How Trump won and what it means

By Mel Gregson

Trump’s victory in the US presidential election represents a historic crisis of the political elite in the most powerful country in the world. The ramifications will be felt widely, deeply and for some time.

Trump is a bigoted, misogynistic bully who has lied and manipulated his way to becoming one of the most powerful people on the planet. It is understandable that people are angry and upset. But we shouldn’t be shocked.

We have seen a political shift in recent years that has turned political orthodoxy on its head. Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton was framed as the most qualified, well connected, well funded and universally endorsed candidate in recent memory. In contrast, Trump has never before held political office, ran an extremely divisive campaign and barely had the backing of his own party. But when the results started rolling in it was clear that Clinton’s ‘strengths’ were in fact weaknesses and Trump’s ‘weaknesses’ formed a huge part of his appeal.

The assertion of class anger

For millions of Americans the “American Dream” was crushed by the Great Recession that began in 2008. Though the economy has largely recovered, confidence in the system has not. The massive public bailout of the banking sector while millions of people lost their jobs and were thrown into poverty and homelessness exposed the brutal reality of system run in the interests of the rich at the expense of everyone else. The reality now for millions of working class people is low-paid jobs and suffocating personal debt. With decades of neoliberal policy eroding the social security safety net, people are increasingly pessimistic about their economic future.

This has cemented a widespread hostility towards the “billionaire class” as expressed by the enormous support for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the Democratic primary.

But even more pronounced is the discrediting of the political establishment who have overseen and facilitated the ruin of the middle and working classes in loyal service of the wealthy elite. It is this consciousness that Trump exploited and expertly weaponised against Clinton.

Trump goes on the racist offensive

Trump began his campaign with a brutally racist attack on Mexican immigrants and a promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico. Many mainstream commentators laughed this off as an implausible policy and a major political gaffe. It was meant, in their minds, to signal that Trump could not be taken seriously as a presidential contender. But in the context of decades of bipartisan scapegoating of “illegal” immigrants (while at the same time ensuring US business could maintain access to cheap immigrant labour) Trump’s bold plan appealed to a Republican base who had bought into the anti-immigrant blame game but were frustrated by the lack of decisive action from Congress. He called the bluff of his Republican opponents and exposed the double-speak of Democrats like “deporter-in-chief” Obama and Clinton, who herself voted in favour of a bill to build a fence/wall along the Mexico border.

He then went on the attack against Muslims, promising to ban all immigration from “Muslim countries”. The proposal to blatantly discriminate against 1.3 billion people on the basis of their religion or nationality raised the ire of millions around the world. Politicians are supposed to be subtle and nuanced in their use of Islamophobia the pundits cried! But again, preying upon fears built up over years of bipartisan Islamophobic rhetoric in service of the failed War on Terror, Trump found an echo.

The revolt within the two major parties

While Trump expertly used incendiary comments attacking Mexicans, Muslims, Black victims of police violence and women to garner widespread attention and assert himself as a different kind of politician to a disillusioned Republican base, the core of his message was always to attack the political establishment. This is where he won crucial support.  

“This election will decide whether we are ruled by a corrupt political class or whether we are ruled by yourselves – the people,” he declared to huge applause at a rally in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

Bernie Sanders, in his bid for the Democratic nomination, had previously proven the popularity of such a message. The rigging of the Democratic primary in favour of Clinton may now seem like a gamble that didn’t pay off. Clinton’s campaign claimed Sanders was too left and too radical to be a serious contender against Trump. However, all the polling said otherwise. Had the Democratic Party decided to go with the strongest candidate against Trump they would have backed Sanders.

The revolt of the Republican base that saw the Republican Party leadership lose control of it’s own primary also happened in the Democratic Party. Sanders rallied hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters at event after event across the country calling for a “political revolution against the billionaire class”. He also outlined what a socialist program would look like: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, making education free, establishing universal health care and using the country’s enormous wealth to build much needed infrastructure and create decent jobs. This could all be done while taking radical steps to address climate change, while providing undocumented migrants with a path to citizenship, by empowering Black America with real economic gains and by addressing the dispossession and violence faced by First Nations people. 

His campaign and message made Bernie Sanders the most popular politician in the US, while Trump and Clinton were respectively the least popular presidential candidates in history. Exit polls on election day reported that 61% of voters had an unfavourable view of Trump and 54% had an unfavourable view of Clinton.

We wrote during the primary race “By raising issues that affect working class people, Bernie Sanders has the ability to unify both democrat and republican voters. This is a key reason polling shows Sanders would decisively beat Trump in an election, while Hillary Clinton will struggle.”

In the end what decided the rigged and manipulated Democratic Primary was not who would be the strongest candidate, but who would loyally pursue the interests of Wall Street in the White House. This person would not be Sanders, a left populist promising to bring socialism to every city and town across the US. It would be Clinton, a politician prepped and preened and vetted so extensively by the political and economic elite that many Republican figures came out in support of her.

This decision to put the face of the political establishment up against a self-professed outsider and anti-establishment rabble-rouser shows not only a grave underestimation of just how much ordinary people despise the political elite, but also highlights the real priorities of the Democratic Party leadership. They took a gamble that resulted in a racist misogynist winning the presidency just so they could keep out a kindly old socialist. Ultimately, they hope, Trump can be worked with, but Sanders and his “movement against the billionaire class” would be a nightmare.

Had Sanders attacked Clinton more stridently during the primaries, the way Trump did against his opponents, it may have been enough to thwart the Democratic Party leadership’s efforts to sideline him. Most importantly, had Bernie continued his campaign as an independent, the outcome could have been much different and the crisis of the two parties of Wall Street much more pronounced.  

But Sanders, after being robbed of the Democratic Party nomination, fell loyally behind Clinton’s campaign. He vowed to continue his “revolution” by negotiating a larger role for himself in what he hoped would be a Democratic controlled Senate and by supporting individual “progressive” Democratic Party candidates. But so decisive was the swing against the Clinton-led Democratic campaign the Republicans will control both houses and Sanders will again be sidelined. Many of the “progressive” candidates he supported did not get up.

The conscious demobilisation of the burgeoning movement behind Sanders opened up space for Trump’s right-wing anti-establishment message. Sanders himself has conceded that “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.”

Trumps message to the white working and middle classes

It was the swing states in the Upper Midwest that handed Trump victory. States that voted for Obama didn’t back Clinton. Trump campaigned hard there while Clinton largely ignored these voters and their grievances.

The issues that found most resonance for Trump here where jobs, free trade deals and failed foreign policy.

“We are going to stop the jobs from going to Mexico and China and all over the world. We will make Michigan into the manufacturing hub of the world” Trump told Michigan. “We’re going to bring our jobs back, and no more are going to be leaving. There are going to be consequences if they leave.”

“Hillary is the face of failure, she’s the face of failed foreign policy,” he told Pennsylvania.

In his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, withdraw from the TPP, go after companies offshoring jobs, and sign off on $50 billion worth of fossil fuel projects to create jobs in coal, oil, shale and natural gas production and extraction.

Hillary’s only response was the shockingly tone-deaf retort that “America is already great” and to double-down on her message that Trump is a bad guy. She ended her campaign with a cliched, vapid advertisement set to a Katy Perry song.

In stark contrast Trump’s message to angry, disaffected and disillusioned voters was skillfully executed in his final campaign advertisement: “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. Those who control the levers of power in Washington – the global special interests – they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration, and economic and foreign policies that have bleed our country dry. The political establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories and our jobs as they flee to Mexico, China and other countries around the world. It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, ripped our country of it’s wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities. The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is YOU. The only force strong enough to save our country is US. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you the American people. I’m doing this for the people, and for the movement, and we will take back this country for you and we will Make America Great Again.”

Now imagine that speech in Bernie Sanders’ Brooklyn accent (minus the attack on immigrants). Trump got over the line by adopting Sanders’ anti-establishment, insurrectionary message. The problem is that he means none of it, has removed most of the corporate culpability and included a tonne of racism.

Who voted for Trump?

Racism, Islamophobia and misogyny were all front and centre of Trumps’ campaign. He has been accused of multiple rapes and bragged about sexually assaulting women. He called Mexicans criminals and rapists. He was endorsed by the KKK. One of the most upsetting outcomes of Trump’s election is the reality that millions accommodated themselves to this vile bigotry and cast their ballot for Trump.  

But many who ignored Trump’s railing against the “political establishment” believed that only those motivated by racism and misogyny would vote for him. They also assumed the electorate would be divided along racial and gender lines. Clinton herself arrogantly called Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables”.

In the end the voting patterns did not deviate from past party affiliation on the basis of race or gender. Compared to the 2012 Republican vote Trump gained slightly amongst Black, Latino and Asian voters and lost 1 percentage point amongst both White and “Other” voters. He also lost just 2 percentage points amongst women voters, remarkable considering he was standing against a woman candidate. Clinton’s vote amongst women even dropped slightly with 54% of women voting for her while 55% of women voted for Obama in 2012.

That said, People of Colour and LGBTIQ people voted overwhelming against Trump. So did most non-Christians and a slim majority of women. But these trends did not deviate from the usual demographic vote for Democrats and Republicans.

The strongest indicators as to whether people would vote for Trump were not identity categories but attitudes about politics and the economy. Those who believe the condition of the economy is “poor” (79%), that their family situation is “worse today” (78%), who feel “angry” about how the government is working (77%), that the direction of the country is “seriously off track” (69%), and that the next generation face a situation “worse than life today” (63%) all voted decisively for Trump.

Of those who said the most important candidate quality is to “bring needed change” a whopping 83% voted for Trump. Meanwhile, of those who responded “No” to the question “Is Donald Trump honest and trustworthy?” a massive 21% still voted for him!

In contrast, of the voters who believe the country is going “generally in the right direction” 90% voted for Clinton.

The strongest demographic patterns amongst Trump voters were:

  • White without a college degree (67%)
  • Live in small city or rural (62%)
  • Served in the US military (61%)
  • White male (63%)
  • White (58%)
  • Male (53%)

It’s important to register that what primarily (at least statistically) drove people to vote for Trump was not their identity but their frustration at the political establishment and declining economic conditions.

But ultimately Trump voters either ignored or embraced Trump’s unbridled bigotry in order to throw a grenade at those they ultimately blame for their declining living standards and miserable future. Women, People of Colour, Immigrants and LGBTIQ people who have stood against Trump have good reason to be angry.

Protests erupt: #notmypresident

The day after the election thousands took to the streets in dozens of cities to protest Trump. There were a number of student walkouts and resounding chants of #notmypresident. Many of these actions were called and led by socialists.

This early response has demonstrated that the divisions expressed through the election cycle will not be muted by Trump’s victory.  

But what Clinton’s failed campaign has shown is that it’s not enough to simply side against Trump. For a left pole of attraction and unified mass movement in opposition to Trump to be built it must base itself on a genuine critique of role of the political and economic elite. It must also outline an alternative way forward. This requires a rejection of the old liberal vs conservative political orthodoxy that has dominated the two major parties for decades. It must also move beyond the identity politics of the moment in search of a unifying class-based analysis of the disparity of wealth and power under capitalism.

Occupy gave a glimpse of the potential for this in its call to mobilise the 99% against the 1%. However, in order to succeed, any developing class-conscious movement must centre the grievances of Black, Latino, immigrant, women, First Nations, queer and gender diverse working class people while embedding them firmly in a broader, systemic analysis of power and class. Successful grassroots movements like the various fights to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour have demonstrated that there is enormous potential for this. These movements have won overwhelming support for young, Black, Latino, immigrant and women workers overrepresented in low-wage jobs.

Building a serious movement against Trump also means addressing the concerns of the increasingly disenfranchised white working class, some of whom found expression in Trump. Those white workers in the Midwest “rust belt” who became Trump’s saviours could very quickly become his gravediggers.

The jobs, infrastructure and services promised by Trump will unlikely be delivered by the Republican controlled House and Senate. Part of Trump’s appeal to these voters was his deviation from the neoliberal consensus of free trade and open borders to aid the flow of capital and cheap labour. However his protectionist, tariff-happy, anti-NAFTA, anti-TPP proposals will find few friends in Congress. His election promises have little chance of being enacted in any comprehensive way and those he promised them to will eventually turn on him. This process can be sped up by articulating solutions to the problems of unemployment, poverty wages and deindustrialisation that don’t throw immigrants and the environment under the bus. Sanders’ campaign took the outline of this – a socialist program – to the Midwest and was greeted with enormous openness and enthusiasm.

Trump claims climate change is a Chinese hoax

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” once tweeted Trump.  

It is notable that in Trump’s immediate program the only job creation he explicitly outlined was in the fossil fuel sector. As the US economy has recovered the energy industry has crashed to a halt. The strong US dollar and collapse in the price of oil has led to mass layoffs. The coal industry is in crisis.

Trump will undoubtedly attempt to pit climate activists against newly unemployed energy industry workers. His plan to put people back to work by reviving Keystone XL, endorsing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and expanded fossil fuel investment needs to be contrasted with a plan for massive state investment in renewables and green jobs. This battle must unite environmentalists, First Nations activists and labour activists in a fight over the future of energy production in the US. The vast majority of unions bet on Hillary and lost big. A fight within the labour movement for a militant socialist strategy to create jobs and address climate change is absolutely pressing.

What will a Trump presidency look like?

The names currently being thrown around about who will likely make up Trump’s Cabinet are frightening. But after a campaign that distanced itself from the usual Washington insiders, Trump will likely nominate industry figures for key appointments. The contradiction here is that an administration made up of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan veterans is not what many Trump supporters thought they were voting for.

In the final days of the campaign William S. Cohen, former Secretary of Defence, lamented that the US is “slouching towards the mutual assured destruction of our political system”.  A Republican Senator from New Hampshire complained that both presidential candidates were “undermining the core elements of what gives our government credibility”.

What Sanders’ campaign exposed was the close ties between Wall Street and the two parties, a relationship used to screw over ordinary people to benefit the corporate elite. Trump modified this message to attack one side of this relationship: the political establishment. Now he wants to cut out the middle-men and women and let Wall Street insiders and corporate figures run the US economy “like a business”. This will not go down well.

There is a reason complicated and obscured relationships between politicians, lobbyists and corporations exist. It is to provide a sheath of respectability, legality and impartiality over the political process and various branches of government. This cover has been well and truly exposed. From the current crisis of legitimacy facing the two parties must emerge a new political party that represents the interests of the working class, a class that after laying dormant and unconscious for decades is attempting to reassert itself into politics.

But the ultimate problem is not that politicians are bought by corporate interests. It is that corporate interests dominate every aspects of our lives. Replacing career politicians with corporate figures will do absolutely nothing to reduce this power. What it will do is make the case for a socialist alternative to capitalism more urgent.

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