On Trump’s election: collective reflections 9.11.2016

Our Psychosocial Thinking group met for the third time on 9 November, the traumatic day that Trump’s US election victory was announced. This post is an attempt to capture and make sense of the wide-ranging conversation we had as we attempted to come to terms with it and to start developing a psychosocial response to it. It is of course an partial and incomplete account of an immediate, preliminary discussion in which a range of differing perspectives were put forward, not in any sense a developed analysis or authoritative statement of a collective viewpoint.

The morning after

We attempted to capture a sense of the experience of receiving the news in the UK of Trump’s election, as a kind of unbelievable reality, a dream state from which we still expect to awaken – and also as a repetition (“Brexit squared”) of the experience of the Referendum results on the morning of 24 June. We discussed the longing for the reality with which we went to sleep – but also the problem that that reality was somehow broken, was not working for huge numbers of citizens.

We discussed the significance of so many academics and pundits living in a “bubble”, with so little connection to those voting for Trump or Brexit – the algorithms that mean we only talk to people “like” ourselves. Another dimension of the experience is the speed of the cycle of information is digitally reproduced and circulated, especially in social media, so that the present moment rapidly slips into past tense, blocking the possibility of real analysis. This group was an attempt to capture the immediate response, before that slippage into the past occurred.

The grounds of Trump’s win

We discussed some of the psychosocial causes of the Trump vote (including issues of rage, resentment and dispossession), but also the question of how much weight these should be given in contrast to more straightforward sociological or materialist/political economic causes.

The relative importance of issues such as race and issues of class and economy were raised. One perspective emphasises the extent to which, for Trump and his followers, the enemy was the very possibility that “minorities” or women might stake some kind of presence. The killing of black people on the American street was because Obama was in power. Obama’s presidency was in some senses a culmination of all the struggles we (social movements, anti-racists, feminists, people of colour…?) have fought since the 1960s – and indeed before. The (white) voters were never going to allow a woman, even of her class, in to the White House after having let Obama in. White privilege – however threadbare – was under threat. If we talk about Trump’s appeal to the dispossessed, the dispossession that mattered is of white/male power, and this was a taking back control of that.

The other perspective focused on economic dispossession – the destruction of working class communities by post-industrialisation and neo-liberalism, and the generalised precarity and insecurity caused by that. Of course, a fully psychosocial account – which registers that race and class are always implicated in each other – needs to understand the intersection between these forces, rather than take an either/or position. Either way, the fact that Trump (like many of the Brexit leaders) is a corrupt, metropolitan billionaire and yet people who feel dispossessed buy into him, and believe him – and even in many cases like the fact that he is a liar, a cowboy, a lad – is a paradox that needs explaining psychosocially.

Global authoritarianism and post-truth post-politics

In addition, we highlighted the importance of thinking about Trump’s victory in global terms, rather than as exceptionally American: as part of a global current towards authoritarianism, which includes the counter-coup in Turkey and the impeachment in Brazil as well as the right-wing populist candidates resurgent across Europe. We are seeing (e.g. in Latin America) the afterlife of Cold War revanchism, but also the slow birth of a new post-bipolar geopolitical axis.

This global authoritarianism is clearly connected to the crisis of truth. The epistemological mist generated around the crises of our century – particularly the 2001 attacks and the 2008 crash – led to a turning away from modern ideas of truth to a culture of hyperreality, exemplified by reality TV. 2016’s frenzy of real and manufactured leaks and revelations represents an intensification of this turn. It is in this context that Trump’s (and Farage’s) claim that he “tells it like it is” finds credibility, despite a documented career in untruth. (The left suggestion that Trump is the “naked face” of neo-liberalism perhaps accepts a version of this lie.) Linked to these points is Trump as the non-political taking political power, the ideological emptiness of Trump that enables different constituencies to project their incompatible visions of change on to him.

Politics after social democracy

The collapse of social democracy was one of the key grounds for Brexit/Trump that we considered. Social democratic parties have complied with – instead of resisted – capital’s simultaneous takeover and rolling back of the state, contributing to a sense that social democrats have nothing to offer to those left behind or dispossessed by neo-liberalism. In the US, where a suspicion of the state is wired in to both the left and right, Trump’s campaign also exposes both the values and limits of social democracy’s faith in the state. And capital on one level is comfortable with women and minorities (framed in terms of “diversity”, of course, rather than justice) and also wants stability – and so progressives found themselves aligned with capital in rejecting Trump, which is problematic.

Some participants suggested that this points to a kernel of truth within the Trump campaign: the failure of the social democrats to deliver a version of neo-liberalism that works for most people. We need to find a way to give voice to the rage against economic dispossession. It is unclear if social democracy is an exhausted project which we need to find a way past, or if there is any hope for the renewal of social democracy as a grounds for resistance to Trump.

Responding to the age of Trump and Brexit

We discussed the temptation towards despair and stasis brought on by a narrative of catastrophism – not just around Trump, but also around e.g. climate change (and of course the fact that we have a president who doesn’t believe in climate change, the greatest danger to humanity right now, intensifies this catastrophism). We speculated that this catastrophism stops us thinking rigorously around material or political challenges, such as post-industrialism or the collapse of social democracy.

On the other hand, we rejected an accelerationist discourse increasingly popular on the left (“after Trump us”, to paraphrase the German Communists when Hitler was elected) – a discourse also present in some “Lexit” (left Brexit) positions. We rejected the insistence that things have to get worse before they get better, given the scale of suffering that will mean, which will be carried by the most vulnerable in our societies. We need to avoid the temptation of the left fantasy that neo-liberalism has suffered a blow from Trump/Brexit, and be wary of the accelerationist left’s desire to see the centre dead.

Are there any grounds for hope? There are strong grassroots movements in US, which acknowledge the need for regional diversity and plural voices in linking up and forming national alliances. Social movements are re-grouping.

In many senses, Trump’s campaign – and its parallel political projects – represents a new language of politics. The left urgently needs to develop a new language of its own.

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