Don't accept that Trump and Brexit happened because of 'the forgotten man' – globalisation was never the problem

It’s Trump and his cabinet who are unashamed ‘international elites’ profiting from globalisation, as well as a hefty amount of UK Tories. Barack Obama was once described as ‘parochial’ and criticised for not being global enough. Working-class concerns aren’t the same as xenophobia

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The Independent Online

“I am pleading,” said Hillary Clinton a few days ago, “that our government will continue its leadership role on behalf of peace in the world, because the world must continue this work with or without US involvement.”

The United States is not exceptional in considering itself exceptional. Our nation does seem, however, to be unique in the loudness with which it proclaims what we perceive to be our uniquely positive qualities. That’s why Clinton’s words should sting any student of US rhetoric.

Her words caused me to rack my brains for an example of a single mainstream US leader who even conceived of, let alone articulated, a world in which the United States was excluded from global influence and decision-making. And it should register as a wake-up call. Because when we talk about “turning our backs on globalisation,” we should realise that this is not only impractical but also actively dangerous for the withdrawing nations.

“The choice is ours to make,” continued Clinton, echoing a sentiment I put forward at the Aspen Institute in the summer of 2016. “In this complicated, interconnected, interdependent world of ours, it’s not as though you can pick one or two, three things that you say, ‘Well, that’s all I’m going to work on.’ Events move too quickly. Borders dissolve in the face of pressures. The great connectivity of the internet can spawn both opportunity and despair. So we have to ask, will we be left behind or will we continue to lead the way?”

Let’s start with the disastrously incoherent way that this situation has been represented over the past few months. With the recent triggering of Article 50 in the UK and since the election of Donald Trump in the US, the media has obsessed over how these events must be nothing more than the “great cry of the forgotten man”. Many even blame themselves for this surge in populism.

Now, goes the story, their ears are to the ground and they’ve finally heard the call of angry mobs emanating from the coal mines of West Virginia to the farms of the Midlands. I guess it makes them feel folksy and “in touch”, and it makes a nice narrative – for a while. But the inconvenient truth is that we never ignored these “forgotten” folk in the first place.

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We need to resist such reductive analyses as the “forgotten man” theory. While a (very slim) majority did vote for the referendum in the UK, there is no point in pretending that Donald Trump, who lost the US popular vote by an enormous margin (3 million votes) and assumed office with a record low (32 per cent) approval rating, somehow rode a wave of humanity into the White House.

This is important to remember because of what reactionary movements around the world do share in common: protectionist/isolationist attitudes to global movement; hostility to free trade; suspicion of automation and the industries of the future; a desire to romanticise the mythology of a return to agrarian or manufacturing industries; streaks of xenophobia; and an anti-intellectualism (now positioned as a stance against “global elites”).

All these traits are incompatible with the state of our world. The trend over the last several centuries has been towards greater interconnectivity in trade, transport, values and communication. Forming political or economic policy that “turns its back on globalisation” is as delusional as crafting climate policy on the assumption that global warming is a Chinese hoax. 

Back in January, at the World Economic Forum, Foreign Policy Magazine posited the unendurable argument of the “demise of Davos Man”. “The World Economic Forum’s annual celebration of global capitalism once represented the inevitable arc of human progress. No longer,” it stated, quoting Prime Minister Theresa May’s infamous declaration that: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

Writers who speak of the extinction of “globalist” gatherings like Davos have one thing in common with many Trump supporters: a sort of oblivious xenophobia. The fact that Xi Jinping attended for the first time should be news enough to run a cycle. Just because the Davos class no longer looks like you does not mean that their type are dying out. Perhaps the demographic of this gathering, and the focus of world power, is shifting.

These arguments also muddy the important definition of globalism: it is not often a unified ideology espoused by an organised group of people. It is a means to define the process of solving the problems of an interconnected world as well as taking advantage of its opportunities. It’s not a preference; we didn’t choose it. We inherited this world and have to deal with it in the next generation. Perhaps older voters should consider the dilemma of their younger compatriots when voting in reactionary and nostalgic ways.

And let’s not rewrite history: the backlash against President Obama wasn’t anything to do with globalisation or international elites. If his foreign policy legacy is any indication, the junior Senator from Illinois did not enter the Oval Office as a paragon of internationalism, nor did he ever develop a serious and impassioned interest in global affairs. “Barack Obama is all Chicago,” wrote Foad Ajami in a 2013 Bloomberg article which referred to the President as “a parochial leader for a parochial nation”. “The spouse he chose had nothing to do with the foreign world,” he continued. “Her journey was all-American.”

Many in Trump’s administration, on the other hand, including those who would most passionately position themselves as champions of “anti-globalisation”, are prime examples of the sorts of people who have profited greatly from it. This includes Stephen Bannon, who struck big on globalist bets from his (very coastal and very elite) Rodeo Drive office in Beverly Hills. And, of course, it also includes Trump himself, wielding some 200 global operations in over 20 nations.

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But this is not the globalism of a Hillary Clinton, the dogged Secretary of State tirelessly advancing the interests of her nation across the world. The globalism of Trump and his colleagues is transactional. It creates a system where borders remain inconsequential to a wealthy elite, just as they become more formidable to those fleeing violence or seeking opportunity.

The tragedy of this cut-throat approach is that the halting of humanitarian stability on the one hand and creative sharing of discourse on the other results in the decline of those nations that choose to withdraw into isolationist retreat.

Xi Jinping summed up the challenge of globalism: “One should not just retreat to the harbour when encountering a storm, for this will never get us to the other shore of the ocean. We must redouble efforts to develop global connectivity [in order] to enable all countries to achieve interconnected growth and share prosperity.”

The likes of Bannon often prey on the ugliest reactions of people who feel that their “heritage” is at risk of extinction. To this end they wield false parallels with ignorant abandon. And so the United Nations, the European Union and other multinational entities are all lumped into the same boat.

The great irony here is that organisations like the UN, which provide forums for the peaceful discussion and resolution of ideas, prevent the erasure of individuality through an expression of counterpoint. The United Nations, as opposed to sprawling business empires such as those stewarded by the likes of Donald Trump, may be the best hope for our huge variety of global cultures to coexist in a tightly interwoven world. Globalism at its best does not seek to unite the world into one politic at the expense of individuality (“taking our country back”).

After all, the single most important way in which the Preamble of the UN Charter differs from nationalistic founding documents is in the expression of the plural: “We the peoples…”