The Chancellor of Kingston University, Bonnie Greer, has given a historical perspective on the passions that seem to be stirring the current rise of populism in politics, both in Europe and the USA.
Bonnie, who is a playwright, novelist and critic, became Chancellor of Kingston in 2013, and is a regular guest on current affairs programmes such as the BBC’s Newsnight and Question Time. She also often helps review the next day’s newspapers on late-night TV news channels.
Born in Chicago but now a British citizen, Greer still retains a close interest in the history and politics of her country of birth and, writing in a recent edition of The European newspaper (a new newspaper for the 48% who voted against ‘Brexit’), she offered her reflections on the rise of Donald Trump, the background of his supporters, and how this ‘uprising’ of the ‘Lost’ relates to wider anti-elitist trends in both past and present politics.
Greer notes how the hottest book in America at the moment is a memoir by a Silicon Valley executive, J.D. Vance. Entitled Hillbilly Elegy, it is – in Greer’s estimation – a ‘poignant and eye-opening’ memoir of a son of what are called in America ‘white trash’, ‘rednecks’, or ‘hillbillies’. As she points out, these people are the descendants of the Scotch/Irish people who came to America as indentured servants in the 17th and 18th centuries. While they are called the ‘middle class’ in America, they are in fact the working class.
Proud and hardworking people, they were for a long time part of the so-called American Dream, were not part of ‘The Elite’, and played by the rules. They also often had jobs for life. In his book, Vance recalls his life growing up in a town where almost everyone worked at the local steel plant. Life was ‘safe’ and familiar. Vance managed to break free and gain a job in Silicon Valley, but he was the exception.
Tellingly, as Greer notes, and as Vance sets out vividly in his memoir, in today’s post-recession but turbulent times, many of these people have come to feel ‘lost’ and that the ‘American way of life’ is now slipping from them. Moreover, they see Donald Trump and ‘Trumpism’ (for want of a better word) as promising to protect them from all threats (globalization, liberalism, Islam, etc) and offering to restore life to the ‘way it used to be’. In Vance’s book, they talk about how Trump is standing up for ‘them’, does not back down, and is not part of ‘The Elite’.
As Greer aptly says, the ‘irony of a real estate tycoon, born with a silver spoon and who lives in a Tower, seems to be irrelevant’. They ‘listen to Trump’s speeches, not for the rhetoric, but for the feeling. It is what they feel, too. He echoes their deepest selves and is not afraid to say so. They back him. Trump is their President already’.
Greer relates this to wider historical and contemporary patterns in politics: ‘What these people have in common with the followers of Marine Le Pen in France, Bernie Sanders in the US, and to an extent Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, is that they are the Losers’. In other words, according to Greer, they are the ones who have benefitted less from the unprecedented wealth being created right now – they are people who have lost out in the brave new world of uber wealth, privilege and access to privilege and: ‘We are now in the midst of an Uprising of the Losers’.
In Greer’s interpretation, it is no surprise that all this is happening at the end of a financial crisis: ‘Because for many the crisis has not ended, and with it comes an erosion of dignity and trust’. Above all, she argues, people are increasingly putting their faith in what she terms ‘lone agents’ – individuals who exist for them on a first name basis (such as ‘The Donald’) and ‘seem to carry with themselves the hopes of a nation’. More worryingly, in Greer’s view, it is all beginning to feel like the late 1920s and early 1930s.
While controversial, Greer’s views are certainly food for thought as historians watch the Presidential elections in the USA and also try to make sense of the latest bursts of ‘populism’ across the world, including in Europe.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University