A richly deserved defeat

Trump’s victory is an indictment of shallow American liberalism, and it is time for the left to detach itself from it, argues Paul Demarty

Now that we are in November, we feel safe in saying that 2016 will be remembered as the year the western establishment imploded. Proof of this had already come with the Brexit vote, and the Republican presidential nomination; but now, the pièce de résistance! Your correspondent gets to type that wondrous and terrible phrase: ‘President-elect Donald Trump’.

His victory is an extraordinary event: a thing that really, really, really should not have been allowed to happen. Every firewall placed between the sort of brash populism he espouses and the inner core of the American state has been breached, one after the other. And now, come January, the most exalted office in global politics will be occupied by a megalomaniacal celebrity capitalist who makes up his policies on the hoof, unrestricted by any sense of shame.

The immediate consequences were also somewhat surprising, with sharp immediate losses on the markets being cancelled out almost immediately. The truth is, we suppose, that capital as an abstract entity has little better idea of what to make of a Trump presidency than anyone else. Sure, his bellicose rhetoric on offshoring and trade deals is worrying; but, on the bright side, he is also a climate change denier ...

In general, while there are no shortage of jeremiads about Tuesday’s vote and its consequences, the truth is that we just don’t know what he will manage to accomplish, either which way. What is certain is that a great deal is at risk, from the perspective of global capital: the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are exactly the sort of thing that Trump has excoriated in his long walk to the Oval Office (and in the case of the TTIP it is already in crisis); his economically bellicose rhetoric towards China and its support of the yuan is also worrying.

Whatever surprises lurk down the road, however, they are unlikely to be as stark as the result itself. The polls were wrong; the pundits were wrong. Hillary Clinton was wrong - she invited Americans to decide that America did not need to be made great again, that America was great already. A great slice of the electorate has rebuked her. Her defeat, even despite a narrow victory in the popular vote, is a stark wake-up call to a complacent, decadent political class. When she dies (perhaps soon, of shame), what should they write on the grave? “Here lies Hillary Rodham Clinton, the second least popular presidential candidate since records began, who lost to Donald Trump, the very least popular candidate since records began”. If she tries to run again, she ought to be executed for sheer cheek.

Some psephological expectations have already been confounded (though the following analysis is based on exit polls, and no doubt a great deal of illuminating research will be done on this result in the coming weeks and months). As expected, more men voted for Trump than women, and he did poorly among Hispanics; yet he did not do much worse than Mitt Romney did in 2012 in respect of the female vote (42%, as opposed to Romney’s 44%), and strikingly did better with Hispanics than Romney (29% to 27%). This improvement was perhaps enough to win him Florida.

On a moment’s reflection, however, neither of these things should have been as surprising as they were. Democrats and pollsters alike were guilty of taking for granted that black, brown and Hispanic voters would lean blue. Yet there are a great many people of central and South American extraction in the States, from many countries and social backgrounds. What links the illegal Chicano fruit-picker of California to the rightwing Cuban exile in Miami? A mother tongue - and little else. Perhaps the latter constituency was enthused by Trump’s macho grandstanding more than it was sympathetic to outrage at his comments about Mexican immigrants.

As for the female vote, I have heard a great deal of astonishment expressed that any woman should have voted for Trump - as if Tuesday’s vote was a referendum on being grabbed by the pussy. In reality, women also live in rustbelt towns; women have also lost jobs to offshoring, or are married to those who have; and - heaven forefend - women also can be politically conservative, and possessed of the same hatred of the Clintons as male American conservatives. There are many paths to Trumpism - and many more to the idea that Trump is the lesser evil compared to Clinton.

Bigger picture

These details obscure the bigger picture. In 2012, after Romney’s defeat, the Republican hierarchy launched an inquiry into the causes and the steps necessary in the future.

The conclusion was that the Grand Old Party was alienating pretty much everyone except its core support of angry males; that it needed to get behind measures like immigration reform, so it could begin to win over minority voters in large numbers. They noted that in many respects, such minority voters are conservative - think of the Catholicism of many Latino immigrants - and might be won to vote for rightwing candidates on the basis of fiscal and social conservatism, if only concessions could be made on a few hot-button issues. Concurrently, Democrats began to feel the tide of history carrying them along, for, just as the Republicans were out of step with demographic changes, so they stood to benefit. Trump’s victory has torn this narrative to shreds; he has won by doing the exact opposite of what the ‘experts’ told him - paying little more than lip service to social-conservative fetishes like abortion, and scandalously supporting government welfare programmes, doubling down instead on ultra-chauvinist demagoguery.

His vote is predominantly white; but the flipside is that minorities did not turn out for Clinton, at least in the necessary numbers. Moreover, the widely anticipated Democratic defection of red-state college-educated whites did not happen - for all the bluster among the GOP establishment about Trump being a hateful aberration, the core vote held up well. What Trump managed to do was mobilise a ‘new’ constituency (or at least a forgotten one), of mostly white, working class voters in the post-industrial wastes outside the traditional red states - not a huge one, perhaps, and shrinking due to demographic changes, but big enough in the circumstances.

Those circumstances are a significant decline in the turnout, which hit its recent peak in 2008, at the height of Obamania, but has now declined to roughly the same level as 2000. Indeed, while Trump’s victory is truly unprecedented in important respects - viz, that he had the backing of basically no part of the US establishment, and was held in open contempt by the leaders of his own party - in others it all feels oddly familiar. An unpopular Democratic candidate after two terms of a popular Democratic president: check. A Republican candidate treated with endless derision by his enemies: check. A split vote, with the electoral college going one way and popular vote another: check. It is Al Gore and George Bush junior all over again.

It is plain that Trump’s election - and the manner of his route to the presidency - has plunged into crisis the 30-year-old Republican coalition of religious conservatives, neoliberals and foreign policy hawks: Trump’s outlook, inasmuch as he can be said to have one, is secular, protectionist and, though belligerent, focused on a different set of priorities than the Washington consensus heretofore. His effect on the Democrats, and the very broadly defined left in America, is uncertain as yet, but really ought to be very similar.

For there is, supposedly, a ‘coalition of the ascendant’ behind the Democrats - the young and educated, and minority voters in general - who were supposed to gradually supplant the older conservative America, providing an essentially undefeatable shock force for liberalism. The election saw Hillary Clinton marching these troops into action; and she turned around, and found that half of them had deserted.

The ghost at the feast is the working class. American liberalism has succeeded in internalising organised labour so far in the country’s history; and its parties - the Democrats today, but the Republicans in their very early years too - have been able to mobilise working class votes as a class, albeit under the name of ‘middle class’, which in the United States is nearly meaningless. Particularly in the post-Reagan era, that political identification has had its effect on the organisations of the proletariat in the country; as deindustrialisation has proceeded, more and more people have been thrown into an atomised mass. The Democrats have held onto - just about - one part of this base, its black and brown part, essentially through appeals to the sectional interests of ethnic groups, but are losing white voters rapidly. The novelty of this election is that the minority voters are likewise flaking off; their white counterparts, a few years further down the spiral, have found their man on horseback.

Trump’s campaign was interesting in this respect - the media coverage has focused on his chauvinist gibberings about Mexicans and similar statements, but he made a fairly concerted appeal to black voters, which can be paraphrased like this: ‘We all know your neighbourhoods are deprived and riddled with crime, and the way out of that is not ending stop-and-frisk or dealing with the militarised police, but bringing jobs back to America, and I, Donald Trump, master of the deal, will bring jobs back to America ...’ This appeal failed to get African Americans voting Trump - given the prominence of Trump’s racist bloviating, it is hardly surprising - but it is an appeal on a perverted class basis, an attempt to drive a wedge between the official representatives of identity politics and their purported constituencies, and may have succeeded in stopping black people turning out for Clinton. In a close election, under America’s bizarre electoral system, a small shift in turnout patterns can make a big difference to the result.

In American history, race looms large. The historic task of American socialists is to turn an objective truth into a subjective one in the minds of the masses - that race has played and continues to play the role of a rough proxy for class, far more in fact than in European societies. It is not reductionist to point out that slavery, sharecropping, etc were economic systems, rather than ‘bad behaviour’ on the part of whites; nor that mass, popular racism - which was and is real, even in the age of Obama - has its roots in the sectional, false class-consciousness of backward workers. Unfortunately, the US left has done the opposite, in the main, lashing itself to the purveyors of identity politics. This, in the end, gives ‘official’ spokespeople for black people (and women, and so on) a veto over activity, and by extension also the Democratic Party mainstream.

But that mainstream, however impregnable it may have seemed even a week ago, has rotted away on the inside. The shock of Trump is not that he won, but that he was not beaten. The ‘electable’, the coalition builders, the Clintonites and Clintonoids: this is their Waterloo. The silver lining of the Trump presidency is that it can no longer be denied that the working class is a political problem, which the American left can no longer ignore. (We hope it is not too much to ask, as progressives from San Diego to Nantucket shudder at the damage about to be done, to wonder if the American constitution might not be in need of a radical democratic overhaul as well.) Trump need only be a one-term president, or less than that; and his successor need not be another decrepit shill like Hillary.