The other day, CNN ran a focus group on what some American voters were now thinking about their president. The comments were almost universally critical including among Trump voters. But even some of the most critical, it seems, may still be Trump supporters. It was, for me, a valuable reminder that pointing out Trump’s flaws, lies, lack of empathy – his lack of fitness to govern – is not enough. Of course, that’s not news; we already saw that during the election. What would have defeated almost any candidate in the past did not, it turns out, dissuade Trump’s supporters – and may not in the future. And this has most of us worried and bewildered. Across ideology, pundits ask how is it possible that honesty, empathy, knowledge, policy ability don’t matter.

It seems pretty important that we gain some appreciation of how we got here. What is the Trump phenomenon? Some attribute to Trump some sort of marketing genius, some undefinable charisma. But as John Harris recently wrote in the Guardian, more important than trying to understand Trump is to try to gain some understanding of Trump’s supporters. How did we get to a place where almost half of those who voted, actually voted for Trump?

So here’s the question. Is Trump the product of over forty years of attacks on the very idea of government, of decades in which government seemed to back away from our lives, when the best it could offer was the promise to get out of the way, making itself smaller through endless tax cuts and less able to protect us through deregulation and privatization, when it increasingly tied its hands through so-called trade deals which did more to protect investors than to promote trade, when the benefits of (slower) growth fell primarily to the already very wealthy? Is this why one might elect someone so clearly incapable of governing – because it doesn’t matter? Because too many believe government can’t do much for them anyways? Is this why so many will opt for someone who distracts and entertains or expresses their anger or allows them to vent their hate and scapegoat others? Part circus. Part tribalism.

If there’s truth in all of this, then pointing out the lies and incompetence and general unfitness, however important, is indeed not enough. What’s needed is also to expand the political imagination, to restore a belief that important, in fact essential, things can only be achieved together – but in fact can be achieved. What’s needed is not just an alternative to Trump but an alternative to the status quo, to the view that people are pretty much on their own and government is largely overhead. This means a restoration of a sense of the collective, the common good, an agenda to tackle together what people could never achieve on their own: reversing growing inequality, precarity, climate change and our deteriorating environment, building inclusive community and renewing democracy in the political process and in the workplace.

It’s not good enough to defend government or the path we’re on. It’s time to promise to transform government, to restore the sense that it can be an instrument for progress towards the common good. The most popular politician in the US is not Trump but, according to the polls at least, Sanders. In the UK it’s Corbyn. On the other hand, France’s more-of-the-same Macron may have beaten Le Pen but his polls are now even lower than his predecessor’s. Time for a new political offer.

For those who say we need a crisis before we can expect radical change, have you not been paying attention?

  1. An excellent post, Alex. The good news is that the promise to transform government has widespread appeal, as evidenced by Justin Trudeau’s victory. The bad news, of course, is that his lofty rhetoric has not been matched by his policies, which reek of the usual neoliberalism that people have grown weary of.

  2. Mark Hammer says:

    1) I begin with asking what the purpose of a nation is The government, after all, *serves* that purpose, as do the folks who run to be part of it. If one forgets what that purpose is, one is sure to run adrift, and whatever political imagination one has is busy imagining the wrong things.

    2) It is an honourable and important thing to provide a challenge function and be part of a loyal opposition. They may not be the lead singer in the band, out in the spotlight, but dammit, they are the rhythm section that makes sure everything runs and sounds optimal. Contemporary politics seems to be all about “winning” and calling the shots, as opposed to supporting the effective direction of the nation. Even Trump bantered on about “so much winning”. The emphasis on “winning”, in itself, encourages gotcha politics. What *ought* to be a productive challenge function (“Here is where that policy falls a little short of the objectives, and here is how it could be changed to meet them.”) becomes endless shame and blame, so that those who may not have been winning until now may be in a better position to win.

    Sadly, media play into this. As much as I like and regularly read the Washington Post, many a time my reaction to what I see in it is “Enough. I get it. He’s a D in a job that requires an A. Give me *ideas*, guys.” I have more than enough information to have a good idea of who should and probably shouldn’t be calling the shots. But that’s still about “winning”. I want to know what shots *need* to be called and why.

    Too many stakeholders seem to play by the rules of “winning”, rather than contributing. If one followed the primaries closely, it was clear there were a great many Republican voters who were going to vote “anyone but Trump”. But as other candidates dropped out, and he became “the guy we will win with”, plenty of minor and major players, and voters did what they felt would “win”, even as they felt the guy was singularly unqualified. I’m not dismissing that there was a core who really DID think his “outsider” status and superficial business success made him VERY qualified in their eyes. But there were also a whole lot who did not support what they felt was good for the nation, but what would “win”. Or maybe they simply assumed that whatever won for their side was, by definition, good for the nation.

    3) What the political imagination suffers from is a mistaken mindset that politics is fundamentally about power, rather than what can be accomplished for and by a nation via *policy*. If we lack political imagination, it’s because we’ve collectively put ideas in the back seat. Time to put ideas behind the wheel.

    • himelfarb says:

      It’s time for the end of cynicism and the rise of the naifs, those who continue to believe that elections are an opportunity to have a discussion about purpose. Some things are pretty much given – eg survival requires that climate and the environment are collective priorities. Beyond this surely democracy is all about determining purpose, defining the public good – and there’s a good deal of evidence that democracy is threatened by extreme inequality. So – democratic renewal, mitigating and adapting to climate change and natural erosion and greater equality and inclusion!

  3. Trap'd says:

    “Because too many believe government can’t do much for them anyways? Is this why so many will opt for someone who distracts and entertains or expresses their anger or allows them to vent their hate and scapegoat others? Part circus. Part tribalism.”

    Living amidst Ford Nation I have learned a thing or two about the mindset that leads someone to support a Trump.

    They see themselves as completely and utterly disenfranchised as many of us do, however, they feel just as powerless to change anything so they lash out at the system, seeking its destruction.

    Slagging a Trump or Ford merely reinforces in their minds that Ford and Trump are not a part of that system. See the elites hate them. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    Our task and at this point a difficult one is to instill hope once again. That will take hard work as well as leadership of the type missing in Canada’s political arena today.

  4. Mark Hammer says:

    Great little opinion piece in the current issue of Public Administration Review: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/puar.12834/full broaches on the general topic of political imagination, noting a dearth on the right AND the left.

  5. Sandra Marchesi says:

    The sad fact is that leaders like Sanders and Corbyn were obstracized by their own parties. We need a reform of the mechanism whereby parties operate. We also need good political schools operated by parties. Strangely enough, the Italian Communist Party used to have an excellent political school until the ’80s that generated an outstanding middle management. You can’t fight your opponents unless you are better prepared and informed. Movements are great, but they tend to dry up or go south in the long run, unless they are channelled in the right direction.Look at Podemos and Siriza. This can only be achieved through cohesion, strategy and vision, which rarely stem from simple goodwill.

    • himelfarb says:

      Well said Sandra. The key is the link between movements and political institutions, something that both Corbyn and Sanders are working on. Great to hear from you by the way!

  6. Bobbi Taillefer says:

    Alex – I loved this post – so much to consider. However my favourite line of yours is the rise of the naifs! Keep thinking and writing – we need you

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Bobbi. I do believe that nostalgia for a past that never was and cynicism about our ability to build a better future undermine the collective will and sap the collective energy we so badly need now. Hope and solidarity – the rise of the naifs! Thanks again for your generous comments. Means a lot.

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