The election of a bigoted, right wing billionaire to the position of President of the US was a shock. Lewis Nielsen interrogates the various explanations being put forward for Trump's win.
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election in November ranks as one of the biggest political earthquakes of recent times. People around the world are predictably shocked and disgusted that a racist billionaire bigot now holds the highest elected office. Trump’s words and actions in the two weeks since his election have sent deliberately mixed messages — but mostly they have been pretty horrifying. He has welcomed White Supremacists, anti-abortionists and rabid warmongers into his circle (not to mention family members).
This has emboldened the far right. The sight of Richard Spencer’s fascist National Policy Institute conference, just metres away from the White House, with the crowd sieg heiling and chanting “Hail Trump”, is chilling. But the establishment have also been rocked by Trump’s victory. In the immediate aftermath of his win stock markets across the world tumbled, revealing that bankers and bosses weren’t best pleased with the result. They may have stabilised since, but Trump’s unpredictability led the Financial Times to describe his triumph as the “electoral equivalent of a suicide bomber to Washington”. As we approach the presidential inauguration on 20 January 2017, it is important that socialists attempt to provide an explanation of why this happened, and what it means for how we respond.
In the weeks following the election a variety of explanations has been put forward. In the immediate aftermath the Clinton camp suggested the fall-out from FBI investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private email account was the decisive factor. A few even tried to blame those who voted for Green candidate Jill Stein, saying they split the “progressive vote” in places such as Florida.
A more widely accepted argument has been the one voiced by Paul Mason, among others. Writing in the Guardian in the days after the result, Mason wrote that Trump won “because millions of middle-class and educated US citizens reached into their soul and found there, after all its conceits were stripped away, a grinning white supremacist.” Anyone flicking through their Facebook feed in the week after the election would have seen similar arguments being put by people horrified by the result — believing that Trump’s success was due to swathes of the “white working class” revealing themselves to be racist bigots.
However, the breakdown of the vote suggests this isn’t an accurate or comprehensive analysis of why Trump won. It wasn’t a Republican surge that won the election; rather it was a Democrat slump. Trump won barely a million more votes overall, and a lower proportion of white votes, than losing Republican candidtate Mitt Romney did in 2012. Romney won 59 percent of white voters to Obama’s 39 percent, whereas Trump won 58 percent to Clinton’s 37 percent.
Furthermore, of the nearly 700 counties that twice sent Obama to the White House, a stunning one-third flipped to support Trump. So areas that voted for Trump in 2016 had twice voted for the US’s first black president. Racism was certainly a factor in Trump’s success, but it didn’t provide any increase in the Republican vote overall.
This does not mean we should underestimate the racism or xenophobia at play here. During his campaign Trump espoused the most repellent racism, labelling Mexicans as rapists and promising to ban Muslims from the US. Clearly, there was a significant racist element to his support — not least the Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who endorsed him — and there’s no doubt that racists around the world have been emboldened by his win.
In the 48 hours after the vote social media was full of examples of race hate crimes in the US linked to Trump’s victory, including Swastika graffiti. The KKK called a victory march in North Carolina. Marine Le Pen, fascist leader of the Front National in France, welcomed the news as “an additional stone in the building of the new world”, and claimed Trump’s victory had boosted her own chances of winning the French presidential election next March.
This racism was accompanied by rampant sexism, with his vile and backward comments about the sexual assault of women. Activists in the US have rightly raised concerns about his victory legitimising assaults on women.
However, to blame the result on racism, sexism or bigotry alone isn’t helpful. Firstly, it doesn’t explain why around 29 percent of Latino and 42 percent of women voters supported Trump. Secondly, when assessing where we go from here, it’s not a helpful starting point to suggest, as Mason has, that deep down most Americans are simply white supremacists or bigots.
The biggest factor in deciding this election was a widespread disillusion with the establishment. Trump held onto the traditional Republican vote, but he also managed to convince a portion of working class Americans that a vote for him was a way of punching back against a political elite that has done nothing for them.
Rust belt states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania — traditionally Democratic strongholds — were won by fairly narrow margins by the Republicans. Historic Democrat voters either stayed at home, or even voted for Trump in anger at what Clinton was offering. The reason for this anger and disillusionment is clear — ordinary Americans have been failed.
The American dream (which Clinton frequently referenced in her campaign) of prosperity, jobs and security couldn’t be further from the truth for most Americans. On average, real wages for US workers are lower than they were in 1972. This has contributed to a situation where, for the first time, the current generation will have lower living standards than the generation before them. Life expectancy has actually been dropping in the US, and it is estimated that 60 percent of Americans don’t have the $500 in reserve necessary for them to cover the costs of a medical emergency.
Even the mainstream US media had to recognise that Trump’s win represented a revolt against the elite. Their usual form is to never acknowledge the working class — instead referring to the “declining middle class” — but even they, in the aftermath of the vote, sent out reporters to talk to workers about why they had voted Trump.
Of course, the new president-elect is a fraud who is firmly part of the billionaire circles that pay low wages to workers and avoid taxes. However, his slogan of “Drain the swamp” of establishment politicians in Washington resonated with voters who felt betrayed by a Democrat elite that rubs shoulders with the bankers and bosses responsible for the financial crisis.
In this context of anger towards Wall Street and the political establishment, what did the Democrats do? They stood a candidate who couldn’t have been more pro-establishment. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra had traction with huge numbers of Americans who have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. Clinton’s counter-claim — that America was already great — ignored the problem and did nothing to tap into the anti-establishment feeling.
The Clinton camp may want to kid itself that it lost because of the email saga, but that was only a symptom of a much wider problem. Not helped by the fact that big business and the political establishment rallied behind her, Clinton was for many Americans the epitome of the corrupt neoliberal elite. This was illustrated by the fact that, despite the rampant sexism of her opponent, Clinton could only garner 54 percent of women voters. Her talk of smashing glass ceilings had little resonance with working class women struggling to get off the sticky floor of low wages, high childcare costs and poor healthcare.
So although much of the focus has been on how Trump won the election, it might be more accurate to say Clinton lost it. The collapse of the Democrat vote in key areas was the decisive factor. Clinton got almost 6.5 million fewer votes than Obama did in 2008, underlining not just her own unpopularity, but also the bitterness towards eight years of an Obama administration that has delivered little on its promises for change. Obama himself lost more than 3.5 million votes between 2008 and 2012.
One of the most revealing figures to have come out of the avalanche of statistics was the one espoused by Michael Moore on NBC in the days after the vote. He claimed that in Michigan — where Trump beat Clinton by only 12,000 votes — more than 90,000 people voted in every electoral option on the ballot paper, including local office and referendums, except president, which they left blank. These people didn’t vote for Trump — but they also couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat candidate so deeply embroiled in a system that has abandoned them. This was repeated across key rust belt states.
Faced with the challenge by Bernie Sanders — who articulated the anti-establishment mood from a socialist perspective — the Democrat National Committee piled in behind Clinton, using superdelegates and dirty tricks to block Sanders’ bid for the nomination (see below). In a time when the centre ground politics and “safe” politicians are failing to provide an answer to challenges from the right wing populists, the Democrat establishment tried desperately to repeat its electoral strategy of previous campaigns by clinging to the centre ground. It found it an unpopular place to be.
With the populist racist right across the world boosted by Trump’s victory, mobilisations called by Black Lives Matter and others in the US, and Stand Up to Racism here, are crucial in beating them back. However, we have to be more nuanced than just caricaturing the election as a wave of reaction. The Democrats failed to provide an answer to the growing anger among working class people, as well as many small business owners who have suffered in the economic crisis, and defended a status quo responsible for that anger. They left the ground open for that bitterness to be funnelled to the right.
There are two key questions going forward. What will Trump do, and what will the resistance to him look like?
It’s not yet entirely clear what a Trump administration will look like, although we have some early indications. The appointment of Stephen Bannon — executive chairman of Breitbart news, and someone who has links with organised White Supremacists — has rightly caused a furore. But will the US ruling class be able to reel Trump in and make him toe the line?
Some of his early speeches as president elect have hinted he will take a more restrained approach than the wild promises he made during his campaign. It was the era of neoliberal financial speculation that allowed Trump to rise to the top and, despite various promises, he won’t want to break with it entirely. However, he will be under pressure from his more hardline supporters to deliver on some of his pledges. He has already said that his first act as president will be to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal between the US and 11 other key states in the Americas, East Asia and Australasia. If he does this, it will mark the end of Obama’s long term strategy to sideline China in the world economy.
His racist and far right backers will also be demanding that he act on pledges including deporting migrants and restricting abortion.
Tensions have already appeared about his strategy for US imperialism, with Nato and others voicing concern about his outlook on relations with Russia, and his desire for a more isolationist foreign policy. There are fears within the ruling class that he might attempt to recalibrate the US’s role in Western capitalism since the Second World War.
Trump’s presidency will begin in what are sure to be dark days for the US economy, with low growth levels of 1.4 percent. Economist Michael Roberts describes Trump as having inherited a poisoned chalice, suggesting the economic forecast is worse now than when Obama took charge in 2009. This won’t just make his promises of developing infrastructure and rehabilitating the economy difficult to deliver; it will also create potential for more resistance from below.
Some have pointed to the fact that Republicans now control the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, suggesting Trump will have free rein. But it’s important to point out that Trump lost the popular vote and won only 25 percent of eligible voters. This is hardly a mandate for a radical overhaul of US society. His attempts to do so must and can be resisted.
One cheering aspect in the aftermath of the election was the protests against Trump that took place as soon as the result was announced. Numbers varied, but thousands took to the streets in cities across the US. Slogans included “Not my president”, “Refugees are welcome here” and “My body, my choice”. Indeed a welcome feature of these protests was that many took place in areas not known for their radicalism, such as Dallas and San Antonio.
These protests come at the end of a year that has also seen the Black Lives Matter movement spark into life again, and many BLM activists were leading the protests against Trump. The Fight for $15 campaign — which organises low paid workers — continues to grow. The protests against the North Dakota Pipeline drew solidarity from around the world. Activists will have to resist any attacks on abortion rights. This resistance will be crucial in giving people confidence to counter Trump’s reactionary narrative.
The 2016 election has revealed a sharpening of the deep anger in US society. A billionaire bigot has capitalised on this by sowing division and hatred, and portraying himself as an outsider. To challenge him it will take more than selecting a better Democrat candidate in 2020, or waiting for the Democrats to move left. It will need the movements around BLM, the North Dakota Pipeline, the fight for $15 and so on to coalesce and form a sustained resistance, one that can feed into the anger at the establishment and drag it leftwards.
Crucially, the key question is whether the movements that have been shaped by identity politics around race, LGBT+ rights, and so on can connect with the deep bitterness among working class Americans. The US working class — both black and white — has a proud yet hidden history of resisting racism and reaction at the top of society, from the mass strikes of the 1930s to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It will need to write a new chapter of resistance to deal with the challenges it faces now. Above all, it will require a decisive break from the stranglehold of the two parties of big business that have got us into this mess.
Could Bernie Sanders have beaten Trump?
In the aftermath of the election, an important question was raised — could Bernie Sanders have beaten Trump? A range of statistics and polls suggest that Sanders would have had a better chance than Clinton. Indeed the Huffington Post claimed a poll showed he would have got 56 percent of the vote if he had been the Democrat nominee (Clinton got 48 percent).
It’s hard to verify how accurate these figures are, but they do suggest he might have fared better than the two most unpopular US candidates in history, Clinton and Trump. However, the key issue is what kind of campaign Sanders could have run.
His campaign in the primaries — which railed against the power of Wall Street, demanded action on climate change and urged a reform of the justice system — tapped into the anti-establishment mood but from the left. In contrast to Clinton, his rallies attracted thousands of people (including 40,000 in New York) and for the first time in the postwar era, a self-described socialist garnered millions of votes in the primaries — almost 13 million in total.
Crucially, Sanders either won or had a strong showing in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan that ultimately won Trump the election. The anger in working class communities against lack of jobs, trade deals and de-industrialisation that was channelled into Trump’s chauvinism could have been funnelled the other way, towards anger at the 1% — including billionaires like Trump.
The way in which the Democrat establishment blocked Sanders — from the use of superdelegates to the leaked emails from the DNC — illustrates the disconnect of the top of the party from the mood on the ground, but also the fear of a candidate who wouldn’t have been a puppet of Wall Street.
All this makes Sanders’ decision to fall behind Clinton once he’d lost all the more disappointing. As soon as she had seen off Sanders in the primaries Clinton felt she could stop talking left and start tacking to the right. A good example of this is how, as soon as she had clinched the nomination, she stopped mentioning climate change in her speeches.
The millions who supported Sanders’ call for a society for the 99% not the 1% were told to accept the fact that Clinton was the lesser evil, and that they had to get behind her to keep out Trump. We’ve seen the disastrous fruits of this strategy of lesser evilism. What’s needed now is for a complete break with any idea that the Democratic Party can be won to the left.
Interestingly, figures such as Robert Reich — former Secretary of Labour under Bill Clinton — have called for a dismantling of the Democratic Party, that has become “a giant fundraising machine, too often reflecting the goals and values of the moneyed interests”. Any developments that attempt to break the two-party system will be important.
Given the weakness of the US economy this prospect could be nearer than we think, particularly if Trump provokes, as is very possible, a backlash of opposition to his policies. His reactionary conservativism will require a fight back that ranges from Black Lives Matter to labour rights, to climate change, to restrictions on abortion and gay rights.
Only if they are free from the shackles of the two party system will we see a political space open up that’s worth fighting for.