Witch-hunt on Trump: Establishment’s anger about “America First” and reclaiming power from Washington

Last week, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. A man of a surprisingly blunt language and the one who is not shy to speak his mind on issues some regard as far too controversial, he managed to shock the “correct-thinking people” once more. His inauguration speech will not be remembered for its eloquence, nor for its relatively short length, but for the astonishingly direct and forceful way in which he denounced the political establishment as self-serving and corrupt. Yet instead of asking and discussing if Trump was right and correct in what he stands for; which is a task fitting for democratic societies, mainstream media resorted to denouncing him in a myriad of inventive ways.

As TV cameras captured the inauguration spectacle for the rest of the world to see, the Democratic and Republic grandees present on the same tribune as Trump were left gasping for air as the new President started speaking about “a small group in our nation’s Capital” that “[has] reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” The speech broke many other taboos too as Trump expressed support for patriotism, putting “America First”, and returning power back to the people from Washington D.C. His speech was also full of action and strong, muscular pronouncements of the sort that have largely disappeared from the vocabulary of Western societies. Liberal commentators in a sort of reflexive snap reaction referred to them as “paternalist” or “authoritarian” or some combination thereof.

Donald Trump’s highly contested inauguration speech

Trump could hardly save himself from a harsh judgement even when he added that “whether we are black, brown or white, we bleed the same blood of patriots.” Bleeding and patriotism are certainly not two words that our delicate Western ears are used to hearing: we live in societies that are fine with sending drones and professional military to blow up people in other parts of the world, but we shy away from references to anything too primal and violent in our own backyard.

No country for old men (questioning the status quo)

So unsurprisingly, the thunderstruck reaction of the establishment to which Trump pointed out quickly followed. Ross Douthat at New York Times called Trump’s speech “populist and combative” and “eschew[ing] the rhetoric of liberty in favor of expansive promises of protection” (Douthat 2017) and “veering towards fascism” (Douthat 2017). Gary Younge in The Guardian was more poetic in saying that “fear and malevolence” and that “[t]he hands that once grabbed pussy now have access to the nuclear launch codes” (Younge 2017). The Guardian’s editorial chimed in to label it “a sham” and “a declaration of war on everything represented by these choreographed civilities” (Editorial 2017). Trump’s nods to lack of prejudice were called insincere (why?), his arguably bleak depiction that America is facing as “sketching dystopian landscapes”, and his lack of wishing good health to hospital-ridden George H.W. Bush and his wife as a proof that the man is “not capable of being magnanimous” (Abramson et al. 2017).

Meanwhile, others were more ingenious in pointing that “many lines in Trump’s address were unobjectionable by themselves”, yet “it was hard to take Trump seriously when he said them” (Larison 2017). The Washington Post then put the final nail in Trump’s ready made coffin: the new President was “furious and resentful” the first moment he walked into the White House (Parker et al. 2017).

In other words, the new President’s inauguration speech was branded as dumb, nationalistic, xenophobic, bigoted, populist, aggressive, or even white supremacist. Trump’s credo to put “America First” seemed to have taken particularly many hits as either “egoist” or plainly “malicious” (Pehe 2017). Neither the support for patriotism or giving back power to the people were spared this journalistic version of waterboarding treatment: commentators made a stunning revelation (!) that also North Korea celebrates patriotic devotion (and, “therefore”, Trump must be same as Kim Jong-un, right?) and that people’s champions are also Hugo Chávez, Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán.

At one point, CNN started comparing the size of crowds during Obama's (2013) and Trump's (2017) respective inaugurations. Conclusion: Trump has less supporters. Copyright by CNN (2017).
At one point, CNN started comparing the size of crowds during Obama’s (2013) and Trump’s (2017) respective inaugurations. Conclusion: Trump has less supporters. Copyright by CNN (2017).

Let me be clear: what is staggering is not that politicians, journalists, or different commentators make these judgments or go to such depths in attacking Trump. Where freedom of speech exists, that is everyone’s perfect right and, for journalists, even a duty of exposing what they see as important for the public. The truly shocking thing is that a large majority of these authors express their opinion without any further qualifications or a semblance of analysis. Since what time is protesting against the power of elites “aggressive”, since when patriotism turns one into a North Korean dictator, and since when appealing to democracy is only an attribute of dubious demagogues? Where are the standards of balanced journalism, when Barack Obama, the only American President who was permanently in war during his two terms in the office and who regularly resorted to extrajudicial killings of American citizens by drone strikes, is regarded by the same media as a perfect embodiment of Western liberal democratic values? Is that not the clearest example of “disinformation” and propaganda that we have recently started blaming squarely on Russia?

The much lauded objective journalism of the mainstream Western media, often contrasted to “fake news” of RT or Sputnik, thus seems to favour throwing around labels and accusations without evidence, publishing defamation reports written by private contract agents that did not pass intelligence vetting, and ad hominem attacks that regularly depict Trump as an unstable raging monster. If one regularly reads these reports, one has to wonder how such a man can even hold a pen for two minutes without drooling from his mouth, firing an aide for being the wrong colour of skin, or ordering to build a high wall here or there; because it is just in his despicable nature to be an aggressive xenophobe. Inevitably, the underlying assumption is that “such a brute” could have been elected only by the same kind as him.

Is the only alternative to liberalism really a dystopia?

Seemingly, there is a deeply ingrained conviction among the liberal elite that Trump‘s words about the rotten establishment are lies, vulgar, or both. It is as if some believe that direct naming and shaming is not appropriate for an inauguration speech, that if at all present, it should be wrapped in the thick plastic of polite phrases and nice words, and that only mild references should be made to “problems” “we are currently dealing with”, but in no way question the nature of the system. Because that is impolite, that is not correct to the reality, in one word, that is populist. Or is it not? Is it not the purpose of politics, and even more so of democratic politics, to speak to the people and with the people in a frank language that is understandable to all? In other words, build a link between voters and speak in a manner that directly identifies the problems that a society is dealing with? Trump’s critics should get this one absolutely clear, since by attacking him for his remarks in the inauguration speech, they are attacking many democratic and republican values (in small capitals!) as well. It only seems many have forgotten such values exist, because they got so much used to liberalism being the only set of ideals repeated on the public channels.

Very few critics stopped and asked if there is actually anything problematic per se with Trump’s key promises to return power from Washington and with putting “America First”. Do they really mean anything but a belief that the chief American politician should make the interests of his citizens the main priority, before any other private, sectoral, or foreign interests? Should this not be the role of every politician, to represent the people who elected him or her to the office? Have we not diverted from these fundamentally democratic values, have we not channeled too much power in the hands of the far too few and this caused the popular backlash? In the anger unleashed at Trump, there are far too many ideological assumptions to be tackled one by one. What seems clear to me is that we should question whether making the interests of one’s citizens the main priority automatically means jingoism and egoism on the international stage, whether patriotism cannot also strengthen society rather than just exclude people, and whether pointing the elites for greed is demagoguery or just telling what is necessary and evident.

Contrary to the great orator Obama, Trump is blunt and rejected American exceptionalism

It is clear than in any Western country, Trump’s open and unabashed strike at the elites and their interests in his first address as President would cause an uproar. In the United States, it represents nothing short of a political thunderstorm. Presidential inauguration speeches in the United States are traditionally highly ceremonial and it is presumed that the new President will “embrace” the whole nation and “heal” political divisions after the previous year’s campaign. Thus even from Trump, most commentators expected a more conciliatory tone than the one he had adopted during his tub-thumping presidential campaign. Secondly, there are certain recognisable symbols that traditionally make America “the America”, which people anticipate in an inauguration speech, and which can be roughly summarised as the values of American exceptionalism. Together, this makes for a broad consensus that the content of such address should be positive, forward-looking, and America-leading, in other words, in line with the American Dream that is about better future for all who work hard enough.

Barack Obama is an excellent orator and a perfect representative of the American liberal establishment. But is liberalism the only way? Photo copyright: Forbes (2017)
Barack Obama is an excellent orator and a perfect representative of the American liberal establishment. But is liberalism the only way? Photo copyright: Forbes (2017)

Barack Obama, ever an excellent and polished orator, fulfilled these expectations perfectly. While his 2013 inauguration speech is vague on political priorities, it is uplifting and interwoven with references to Bible, the Founding Fathers, Civil War, equality for all, eradicating poverty, or spreading democracy from “from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East”. There is hardly a single negative statement that would not be subsequently beaten by Obama’s vision for a brighter future.

Trump made very little of that and he was rather plain and simple in his promise to return power to the people from the establishment as well as put „America First“ and in belief that „nation exists for its citizens“. He also spoke in darker tones about crime, problems with financing education, worker layoffs, unfavourable trade deals, or lack of border control. And crucially, he abandoned the concept of American exceptionalism and spreading democracy abroad, which represents a revolution in American foreign policy without a precedent in the last 80 years. Instead, Trump explicitly mentioned that while standing up for his country‘s interests first, it is the “right of all nations to put their nations first”.

Trump therefore broke from the usual presidential tradition both in content and in the manner of its delivery. But note this is exactly what his electorate demands and what he was elected for. Should he break that promise and become “a nice speaking liberal politician”, as many people seem to demand? For the American citizens who chose Trump, the plain and crass speaking real property magnate is “tribune of the people” and his uncouth style is precisely what gives him the aura of authenticity – in a stark contrast to the politically correct, yet haughty, corrupt and Teflon-like Washington establishment. While Barack Obama is a great orator and a man of beautiful words, a problem with beautiful words is that they carry a big potential for their own kind of vulgarity and outrageousness. Such vulgarity arises if politicians and the establishment speak nicely and in familiar smooth terms, yet nothing results from their actions and one sees that the rich are getting richer while the brunt of the costs is taken by ordinary citizens.

Donald Trump may well turn out to be a demagogue who made too many promises that reflected more his sky-high ego than what was politically achievable. But he also may not. The fact that as a populist he responds to popular expectations and promises to “tackle” self-serving Washington, disappearing jobs, or unfavourable trade deals does not mean these causes are wrong in themselves. Or that they will necessarily end up in failure. After the decades when a US President after US President pursued the same liberal policies and they did not work, surely the best course in politics is try out an alternative. Let us start judging the new American President based on that, let us scrutinise whether what he says makes sense, and let us point out what cannot work and why it cannot work.  If he re-opens Guantanamo and reinstates atrocious torturing techniques that disappeared thanks to Obama, then that is a subject for protests and strong critique. But they require argumentation and scrutiny, and not personality attacks and flat-out rejections of Trump’s calls for patriotism or returning power from Washington.

Is such approach not more appropriate for democratic societies than a plain old witch-hunt?


Publication bibliography

Abramson, Jill; Paarlberg, Michael; Weinstein, Jamie; Thrasher, Steven W. (2017): ‘He’s already let America down’: the reaction to Trump’s first speech as president. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/20/reaction-to-donald-trump-speech?CMP=fb_gu, updated on 1/21/2017, checked on 22-01-17.

Douthat, Ross (2017): Trump’s New-Right Politics of Solidarity. In New York Times, 1/20/2017.

Editorial (2017): The Guardian view on Donald Trump’s inauguration: a declaration of political war. In The Guardian, 1/20/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/20/the-guardian-view-on-donald-trumps-inauguration-a-declaration-of-political-war, checked on 22-01-17.

Larison, Daniel (2017): Trump’s Inaugural Address. In The American Conservative, 1/21/2017. Available online at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/trumps-inaugural-address/, checked on 21-01-17.

Parker, Ashley; Rucker, Philip; Gold, Matea (2017): The first days inside Trump’s White House: Fury, tumult and a reboot. In The Washington Post, 1/23/2017. Available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-first-days-inside-trumps-white-house-fury-tumult-and-a-reboot/2017/01/23/7ceef1b0-e191-11e6-ba11-63c4b4fb5a63_story.html, checked on 1/25/2017.

Pehe, Jiří (2017): Amerika na prvním místě. In Novinky, 1/24/2017. Available online at https://www.novinky.cz/komentare/427297-komentar-amerika-na-prvnim-miste-jiri-pehe.html, checked on 1/24/2017.

Younge, Gary (2017): Trump’s first speech in office was unapologetic appeal to nationalism. In The Guardian, 1/20/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/20/trumps-first-speech-in-office-was-unapologetic-appeal-to-nationalism, checked on 21-01-17.

Brexit is a revolt against globalisation: Interpreting the UK vote

European political scene is in quite a disarray. “Right now, we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it,” quipped historian Apple Applebaum back in March (Applebaum 2016). Applebaum, wife of the Polish neoconservative politician Radosław Sikorski, thus perfectly anticipated the panic felt nowadays by our elites. Inadvertently, she also revealed how Western elites see European integration: as a project tightly intertwined with the neoliberal worldview and globalisation. In their vote for Brexit, British working classes revolted against what the EU seems to increasingly stand for: self-proclaimed global elites and their policies that benefit only the increasingly few.

Let us be perfectly clear: for Europe and for the West, Brexit is a moment of fundamental historical importance. British “red Tory” thinker Phillip Blond is not exaggerating when he states that “Western ballot boxes never before seen a greater rejection of globalisation” (Devecchio 2016). The EU came to be squarely identified with globalisation and all social and economic insecurities that it entails. For British voters, these materialised mostly as fears of immigration, which have both cultural and employment-related aspects.

Explaining voting patterns

A look at the voting patterns across Britain gives evidence to deeper divides that separate the winners and losers of globalisation, and which are also visible in other European countries.  (Note that for political reasons, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain exceptional cases.) Charts are telling in showing deep class divisions. In a country where one year of undergraduate university education costs £9000 (more than €10,600), one of the best predictors of how people voted was their education level. “Remainers” tended to have university degrees, while those without higher education were much more likely to be in the Leave camp. Similar results are seen when we look at the median income – the richer the voter is, the more likely they were to vote Remain. In the UK, income and education are closely linked to geography, which explains why “bobo London” is the only part of England where people voted for staying in the EU.

Another significant factor is the trans-partisan character of the vote against the EU. As several observers already noted, Brexit would not be possible if a large proportion of Labour supporters did not vote against the Remain campaign of the party leadership. The party leader Jeremy Corbyn is himself a eurosceptic, who likely very much dislikes the authoritarianism of the EU’s neoliberal policies, lately openly revealed in last year’s economic diktat imposed on Greece, against the wishes of its people expressed also in a referendum. Why officially being in charge of Labour’s Remain campaign, his support was lukewarm, which is also the reason why his Members of Parliament (MPs) are at the moment working hard to get rid of him. What it ultimately shows, however, is that Corbyn is much more connected to the wishes and fears of the party rank and file than the MPs, who are mostly “champagne socialists” still day dreaming about the heydays of New Labour under Tony Blair.

As John Cassidy put it in The New Yorker, the implication is that “the British working classes and lower middle classes, particularly those living in the provinces, have delivered a stinging rebuke to the London-based political establishment, which was largely in [favour] of staying in the [EU]” (Cassidy 2016). The explanation is that for the working classes, salaries are at rock bottom and zero-hour contracts along with other “market reforms” put in place by the Conservative government made sure their jobs are more precarious than ever before. Property prices are astronomical, class sizes at state schools are too high, waiting times in NHS are too long. Meanwhile, good education, better jobs, and fenced-off private properties are concentrated in the hands of the growingly smaller number that are profiting from these neoliberal policies.

These are real concerns that are often disparaged or completely ignored by those with good jobs, good education, those who freely travel across Europe and come from better off families. In other words, by the European elite. Labelling Brexit as a triumph of xenophobia, ignorance or even senility (pointing to the preference of elder electorate for Leave), does not allow one to get any better understanding why an increasing number of people are standing up against the EU. Arrogant and patronising comments, of the like of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, who spoke about treating British people as deserters in the run-up to the referendum (Macdonald 2016), only paint the EU’s portrait in even darker colours. They also prevent from helping us to understand that Brexit is a part of wider revolt against globalisation, which includes both left-wing and right-wing populist movements in Europe (Greek Syriza, Spanish Podemos, Irish Sinn Féin, French Front National, Austrian FPÖ, even Slovak SMER or Hungarian Fidesz), as well as the appearance of Trump and Sanders in the US.

Concerns about immigration do not equate racism

Most of concerns with globalisation and the EU in the UK crystallised as the immigration issue. On the one hand ignored by the left (“because it is racist”), on the other, embraced by the right under the argument of positive economic contribution. While there are genuine xenophobes with hate towards black people, Eastern Europeans or Muslims, most voters cannot be simply dismissed as bigoted. The best example of this is a large proportion of second- or third-generation Commonwealth immigrants, who also supported Brexit on immigration grounds. If gross immigration to the UK was 630,000 in 2015 (or about 1 % of the UK’s population!), this represents a huge downward pressure on UK salaries and raises yet new identity concerns (Hawkins 2016). John Harris gives a plethora of practical examples of these real life concerns (Harris 2016):

  • town of Peterborough where people claim only non-UK nationals were hired because they worked for insane shifts for risible rates;
  • agricultural communities in Lincolnshire, divided between new arrivals with jobs and miserable locals who lost theirs;
  • largely pro-EU Manchester, where British-Asians talk about leaving the EU, likely because they feel their traditional jobs are at threat;
  • builders in South Shields, who had their hourly rate come down by £3 because of immigrants from eastern Europe; or
  • a mother in Stourbridge wanting a new school for “our kids”.

And so on. What is clear is that identity, immigration and economic concerns are closely interlinked. Identity is fundamentally nothing abstract – it is about shared and established patterns of living together in one space that generate understanding and prevent conflicts. It is about trust and predictability, which are built only over time, creating common history in the process. When contrasted to individual and gradual migration patterns, mass immigration poses a huge challenge for identity precisely for these reasons. This is of course in addition to the race to the bottom created by downward pressures on salaries and social security. Losing a job can in turn generate a loss of identity among those who previously took pride for providing income to their family – or simple buying a builder or fisherman in their community. With its recent push for “refugees”, a majority of whom seem to behave more like economic migrants, the EU only added the final piece into its image of the most visible European promoter of unrestricted flows of people.

Divisions in the liberal camp – a fake people’s revolt?

However, the referendum did not only divide working classes with those with a higher income – it also fragmented the British liberal elites. Leaders of Brexit campaign were all liberals who opposed the EU in the name of deregulation. This number includes the outgoing leader of UKIP Nigel Farage, who may be a social conservative, but remains an ultra-liberal on economic issues. It also makes for a big difference, between the liberals in the UK and in many other European countries, perhaps apart from central Europe. Speaking of France, Alain de Benoist noted that “while in our country, the majority of liberals are convinced that the fundamental goal of European treaties is imposing liberal tenets, starting with free circulation of goods and services, people and capital, in England many think that the market needs neither institutions nor treaties” (de Benoist 2016).

The support of a proportion of British liberals for Brexit obviously does not mean that they suddenly took up the flag of the people, realised their ideology is misguided, and decided to address fears of globalisation. Phillip Blond again correctly points out that this represents the greatest paradox – and tragedy – of the vote for Brexit: “the working classes seeking protection against globalisation followed libertarians who believe that the UK should unilaterally abolish its tariffs” (Devecchio 2016). For his part, Paul Mason from The Guardian does not shy away from calling the referendum “hijacked” and “a fake revolt” with people “falling for a scam” (Mason 2016). Mason is quite correct not only because British liberal elites have no interest to rescue people from globalisation and perverse effects of capitalism. Other reason is that nation-states are no longer capable of protecting its citizens against the power of transnational corporations, “globbish” cultural forces, or hyper-fluctuations of financial markets. British “independence day” is an illusion because the UK regained sovereignty in name only.

Tragedy of the EU and its great unfulfilled promise

The greatest tragedy of the European Union is that it did not fulfil its potential and failed on its biggest promise. That promise was to make citizens and peoples stronger rather than weaker in the face of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism. But that would have required starting European integration from bottom-up, from culture and politics, and not from economic integration. Inevitably, that would have also meant a slower expansion of the EU – building qualitative, democratic, strong structures at the expansive of quantity and extension. The UK, traditionally a maritime and transatlanticist power, always felt oddly in the continental club and attached itself closer to the US than to its European counterparts. As Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe notes, the EU has neoliberal policies at its core: its single market and trade agreements opened up the gates to globalisation, while its fiscal rules and ‘structural reforms’ put countries into an austerity straightjacket. So instead “of helping those who suffer from [globalisation], [the EU] has set up policies that hurt these people even more. It is no surprise that the losers revolt” (Grauwe 2016). Ultimately, all of us are those losers, because instead of living in communities that allow us to strive for excellence and make us stronger personalities, we are living in market societies that encourage selfishness, individualism, consumerism and wasteful lifestyles.

Martin Heidegger, a German thinker who also lived in turbulent times, used to quote poet Friedrich Hölderlin in saying that “where danger is, grows the saving power also.” For the EU, history did not end yet. However much its elites may seem incapable of reflection on what are the reasons for people’s despair over European integration, at its roots there is still the promise that the EU can be a katechon, a regulator of globalisation, rather than its chief harbinger. It is time for people and those who are on their side to grasp this thought and realise that all freedom movements against globalisation and neoliberalism need to be by necessity pan-European.


Publication bibliography

Applebaum, Anne (2016): Is this the end of the West as we know it? Anneapplebaum.com. Available online at http://www.anneapplebaum.com/2016/03/04/is-this-the-end-of-the-west-as-we-know-it/, updated on 3/4/2016, checked on 6/27/2016.

Benoist, Alain de (2016): Brexit : vers un effet domino en Europe ? Boulevard Voltaire. Available online at http://www.bvoltaire.fr/alaindebenoist/brexit-vers-un-effet-domino-en-europe,265172, updated on 6/29/2016, checked on 6/30/2016.

Cassidy, John (2016): Why the Remain Campaign Lost the Brexit Vote – The New Yorker. In The New Yorker, 6/24/2016. Available online at http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/why-the-remain-campaign-lost-the-brexit-vote, checked on 7/5/2016.

Devecchio, Alexandre (2016): Phillip Blond : «Jamais la mondialisation n’avait connu un tel rejet dans les urnes». In Le Figaro, 7/1/2016. Available online at http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/monde/2016/07/01/31002-20160701ARTFIG00368-phillip-blond-jamais-la-mondialisation-n-avait-connu-un-tel-rejet-dans-les-urnes.php, checked on 04-07-16.

Grauwe, Paul de (2016): The EU Should Take The Side Of The Losers Of Globalization. Social Europe. Available online at https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/07/eu-take-side-losers-globalization/, updated on 7/4/2016, checked on 7/5/2016.

Harris, John (2016): ‘If you’ve got money, you vote in … if you haven’t got money, you vote out’. In The Guardian, 6/24/2016. Available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/divided-britain-brexit-money-class-inequality-westminster, checked on 6/27/2016.

Hawkins, Oliver (2016): Migration Statistics. House of Commons (Briefing Paper, SN06077).

Macdonald, Alastair (2016): Juncker says on Brexit: British ‘deserters’ to get no EU favor. In Reuters, 5/20/2016. Available online at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-juncker-idUSKCN0YB1O3, checked on 29-06-16.

Mason, Paul (2016): Brexit is a fake revolt – working-class culture is being hijacked to help the elite | Paul Mason, 6/20/2016. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/20/brexit-fake-revolt-eu-working-class-culture-hijacked-help-elite, checked on 7/5/2016.