Revenge of white working class
Trump’s victory shows that the establishment has lost control over the election process. Jim Creegan draws up a balance sheet of the class forces
Taking revenge on political establishment
If, as Marx once wrote, history has a way of progressing on its ‘bad side’, the 2016 US presidential elections are a case in point. In a perverse way, they were a turn of events that leftwingers could heretofore only have dreamt about: the ruling class losing control of the electoral process and the long-forgotten working class announcing its continued existence - and its re-entry onto the political stage as a force to reckon with.
But - as in our worst nightmares - the bourgeoisie lost control to a buffoonish, vulgar real-estate tycoon with a fascistic tinge, and the working class re-entered the political drama stage right. The Democratic Party is reeling from this completely unforeseen - and crushing - defeat. The Republicans now control both houses of Congress, in addition to most state governorships and state legislatures. Some on the Democrats’ left flank argue that the party can only regain its grip on the blue-collar electorate by putting forward some semblance of working class politics. Half-hearted and disingenuous though these ‘progressives’ often are, Marxists would be foolish to underestimate the importance of growing tensions in the losers’ camp for defining the political climate of the months and years to come.
Hillary Clinton not only enjoyed the support of all Democratic factions, but of Wall Street and most of the Fortune 500,1 as well as many stalwarts of the Republican establishment. It can be said without exaggeration that she was the favoured candidate of at least one and a half of the two major parties. Even the ultra-right ‘free market’ billionaire activists, Charles and David Koch, could not bring themselves to endorse Donald Trump. There have been few times in American history when the preference of the ruling class has been so clear and overwhelming. Clinton had at her disposal sums of money and an army of campaign professionals that made her rivals look like rank amateurs. Yet none of these advantages availed to put the ‘inevitable’ and near-universally projected winner in the White House.
Clinton’s defeat in the country as a whole was due to unusually high turnout among white working and middle class voters from suburbs and small towns - a pattern familiar from the Brexit referendum. They were no doubt mobilised in part by Trump’s unsubtle appeals to their anxieties about the prospect of becoming a minority in a country they have always considered ‘theirs’. The other side of the coin was the failure of normally Democratic constituencies, especially urban blacks and Hispanics, to go to the polls for Clinton in anywhere near the numbers Obama racked up in 2008 or 2012 - partly due to the absence of racial solidarity with Clinton.
But it is also widely agreed that the voters who made the difference were blue-collar workers, mostly white, concentrated in the post-industrial regions of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Because these areas usually leaned Democratic, and poll numbers put Hillary several points ahead, the Clinton campaign grew complacent and stopped short of mounting an all-out effort there, ignoring the warnings of local Democratic politicians that these voters were not as securely in their column as thought to be at Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters. For the rust belt voters who handed Hillary her defeat, the election was a referendum on the status quo.
For anyone who viewed things in this light, there was no contest. Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again”, contained an acknowledgement that things are less than optimal the way they are. Hillary countered that America is “already great”. While Trump spoke of jobs being shipped overseas, Clinton and Obama touted the latest job growth numbers to prove that the economy is on the rebound - cold comfort to anyone whose new service-sector employment pays two-thirds to half as much as their old job in a steelworks or auto plant. Trump advertised himself as a political outsider - a familiar American electioneering trope, but this time actually true of a candidate who had never before held elected office.
Hillary, by contrast, billed herself - and was praised by Obama - as the supremely “qualified” contender: ie, as the consummate representative of the Washington elite that had brought job loss, stagnant or declining wages, not to mention growing opioid addiction and shortened life spans, to lower-income whites. Her appearances during the campaign at banquets of big donors, and at rallies flanked by Beyoncé and Jay Z, among other glitterati, underscored her immersion in an inaccessible world of big bucks and bright stars. These voters went for Trump, because he was in their eyes less likely than Clinton to serve up the same stale bromides. Neither Hillary’s last-minute opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership nor her new-found belief in tax equity and social spending could alter her reputation as someone blithely indifferent to growing inter-coastal misery.
Some of the ‘forgotten’ men and women who voted for Trump doubtless saw their salvation in the restoration of an idealised golden age. The post-World War II decades were not only conceived as a time when wages were high and industrial jobs plentiful, but also an era when men were men, and women and blacks knew their place. The desire for economic security was closely interwoven in many white working class minds with the racist, sexist and anti-immigrant themes that Trump pounded on the campaign trail, in gleeful defiance of the niceties of political discourse.
But there were also the roughly 12% of Trump voters who had pulled the lever for Obama in the last two presidential elections, and many who had gone for Sanders in the Democratic primaries. They were often driven to back Trump not because of, but despite, his grotesqueries. It was these voters who could have made the difference between victory or defeat for the Democrats. Their voting suggests an inchoate anger - neither deeply racist or chauvinist, nor particularly class-conscious.
This slice of the electorate seemed willing to support anyone who held out the slightest hope of deliverance from the economic cul-de-sac they find themselves in. Yet Trump voters of all political shades seemed united by one thing: a visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton. This animus is incomprehensible to many on the left, who tend to regard her as another opportunist bourgeois politician not unlike many others.
Hatred of Hillary
The roots of the hostility lie deep in the post-war experience of the white American worker. This country’s working class is, and has long been, without any abiding political creed. The unions, which had anchored them in New Deal liberalism, have been steadily losing numbers and influence. Workers are therefore inclined to rely upon their own experience of work, family and other social groups for their notions about the larger society and their place in it.
Immediately below them on the social scale are racial minorities and immigrants, and above them educated professionals. Their intermediate position is one reason that blue-collar workers think of themselves as ‘middle class’, which makes a certain amount of sense on an experiential level. The ruling class is too distant in the social hierarchy to earn their hatred - they do not rub elbows with CEOs or hedge fund managers. Workers do, however, come in daily contact with petty bourgeois professionals - in the supervisors who give them orders at work, the doctors at the local clinic or neighbours who occupy a roomier house a few streets away. To workers, these people are the only upper class concretely present in their lives.
A sociological fact that Marxists have largely overlooked is the vast expansion of higher education during post-war decades, and the proliferation of technical and professional occupations - in the media, the universities and information technology. The gap between the earnings of professionals and those of manual workers has recently widened. But for decades the division did not exclusively - or even primarily - involve the size of pay cheques. Even an unskilled, unionised white worker in heavy industry, with some seniority and a bit of overtime, could earn an income comparable to that of a middle-ranking lawyer or physician. The cleavage ran rather along lines of lifestyle.
Those with a university education shared a range of cultural and intellectual references the worker lacked. The professional had a career; the worker had a job. Unlike professional endeavours, the worker’s job required manual labour, and they were ordered about rather than accorded the at least superficial collegiality and respect enjoyed by their educated counterpart. The worker therefore developed a self-conception based upon the things that set them apart from the professional. In their own eyes, the worker was straightforward and said what they meant, while the professional tended to communicate obliquely, usually with a view to career advancement - a goal in the service of which s/he was typically willing to manipulate and deceive.
Professionals emerged as the self-appointed arbiters of morals and manners, reminding those on the lower rungs - often condescendingly and hypocritically - what was and was not socially acceptable. Their concern for the plight of minorities and the poor was matched by their indifference to the lot of blue-collar wage-earners. Since most unionised workers received their medical care and pensions from their employers rather than the government, the expanded welfare-state programmes of the 60s and 70s were seen as efforts to help other people (usually of a certain complexion) with money from their tax dollars. It was these resentments that the Republicans exploited in the 1980s to create a voting bloc of ‘Reagan Republicans’ - working class voters in revolt against the ostensible rule of urban elites. To workers shaped by this experience Hillary Clinton is the personification of everything they detest.
In the words of Joan C Williams,
Hillary Clinton … epitomises the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables [Clinton’s characterisation of half of Trump supporters]. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic.2
Add to the above Clinton’s dexterity at shifting political positions with every change in the wind, and you have a white male worker caricature of a self-serving, privileged, two-faced social climber.
A major concomitant of petty bourgeois careerism is identity politics, which Clinton never hesitated to invoke during the campaign to tamp down the class themes Sanders introduced. A fight for equality of oppressed minorities bereft of a class perspective most often resolves itself into a quest for status within the system. For the upwardly mobile, being in a low-paying job is seen as no more than a way station on the road to success. One’s gender, skin colour and sexual orientation, on the other hand, cannot be shed, and - to the extent that white male heterosexuals dominate - these attributes function as career impediments for female and minority strivers. Their elimination is therefore their major goal; for non-minority, male liberals - academics, in particular - support for an equal-opportunity career ladder, and an ‘inclusive’, ‘diverse’ elite, is a way to appear progressive without questioning the class hierarchy.
And, even though sexual and racial equality in all spheres should be an essential part of any socialist programme, one can understand why the former industrial worker making 30% less in his new Wal-Mart job may not be overly preoccupied with whether his son can become chairman of Goldman Sachs, or a homecare worker earning $10 an hour might not worry too much about whether her heroin-addicted daughter can grow up to be president of the United States - a trail Hillary constantly said she would be blazing if she won, once again underscoring her self-importance.
Identity politics can also backfire. It can reinforce the already too pronounced inclination of the shrinking Caucasian majority to assert their identity in the form of white nationalism. And there can be no mistaking that this is a big part of the significance of the election of Donald Trump. His championing of the ‘birther’ movement3 after Obama’s election was an early indication of his future course; his attempts to brand Mexican immigrants drug-dealers and rapists, and his initial refusal to a reject the endorsement of Louisiana Klansman David Duke, set much of the tone for his campaign. And his interface with the white supremacist right has not ceased, as he heads for the White House. Steve Bannon, appointed Trump’s chief strategist, came to his campaign from Breitbart News, a leading platform of the ‘alt-right’ movement, that pushes openly racist, anti-immigrant, misogynist and even anti-Semitic propaganda on the internet. It has urged that every tree and lamppost in the country be festooned with the Confederate flag.
Trump’s selection of the Alabama senator, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, for attorney general is another step in the same direction. Sessions’ nomination by Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship was rejected in 1986, after a black US attorney, Thomas Figures, testified that Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he found out they smoked pot, and that the country’s leading black civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its leading defender of free speech, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were “unAmerican”, “communist-inspired” and “trying to force civil rights down our throats”. Figures also testified that Sessions had called him “boy”. Sessions later sponsored a national anti-gay marriage bill in the Senate. Indications are that he will be a less than zealous enforcer of anti-discrimination laws and minority rights.
The rightwing, racist fringe was not long in picking up the vibes emanating from Trump Tower in Manhattan, where the president elect is huddled with his entourage. An alt-right conference held a few blocks from the White House was addressed by Richard Spencer, who quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German, and went on to assert that America belonged to white people, a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalised, but now, in the era of Donald Trump, were “awakening to their own identity”. As he chastised the media for its alleged anti-Trump bias, the 200-some white, mostly male audience broke into shouts of ‘Lugenpresse” -a Nazi-era term meaning ‘lying press’. Spencer finished his speech by chanting ‘Heil victory!’, as audience members responded with a straight-arm salute.
Leftwing and liberal panic-mongers notwithstanding, Trump is no real fascist. There is no crisis of the capitalist state that would warrant scrapping the constitution and turning over power to an extreme nationalist mass movement, and there is as yet no such movement. Yet a Trump presidency seems likely to give groups like the alt-right a wider field to operate in. Immigrants and minorities will have much uglier times in store. There are already reports of swastikas being painted on mosque walls, of Mexicans being told to ‘go home’ and of Muslim high-school girls having their hijabs ripped from their heads. Whatever the motives of working class Trump voters, it cannot be denied that they proved susceptible in large numbers to a white nationalist appeal, and that their anger has been channelled - for the time being - into support for a rightist demagogue clothed with enormous power.
All of the above raises the question of the kind of politics needed to counter Trump’s appeal for large numbers of working class folk. The Democrats are divided about their future, as is to be expected in the wake of their defeat. The election was a debacle not only for them, but for ‘politics as usual’. On November 20, Bernie Sanders gave a speech in Boston, after which he answered the question of a young woman, who said that she wanted to become the country’s second Latina senator, and asked Sanders for tips. His answer is worth quoting at length:
… it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina - vote for me.’ I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on the big money interests. Now one of the struggles we are going to have right now in the Democratic Party is that it is not good enough for me [to say], ‘OK, we have x number of African Americans over here, y number of Latinos, z number of women. We are a diverse party.’ Not good enough … It’s not good enough to say, ‘I’m a woman - vote for me!’ What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. One of the struggles you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.
I think it is a step forward in America if you have an African American CEO of some major corporation. But, you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of the country and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or Latino … The working class of this country is being decimated. That is why Donald Trump won.
Left Democrats are now saying that Sanders could have beaten Trump. They are wrong, however, to believe that the united efforts of the party apparatus to defeat Sanders in the primaries was no more than a mistaken decision. Clinton was the candidate who could keep the donor spigot flowing - not only for herself, but for other down-ticket candidates with centrist politics like hers. And campaign cash remains the lifeline for the party’s candidates and elected officials. That is why a takeover by Sandernistas is about as likely as Kim Kardashian becoming a nun. Yet the class question was posed so starkly by the election, and a pro-working class posture cries out so urgently as the only one that stands a chance of beating someone like Trump, that the party establishment can hardly afford to ignore the Democratic left, as in the past. Instead, they are trying to co-opt it.
The newly elected Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer, has made Sanders part of his 10-person leadership team, as well as Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, the other leading light of the Democratic left. The rest of the team, however, consists of mainstream to right-leaning Democrats. Schumer himself is a Wall Street puppet, who notoriously voted against a bill that would have eliminated the carried interest provision of the federal tax code, which allows the obscene earnings of money managers to be taxed at the lower capital gains rate, instead of as ordinary income. The team also includes Joe Manchin, a West Virginia senator, whose daughter, Heather Bresch, is the CEO of a pharmaceuticals company named Mylan - a job her father used his political connections to get her. Mylan recently provoked national outrage when Bresch decided to raise the price of EpiPen, a lifesaving anti-allergy medication, from $57 to $600 per injector. Bresch did not even attempt to justify her action, remarking only that she thought the higher price was what the traffic would bear. There is no strong reason to believe that Sanders (who is technically an independent rather than a Democrat) and Warren will not behave on the leadership team as loyal members of the party, as they did for Clinton in the election.
On the House of Representatives side, the long-time mainstream House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, is being challenged for the position by Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old Congressman from Ohio. Ryan is not identified with the left of the party, but he announced his challenge in Youngstown, a former steel-making hub in his district that has, as a result of a Bruce Springsteen ballad, become an eponym for the devastation of heavy industry. Ryan has also been saying that the party must move away from identity politics and towards a fight for economic fairness and job creation. Ryan will no doubt lose to Pelosi, who is already assured of the votes of two thirds of the members of the House, but the fact that she is being challenged is highly significant in itself.
But the most contentious issue by far is the selection of a future party chairman to fill the vacancy left by Debbie Wasserman Schultz - forced to resign after Wikileaks had released emails exposing her machinations to defeat Sanders. The name now being heard most often is Keith Ellison, a black representative from Minnesota. Ellison was one of the few members of Congress to back Sanders in the primaries. Because he is a Muslim and a less than full-throated cheerleader for Israel, he has drawn the fire of the Zionist establishment. But his appointment, although supported by Schumer, is being stiffly resisted by Obama. Those in his orbit say that selecting Ellison would mean handing the party over to the Sanders wing, and are casting about for a more “moderate” candidate.
To see a silver lining in the election of Donald Trump may be stretching things. But I have tried to suggest that what is an undeniable catastrophe may nevertheless signal the eclipse of mainstream liberalism and identity politics in favour of a reborn awareness of the centrality of class and class struggle - although the lesson will certainly have been learnt the hard way.
Existing divisions between the white working class and a largely university-educated, middle class left cannot be overcome by encounter groups or greater empathy. They must be addressed in terms of political programme. Such a politics will necessarily have various shades, from liberal-populist to revolutionary Marxist. But the terms of analysis and debate may be more favourable to them than in the past. There is no telling how deep the fissures in the Democratic Party will run (and my failure - along with that of just about everyone else except Michael Moore and Paul Demarty, to foresee the Trumpian avalanche, makes me reluctant to prognosticate).
Trying to transform the Democratic Party is a fool’s errand; being attuned to the possibility that it may fracture - with wide reverberations on the entire political landscape - is only sensible. Even if, as is likely, the present leaders of the Democratic left fail to break with the donor-friendly politicians who continue to dominate the party, neither the discontents that drove workers into Trump’s arms nor the causes of their distress are going to abate. There will be continued turmoil in the party; younger, less housebroken candidates, will perhaps enter the fray.
The tens of thousands of anti-Trump demonstrators marching through the streets of major cities could just give younger politicians thoughts about the possibility of life outside the party. This is one of many developments that could make the Marxist goal of an independent labour party in the US more than a dream deferred.
Jim Creegan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The annual list published by Fortune magazine that ranks the largest US corporations by total revenue.
2. Harvard Business Review November 10.
3. Which claimed that Obama was not a US-born citizen and therefore not eligible to stand as president.