West Virginia. Not the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River popularised by John Denver, but forlorn valley towns, abandoned by politicians for decades. The mines have gone, and the light industries that replaced them. As the presidential election loomed, a Fox News reporter visited a typical community in this demoralised state, off the itinerary of most mainstream media. The weary interviewees told a story, unheard by the metropolitan elite, of unremitting decline, manifesting in vacant factories and stores, once prim but now foreclosed and dilapidated suburban homes, narcotic addiction, and an obsession with guns – not a pretty sight. Unsurprisingly, they were voting for Trump – the ‘deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton called them.
The hysterical reaction to another electoral shock has followed the Brexit pattern: a liberal, progressive polity ruined by thick white bigots who cannot accept the 21st century. Again, a picture emerges of a nation divided into haves and have nots. But there is a much bigger message that the liberal Left needs to hear. The White House plebiscite, before and after, has been identity politics writ large, and this is what must change.
All five writers in a Guardian panel denounced the vote for Trump as an outpouring of misogyny. Polly Toynbee didn’t stop there – this was the same white supremacism that produced Brexit (surely a worse slur than the Daily Mail labelling three contrarian judges ‘enemies of the people’). However, Hillary being a white establishment figure, gender was the focus of the liberal perspective on the American election.
At the Javits Centre in New York, an expectant crowd assembled under a vast glass ceiling. History being made! You see, the election was not about depressed incomes, outsourcing of jobs, uncontrolled immigration, or the impoverished flyover states – it was all about the first female president of the US of A. Little Miss Entitled would prevail, because as Madeline Albright had said, there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t support each other. Rich 1 per cent women in Manhattan deserve more attention than poor families in the Rust-Belt. What callous disregard for their compatriots.
So called progressives are too traumatised to learn from their mistaken view, but they cannot continue to ignore reality. For the sneaky creep of identity politics is at last being understood as divisive, wrong – and unwanted. Let’s look back over recent months in the USA, and see some of the stimulants for Trump’s success.
- Black Lives Matter – highly-paid football players jumping on a bandwagon to make a blunt protest against the national anthem, while getting encouraging noises from the political establishment. Perhaps more than the organised riots reported on the news, this incursion into ordinary lives worried the stadium crowd and television audience along to the polling station.
- The San Bernardino massacre, last December. This was a timely opening for Trump – only he was prepared to express what the common people felt about this dreadful event, while Clinton and Obama were fussing about Islamophobia.
- Gay activists seeking and gaining publicity for suing small-town bakeries for refusing to produce a cake emblazoned with an aggressively political message. And winning the case, putting honest men and women out of business. (Yes, similar to the Ashers case in Northern Ireland.)
- Overcooked feminism – when mega-rich stars like Lady Gaga tell us about their struggle in a man’s world, they have no care for how this sounds to an unemployed ex-miner with respiratory disease and a dwindling pension, whose ex-colleagues have landed in jail or committed suicide.
And since the election: –
- White middle-class students burning the flag in protests about Trump, who they accuse (no hint of irony) of destroying America.
Like Brexit, the establishment and their brainwashed youth do not get it. Coincidentally, on the day after the election, when identity politics is being roundly blamed by all but the hard core of liberal Left media, my university notifies staff of a scheme to ease promotion of staff who are (1) female / trans to female or (2) ethnic minority. I do not doubt the good intent of such policy, but it seems oblivious to the changing reality. Look around my university canteen, and you hardly see any white males, certainly not of working class.
There will always be tensions between rich and poor, and on ethnic or gender lines, but the way to deal with conflict is not to ‘up the ante’, but to bring people together in shared humanity. Sanctimonious politicians urge positive discrimination, blind to the impact on social cohesion, patriotism and fairness. But maybe I am missing the trick. Perhaps identity politics is a strategy – in the age-old principle of divide and rule.