The world just got darker

Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the Presidential election night

Oh, God!! I feel terrible. And it’s not just the lack of sleep. Did it really happen? And for the second time in less than five months? To wake and know that the world has changed, again. Outside this cottage, three miles from anywhere, on the edge of Snowdonia, lashing rain is drenching the darkness, the stands of oak on this hillside really are rattling in the wind, just as the bard said they did at the death of Llywelyn Fawr – “Poni welwch chwi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw / Poni welwch chwi’r deri’n ymdaraw“.

Scarcely a day has gone by in the last months when one has not been left open-mouthed at the behaviour of Donald Trump. Nothing has been left unused in his lexicon of offensiveness, no minority left unbelittled, no woman unscorned, no depths unplumbed. Yet no contravention of any one of the norms of decency dented his support. Is this really the champion of the ‘left behind’? Is this owner of a towering, gold-plated Manhattan palace, really the Robin Hood of the huddled masses? Or have the put-upon of a transatlantic Sherwood Forest voted for the Sheriff of Nottingham?

Hard to know what was scarier, some of his campaign speeches or his blithe volte face in his victory address with his talk of “binding the wounds of division”, also praising Hillary Clinton’s service to the nation, as if he had no culpability for taking a chainsaw to both his opponent and nation. His attempted expunging of every uttered calumny is breathtaking in its cynicism, underlining a cold contempt for the electorate and his obvious belief that the end justifies the means. It is understandable that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but what if you have campaigned with poison? Whether it is winning a presidential election or winning a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, surely how you win is important. It will not be right to dismiss the content of Trump’s campaign as merely the natural excesses of a partisan contest, any more than British people should now ignore the falsehoods on which the Brexit case was made.

The parallels between these two events are legion; indeed, they are part of the same phenomenon. The similarities are being reiterated endlessly on television: a howl of rage of the left behind, an anti-establishment roar, a protest against immigration or globalisation or rampant inequality, or all three, the difference of view between the young and the old and between the most educated and the less educated. There is, too, the stark arithmetic of division in both countries: in America’s case, Hillary Clinton even edging the popular vote – 47.7% against 47.5%. Britain’s 52-48 split in the referendum seems decisive in comparison, small though the Leave majority was.

Most difficult of all, in both cases, will be delivering on the expectations raised among the supporters of the victors. No-one can doubt the depth of anger at the negative effects of globalisation and technology on the developed world – the off-shoring of employment, the shrinking of basic industries, the destruction of middle order jobs – but conversely, this has also raised millions in the developing world out of poverty. Yet continuing global imbalances – exacerbated by war, famine and corruption – are still driving some of the biggest migrations of people in centuries.

While there is no doubt that the effects of these trends on the home populations of the developed world have to be addressed by politicians, it is the cruellest deception to tell people – whether the poorest or the hard-pressed middle classes – that all can be put right by vapid slogans in television adverts or, even worse, by straight lies on painted battlebuses.

Both Donald Trump and Teresa May are going to be struggling with their economic Rubik cubes. Mr Trump has promised tax cuts for individuals and businesses that will cost trillions in lost government revenues, and yet has promised to spend $600billion on infrastructure and to sharply increase defence spending, at the same time as taking a protectionist approach to free trade, especially directed against the Chinese whose surpluses are both the mirror image of America’s deficits and to a considerable extent the latter’s guarantor. It is not even clear that Trump’s economics will gain the approval of Republican fiscal disciplinarians in Congress. They certainly will not allow him to become a modern Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the production of Apple iPhones is not going to be switched from China to America any time soon.

Mrs May meanwhile is still struggling to get her disparate Cabinet members to even agree on a balance of objectives, the Leave campaign having promised simultaneously to deliver tariff free access to Europe, the end of freedom of movement and a reduction in immigration, increased expenditure on the NHS, and no reduction in tax revenues from financial services on which the government has relied for too long.

If she comforts herself that swapping Obama for Trump will put Britain further up the queue for a free trade deal with America, just wait until she is faced with a protectionist American president intent on putting America first. He will be content to ride as roughshod over her as he has done over the Scottish countryside. In relation to America, Britain has surely learnt by now that it is the supplicant, and talk of the special relationship a dollar-free piety to be wheeled out when it suits.

This is not to dismiss the real pain implicit in populist revolt. It has to be addressed, whether in America or Britain or, as we are likely to be reminded in the coming months, in the Netherlands, France and Germany. But it demands an international approach and that the nomadic corporate sector should carry a fair share of the burden. It also demands some change in Germany’s fiscal intransigence.

Sadly, this does not exhaust the range of fears furrowing the brow of the international community. The fate of the Paris agreement on climate change and of the deal with Iran are two other beacons of hope that will suffer if Donald Trump is true to his word. The prospect of mutual admiration between two of the world’s most powerful narcissists casts another dark cloud, not least over Eastern Europe – part of a continent for which we still carry responsibility notwithstanding the vote on 23 June.

Arguably, in the 1930s the world paid a heavy price for isolationism in America and for unrestrained populism in Germany. What price are we now going to pay for populism in America and a British isolationism within Europe?

Geraint Talfan Davies is the former Chair of the IWA. He was Chair of the Wales Stronger In Campaign for the EU referendum.

4 thoughts on “The world just got darker

  1. Like Geraint I dont believe that Trump has a coherent set of policies to answer the concerns of his many working class supporters. But the Donald did appear to want to find answers and that`s probably why he won. Ditto with Brexit.
    In contrast the left has relied increasingly on appealing to a wide range of minority interests and building a “rainbow coalition”. This has often proved sufficient but at the expense of ignoring the “left behind” who had no where to go and no champion to support.
    The globalized economy has many beneficiaries but they do not include low and semi skilled people in rich countries. Machines are cheaper as is exporting the labour to low wage countries or importing labour from those countries. A left alternative to the right wing populists has first to acknowledge the problem and that answers will conflict with the interests of other groups,

  2. I couldn’t agree more. This article expresses everything that I feel about the current situation we in the UK and the USA find ourselves.

    Jan Lewis
    North Wales IWA member

  3. Perversely, this may well slow down and possible halt the process of the UK leaving the EU. Trumps dislike of NATO and America First approach, would make much closer cooperation between EU countries on matters of security essential. Whilst the close relationship between the US and the UK has always included joining forces military interventions, with very few exceptions, this may well be different if the US takes either a more aggressive, Putinesque approach to international security, or withdraws from cooperation with longstanding allies to pursue its own interests only.

    Neither should we forget that the Republican and voter support for Trump went down, not up, in comparison to previous Republican presidential candidates. It was the inadequate challenge from the Democrats and others, and a more advantageous distribution of his votes, that secured him the presidency. Barely a quarter of the electorate voted for him, with another quarter for Hilary. 46.9% did not cast a vote, either out of protest against the lack of a choice or out of apathy. What ever the motive, if this hardest fought, most controversial and widest covered election campaign can’t raise their interest, there is something seriously wrong with the democratic system. That’s the most devastating outcome of this election.

  4. PS. The political establishment (not elites, which is a term with as much meaning as Brexit) is increasingly only concerned with its own preservation, the status quo. All it could offer in the US were members of political dynasties (strange for a country that so strongly shook off the yoke of Royalty at independence and pioneered democracy) and dark suited elderly blokes. Not very inspiring.

    In the referendum the UK electorate was asked to answer a question politicians were afraid, or could not be bothered to answer themselves, with the sole objective of settling internal scores. They were not given any real information on what the consequences of their choice would be, either way. That is abandonment of responsibility and an insult to the electorate. There was only concern for the number of votes to be gained, not the quality of that vote. Neither for the wellbeing of the nation and its people, and the consequences of the outcome of the referendum. Don’t imagine that, if the vote had gone the other way, in both circumstances, the situation would have been much better.

    There is a deficit of imagination and innovation in the democratic systems here and across the Atlantic. If that is not addressed we will not be able to stop the rise of populism and extremes, because parties and candidates will continue to be tempted to gain an edge with ever more outlandish claims, playing to the crowd rather than being true to their principles (if they have any at all). They will be afraid to challenge (others or themselves) and be resistant to change. But radical change is required if we want to stem this tide of intolerance, hate and ruthless self-interest.

    Rant over.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy