GERARD HOWLIN: Trump exists because the ruling class became smug and distant

The fashionable attack on Trump-ology as fascism has enough basis to be credible, and sufficient foundation to inculcate fear, writes Gerard Howlin. 

What its most prominent authors conveniently omit is that a contributing cause to its rise was the gentrification of social democracy, of which they were profiteers.

Trump exists because the ruling class became smug and distant

Trump is the wages of the disregard of an ennobled network of commentators, NGOs, trade unions and politicians, who talked from ever higher, more remote platforms, as the proletariat they smugly assumed to speak for simply stopped listening.

Giambattista Vico, historian, philosopher, and jurist of the 18th-century enlightenment, named the essential quality of a great historian as fantasia. Of fantasia, Isaiah Berlin wrote: “We call great historians those who not only are in full control of the factual evidence obtained by the use of the best critical method’s available to them, but who also possess the depth of imaginative insight that characterises gifted novelists.” As journalism, of which opinion columns are unworthy of the attribution, is the first draft of history, here is my fantasia for today.

The outrageous presumption of Donald Trump was presaged in part by the pious conceit of social democracy, and its attendant systems and networks. Over two generations, as they gentrified, the chasm between the causes they colonised and the reality of life on the educational, social, and economic margins widened. What deepened, however, was the condescension that came from purportedly owning an agenda many of its advocates were increasingly unlikely to have ever lived, or at least experienced recently.

At the heart of fascism are many evils. One is a disregard for democracy. An acquired culture of that slowly accreted as entitlement among tribunes of the people, who live apart and likely some distance from communities whose plight most excited them.

Some of that distance was physical, and that was the practical prerogative of the middle class. More than just postcodes, the distance was in mindsets.

Just as priests lived in big houses amidst cottages and council houses, they similarly lived out assumptions of knowing what was best and handed down diktats to enforce it

Much of it was ridiculous. Snobbery always is. But enough of it stuck to allow circles of power and influence, independent of any direct democratic mandate, to dig deep burrows that still survive the nuclear winter of European social democracy, or at least its political class.

So punctilious about form, so certain about cause, so horrified by vulgarity and so appalled by barbarians at the gate, the charge of disregard for democracy must seem to them as the tearing up of truth itself. What Trump does with obscenity, social democracy, as it went to seed, did with another lengthy position paper. When plain people looked askance, they were preached at and told they did not understand. The unavoidable implication was that others knew best.

What was on show at Helsinki on Monday was a sideshow, and it was for show. The optics might have been appalling, but that was the show. Russia has an economy about the size of Italy or California. Its population is declining and its levels of corruption are increasing. Its scope for threat is over-estimated. What accentuates it is not the reality of Russian power, but the weakness and division of Western — particularly European — states.

Trump’s contempt for Europe and its institutions is not a fundamentally new American position.
It is simply something that he is acting out in fundamentally different ways. The exaggeration and obscenity of his character highlight what we should we more aware of: the alignment of American interest is no longer westward across the Atlantic, it is east across the Pacific.

Trump exists because the ruling class became smug and distant

His isolationism and bombast only accentuate what is a longer-term, irreversible shift. That change is due to the magnetic pull of Asian economic and political power. It is overlain by the character of Trump, who only sees equals in strongmen like Putin and Xi Jinping.

The Russians may or may not have something on him, or people around him. What they certainly have is a foothold in his business interests. This is all important for the institution of the United States’s presidency, but the ultimate tilt of the US is away from Europe and not towards it. What Trump, like a receding tide, has exposed is a weakening Russia acting out the pretensions of its former gigantism to bolster its leader.
Europe — fracturing on its values, disagreeing on policies, aging and depopulating — is too easy prey for its former adversary, and worthy, for now, of only the scorn of its once essential ally.

Trump’s scoff at the European Union — an expression of the multilateralism he despises — and his geeing up of Brexiteers are part prejudice about policies and part affinity for his own fellow travellers. It is all joined at the hip with his demonising of immigrants and its coded racism. It is here, in the cauldrons of multiculturalism, that social democracy most deeply failed Europe. I believe, unequivocally, that immigration is the transformative, positive agency of Ireland in our time. More than 535,000 non-nationals were here for the 2016 census.

Appalling incidents aside, immigration is largely a very positive force in our society. Since the referendum of 2004, people born here do not have a right to citizenship, unless, at the time of their birth, one of their parents was an Irish citizen or was entitled to be an Irish citizen.

It regulated both an inward flow and an upward tide of unrest that would have found political expression. In the teeth of the opposition of an entitled, but unanchored left critique, a rightward drift was successfully staved off.

Immigration and migration are different things. Trump, like some of his most vociferous critics, is wrong on both. Europe, including Ireland, needs immigration. We have an obligation to help on migration. Our Department of Education curriculum on race is a model of its kind. There is real grit on the ground from organisations like the GAA, who give leadership on race. It works to the extent it does because there is a sense of control and reassurance. Take that away and you are quickly at the politics of a Hungarian border town.

Trump and Brexit have flourished in fear. Politics that speaks for its community, not at it, and which treats its people with respect, is required.

Some people like to see their fascism served up rough. Archetypes excuse the need for analysis. Democracy that works is not a desktop operation. Values and words are different things. Saying the words does not make them true. Ask Trump.


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