This article is more than 7 years old

Trump it voluntary

Liberal academia was in meltdown following the election of Donald Trump, but Martin McQuillan argues that universities need to look beyond despair and ensure that our values outlast Trump's unwelcome presidency.
This article is more than 7 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

Everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news; the day the United States elected Donald Trump as their 45th President. I was lying in the half-light of a Paris hotel bedroom early on Wednesday morning when my mobile pinged with an incoming text.

I ignored it and rolled over, it was four in the morning. It pinged again, then again, then again. Befuddled by lack of sleep I got out of bed to switch the phone off, only to realise in the dim of early dawn, why friends from the US and Europe were inundating me with messages.

The handset kept pinging for the next few hours with expletive-laden texts and screaming emojis: liberal academia was in meltdown.

The first obligation with the election of Donald Trump is to attempt to explain it. The very commentators who did not see it coming will offer competing theories. Among them will be the popular idea that, like the Brexit vote, this was an uprising of the dispossessed against the elite.

This is as wrong about Trump as it is about Brexit. When Trump has assembled his Whitehouse team, featuring former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, present Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, and JP Morgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, we shall see how elite the Billionaire President’s inner circle really is.

This is the capture of the Republican Party by its own right wing, which these days is really quite far right. In this sense, there are many similarities with Brexit but not for the reasons that are commonly assumed.

It is not really necessary to scratch one’s head in wonder at either Brexit or Trump. The truth is that the people who vote in elections are the people who vote in elections. They are predominantly middle class, middle aged or older, with secure incomes, who feel they have a stake in the present system.

There is no evidence to suggest that the vote for either Trump or Brexit came from a significant turn out of those who traditionally do not vote. On the contrary both the Republican Party and David Cameron’s Conservative Party, for different reasons, made efforts to suppress voter registration.

The way you win elections is simple, you persuade more people to vote for you than the other guys. In Brexit this was a straight numbers game, for Trump it was finding a route across the Electoral College despite marginally losing the popular vote.

This means that both results were not the outcome of an unexpected coalition between the far right and the ‘left behind’ but a straightforward representation of what mainstream, centre opinion thought. You cannot produce results like these without taking enough votes from the centre ground to get over the line.

Brexit reflected a divided nation, 52% vs. 48%, while the popular vote in the US shows an even finer margin. However, the conclusion to draw from this is that many people who would identify with the political centre ground were not horrified at the prospect of President Trump or a triumphant Nigel Farage and voted for them in sufficient numbers to hand them victory.

Sunderland is not the poster boy for Brexit some assume it to be. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, the majority of the 17million voters to support leaving the European Union came from the South of England. This is where the population density is and they were overwhelmingly from social groups A to C.

The exit polls published in The New York Times suggest that Hilary Clinton only held a lead amongst voters aged under 44, those earning under $50,000, those living in cities, non-whites, and university graduates in general. Trump’s hinterland is white voters over 45 who earn more than $50,000. He also had a lead amongst white university graduates.

There was a swing of 16% from Democrat to Republican amongst lower earning demographics, which is highly significant but is not enough in itself to explain Trump’s victory. Rather, while turn out was down on 2012, Clinton lost many more Democratic voters than Trump lost Republicans. In 2012 Obama polled 65.9m votes and Romney won 60.9m, in 2016 Trump achieved 59m votes to Clinton’s 59.1m. That is a net loss of 6.8m Democrat votes compared to a loss of 1.9m for the Republicans.

Not enough Democrat voters were enthused by Hilary Clinton’s candidacy or cared enough about stopping Trump to come out to vote. While 7% of registered Republicans were turned off enough by Trump to switch party allegiances, 9% of registered Democrats voted for him. Their choice was informed by the sense that Hilary won the nomination on the basis of it being ‘her turn’ and that she had spent the last four years treating most of the nation as fly-over country.

The demographic breakdown of the election result clearly shows that Trump has wide support amongst the American white middle class. He won because more of them are motivated to vote in elections than other groups.

The same story is true of Brexit. 52% of people who voted Leave in the EU referendum lived in the southern half of England and 59% were middle class, while only 24% of Leave voters came from the lowest two social classes. Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast and London all voted in large numbers to remain. This was not an uprising of the urban poor.

Rather, as with the Democrats last week, sufficient numbers of Labour voters acted against party allegiance (37%) to make a difference as the party of the left failed to get its vote out. 30% of Liberal Democrat supporters voted to Leave, while 36% of SNP voters cast a ballot for Brexit.

All of this suggests that Trump and Brexit are the result of significant numbers of privileged white, middle-class voters casting a vote for populist, nationalist, protectionist and nativist platforms. The same is true of Marine Le Pen’s support in France. The reason why anti-immigration populism is no longer a minority view is because it is no longer a minority view.

It is a leap from here to say, as some do, that America has elected a fascist President or to conclude that the bourgeoisie in America are, as they were in Europe of the 1930s, complicit in supporting fascism. One should be careful to distinguish between fascism proper and other articulations of right wing politics and to discriminate judiciously between a racist candidate and a racist state.

We should not play into the hands of post-truth politics by inflating language beyond its proper meaning.

When we have death squads rounding up journalists and opposition politicians then we can talk about fascism in a serious way. When moves are made to prevent the transition of power or to annul elections then we can talk about despotism. We are not in that space, not yet anyway.

That is not to underestimate what a truly terrible candidate Mr Trump was or to think that he will mitigate his policies, such as they are, when in office. The best that can be said about him is that he has demonstrated all the characteristics of an outright racist and misogynist demagogue in thrall to ‘alt-right’ politics.

He is so extreme that even Fox news disavowed his candidacy. His victory gives license to atavistic forces that America thought it had seen the back of in the 1960s and buried for good with the election of Barak Obama. However, the model here is not Mussolini but Silvio Berlusconi.

No matter how ludicrous the former Italian Billionaire prime minister’s behaviour, he continued to win elections. That is to say, the people who vote in elections continued to vote for Berlusconi: he was approved of by the Italian middle class, even though one could travel the length and breadth of Italy and struggle to find anyone who would admit to voting for him.

Like Berlusconi, Trump represents just another incarnation of the same crony capitalism, as Ed Miliband might have said, that he ostensibly opposes. It is the greatest trick ever pulled by the privileged elite to convince us that the victory of billionaires like Trump or Arron Banks derives its legitimacy from a cry of the dispossessed.

Just as the UKIP-facing faction of the Conservative Party has captured the British government, Trump’s presidency will see the alt-right capture the American political process. At least in the case of the United States, enough people who ought to have known better voted for it. Given half the chance, the British will vote for it as well.

Like Berlusconi, Trump will spend much of his presidency trying to stay out of jail as the court cases pile up, including ones for serious sexual assault, and fraud related to Trump University. Berlusconi’s office shielded him; Trump has no such protection for offences committed before his time in the White House.

It would be a delicious irony if the lack of safeguards around private providers in higher education tripped up the President of the USA just as the UK parliament were approving the Higher Education and Research Bill.

This all raises the question of what Trump and Brexit mean for universities. The first thing to say is that universities will outlive Donald Trump. There is a temptation for vice chancellors faced with populist governments, to want to be their friend and to bend with the prevailing winds.

This is the view expressed by Chair of the Russell Group David Greenaway in a recent article in the Telegraph. It was not quite the play of intellectuals in the 1930s to be the philosopher-in-chief for a totalitarian regimes, but it was a bid to become the Brexit government’s favourite vice chancellor: an odious enough epithet. Perhaps, one form of elitism sees itself reflected in another.

The reason to remain in the European Union is not about access to the money to prop up universities in this country. It is about the values of higher education (inclusion, enlightenment, openness) that are inimical to the nativism and intolerance that Brexit legitimates. It is for the same reason that universities in the US now find themselves at odds with the politics of its new government.

Those universities will endure beyond Trump’s presidency, as will their values. University managers cannot set their faces against the government of the day. It is their responsibility to swim in the stream of politics that is presented to them, not the one they would like it to be.

But they should remember that they are custodians of precious and fragile values that are strained in the current environment and which they must deliver safely to the other side of that stream, no matter the cost to themselves.

During another moment of crisis in American politics, when an earlier dark force of the populist right, Senator Joseph McCarthy, played on the worst of American fears, Arthur Miller penned The Crucible. His flawed and compromised hero, John Proctor, discovers within himself the resources to defend what he knows to be right, a shred of goodness ‘not enough to weave a banner with, but enough to keep it from such dogs’.

It is perhaps too much to hope that university leaders would wave a banner against Brexit or Trump, but it is reasonable to expect that they do not feed it to the dogs.

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