Voting for The Man
Rory O’Neill dissects one of the most shocking election results of our time
“Whilst Trump is undoubtedly horrendous, and the rest of this article will proceed from that premise, none of this is of any explanatory value in understanding what happened.”
Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States has left the political establishment and media in shock. This should be no surprise; their narrative fails entirely to see how predictable this was. To explain what must surely be one of the most spectacular political failures in recent history, they have produced a number of hypotheses. Much of the criticism of the result, particularly from abroad, has amounted to chastising the mobs of Trump voters who know not what they do – as if all we were missing during the campaign was condescending media pundits warning us against the dangers of Trump with no understanding of his appeal.
Most explanations seem to centre around the idea of Americans being too stupid, too sexist, too racist, not educated enough to elect a better qualified woman over this boar. Whilst Trump is undoubtedly horrendous, and the rest of this article will proceed from that premise, none of this is of any explanatory value in understanding what happened.
Blame the Democrats
“The Democrats spent the entire campaign eulogising the American political system in the face of Donald Trump’s supposedly scandalous assertions that the system was rigged.”
There should be no doubt that the Democrats lost this election entirely on their own. It should not be underestimated in the wake of this defeat just how bad a candidate Clinton was. While significant ruptures with the leadership were occurring simultaneously in the two major parties, Clinton embodied what the American elites wanted from their next President. She was the candidate for four more years of the last eight years.
This is a period that has seen the explosion of racial tensions and a mass movement against a racist, murderous US state apparatus. The recovery in the American economy, to the extent there has been one, has predictably favoured corporations and the wealthiest members of society. Should anyone be surprised that the candidate of the Democratic establishment fell flat?
Clinton, of course, won more votes than Trump. It says a great deal about American democracy that for the second time in 16 years, a President has been elected with a fewer number of votes than their opponent, and that this is not the headline story. The Democrats spent the entire campaign eulogising the American political system in the face of Donald Trump’s supposedly scandalous assertions that the system was rigged.
Trump, of course, is an egomaniac who prefers to deflect blame for any of his personal failures to conspiring and malicious forces. In light of the aforementioned favouring of a wealthy elite, It is not hard to see why his message about a corrupt, rigged political system governed by elite interests found resonance. Clinton could not have been in a worse position to respond to this; she had no choice but to laugh off and dismiss his conspiracy theories and instead reassert the virtues of American democracy. How could she say anything else of the establishment she has formed a key member of for her entire political career?
A candidate like Sanders could have responded that the system is indeed rotten. He could have said that a billionaire who has slithered between the two major parties and offered dozens of establishment politicians his money is as much part of the problem as anyone else. It is the bitterest of ironies that it is Clinton who has fallen foul of this particular quirk of American democracy,whereby the relic of the electoral college trumps the popular vote. The DNC have backed themselves into a corner in which they can launch no challenge, only solemnly pledge to respect the ‘peaceful transition of power’ to a candidate the electorate did not vote for.
“Just as importantly, for millions who had previously invested their hope in Obama and received little to nothing in return, they had no reason to vote for either of them.”
Clinton’s lead in the popular vote should not, however, obscure her weakness as a candidate. Trump was meant to be a gift to the Democrats — the dream opponent. While some data suggests that a significant proportion of low-income Obama voters switched to Trump rather than supporting Clinton, her defeat is primarily the story of prospective Democratic voters who stayed at home. These are millions of people entirely disillusioned with their party who could have been enthused to vote for a more radical, anti-establishment candidate.
It should surprise no one to see a flurry of polls suggesting Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump in a landslide. Sanders could have articulated an anti-establishment message from the centre-left that would have likely brought scores of disillusioned Democrats out to vote as well as exposing Trump’s pretensions to being the anti-establishment candidate. In short, Clinton lost because – to most of the American electorate – she typifies the neoliberal order that is failing.
Undoubtedly, Trump’s base is misogynistic and racist; but the decisive factor in this election was that in spite of everything, to tens of millions of people in a country devastated by inequality, Trump looked like a better option than more of the same. Just as importantly, for millions who had previously invested their hope in Obama and received little to nothing in return, they had no reason to vote for either of them.
“The point is that, as with Brexit, disenfranchisement with the establishment has been exploited by the right and mediated by fears over immigration and racial tensions.”
This is not to say that Trump’s anti-establishment narrative excuses or is somehow valid in spite of his sexism and his racism; his is a populism that seeks to give expression to the losses working people have suffered under neoliberalism, but funnelled through a right-wing chauvinism. We should be wary of narratives which exclude any of these factors – the effect of neoliberalism, disillusionment with the Democratic Party, racism, sexism.
The point is that, as with Brexit, disenfranchisement with the establishment has been exploited by the right and mediated by fears over immigration and racial tensions. Most are not straightforwardly racist, sexist or anti-austerity, as if they can only belong to one political category at any given time. The tragedy is that this terrain was left to Trump. There is currently no organised left-wing force in the United States capable of confidently challenging the neoliberal establishment whilst rejecting unconditionally misogyny, racism and imperialism. The challenge for the left is to reject the false dawn promised by Trump and make a convincing case that neoliberalism can be defeated only by a united coalition of working people and oppressed minorities.
“It plays into the myth that Donald Trump actually has in reality anything to offer working people of any race or gender, and implicitly reinforces the media trope of the ‘white working class’ as a social category in and of itself.”
This is not to downplay the threat of a solidified racist far-right core that will be celebrating Trump’s victory, nor is it to underestimate the political legitimacy afforded to racism and hate crime by Trump’s endorsement. Already, there are reports of an increase in hate crimes and assaults directed towards racial minorities and women.
Trump’s claims of banning all Muslims from entering the USA and building a wall (for which Mexico will pay) are fanciful and likely some way beyond the remit of his presidential powers. No doubt, Obama’s record deportation rates will continue (as they would have under Clinton). The greatest threat is what will become of the frenzied racist far-right that will be initially emboldened by his victory but potentially disappointed by his governance.
One of the immediate tasks for those horrified by Trump’s victory should be to begin organising and joining those resisting racism in the United States. In practice, that means full solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, relentless opposition to racist police violence and a struggle against deportations and anti-refugee and Islamophobic policies. The high school and college students protesting Trump’s victory in the immediate days following it, the Black Lives Matter protesters, the crowds blockading Trump properties across the nation – these are the green shoots of a social force that can actually fight racism and the policies Trump promised.
American liberalism has proven itself to be utterly and disastrously incapable of doing so. That is because it is wedded to the US state machine and the smooth running of American imperialism. Historically, these are the state actors which have justified racism in ideology and enshrined it in practice, whether it be through discriminatory state policy or brute force.
Obama did nothing to reverse this. It is perhaps no coincidence that Black Lives Matter arose under his leadership. With empty promises of change and a new dawn in race relations in the United States, black people took to the streets to defend themselves and assert their right to live. This is where the site of struggle against racism in the United States is now. Not in the Democratic Party, whose contentless ‘progressivism’ and support of neoliberal policies has merely opened the door for demagogues such as Trump.
The Left’s response
“The establishment has no solutions, and the likes of Le Pen claim to offer one. When the left unites with the establishment in the face of such forces, it loses all credibility.”
The response of the left of the Democratic Party, coalesced around figures such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, has so far been weak. Both have said they will work with Trump insofar as he pursues policies that help working people, but will oppose his bigotry and any attempt to reinforce racial or gendered oppression. This is an insufficient response. It plays into the myth that Donald Trump actually has in reality anything to offer working people of any race or gender, and implicitly reinforces the media trope of the ‘white working class’ as a social category in and of itself. Trump is an enemy to all working people. He must be opposed, and can only be defeated by a movement of working people and the oppressed. This should be the first response of anyone claiming to be in the socialist tradition.
These lessons are crucial to draw, not just in the American context, but with racism and the right in the ascendancy in many parts of Europe. Liberalism and the centre is not capable of providing a solution to these problems. In Britain, the Labour Party attempted to tack to the right on immigration in order to protect themselves against the Tories and UKIP. The result was a catastrophic general election performance in 2015. What is the logic behind this?
Tacking to the right simply legitimises racism; it is a ceding of political terrain to those who want to argue that a soft attitude towards immigration and refugees are what is going wrong with our society, rather than capitalism, austerity and war. We face a Presidential election in France next year where the fascist Front National have enjoyed steady gains over the past number of years. Their leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said in the wake of Trump’s victory “Their world is collapsing. Ours is just being built”. The danger here is that their world, the liberal centre, is indeed collapsing.
Capitalism is a disaster for the majority of working people across the world. Social democratic parties across Europe are in a severe decline thanks to their dishonourable role in implementing austerity in the interests of European capitalism. The establishment has no solutions, and the likes of Le Pen claim to offer one. When the left unites with the establishment in the face of such forces, it loses all credibility. The right must rather be met with principled, anti-racist left politics.
Trump’s victory was a reaction to a system that is failing and an elite out of touch. It was mediated by racism and misogyny, and will be seen as a victory by the very worst proponents of such ideology. The fact that it fell to such a creature in Donald Trump to play the role of ‘anti-establishment candidate’, however disingenuous such claims may be, speaks to a catastrophic failure of the political centre. This election has proven the complete inability of Democratic Party-style liberalism and centrist politics to challenge the right. We will face many more battles in the future. If anything is to be gained from Trump’s victory, it should be that we now look to the left to defeat neoliberalism, racism and sexism.