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20.02.17

May and Trump are in charge – but voters’ wallets still rule

Trump’s inauguration. May’s speech. We are told that Trump is a protectionist and May is for free trade. But they both reject the social market that characterises the EU, making it a golden shower of a week for internationalist social democrats.

The market comes via trade within the EU, while the social is injected by having this occur above a floor on workers’ and consumers’ rights, as well as protections for the environment and other public goods. “We would be free,” threatened the prime minister, “to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.” The social dimension of the EU model would not endure any transformation into Dubai-on-Thames. Nor, according to a former head official at the Treasury, would the NHS.

It is also the market, not the social, that attracts Trump – perhaps better described as a mercantilist than a protectionist – to a trade deal with the UK. He wants a wall on the Mexican border but he doesn’t want, in contrast to a pure protectionist, to wholly encase America behind trade walls. He does, though, seem to view trade as a zero-sum game, not a win-win exchange. And he eyes a win for America in a negotiation with a UK to be stripped of EU social regulations and looking for friends after politically detaching ourselves from our European partners.

Trump perpetuates the myth that America has ever put itself anywhere other than first. Pumping, in today’s money, around $120bn into Europe via the Marshall Plan, for example, wasn’t just about compassion for a continent on its knees after World War II. It was about minimising the risk of American blood being spilt on European soil, opening up European markets for American goods, and creating a European bulwark between the Soviet Union and the Atlantic.

This mutually beneficial exchange between America and Europe was the foundation of the EU and NATO, the great institutions of post-World War II Europe, which Trump – like Putin – now denigrates. If Trump can sustain the perception that the UK has benefitted from leaving the EU, it will weaken the EU. In questioning Angela Merkel and having his advisers meet Marie Le Pen, Trump perpetuates the bizarre love triangle between himself, Putin and Nigel Farage.

We are repeatedly asked to believe that this triangle represents some kind of kulturkampf on liberal culture. But no Leave or Trump voter anticipates being poorer. White guys might prefer a beer with Trump to a Hillary Clinton lecture but not if they are paying. Few have such a low regard of immigrants that they’d trade lower income for fewer immigrants.

It is still the economy, stupid. Leave and Trump votes were perceived as down payments on a more prosperous tomorrow. The rust belt to be rebuilt. The left behind to be lifted up. Less a smashing of the old order and more a continuation of back pocket rule.

We can debate the economics of Leave and Trump. It might be that Trump’s mercantilism produces short-term America gains and longer-term diminishment; perhaps, Trump can conjure a way for these gains to have more endurance. It might be that distancing ourselves from our most important trading partners somehow allows the UK to avoid Dubai-on-Thames and enjoy more broad-based prosperity.

There must be some possibility, though, that the economic hopes vested in Leave and Trump are dashed.

The possibility of these disappointments reminds me of the disturbing question with which Yuval Noah Harari closes Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Harari provides a bestselling story of humanity’s transition from insignificance to deity. In their own ways, Trump and Brexit, too, have transitioned from the margins to dominance. Their sunlit uplands may be as elusive as Harari thinks they are for humanity.

“The master of the entire planet and the terror the ecosystem … seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.”

Trump is in a love triangle but rarely seems satisfied. He breathes in anger and spews it out. Theresa May seeks to be more inclusive. But Farage, as discontented with the post-1950s as Trump, is the tail of the tiger that she rides.

Immigrants. Foreigners. Anyone who is a bit different. Jews. Muslims. Gays. As anger spirals, I fear for them.

But anger doesn’t put food on the table. And, remember, it is still the economy. Anger begets anger, but in the absence of economic advancement, there won’t be enough anger to improve Trump’s ratings.

Communism was the god that failed Russia. Putin has never got over this. Not out of Marxist fidelity. But misplaced pride. Such heightened chauvinism that even prostitution is an arena of national rivalry.

With an inflated ego and deflated intellect, Trump may take presidential disappointments as badly as Putin. As ugly as this gets, Farage will be egging him on, while throwing stones at the prime minister, who will struggle to meet her speech’s benchmark.

In this world of looming disappointment, Patrick Diamond of Policy Network has published a book explaining how social democrats might provide new hope. Amid the sound and fury of the supposed kulturkampf, which social democrats do need to adapt to, what will continue to be most decisive is what social democrats can do for back pockets.