When I wrote my first Left Flank piece on Trump back in January, I concluded:
All this suggests it is way too early to be sure that a Democratic nominee can easily beat Trump. Equally, a Trump victory should not be considered hard proof of a deeper right-wing shift in US society, or even a significant section of it. What a Trump nomination is bound to bring, however, is an escalation of the panicked histrionics of a political class whose crisis may be about to pass some kind of tortured tipping point.
I have to admit that I didn’t expect how histrionic the election would become, with Clinton from May basically abandoning her campaign to paint Trump as the logical extension of the GOP to focus all her firepower on terrifying voters out of voting for him. These attacks went through several phases: that he was outside the norms of politics so much so that once-hated Republicans would now be rebadged as “honourable” politicians in comparison; that he was a dangerous racist who used coded anti-Semitic messages in his ads; that he was mentally unstable and couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes; that he was tied to the sinister Alt-Right movement (and, what’s more, tacitly endorsed Pepe the Frog!); that he was a foul misogynist who sexually assaulted women; and, in unhinged Cold War tones, that he was a puppet of the Russians.
In spite of all that, the floor never fell out from under Trump’s opinion poll support (see above). Not even the problems he had bringing the GOP elites to heel were enough to derail his campaign. That floor of support should not be surprising for a few reasons. First, while being the most disliked presidential candidate in polling history, he was up against the runner-up in that unpopularity contest. Second, he consistently attacked the “political establishment” which meant that he could pose himself as an outsider who could shake up Washington corruption and dysfunction. Clinton’s problems were as much about her central role in that establishment, and the problems it was having, as any other issue. And when the entire establishment — the political class, key business leaders, academics, celebrities and most of the mainstream media — piled in on Trump, his allegedly “dark” message of a “conspiracy” against the people by “political entities”, “global elites” and “special interests” rang true (his remarkable final ad could have been made by a Left populist apart from the illegal immigration angle).
Third, Trump broke with the bipartisan policy consensus on trade, immigration and failed wars in the Middle East, while running as an unusually centrist Republican on issues of concern to working class voters such as jobs, healthcare costs, problems in the education system, paid parental leave, etc. Fourth, he was able to keep large sections of the GOP electorate behind him because he had proven himself with his tough talk in the primaries (while recognising they were mostly not crazed Tea Party ideologues). Fifth, the breakdown of elite GOP control over its electorate that had allowed him to mount a hostile takeover of the party was being mirrored on the Democratic side as disillusioned sections of the liberal electorate looked around for alternatives to Clinton’s increasingly elitist campaign, with Wikileaks’ constant stream of DNC dirt creating a haze of malfeasance (not to mention that Clinton was connected in one way or another with a series of criminal investigations).
Finally, Trump saw the potential for upset in what had happened in the UK Referendum on EU membership. He said this election would be “Brexit plus plus”, and he was right. As I wrote in the aftermath of the “leave” vote:
The ability of Donald Trump to snare the GOP nomination against the predictions of the vast majority of pundits and politicos follows a similar pattern. The shrillness of the commentary about him is hard to explain in the case of someone who never seems to be given a serious chance of winning anything. Many US Leftists are correctly grasping that Brexit shows the possibility of a shock Trump win in November, but the conclusion they seem to be drawing is to double down on exactly the kind of strident fear campaign that failed so miserably in the UK.
All that meant that for voters who wanted change in Washington, he was the change candidate — however personally unpleasant, vulgar and flawed he might be. It is telling that a Reuters-Ipsos poll of over 10,000 voters on election day found:
- 75 percent agree that “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful.”
- 72 percent agree “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.”
- 68 percent agree that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”
- 76 percent believe “the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth.”
- 57 percent feel that “more and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”
- 54 percent feel “it is increasingly hard for someone like me to get ahead in America.”
Such sentiments, alongside policy differences (which Trump highlighted to the end of his campaign while Clinton became increasingly focused on being “not-Trump” rather than projecting her usual wonkish attention to policy detail), explain why some of the breakdown on race and gender lines in the exit polls didn’t conform to liberal expectations of an easy blowout for Clinton. Trump improved on Romney in terms of the share of Black, Hispanic and Asian voters, while among white women he scored 53 percent support.
Furthermore, the unexpected Trump success in a series of northern “rust-belt” states, some of which Clinton had been so confident of winning that she barely campaigned in them, indicates an electoral realignment between the two major parties that is more advanced than polling had predicted. Nothing on the scale of what happened in the wake of the great Civil Rights Movement victories of the mid-1960s (i.e. the Democrats’ loss of the South, and the gradual weakening of the Republicans in the North-East; alongside a process of greater sorting of liberal and conservative voters into the opposing camps) has occurred this time yet, but the degeneration of the two historic parties of post-Civil War America makes bigger shifts possible.
Yet these numbers should not be read as indicating that Trump will have an easy ride. They must be read alongside the final pre-election New York Times/CBS News Poll which showed that 82 percent agreed with the statement that “The 2016 campaign has made you feel more disgusted”. Some of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters may see him as capable of working magic on their behalf, but the anti-political mood could just as easily swallow him as it has other presidents bringing “hopey changey” promises.
It is telling that his victory speech, like so much of his campaign, was almost entirely devoid of conservative ideology, and pushed unity across divisions between Republicans, Democrats and Independents — despite GOP majorities in both houses. It is my guess that Trump wants to achieve things that movement conservatives and GOP elites will not be very fond of, and that he will seek to “close the deal” by assembling cross-partisan coalitions to “get things done”, and thereby break the polarised Washington gridlock. The extreme hostility of the most committed partisans on both sides of the aisle (already being expressed in claims of illegitimacy because Trump narrowly lost the national popular vote while cleaning up in the Electoral College) will likely mean that such deal-making will key if he is to succeed politically. If that is the case then expect much more electoral realignment during the next four years.
Trump also called for national unity across social groups, and talked again of fixing the problems of inner cities. Many commentators have dismissed such talk because they have interpreted his nationalism as “white supremacist” racial ideology, but I think he is more likely to pragmatically steer clear of the old politics of ideological divisions on race, precisely because he cannot rest on the old ethnic make-up of the GOP’s electorate in a country that will continue to see a rise in the proportion of minority voters. In a sense his credibility as an outsider bringing change depends on pushing aside the identity politics and culture wars that have dominated so much of US politics in recent times.
I end with this thought I put on social media about the Left’s complete confusion about what Trump represents. Most of the Left, even those in principle opposed to the idea that you must support “the lesser evil”, have ended up seeing Trump as unquestionably “worse” than Clinton. On the other hand:
The way I have long seen it is that different groups of ordinary voters (and non-voters) are hurt by a Democratic or a Republican presidency. Voting for one or the other really requires deciding that some ordinary people must sacrifice more so that others sacrifice less. And that means working out a hierarchy of sacrifice (or “privilege” in the modern parlance) that leaves the most powerful at the top of society unscathed and still calling the shots.
As someone who has been on the Left my whole adult life I have felt it is important to not simply fall into a line that says that the Left of the political class, no matter how bad it is, must always be supported. That kind of partisanship has opened the door for someone like Trump to come in with a critique of the political class as a whole and win this election, apparently against the usual rules of politics.
That lesson could’ve been learned after Brexit but instead most of the Left doubled down. I fear the same will happen again now under a Trump presidency, with similarly disastrous results.
There is more to say, and I said quite a bit in an interview with Perth Indymedia a couple of days before the election, which you can listen to below.