For eleven minutes this morning, Donald Trump was powerless – cut off from his followers by a disabled Twitter account.
That’s how coups used to start in Latin America. The army would cut the phone lines, seize the radio stations and blockade the newspapers, detaching leaders from their popular base. I heard tales of this era when I was a boy, my grandfather having served as Her Majesty’s ambassador to Venezuela in the 1950s. One story, told by my mother, remained with me with particular tenacity.
Fresh out of Oxford, she went to stay with her parents for a few months while she awaited her marriage to my father. 1950s Caracas was a city on the move, in the throes of an oil boom. Migrants were flooding in from the countryside, and from around the world, eager for opportunities. Skyscrapers and modernist architecture mushroomed as the government celebrated the country’s new-found prosperity.
But, as with most oil booms, the riches flowed unevenly. Those with the skills required in the new economy made big money, but the sector killed more jobs than it created. My mother got a glimpse of this emerging divide one day when flying above her neighbourhood in the embassy’s small, twin-prop Dove. In a city where crushing poverty was already prevalent, she saw row upon row of backyards behind stately homes, each with a pristine swimming pool, its shimmering surface broken but once a day when the man of the house returned from work.
This past Monday morning, I scrolled through the Twitter-feed that had come off the #MuellerMonday tag overnight. It read like the excited night-before-Christmas fantasies of liberals reliving their childhood, unable to sleep as they counted down the hours to the newsbreak. ‘I feel like I should leave cookies out for Mueller tonight.’ ‘Retweet if you hope Jared Kushner is woken up by a swat team at 3 AM tomorrow.’ ‘Wonder how @realDonaldTrump feels that the whole world is waiting eagerly in anticipation of his downfall to begin.’ ‘Tomorrow is the beginning of the end!’ ‘More excited for #MuellerMonday than the Super Bowl and World Series combined.’
Faced with this onslaught of progressive delight, I felt like the jaded romantic who’s still regretful at the discovery Santa Claus isn’t real (sorry, should have put a spoiler-alert in there). Look, I’ve exhausted my thesaurus trying to find words that express my disgust with the Donald: uncouth, puerile, ignorant, misogynistic, abusive – but also, unfortunately given the US constitution’s zany ways, the people’s choice.
Today in Venezuela, the scions of that privileged and complacent middle class, the same people who made so strong an impression on my mother, are living under the boot of those they once neglected. Under an autocratic and corrupt reign of populism, their lives have become a daily horror: empty shops, unsafe streets, blocked opportunities. Like so many populists, the Venezuelan regime enriches a well-connected few, talks a good line and throws enough pearls the way of its supporters to keep them from abandoning its ship. And why would they? Where else would they go? Back into the arms of a class that wants only to return to its pristine pools?
We use the same language that was used by Latin American coup plotters in my mother’s day: that Trump is a threat to national well-being, the constitution and the Western alliance. We’ll settle for any means of removing him from office. But when polls suggest that two-fifths of the population still approve of his job, to think we can just lick this problem with a surgical strike at the top overlooks the fact that even if we get rid of Trump, we’ll be stuck with Trumpism. The only way the left should be looking to eliminate that, is to eliminate the need for it.
And that brings home the uncomfortable truth: we, the middle classes of the West who rode a wave of prosperity in the global age, are that Venezuelan middle class of the 1950s. The rebellion against our happy rule was a long time in coming. Christopher Lasch wrote of the revolt of the elites in the 1990s, warning that the retreat of the middle classes into a smug, self-satisfied liberalism, one which found its home in New Labour or America’s New Democrats, was dividing society. Happy to return home each day to our metaphorical (and sometimes actual) shimmering swimming pools, we turned a blind eye to the suffering neoliberal globalisation was causing the working class: stagnant real wages, rising debt, growing hopelessness. While many of us still remember the 1990s as a golden age – Hillary Clinton all but campaigned on it – the reality for many was different. As I write in my most recent book, our gilded age was a dark one for many others.
Sorry folks, but we built this cross, and we’ll have to bear it. We must fight right-wing populism, but we must fight it in the trenches, not with a drone strike from five miles up. And unlike the ‘listening tours’ carried out by liberals who seem only to be listening to one another, we have to get out among the people we neglected so long, and really hear their stories. We won’t like everything they tell us, but that is the essence of democracy: finding a way to live with people we might not particularly like.