The crash of 2007 wasn’t just a normal recession, it marked the early death-throes of the neoclassical economic belief system, a fundamental failure of the rules that govern global finance that ushered in an era of omni-uncertainty.
People can see we have not bounced back, they understand that the global economy can’t take another hit and they see that not everyone is suffering equally, that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. A wave of economic fear, alienation and a need to blame both the establishment and minorities (immigrants) is sweeping the developed world. Those that are suffering most long for a candidate to say: “Don’t worry, I have this covered.” It doesn’t matter if the establishment or the media think the ideas on offer won’t work, the establishment has failed and is no longer trusted.
The US election upset was a double-blame campaign; a mix of voters blaming the establishment candidate combining with the maverick candidate’s willingness to blame immigrants and minorities, a very dangerous cocktail.
Ordinary people are worried about their mortgages and about the debt that they were convinced to take out by governments who thought easy access to finance (leading to high levels of personal debt) was good for the economy. They worry about their job security, their neighbourhoods and their children’s future, and sometimes even about feeding and keeping their families warm. They worry that the economy is never going to recover.
Establishment politicians seem impotent in the face of this new and ever-present economic threat and so there is room for the maverick or extremist and it almost doesn’t matter what they say as long as it’s heterodox in nature and connects with the voters’ fears or hopes on a deeper level than the orthodox candidates can. Donald Trump sought to tap into voters’ lowest fears whereas Bernie Sanders sought to tap people’s highest aspirations, but the Democratic Party didn’t have the nerve to back Sanders, who would have probably won.
Trump and Brexit show us that even if your policies are nuts, even if you make mistakes, as long as you carry with you an unbreakable self-belief and are able to tap into the mistrust of people then they will forgive you for almost any political lie, for they expect politicians to lie. What they won’t forgive you for is personal lies, theft and law breaking. Hillary Clinton was an establishment figure, she weathered many a storm and had better arguments, but when the FBI announced another investigation into private email use the trust in her dropped below the levels required to beat the maverick.
David Cameron found himself in the same position, the ultimate establishment figure, and his trust was eroded when Boris Johnson undermined him; a leading Tory sided with the maverick Nigel Farage and it didn’t matter that the Leave campaign’s figures didn’t add up. At least Leave seemed to have a plan when Cameron’s damp squib EU negotiations showed he was just another failing establishment figure and the balance of trust had switched.
So in Brexit parlance what are we looking at, a soft Trump or hard Trump? The Republican party now controls both houses and they owe a debt to Trump for that, but they know it’s a house of cards. If they let Trump implement his most eye-catching or extreme policies, absolute power could turn to absolute disaster. The GoP old guard will seek to control him, to rein him in, to use him, and Trump doesn’t understand how Washington works. He is an outsider and so his ability to lead will be limited at first. Trade tariffs of 45 per cent, a wall on the Mexico border, a ban on Muslims travelling to America; people are already demonstrating, there will be no honeymoon period if the Republican establishment doesn’t contain his enthusiasm. Make no mistake, Trump has a Corbyn-esque relationship with the Republican Party representatives and they know they might not survive an unrestrained Trump presidency.
Let’s not underestimate him, though. He may say idiotic things but he is not an idiot. Intelligence comes in many forms, basic problem-solving intelligence, creative, spatial, verbal, empathic, social, commercial, even parental intelligence. You can register off the scale on one intelligence and not even be on it for another.
Trump, arguably, has a great deal of commercial intelligence and was absolutely able to empathise with the poor, worried and disenfranchised of America, but his environmental and social intelligence would seem to be non-existent, and this is the problem for all to see. Trump’s manipulation of people’s fears and ability to focus that fear on outsiders, people of different colours, religions and even disabilities was not dumb, it was calculated and intelligent, just also lacking in social empathy and ethical intelligence to dangerous levels.
Across the developed world, mavericks and extremists are emerging as credible candidates to the disenfranchised, the worried and financially anxious with messages such as “Make America great again”, “Put the Great back in Great Britain”, “Keep Mother Russia Strong”, or as the more subtle Austrian right-wing presidential candidate Norbert Hofer has it: “Unspoilt, honest, good.”
Hofer was beaten by Alexander van der Bellen and this is the equal and opposite reaction to the wave of fear. The antithesis of desperation is the counter-wave of hope, of enlightenment, with Green presidents in Austria and Latvia, the enlightened outward-looking civic nationalism of Nicola Sturgeon, the Liberal Justin Trudeau in Canada, Sanders (the best president America never had) and many others.
Steel yourselves: we are at a crossroads in human social history, a tipping point or maybe a breaking point. These two opposing waves, one looking backward to imagined halcyon days the other looking forward to a better-planned, more equal future, will crash into one another again and again until we either enter a new renaissance or a new dark age. I don’t support independence simply for the sake of self-determination: you might sell me on federalism if that were the case. I want independence as it gives us a chance to reject the failed neoclassical world order, to build a better, more sustainable, equal, prosperous and fairer society, a chance to put ourselves at the forefront of the new enlightenment, to say no-one is going to Trump us.