Jim Hoagland is a Post contributing editor.
European voters turned their backs last weekend on mainstream political parties that had controlled their nations for much of the past century. Impressive numbers voted instead for populist (i.e., hate-mongering) outfits that make immigration and cultural conflict their main issues, or for Green parties that focus on ecology and the dangers of climate change. Conservatives and Social Democrats became, at least for now, statistical remnants of a fast-receding past in which arguments about capital, labor and taxes were dominant political messages.
As we have begun to see in U.S. elections as well, the issues that mobilize voters today are cultural instead of economic, bread-and-butter ones. Republican candidates and surrogates who appeared on talk shows during the long Memorial Day weekend suggested that whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020, President Trump & Co. will be running hardest against Barack Obama. They hope to solidify supporters who cannot get over their outrage that a black man was once elected president. Race, abortion and a cultural panic sparked by falling birthrates and identity politics now rule the political roost, and Democrats will be hard-pressed to keep the elections from being fought, and won, on these issues.
Trump’s tirades against trade have a real economic component, of course. But the foreign factor — the feeling that American and European workers have been cheated out of their due by foreigners aided by stupid or treacherous Americans — has grown into the dominant political force of the day on both sides of the Atlantic. The new tech-dominated economy is difficult for traditional political organizations to explain to their followers. Running against the so-called other — whether foreign or domestic — is much easier.
Xenophobia and racism are not new to U.S. or European politics, of course. What is new, I think, is the scale of the social disruption caused by the ubiquitous and seemingly instantaneous arrival of social media, the communications revolution and other new technology globally.
Traditional political parties have been hollowed out by many of the same challenges that have forced traditional media to either come to terms with the digitalization of information or perish. Party bosses no longer monopolize fundraising. Organizing public rallies, spreading information (and disinformation), or forging union alliances happens on the Internet now. The institutions of governance and of politics lag behind the rush of technology.
That, I think, is one of the reasons for the surge of the Greens past traditional, economics-based parties in France, Germany and other countries of the European Union (and why American politicians will want to pay attention to those results).
A major cultural shift, for instance, is underway as younger citizens begin to abandon ownership of the car, once a mighty symbol of affluence and independence but today is increasingly seen as part of a wasteful, polluting lifestyle. The Green vocabulary on this issue may make more sense culturally to younger voters, as they watch governments grapple unsteadily with rules and laws for ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles and, in the years to come, municipal air taxis.
Disruption on this scale also spreads fear, and resentment, particularly among the less young and the less mobile. Brexit’s false promise of ridding Britain of evil foreign forces rallied about 30 percent of voters behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in a vote for the European Parliament that shredded the antiquated leadership structures of both the Labour and Conservative parties.
Trump, as always, goes further. His ultimate target is nothing less than the global supply chain that multinational corporations and trade agreements have created over the past 40 years to ease the passage of capital, goods and ideas. That is quite a lot to bite off, chew and explain in electoral terms, so he uses Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists and Huawei’s secret-stealing technology as his symbols of the dangers of a more open and welcoming world.
The scale and destructiveness of Trump’s intentions in his trade war with China were hinted at during an interview with former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon published on May 22 by the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Driving Huawei, which has pioneered 5G cellphone technology, out of the United States and Europe is, according to Bannon, “10 times more important” than reaching a trade deal with China. Calling for a return to Cold War institutions such as the Committee on the Present Danger to fight China, Bannon — who said he talks to White House officials every day — said he has vowed to devote himself now to shutting Chinese companies out of U.S. capital markets. And Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico hit at immigrants and target the supply chains that U.S. manufacturers have created to take advantage of cheap labor south of the border.
If your best message is just another version of “Back to the Future,” no wonder you need all the boogeymen you can imagine.