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In 1963 Philip K. Dick. Wrote the book ‘The Man in The High Castle’, set in 1960s America in an alternative universe where the Germans and the Japanese had won the Second World War. The concept is based on the idea of quantum realities, where one or two small occurrences can lead to an infinite array of outcomes all playing out somewhere.
The book was recently made into a TV series which I enjoyed a few months ago. The main protagonists in the story feel that somehow things are not as they should be and that somewhere, in some other universe, the outcome of the war had been different. In the small hours of Wednesday morning I couldn’t shake off that same feeling.
As I watched the US election special and saw the percentages swing in Donald Trump’s favour, it felt surreal. Like at any minute I’d wake up from this chilling nightmare. At the very least there would have been a comforting commercial break with someone trying to sell me face cream or a hamburger, then back to the outlandish finale of tonight’s final edition of ‘The Man in Trump Tower’.
But of course this wasn’t fiction. No matter how unreal it seemed, or how unlikely it was that the American electorate were about to replace one of their greatest Presidents with a lying, boorish, narcissistic, TV personality – a man possessed of zero experience in political office and a borderline personality disorder. It really was happening.
There was also of course a feeling of déjà vu for us in the UK. A reminder of a similar night when we waited eagerly for news of the referendum. Many of us felt the same sickening sinking feeling as area after area came back with a majority to leave.
Something else both these events shared was staggeringly inaccurate predictions from the polls. Even though there was a narrowing in the positions between the two candidates it was the received wisdom that Clinton would carry the day. Moreover there was a belief that the American people may have flirted with the nihilistic charms of someone like Donald J, but that in the end they’d never really plump for Trump.
So how did they get it so wrong? How did someone like Trump, whose own campaign flew in the face of everything one expected from a presidential candidate, overtake a seasoned politician like Hillary Clinton?
The clue of course is in that very fact. Clinton was the establishment. What she offered was plain vanilla policies, an extension of the status quo from the last 8 years of Obama’s administration. Regardless of the many good things Obama had managed to achieve, he was hamstrung by the internal machinations of the US political system. So much of what he could have achieved was stymied, leaving a swathe of people, particularly blue collar society and below, feeling left behind and betrayed by the Obama dream.
Trump’s skill as a salesman helped him spot that gap in the political market. A void filled with the dispossessed and silenced masses who saw their lives falling apart under previous administrations and who were prepared to believe there were easy solutions to any of it. In that scenario the idea that they would vote for more of the same was ludicrous. Trump’s whole shtick was that he represented change and that was simply more attractive, even if it that change meant burning down the whole house. If you don’t own a house, or even the proverbial pot to piss in, why should you fear the flames? At least you’ll be warm.
As with Brexit there have been the usual claims that only stupid or ignorant people voted for Trump or to leave the EU. That’s a misrepresentation. But I do think both the Leave argument and Trump appealed to people who see societal issues and their solution as a simple cause and effect relationship.
It may seem like cultural elitism to say so, but lack of higher education does feed into that scenario. Better education tends to encourage a more analytical approach to problems. An understanding of how systems interact, the law of unintended consequences, and a belief in the uncertainty principle. Cause and effect is an easier concept to sell to people who don’t look beyond what they perceive as the obvious.
Trump didn’t offer any viable solutions beyond extemporised soundbite slogans and baseball cap logos. It was familiar dog-whistle campaigning. Too many undocumented Mexicans? – Build a wall. Foreign manufacturers destroying your factories? – Introduce import tariffs. Industry closing down? – Start it up again. Fear of Islamic extremist?- Ban Muslims. He could say anything and get away with it, because most of his supporters wanted to believe it really was that simple.
All this has historical echoes that I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone of. The really depressing thing is that we never seem to learn. When faced with two choices – one to take a progressive approach based on social justice and equality and another rooted in fear, distrust and authoritarianism, we frequently seem to default to the latter and it invariably leads to a worse life for the very people voting for it.
There has been much criticism of the liberal left operating in a bubble and failing to make a strong alternative case. There’s some truth in that, but we also have to consider how a more progressive stance, with long term views and considerations of things like equitability and fairness, can compete against the simplistic mantras being doled out by the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers. People who ultimately don’t care about truth, accuracy or deliverability, as long as they win. That’s an echo chamber in itself and it’s largely deafened its inhabitants to any other views.
The rise of the working class right has always baffled me. The disbelief in liberal or left wing views that would positively impact the lives of the poor and vulnerable is nearly always characterised by those very same people as unrealistic and fantastical. Suggesting we could build a million new council houses inspires immediate calls for an explanation for how we can afford it. More resources for healthcare? Show us the money!
Yet when someone proposes to build a 2000 mile wall across an entire country between a fabulously rich nation and a poor one, the people are satisfied with the crude explanation that the poorer one will pay for it.
There’s an almost catholic consensus that any proposals to do good things on a grand scale must somehow be treated with suspicion. That unless it hurts it can’t be right. It’s an innate, almost primeval belief.
Anyone proposing an alternative is characterised as a loony left dreamer, whereas someone pushing unrealistic reactionary, cause and effect policies are seen as strong and decisive. In those cases the idea alone is seen as motivation enough to find a way of achieving the goal. This seems never to be the case on policies motivated by social justice. Then, every minute principle has to be torn apart, debated, discussed and thrown out before it’s even considered as a starting point. “Yes it’s a nice idea but…”
In what is fast becoming a post-intellectual, post-facts, post-common-sense age, left leaning politics is stymied by its own honesty, transparency and willingness to debate and discuss radical ideas. After Trump and Brexit, I really don’t see how progressives can compete against the simplistic notionalism that seems to be being given a free ride on the right.
The one hope of a popular progressive movement was Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which as we all know was ultimately snuffed out by the not so well hidden agendas of the DNC. The polls (if they can be believed) had him easily winning against Trump, yet it was not to be. If he runs again in 2020 he’ll be 79, but I wouldn’t put it past him. That is of course assuming any of us make it to 2020 with Trump carrying the nuclear launch codes.
Hopefully before then we’ll have finally seen the result of giving someone like Trump his head, and those who now firmly believe he’s going to be their messiah will have realised they’ve been had by a snake oil salesman.
The only consolation I can find in Tuesday’s result is the hope that the myth of his simplistic cause and effect policies will quickly be shown to be exactly that – fantasy. We’ve been here before and the pendulum usually swings back, although the last time it was more like a wrecking ball.
Or maybe somewhere in an alternative reality Trump didn’t win and we’re all now looking forward to a better world, maybe a Bernie Sanders world. If anyone figures out a way to get there, I’ll be at the head of the queue.