Two main factors generally determine what political movements gain ascendency in a country: social, economic and political circumstances that enhance a particular movement’s appeal and the declining appeal of that movement’s rivals because they have lost touch with the prevailing popular mood. The individual can sometimes make a difference. The charisma factor helps create a direct relationship between a political leader and the people.
After World War I, the world entered a phase in which it was upbeat about the future. Despite the huge human and material toll, the “tyrants” had been defeated and the world looked forward to amazing technological advances in cars, planes, the radio and cinema, as is the case with the progeny of these advances today. At the same time, the definition of “the world” stabilised with the creation of the League of Nations and other international organisations, all of which gave the impression that international law had taken root.
The international political left was divided between democratic socialist and Marxist communist movements, with the latter in control in Russia while democratic socialists, supported by the working classes and powerful labour unions, infiltrated the front rows of parliaments elsewhere. Then the Great Depression struck in 1929. Skyrocketing unemployment and poverty gave a powerful boost to the left, but the left had only one solution to the emergent economic crisis, which was distribution among all.
Where there was nothing to distribute, strikes and violent demonstrations proliferated. In post-World War I Germany, licking its wounds from defeat, humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and loss of territory, and further crippled by the need to pay billions in reparations, left-wing forces carried on the backs of labour syndicates surged to the fore, acquiring political power while staging endless strikes and demonstrations.
Although the Nazi movement would emerge from the ultra-right nationalist socialist movement after World War I as well, it remained largely on the fringes throughout the 1920s. Its star began to soar in the 1930s, when it won in the parliamentary elections of 1933. Italy had preceded Germany in this respect. The Italian left had begun to push in directions that were sufficient to propel voters in the opposite direction: the extreme right.
Something of this sort has been unfolding in the US and the UK, as well as in many other countries, such as Brazil, India, Italy, Poland and Hungary. In the US, President Trump and the Republican Party are in trouble.
Last year, they lost the majority in the House of Representatives (although they retained it in the Senate) and Trump, himself, came under enormous legal and political pressures. In addition to the investigations into his implication in Russian electoral interference and cyberattacks against the Democratic Party in 2016, he was accused of obstructing justice by withholding information and pressuring his aides to do likewise. Regardless of the legalities involved in the Russian investigation, and even the adverse press the Mueller Report generated against the president, the thrust of the offensive of the Democratic Party and the liberal leaning the US media was to delegitimise the Trump presidency.
The second round of this offensive began immediately after the first in the form of impeachment proceedings against the president on the grounds that he abused his authority to withhold aid from Ukraine as a means to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, the latter a potential rival in the next presidential elections. The Democrats pressed ahead with the impeachment process despite the fact that they knew it would never pass the Senate, which is controlled by the Republicans. Also, despite the legal merits of the Democrats’ case, the US public perceives it as a device to politically undermine the president.
There are plenty of issues that the Democrats could have focused on, such as tax reform and the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and gained considerable political ground. Their focus, instead, on what had turned the tables against them in the past has had a negative impact among the US public.
Recent opinion polls indicate that US public opinion does not support the impeachment and that Trump has retained his lead in the swing states that determined the outcome of the last elections.
To make matters worse for themselves, the candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries have been espousing national healthcare programmes, free university education, writing off student loans and other such left-wing projects that inherently mean higher taxes, thereby propelling more voters to the right. At the same time, the US economy is doing well and there is a definitive trend in favour of restricting immigration and reducing taxes, all of which are things the right does, not the left.
The situation is not much different in the UK, although there the chief question is whether or not to leave the EU. When David Cameron’s Conservative government moved to put the European question to a national referendum, a very slim majority voted in favour of leaving the EU. The British remain sharply divided on this question, down to the family level. The division extends into the major political parties, although the majority of Labour favours remain while the majority of Conservatives favour leave.
Today, despite the many actions taken by former prime minister Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson, many of the details of which we have discussed previously in this column, Britain has reached the point that many had foreseen from the outset: recourse to general elections to resolve the matter.
Yet, despite considerable evidence British public opinion on Brexit has shifted away from leave and towards remain, the Labour Party is advocating more government intervention in the economy, strengthening labour syndicates, stronger support for national health and free public education. In short, it is bent on waging a counterrevolution to the socioeconomic revolution that Margaret Thatcher launched four decades ago.
Moreover, the party only offers Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, two devotees of the Marxist Leninist left and, more recently, of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, as the main exponents of the British left at this critical time when the question of Brexit hangs in the balance. The result is that recent open polls give the Conservative Party a lead and a large majority to the far right in that party, as represented by the “British Trump”, Boris Johnson.
British elections are just around the corner, on 12 December. US presidential elections are further off. But even if they are in November next year, the results will be clear before then. They will come out in favour of Trump because the Democrats have veered in the direction of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren whose left-wing policies do not appeal to the majority of the American people.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.