Euan McColm: Trump offers no hope to demagogues of the left

Trumps undeniable appeal to so many voters presents a daunting challenge to liberal pragmatists. Picture: 
Ty Wright/Getty
Trumps undeniable appeal to so many voters presents a daunting challenge to liberal pragmatists. Picture: Ty Wright/Getty
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Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election is good news for whatever you believe in. Whether you’re on the right or the left, the elevation of this screeching hate clown to the most powerful office in the western world shows that your dreams are about to come true.

And if you’re wondering how the Trump win can mean a boost for campaigners of every political persuasion, just flick through some the acres of analysis that followed it.

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn seized on Trump’s ability to mobilise voters who felt betrayed by “the establishment” as evidence their man would prevail come the next general election. Those who had preferred Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination explained that it wasn’t so much that Trump had won but that Hillary Clinton had lost; the result simply showed that Bernie should have stood.

I’m more inclined to agree with the analysis of those right-wingers who said Trump’s success showed they were correct to campaign on restricting immigration. The president elect’s dogwhistle politics were heard loud and clear by conservative American voters who prefer a whiter version of their country.

Trump’s victory shouldn’t be looked at in isolation. Rather, we should see it as the latest in a series of events that are demolishing the idea of pragmatic politics. The rise of Scottish nationalism, the increase in support for Ukip south of the Border, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union: all of these reveal a growing sense of anger with mainstream politics.

And we should expect this rage to find further expression.

Who, for example, would now confidently bet against Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant Front National party triumphing in next year’s French presidential elections?

You may think that such an idea demands a “surely not?” in response. But, then, many of us thought “surely not?” when it came to Brexit and the Trump victory.

It is customary in political campaigns for the losing side to accept blame. Part of this process involves the vanquished promising to understand what it was that drew voters to their opponents.

There has been such hand-wringing in the aftermath of the presidential election. How can what we might think of as liberal politicians reconnect with the substantial number of people who have lined up behind “anti-establishment” parties?

There is no easy answer to this question. Those political leaders who oppose the cheap populism espoused by Trump or Ukip’s Nigel Farage can hardly move on to their territory, can they?

And the grim reality keeps on coming. Optimists have suggested in recent days that President Trump will be a less unappealing figure than Candidate Trump was; having got down and dirty to win the presidential battle, Trump will emerge as a statesman, a leader of substance.

This is a hugely comforting hypothesis, I’m sure. But it’s nonsense.

Trump is not an unsuitable man to be American president simply because of his behaviour during the campaign. His unsuitability can be measured through decades of shady dealings and bullying.

There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that Trump is likely to change. Nobody changes that much.

Whenever he came under pressure during the campaign, Trump’s instinct was to lash out, suggesting he – and his supporters – had fallen victim to dark forces, to a conspiracy. When he comes under pressure as president, won’t he do the same? Of course he will.

Trump supporters insist that he was not carried to victory by racists. Let’s say that is so. Let’s say that not all of those who backed him are bigots. All that tells us is that those of his supporters who aren’t racist were happy to ignore the racism of his campaign. And that makes them apologists for racism.

It would be a pleasure to find something good, something worth celebrating, in Trump’s victory but I cannot for the life of me see it.

Political debate was already becoming more rancorous, less thoughtful before Trump announced his candidacy. What he has achieved over the last year is to move the line of what is considered acceptable in campaigning further into the darkness.

Trump has shown that a loudmouthed opportunist can push voters’ buttons using rhetoric that we thought had died out decades ago. His successful campaign is now a blueprint for others.

Over recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to politicians battling on the centre ground. Now, the fight is between parties holding completely polarised positions. The old days of left vs right are back and this reality must surely lead those of us who hold liberal views to the bleak conclusion that the hard right will triumph, every time. It was, after all, ever thus.

The politics of the centre ground is now under fire as never before. Centrism is, to both the new right and the radical left, the discredited preoccupation of the “elites”.

Trump’s victory – and the succour it gives to nationalist parties across the world – may fan the fire in the bellies of left-wing activists but I’d argue that the best chance of stopping the rise of the new right is for a new, muscular centrism to emerge.

There is a long battle road ahead for those who believe in the pragmatism of the centre ground but it is a journey which requires to be taken.

In the UK, with Corbynistas threatening to deselect Labour MPs and the Tories settling back – after a brief flirtation with the centre under David Cameron – into a more clearly defined right-wing position, those of the centre will have to overcome many obstacles.

The success of the Leave campaign’s insular, anti-immigration rhetoric during the EU referendum campaign tells us that the UK is as susceptible as the US is to the scaremongering of the most disreputable politicians.

Donald Trump’s victory last week marked another milestone in the surge of the intolerant new right. If he and his fellow travellers are to be stopped in their tracks, we need a confident new liberalism.

It’s time for the rise of the reasonable.