As things stand today, Donald Trump looks set to become the Republican candidate. I have to confess, I dismissed this possibility until fairly late last year. When Twitter and Facebook followers suggested I updated my Bush avatar to a Trump one, I rejected the suggestion on the basis that by now, we’d barely remember who Trump was. I’ve now remedied my mistake.
Trump has played his hand perfectly, and rallied a strong base consisting primarily of white, working class voters. He boasts of self-funding his campaign, and this is kinda true; but in reality, his campaign has been ultra-cheap, thanks to endless free publicity from those who hate and fear him. While I generally enjoy sharing stories about crazy right-wing politicians doing crazy shit, I’ve backed off in Trump’s case, because that’s what he wants us to do. He delights in being called a fascist, a Nazi or a new Hitler: that’s exactly how his PR campaign works. It’s not that most of his supporters actually want to elect a new Hitler: it’s that they delight in watching shrieking middle-class “liberals” predict the end of the world every time Trump does something deliberately Nazi-like.
The left has run out of language with which to make Trump look bad. If shouting “FASCISM!” 99 times didn’t work, it’s unlikely a hundredth will make any difference. Trump cleverly got the fascist accusations out of the way early. Now he can do anything he wants, and his supporters recognise it for what it is: he’s taking the piss out of the politically-correct left, and they love it. He dangles left-wing activists like puppets. He says or does something outrageous, they respond, his supporters roar their appreciation. Donald Trump could appear at a rally in Nazi uniform and a Hitler moustache, and his supporters would laugh and cheer, because they get the joke.
I’ve predicted all this repeatedly, ever since (perhaps 5 years ago) I found I could no longer stomach what the left has become. Identity politics is fascism distilled and made palatable for a new era. The new left has demanded that language be policed in order that no “oppressed” group be offended in any way. It has insisted in labelling successful, middle-class black people oppressed, while telling poor white people they are privileged. No wonder Trump’s support comes from the latter group. They hate the sneering, privileged elitists who have insisted on calling them privileged, and who can blame them?
So it’s the new left, not the right, that’s responsible for reintroducing fascist methods into modern politics. Identity politics and political correctness are not progressive, liberal or democratic ideas. They are ideas for dividing people by race and gender; for creating false definitions of privilege and oppression; for destroying equality and solidarity, which were the keystones of the old left. Trump is surfing a tsunami created by the collapse of liberal values. Political correctness created taboos that The Donald has taken the greatest pleasure in demolishing.
But while his opponents have protested over his populist grandstanding, they have largely ignored the really dangerous part of his message: nationalism. While most commentators have focused on his more outrageous outbursts, they have ignored his core message, which is an anti-free trade one. And here is the true menace in modern politics: Trump’s attitudes to free trade are shared by Bernie Sanders, and by Jeremy Corbyn. A recent Guardian article pointed out that some Sanders supporters would rather vote for Trump than Clinton, quoting one supporter: “Bernie and Trump agree a lot on healthcare, Iraq war, campaign finance and trade. I really want to move on to something new, new ideas from outside the box. Maybe Donald Trump can provide that.”
How can the left stop a populist menace from rising to power when they often agree with him on the important issues?
Defence of free trade has been left to the centre-ground; but this is shrinking as politics becomes more polarised. Meanwhile, the extremes are growing stronger. People object when I compare the rise of Corbyn and Sanders to that of Trump, Farage and Le Pen, but they shouldn’t. On this most vital of issues, they are all on the same side.
The huge fact of the past couple of decades is this: between 1990 and 2010, almost a billion people were lifted out of poverty. This era has been mankind’s greatest, but in times of rapid change, there are losers as well as winners. In this case, the losers have been the lowest-skilled workers in America, Europe and Japan. And it is exactly these people who flock to Trump and UKIP, just as exactly these people flocked to Hitler and Mussolini. Free trade is, understandably, a dirty word to those workers who have seen manufacturing shift to poorer countries; naturally, they want things back as they were, even though that can never happen. But it is the intellectual bankruptcy of the left that is making way for the rise of the populist right.
The progressive left – to which I’ve pledged allegiance for most of the past four decades – is on its deathbed. We remaining progressives need to help it on its way, because it has become the lubricant for the rise of a new fascist era. Those who still think politics is divided into left and right fail to understand what is going on; and those on the left who refuse to attack Donald Trump’s anti-free trade message will be the ones who bring him to power. He probably won’t ban Muslims, or build a Mexican wall, or deport millions of illegal immigrants; but he will try to introduce a new era of protectionism and nation-vs-nation disunity. And we know how that tends to end up.