Friday, 18 November 2016

Donald Trump: How it happened, why it happened and what Americans must do now.

Noted 'man of the people' Donald Trump in his golden New York penthouse.

There have been hundreds of thinkpieces dedicated to Donald Trump since his shock victory in the presidential election last week. Thousands, possibly. His rise to power and  the role economic anxiety or race or gender or age or class played in it have been teased out and debated. There has been good analysis and there has been bad analysis. But, before I add my voice to the debate, I feel it's worth pointing out again that Donald Trump did not actually win the popular vote. It's easy to forget that a majority of American voters rejected him as president and it is only an archaic and corrupt electoral college system that ensured victory for him. I'm not suggesting that his win is illegitimate - hey, those are the rules (no matter how stupid they are) -  but I feel it is significant given many of the thinkpieces have focused on a growing disillusionment with mainstream politics and globalisation without mentioning that a majority of Americans did not think a right wing demagogue such as Trump was the solution to their problems. 

Even if Trump didn't win though, even if the winner was decided on the basis of the popular vote - y'know, like a normal democracy - wouldn't it still be alarming that sixty million Americans voted for him? Of course. So what was it? Was it economic anxiety, racism or misogyny or a variety of factors that led to his election. Was it the final wail of White America as it struggles to adjust to the changing demographics of country they once ruled with impunity? Was it disillusionment with Washington, the gridlock that had taken hold there and led to some of the most unproductive congresses (in terms of laws passed) in recent memory? Was it a protest against post-industrial America and the depletion of semi-skilled and skilled employment in the manufacturing industry? Was sexism the key factor, with a majority of American men, and many American women, still opposed to the idea of having a woman in the White House (or, at the very least, willing to forgive the misogyny practiced by her opponent)? To tell you the truth I haven't a fucking notion and trawling through the articles and thinkpieces published in the last week hasn't gotten me any closer to the truth. The lack of clairty is understandable - journalists and media commentators are desperately trying to get to grips with a world that, for many years, they pretended didn't exist. My feeling is that it is a variety of factors that made sixty million Americans vote for Trump - with economic anxiety, sexism and racism all playing a part. In fact, the lines can often blur between them. The root cause of economic anxiety for working class and middle class white America is not, and this may shock you, Mexicans or Muslims or illegal immigrants but boy that sure won't stop the far-right from telling you it is. The economic anxiety thesis has upset many people who claim it gives a 'free-pass' to people who voted for Trump. The implication is that we shouldn't show any empathy towards people who were willing to vote for a candidate who espoused such racism and misogyny even if they're experiencing genuine economic anxiety. It is an understandable position to take, particularly if the person who holds that position is a woman or a person of colour. But analysing why certain groups of people voted for Trump is not excusing them or justifying their choice - it's trying to better understand why they decided to vote for him. 

If you truly believe that, as Hillary Clinton claimed, half of Trump supporters are a "basket of deplorables" who are "irredeemable" in their sexism and racism then you don't need to spend much time analysing them. They're irredeemable, they're not worth even trying to persuade otherwise. But is this how we should view upwards of 30 million people? It's difficult for me to envisage what would lead me to want to vote for Trump but I'm not from a rust belt state, I'm not one of the white working class whose material wealth and health has depleted over the last number of decades. The opinion polling on election day might give us a better insight into some of the factors which led to people voting for Trump. This was particularly revealing from the New York Times:
 "The Reuters/Ipsos early exit poll found that 75 percent of respondents agreed “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful.” Only slightly fewer agreed that “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful,” and — perhaps the kicker — 68 percent believed that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”
Does that give us the full picture? No, of course not. But it gives us an insight into the minds of some of the people who voted for Trump. Were they duped into Trump's anti-establishment disguise? Yes, certainly. Were they deluded in believing a billionaire is going to reverse decades of globalisation? Yes, certainly. But given the almost non-existent faith they had in establishment politics, is it any wonder Hillary Clinton did not appeal to many of them? YNo, not at all

The economic anxiety and the frustration with with which millions of Americans have with the political establishment might be the primary factor but it is certainly not the only factor which led to Trump's election. To deny that sexism and racism played their part in his victory would be criminal. It is no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-nazi groups, as well as noted misogynists such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Roosh, pledged their support for Trump. Trump's policies, including his proposed ban on Muslims, the wall he wants to build to keep Mexicans out and his pledge to punish women who have abortions, were heinously misogynistic and xenophobic. Many people voted for Trump precisely because of those policies while others, we assume, were shamefully willing to overlook these policies to fight back at the establishment. So where do we draw the line? Is there any difference between people supporting racist and sexist platforms and somebody who is willing to overlook the racist and sexist platforms presented by a candidate they support? 

It's a difficult one to ponder and it is revealing of the difficulty the left now has in adjusting to a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. The left's response to Trump's victory has been both tepid and inspired. The protests which sprung up in response to Trump taking the White House were both inspired and required. Careful posturing and incremental nudging will not stop Trump and his band of merry fascists from running amok in areas like healthcare, immigration and taxes. But their is confusion over how to win back the supporters the left has lost over the years. The absolute most dangerous thing that the left can do right now is start pandering to the racial prejudices Trump has aroused as a result of his campaign. There can be no compromise on immigration policies that will destroy the lives of millions of people or xenophobic policies that will specifically target Muslims. In the run up to the 2015 election, the Labour Party in Britain, under the stewardship of Ed Miliband, began to pander to right wing fears on immigration with their infamous "controls on immigration" souvenir mug. It didn't work. Labour were still battered at the election. As George Monbiot later put it, "Why vote for the echo when you could vote for the shout?"

That's why frankly laughable suggestions that the Democrats in America should 'work with Trump' and 'unite a disunited nation' are so dangerous given what Trump wants to do. Many have gone a step further in pledging their (apparently reluctant) support to Trump by saying "If he succeeds, America succeeds". But this is an obvious fallacy. If Trump's presidency is a success, if he achieves in ushering in some or most of the incendiary policies he advocated for during the campaign, millions of Americans will suffer. Trump's presidency has to be an abject failure. He has to be the most inept president ever. In his first week he's appointed a white supremacist as his chief strategist and has made a climate change denier, Myron Ebell, the head of his EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) transition team. His aims are clear. The kind of world he envisages is one in which the wealthiest will disproportionately benefit. He must fail and he must be thwarted at every step. 

To stop what he advocates the left must enter into four years of almost total protest. The left is locked out of congress, locked out of the supreme court and locked out of the presidency. The Democratic Party is making uncertain noises about what kind of direction it will go over the next four years - on the one hand, grassroots stalwarts such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want the party to tack to the left while on the other hand, the party's natural centrism may mean it will continue to keep plodding along as a party with policies primarily tailored for an urban elite. Similar to the task of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour in Britain, the left must walk a fine line in America over the next ew years. They need to open a dialogue with disaffected white working class and middle class voters who voted for Trump due to disillusionment with the current political and economic system but they must do so in a way which does not legitimize Trump's xenophobic rhetoric. Such a move would be morally repugnant and might alienate African-American and Hispanic voters. It must also build a defensive bulwark against some of the dangerous policies Trump proposes. Given that Trump and the republicans control the congress and the presidency, the left's role may well be damage-limitation but so be it. Whether the Democratic Party is part of the solution or part of the problem remains to be seen but, like a soldier preparing for a siege, the left must dig its feet in and prepare for four years of resistance.


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