The Lost Child - Reaction and Populism, 1908. Library of Congress.
The Lost Child – Reaction and Populism, 1908. Library of Congress.

In 2008, speaking during the BBC’s presidential election coverage, the writer and political critic, Gore Vidal, explained to viewers that the ‘Republican Party is a mindset – they love war, they love money, they’re out to hang on to all the connections that they have through W Bush and all that they have through their various operatives’. In what was a difficult interview, which displayed Vidal’s obvious distaste for the flippant presentation style of David Dimbleby, this was the most substantive point made. A decade earlier, through the more comfortable medium of his pen, Vidal had reflected in the journal The Progressive on what he regarded as the ‘menopause of Empire’. It was, in essence, a distillation of Vidal’s long-standing argument about the militarisation of the American state and its transformation from republic into empire; it was the point he had made to an intellectually-incapable Dimbleby. ‘The national security state, the NATO alliance, the forty years Cold War’, he wrote, ‘were all created without the consent, much less the advice, of the American people’. The two American political institutions – the Democratic Party and the Republican Party – which in Vidal’s reading of the American system represented two wings of the same political organisation, were both committed to maintaining the national security state. Their methods not all that different either.

The situation we now find ourselves in is this system moving towards its final climax. What Donald Trump’s presidential campaign represented, in many ways, was a perversion of the national security state (fuelled by the anxieties of some white Americans) not a departure from it: a wall to keep out foreigners, the reinforcement of American military might, and the extension of the restrictions on civil liberties necessary to maintain “peace” and the “integrity” of the American empire. The opposite choice was, in this instance, not really much of a choice at all, such is the nature of modern elections on both sides of the Atlantic, although it needed to be taken. It was not. We should be under no illusions that a Clinton administration given the likely constraints on it would have begun the process of restoring the American republic, any more than the Obama administration has healed the wounds inflicted by the secret wars and the heightened security state of the Bush years. The Patriot Act remains, reinvigorated by the Freedom Act passed in 2015; the Department of Homeland Security persists too, even though Wikipedia lovingly describes it as ‘roughly comparable to the interior or home ministries of other countries’. This may be true, but nomenclature is indicative of intent and we should not forget that. We do not know what direction will now be taken.

In January 1992, Gore Vidal posed the question ‘who says the republic still stands?’ at the head of an article published in the Los Angeles Times. He concluded, prophetically and tellingly that,

I am aware that the people at large have been kept ignorant by bad schools and by the dispensers of false “opinion”. That is true. That is a problem. But ignorance is not stupidity. And self-interest, as both Hamilton and Madison agreed, is a great motor to the state, properly checked and balanced. In any case, we are now faced with the fury of those who have been deprived for too long of decent lives. It takes no unusual power of prophecy to remark that they will not be apathetic forever. “If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all”.

That was written a quarter of a century ago, in the aftermath of the disaster of the Reagan-Bush years. The years that brought Michael Moore to initial fame with his film Roger & Me, which tackled the searing poverty in his childhood home of Flint, Michigan. Between 1978 and 1992, thirty thousand jobs were lost in the auto industry in Flint; in the quarter of a century since then, more than forty thousand have been lost. It is no surprise that Moore has returned several times to the themes of poverty, disillusion, disenchantment, and the feeling of being let down. It’s there, most overtly, in his Capitalism: A Love Story but that is not an isolated work. Neither the documentary pleas of Michael Moore, nor the observations of Vidal, were listened to. There was no readiness for the looming disaster that was readily being foretold. There were those who triumphantly declared the end of history when the Berlin Wall fell; still others who fretted that history had come back to bite when the twin towers collapsed twelve years later. History, zombified or more fully alive, is still there today. Heck, the BBC even invited Francis Fukuyama (remember him) on to Newsnight to discuss what was going on. Tempting fate or realising it?

But Vidal’s vision a quarter of a century ago was about economic fragility, and though this was perhaps a contributory factor, made apparent in a degree of class awareness amongst the interviewees engaged with on the BBC’s election coverage, particularly those from Ohio and other swing states, the material base was not the immediate reason for Democratic failure this time. Economic relations have been transposed into a battle of identity politics that got overlaid with class awareness in certain areas. For Donald Trump’s road to the White House ran through the mid-west and through white America. As it currently stands, and at the time of posting the final tallies had not been projected, Hillary Clinton was able to win in just one state in that region – Illinois. If things remain as they are, she will only add Minnesota to that. In 2012, President Obama won six; even John Kerry, in his ill-fated bid to unseat George W. Bush in 2004, was able to carry four. This failure to carry forward Democratic territory, as spectacular and damaging as it is shocking, is what cost Hillary Clinton her final history-making moment.

The coalitions that can (and must) be made in the Mid West matter to presidential campaigns. This has been a truism of American politics since the last great populist experiment in the 1890s. But if we draw out of the ether – or digitised recordings and column inches – the voices of America’s populists of old, would we have heeded the lessons they offered? Certainly, some talked of William Jennings Bryan or even Theodore Roosevelt’s run as a progressive in 1912, but there was another parable with which the entire world is familiar. It sets out the coalition that might have led to a rather different story last night. I refer of course to L. Frank Baum’s progressive-age tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Today, of course, the Wizard of Oz is reduced to a few songs, and closely identified with the tragic life of Judy Garland. Her portrayal of Dorothy Gale has given the story an entirely different audience to that intended by Baum when he wrote the novel in the late-1890s (it was published in 1900). Although the underlying political allegory is somewhat debated by scholars, there can be no doubting the political nature of the novel, its characters, and its message. For The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is, in many ways, a lesson in the dangers of people who offer the world but who are, reliant on trickery, not what they seem, and a delineation of the coalition building necessary to succeed in the Mid West in particular circumstances.

At the centre of Oz stands the emerald city ruled over by the Wizard, a man ultimately revealed, as I say, as a trickster – scheming and self-interested, masked by technology that serves to impress or instil fear. His great rivals for power are the witches: the good witches of the north and south; and the wicked witches of the east and west. The witches are not a particularly complicated metaphor for the geographical divisions of the United States, and the meanings and histories associated with them. As to the ‘coalition’ forged by Dorothy (the everywoman representative of the American people), there’s the scarecrow who represents farmers and rural people; the tin man, who reflects the industrial workers; and the cowardly lion, who is often likened to William Jennings Bryan, the would-be populist Democrat. Baum moved in populist circles in his home state of South Dakota, where he lived during the 1890s. He was friends with James Kyle, who served as a populist senator from the state before sliding into the Republican Party as the Populist Party fell apart. Baum was also a keen advocate of women’s suffrage and served as secretary of the Women’s Suffrage Club in Aberdeen, SD, where he lived. It is no surprise that the hero of Oz is in fact a heroine.

In the 1890s, the Mid West came under close scrutiny from historians and commentators. Not the least of these was the Wisconsin-born Frederick Jackson Turner who penned his famous essay, ‘the significance of the frontier in American history’ in 1893. In that essay, Turner laid out his view that America was different from its European ancestors because the frontier provided for a constant renewal and reaffirmation of American democracy. As the western borders of the country moved towards the Pacific coast, the imminent closing of the frontier presented a major intellectual quandary, and its reckoning was steadily bound up with America’s fin-de-siècle emergence as an imperial power. The shift of American from a republic to an empire, the thesis so beloved of Gore Vidal, began in the 1890s. Frontierism focused attention on the Mid West region because, as Turner wrote in 1896, ‘the problem of the West is nothing more than the problem of American development’. On the coasts of the United States, the country was attuned to different ways of life – Europe in the east and eventually Asia in the west. But on the old frontiers, well, that was where genuine America lay. An America unattached to the Old World, lacking the certain reverence for it evident in the original colonies, and an America unaware of the wider nuances of the international because it had no need to be aware.

To some degree, Americans in the old states have always been a little uncomfortable with the states that were once part of the westward frontier. For Gouveneur Morris, one of the founding fathers, the westward expansion of the country, an inevitability in his view, would introduce into the union states that ‘will know less of the public interest than these [Atlantic states]; will have an interest in many respects different; in particular, will be little scrupulous in involving the community in wars, the burdens and operations of which would fall chiefly on the maritime States’. To counteract that, Morris believed that the Atlantic states ought to be afforded special voting rights that precluded their being outvoted by the new accessions to the union. Imagine, if you will, that on this basis the thirteen original colonies had decided the presidential elections since the late-1960s. What would have changed? Well, in 1968, Hubert Humphrey would have triumphed; between 1980 and 1992, Reagan and Bush would have still won; but since 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first race, there would have been a Democrat in the White House at each election – including this one. That’s the difference in regard.

There is a lot of chatter on social media today about the relative balances of racial and gender voting. From the figures it looks like wealthier white men and women turned to Trump whilst poorer white, Black and Hispanic Americans and other minorities came out for Hillary Clinton – helping her to win the popular vote. All of this is valuable information, but it still leaves one great headache for commentators both in the United States and in other western democracies where the same phenomenon is very much in evidence: immigration has been turned into a political campaign that galvanises the traditional “white working class” (as we are increasingly encouraged to write in Britain). We will get your jobs back, we will reverse globalisation as best we can, we will ‘take back control’, we are a movement, not a set of political elites. It’s nostalgia-populism, it’s the political context in which we move, and it has killed off – to a large extent – the attempt at building a progressive revival that began in the early 1990s with…William Jefferson Clinton. Decades ago, as Vidal’s analysis suggested, working-class Americans (and Britons) were unsettled by economics, but they kept getting told … well … this:

Or this:

Free trade creates better jobs, higher paying jobs, and more affordable goods and services, The West Wing insisted – except of course when it feels like it doesn’t. There’s a nod to that, too. These days, there’d likely be a nod to the gig economy and to the precariousness of what will replace steel in Pennsylvania or coal in West Virginia or the auto industry in Michigan. The truth is the arguments levied on The West Wing don’t cut through when they have to stack up against ‘I’ll get your job back’ which is what comes from the other side. Remember, remember, remember, when Jeremy Corbyn came to South Wales and said (in a manner that was spinable beyond his narrower point) he was interested in restoring coal mining jobs? He later had to issue a clarification of his statement. (Not, for the first time.)

The thing about those fears is that you don’t necessarily have to be poor to believe them and to accept them as true, in fact, if you are poor you probably don’t have time enough to worry given every other consideration you have. We know that well enough in Britain. The identity mobilisation of a group of people who, by virtue of not being ordinarily othered, did not think of themselves as possessed of identity politics, take up these fears and translate them into a conspiracy – the conspiracy of immigration. And the bigger a conspiracy gets, thanks to a media that provides far too much air time and politicians posing as ‘of the people’, the harder it is to escape – again, something we know well enough in Britain. What happened in the United States and the United Kingdom over the course of the 1990s and 2000s was a growth of civil liberties, and ever greater appreciation of diversity, in effect the ‘rainbowing’ of each country. President Obama’s election, equal marriage, a more sensible drugs policy, and all of the other civil liberties advancements, were the pinnacle of that movement. But, as Isaac Newton asserted, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is what we face – the very clear attempt to remove the rainbow, to restore the conformities of a different age (it’s not that long ago, really, the 1950s is an exaggeration). We’ve been here before: in the 1970s there was an advancement in civil rights for minorities, the result of strong political campaigning, but it slid back in the 1980s when the Conservatives took a fractured system and reshaped it for their own ends. History has reached DEFCON FARCE.

Eight years ago, President Obama stood before the crowds on a cold November evening in Chicago having won the election race. His words that night echo even in the last weeks of his second term. ‘If’, he began, ‘there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer’. There was, then, a very different meaning to those words. But the president’s message was one of hope and change. That remains the promise of America – that land that we’ve all heard of, in a lullaby or in a book or on the television screen. And it remains fundamentally because Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote. The majority did believe that we are stronger together. Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely certain: for the moment, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore.