, or alternatively sending anti-Semitic or racist messages to people they dislike. Since 2010 they’ve been growing in number at an alarming rate. They are, of course, the alt-right.
Though they belong, broadly speaking, to the ‘right’ of the political spectrum – hence their name – their ideology is a uniquely 21st century amalgamation of multiple older ones brought together by that great leveller, the internet. In many aspects the alt-right resembles previous movements; in other ways it seems completely new.
At heart, it is a European and American movement opposed to modernity. But it is a paradoxical movement, insofar as it could not have come about without the social climate and technology of the 21st century. The alt-right rejects modern values wholeheartedly, but embraces the technological outlook that the 21st century has brought – in particular, the internet and mobile telecommunications. The observant amongst you might recognise this as a variant of the ‘reactionary modernism’ so prevalent amongst the fascist movement.
What do I mean by modernity? In essence I am referring to post-Enlightenment thought, in particular the values of liberty and equality amongst all humans. This view has, with a few notable hiatuses, been the dominant school of thought in Europe and America for the last three hundred years. It is one rejected by the alt-right.
At heart they oppose the belief that all humans are equal. On their theory, inequality is not just an inevitability but something to be celebrated. Often they will justify this with recourse to pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism; at other times they will simply use distorted and selectively chosen facts taken from dubious sources. This is an important and underemphasised point – the scientific aspirations of the alt-right. They worship science, reason and rationality, and have nothing but contempt for all metaphysical disciplines such as literature or philosophy. Nonetheless, they generally have a very vague grasp of scientific theory and practice; instead, they often have a background in the applied sciences such as engineering or computing.
The fundamental case of inequality, on the alt-right’s theory, is that of race. According to them, racial difference is essential and all-pervading; they feel little commonality between them and an individual of a different race. However, the majority will deny being racists (though most patently are, and many embrace racism whole-heartedly.) Instead they argue that they are ‘race realists’, essentially a pseudo-scientific version of racism. According to them, they do not believe that other races are a posteriori inferior; however, they claim that the ‘unfortunate reality’ is that whites are somehow superior. Often they will produce distorted or out-of-context statistics which support this; they tend to fetishize these statistics as incontrovertible proof of the truth of the alt-right’s position, even when they’re disproved (common examples include ‘blacks are inherently criminal’ or ‘Sweden is the rape capital of the world because of their immigration policies.’
From this, they attempt to construct a ‘reasoned’ approach to racism, one in which they argue it to be a matter of ‘common sense’ that races separate. For, having claimed that whites are superior, it surely seems logical that whites ‘get rid’ of non-whites. Here, the approaches of the alt-right differ; in America the approach seems to be a deportation of illegal immigrants and a gradual removal of rights of legal non-whites, whilst in Europe there tends to be more talk of ‘humane repatriation.’ Bear in mind that in both countries the alt-right is forced to remain within the law; there is little doubt that the movement supports genocide, but cannot legally say so.
Perhaps the most important object of both disgust and fear to the alt-right are Jews. Indeed, they have been responsible for an extraordinary revival of anti-Semitic rhetoric in a way unseen since the 1930s. To the alt-right, the Jews are even more loathsome than other non-whites since they ‘hide in plain sight’, and corrupt ‘white’ society from within. Furthermore, there is an almost childlike credulousness to the alt-right’s beliefs in the powers of the Jews. They are viewed as universally malevolent, universally intelligent, and all conspiring together to bring about the destruction of ‘western civilisation.’ The usual line of argument is that they plan to do this through a ‘liberal conspiracy’ to weaken whites – such phrases as ‘cultural Marxism’ are often mentioned in relation to this, though the utterers normally don’t have much idea what they mean.
Racism, though, is but one plank of the alt-right. The other is a uniquely visceral sexism. Much as, by recourse to pseudo-science, the alt-right believe that non-whites are unequal to whites, they similarly believe that men are somehow superior to women. Indeed, the movement arose fundamentally out of the sexist ‘Gamergate’ controversy, where male ‘gamers’ felt that the traditionally male space of computer games was being ruined by the perceived intrusion of women. A distinction might be made between the anti-feminism of the masses and the ideologues of the alt-right movement. On the part of the former it manifests itself as the mewling women-hatred of men unable to build meaningful relationships with the opposite genders, and who have retreated into anachronistic concepts of masculinity. The latter, however, add an extra level of complexity to their anti-feminism by combining it with their racism. According to these individuals feminism has caused European women to have fewer children, and to have them later – this means that white European birth rates are lower (in some cases significantly) than non-white birth rates. As such, they seek to restore a world in which women lived in subordination, where their role is merely to give birth to white children. Of course, much as the alt-right uses pseudo-scientific racial theory to cloak their fear of non-whites, their grandiose theorising about women masks a fundamental crisis of masculinity that they are experiencing.
More than merely an ideology, though, the alt-right is an approach to politics. It combines toxic anti-modern views with a contradictory embrace of modern technology and culture. Much like the Nazis – who despised modernity whilst still pouring billions into scientific research and technology – the alt-right is a techno-savvy movement. Indeed, it exists (uniquely for a political movement) on the internet, principally on Reddit and 4chan. The virtue of these platforms is that they are unpoliced and lend themselves to monolithic groups hostile to alternate views. Unsuspecting outsiders are sucked into these digital lairs and radicalised, exposed solely to ‘facts’ and media which strengthens the alt-right narrative. The flames of anger are stoked ever higher, directed against immigrants, women and ‘the elites.’ In addition, these online platforms are full of in-jokes and memes – shibboleths by which alt-rightists feel part of a global brotherhood, and can feel self-righteously superior to those who don’t ‘get it.’ Occasionally these users spill out onto other websites – they are known to sally forth onto Twitter to harass individuals who provoke their fury, such as the actress Lesley Jones. Never has a movement been so dependent upon online communications; it is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of the alt-right.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to cast the alt-right as a monolithic group. The most obvious division of the movement is into leaders and fellow-travellers. The majority are of the second camp, and do not necessarily conform to the above description. In particular, many ‘fellow travellers’ will be sympathetic to religion, or perhaps marginally liberal on certain issues. However, the leadership are remarkably homogenous – young, white, male, geeky, contemptuous of metaphysics, and supportive of atheism.
Are the alt-right conservatives? Not really. Conservatism is an ideology centred upon two things; societal cohesion and structural evolution. The first element posits that for a society to advance, different groups within it should be in harmony – blacks and whites, rich and poor, town and country. The alt-right rejects this spectacularly; it attempts to sow division wherever possible, and rejects all compromise as ‘cucking’, to use their delightful term. The second element posits that any change in society must be gradual – evolution, not revolution. Even if a previous change has been wrought by a revolution, the counter-revolution must not be iconoclastic or violent; it should be gradual and cautious. This too is rejected by the alt-right, with their calls for extreme policies against immigrants and democracy.
Neither are they ‘neo-Nazis’, as some well-intentioned but misguided people are attempting to label them. Neo-Nazism is based upon a reconstruction of Nazi ideology in some shape or form; a potent combination of totalitarianism, racism, and third-positionism. The alt-right, though they share the second of these beliefs, generally rejects the first and second of these. They are violently libertarian (perhaps best described as paleo-libertarian, insofar as their libertarianism is wedded to white nationalism) and often approving of brash capitalism. Put simply, the Nazis would have viewed the alt-right as a bunch of long-haired wastrels who needed a shower, a uniform and a ticket to boot camp; the alt-right would have viewed the Nazis as boring reactionaries, even if many of them pay considerable lip service to the Third Reich (at least partly because of the transgressive value of doing so these days.)
What they are, then, is a manifestation of the new division in politics; between populism and elitism. I use the latter word in a non-pejorative sense, descriptively rather than normatively. By it, I mean the liberal-minded, educated class – not merely ‘educated’ in the sense that the alt-right is, simply provided with technical knowledge, but with a liberal, humanistic education. It is these people, regardless of political affiliation, who (for better or worse) are now the fundamental opposition to the populists. Though there is enormous diversity between populists – it is, after all, a movement encompassing Black Lives Matter and the alt-right – they are united in their loathing of ‘the elites’ as much as those elites are united in their fear of the populists.
It seems fairly uncontroversial to state that the alt-right are a serious threat to Western civilisation. In common with terror groups like al-Qaeda or Daesh, they seek to destroy the liberal values intrinsic to the West, and reconstitute our societies in a totalitarian and illiberal mould, one in which women are oppressed, minorities persecuted, free thought stopped, and the self is negated in favour of the state. The British MP Jo Cox was killed by a member of the neofascist group National Action, a group which shares a lot of things with the alt-right (indeed, it is in many ways functionally identical.)
Far-right ideology is fairly indestructible; no matter how many times it is ‘defeated’ by liberalism, it comes back in new forms. Nazism was destroyed in 1945, but it returned as the neo-Nazi hooliganism of the FN and the BNP. The triumph of neoliberalism in the early 21c put paid to those forms of far-right rhetoric, and for a few years liberal thought reigned unchallenged. The alt-right is merely the latest in this long line of challengers to liberalism. Will it be defeated? Certainly. How and when? Who knows – but it looks like they’re going to be around for a long time.