Non-aligned socialist and regular contributor to The Point Graeme McIver takes a look at the result of the American election.
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”
I have to admit I’m not the biggest fan of the Rolling Stones. Early on the morning of 9th of November I liked them a little less. As President Elect Trump lapped up the adulation of the Republican faithful in New York, Sir Mick Jagger’s voice rang out through the hall, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” - you’re not wrong there Mick. I understand that the Stones are upset with Trump for using their requiem for the passing of the 60’s hopes and dreams, without their permission or blessing. Donald ignored them. It’s what Donald does.
In sharp contrast to the boorish bombast and pomposity on display at the New York Hilton, across America and the world others looked on aghast and in disbelief. This was not supposed to happen. The Simpsons were joking when they portrayed a future President Trump. It was meant to be high satire not clairvoyance. The pundits were wrong, the pollsters were wrong and somehow, someway, Trump was in the Whitehouse. Doh!
There is a temptation, especially in the immediate aftermath of such a seismic political event to look for straightforward answers or simple explanations to rationalise and account for the result. Has America gone mad? Are the majority of US citizen’s racist, misogynist, xenophobes? The 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” The result seems hard to understand without resorting to caricature. The reasons were of course multifaceted but there were clues to some of them all along.
On the eve of the poll the BBC visited a group of voters in a former industrial town where manufacturing jobs had all but disappeared. I forget where exactly. The precise location is not important as there are many such places scattered across the rust belt states of the USA. The people were in a long line waiting on food hand-outs from a local charity. They were poor. Dirt poor. Black and white. As they waited for their meagre rations they spoke of their longing for jobs, of their rejection of the political status quo in Washington, the need for better homes and their support for Donald Trump. Previously this desire for change and improvement had led to support for the Democrats. This time however, when the blue collar heartlands of America wanted change, many of them did not see Hillary Clinton providing it. The old certainties no longer applied.
This is not a phenomenon unique to the American Election of 2016. All across the globe those cast-iron certainties that defined and drove politics for decades no longer exist. In the wake of an extended crisis in world capitalism the only thing that you can be sure of is to expect the unexpected. The centre ground is fast disappearing as a polarisation takes place, a battle for ideas and a struggle for a future direction. What is for certain is that many of the electorates in the Western Democracies are looking to give their political establishments a kicking for the failures of government and an economic system that have led to increasing levels of inequality, poverty and hopelessness. Sometimes, as with the election of Syriza in Greece this manifests itself in a left direction whilst in others a move to the right. In the UK it expresses itself in events as diverse as Brexit, the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, a Tory majority in Westminster and the rise of the SNP in Scotland at the expense of former Labour hegemony. In Spain, it’s the rise of Podemos, in Poland the success of the anti-immigrant PiS and in Germany the anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) party defeated Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in a north-eastern state election as recently as September.
Whilst of course there are significant differences between 2016 and the 1930’s we are entering a period of politics where the response to the crisis in capitalism brings frightening parallels with the period immediately before World War II. These are characterised as growing inequality, a rise in nationalism, an attempt to replace neo-liberalism with more protectionist policies, the scapegoating of immigrants and refugees and the success of populist right-wing parties, heavy on slogans and rhetoric but light on solutions. Following Trump’s election Marie Le Pen from France’s Front National stated, “Their world is collapsing, ours is being built.”
Yet it seemed at times that the American election was not so much a battle of ideas but a race to avoid being the most despised candidate. Trump won - just, thanks to the archaic Electoral College system. Hillary won the popular vote by a whisker, only there was nothing popular about her. In retrospect it is doubtful that the Democratic Party could have picked a worse candidate to stand against Trump than Hillary Clinton. She enabled a billionaire businessman to present himself as the champion of the working class and dispossessed. Her candidacy allowed a misogynist, racist demagogue to claim the moral high-ground on foreign policy. Her links to corporate America and Wall Street enabled Trump to look like the anti-establishment option. For many, Clinton personified the swamp that Trump promised to drain.
Back in the 1990’s, buoyed by the electoral successes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the Democratic Party and New Labour celebrated their all things to all men, third-way politics as the future of social democracy. Anyone who did not get on board failed to understand the post-cold war realities, was a relic of the past and a barrier to progress. There is no third way now. Bernie Sanders summed up the new reality with a couple of tweets in the days following the poll; “we can't be a party which cozies up to Wall Street, raises money from billionaires & stands with working families. We've got to pick a side - The Democratic Party has to be focused on grassroots America and not wealthy people attending cocktail parties.”
In the eyes of millions the Democrats chose a side a long-time ago. Obama’s successful election campaigns had concentrated on, “Hope” but eight years into his Presidency and America is even more of a divided nation, fractured along racial and class lines with poverty and inequality rising. No amount of celebrity endorsements can hide the facts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau nearly 47 million Americans live in poverty. The Bureau found that in 2007 about one out of every eight children in America received food stamps. Today, that number is one out of every five. According to Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, the authors of the book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America“, there are 1.5 million “ultrapoor” households in the United States who live on less than two dollars a day. That number has doubled since 1996. 46 million Americans use food banks each year whilst the number of homeless children in the U.S. has increased by 60 percent over the past six years. Figures compiled by Dr. Eugene Declercq, professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health found that maternal death rates in the US are higher than any other industrialised nation and rising year on year. Many of those living with the consequences of these facts concluded that Clinton and the Democrats offered nothing but a continuation of their misery. Add to these shocking statistics a disastrous and hawkish foreign policy then despite his undoubted powers of oratory, Obama’s tenure did the Democrats no favours and was a significant contributor to the success of Trump. Many of those who had been inspired, particularly by his 2008 campaign, where not about to get fooled again.
The turn-out reflected the choices. Almost half of Americans didn’t vote in the election where both candidates recorded record levels of dissatisfaction. Trump was elected by fractionally over a quarter of the population. In the process he received less votes than Mitt Romney who lost to Obama in 2012.
The perceived campaigning norms were also blown away by Trump’s election. In the end it didn’t matter he was racist, didn’t matter that he boasted of sexually assaulting women, didn’t matter if he told lies or insulted minority groups or if his wife completely stole a speech from Michelle Obama. Political commentators, strategists and spin-doctors would normally conclude all of these things would be fatal to a candidates hopes of gaining election - yet he still prevailed. There were of course many who voted for Trump exactly because he was a racist, misogynist, xenophobe.
There is a sinister, racist underbelly to America. To paraphrase a statement made about Brexit, not everybody who voted for Trump was a racist xenophobe, but all racist xenophobes voted for Trump. They celebrated the fact that their poisonous views were being articulated in mainstream politics. The KKK plan a victory parade to celebrate Trump’s election. Mirroring the increase in racist violence and hate crimes following the Brexit vote in the UK, these racists have been emboldened and are on the offensive. What happens next is crucial.
This election, perhaps more than any other in modern US history proved that the two party system is failing the majority of ordinary Americans. Trump has won the battle of the right within the Republican Party, temporarily at least and has exposed the divisions that exist there. It was reported that former President George W Bush could not bring himself to cast a vote for Trump. It’s doubtful the President Elect will lose any sleep over the snub. His campaign wrong-footed not just Democratic strategists but the old guard of the Grand Old Party itself. To the victor the spoils and in the short term Trump will undoubtedly seek revenge against those in the Republican Party leadership who were critical and unsupportive of him.
The big question now is where does the Democratic Party go from here? It is seen as discredited and part of the establishment that has sickened and disillusioned millions. Like the Labour Party, it has spent decades taking for granted that its working class base would always remain supportive regardless as it moved to the right on economic issues. It could have been so different, had the Democratic Party machinery and the liberal media not conspired against the socialist Bernie Sanders in the selection process then the election could have been fought on an entirely different battlefield.
Clinton could not effectively criticise Trump for his immense wealth, power and privilege as she had all of these things in abundance. Trump could characterise Hilary as the rotten status-quo and him the plucky outsider. Saunders could have turned that argument on its head. A man that had campaigned for workers and trade-unions for decades, a man who came from the same blue-collar background as the voters of the rust-belt was uniquely placed to expose Trump for the carpet bagger and charlatan he is.
Whilst it would be an over-simplification to say that had he been selected he would have won the election, polling continually showed Sanders had a much higher approval rating than both Trump and Clinton and he did particularly well in the Democratic primaries in all the states that the Democrats needed to win to secure the election. Sanders promoted an altogether different vision of a solution to the problems of the American working class. He was supported by a huge and vibrant grass-roots movement that could have been mobilised and pitted against the lies, deceit and hatred of the Trump campaign. Instead they chose Hillary and the rest, as they say, is now officially history.
The choice faced by the millions of Americans distraught at Trump’s election is whether to continue to support the Democrats in whoever becomes its next Presidential candidate or to look to build something new from the wreckage. If they chose to stay loyal then modern history has shown that even when they win the Presidency or are in charge of the Senate, then the lives of the working class Middle Americans who put them there do not improve. The gap between those at the top and everyone else continues to grow.
A new party, based on the coalition of forces that supported Sanders but broadened, appealing to the core vote of the Democrats who voted for Clinton through gritted teeth and the 50% of the population who chose not to vote could change American politics forever. Even amongst the bad news on election night there were still reasons to be optimistic for the future. Whilst many switched to Trump, enabling him to secure victory, the vast majority of the poorest third of Americans still voted Democrat. Whilst Trump made some inroads into the black and Latino vote, then both of these groups still overwhelmingly reject the Republicans.
It wouldn’t be easy. Not just in America but across the world the populist right is on the rise and needs to be confronted. The divisions and schisms that tarnish left and progressive movements are a barrier to creating a meaningful, effective and credible opposition. The stakes are too high for vanity, self-interest and sectarianism. Whilst in the immediate term it is vital to organise and demonstrate opposition to Trump and in solidarity with those groups who face real and physical danger, it is important that any new movement is not seen simply as a protest group but as a mass and inclusive poll of attraction.
Trump’s victory proved that people who feel they have nothing to lose will vote for something, anything in a bid to improve their lives. The left needs to articulate an alternative vision to convince them that their economic interests are best served by joining with the millions of others who share their fate.
Perhaps we can take some inspiration from Donald’s choice of music? “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well. you just might find, you get what you need.”
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point (click on the articles)