The Reasons for Trump Were Also the Reasons for Brexit
Written By John Harris
In May this year, as the Indiana primary saw Donald Trump clinch the Republican party’s presidential nomination, I was following his campaign in the same state. In Sungate, a neat-looking residential development on the outskirts of Indianapolis, I chatted to people killing time in their driveways. As evidenced by the empty homes and long grass, whatever aspirational dream had been sold to the people here had long since curdled. “We had a bad crash a couple of years ago, houses got foreclosed, factories closing, loss of jobs,” one man explained, as his dog yelped loudly at our camera.
I wondered: how did he feel about the election? “I’m thinking about it pretty strong right now,” he said. “I want to keep the American jobs here, try getting a lot of jobs overseas back.” This sounded like an endorsement of the Republican frontrunner. “I’m not saying right now. I like some of his views, some of his views I don’t like,” he said, with what seemed to be a giveaway smile: as far as I could tell, he was on the way to becoming a Trump man.
Besides complaints about local youths openly dealing drugs and houses being bought en masse by private landlords, the people living in Sungate had one huge grievance: the fate of a local factory that made furnaces for air-conditioning units, which was soon to close. Thanks to the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) it was moving its operations to Mexico, where the average hourly rate would be $3, as against the current $20. It was owned by a corporation called Carrier, which had become one of Trump’s favourite rhetorical targets.
Among the Carrier workers I met was a man called Brad Stepp. I now know that he was one of this election’s most crucial voters: the millions of people who had once voted for Barack Obama but now favoured Trump. “We need somebody that’s tough, you know?” he told me. “I was all for Obama the first time round, and he let me down. I felt he was a pushover … Trump just shows toughness, and I love that.”
On Wednesday morning, it was these people I instantly pictured: victims and malcontents of the 21st century’s callous model of capitalism. I’d repeatedly spent time with them closer to home in post-industrial places such as Stoke on Trent, Merthyr Tydfil, Middlesbrough and the countless other areas that recently made all the difference in the Brexit referendum. In the States, their counterparts are spread across the country but particularly concentrated in the midwest.
They clearly backed Trump in Ohio, and made all the difference to his prospects in such superficially unlikely territories as Michigan – a Democratic stronghold since the late 1980s – and Wisconsin, which had backed the Democratic candidate in the last seven presidential elections.
As these states’ backing for Trump became more and more clear, I thought not just of Indiana, but also the book Caught in the Middle by a Chicago-based academic called Richard C Longworth, published in 2009 and full of auguries of the great political shock to come. “About a decade ago, globalisation arrived and changed the Midwest for ever,” Longworth wrote. Economic decline had already blighted millions of lives, but this was something else again. “Traditional family farms vanished. Steel mills closed and auto factories shrunk. ‘Downsizing’ and ‘outsourcing’ enriched our vocabularies and frightened our workforce. Some big cities, such as Chicago, coped. Others, like Detroit, rotted. Small industrial cities fought to stay alive. ‘Rural’ became a synonym for ‘poor’. Immigrants, mostly Mexicans but Africans and Asians too, moved into towns and regions that were all European, and northern European at that. Self-sufficient places … became bedroom suburbs if they were lucky enough to lie within commuting distance of bigger cities. Those beyond this range, or too far from the interstate, shrivelled.”
Such places make up what we ought to now think of as Trumpland. For sure, some of the support for Trump is doubtless down to an appetite for base prejudice, and in some cases an antediluvian aversion to the idea of a woman president. But their overall predicament is deep and complex.
As with every rightwing populist from Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen, Trump obviously has no credible answers. Yet in America, economic malaise fatally highlighted the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton. Nafta may have been brought into being by George Bush Sr, but it became law in late 1993, with enthusiastic backing from Bill Clinton – who believed, according to one aide, that the agreement’s vision of “a more open regime and international trade were in the long-term interest of the United States”. Three years later, Hillary was claiming that “everybody is in favour of free and fair trade, and I think that Nafta is proving its worth”. Two decades on, as Trump – and Bernie Sanders – loudly decried the agreement’s effects and she tried to follow suit, it all rang far too hollow.
More generally, Clinton and her people were seemingly so estranged from the places at free trade’s blunt end that they left glaring openings for a man who would probably not know one end of a production line from the other.
The same problem, moreover, afflicted the pundits and pollsters who were defeated by Trump just as soundly as Clinton. During my time in Indiana and elsewhere, I would run into bloggers and supposed journalists at post-primary “watch parties”, where they tapped away at their laptops and tried to figure out whether this or that pollster had been on the money.
But that is not journalism; it is an essentially pointless pastime, equal parts maths and cash-free gambling, and it is part of the great mess of misapprehension and false expectation that defined this election. One New York Times hack confessed that he and his colleagues “expected Trump to fizzle [out] because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough”. Quite so. But making up for that fault will require not just a few more trips out of state and a bit less attention paid to the latest polling, but an entire culture change.
Everything surely has to be transformed now: the methods and policy substance of American progressive politics, its understanding of globalisation, the kind of figures it appoints to its front rank (no more dynasties, please), and the way that it talks to people it once thought of as its natural supporters. So too does something that afflicts politicians and media people in equal measure: a fatal detachment from the places where politics is actually played out.
Obviously, this is exactly the same basic detachment that formed such a large part of the story of Brexit. Politicians and their aides fret over arcane categories of voter and data that, more often than not, turn out to be incorrect; the journalists who might alert them to where they are going wrong seem to have no more clue than the people they report on.
And meanwhile, in towns full of derelict factories and foreclosed houses, the conversation speeds on, away from anything halfway progressive, towards the terrifying politics that has just scored a truly historic win. In some ways this is the central political problem of our age. And if it is not answered soon, Trump’s victory and Britain’s sudden rightward lurch may be just two more awful milestones on the road to God knows where.
John Harris is a journalist and author, who writes regularly for the Guardian about a range of subjects built around politics, popular culture and music
John Harris Twitter @
Follow us on Twitter @theglobengr