The billionaire Donald Trump as the champion of the working class poor is a stunning paradox, writes Bill Jamieson
In a brilliant Reith lecture given in Glasgow the other week, the philosopher Kwame Appiah advanced two ideas on the theme of Mistaken Identities. One was that nations were founded on perceptions of “a common life”.
But the other was that, looking at the history of Europe, that notion of common life was shot through with many other loyalties and identities – regional, tribal, religious, ethnic. In fact, for most of us, he argued, there is less a sense of “a common life” and more one of different identities: that our lives are - and this was the vivid phrase he used – “a dance with ambiguities”.
His thoughtful lecture bizarrely came to mind as my eye fell upon the photographs of Donald Trump’s gilded apartment featured in many of the UK papers this week. The ceiling- to- floor drape curtains; the Louis X1V bling; the gold-encrusted furniture; the bandy-legged chairs; the grotesque chandeliers - Versailles extruded through Miami Vice: any lingering idea that America’s President-elect shared “a common life” with the dirt poor rural homesteads and rustbelt towns that voted for him seemed smothered in money-no-object gold lacquer. As for that “dance with ambiguities”, no such subtlety was evident here.
For many years political anoraks in the UK looked to America for inspiration and guidance on how to win elections. They drooled over the polling organisation and Madison Avenue persuasion techniques, holding them up as models for us to copy.
Not so much now, I sense. As for the outcome, is there anyone who could possibly imagine Nicola Sturgeon stepping out on the campaign stump from a Bute House dripping with chandeliers and decked out like Versailles on stilts? What use could she possibly have for those diamond-encrusted footstools other than to hurl them at Alex Neil should he walk through the door with his SNP Brexit pals?
The stunning paradox of a billionaire Donald Trump with gilded mansion and fashion model wife being swept to victory as the champion of the working class poor will now be the subject of many attempted explanations by the very pundits who assured us it could not possibly happen. And I sense that many of these explanations will focus on an unsettling truth that America is not at all “the common life” as once it was.
The idea of America sharing “a common life” had already taken a massive battering in the most bitter and divisive Presidential election campaign in living memory. As for those “ambiguities” – social, economic, religious, and racial – they did not so much dance as confront each other. These divisions the commentariat has compounded as they seek to explain away the outcome in terms of bloc votes – the Hispanic vote, the white working class vote, the women’s vote, the black vote, etc, as if these blocs had no fluidity or ambiguity. Appiah’s key point is that there is more to our sense of identity than the pre-cast mould to which such generalities consign us.
America, of course, has long been a heterogeneous mix – and one that worked to its advantage. And it held together because, while there were differences in wealth, culture, race and background, there was also some measure of accommodation and fluidity in deed and thought – that its inhabitants could find in these different identities some capability of movement – a “dance” as Appiah so elegantly put it. We’re not dancing so much now. And if the growing disparities in income and wealth were not troubling enough, both here and in America, the music of ambiguity has also stopped playing in the cultural sense. For the Trump lifestyle idyll is as offensive to many as his shoot-from-the-hip excrescences on the campaign stump.
For the liberal embrace of diversity stops abruptly at Donald Trump’s front door. From everything within they recoil in horror, for there is no snob as scathing as the progressive snob. Is it not all in the worst possible over-the-top taste?
‘Genuine faux Louis X1V’ Trump is the opposite of the stripped-down, distressed décor now held up for emulation in the high-end lifestyle magazines of East coast America and the well-heeled enclaves here. Top fee interior designers extol the bare cement walls befitting a war-time bunker; battered floorboards assembled from seaside driftwood; the absence of ornament, and the sole concession to comfort a splintered coffee table made of tar-stained logs with the nails still protruding. But don’t confuse it with middle class deprivation and austerity: To quote the sublime Dolly Parton: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Between rural and sea coast America, between the northern Brexit towns of England and the Remainder Holland Park, cultural divisions have widened as wealth and income inequalities have grown more pronounced. So, too, has the exposure to migration, negative attitudes being considered beyond the pale by those least affected by it.
Here, in America and across much of Europe now, our sense of common life has been weakened by ever more porous borders. We are not at all sure now what is “common” or indeed, whether we should worry much about what is “a common life” because for years diversity and multi-culturalism have been held up for us to embrace with noble enthusiasm.
But that nobility holds good up to a point. A fragmentation sets in. The country that once knew itself starts to lose sight of what its common identity is, what its very definition is. And it is this existential apprehension that comes to threaten and undermine that binding sense of commonality.
Over time the world of ‘no borders’ becomes one riddled with suspicion and disillusion of our neighbours. A common life needs boundaries. The conservative American poet Robert Frost spoke an eternal truth when he wrote ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ – a sentiment that might put him beyond the pale of many American university campuses were he to have penned it today.
To our detriment, our sense of common life is shrinking, and with it that fluidity and movement vital for social cohesion. To this extent our problems are less explicable as a short-lived voter spasm fed by social media than as a deeper, epochal change. And as ambiguities harden, none of this bodes well.
This polarisation demands that we break away from seeing ourselves exclusively in terms of pre-determined identities - those hermetically-sealed boxes or worse, “communities” and instead as free-thinking individuals with our own tastes and attitudes beyond the specified grid.
But it also commands a radical change in the purpose and agenda of government. Whether the administration is in the hands of the Left or Right, there is a compelling priority to address the isolation, alienation and sense of neglect clearly felt by millions of voters. President-elect Trump has chosen one way – big Keynesian infrastructure projects together with tax cuts to help re-energise America.
We may well need to think of something similar here, beyond the groundhog moaning over Brexit. For there is a bigger challenge to face and face it we must lest “the common life” gives way to hard, encrusted and permanent division.