James McEnaney: The left is losing the ideological battle for the 21st century

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney reacts to the news that Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States

EARLIER this year I visited America for the first time as an adult. 

It was April, and I travelled - with my wife and infant son - to New York to attend my sister's wedding. During my time there the campaign to become Democratic candidate for the presidency was in full flow, with Bernie Sanders supporters still fighting to elect their standard bearer.

Though I was there for a very welcome family holiday, I couldn't resist investigating what seemed, from across the pond, a fascinating and inspiring example of a new movement in American politics. 

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I wrote about my experiences for the Daily Record, highlighting the parallels with the indyref campaign, the grassroots determination of the Sanders activitsts, and the optimism that even if defeated his campaign could be the catalyst for real change. 

But there was something I left out, a brief interaction that shocked me so much that I assumed it could only be an unrepresentative outlier. 

It happened in Sanders' Brooklyn campaign HQ during a conversation with the wife of a local union leader. She told me that his whole organisation was backing Sanders in the hope that he could, in her words, “restore the American Dream”.  

But what happens, I asked, if Hillary wins the nomination? What if it's a straight choice between her, the ultimate manifestation of an establishment politician, and, Donald Trump (by then the likely Republican candidate)? 

I remember the next few second as clearly as if they were happening right now. She looked at me gravely and confirmed that under those circumstances she would vote for Clinton, but that her husband and his union colleagues had already agreed to back Trump. 

The racist right will be emboldened, and minorities put in genuine danger by the perceived legitimisation of the politics of hate. 

I've explained this experience a few times in recent months, and my interpretation has remained consistent: those people wanted Sanders to fix their broken country but, robbed of that opportunity, might resort to simply burning it down instead. 

And now it has happened. 

In that piece for the Daily Record I said that Sanders' supporters were not raging against the dying light of the American dream, they were setting out to reignite it. Today, in the cold shadow of 8 November 2016 it feels like we are staring at the sickly glow of the last, fragile embers amid a vast and terrifying void. 

That Trump will soon have his finger on the nuclear button is a long way down the list of concerns right now, even allowing for reports that, during a foreign policy briefing in August, he asked - three times - why weapons of mass destruction could not be used against America's enemies. 

More than 20 million people are going to lose health insurance when Obamacare is repealed. 

Read more – US Election: Donald Trump defies predictions to take White House

Parents will see their children become sick, and some will die, because of a fall in vaccination rates. 

The racist right will be emboldened, and minorities put in genuine danger by the perceived legitimisation of the politics of hate. 

Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, grotesque symbols of extreme reactionary thought, are considered likely candidates for the positions of secretary of state and attorney general respectively. 

When Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer retire - probably within the next two years - a generation of Americans will find themselves held hostage by an ultra-conservative Supreme Court. 

Roe vs Wade, a supporting beam for women's rights in the US, is now in peril. Hard-won LGBT rights are now at risk. Civil rights initiatives will come under attack. 

And it doesn't end there, because for those of us living beyond America's borders other threats now loom. 

The risk of contagion cannot be ignored, nor can the fact that xenophobia and racism remain powerful factors in defining human attitudes and behaviours. 

International efforts to combat climate change, already moving far too slowly, will surely be fatally damaged by a Trump presidency. 

His trade policies, if enacted, will almost certainly plunge the planet into further economic turmoil (Paul Krugman suggesting that we are facing "a global recession, with no end in sight"). 

His campaign success will also provide inspiration to other regressive voices, such as Marine le Pen in France (which itself goes to the polls next year). The risk of contagion cannot be ignored, nor can the fact that xenophobia and racism remain powerful factors in defining human attitudes and behaviours. 

In electing Donald Trump to the highest office in their land, and the most powerful political position in the world, Americans have endorsed a man who is, to quote the blistering editorial from the New Yorker, "a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right."

He is "vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling but will strike fear in the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted." This result is, truly, a tragedy. 

There are no easy answers to the questions that arise from these realities, but it has never been more important for us to pursue them.

Hundreds of thousands of words will be written dissecting this result, with some points sure to arise again and again. 

In Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin the gap between a victorious Donald Trump and vanquished Hillary Clinton was smaller than the third party vote; centre-ground political campaigning has been swallowed by the quicksand on which it was always built; the anger of traditional, white, working-class voters can no longer be contained, or ignored, by the political status quo.

There are no easy answers to the questions that arise from these realities, but it has never been more important for us to pursue them. For that to happen, however, one particularly harsh reality must be accepted and confronted: no matter how you cut it, the left – disorganised, disheartened, myopic and lacking an effective narrative for change - is losing the ideological battle for the 21st century.

Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore

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