Insubstantial Champions

James Meek

There are many similarities between the Brexit vote and Trump's win. The reliance for victory on white voters without a college education, fear of immigration, globalisation being blamed for mine and factory closures, hostility towards data-based arguments, the breakdown of the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘conclusion’, the internet’s power to sort the grain of pleasing lies from the chaff of displeasing facts, the sense of there being a systematic programme of rules and interventions devised by a small, remote, powerful elite that polices everyday speech, destroys symbols of tradition, ignores or patronises ‘real’, ‘ordinary’ people, and has contempt for popular narratives of how the nation came to be.

Watching the US election results come in was like a rerun of referendum night in Britain in June: the same demented focus on previous models that bore little relation to the different voter coalitions called into being by the unique circumstances of the vote, the same distracting references to bookies’ odds and stock market gyrations, the same inertia of technical analysis droning on even as the blood began to drain from the pundits’ faces, the same – cynical? – hints of defeat from the ultimately victorious camp while the polls were still open, the same sense that for all the talking headery and data crunching, the overwhelming misapprehension going into the evening was that the thing which had never happened before just could not happen because it had never happened before.

There was one other important similarity. It is too early to tell whether it will carry over from Britain to the US, because it continues to this day, long after the vote. It was striking before and after the Brexit referendum that almost all those who wanted to stay in the European Union (I was one) have found it much easier to denounce the Leavers than to praise the supposed object of our political desires, the EU. In the same way, Clinton voters seem to find it much easier to find reasons to hate Trump than to love Clinton. Goodness knows, finding reasons to hate Trump was never going to be hard, but why was it so hard to pin a like on Clinton? Why so hard to speak passionately and specifically for Europe, as opposed to denigrating those who were against it? With Brexit and with the Trumpiad, for most people, the positivity around the alternatives seems to boil down to a single ‘nice to have’. It’s nice to have a passport that allows you to live and work anywhere in the EU; it would have been nice to have a woman in the White House. That’s it.

In Britain, the Leave camp has been bitter in victory. I suspect the Trump camp, as its tiny billionaire head detaches from its massive electoral body, will be the same. Winning a vote can never be enough when you also want to be made happy and for the losers to shut up. The Remain camp has been bitter in defeat, as the Democrat camp will be, both towards the Leavers/Trumpites, and among themselves. Excoriation of Trump/Farage, Sean Hannity/Paul Dacre, Clintonites/Blairites, Sanders/Corbyn, is supplemented by I-told-you-so head-shaking over the collapse of the pound and Wall Street freakouts. This is all fine and natural. But the other side is missing.

Will there be mass marches in favour of free trade down the avenues of America’s great cities? Surprise me. Will there be sit-ins and confrontations with riot police by angry Clintonites demanding a judicious tweaking of the federal tax code and a modest programme of college debt relief? I’d bet against it. The intensity of the rage of Britain’s pro-Europeans on Twitter, the wildness of their hopes that Brexit might still somehow be cancelled or tamed, is only matched by our lack of action on the streets in support of what we felt so devastated to be deprived of.

I still feel it. I still feel more disgusted, angry and ashamed about the other side winning than I do about my side losing. My champions were fading and insubstantial even before they fought. It saddens me more that America just elected its own id than that in doing so it destroyed the Hillary Clinton project. I will be thrown deeper into despair by the coronation of President Le Pen than into mourning for any of her opponents. It is no longer enough to be offered something to vote for, something to tweet about, an object of loathing. It is never enough to call a march with a whiteboard for a banner. Am I too jaded to hope, in politics, for something real – something, not someone – to yearn for, and not just something to hate?


  • 9 November 2016 at 3:40pm
    Joshua K says:
    Anybody who's spent time in the US, outside the biggest cities and college towns, would have known how tough of a sell Hillary Clinton was going to be. What's baffling here is why registered Democrats wanted her as their nominee, in preference to one of the cleanest and least compromised candidates in modern US history. Somebody who obviously was genuine and who provided hope and inspiration. I can only hope the penny will now drop for the corporate-owned DNC.

    • 10 November 2016 at 7:13pm
      Gibbon says: @ Joshua K
      A plague on both houses as far as I'm concerned. You - and other Sanders supporters - are right about Hillary. You have been vindicated there? But Bernie as President? Really? I can't believe someone who started there comment by implying they had spent time outside the biggest cities and college towns could really believe that. "Lying" was his moniker for Cruz. "Crooked" for Hillary. Both were effective but, you know, at least Cruz and Clinton could attempt to deny their moniker. How, pray tell, would Bernie have defended "socialist traitor". He could hardly deny he was a socialist after boasting about it could he (even though, if we must get into it, he is much more conventional European social democrat). Do you think rural America would buy that? I don't.

      As for the other "progressive" teeth-gnashing candidate, Elizabeth Warren: please. The one counter-argument for Bernie is that he seemed to tap into the sub-conscious and deeply vulgar maschismo that is part of the culture war the Trump Party is now waging. Warren would have bent their minds - she would have underpeformed Clinton and Sanders.

      As I say, a plague on all houses. Joe Biden might have been worth a shot but do the Democrats not have any vaguely working class politicians anymore? Only amongst its black caucuses. I suspect they should stick to recruiting from there, from now on in. At least they can credibly claim to have an ordinary, non-elitist background.

    • 10 November 2016 at 11:41pm
      Rob says: @ Gibbon
      Bernie as President? Absolutely. Because this election was not about Democrats needing to persuade potential Trump voters over to their side. What the Democrats needed to do in this election was ensure that, as far as possible, all those who voted for Obama in 2012 voted Democrat again. Nothing more. That is what Hillary abjectly failed to achieve, whereas it is not difficult to imagine Sanders engaging already-Democrat voters at least enough to get them to the polls.

      That may not be a portrait of a healthy, inclusive political process, but it would have been enough to get the job done.

    • 11 November 2016 at 11:52am
      semitone says: @ Rob
      Sanders might have matched or exceeded Obama's vote amongst white voters in Blue states, except probably those ones in the Midwest that flipped for Trump.

      Obama got 88% of the black vote in 2012; Clinton got 80 with a lower turnout, and it's one of the reasons she lost. Sanders underperformed Clinton with the black vote during the primaries, so why do you think he would have outperformed her with black voters in an election?

  • 9 November 2016 at 3:40pm
    Greencoat says:
    'why was it so hard to pin a like on Clinton? Why so hard to speak passionately and specifically for Europe?'

    Perhaps it's because both are crap?

    • 9 November 2016 at 4:21pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Greencoat
      Greencoat lets you know exactly what his bile-filled heart holds.

      Clinton = crap; nice equation. Presumably the 50% of Americans who voted for Clinton are in the "crap camp".

      Forget about the mystery of what Trump will actually do. Think of the old saw that the best predictor of a person's behavior is his or her past behavior. Trump's character will probably not change by his elevation to high office (why should it - he feels vindicated by the results).

      On this one issue -- character (temperament) - the behavioral record of Trump leaves a lot to be desired. On the crap front, I am reminded of Napoleon's remark about his wily and shifty Foreign Minister, Talleyrand: "He's shit in a silk stocking." A more or less correct assessment of Trump, though the stocking is cheap mesh with some glitter spray-painted on it; or maybe it's an Armani power-suit, which should make T's "populist" base weep or cringe.

    • 9 November 2016 at 5:40pm
      pjplayer says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I don't know what's in Greencoat's heart, but the " both are crap" comment here is essentially accurate.

      The EU is impossible to defend for left-wingers, especially since its very recent destruction of Greece and awful treatment of refugees from outside fortress Europe. I voted remain, I can speak passionately for Europe, but the EU is a neoliberal, anti-democratic disaster and has no place in the type of world we need to build.

      Clinton had some technical merits, but no policies that were going to improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans. If she had, people may have overlooked the scandals (real and imagined) in her past. She took on a diluted version of some Sanders stuff (such as free public education through college) but without Sanders as the candidate it made little sense, especially as she had recently held seemingly opposite views. And it seemed unlikely she would follow through or prioritize the more progressive end of her platform when elected. She could have stopped things in the country getting even worse (supreme court) and that's why many people I know did vote for her and I would have if I was allowed. It wasn't enough though, obviously.

  • 10 November 2016 at 1:32am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    While I cannot disagree with some of the remarks about Clinton, that’s not the problem right now. In comparison, what will Trump do to “improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans.” Let’s examine some of his more florid promises with this in mind:

    Build a wall (the Greatest Wall Ever”) and make Mexico pay for it, to boot. Well this might supply a decent livelihood for construction workers who reside along the border area, but who else will benefit? Maybe it’s supposed to free up low-wage jobs that Latinos now perform, but without increasing the wage rate for these jobs, most other Americans (natives!) will still refuse to take them. It’s “beneath” them.

    Restore manufacturing jobs to America. This is dicey – it either depends on punishing out-sourcers of labor (global capitalism’s preferred method of cutting costs) by imposing very high tariffs on the products of such labor or taxing the portion of their corporate profits stemming from such practices at a higher rate (you think Trump will do the latter? think again). To take one example — Apple put together its Chinese work force of about a quarter of a million people in order to keep prices down here. If Trump went to war with them over this in a way that made the tens of millions of i-phone purchasers pay twice the price for their gadgets (by restoring their manufacture to the US, with its higher labor costs), how long would he remain popular (or even acceptable) with this large group that contains many disgruntled white-collar workers (“suburbanites”) who apparently voted for him?

    Ban Muslim immigration. That’s not going to improve my life, and I fail to see how it’s going to improve things for most people. Maybe, because they are fearful, it will calm certain people down. Big deal.

    Get rid of international trade agreements. This goes back to the questions raised by the Apple example above. Walmart, the chain box store that is popular throughout the country, imports a great deal of its inventory from countries that make the products it sells with cheap, unsafe labor. “Trump country” voters who like to shop there would be outraged by policies that raise prices on this household stuff.

    Put Hillary in jail (this goes to the “rhetoric of symbolism”). In addition to having donated to Hillary in the past (not much, but still) and having invited the Clintons to his third wedding, Trump, in his speech last night characterized her as a good campaigner and a distinguished public servant to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude (drawing a feeble wave of applause for this). While those of us who voted for her like this nod toward rationality, how about all those nuts at his rallies who loved the idea of putting her in jail? One more disappointment from the Big D.

    Overall there is no Trump program/idea that will not have to work its way through Congress, which may be less than compliant with his wish list.
    He’s not indicated whether he will cut either the military or social-welfare expenditure budgets (and seems uninclined to do either), but he has promised to rebuild America’s road and bridges infrastructure (while lowering taxes for all). Where will this public money come from?

    So, exactly how will Trump improve the lives of “the vast majority of Americans” (which would have to include half the population that voted against him, including many who detest or fear him)?

    • 10 November 2016 at 1:18pm
      Alex K. says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Trump's voters understand the Wall means not so much a brick-and-mortar barrier as a sharp reduction in immigration, particularly from the third world, including Muslim countries. This seems to be the number one issue for most Trumpists.

      If a person gets something she wants, it makes her better off. If Trump gets Congress to repeal the 1965 Immigration Act, most of his supporters will probably say "mission accomplished."

      On free trade, Trump's views haven't changed much since about 1990: he believes the US is providing some public good for free to its trade partners/competitors, which makes the terms of trade somewhat unfair to the Americans. That public good is either security (as in NATO's case) or the capitalist world order, more generally. The question is how to act on this argument.

    • 10 November 2016 at 3:21pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Alex K.
      Just a brief note. If you get something you want, you are not often "better off" - in fact sometimes the opposite happens. The brief emotional surge of satisfaction that accompanies getting what you want goes to the ""sentimental" nature of many of Trump's promises and declarations, noted below.

      I think that Alex K underestimates the number of Trump's most vocal and ardent supporters who believe his promises should be taken literally (a real wall, a total ban on Muslim, a prosecution of Hillary, the illegalization of abortion, a "bombing the shit out of ISIS," no legal impediments to the full range of possibilities suggested by the slogan "guns, God and guts").

    • 10 November 2016 at 9:42pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Timothy Rogers
      A footnote on my remarks above. Already a group of fervent Trumpites is calling on the Big Boy to initiate "criminal proceedings" against both Clinton and Obama once Trump assumes office. He's not going to do it (and the legal basis and avenue for doing it are totally unclear). The nut-jobs are going to be terribly disappointed whenever "the rational Trump" decides to move on to the next thing while ignoring the goofier hopes and dreams of his core supporters (the nasty mob that showed up at his rallies).

    • 11 November 2016 at 10:53am
      Alex K. says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I am using "better off" as it is used in microeconomics. The representative consumer is taken to have fixed, in-built preferences. If she prefers getting 10 widgets and 5 thingamajigs per year to 8 widgets and 7 thingamajigs, she is said to be better off in the former case. The cost of the two baskets of goods is a different matter: she may not be able to afford the basket she prefers. In the same sense, if I prefer less immigration to more, that's the way I am; the cost of exercising this preference is a different matter.

      I may be underestimating numbers and decibels, but reading various paleo-conservative and alt-right sites and filtering out what sounds like noise to me, I hear one common theme, a sine qua non: immigration. (As a side note, I also disagree that the people who showed up at his rallies are a "nasty mob", but that's a matter of taste.)

    • 11 November 2016 at 2:21pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Alex K.
      As to nasty mob, perhaps you're correct; I may be responding to the obviously nasty members whom the TV media focused on. On the other hand Trump's most threatening remarks got the biggest audience response at these rallies, so the venom seems to have been widespread in these crowds. Many of these folks were too well-fed and well-shod to have their economic grievances taken seriously. Maybe they were the "hidden angry suburbanites" who showed up at the polls in numbers that surprised talking heads and other commentators. Or maybe they cam be characterized as folks with no serious economic worries/problems who were just Clinton-haters.

  • 10 November 2016 at 9:27am
    msp says:
    It is not that hard to say good things about the EU: just talk about the strength of integration, of being stronger together, of global citizenship, of peace etc. However, the Remain camp (led from the centre-right and centre-left) has deliberately avoided any such sentiments and resorted to dry economical arguments. What Brexit has shown is that nowadays economical arguments are weaker than emotions - people are prepared to pay for what makes them feel good.

    Likewise, Clinton has largely steered clear of emotional arguments, and she lost to Trump whose main argument was the neo-fascist sentiment of "greatness". Clearly it's not that sentimental arguments for voting Democrats don't exist: Bernie had them aplenty. But like in the UK, the centre-left avoided the emotions, while the far right capitalised on them and won.

    Why so? I would argue that the centre-left and centre-right are simply reusing the postmodern/post-ideological strategies that worked so well for them in the 90s and early 2000s. The far right are also reusing the same strategies that they always used, except that they didn't work so well for them in those years.

    What no-one at the centre seems to notice is how much the public moods have changed. We've entered the "neo-sentimental" era, where facts matter way less than sentiments. Importantly, sentiments aren't the same as "ideologies", and it's the sentimental rather than the "theoretical" aspect of fascism that's so appealing to many today. Constructing an effective sentimental narrative around the centre-left political platform is the single most important thing that the Democrats (and, broadly speaking, "Remainers") need to win.

    • 10 November 2016 at 11:21am
      streetsj says: @ msp
      I largely agree with what you say with the exception that I don't buy your cursory list of positives about the EU. I don't know what strength of integration means; I don't see how EU membership makes us more Global citizens, i don't buy that the EU has been responsible for the peace; I don't feel differently about say Latvia than the Ukraine; Turkey rather than Bulgaria; Switzerland rather than Austria.
      And the economic arguments about the benefits of being an EU member (as opposed to the disbenefits of leaving) are not clear cut.

    • 10 November 2016 at 11:48am
      msp says: @ streetsj
      Perhaps some more work is needed on the sentimental pro-EU message then ;)

      But for me personally this is what it is about - and if you look, for example, at what people in The 48% Facebook group are saying, their sentiments are broadly the same.

    • 11 November 2016 at 11:20pm
      Peterson_the man with no name says: @ msp
      The problem with 'sentimental positives' about the EU is they tend to be either too vague, or else they only appeal to people who are already committed Europhiles.

      This points up a difference between Brexit and Trump's win. Remainers could never have won with a positive campaign, because those British voters who are genuinely enthusiastic about EU membership (as opposed to merely fearful of the possible consequences of leaving) are too small a minority. Dry economical arguments were the only option; if the refugee crisis hadn't happened, they would probably have worked.

      Whereas the Democrats could quite definitely have beaten Trump with sentimental arguments, if they hadn't gone and brilliantly picked a candidate whose only asset was being 'qualified'. That has rarely been much of an advantage for a presidential candidate, as Hillary herself should have known: when her husband (governor of a small hillbilly state) took on George HW Bush (congressman, CIA director, Vice-President, President), the gulf in qualifications between them was almost as wide as that between her and Trump.

  • 10 November 2016 at 4:29pm
    XopherO says:
    There had to be a presidential election in the USA, and there has to be another in 4 year's time, and the USA will remain the most powerful and influential country. They can, in the future, correct the folly of electing Trump, and they can moderate to some extent his influence over the next 4 years.

    We did not have to have a referendum, and in 4 years time we will still be outside the EU, somewhat isolated, weaker in influence, and suffering from our continual malaise of poor investment and poor productivity - and if we cannot pull in cheap labour to compensate, serious economic decline. The EU will have moved on, hopefully by getting rid of the two people doing it the most harm - Juncker and Merkel (a lot of Brexiters will have noticed what they did to Greece, Spain and Portugal to protect their own corrupt banks and special interests, defying the IMF.) It is not hard to understand the hostility to the EU. Corbyn gave it a generous 7 out of 10. I would give it 5. But it is still utter folly to leave rather than stay and try to get rid of folk like Juncker and Merkel, who are betraying communality.

    And the press reaction etc to our judges doing their job plus the rampant racism and xenophobia signals a coming quasi-fascist state, or at best more ultra-conservative since....a long time.

  • 10 November 2016 at 8:30pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    Trump is a toxic clown. Hillary is affectlessly toxic. Specifically: remember how the Democratic National Committee illegally undercut Bernie Sanders's chances to win the nomination. Had Bernie stayed the course he probably would have defeated Trump. Here's a small consolation: Trump and Boris Johnson head to head--all that chemical yellow.

    • 10 November 2016 at 9:35pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Blackorpheus7
      One minor correction here. I believe that what the DNC did was unethical, but not illegal. The Party honchos are not legally obligated to be "fair". Not only were their actions wrong, they might have been a colossal blunder as well.

    • 10 November 2016 at 10:18pm
      John Cowan says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Killing off the Duc d'Enghien again, eh?

  • 11 November 2016 at 6:49pm
    JohnSweeney says:
    For a reality check, see:

  • 11 November 2016 at 8:51pm
    kooijman says:
    I think Hillary did not do so bad: she won the Popular Vote by a million and a half, or so (still counting). What went wrong was that the shift in the vote of male whites in states like Michigan and Wisconsin (otherwise part of the Democratic "firewall") was not compensated for, but made worse by, the minorities who came out in large numbers for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but stayed home in too large numbers this time. This lack of enthusiasm may be blamed as well on disappointment about the lackluster policies of Obama, as the distaste for Clinton among liberals. I do not think that Bernie would have done better. The "base" might have been more enthusiastic, but "Socialist" is still eliciting such a knee-jerk reflex among other Americans that he would have chased away people who now voted for Clinton.

  • 23 November 2016 at 2:47pm
    Michael Ekin Smyth says:
    Clinton had bad luck - and poor political antennae. She came at the end of a period of left belief, a time that is unlikely to return. Like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the western left is likely irreversible. Although, of course, some will try. The geriatric true believers are leading the the campaign to keep romantic Judeo-Christian moralising relevant. But, not very successfully. Trump, in all his vulgarity and offensive glory, is an appropriate symbol of the next stage of the ongoing capitalist revolution. An outsider, from the fringes of the business, and capitalist, world, he was smart enough to identify the frailties of the just failed political consensus. What should you 'believe' in now? Stop believing and start thinking. The capitalist revolution rolls on - and you really need to work to keep up.

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