Crisis of establishment
All you can say with certainty about the Donald Trump presidency, writes Eddie Ford, is ‘Expect the unexpected’
In what has been widely characterised as a “shocking” and “stunning” upset, Donald Trump ended up winning the presidential election convincingly - something that was not meant to happen. On a fairly low turnout of 58.1% (134.5 million), Trump swept the electoral college by 290 to 232 - and the Republicans secured a majority in both houses of congress.1 True, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost a million votes - making this the fifth election in which the ‘winner’ did not become president. The actual electoral college votes on December 19, but this is a mere formality.
There has been a whole series of explanations for Trump’s victory, though we shall totally leave aside the rather patronising idea a section of the American people have just engaged in a collective act of insanity. Clinton herself has blamed the head of the FBI, James Comey, for her defeat - and to some extent you can understand why. On October 28, just 11 days before the actual presidential vote, Comey sent congressional leaders a letter informing them that agents had discovered emails “that appear pertinent” to a prior investigation into Clinton’s use of a private server while she was secretary of state - it being reported that as many as 650,000 such emails were in question.
This obviously delighted Trump, as the emails opened up a whole new ‘can of whoopass’2 on Clinton, his ‘lock her up’ narrative portraying her as almost corruption incarnate. Trump was not so delighted, however, when on November 6 - just two days before the vote - Comey now decided that the bureau had “not changed our conclusion” that Clinton had committed no criminal wrongdoing. Trump fulminated that “you can’t review 650,000 emails in eight days”, but the damage had already been done. Comey’s mysterious emails must have been a factor in Clinton’s defeat - you cannot dismiss it as an irrelevance.
Of course, there are many other explanations. Javier Palomarez, president of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that represents 4.2 million businesses, blamed Clinton’s neglect of Latino voters for handing the presidency to Trump - the “young white Ivy League-educated kids” who were advising her “called it wrong”. Palomarez was particularly annoyed by Clinton’s decision to choose Tim Kaine, a senator from Virginia, as her running mate, instead of the rising Hispanic star, Julián Castro, currently housing secretary within the Obama administration. He believes that if Clinton had had a Hispanic “standing beside her” she would have “got more of the young vote” - especially Hispanic ones obviously - and “today she would be president-elect”.
The voting demographics are certainly very interesting, though exactly how much they tell you is a moot point.3 Yes, on 65% Clinton failed to get as large a proportion of Hispanic or Latino votes as Obama did four years ago (71%) - the same goes for the black and Asian vote, going down respectively from 93% to 88% and 73% to 65%. By the same token, 58% of whites voted for Trump and 37% for Clinton (only 8% of blacks went for Trump). With regards to women, 54% of women supported Clinton (a 1% drop from Obama) and 42% opted for Donald Trump - but, significantly, a majority of white women (53%) voted for Trump.
Not too surprisingly, younger voters favoured Clinton, while older voters favoured Trump - of voters aged 18 to 29, 55% voted for Clinton compared with 37% for Trump. However, this represents another drop from 2012, when Obama won 60% of that age group. Also fairly predictably, there was a pronounced split between big cities and rural areas - with Trump doing better in the latter and Clinton faring better in the former, whilst the suburbs were more evenly split. As for religion, Christians of all denominations preferred Trump, but all others favoured Clinton. But 81% of those who identified as white evangelical or white born-again Christians supported Trump. The sociological and empirical details go on and on, with doubtless much more to come.
But there were clearly deeper reasons for Trump’s triumph. Straightforwardly, we have never seen a presidential election quite like it, featuring two strong outsiders - Trump and, of course, Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old senator from Vermont. A year ago I had barely heard of Sanders - I just vaguely knew that there was someone in congress who called himself a socialist. But no-one could have predicted how well Sanders did, especially the Clinton team and the Democratic Party establishment in general - at one point they seemed scared even to debate with him.4 Indeed, there are those now arguing that Sanders would have stood a better chance than Clinton in beating Trump. Admittedly, this is not a particularly credible proposition, but the mere fact that they are sayingit at all is surely significant.
Though it need hardly be said that we in the CPGB are not equating Sanders and Trump, as that would be an insult to the Vermont senator, both these outsiders fed off a deep well of disenchantment and anger - massive discontent is bubbling away in the background, the likes of which we have not seen for very many decades. The fundamental reason for this, when all is said and done, is that in the US the average person’s income has more or less remained static since 1975, even though productivity has more than doubled - meaning that the fruits of economic growth have gone to the few and not the many, something often pointed out by both Sanders and Trump during their campaigns.
This tendency towards extreme polarisation between the ‘have yachts’ and ‘have nots’ became even more developed in the years immediately following the 2008 crash - whether you care to call it a great recession or depression. Lower interest rates and quantitative easing led to rising asset prices rather than higher wages, and so between 2009 and 2012 more than 90% of US growth went to the richest 1% - including the financiers, money-men, hedge-fund managers and spivs. Socialism of the rich, as the old saying goes. It is important to remember that workers have not just been struggling to get a decent pay rise: getting any sort of job worth having has become increasingly hard in the last decade - quite frighteningly, many Americans have dropped out of the labour market altogether. Hence the electoral participation rate among ‘prime-age’ males (25 to 54 years) fell at the time of the crash and has never recovered. Here, in a nutshell, are the ‘left behind’ - another common slogan at Sanders and Trump rallies - a huge strata that have been abandoned by capital with the active connivance of various wretched governments. This provides the context for Trump’s victory in the largely working class rustbelt states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which propelled him into the White House.
As with the UK, living standards did not collapse in the US, because - though manufacturing jobs may have gone abroad to China and elsewhere - the goods imported were massively cheaper (most notably PCs, TVs, white goods, etc) than before, plus the fact that over the last couple of years energy prices have dropped which again means cheaper prices. Workers too now have access to relatively large amounts of credit, or debt, whether in the form of credit cards, loans, mortgages, etc. But, understandably enough, none of this has been enough to dispel the deep and growing feeling that the system is utterly corrupt and totally rigged in favour of the wealthy and the well connected. As Jeremy Corbyn correctly observed, US voters feel the same as voters in Britain - “left behind” by a system that rewards a “small elite”. He described events in the US as a “global wake-up call”.
Torsten Bell, director of the Resolution Foundation, has supplied a useful breakdown of voting patterns in the presidential election with regards to income.5 On the surface, the results appear to show that Clinton did well among those voters on the lowest incomes - leading by 53% to 41% among those earning less than $30,000 a year and by 51% to 42% among those earning between $30,000 and $50,000. Actually, as Bell points out, these statistics need augmenting. There was a 16-point net swing to the Republicans between 2012 and 2016 among those earning less than $30,000 a year and a 6-point swing among those earning $30,000 to $50,000. By contrast, there was a swing to the Democrats among those on higher incomes, and this was particularly pronounced among those earning more than $100,000 a year.
One very plausible interpretation of these statistics is that a majority of Americans on average or below-average incomes voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 because they expected fundamental change, from which they would benefit - and which they were still waiting for in 2016; therefore the swing to Trump on the basis that he will be more likely to provide it than Clinton. A desperate hope which is eminently understandable. Clinton was the business as usual candidate and not only for Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Trump was the mould-breaker. In a depressingly familiar pattern, a party of the centre ‘left’ - took the working class for granted.
In other words, we are dealing with a process of estrangement from a political establishment which has insisted that there is no alternative to neoliberalism and globalisation. However, in the absence of a viable socialist alternative, discontent is bound to manifest itself in the form of nationalism - either of the left or the right.
With some justification then, Francis Fukuyama - not so stupid as some think for predicting the ‘end of history’ in 1992 - argues in the Financial Times (November 11) that Donald Trump’s victory marks a “watershed” not just for American politics, but “for the entire world order”, as we now appear to be entering a “new age of populist nationalism”, in which “the dominant liberal order that has been constructed since the 1950s has come under attack from angry and energised democratic majorities”. Fukuyama goes on to say that the manner of Trump’s victory “lays bare the social basis of the movement” he successfully mobilised - a quick look at the voting map showing that Clinton’s support “concentrated geographically” in cities along the coasts, with swathes of rural and small-town America voting solidly for Trump; the “most surprising shifts” were his “flipping” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three northern industrial states so solidly Democratic in recent years that Clinton did not even bother to campaign in the latter one. He won, Fukayama writes, by being able to “win over unionised workers who had been hit by deindustrialisation”, promising to “make America great again” by restoring their lost manufacturing jobs. But, he pointed out, “we have seen this story before”: ie, this is the story of Brexit, where the ‘leave’ vote was similarly concentrated in rural areas and small towns and cities outside London.
It is also true in France, whether you like it or not, where working class voters whose parents and grandparents used to vote for the communist or socialist parties are now voting for Marine Le Pen’s Front National - only a foolish person would say that she has no chance of winning next year’s presidential elections.
No wonder Donald Trump described his victory as “Brexit plus plus plus”, nor was it a coincidence that the first British politician to visit Trump Tower was Nigel Farage, not Boris Johnson, who is apparently the foreign secretary. Farage, of course, played a highly active part in Trump’s campaign - and between the two of them, maybe adding Le Pen next year (no matter how much Farage tries to distance himself from her), this could possibly be showing where bourgeois capitalist politics is going: in a period of popular disenchantment, how else do you secure the population? Nationalism is the obvious answer.
From that perspective, however unsavoury, Trump’s presidential victory - just as with June 23 - represents a social rebellion against the established global order. The Democratic Party tops almost lost control of the Sanders phenomenon, but are ultimately protected by their firewall of super-delegates going back to the 1960s, but the Grand Old Party did lose control with the seemingly irresistible rise of Donald Trump - ditto the British establishment, which was delivered a blow on June 23, and for a while it looked like they might lose the Scottish referendum. That does not mean that Trump, in the last analysis, is not a member of the bourgeois establishment or will not give jobs to Washington insiders - at the moment he is drawing up a shortlist that includes John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, Reince Priebus, Bob Corker, etc.6
But Trump is not the favoured candidate of the ruling class, not by a long shot, and that fact alone means the US political system is dysfunctioning. We might even be witnessing the American empire’s Caesar moment - though, of course, all US presidents are uncrowned monarchs. However, this particular uncrowned monarch does not seem to have any favours to pay back or backs to scratch - during the election campaign, for example, he relied on the new mass media and social network platforms like Twitter. Unlike Hillary Clinton, of course, who was bankrolled by Wall Street and the mega-donors.
So now, or rather on January 27, what we have is a rogue billionaire (or purported billionaire) as US president. It is impossible to know what will happen - truthfully, all you can expect from Donald Trump is the unexpected, whilst the exact opposite was true of Hillary Clinton, which is why she lost. But you can still look at Trump’s speeches, or programme, to see what might happen. True, he is not going to build a massive wall on his southern border and then make Mexico pay for it - yes, he is now talking about keeping “key provisions” of Obamacare (such as the ban on insurers denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to be insured on their parents’ policies).7
But, whilst Trump may be constrained when it comes to his domestic agenda, despite the Republican’s congress majority, US presidents have a lot of power in relation to foreign policy. He has talked a lot about re-orientating American power, especially when it comes to Nato, and has also expressed personal admiration for Vladimir Putin. It would be profoundly mistaken to dismiss this purely as rhetoric. There could be a real attempt at a rapprochement with Russia - maybe involving a deal over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
When we think of the 1960s we tend to think of the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, and so on - but it was also the era of détente, something partially reflected in a popular TV series like The men from U.N.C.L.E, where a Russian, Illya Kuryakin, was one of the good guys. Then, turning the tables, Richard Nixon went to meet Mao - previously regarded as a raving madman - and China essentially became a strategic ally against the Soviet Union. Now, turning the tables again, Trump is promising to get tough on China with a 45% tariff on their goods and countering military ‘aggression’ in the South China Sea and elsewhere (even if the idea of steel jobs returning to the US is a complete fantasy). But it is far from impossible that we could see the emergence of a de facto US-Russian alliance against China.
Just as importantly, we have Trump’s stance on free trade deals. He has talked about substantially revising or scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) now seems as good as dead, even if you do wonder how the American consumer would take the hit on their living standards if there was a full-scale trade war followed by an outbreak of protectionism.8 Though it has not even begun, Trump’s presidency does put another question mark over the post-World War II world order. He seems to envisage a different way to preserve the American century, that would see various Nato countries - not to mention South Korea and Japan - paying more for US imperial domination. Indeed, as part of a foreign policy he summed up as “America First”, Trump has said he would consider allowing Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals rather than entirely depend on the US for protection against North Korea and China.
As for Islamic State, Trump has openly talked about “destroying” it - something that is actually quite possible. IS is a raggle-taggle bandit army that has no tanks or aircraft of its own and survives largely thanks to the patronage of Saudi Arabia. If Trump put pressure on that country, as he has said he would do, then IS would quickly cease to be a problem. “If Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection, I don’t think it would be around,” Trump told TheTimes - something that, in the long run at least, seems impossible to disagree with.9
Maybe even more importantly still, in conditions of Brexit and a Trump ascendancy, the European Union/euro project looks increasingly unviable, as it is predicated entirely upon the German-Franco alliance. If that broke down - say with the election of Marine Le Pen as president - what would be left? Some sort of ‘Greater Germany’ project alongside Holland and Sweden, perhaps roping in Denmark and Finland too? Without a shadow of doubt, we are seeing a potential huge realignment of global politics, exemplified by the Trump victory. This in a situation of continuing economic stagnation, where there is absolutely no sign of recovery in sight - nor any idea as to how recovery could come about.