When Tomasz Schafernaker gave the weather forecast at 6.57 this morning on Radio 4, I fully expected him to read: ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will be turned to blood; fire and hail will fall from heaven…’ There is a widespread sense of shock, and that this US election result has something of the apocalyptic about it.
Luke Bretherton, who is British but teaches at Duke University and writes on ethics and politics, posted a quotation from Henry James:
Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly ever apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion … we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.
I have also seen people posting extracts from W B Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, which I learned by heart at school:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats was writing almost exactly 100 years ago, and writing at a time of enormous social and political upheaval in the aftermath of the Great War. He believed that the traditional ruling classes of Europe were unable to protect the traditional culture of Europe from materialistic mass movements, and that this would usher in a new era, though not in the way that actually happened.
Alongside the shock of the result for many commentators, and the anxious anticipations of what it might mean for the future, there will be analysis on how it was that someone like Trump managed to win. It is easy to ask the question in moral terms: how could a misogynistic, racist, manipulative, deceitful and ignorant man be voted for by so many people? That is the personal question—but it doesn’t answer the question of process: how could someone with no political experience, who has never been part of the political establishment, the first president to have neither experience of state politics nor to have served time in the military, manage to muscle his way in to a system he does not know or understand?
The answer to both these questions can probably be found in one word: populism. Back in May, I wrote a post on what we can learn from Donald Trump, which centred on analysis of his style of speaking—broken, repetitive, emotional, incoherent—but with which ordinary listeners resonated strongly. There are some key and consistent elements of Trump’s language:
- His vocabulary is very simple: 172 out of 220 words are one syllable—that is 78%.
- He uses very simple sentence structures.
- He uses a few key words and repeats them all the time.
- He addresses people directly using second person plural verbs.
- He consistently ends sentence with strong punchy words—and goes to some effort to do so
And the final observations of the person doing the analysis were very telling.
You could never accuse Trump of being smart or well-informed. But that’s because Trump is a salesman. The best salesman could sell you a TV without knowing anything about the TV. It is not about the TV—it is about you.
But this populism has been at the heart of his appeal—not just in the way he spoke, but in what he spoke about. An early observer this morning quoted one of Trump’s campaign messages:
It used to be said that cars were built in Flint [in Michigan] and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now cars are built in Mexico and you cannot drink the water in Flint.
Despite the fact that this was entirely opportunistic, and betrayed complete ignorance of what was actually happening, it struck a popular note and (claimed the commentator) won Michigan for Trump. This was not a one-off incident, but a consistent part of Trump’s approach and appeal. Michael Moore, having predicted that Trump would win the Republican nomination, also predicted some time ago that he would win the race to the White House. Having spent a good deal of time with supporters of Trump (in making his latest film), he offers five reasons:
- The Rust Belt—the way that free trade agreements and globalisation have led to a collapse in key America industries and led to massive job losses for the working classes.
- The Endangered White male who feels sidelined by the liberal agenda
- Distrust of Hillary Clinton, who is seen widely as a dishonest part of the political establishment
- Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders failing to vote for Clinton
- Voting for Trump as a protest against the political system and establishment.
At least three of these reasons have their roots in populism—and in the potential of a democratic system to upset the established powers within the political system.
There is something here in which Christians should rejoice. Christians have not always been keen supporters of democracy, for both practical and theological reasons. In practical terms, we live in a complex world which requires careful analysis and sophisticated thinking; why on earth would we think that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of discerning where wisdom lies? Churchill once commented that the best argument against democracy was found in spending five minutes talking to the average voter. Christians might have another objection too: if humanity is sinful, why would we expect sinful people to vote for good and wise leadership—rather than the leaders who will simply serve their own selfish and possibly hateful interests? That is a pertinent question to ask this morning.
But democracy, and particularly the kind of direct election offered by voting for a president, holds out the possibility of breaking down power interests. Why is our health service in such a mess, with doctors leaving to work abroad, chronic shortages, trusts facing unprecedented deficits, and those working in the service feeling that Government simply are not listening? Could there be any connection with the fact that the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, is the wealthiest person in the Cabinet, with a fortune of £174m, and who is part of a social elite that has controlled the Conservative party in recent years?
Despite his own elite status, Trump has been playing the anti-elitist card throughout, including in his acceptance speech an hour ago. ‘I will lead for the forgotten people of America’ he claimed—never mind the groups that he has marginalised, ignored or put down: the groups that Michael Moore identifies above hear Trump say this, and hear him speaking to them. ‘I will serve the people’ he claims—when too many in political elite appear to be mostly interested in serving their own interests. It is sobering to note that in Ohio, the ‘bell-weather’ estate which consistently votes for the ultimate winner, and in which Trump secured a 17% margin, 50% of women and Hispanics voted for Trump.
Fundamentalist Christians in the States have been praying for a Trump victory, largely because they see him as standing against the liberal agenda which includes being pro-abortion, radically feminist, and aggressively promoting the transgender and gay ‘agenda’. (It is not possible to translate the term ‘fundamentalists’ into ‘evangelical Christians’, not least because Christianity Today recently reported in a survey that 80% of evangelicals were not planning to vote for Trump. Fundamentalism is the populist correspondent to evangelicalism.) Parallels have been drawn between Trump’s victory and God’s use of Cyrus (shockingly called ‘my anointed one’ in Is 45.1) to deliver his people from exile, arguing that God can use a wicked person to achieve good things. There are lots of problems with such a comparison, not least because there is no doubting that Cyrus was indeed pagan, and the emphasis overall is that God is sovereign despite the intentions of individuals, and not because of them. If God’s sovereignty implies that he can do his will through this election, that does not translate into any vindication of Trump or his victory.
But the election of Trump is a stand against the relentless march of globalisation—just as was the vote for Brexit for many people—and the havoc it has wreaked in many parts of Western society. The impact of neo-liberalist economic policy is desperately divisive, creating a smaller and smaller elite acquiring greater and greater share of a nation’s wealth, and creating a wider and deeper underclass of those who struggle and feel marginalised, and by and large destroying key structures within society, including traditional patterns of family relating. The main political figure speaking against the impact of globalisation in the UK scene is (ironically) Jeremy Corbyn, and he does not look like seizing power any time soon.
(And why did we not anticipate this victory? Because social media is also divisive, functioning for most people as an echo chamber in which we listen to our own views and analysis reflected back to us by people like us. How could people vote for Trump when so many analyses exposed his shortcomings? Simply because we who dislike Trump watched these analyses—but those voting for him don’t visit the same websites as we do.)
Christians should have an interest in this question not simply out of a concern for justice, but because globalisation, the dominance of free market economics, and the grip that consumerism has on western culture are arguably the greatest forces leading to loss of faith and decline in church attendance. And by and large Christian critiques of this are fairly toothless.
But, it seems to me, Christians can hardly rejoice in the election of Trump with any integrity. After all, Trump is indeed a misogynistic, racist, manipulative, deceitful and ignorant man. We like to treat our figures of evil as ‘other’, as inhuman or subhuman, far removed from the ordinary realities of our lives. But it is no trivial observation to note that, in 1933, Hitler came to power in a democratic vote on a wave of populism driven by angry rejection of the prevailing political elite.
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