Few recent phenomena have been so indicative of the changing velocity of politics than the rise of Donald Trump, the braying blowhard pseudo-billionaire who is the Republican candidate for US President. Six weeks ago, when this correspondent wrote an earlier draft of this article, Trump appeared to be on the ropes. The Republican Party conventions had been scrappy and unimpressive; the Democrat one that followed it had been a celebration of American progressivism. Memorably, it had concluded with an appearance by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Afghan Americans whose son had been killed on active duty in Iraq—people whom Donald Trump had suggested should be banned from entering the United States until ‘we work out what is going on [with terrorism]’. ‘Have you read the constitution Mr Trump? Here,’ said Khizr Khan, pulling a copy from his pocket, ‘I will lend you mine!’ The moment was electrifying and deeply moving and the next day Trump responded to it much as the Democrats hoped he would—with pettiness and Noo Yawk chest-butting, saying that he too had made sacrifices, building all those fantastic buildings. In the next few days a half-dozen further gaffes and missteps followed, and Trump’s ratings plummeted. Democrats began to speak cautiously of the possibility of a landslide election in which they would be advancing from swing states into Republican-held states like Georgia and Arizona, thus threatening to shatter the Republicans’ last remaining political heartland, the South. Many rued statements they had made weeks earlier, as to how Trump was reinventing politics for a new era, while Hillary Clinton, by her own admission only a middling political campaigner, was being besieged from the Left by the Bernie Sanders insurgency.
With seven weeks to go to the presidential election at time of writing, these commentators are beginning to rue their rue. Trump is once again rising in the polls, in a way that is creating nothing less than panic across the nation and the world. For a month he has failed to make any egregious errors; his new campaign team has started rolling out effective television ads and a ‘ground game’—local-based campaigning—in key marginal states; and his simple, declarative policies, of building an anti-immigrant wall, rejecting global trade deals, and funding paid maternity leave, retain their resonance.
Hillary Clinton meanwhile has had a horror month. Cancellation of a number of rallies saw rumours rise—and stoked—about her overall health; she attended only fundraisers, and was thus seen arriving and leaving Malibu mansions in black limos. When she collapsed at a 9/11 memorial service on a mild autumn day, her team prevaricated before announcing that she had had pneumonia for some time. Bitter debate then ensued as to whether a candidate would be obliged to reveal such a transient illness, and whether a double standard was being applied to her as a woman. What could not be denied was that such a misfortune would have mattered less had there been a real campaign with a forceful program in place. There is none. The Hillary campaign has hundreds of small policy proposals, but nothing to emulate Obama’s health-care/green-jobs/no-more-Iraqs line of 2008, or Trump’s campaign now. Running the campaign around Hillary—‘I’m with her’ is its slogan—left a vacuum when she couldn’t appear, and Trump has made the most of it.
As a result, the Democrats’ defensive ‘firewall’ strategy collapsed spectacularly. Relying on the fact that Republicans need three big or five mid-size swing states to win (Ohio plus Florida plus either Pennsylvania or Colorado and Virginia, or one of those two plus Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa), the Democrats have relied on ten-point leads in many of these to formulate a full-court press in Ohio and Florida, and flank attacks on Arizona and other Republican states. Such a strategy would not only force the Republicans to fight on a dozen fronts, it would be a testament to arguments made from the liberal side of politics, particularly in works such as John Judis’ The Emerging Democratic Majority, which suggest that the overlap of progressive groups, changes in the nature of the economy and geographical shift were making it impossible for a white-dominated Christian conservative Republican party to win the presidency.
Those numbers fell apart in September; indeed they appear to have reversed on the Democrats. At time of writing Trump leads in Iowa, Ohio and Florida, is borderline in Colorado and Virginia, and is only three points behind in Maine. This suggests that something other than the steady rise to progressive dominance was occurring. Whether or not this situation holds, and in the days following the first Clinton–Trump debate it’s not clear it will, it demonstrates that there is a counter-group, aligned against progressivism, whose votes can be accessed by a Republican Party willing to ditch the Reaganite/Thatcherite formula by which it has lived for forty years.
What’s happened? Trump’s rise and fall and rise and whatever would appear to be indicative of the major shift going on in Western politics today. Key to it is the utter exhaustion of the Left/Right paradigm as based on public versus private control of the means of production. There is no Left, within mainstream parties, advocating genuinely post-capitalist alternatives to private and market dominance; what is labelled the Left is simply a loyal opposition, making objections to the more ravenous and unhinged proposals for privatisation. But nor is there an economic Right, in the way there was under Thatcher or Reagan, or the Newt Gingrich-run Republican congress of the 1990s. Privatisation, long-term leasing, marketisation and sub-contracting have simply become the process of neoliberal states for getting out of managing assets while releasing quick cash for electorally targeted infrastructure funding, or tax breaks. This is neither presented as a heroic program of ‘freedom’ for the Right, nor is it resisted en masse by a passionately riled left coalition defending a social state. The public/private split that once acted as a broad base for two large coalitions—social progressives and old working-class conservatives tolerating each other on the Left, neoliberals and conservatives rubbing along on the Right—can no longer sustain such a weight, nor contain the contradictions within each camp. Nevertheless, for a decade or more in the twilight of this Left/Right system the major parties have chugged along, ignoring their increasing lack of fit with the electorate.
In the United States, outside the political system, the reorganisation has arrived. The years 2000 to 2006—when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress—were the last hurrah of the Reaganite/Thatcherite formula of drawing mass mainstream support for a politics of military supremacy, state-enforced ‘traditional’ social values, free-market economics and borders open to capital flowing out and workers flowing in. The failure of that, in Iraq and the 2008 crash, gave Obama and the Democrats the chance to try to make a new progressive super-coalition, comprising the old Democrat union-worker base, black communities and progressive Latinos, knowledge workers, youth, LGBTI people and others. Obama had promised a more directed social-democratic economy, with inward investment, together with a multilateral foreign policy and a social-progressive agenda. Yet he stumbled almost immediately, in the eyes of tens of millions, by immediately bailing out the Wall Street banks, appointing Goldman Sachs figures to senior Treasury positions and failing to restart the economy.
There is a ready defence for Obama’s actions: the economy needed immediate recapitalisation, and getting health-care reform through depended upon it, and Congress would not support the sort of stimulus program to cover the demand gap of the recession (let alone the ambitious green-industrial jobs program). Besides, many were demanding a reduction in the federal deficit, which would have plunged the country back into recession, if not depression. Whatever the rationale, a divergence of political fortunes within the left ‘coalition’ emerged. The progressive groups got various things they wanted—progressive Supreme Court justice appointments chief among them—and above all a very pro-(illegal)-immigrant policy, as the President discontinued whole categories of deportations of illegal aliens. The old labour-worker groups got very little. There was no ‘Main Street’ bailout, and much of the bank bailout stayed with the banks, which did not reinvest in ground-level commerce, and could not be compelled to. There was no limit on the outflow of capital and jobs, even as the inflow of workers continued. By his second term Obama had moved noticeably towards the Centre Right in his economics, seeing in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trans-Pacific trade policies a vital political tool to extend US power in Asia. He was also increasingly enamoured of the Silicon Valley rendering of politics and economics: as a series of abstract problems to be solved by ‘smart’ interventions creating radical leaps forward.
For the first four to six years of his era much of the ground-level opposition to this was inchoate and confused, for one clear reason: its most prominent vocalisation by activists still contained a tangle of the free-market and statism, which did not accord with what many critics believed. Thus the Tea Party groups, arising from the Ron Paul libertarian movement in 2009, and quickly taken over by Reaganites, presented a nostalgic fantasy of military might, closed borders and small government, and the dynamic power of free enterprise. Such a combination had only worked when the times were good, and always as something of an illusory presentation of US capitalism; it didn’t even begin to fly after twenty-five years of wage stagnation and the relentless decay of cities, towns and communities (as recorded in George Packer’s two-decade tracking of blighted lives, The Unwinding). The Tea Party’s appeal was overwhelmingly, in the old money, to the petit-bourgeois disaffected; it was good at winning primaries against ‘moderate’ Republicans but incapable of winning elections proper. The Republican elite, meanwhile, remained even more clueless, bewildered at the defeat of Mitt Romney, whom the Democrats portrayed as the epitome of the ’90s downsizer. It has remained so, loudly lamenting that the Republican base did not have the ‘wisdom’ or ‘nobility’ to choose the fiercely free-market and pro-immigrant Marco Rubio as candidate.
Had it done so, or even worse, picked Jeb Bush, for a dynastic throwdown, the Democrats would have retained an easy lead in an election marked by a near-catastrophic lack of enthusiasm. Instead, Trump entered the race, triumphed and catalysed a transformation of the polarities of US politics.
Donald Trump’s appeal is, in the first instance, to whiteness as an ethnicity and self-conceived victim group. Of that there can be no doubt. He began his campaign describing Mexican immigrants as ‘drug-dealers’ and ‘rapists’, he threw his support behind Blue Lives Matter (the pro-police response to Black Lives Matter), and though he sometimes took isolationist foreign-policy positions he more often advocated massive military action and a disdain for ‘politically correct’ concern for brown-skinned casualties. His support base was one section of white working-class people, spread equally between men and women; a strong support among old Tea Party groups; and a very gendered support among sections of middle-class and professional-class men. Yet had he advanced nothing other than a xenophobic politics he would have got nowhere. Crucially, he combined this with a new protectionism, promising tariff walls, inwards investment, not signing the TPP and rescinding sections of NAFTA, while also offering various statist elements, voicing unequivocal support for a social-security system that Republicans had long wanted to privatise. With that he swept to acclaim.
This is hardly surprising, for he had solved the contradiction that had bedevilled the Republicans for two decades: their commitment to market openness and globalisation combined with support for a supremacist military and closed borders. Trump’s victory was akin to the success of parasite viruses capable of taking over the brains of insects and operating their bodies as automata: the party of Lincoln, Hoover and Reagan now espousing a chauvinist communalism. Illusory and deceitful, to be sure, but, a new offer on the table, it offered a simple and consistent way ahead for the country. Smash ISIS, take Iraqi oil as recompense, stop the cheap labour and keep industry at home. The onus was on the Democrats to respond with a simple and effective counter-offer to the masses, an alternative vision.
The vision was there, the masses weren’t. Throughout the primaries, Clinton had been unable to advance a vision or succinct statement of a new America. There is no indication she had one, or felt the need for it. She was thus badly blindsided by Bernie Sanders’ insurgency and his simple, insistent message: a living minimum wage, a full public health system and free college tuition. Her unpreparedness matched her politics; those outside the United States who imagine Clinton to be some sort of mirror image of Julia Gillard are sorely mistaken. The 1960s/’70s class-leftist Clinton is long gone; she, too, on matters economic is convinced by the global WEC/thinktank/Gates Foundation view of the world as a place to be raised up by elites. Before being dragged left by Bernie, she was comfortably to the right of, say, Malcolm Turnbull. Leading Democratic wonks—such as Jim Messina, the party’s top pollster—worked with Lynton Crosby to get David Cameron elected UK prime minister in 2015, and there is little doubt they would prefer to work with a Theresa May rather than a Jeremy Corbyn, and a (properly disciplined) LNP coalition rather than a union-apparatchik-dominated British Labor. Brits and Australians who believe otherwise are deluding themselves.
Sanders’ insurgency made it impossible for Clinton to do what she had intended: run to the right of Obama, defeat a clueless Republican candidate—and then do a huge budget deal with the Republican Congress, cutting deficits through vast service cuts and signing the TPP. Besieged by Sanders on one side and Trump on the other, she has done the only thing possible: decisively re-centre Democratic politics on race-gender-diversity progressivism, on the professional knowledge (and wider) classes, and decisively demote the wayward working classes.
The key moment for this pivot was the Democratic convention, an extraordinary four days of political theatre, which turned a whole series of assumptions on their head. Conventions run for about six hours a day; the formal business—aside from the nomination—is usually done in obscure committees elsewhere; the main stage has speakers for the global audience. Day one of the Democratic convention, in a Philadelphia closed-roof sports stadium, saw a roll-call of speakers from every possible diversity: black, Latino, black Latino, woman, black woman, Latino disabled woman, black LGBTI, military Latino LGBTI, and on it went. There were no flags, no real old-school political speeches. Right-wing commentators were gleeful—same old Democrats, the party of the ’68 split, for the pluribus, not the unum. On day two they were even happier—the unum appeared as Clinton, in an extraordinary North Korean–style giant video in which a black-and-white montage of past presidents yielded in a huge on-screen explosion to a full-colour video link (from her undersea headquarters?) to Clinton. Day three saw the arguments, from Obama, from Joe Biden, as to how Clinton essentially embodied progressive America, combining this with vast experience and professionalism.
On day four this was all brought to completion. As we came in for the final slog it was clear that people had been busy—the stadium was festooned with stars and stripes, which were hanging from every balcony. When the delegates trooped in they were each given a paper flag. On the video screen, red, white and blue pixels danced. The speeches were by governors and military types and they talked of how Clinton would never shy from uncompromising toughness against America’s enemies, as did Clinton herself in her concluding ninety-minute, far-from-exciting address. Tough talk: but in the name of the diversity we had seen on display on day one. To protect what had been achieved, projecting strong uncompromising force out into the world was necessary, not as Trump’s ‘stomp-em’ isolationism but as a continued, confident assertion that America was still the last best hope of cis/trans/(wo)men. Whatever forms of international solidarity the left factions of Black Lives Matter and other groups offer, these are of little import. Essentially, the Democrats are doing two things: one, firmly basing themselves on the ‘progressive classes’—diversity groups, knowledge workers, students—as their core base, supplanting what remains of the industrial working class; and two, offering those groups a new self-conception, not as outsiders besieging the US establishment but as the new establishment, their class/group being what expresses the new American essence.
This grouping is globally oriented, universalist, rights insistent. Even where they would benefit from a protectionist economic policy they are not drawn to it, and they are certainly not convinced by Trump’s evocation of it. In a post-Iraq era, of drone wars and limited engagements—especially against anti-modern forces like ISIS—a ‘smart’ global military projection can fuse with the idea of projecting diversity and rights as a global ethic. Such people may disagree with drone wars, if the question is directly posed, but you could never get a million of them out on the streets to denounce them. One could say that drone wars—smart, surgical, minimally committed—have a congruity of form with the targeted charities of countless US NGOs that address, with varying degrees of reflexivity, issues within developing world communities.
By making this fusion, by creating a new version of the liberalism at home and abroad that Roosevelt created in the New Deal, team Hillary resolved the foreign-policy issue that has bedevilled the Democrats since anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy knocked LBJ into early retirement in 1968, and was then kibitzed by the party establishment, who nominated the pro-war Hubert Humphrey. Since then the Democrats have been open to the charge that their commitment to tolerance and equality at home equates with weakness abroad. Trump’s fuzzy mix of isolationism and erraticism, his ignorance and his murky relationship with Vladimir Putin, have given them the chance to end that period entirely. But Trump is only the pretext. To a degree, on foreign policy Clinton is running against Barack Obama as the last exponent of Democrat multilateral liberalism, a man who is currently seen, fairly or otherwise, as repeating the errors of Jimmy Carter.
This is one reason why the Clinton/Trump argument splits so neatly into one of extreme fear versus extreme insouciance. Progressive people once thought that the election of George W. Bush was unimaginable. Many simply have no words for the prospect of a President Trump. Those supporters of his who are swinging voters tend to get something of a high from exactly this perceived recklessness. They put their statements of Trump support together from various of his memes: ‘No political correctness’…‘I’m a businessman’…‘Build a wall’…‘Let’s make things in America again’…and it becomes a mantra of resisting not merely exclusion but the sense that history has passed them by. It would be easier to call this an example of a particular class backwardness if one could point to any simple concrete proposal Clinton has made that would improve life for the auto-parts worker in Ohio, the Waffle House waitress in Orlando, the parent-of-an-ice-addicted kid in Maine, and so on. In the absence of such, a bet on Trump has a definite rationality about it.
By the time you read this, Trump’s latest surge may be a distant memory, just another peak on the roller-coaster. Or it may have been the starting point of what is now a looming victory. If that result is imminent, it’s because the Democrats lost an election that was theirs. Whatever happens, it would appear to be an example of the fundamental political realignment taking place across the world.
28 September 2016