Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election on Tuesday is about the worst possible thing that could happen to what one might call ‘progressivism’, the moderate left-liberal/multicultural formation that has exercised a great deal of power in the United States and elsewhere over the past decade or more.
Worst, because it is not only the victory of a celebrity populist candidate who deployed abuse, vitriol and threats to wrong-foot his opponents, as well as obscure his well-heeled origins and plush life. It was accompanied by Republican victory in the Senate, where they have retained control; in the House where they have retained a thirty-seat majority; and in most of the statehouse races, where they dominated (state governments set, and gerrymander, the congressional districts).
Over the next four years the Senate will confirm the President’s Supreme Court picks that may set in place a conservative judicial regime for decades to come — one that will see a much greater and more explicit role for religion and Judeo-Christian reasoning in decisions than even earlier conservative courts have had. Trump may be gone in eight or even four years, but the chance to stampede a change in Congress has gone, for the moment at least.
The most likely result for the United States is five to ten years of substantial Republican dominance, extended to twenty years by a court backed with young Supreme Court justices. In that respect it seems reasonable to say that the possibility that might have extended out of Obama’s term in office — progressivist dominance — has now gone.
Though the neoliberal/neocon formula of Thatcher/Reagan/W. Bush/Blair will not return, a right-wing nationalist regime will be in place, with its ‘America first’ nationalism extended to economic and cultural matters. Its key first moves will be a range of tax cuts for the rich and corporations (to stimulate growth), a tarrif regime, a slashing of federal services to achieve deficit reduction, mass deportation of ‘illegals’, a military policy oriented more towards substantial bombing than targeted intervention, privatisation of the school system through charter schools, and the return of religion to the centre of public life. There will be the pursuit of enemies through congressional inquiries.
Quite possibly, much of this will be handled badly, or fail outright. But if Trump’s adminstration can swing one thing — some degree of industrial revival through tariffs, punitive export taxes and infrastructure funding — then he will most likely consolidate his electoral win and permanently sunder the progressive alliance that has been in place since the mid-1960s.
The progressive alliance was effectively a repurposing of the old New Deal coalition, which was dominated by labour unions, with progressive intellectuals as an add-on. In the postwar era, college education expanded, turning the intelligentsia into a class of sorts, small though they were. Liberal professionals and the labour unions were very much in balance as part of that movement, even if a section of the working class departed at times (as in the election of Reagan, for example).
By the 1990s, with the digital revolution, the professional/knowledge/culture workers had become a mass class in their own right, distinct from service/industrial/admin workers. By the 2000s they and their culture dominated American life. The knowledge class–union tie-up had become increasingly tenuous, and contradictory, both culturally, and in terms of interests.
The progressive class benefited from globalisation, as sections of the working class got poorer. Policies put in place by Democrats to compensate were inadequate. The Republicans remained resolute free-marketeers. Donald Trump threw that out instantly, and the ‘primary’ system of US parties — where only in extreme circumstances can a party’s national committee exclude a candidate — allowed him to take his message directly to the people, and prevail.
His success allowed him to detach a section of the white working class from what remained of that progressive alliance. Should he deliver, the Republican Party will be transformed into a nationalist, protectionist one, and free market economics will be a sideline. The Democrats will have become the home of social and cultural politics for the progressive class, and for non-white groups, women, LGBTI and the disabled. Many such people won’t benefit from protectionism — quite the contrary. So there may be no easy way for the Democrats to put together a complete, compelling platform. They could quite easily become a minority party, focused on liberal states, and holding onto a minority of seats in Congress.
Should the Trump plan fail, though, the Republicans will collapse into infighting, offering progressives a chance to offer a new comprehensive deal. Since this will occur in the context of increased automation, joblessness and a pressing demand for social reconstruction of work and other aspects of social life, eventually, progressive forces may recombine within the shells of the existing parties, or there may be a more comprehensive reorgansiation, in which new parties form.
What should be obvious from all of this is that the urgent task for those who want a society in which equality and freedom are seen as measured by the expression of human flourishing within culturally and naturally rich contexts (which is one idea of what the Left is, or has been) then the wheezing, patches-on-patches vehicle of progressivism can no longer be kept on the road. Its combination of old statist social democracy, open borders, postmodern liberalism, identity theory, all bound up in an implicit universalism, no longer works, even a little.
It was the fragile and contradictory nature of this progressivism that made it possible for Trump to win — with a far more organic and integrated political philosophy than could be marshalled against it. This is all, in a different form, coming here too. If critical leftists, post-leftists, humanists, whatever, do not put their service to the reconstruction of the wider notion of progressivism — by relentless critical attack on its contradictions — then it will be scattered and defeated as surely as the well-meaning, stricken Hillary-ites weeping on Tuesday night in the unshattered glass house on the edge of New York.
– Guy Rundle