Is it about where you come from…or where you’re going?

By November 10, 2016Public Affairs


Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Election has sent shockwaves across the globe.  Love him or loathe him that fact is undeniable.

However, there’s one Scottish community which will be embracing the shockwave and could stand to benefit from an economic upsurge.  The tiny town of Tong, on the Isle of Lewis was home to Donald Trump’s mother Mary MacLeod before she emigrated to the US in the 1920s and is now likely to attract flocks of American tourists keen to understand the roots of the soon-to-be world’s most powerful man.

Trump visited Tong in 2008 and has always been proud of his humble Scottish heritage – yet this poses an interesting question for those of us interested in politics and the study of power – does it matter where you came from, or is it more important to know where you’re going?

Politicians often go to great lengths to let voters know their background.  It is the perceived wisdom that those on the left with humble upbringings tend to favour policies that help lift people out of poverty, whereas those on the right tend to credit their rise to personal initiative and hard graft.  Yet those from privileged backgrounds point to their successes (usually in business) as an indication that success will be replicated in political life.  These are all worthy traits that appeal to voters.

But what about the politicians who defy the wisdom that their background should determine their politics?  Look no further than people like Tony Benn who, despite coming from a hugely privileged background, went on to be one of the UK’s leading advocates of socialism.  On the other side of the coin is Margaret Thatcher who went from the grocer’s daughter to a woman viewed as the enemy of the working class – certainly in parts of Scotland anyway.

Is Donald Trump about to embark on the same path and defy convention when he is inaugurated in January?  Whilst Trump’s parents come from comparatively humble backgrounds, the man himself inherited a family estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars.   President-elect Trump can’t claim the humble background of his parents – that much is clear, but could his Presidency actually be a driving force for tackling poverty and disadvantage in the US?

Much has been made of Trump’s more controversial comments on Mexico and Muslims – which are deplorable.  Yet, if you take a closer look at some of his less heated comments then it paints the picture of a man who, whether he knows it or not, has more traditionally left leaning instincts than you might think.  Firstly, he’s previously praised the Canadian healthcare system which involves a lot more government control than Obamacare which he has promised to start repealing without delay.  He’s also advocated that those working in an organisation should never pay more tax than their CEO bosses.

On social security Trump has said he won’t make any cuts to Medicare or Medicaid (defying others in the Republican Party) nor would he be supportive of raising the retirement age.  Indeed Trump has called on America’s rich and famous to forego cashing in their social security cheques.

He’s also advocated the value of hard work and if his planned infrastructure investment is ratified by Congress then we could see thousands of jobs created across the US to support the construction of the new bridges, schools and highways pledged during Trump’s campaign and victory speech.

In many ways Trump’s (albeit sketchily developed) policy positions, combined with a knack for appealing to a vast, fundamentally blue collar ‘movement’, often belie his background as a product of privilege. So is there any hope that Trump can deliver a plan for America that delivers improvements for ordinary people’s lives, rather than empty promises?

Of course, I’m sceptical that a Trump presidency is really like a book that can’t yet be judged by its cover. That said, all we can do now is be hopeful that somehow he can deliver a transformed and improved economy that deals with the undoubted inequalities that exist in America. Who knows, maybe he’ll also realise that all the stuff about building walls, persecuting immigrants and ripping up international agreements is just a waste of time that he can talk his way out of doing as easily as he seemed to launch them on the spur of the moment?

We will see. Trump’s predecessor Abraham Lincoln spoke at his own inauguration about allowing “the better angels of our nature” to guide our actions. Only time will tell whether Donald Trump has better angels and whether they will be allowed to take flight once he enters the White House next year.

Colin McFarlane is a Senior Account Manager at Indigo