This is a perfect storm and perfect scene for the repetition of mistakes on the left as we scrabble around for good news to salvage from disaster. Here are ten points which sift through some of the reactions from the left, some of them quite ridiculous, and try to orient us to a better understanding of what has happened. Trigger warning: contradictions ahead.
- Trump is a cultural phenomenon. The culture that breeds it includes The Apprentice, the US TV show that Trump starred in from 2004. This glorification of ‘business success’ incites the audience to admire a wealthy bully who stands as an exemplar of what it is to have made it as an individual in US America, and what that requires in terms of competition and humiliation. Trump channels a greedy desire for victory over others and vicarious participation in a corrupt cynical politics that is predicated on making money. Trump needed pots of money to stand and win in this election, but, more than that, he needed a cultural assumption that the accumulation of money is a good as such.
- His victory reinforces existing institutional arrangements. The intervention of FBI Director James B Comey in the crucial final days of the vote indicates that the central power structures of the United States have been fermenting and crystallising for some time around a neo-conservative agenda. The claim that Trump’s power base lies in the redneck and poor and unemployed communities distracts attention from where the real danger lies. This is something that Clinton could not counter, because she herself was part of that same power structure which relies on and admires a central elite core with wealth backed by the threat of violence. The election of Trump represents a shift inside the apparatus, not so much a revolt against it.
- There is an invisible majority that is not for Trump. The popular vote for Clinton was over a million votes more than what Trump got. The electoral apparatus – funnelling of the vote in the primaries through the two major parties and then the count of the final vote through the colleges – guarantees a disenfranchisement of the poorest communities. This is a version of the ‘first past the post system’ in which key power brokers are able to facilitate a cascade effect which then overrides the popular vote. Trump has a mandate of about a quarter of the US American electorate, that is, an electorate which already excludes millions more people.
- There was a significant vote against Clinton and the State. Clinton did not deserve the popular vote that she got, and the distribution of the vote as it was – with about fifty percent of the electorate not voting – show that it was not so much that Trump won, but that Clinton lost this election. There was an astonishingly lower proportion of the vote among the Black and Latino communities, much lower than Obama got in the last election, and much much lower that Obama got the first time round. Some of those who voted for Trump must also be included in the revulsion against Clinton, though this was mistakenly directed at the ‘emails’ rather than her collusion in the coup in Honduras, for example. This means taking care not to demonise all those who voted for Trump.
- There was an alternative to two-party rule. There were a number of alternatives which included, if we disregard the libertarian right which was able to attract some of the protest votes, the Green Party which, with Jill Stein as candidate, was able to garner over a million votes, that is over double what the Greens got last time round, and, of course, there was Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, and Sanders standing aside and handing over some of his votes and all of his energy to Clinton was a disastrous mistake. Trump would not have been loyal to the Republicans if he had failed to win their nomination, and Sanders should not have been loyal to the Democrats.
- Trump is worse than Clinton. But there is a huge debate over what exactly this banal statement actually means; whether it means that Trump is a Le Pen figure, a fascist, which might mean that the appropriate slogan should have been one borrowed from France ‘Votez l’escroc, pas facho’ (vote for the swindler, not the fascist). No, that kind of approach was part of the corralling of the anti-capitalist (and anti-racist and progressive ecological vote) into the Clinton campaign, and it actually demobilised people. The momentum of the Sanders campaign needed to be kept going throughout as an alternative, to show that resistance was possible, and to build a movement against Trump and what he represents.
- Trump is not a fascist. He is a populist, which is not to say that fascism itself does not play the populist game. He is a businessmen well used to starting with an extreme opening gambit and then negotiating down to realistic goals. In the first days he, quite typically for a neoliberal pragmatist, back-peddled on his opposition to ‘Obama-care’, on the building of the wall (it could be a fence in parts, he said, which it already is), on the number of migrants he planned to expel, and denied that he planned to register Muslims. But this is not reason to breathe a sigh of relief, for the destruction of health provision and racist measures will be implemented, but more ‘efficiently’, with the blessing of the Republicans. This will also include some bitter disappointments for trans activists who did support him. He reassured his allies in NATO that he would defend them. This is business, big business, though not exactly ‘business as usual’.
- This is a victory for racists. It is not business as usual because it is dripping poison into political debate, which is evident in the appointment of Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, a virulent antisemite and champion of white nationalism as a policy advisor. The appointment is symbolic, and the license for hate that Trump is willing to give to those who have been loyal to him during the campaign entails a particularly vicious form of symbolic violence. This is the symbolic violence of those who are determined to shift the debate onto their terrain so that objections to racism and sexism are to be viewed as ‘political correctness’. Racism is part of the equation which runs alongside sexism – the attack on abortion rights being one indication of this – and contempt for environmental concerns. Trump is not fascist, but he opens the way to fascism.
- Trump is now a Republican politician, with all that entails for foreign policy. The Democrats have historically been less protectionist than Republican administrations, and more interventionist. The two aspects go hand in hand, and this is what is behind the threat by Trump to make the NATO allies pay. Arms industry shares soared the day after the election, and this is because Trump is more than happy to tie support for dictatorships abroad with arms sales. It is when they pay, when it suits US-American big business interests, and when they put the money up front, that the new administration will back them up, against whatever enemies they choose, external or internal.
- This election is disaster not only inside the United States, but also globally. It signals a shift of foreign policy which, while admittedly less interventionist directly, will be willing to reinforce the power of dictators willing to do business with the US. That includes Putin, with applause in the Duma at the results, and, of course, Assad, for whom this is a green light to continue with his deadly assault on the left opposition to his regime, and it includes Saudi Arabia who will be the linchpins of a ‘Sunni triangle’ alliance with the murderous regimes of Egypt and Turkey, and China, whose praise for Trump has been muted as yet, but whose regime will also benefit. Antisemitism at home goes hand in hand with Christian Zionist support for Israel.
This all means that it is a grotesque mistake to see his election as a ‘chance of a lifetime’, as some on the left saw Brexit, or as an ‘opportunity’ for change in which the working class that supposedly supported Trump will supposedly abandon him when he does not deliver. No, this is, rather, as Trump himself declared, ‘Brexit, plus plus plus’, and is of a piece with a shift to the right globally, one which will encourage and strengthen the right in every single country. Yes, we do hope for opportunities in the midst of this new contradictory reality, but these will have to be built from the base up, inside the US and internationally.
These notes were prepared for Left Unity Manchester, and amended following a very useful discussion at a meeting, thanks to all those who participated, agreed, disagreed, and sharpened some of these points.