Like biting on a sore tooth it seems like we cannot curb our fascination with U.S. President Donald Trump (just writing those words seem surreal). The man-child president never disappoints in his buffoonish behaviour and exquisite inarticulateness — as in a recent AP interview.
But we monitor Trump not just because it still seems impossible that such a fool actually is president but also because he is the most dangerous president in U.S. history. He could kill us all.
We tend to forget how he got there and the forces that overturned conventional politics in the U.S. If we are going to be obsessed with anything it should be this: how do we create a new politics that in the long term builds the basis of a citizen-based democracy to replace the hollowed-out institutions we now have in English-speaking developed countries? To do so we first need to understand the roots of Trump’s popularity.
We could do worse than revisit the writings of the brilliant Hannah Arendt, still perhaps the most insightful analyst of the roots of totalitarianism. A recent essay by Roger Berkowitz, “Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting The Origins of Totalitarianism,” reminded me of her renewed relevance. Berkowitz writes:
“Arendt’s understanding of the origins of totalitarianism begins with her insight that mass movements are founded upon ‘atomized, isolated individuals.’ The lonely people whom Arendt sees as the adherents of movements are not necessarily the poor or the lower classes. They are the ‘neutral, politically indifferent people…'”
They join, says Arendt, because they “[a]re obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects.” This description fits almost perfectly with the white working class facing, as my last column featured, “death by despair.”
Berkowitz argues that Trump won because he was not leading a conventional political campaign — he was the leader of a mass movement and “[m]ovements thrive on the destruction of reality [and] work to create alternate realities that offer adherents a stable and empowering place in the world.”
If Arendt and Berkowitz are correct then the left needs to determine how to counter the enervating influence of an increasingly dismal reality on ordinary citizens. So far, at least, Canada’s political culture has proved resilient in resisting right-wing populism in spite of social and economic conditions that are not dissimilar to those in the U.S.
But such a populist response is not impossible. Preston Manning harnessed alienation with “eastern elites” in building his Reform party. And the left in Canada still has not come to terms with the key message of Arendt’s analysis: that the isolation of people from each other — “atomized, isolated individuals” — is the political right’s principal advantage and the left’s greatest blind spot.
In this context it is interesting to watch the NDP leadership race to test for signs that the candidates understand what they are up against in rebuilding the party. Two of them, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian, have spoken of the importance of social movements in creating a newly robust progressive party. That’s encouraging because under both Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair the party became increasingly professionalized. (Layton didn’t start out that way but that’s where he ended up.)
The difficulty with this recognition of social movements is that it comes too late. The sad reality is that there are almost no social movements in Canada. While the global Women’s March, the recent March for Science in the U.S., The Leap Manifesto and the Quebec students’ strike were all significant and provided much-needed inspiration they are not sustained movement organizations. The women’s movement in this sense has been moribund for over a decade, the anti-poverty movement likewise. There is literally no peace movement — recall the days when every year 60,000 people marched for peace in Vancouver — yet we are closer to nuclear annihilation today than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. The labour movement has never recovered from the loss of hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs because of NAFTA and is now all but irrelevant as a national, politically engaged movement. Only the environmental movement and a resurgent First Nations movement can claim a national presence.
The height of the influence of social movements on the political culture was the 1970s and ’80s. The Action Canada Network which fought the first Free Trade Agreement (FTA) consisted of all the major unions, the churches, the aforementioned movements and provincial coalitions in every province save one. The Saskatchewan coalition was founded by 50 organizations and played a major role in defeating the Grant Devine Conservative government.
There are no longer any social justice coalitions because their components simply no longer exist or are barely hanging on. A short history lesson may help to explain why. The roots of all of those organizations can be traced back to the late 1960s before the neoliberal counter-revolution. The silo model of movements (each focused on a single issue) reflected the fact that governments of the day actually believed in governing. The Trudeau government (and, later, most provincial governments) funded dozens of grassroots organizations. I once interviewed Gérard Pelletier, the minister in charge of this funding, and believed him when he said the government was responding to left criticism that many voices were not being heard, that our democracy was shallow.
The advent of the FTA and the other elements of the so-called Washington Consensus (deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, cuts to social spending, privatization) was the death knell for this kind of grassroots politicking. Neoliberalism — adopted by all the parties to a greater or lesser extent — was intent on giving democracy (and its incessant demands for more) a cold shower and dramatically downsizing the social state. The federal and provincial governments quietly tore up the implied “contract” between social movements and the state. They just didn’t tell the social movements.
Simone Weil wrote that “[t]o be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” The lesson here for the NDP leadership candidates genuinely open to “social movements” is the need to shift their attention inwards: a renewed NDP must itself become a movement rooted in community (like its predecessor, the CCF), going beyond a list of policies and pledging to help build a society which offers people meaning in their lives.