“I’m right, you’re wrong.” From right-wing extremism to to left-wing populism, the world became an angrier place in 2016. Old systems are broken and many of us are looking for a fix. Mobeen Azhar spent the day at a polling station in Montana on the day Trump triumphed. He asks what everything this year has served up means and where we go from here.
In the 1999 movie Fight Club, Eward Norton plays a bored white-collar everyman, desperately searching for purpose. His world doesn’t satisfy his primal needs. There’s no threat; only marketing and things to consume. All the battles have been won.
The film struck a chord with Generation X because it represented what many pre-millennials thought was on the cards: a world so void of struggle it’s beige.
Who, then, could have foreseen what the 21st century has delivered? Global economic depression, international terrorism and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Amid this apocalyptic backdrop the political right has risen like a multi-headed sea monster. From the orange cartoon shorthand of Donald Trump, to Le Pen’s France and UKIP-land, the world is a very scary place.
I write this from a hotel room in the American state of Montana. I spent election day at the main polling station in the city of Kalispell. This land is red. When I asked people who they voted for and what issues informed their decision, “traditional Christian values” and more explicitly “Jesus” were recurring themes.
There’s Tanya with her stars-and-stripes neckerchief, Bob and Margaret who, in their seventies, are voting for the first time, and Rick the surfer-boy who smells of hash. They, like countless others, told me they were backing Donald Trump because “he will bring back old, great, traditional American goodness.” It’s the America they imagine. An America they miss.
“He might not be the most God-fearing man,” says Tanya, “but Christians are being persecuted and Trump’s going to stop that. I’m sick of the gays pushing their choices down my throat. I’m sick of feeling like a stranger in my own country. I’m sick of my tax paying to murder babies.”
Trump’s core support is anti-abortion, anti-equal marriage and anti-immigrant. This is about values. Many straight, white Americans are pissed off when they are told to acknowledge their privilege, that diversity is good and gender equality important. Trump exploited this cultural battle. He revelled in breaking the accepted boundaries of public life. Like a schoolyard bully, he pointed fingers at Muslims, women, Mexicans and immigrants while the other kids cheered him on.
A friend texted me the words “red-neck apocalypse” when Trump was declared President-elect. It made me smile and wince, but such flippancy is ultimately unhelpful.
In 2016, the world is a complicated and rapidly changing place. Many people feel left behind. The Trump tonic offered simple answers and spoke directly to people who felt their concerns had been ignored.
It’s easier to say: immigrants take your jobs, remember the good old days and things will be great again, than to engage with the problems of a globalised economy.
At the core of Trump’s success — and at the heart of Brexit — is the fact that for years now, the political establishments of many of our most progressive societies have ignored the realities of how decreasing living standards, stagnant wages and growing inequalities make people feel.
THE MAJORITY of Trump’s support came from white men. He did especially well among those without college degrees.
In America, more women than men now graduate from college. Many vocations traditionally linked to women, such as nursing, teaching and social work, have an increasing demand, whereas in the past 25 years, vocations traditionally associated with men have seen downward turns. Demand for manufacturing, for instance, has fallen by 30 per cent.
Is it any wonder that Trump’s rallying call “Make America Great Again” hit the spot with men who crave the days an unskilled manufacturing job could support a family?
In Britain, too, successive governments have placed boundaries in the way of social mobility and told us we must work harder. You want to go to university? Pay for it. You want to save money for a house? You’ll have to wait. You want to retire at 60? Keep working. Life feels like it’s getting harder? Blame immigrants, European regulation, Muslims. In fact, anyone but the government.
Wherever there is social deprivation, the likes of Trump and Nigel Farage are on hand to serve up someone or something to blame, like a dystopian cussing match that serves only to soothe with simplistic promises and people to point at. Remember the £350m Brexit was going to free up for the NHS? In 2016, too many of us have lapped up these lies as a perceived rebellion against the system.
Professor Paul Whitely collates data on political party membership in Britain and norms in political opinion. He suggests that, globally, we are seeing an appetite for more radical political solutions. If the European referendum result and Trump’s victory haven’t convinced you, just look at the rise of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. “Voters are not asking themselves: ‘where is this candidate on the left-right dimension?’ he explains. “They are asking: ‘is this politician saying something which is going to help deal with my problems?’”
Trump, Brexit the rise of the left in Greece and Jeremy Corbyn’s election and re-election as Labour leader are important examples. We crave new solutions because the old ones aren’t working. Yet there remains a middle England so stuck in its ways, it refuses to acknowledge this shifting dynamic. For a year now I’ve listened to people explain that they can’t back Corbyn even though they think he’s principled and honest and like his values because “he’s not the type to win an election.”
The same mindset may have championed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries because she was seen as more electable. We know now how that worked out.
There will be pain in this new politics. For decades, many of us have had to choose between one beige politician and another, separated only by semantics and micro-degrees of policy. There is the emergence of genuine possibility now. Less polished, more radical. It’s wonderful. It’s also terrifying.
Many of us believed that, for the most part, our battles had been won. This year has shown us this isn’t true. If you’re angry about rising xenophobia in Britain, white supremacists in the White House, constantly being told to work harder for less, know this: these things are linked by a system that is not working for enough people and things will change if enough people want them to.
It’s about critical mass. The direction of change will be decided by those brave enough to push for the society they want to live in. The one thing above all else that 2016 has revealed is that almost anything is possible.