Only bold progressive politics can stop the spread of the Trump virus

Nothing is impossible. That’s a phrase I’ve heard uttered by countless friends, colleagues, and acquaintances since Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton. Whatever the initial subject of a conversation these days, it inevitably turns quickly to discussion of the Nov. 8 shocker south of the border.

Trump may play the clown, but beware of his appointees. | Illustration by Donkey Hotey

Trump may play the clown, but beware of his appointees. | Illustration by Donkey Hotey

All over the world, people and politicians are attempting to understand how this happened. Adjusting to this surreal new reality will take time, and it won’t be easy.

Some have suggested the U.S. election results represent the highest expression of a modern kakistocracy, meaning a society in which the rulers are the worst and least capable citizens. But while Trump’s impulsive, ignorant persona makes his capture of the White House maddening and difficult to fathom, it actually masks the most terrifying aspects of his ascent.

Trump’s explicit xenophobia and misogyny are not the quirk of an undisciplined, bigoted candidate. They are the toxic fuel propelling a rising far right movement worldwide. However much Trump plays the clown, his appointees are anything but a joke.

Steve Bannon, his chief strategist who joined the campaign after building an “alt-right” media empire based on vile racist, sexist, and conspiratorial clickbait, is a very serious and committed far right-wing ideologue. One of Bannon’s first phone calls after the election was to French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, a rebranded fascist who is running a dangerously close second place in polls ahead of next Spring’s presidential elections.

All the far right leaders of Europe are overjoyed by the rise of Trump. And with elections coming up in Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, there’s a very real danger that explicitly racist and xenophobic parties will soon be controlling a number of key European countries.

The centrist, liberal establishment in Europe and the United States is morally and intellectually bankrupt. With their unquestioning loyalty to neoliberalism, they’ve allowed inequality to fester and the labour movement to decline. Trump seized the initiative with appeals to regional working class constituencies who felt abandoned, denouncing corporate free trade deals like NAFTA and bashing the establishment. “The system is rigged,” he thundered. It’s true of course, although Trump neglected to mention the system is rigged precisely in favour of monsters like him.

The other candidate in 2016 whose anti-establishment message resonated profoundly was Bernie Sanders, a 75-year-old democratic socialist who electrified youth across the United States with his appeal for a higher minimum wage, free college education, and his impassioned calls to reduce inequality by aggressively taxing billionaires like Trump. The phenomenal and unexpected success Sanders enjoyed in the Democratic primaries, despite blatant collusion against him by top party officials and a mostly hostile mainstream media, is every bit as significant as the Trump phenomenon.

The world’s political map is being redrawn.

Canadian politics are not immune to the virus of Trumpism, even if there is less political space here for overt xenophobia and racism, and even though a popular and telegenic new Liberal prime minister is still enjoying something of a long honeymoon with media and the public.

Perhaps even more important than smacking down the Canadian politicians who try to mimic Trump’s vile rhetoric, people concerned with social justice and equality in Canada need to consider the success of Bernie Sanders in pushing for bold and unabashedly left-wing politics. The milquetoast politics of centrism are less relevant than ever.

With the B.C. election less than six months away, there are encouraging signs that John Horgan and the NDP are learning some lessons from the Sanders campaign. For one, they have not ruled out running a campaign based on major financial commitments and deficit spending, which of course is what helped Justin Trudeau win the last federal election. Recently, Horgan announced a new $10/day child care policy which will be a central plank of the NDP election campaign.

In a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, Horgan acknowledged the influence of the old democratic socialist from Vermont, “What I’ve heard a lot, and it goes back to the Bernie Sanders (U.S. presidential) campaign, this notion of being bold. People say we need to be bold.”

For decades, establishment politicians have defended their timidity and defense of the status quo as pragmatism. “There is no alternative,” they told us, repeating Margaret Thatcher’s famous mantra. Trump has proven that there is an alternative – only his alternative could be even worse than the status quo. Our challenge now is to keep alive the hope of a better alternative, and to push back against the atavistic hatreds tapped by the far right.

The political centre is dead or dying. For those on the political left, it’s time to be courageous and even aggressive. Only bold progressive politics, built on social justice and anti-racism, can defeat the spread of the deadly Trump virus.