Donald Trump

Cometh news from a foreign country: Donald Trump has turned over his campaign staff yet again. Heavily criticised for continuing his primary-period approach — relentless populist attack, personal and insulting — into the election period proper, and now polling 10-15% behind Hillary Clinton in key swing states, Trump is now facing the prospect that the Republican Party will pull funding from the presidential campaign proper, and spend it on shoring up key Senate and House races.

In response to their demand for a more broad, focused and issues-based campaign, Trump has employed Steve Bannon, a former Ted Cruz campaign manager, who, following Cruz’s departure, began working for Breitbart News, a relentless populist insulting and personal attack-dog website. Nor is he being sought out for his skills: he has never run a general election campaign, as opposed to internal primary contests.

It’s another-pseudo makeover by Trump, which allows him to preserve the style of campaign he wants to run: angry, populist, and focused on those who feel most disenfranchised by both the economy and the political culture: the core white working class, high-school educated, working in what remains of manufacturing, and also services and admin/sales. Trump leads Hillary in these groups (though his lead is half what Mitt Romney’s was over Obama in 2012) and in few others. They helped win him the nomination, they flock to the huge rallies that are clearly distorting his sense of how well he’s doing, and the aim will be to rebuild support among them so that they can offset Hillary’s lead among, well, almost everyone else.

[Rundle: is the Donald done?]

But even if that proves possible, it does not form the whole of a winning strategy. Trump would have to get astronomical numbers of support — 80-90% — of that vote to offset other losses, and a fair slice of the white “middle” class, the next level up, income-wise. The strategy examined in the cold light of day is delusional, for one simple reason: the Western working class no longer has the numerical or political strength to play a solo decisive role in who gains power.

This social shift, which has occurred in the last decade, is one of the most significant occurrences of the last century. It lies at the root of much of the shifting politics of recent years. Yet it is relatively little referred to. While much of the recent changes have been attributed to various forms of identity politics, the class shift lies beneath the appearances.

Three or four decades ago, the Western working class was relatively large, and unified in circumstance — wages, condition and assets were relatively close together from top to bottom. In an industrial society, they retained a heroic role at the centre of the economy. If their power, as expressed through the labour movement was not what it had been in the post-war years, it remained formidable.

In continental Europe they remained the base of liberal social-democratic governments, of decades’ duration; in Australia, they made any move to a fully laissez-faire system impossible. Only in the UK did the class fragment politically — amidst years of turmoil and decline, a section was persuaded to vote for Margaret Thatcher’s Tories (and it’s worth noting that Thatcherism in its full form, played very little role in the 1979 election). And in the US, a significant section were persuaded to switch their class-economic interests for cultural and nationalist identity, with the election of Ronald Reagan.

The ensuing three decades may have seen a steady erosion of power, but they are nothing compared to the last two decades. In those years, manufacturing fell beneath 10% as part of the economy, part-time and casual employment encroached on full-time employment, unions were hog-tied by anti-organisation laws, and the state services that had been provided on a collective basis were diminished. Especially in Australia, the common class interests of a large working class separated. Skilled trades and service people became high-waged and asset-vested, to the point where their direct economic interests tilted towards lower taxes, and individualised management of self and family welfare.

[Rundle: Trump v Clinton but a prelude to a sweeping political transformation]

At the same time, industrial production began to cede to information, knowledge and culture production — and a new social class arose with the latter. In the 1980s, 8-10% of people had gone to college/university. By the 2000s, that was rising to 30-40%. A left-liberal sub-class attached to the working-class movement became not merely a class in its own right, but created a whole new world and culture, based on the networked computer. This system quickly moved to the centre of the economy. But it also served as a powerful exclusionary device.

Up to the 1990s, people lived in a world of some commonality, whether they be rich or poor. Suddenly, a whole layer of social and economic life was not merely mysterious to many people lacking an extended education, but utterly incomprehensible to them. The apparent visibility of the industrial economy — metal in one end of the factory, a car out the other, manual labour in the middle — yielded to a digital economy. It had new drivers — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Big Pharma, Global Entertainment — and a new heroic class, sanctified by the bizarre and unending mourning of Steve Jobs, a figure who attained a near Christ-like status in post-millennial culture.

Following the information revolution came the material revolution, the steady automation of service and manufacturing jobs, and the creation of the minimal-worker facility — the dark store, the dark factory, hi-tech low-employment precision manufacturing. Working-class culture had been bounded in community — until relatively recently, geographically and culturally, with an emphasis on group solidarity, rather than abstract rights. The new economy, and its new class reverses that relationship. The global interconnection and abstraction required to run an information society is complemented by a culture that values individuality, abstract rights, and cosmopolitan diversity. In this world, the culturally-politically heroic roles are occupied by those still fighting for the full extension of those rights — for women, non-whites, LGBT people and others.

The cultural-political shift is a double-whammy for those in dominant powers; until the 2000s, it was possible to take some pride and prestige in being at the centre of a global power, drawing on such power for a sense of identity. Both economy and culture switched quickly; two decades of wage and living-standards decline culminated — in the 2008 crash — in a catastrophic fall. At the same time, what remained of a heroic cultural role was supplanted by a different and, in some ways, contrary narrative and ethic.

That historical situation is, to use a technical term, “fucking awful”. In the US and the UK, many individual white working-class people may be better off, in many respects, than many black people, information-class women. But there is nothing for them to “be” that the dominant culture will honour as heroic. The future will be made by the continuing struggle by non-white, non-males for equality, freedom and recognition — everyone knows this.

But through most of the last century, the working class march to power — joined by other groups in the ’50s and ’60s — was the core heroic narrative. This rapid collapse, this huge reversal of economic and cultural fortune, has undermined the existing party system, core notions of left and right, and the structure of politics. Shrunk in numbers and thus lacking decisive demographic heft, the class is marooned within bordered nations, and contemplating only further diminution and fading cultural/national role. It is from this unappetising prospect that much of the anger (of a section of such classes) comes — not the righteous, confident and controlled anger of a rising group, but frustrated, bitter and paranoid.

In the UK it has created a situation where the leaders of the Labour party (whether Blairite or Left) are cosmopolitan and universalist, while a clear majority of its base are communitarian and nationalist. In continental Europe it has resulted in a section of the working-class base of nationalist social democracies transfer en masse to right-wing parties who present a nativist politics as the means by which social democracy will be preserved. In the US, where the contradictions are maximised, it has resulted in the virtual collapse of the Republican Party, which had used cultural means to gain working-class support for crushingly retrograde economic policies for 30 years.

Out of that has risen not a rational nationalist/communitarian movement, but the Trump movement. That’s a fantasy/nostalgia movement, which promises to restore the US to exactly that point — the post-war era — at which working-class life was on its upward path, at its most optimistic, and before the rise of new forces and demands undermined that simple vision.

What of Australia? Alone among the Western nations, the notion of an optimistic, meaningful and prosperous future has been kept alive by a quarter century of steady growth, and a social market/ordoliberal politics avoiding the worst of US/UK style depredation. But the fragmentation of the class into contrary interest groups has been more striking than elsewhere. US and UK tradespeople and expert service and care workers do not earn, by and large, anything like their counterparts in Australia. Hence the failure to date, of any nativist/communitarian party to mount a serious challenge or gain a groundswell.

[Rundle: Leak, Hanson and the amazing, all-crazy, all-collapsing right]

That, one suspects, would change quite suddenly if there is a major economic reversal. Our whole social contract is based on the upward trajectory; whatever progressive nationalist culture we developed from the ’60s to the ’80s has largely been shredded. If all that comes to be on offer is harder work and less of it for less money, then a nationalist right may get its act together — and take votes from the ALP as much as the Coalition. Both are run by knowledge-class elites, who ventriloquise the people they purport to represent. Neither would be willing to surrender their free-market/cosmopolitan policies for a genuinely nationalist/communitarian set. News from a foreign country cometh.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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