Broadly speaking, it is fair to say that the defining theme of democratic politics in 2015 was that of protest. From the decisive victory won by Alexis Tsipras’s hard-left Syriza party in Greece and the four million votes accrued by Nigel Farage’s Ukip in the UK general election, to the enormous grassroots support generated by pro-Jeremy Corbyn campaign, voters across the Western world have been reliably throwing their support behind any candidate bold enough to decry the failures of the entrenched political classes. Naturally, the over-arching anti-establishment movement is deeply divided along the lines of political ideology, but this does not change the fact that, for the first time in many years, the guardians of the status quo are facing a serious threat to their monopoly over matters of the state.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the US, where the process of selecting presidential candidates for the 2016 election is in full swing. At the liberal end of the spectrum, independent senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has shaken up a race for the Democratic nomination, which many predicted would be nothing more than the coronation of establishment favourite, Hilary Clinton. Sanders has rallied thousands of embittered Americans to his cause with a strong, coherent vision of a political system free from the influence of moneyed interests, a strengthened welfare state, financial institutions held in check by robust regulatory bodies, and harsher taxation. Across the aisle, however, we find a farcically overcrowded platform on which many of the Republican candidates appear, at least to the outsider, to be engaging in their own private competition in determining who can make the most outrageously backward and, in many cases, untrue statements on topics ranging from foreign policy and economics to women’s reproductive rights.
The centrepiece of this perfect caricature of modern US politics is Donald J Trump, business magnate and inflammateur-in-chief: a man who has variously delivered a borderline anti-Semitic speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition – “I’m a negotiator… like you folks!” – seemingly implied that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s rebuke of his more misogynistic comments was the result of PMS and, perhaps most famously, written off the majority of Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers and rapists”. And this man is the runaway leader of the race.
It may be tempting, as many pundits did in the earlier months of his campaign, to write off Trump as nothing more than a clown, with the primary aim of raising his public profile. Or, as some have suggested, to sabotage the Republican nominations and allow his old friends the Clintons to reclaim the presidency. But to do so at this stage would be unwise. We have long since passed the point at which it was realistic to suggest that Trump’s success was down to an American attraction to the ‘bad boy’, the rogue candidate more likely to troll his opponents on Twitter than engage them in serious debate. And we must now accept that the arguably bigoted, anti-humanitarian agenda he pedals appears to resonate with a sizable percentage of the population.
It should also be recognised that Trump is not a lone voice in western politics – far from it. The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Paul Golding of Britain First, to name a few, all belong to a new wave of rightwing populism, and all have gained support in the same way Trump has.
Does the popularity of such figures simply reveal the unfortunate prevalence of racism and xenophobia in our supposedly progressive, enlightened society? In all likelihood, yes. However, as damaging as their views may be, the spread of harmful ideas is not the most serious threat these politicians pose. The real danger lies in the fact that the grievances Trump and his fellow demagogues seek to exploit are very much real. But by directing the people’s anger towards immigrants, minorities, welfare claimants and the other marginal groups currently under fire, the pressure is taken off those truly responsible: the vast, nebulous institutions of neoliberalism to which our governments, through the power of capital, are hopelessly in thrall. It is encouraging to see that people are frustrated enough to break out of their disaffected stupor and rally around charismatic speakers articulating an anti-establishment message. We now need to ensure that those speakers who would attack the true perpetrators gain more attention than buffoons like Trump.