Donald Trump’s accession to the American presidency last month has left the soothsayers of electoral politics stunned. Their predictions proven wrong, the political pundits have come up with a series of explanations.
Some have resorted to electoral psychology arguing that Trump had a ‘hidden support bank’ that felt stigmatised in making public their support for Mr. Trump but voted for him on the D-day. Others pointed out that Hillary might have successful in stitching together a support base of different minority groups – Afro-Americans, Latinos, Hispanics etc. but it proved insufficient to out compete the intense consolidation of the blue-collar white voters rallying behind Trump.
These, now commonplace explanations, are only superficial understanding of a deep sociological and political churning that is underway. Psephology merely scratches the surface. What is needed is a much deeper investigation of the new political ideology that is emerging and the social psyche that is taking roots in the world, especially the west.
In his victory address Trump said, “As I have said from the beginning, ours was not a campaign, but rather an incredible and great movement…” During his campaign, Trump had roped in Nigel Farage, the extreme right wing leader of UK Independence Party (UKIP), who had led the Brexit campaign in Britain. Like Trump, Farage too has repeatedly talked of an emerging global movement and not merely an electoral campaign.
The tenets of this global movement are becoming clear as the day. It is a movement that espouses the far-right ideology, reasserts conservativism to combat globalism, propagates triumphalism of native culture to curb multiculturalism, advocates isolationism to restrain cosmopolitanism, propounds aggressive nationalism to replace civic-nationalism, despises ‘political elitism’, embrace the anti-establishment propaganda, disregards ‘political correctness’ and legitimises beyond the pale political behaviour. They call it ‘Alternative-right’, more popularly known as the ‘Alt-right’ – an ideology that feeds on cultural xenophobia, nativism, conservatism, ethnic nationalism, reinforcing the sovereignty of nation-states and national boundaries.
Green shoots of this ideology are seen sprouting not just in America but also on the other side of the Atlantic. Same ideological sentiments that raged high during the Trump campaign had earlier provoked the Brexit vote in the UK.
Far right leaders like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front and Geert Wilders of Netherlands have been mustering unprecedented support. Marine Le Pen’s chief strategist, Florian Philippot tweeted after Trump’s victory, “Their world is crumbling. Ours is building.” AfD, Germany’s far right and ultra-conservative party preened itself on Trump’s victory as it sees Trump’s rise as a validation of the ‘alt-right’ ideology by the strongest democracy. Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party of Greece had endorsed Trump on the floor of the Greek Parliament.
There seems to be a growing ideological convergence in the global north. A belief seems to be emerging that it pays in the hustings to embrace extreme ideologies and hype the conservative and xenophobic sentiment of the people who are growing increasingly suspicious of the socio-cultural churning brought about by globalisation (Hochschild, Arlie, 2016). Conventional democratic politics demanded its leaders to occupy the centre-left or centre-right position to be electorally acceptable. That conventional political wisdom is fast evaporating and power-politicians are getting increasingly attracted towards the extreme ideologies. The global liberalism is in disarray while the extreme right wing is forging a strong global consensus.
Nigel Farage is justified in saying, “I’m not particularly surprised because the political class is reviled across much of the West, the polling industry is bankrupt, and the press just hasn’t woken up to what’s going on in the world” (Washington Post, 2016). Probably Farage is an alarmist but there is some truth when he says that “political revolutions” are underway throughout the world.
Some commentators observe a right wing rise not just in the west, but also as far as here in India. The stranglehold on contemporary liberal democratic politics is so strong that demagogy and populistic political sophistry are now being hailed as a new accepted political ideology lately christened as ‘post-truth politics.’
Alarmists argue that the liberal world order that had developed post world war-II largely under the stewardship of the US, is melting before our eyes. A new world order would soon emerge. But is it too soon to call it a day for democratic liberalism? Is the time ripe to coronate the extreme right-wing as the dominant global ideology? Or should we expect a counter reaction by the centrist and liberal forces of the globe? For a moment, let history be our guide.
In the first twenty-five years of the second world war, the dominant political ideologies in western democracies remained largely to the centre. After the oil crisis in the 1970s and economic turbulence that followed western politics took a rightward turn. Leaders like Ronald Raegan (Republican Party, US), Margaret Thatcher (Conservative Party, UK) and Helmut Kohl (Christian Democratic Party, Germany) came into power. A liberal right-wing consensus emerged on either side of the Atlantic.
However, the rightward lean lasted for about a decade and a half. The 1990s saw the ascendency of centre-left leaders like Tony Blair (Labour Party, UK), Clinton (Democrat, US) and Gerhard Schroeder (Social Democratic Party, Germany). Tony Blair retained No. 10, Downing street for two consecutive terms and the political influence of his labourite policies was such that it made the Conservatives virtually unelectable.
Under Mr. Cameron, the Conservative Party had to reinvent itself by shunning away much of its liberal right ideological public image to make itself re-electable.
Thus, within a couple of decades, we witnessed that a reformed left fought back and regained the electoral territory from the clasp of the right. This got further affirmed in 2012 when Socialist Francois Hollande entered the Elyse replacing the right-leaning President Chirac.
If lessons of history are of any relevance, then it becomes clear that the contemporary surge of the extreme right is not final but only another step in the dialectical movement of political ideologies in the recent history. The surge of illiberalism and extreme ideologies would soon spur the liberal forces to strengthen, unite and overhaul themselves to become politically electable. History repeats, therefore it grants a certain foresight and clairvoyance
A feeble reappearance of a reformed liberal-left on the global political stage are already in the offing, most evidently in British politics. The Guardian reported in November last year, that Tony Blair has hinted his political comeback to “fight resurgent populism with a centre ground campaign.” Blair has reportedly set-up a new organisation, to be launched this year, with an aim to look at global forces that have led to Brexit, the rise of Mr. Trump and how the centre-left has weakened as a political force. The Guardian quoted an ally of Mr. Blair saying that Blair believes that to regain its political weight, the centre-left ‘must recover its radicalism.’
Whether this resurgent liberalism will be able to take on the presently dominant extreme right depends on how it reinvents and reforms itself as a political force. The reforming process would fundamentally involve developing centre-left, liberal responses to hard policy questions on issues that cause the comedown of liberal ideology and spurred the surge of the alt-right campaign. These issues include immigration, attitudes towards globalism, anti-elitism, wages, declining job opportunities, resurgent China and Islamophobia etc.
Every ideological thesis is met with its antithesis followed by a synthesis. History validates this dialectical movement in dominant global ideologies. Now global arena has been presented with a new ideological thesis of the ‘alt-right’ and we are already seeing an emergence of its anti-thesis. What is left to be seen is that in the decades to come what ideological synthesis the world arrives at.
1. Arlie, Russell Hochschild (2016): Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press.
2. The Washington Post (2016): “Trump’s victory places U.S. at the front of a global right-wing surge”, Washington, 9 November.
3. The Guardian (2016): “Tony Blair aims to fight resurgent populism with centre-ground campaign”, London, 21 November.
4. The Hindu (2016): “The trail Trump’s blazing” 15 November.
5. The Economist (2016): “The new nationalism”, San Francisco, 19 November.