Like many people, I began this year dismissing the possibility that we could end the year with the UK having left the European Union and Donald Trump in the White House. I, like many others, have been blind to the very real fears and anxieties that saw a political earthquake shake the British political and intellectual establishment in June, and which may yet unleash another one on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow. For those of us for whom the unthinkable – Donald Trump in the White House – has become frighteningly possible, we are faced with trying to understand how so many people not only support his candidacy, but in the process are so venomously hostile to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The US stands on the verge of electing its first female president yet instead of celebrating the possibility of shattering the greatest glass ceiling of all, the narrative that has dominated Clinton’s path to the White House is of a power-hungry, corrupt woman ruthless in her ambition to occupy the Oval Office. This has been a campaign of hate, violence, smears, lies, and levels of xenophobia and misogyny unseen in the modern era. The prospects for America have never looked bleaker; that is not hyperbole – in the 20 years I have been studying the US never has the country stood so divided over what America stands for, what America is.
So how did it get to this? Trump, it has been argued, represents the latest incarnation of American populism, a political movement that emerged in the late 19th century but whose legacy lives on, through the fears and anxieties of predominantly white working-class Americans who increasingly reject a political establishment that no longer speaks to their needs and concerns. The issues and ideals that inspired the populist movement of the 19th and early 20th century were often genuinely progressive, hailing the cause of the ‘common man’ and seeking to defend the interests of the hard-working farmers and labourers from the greed and corruption of government, industry and big business in America’s ‘Gilded Age.’ But it has always been a more complex political movement, tainted by the shadow of racism and xenophobia, and its advocates – from Theodore Roosevelt to William Jennings Bryan and even Franklin Roosevelt – have themselves often fallen prey to the corruption and scandal they sought to oppose.
One of the most iconic embodiments of progressive populism was not a real-life inhabitant of the White House, but a fictional representation: Jefferson Smith, in Frank Capra’s famous, glorious movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, leader of the Montana Boy Rangers, who unexpectedly finds himself appointed a US Senator and winds up in Washington. There, his youthful idealism encounters the realities of a corrupt US political system that seeks to destroy his plan for a bill that would create a national boys camp. Demoralised, but not defeated, Mr Smith fights on; in the film’s climax, Smith takes to the floor of the US Senate and in one of the most famous filibusters in American history, gives an impassioned defence of liberty and democracy. Jefferson Smith was perhaps director Frank Capra’s most iconic populist hero. Capra was writing at a time of enormous unease and uncertainty, amidst the tumult and turmoil of the Great Depression at home and mounting fears over war in Europe. By his own admission, Capra wanted to make films that gave hope to the American people in an era dominated by fear, hatred and anxiety over the future, to capture the hopes and fears of the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses.’
Trump is no Jefferson Smith, but does he give voice to the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses’ for whom the political establishment has become the embodiment of all that is wrong in 21st-century America? Trump certainly appeals to many for whom the government and political classes are seen as the problem, not the solution. He is not afraid to stand up, to ‘think and to speak’ many of the fears and worries that are at the roots of populism’s rage. Trump professes to embody the fears and beliefs that dare not be spoken, to voice what thousands of people in America’s heartlands – that great swathe of rural America beyond the Beltway – think and feel but which have for too long, in their view, been dismissed as politically incorrect by the liberal intelligentsia. Although they appeal to difference audiences, explicitly distancing themselves from the philosopher-king intellectualism of Barack Obama – which has proved such a turn-off for many Americans – has been an important source of legitimacy both for Trump, and left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders.
But Trump’s populism is of the most dangerous kind, far removed from the moral idealism of Jefferson Smith. Trump’s appropriates the language of freedom and democracy to mask an authoritarianism that seeks to take America back to a simpler, ‘purer’ (read: whiter) past, one untainted by multiculturalism, equality and pluralism. His candidacy is not the first to do this. As Michael Kazin notes in his article on Trump and Populism for Foreign Affairs, as populism evolved in the 20th century it became increasingly intertwined with racism and xenophobic nationalism; even in the 1880s, parts of the movement sought to ban imported Chinese and Japanese labourers resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although the Populist Party led by William Jennings Bryan collapsed and never saw the inside of the White House, populism as a political force lived on. By the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan had become the most visible and extreme manifestation of the socio-cultural populism that increasingly demonised the ‘other’ – from Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, to African-Americans denied the rights fought for during the Civil War, to annual quotas on immigrants. It found its voice in the campaigns of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s who fought for states’ rights and to overturn the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights movement, and in Pat Buchanan in the 1990s with his isolationist platform for the presidency that sought to build a ‘sea wall’ to stop immigrants from ‘sweeping over our southern borders.’ Sound familiar?
If Bernie Sanders represents a more traditional, economic populism, then Trump is the manifestation of its worst, and most dangerous excesses. Yet never has this strain of American populism come so perilously close to the White House. Lyndon Johnson succeeded in defeating Republican challenger Barry Goldwater largely by branding him as a dangerous extremist; Hillary Clinton’s attempts to do the same appear to be floundering. Why? Clinton, for all her qualities as a champion of women and children’s rights, is the archetypal Washington insider, the very embodiment of a political establishment and personal dynasty that is feared and loathed by so many. Trump has undoubtedly used lies and manipulation to smear and tarnish Hillary, but allegations of corruption have followed the Clintons from Arkansas to Washington. The email scandal that has tainted her campaign was, for many, just the latest scandal in a sordid Clinton-family saga of power and corruption. Many, myself included, will celebrate her victory if she does indeed become America’s first female candidate but, like Barack Obama, her triumph may expose more wounds than it heals.
As a recent study showed, feminism and women’s equality is a seen as a threat to many white, working-class males, living in a post-industrial economy which poses challenges to traditional gender roles and Trump has tapped into this angst with frightening ease. While many Republicans have come out to vociferously oppose the sexism and misogyny at the heart of Trump’s campaign, hostility towards women is, sadly, one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. A defeat for Trump may send him packing from Washington, but the sentiments he has manipulated and exploited will remain long after he has gone. A Clinton presidency – through policies designed to help close the gender pay gap, provide for affordable childcare and paid leave, and increase the minimum wage – may go some way towards the ‘unfinished business’ of greater equality and opportunities for women Clinton’s former advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about. But as Slaughter herself recognised, many of the problems facing women in America today are ones shared by their male counterparts who have parental and caring responsibilities and who face many of the same challenges in navigating the personal and the professional in the 21st-century. This helps explain, in part, why Hillary has strong support amongst college-educated white males; non-educated white males, however, have shown overwhelming support for Trump. She may not need their votes to gain the White House, or to stay there, but neither can she dismiss the needs and fears of the ‘angry white men’ who feel left behind by the advances in feminism, multiculturalism and civil rights of the last few decades.
Where then, will America be left on November 9th? Polling suggests that Clinton will likely prevail in the electoral college (this is a process whereby each state has a certain number of electors appointed, reflecting the number of members in that state’s congressional delegation – both House and Senate – so the larger and more populous a state, the more votes are up for grabs. Each state bar Maine and Nebraska adopts a winner-take-all approach, and to win the presidency you must win 270 electoral college votes). But, as Brexit reminded us, polls can be fickle things and there are a number of key ‘swing states’ crucial for any president to win the electoral college – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia – that remain up for grabs. Early voting is showing strong support for Clinton yet her overall poll-lead over Trump has declined from 14-points prior to the FBI’s recent decision to re-open the investigation into Hillary’s emails, to a mere two points in the last few days.
Whatever happens, America’s wounds will not heal easily. It may seem naive to hope that a modern-day Jefferson Smith can rise from the ashes of this campaign and fight for the ‘Smiths and the Joneses’ without recourse to the demagoguery, racism, sexism and violence that Trump embodies. The problem for America is that, as many have pointed out, this is where America is in 2016. It is a nation where demagoguery, lies, hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia and even violence have found a home and a voice. And Americans are having to live this election and all that is represents; as one social media user commented: ‘To the bystanders who think this election is a train wreck. We. Are. On. The. Train.’ But this is also an election that is bearing witness to the extraordinary belief that America is better than this, that America remains a country where pluralism, diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and hope can and do thrive; to cite one of Barack Obama’s favourite quotes from Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’
Fearing the fall-out from making a film so critical of the US political system at a time when the nation’s political leaders were facing momentous challenges, Frank Capra questioned whether he ought to even make Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but concluded that ‘the more uncertain are the people of the world…the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals…It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.’ If ever there was a time to reclaim all that is great and good about America and its democratic ideals, that time is now. As America stands poised on the brink of one of its most vitriolic and consequential elections in modern history, we should be reminded of one of America’s most beloved and revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, spoke to a nation divided: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016 via wikimedia commons.