I would never want to write off the possibility that Donald Trump could be elected President, but the polls certainly do not look good for him at the moment. It seems unlikely that he can win the White House. And many of us will breathe a sigh of relief and draw comfort from that thought.
But before we relax, we should pause a moment to pay attention to something that is perhaps even more troubling than Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the Presidency. And that is the fact that he has identified, and channelled, a profound strain of anger and dissatisfaction with our current economic and social arrangements.
And this anger will not simply evaporate or go away when he loses. It will not diminish or become tame. Instead it is likely to grow, shift and become even more intense as Hillary Clinton tries to pursue a cautiously progressive agenda and House Republicans block her every move, complaining that she is trying to prise away the birthrights of Liberty and Freedom from ‘ordinary Americans’ or inveigle the country into Socialism.
Hillary is unlikely to try to reconcile her own instincts with this reactionary anger, not least because she will be drawn leftwards by the need to appease the ‘democratic socialists’ in her own party.
So the question is: what happens to it, this rage? Where does it go?
To some, this question is irrelevant or unimportant, because they see the rage as being illegitimate, a fabrication, a baseless resentment. But that is a dangerous way of thinking. The rage is not baseless, and it is not illegitimate. It has been stoked, and accelerated, and manipulated for narrow political ends. But it starts in many cases with a reasonable complaint.
And the complaint refers to a bargain that has been struck between politicians and their economic advisors and business. I do not mean to entertain conspiracy theories. In fact, there is no need for conspiracies. I only mean the increasing liberalisation of trade and free movement of capital that has been doctrinaire since at least 1972.
It has brought many benefits — uheralded advances in technology, greater integration and cooperation between nation-states, greater tolerance and multiculturalism, freer movement of people, a higher standard of living, and for a while rising prosperity. But it has limitations and it has a cost. In the long run it may prove to be deleterious, even fatal, to the social contracts of the Western democracies.
Rorty sums up the eventual political effect of this doctrine with great perspicacity:
‘… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.’
The working class, and especially the white working class man, who previously may have had a skilled job and who was in the main able to provide for his family, finds that he cannot do so anymore and that his economic stability is disappearing. At the same time, he perceives a wide-ranging cultural change, and his resentment is associated with this shift. Politicians help him to identify the targets of his anger in their descriptions of a (largely illusory) ascendant class of immigrants, a complacent bureaucratic elite and a fawning liberal media. Misdirecting the anger always away from their own paymasters.
It is only by accident that Donald Trump’s campaign has not fully developed the themes of economic betrayal (symbolised by for instance NAFTA and TPP) that are at the heart of this anger and turned them into a powerful weapon against Hillary Clinton and ‘establishment liberals’ in Washington.
The Republican Party speaks with forked tongue on these issues because it is owned by supporters of liberalisation but its voters would prefer a degree of protection from the full force of the global trade winds. Until recently, the Party has been able to lie to its voters and maintain their support with a remarkable consistency, thanks to a rhetorical emphasis on ‘values’ — a code for social and moral conservatism.
But the rise of the Tea Party and Trump have unleashed a new type of anger, one not so easily managed by the professionals. The voters have been disillusioned by the Republican establishment. They want more direct, more radical change. And it can only be a matter of time before they fully understand the double game the GOP has been playing, at their expense, all these years.
When that happens, and when it is combined with a loathing of everything the liberals and progressives stand for, we enter dangerous waters indeed.
Trump is a symptom of a morbid sickness in the political system and the social fabric. One that can only be cured by a programme of determined reconciliation, which in the polarised Washington atmosphere is never going to appear. Because even if one side were to extend an olive branch, it is certain that the other would not grasp it.
And so we wait for this anger to build and build until it explodes.