Eight years ago, in the U.S., Barack Obama became president by campaigning on a platform of hope, intelligence, and competence. This year, Donald Trump became the Republican nominee by campaigning on a platform of grunts and dog-whistles.
Similarly, six years ago, in the U.K., the prime minister of Great Britain was Gordon Brown, a man who once waxed lyrical about “post neo-classical endogenous growth theory.” Today, one of the two front-runners for the post is Michael Gove, a man who told a television interviewer that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
That transition, from the intellectual to the anti-intellectual, is a global phenomenon: to use James Traub’s terms, fist-shakers around the world are enjoying a moment of supremacy over the pragmatists.
There is no greater fist-shaker than Donald Trump: America can do impulsive and pugnacious better than anyone, when it wants to. The good news is that Donald Trump is probably not going to be America’s next president. But the bad news is that he’s a harbinger of things to come, a true and terrifying sign of the times.
In other words: Hillary Clinton is going to win the battle, but her side is losing the war.
As Josh Barro says, the scariest thing about the prospect of another Clinton presidency is that, in a tumultuous world of rising inequality, Hillary’s technocratic bona fides will be seen as being the problem, rather than the solution. When things go wrong—and things will go wrong, as they do in any presidency—it’s not just Hillary who will be blamed; it’s everything she stands for.
Clinton is Davos Woman incarnate, the very epitome of the protean competence and sophistication associated with a degree from Yale Law School, eight years as First Lady, eight more as a U.S. Senator, and a term as Secretary of State. She also elicits an astonishing degree of hatred among a vocal minority of the U.S. electorate. That hatred is only going to grow stronger once she becomes the leader of the free world. It’s going to be directed not only at Clinton personally, but at the entire neoliberal agenda. And the anti-elite movement will have its day.
The seeds of all this discontent were sown during the financial crisis, when the global elite (the people who caused the crisis) gave themselves a generous bailout, while the long-suffering middle classes received little more than a tsunami of layoffs and foreclosure notices.
Some countries, like France, have a tradition of angry populism. The crisis helped the populists’ cause, of course, but at the same time the majority of the country, with many years’ experience of just how poisonous and damaging such people can be, generally managed to keep them out of power.
The U.S. and U.K., however, which largely lack such an electoral tradition. As a result, the populists took a bit longer to emerge as a political force, and then proved dismayingly immune to the normal ways in which politicians are discredited. Despite being exposed as racists and liars, they have already won two key votes: the Republican primary, in the U.S., and the EU referendum, in the U.K.
The latter is, for the time being, the more consequential. Britain’s collective decision to leave the European Union is unambiguously disastrous, and the country’s political class is scrambling incoherently to try and salvage the least-worst outcome.
In the U.S., by contrast, the identity of a party nominee, so long as he loses the presidential election, tends to be of relatively little political import. As a result, the populist revolt might not come until the 2020 election. Hillary Clinton, the universally-recognizable representative of the globalist elite, will face off against someone bearing all the resentments of the 99%, someone who represents a population which wants nothing more than to land one solid blow on any avatar of stagnation and inequality.
She will have won two such contests in 2016, of course: first seeing off Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and then beating Donald Trump in the presidential election. But her victories against the flawed septuagenarians of 2016 will be of limited use in 2020, if and when she finds herself fighting someone younger, smarter, and tougher than Sanders and Trump.
The inexorable forces of globalization are just as powerful in the U.S. as they are anywhere else: indeed, inequality has been growing much faster in America than it has been in Britain. In turn, the American status system has become unprecedentedly polarized, with brand-new layers of insularity and mistrust. The rich cavort increasingly with each other, and work hard for the approbation of their peers, while disdaining the opinions of the majority. None of this goes unnoticed by the masses, who react to that disdain by having less trust than ever in any kind of elite civic institution, up to and including the presidency itself.
That’s why Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs are so damaging, and will remain damaging in 2020: they represent 675,000 reasons why Hillary Clinton is and always will be “them” rather than “us”.
“They” are easy to spot, and, infuriatingly, are always convinced that they’re a force for good in the world. They’re the winners in the current system—the entrepreneurs and disrupters and people who call themselves things like “change agents” and “angels”—and they tend to move in increasingly rarefied circles, further and further from the angry majority. While their countries seethe, they blithely invest in each other's’ companies, appear on panels at each other’s conferences, even marry each other.
The apotheosis of this kind of professional onanism can be found in non-profit organizations like the Clinton Foundation and the World Economic Forum. One thing thing you see everywhere during the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos is ostentatious wealth and consumption, which help to lubricate the high-minded discussions about improving the plight of the people not invited to join the party. And the other thing you see everywhere is the WEF’s motto, “committed to improving the state of the world.” It’s the kind of motto most people would want to punch in the face, if mottos had faces.
Nations are not charity cases; they’re proud populations who want to seize control of their own destiny. The crony capitalists funding the Clinton campaign; the do-gooding CEOs; the millionaires and billionaires Bernie Sanders hates so much—these are going to be the losers, if not of the 2016 presidential race, then of the broad thrust of political history over the coming years.
We’re entering an era of fractious nationalisms and zero-sum rhetoric, and new lines are being drawn. Until now, anglophone politics has generally played out along a policy axis: liberals against conservatives, the left against the right. Increasingly, however, the new front line in the political wars is between technocrats and populists, between the sophisticated elites and the angry masses.
Hillary Clinton, the elite’s elite, is not going to find a way to harness that anger. She simply can’t. And so while Democrats might support Clinton this year, they’ll probably have to disown her eventually. Most of them are very unlikely to oppose a sitting president from their own party. But if and when Clinton loses in 2020, the Democrats are likely to fracture in much the same way as the Republicans, and Labour, and the Conservatives, already have. They’re the last big party standing. But they won’t stay that way forever.