Trump, Populism, and the Left.
Populists High on the Hog.
From the vantage point of the left, from liberals to socialists, Donald Trump is a ‘truth’, a reality, the “actuality of the populist revolution” that is hard to grapple with. The thousands who demonstrated against his Muslim/Visa Ban in London on Saturday, (40,000 to the organisers, 10,000 to everybody else), and the anti-Trump protests across the country, express heartfelt outrage at the US President’s xenophobic measures. It is to be hoped that they continue in the event of a Trump State visit to Britain. But beyond our backing for the worldwide campaigns against the new President the nature and destination of his politics needs serious reflection and debate.
In What is Populism? (2016) Jan-Werner Müller described modern populism as a “moralistic imagination of politics”. Müller’s description is tailor-made, not only for populist protest, the indignation at the ‘elites’, the neglect of “hard-working people” and respect for those who are “more ordinary” than others that marks UKIP and the galaxy of the Continental radical right.
But, What is Populism? argues, it is not just that for populists “only some of the people are really the people”. Trump has passed from the idea that his election represents the will of the ‘real’ American people, a claim to sovereignty that overrides any consideration of the plurality of the electing body, to efforts to bring the sovereignty of law to heel. In this case, the emerging political model, is an alternative to the ‘non-adversarial” consensus in ‘liberal’ democracies.
But Trump’s triumph is very far from a mobilisation against the “élitocratie” favoured by supporters of ‘left populist’ anticapitalism, through grassroots movements involving forces capable of giving voice and a progressive slant to demands for popular sovereignty.
It is an illiberal democracy.
Müller predicts that in power,
..with their basic commitment to the idea that only they represented the people”. Once installed in office, “they will engage in occupying the state mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. (Page 102)
This looks a good description of Trump’s first weeks in office.
Nick Cohen has warned that the British Conservatives have not only failed to stand up the British Populists but forces may lead some of them to shift in the same direction (What has become of conservatism? Observer. 2911.17)
Populist Calls to Break up the EU.
After Brexit, Trump’s victory has reverberated in the democratic left as warning that, for some, that the left, from its ‘liberal’ US version to our socialist and social democratic culture, has lost touch with ‘ordinary people’. A rapid response has been to advocate some kind of ‘left populism’. For the moment the prospect of a left-wing populism in Britain looks reduced to making appeals to the ‘people’ against the Tory and financial elite. Or to put it simply, using the term as a way of looking for popular support on issues which play well with the electorate. A more developed tool-box approach, perhaps best mirrored in the efforts of the French Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to stand up for La France insoumise, ends up with precisely the problem of illiberal democracy sketched above.
This can be seen in the demand, formally announced today, by the French Front National, to prepare for what Marine le Pen has called ‘Frexit’. That is for a process which, if she wins power in the April-May Presidential elections, begins with renegotiating European Treaties, proceeds to France dropping the Euro, and ends with a referendum on leaving the European Union (Marine Le Pen promises Frexit referendum if she wins presidency).
Organising and supporting the anti-Trump demonstration were a number of individuals and organisations (Counterfire, SWP, Socialist Party) that backed Brexit. Trump is famous for his support for Brexit. It is alleged that Ted Malloch, who wishes the “break up of the EU” is waging a campaign to become Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union (Patrick Wintour. Guardian. 4.2.17).
Trump is said to be “cheering on” the populist forces in Europe. While not supporting UKIP the British ‘left’ supporters of Brexit cast their ballot in the same way to leave the EU. The results of the Referendum, it need hardly be said, are probably the best example of the failure of the left to ‘channel’ populism in its direction
Will these forces also welcome the “break up” of the EU? Would they back Frexit? An indication that they might well do comes from the strong support and attendance of Trade Unionists Against the EU at the ‘Internationalist’ Rally last year (May 28th Pour le Brexit) organised by the pro-Frexit Trotskyist sect, the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant Démocratique.(1)
If they take this stand, and these groups have to have views on every EU issue, regardless of ‘sovereignty;’ a part of the British left is in letting itself in for some major difficulties. In What is Populism? Müller asked, by placing the construction of the “people” against the “market people” – or the People against the European Union ‘neo-liberal superpower – will this “import the problems of a genuinely populist conception of politics? “ (Page 98)
The sovereigntist ideal of the Front National is quite clear about defining who the French ‘people’ are; it even intends to give them preference in jobs (préférence nationale).
What kind of ‘construction’ of the People around what Laclau has dubbed On Populist Reason (2005) as an “us” opposed to an (elite) “them” is that?
This indicates the kind of action Marine Le Pen takes against critics (the journalist asks her about employing her thuggish bodyguards as “Parliamentary Assistants” on the EU Payroll.
(1) “quitter l’Union Européenne” Wikipedia. More details in the Tribune des Travailleurs on the ‘Constituent Assembly’which will carry out this process. Mouvement pour la rupture avec l’UE et la 5e République