Anger must be channelled, not ignored

Moderate political parties must rediscover their own raison d’etre: if they continue to ignore popular angst in favour of a corrupt establishment, we can only expect the current anti-establishment trends to strengthen

17 November 2016, 8:00am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
As the world takes stock of Donald Trump’s shock victory in last week’s US election, many pundits are busy trying to rationalise the result. The following observation – by former Prime Minister Alfred Sant - is among the more perceptive and insightful to date: 

“The Trump phenomenon shows that globalisation hasn’t been handled in a good way but has left too many people forgotten and on the periphery” [...] ”This stream of thought is really gathering momentum, and these forgotten people are now hitched to the technology of mass media communication, which is something that mainstream politicians are very much afraid of. This real political need to deal with the consequences of globalisation must be controlled and managed....”

Trump’s victory came as a shock to the global political establishment, because it represents a tidal change in the way the public interacts with politics. Sant is right to highlight the role played by mass communications – which, not only in this election, have risen to supplant the mainstream media as the prime formative agent in public opinion.

Donald Trump won the Presidency largely because his message - mostly made up of soundbites that are easily picked up and circulated on social networks - resonated with the anger felt by low-income earners and middle class voters in the industrial heartland of America. 

Millions of voters felt the pinch of globalisation, which often implies the transfer of jobs to low-wage countries... ie., away from the USA. More specifically, Trump’s anti-Washington narrative won the hearts and minds of many voters who would, under ordinary circumstances, not support a candidate like Trump at all.

This is a pivotal consideration, if we are to make any sense of the election result. Part of the reason behind Trump’s win – and also the loss of trust in mainstream media – is that the ‘establishment’ had no concrete answer to the millions of ordinary Americans who felt alienated and sidelined by the status quo. In the absence of any clear strategy to appeal to these voters, the only option was ridicule and demonisation. 

Contrary to the unhelpful messages pouring out from ‘liberal’ online commentators... not all Trump supporters are racist, Islamophobes or misogynists. Millions voted for him because he represented change. The American people had throughout this campaign indicated they were sick and tired of Washington, Wall Street (the establishment), corruption and growing inequality.  This also explains the meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democrat camp: who likewise offered change, albeit of a very different kind than Trump. 

Trump was all along an unlikely champion of the anti-establishment cause. But with Sanders losing out to Hillary Clinton – a candidate very much rooted in the same unpopular power structures, and quite frankly unable to represent any genuine change from the status quo - many people voted for his anti-establishment message, rather than for Trump himself. 

Whether the electorate will get the change it has been promised in another question. Many of Trump’s proposals - some of which have already been watered down- will be opposed and challenged by civil society and the law- courts at both state and federal level. But this is a problem for the American people to confront on their own.

As Sant and others have rightly pointed out, it falls to the rest of the world to brace itself for the corresponding changes as they are unleashed in Europe and elsewhere. The connection with Brexit here becomes not only relevant, but crucial. In both scenarios, a smug and complacent establishment failed to properly decipher coded messages from the electorate. The result was a direct challenge to the prevailing political and economic consensus... and it is a trend that is likely to gain momentum in the coming months and years.

The European Union is as we speak poised for a number of electoral challenges that echo Brexit. Italy is about to vote in a constitutional referendum that may force early elections... complete with the prospect of electing an anti-EU coalition government. In France, Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen has already modelled her campaign on that of Trump. It is by no means unlikely that she may also emulate his victory.

This would be a body-blow to the European Union, with consequences arguably much more devastating than Brexit.  As such, it illustrates the urgent need for a strategy that would replace the current (unsuccessful) ploy of simply pretending such dangers do not exist.

Ultimately, there is a clear lesson to be learnt in Europe. Leftwing/liberal parties should not allow widespread anger at the establishment to be absorbed by far right parties: otherwise, we would only be repeating the mistakes of Brexit and the US election. 

An alternative to the facile ‘sound-bite’ politics of far right populist parties must be found in order to channel voters’ justifiable anger into a more productive political direction. Transparency, better wages, decent jobs, less financial inequalities, less corruption, etc., should not be the hallmarks of the radical right. Moderate political parties must rediscover their own raison d’etre: if they continue to ignore popular angst in favour of a corrupt establishment, we can only expect the current anti-establishment trends to strengthen.