While at the laundromat, I often end up chatting with strangers. It makes the whole process of folding shirts and matching socks more bearable. These conversations usually focus on the same types of things: the absurdity of how expensive rent in this city is getting and the onslaught of rich assholes from Toronto; the stress of precarious work with no benefits; and the difficulty of keeping up with bills. We usually just talk about the mundane struggles of being working poor.
But these days, the most popular topic of discussion is Donald Trump. A lot of people are enthusiastic about his election and hopeful that it will bring about positive changes. When I ask folks why they feel this way, I’m typically told that Trump is an everyday kind of man – someone who’s relatable and different from other politicians. His election is seen as striking a blow against existing political elites and the established social order that fucks so many of us over.
Trump got elected on a campaign that painted him as an “anti-establishment” figure. He appealed to the disaffected and promised to “make America great again” for the forgotten little guys. Several years earlier, mayoral candidate Rob Ford was elected in Toronto after a campaign that made use of similar claims and promised to “stop the gravy train”. Ford appealed to the neglected “ordinary people” of the suburbs, and vowed to take on the city’s downtown elites. Most recently, Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch has spoken publically about the need to challenge government elites and to look out for “the average guy and gal on the street”.
Such calls resonate with many people’s feelings of economic and political discontent, and appeal to collective desires for social change. But, do they deliver on their promises?
How do they measure up to scrutiny? And, where do they take us?
A Matter of Misdirection and Manipulation
Donald Trump is a billionaire business mogul who was born to a wealthy family. Up until his inauguration, he ran ‘The Trump Organization’ – an international conglomerate that owns and operates an extensive network of hotels, resorts, residential real estate developments, and golf courses. He owns countless homes, travels in private jets, and lives a life of extravagance. Drawing on the language of the occupy movement, he’s undeniably part of the super rich 1%.
Rob Ford was a multi-millionaire and businessman, who similarly came from a rich family. Founded by his grandparents, the company ‘Deco Labels and Tags’ has been passed down through the generations and makes an estimated $100 million in annual sales. He drove luxury cars, owned several vacation homes in Florida and the Muskokas, and held an extensive portfolio of real estate investment properties. Until his death in 2016, he lived a life of privilege and indulgence.
Kellie Leitch is a former pediatric surgeon and university professor. She was born to an affluent business owning family, attended some of Canada’s most prestigious universities, and has boasted of having 22 letters at the end of her name. She worked an exceedingly well-paying job at a top-ranked hospital, taught at the University of Toronto, and held a chair position at the internationally renowned Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University. She has served as a member of parliament and held a federal cabinet position.
These so-called “anti-establishment” figures are elite in pretty much every sense of the word. They are rich and powerful; well connected to influential people and institutions in both the political and business worlds; and have huge material resources at their fingertips. They talk incessantly about the “every day folks”, yet they are completely removed from the experiences that mark most of our lives. We have few, if any, shared interests with these people.
Divide and Conquer
It is all too common for those in power (or for those vying to gain power) to utilize a “divide and conquer” strategy to whip up support and strengthen their position. A divided population is easier to rule and control, and thus, it is beneficial to obscure commonalities and highlight differences between people. Purposively inflamed divisions’ function to direct our frustrations and hostilities horizontally, rather than vertically. History is littered with examples and our present moment is no exception.
We live in a time when most people’s standard of living is declining – we work harder and harder in shit jobs for low wages and with zero stability; we’re drowning in debt; and we’re sinking further into poverty. Many of us are rightfully fed up and looking for someone to blame. While there are many places we could look to, for example insatiably greedy CEOs, morally bankrupt investors, or corrupt politicians; we’re encouraged to look elsewhere.
Lately, it has become increasingly widespread to hear messages casting blame on immigrants and Muslims. The so-called “anti-establishment” figures in particular, have directed a lot of energy into emphasizing the impending threat of Islamic terrorists, the growing epidemic of freeloading refugees, and the ongoing crisis of job stealing migrants. But, it’s all smoke and mirrors. These narratives draw on and perpetuate racist tropes in order to direct attention away from those who are actually responsible for and benefit from our collective immiseration.
The greatest danger for folks living in Canada or the United States for that matter is not “jihadist terrorism”. In fact, the likelihood of being the victim of a terrorist attack is incredibly low – it’s even lower than your chance of being struck by lightening! You are also far more likely to lose your life in a car crash, drown in a bathtub, perish in a building fire, die in workplace accident, or be killed by bees. Furthermore, it is Christians who are the most frequent perpetrators of extremist violence on North American soil, and it is Muslims who are disproportionately at risk of being the target of attacks. The mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque this past January killed 6 people and injured 19 others, making it the largest act of terrorism in recent Canadian history. The shooter was a Quebec-born white nationalist and the victims were all Muslim.
On the issue of migration, claims are equally misleading. There’s no red carpet being rolled out for refugees – most are fleeing intense conflicts (for example, the brutal Syrian Civil War) and go through a difficult journey to get here. When they do arrive in places like Hamilton, they are housed in rundown, bedbug-infested apartments and given minimal support. As for the question of employment, immigrants are not stealing our jobs. Millions of jobs have been outsourced as the result of free trade agreements ratified by “our” governments and pushed for by companies working to reduce their labour costs in order to make higher profits.
Neither immigrants nor Muslims are the source of our hardships – they are fucked over, exploited, and oppressed by ruling elites just like the rest of us (and often get the worst of it). In the article ‘To Other Working Americans’, the group ‘Red Neck Revolt’ explains:
“We’ve been fed ridiculous ideas of the “invading” brown hordes, and the rich whites that make up the upper tiers (and financiers) of right-wing militias salivate over our reactions. If we’re busy fighting the Mexicans and Muslims, and trying to round up all the “illegals,” then we’re too busy to fight the real enemies, the ones who set us against each other to begin with. Most of us that keep falling for these lines mean well. Hell, we only want to defend our families and our communities… but in reality, we’re weakening them even more, by fighting our real potential allies and diverting our attention from the real enemy, the “enemy within,” the politicians and the race-realists, the bosses and white collar criminals who are the only ones really profiting off of us to begin with.”
While directed to an American audience, much of this sentiment rings true for Canadians as well.
The Game is Rigged
Every few years, election seasons rolls around and a corresponding political circus ensues. Politicians battle it out in the hopes of getting our votes; making grandiose promises of all the things they will do and making epic speeches on why they are the best candidate to lead us. Often the language they use is alienating and the experiences they talk about are unrelatable. So when people like Trump come along – people who talk like a “normal” person – it’s refreshing and gives the illusion of being a departure from the status quo.
Many of us want something different and we’re lead to believe that these figures can deliver. But they never do. Politicians aren’t allies they are the enemy. We are told that if we want change, we have to elect a leader to bring it about. We are told that if we have frustrations, we have to find a representative to address them. We’re told that if we don’t vote, we can’t complain. Essentially, we’re told that there is nothing else. This idea that there are no other options creates the climate where desires for social change are funneled into a dead end.
Our political system is the problem. It functions as a revolving door for elites of various stripes to further their interests and not ours. It offers us no way out, only a choice between one shitty politician and another. No matter who we vote for and no matter who wins, we lose. Luckily, we have other options. If we want to better our lives and lives of the people we care about, we can move away from asking politicians to taking action ourselves and building relationships with those who we actually share interests and experiences with.
By: Ann Turner