The election of billionaire and reality TV host Donald Trump to the most powerful political position in the world has created global shockwaves. As countless commentators have already observed, Trump’s election is a stunning reminder of the depth of social division in the United States. For millions of Americans, particularly in the rust-belt states and rural areas, Trump’s candidacy provided a golden opportunity to stick a finger up at the political establishment that has so long neglected their needs and anxieties. And the more outrageous his statements, the better he became a symbol of that finger.
But to attribute Trump’s victory to the very real frustrations of the mostly (though not exclusively) white working class and struggling middle class is to beg the crucial question. Why has the US, like other democracies worldwide, so signally failed to generate political alternatives that would offer genuine answers to their frustrations? Very few people, probably even few of Trump’s supporters, genuinely think that building a wall on the Mexican border, keeping Muslims out of the United States or offering massive tax cuts across the board is actually going to improve the everyday lives of those who voted for him. Serious policies to redistribute at least some measure of wealth away from America’s ultra-rich and towards its working and unemployed poor would make many of those lives better. But no-one is offering such policies.
There are two obvious reasons why social frustrations are generating the divisive sloganeering of “reality politics”, instead of inspiring inclusive visions of the sharing of wealth. One reason lies in the mainstream media. For decades, substantial sections of the media, with an eye to the interests of their corporate advertisers, have poured scorn on and systematically undermined any political group which had the temerity to suggest policies of economic redistribution. At the same time, they have cheerfully profited from the sales revenue generated by stories that evoke envy of the establishment and fear of ethnic and religious minorities. In the final stages of the election, most of the US media panicked at the spectre of the genie they had let out of the bottle and withdrew their support for Trump. But by then it was too late: their last-minute denunciations of the republican candidate only enhanced his appeal.
The second reason lies deeper in our economic and political system. In the age of co-called “globalization”, the competitive quest by governments around the world for short-term corporate growth has led them to neglect and run down the social basis on which the entire edifice of the market economy and democracy rests. The crumbling cities of middle America are just visible symbols of a much deeper decay. Governments in the United States, Australia and elsewhere have curbed education budgets and channelled funds away from social education into more immediately profit-generating areas of technology and business training, at the very time when profound technological and social change made it more essential than ever for education to teach the basics of citizenship.
Meanwhile, governments have also promoted migration when it served short-term economic needs, while paying, at best, hollow lip-service to the multiculturalism necessary to make ethnically diverse societies work. The serious 1970s and 1980s debates about the need for multicultural education and social inclusiveness vanished, as governments blithely assumed that the social implications of a globalised system could take of themselves.
The consequences of this neglect are that, in a world of widening economic gaps, whole generations are growing up without being offered the knowledge necessary to navigate an increasingly complex cultural world: a world of intersecting beliefs and traditions, and of dizzyingly rapid, confusing and untrammelled online information flows. Instead of seriously addressing the need for new forms of education in media literacy, multiculturalism and democratic citizenship, politicians have preferred to turn the fears and prejudices that arise from this neglect to their own short-term electoral advantage.
Donald Trump’s election shows us, more clearly than anything else, the end-point to which this political path is taking us. The undermining of our social foundations has produced a system that elects a leader of the world’s most powerful democracy who is the greatest threat to global economic and political stability that we have seen for years. If we are to have any hope that democracy and economic freedom will survive into the middle of the twenty-first century, it is time now to go back to basics.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.