The people have lost the confidence of the government. It is time to dissolve the public and elect another.
— Berthold Brecht, on the occasion of, oh you know it?
The bad news came first, though it wasn’t seen as such. Half an hour after counting started, with 2% counted in Florida, Donald Trump was showing a slight lead. Same in North Carolina. Forty-five minutes later, the numbers reversed and Hillary moved into a 2% lead, as ordained by the polls. We spent an hour checking out the victory party in the cavernous Javits Conference centre, and when we got back to a bar about 9pm, it was all over; Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, that was the ball game. The mind resisted for a while, but it was gone from there.
So what happened? Well, exactly what Donald Trump promised to the RNC would happen. His campaign around economic nationalism, closed borders, non-“politically correct” US imperialism involving massive force, “draining the swamps” in Washington — conducted with the sort of hyper-aggressiveness that is common in pop culture, but hitherto kept out of politics — opened up states that the Republicans have been locked out of for decades. For a half-century the worker-progressive alliance has been the base of Democratic politics, and they have only lost when a slice of those workers have been snatched from them, in 1980 (2000 was a fix; 2004, a national security victory).
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Now, Trump has sundered that alliance, perhaps forever. He did so with the connivance of the Democratic centre themselves. They looked at the voting patterns and preferences of the northern white working class, and decided that they were becoming increasingly hard to talk round — people left behind by economic change, increasingly given to displaced anger for their plight, from the “elites” to the “world not respecting us any more”. They still believed they would win those states, but to buttress they turned increasingly to the new west and the new south — Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia — and emphasise the social and cultural politics of race and gender.
The strategy was a double failure, though there were plenty of polls to suggest it wasn’t. Team Clinton reached for the new states and failed, with a campaign strong on identity politics, and Hillary as the personification of diverse populations’ desires, and weak on specific packages and proposals for the devastated north.
For the latter, she was judged initially by her involvement with NAFTA, and her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership; this was combined with stories about her private email server, her conduct during the Benghazi disaster, and the operation of the Clinton Foundation. For many however, bitter after 10 years of non-recovery after the crash, Hillary simply represented the shadowy establishment. There was a degree of misogyny in this, from both men and women — she was identified as the female professional boss or manager who had become an increasingly common figure in peoples lives — but Hillary gave plenty of raw material to the haters. Elizabeth Warren, had she run, would have stirred up nothing like the hatred Hillary attracted.
But central to Hillary’s failure with high school-educated whites in the northern states — a group she lost by 40% — was the change in the mode of public reasoning among these groups. Put simply, conspiracy thinking has ceased to be a fringe process; as far as I can tell it has become the dominant mode by which tens of millions think about social life. Everywhere, everywhere, people talk of shadowy forces that run their lives, that fix the vote, that work behind the scenes, that they often identify as “government”. It often isn’t that, of course: Americans live among monopoly capital, their lives run by giant corporations, by mega-health-insurance, by massive telecoms, by Amazon, by a hundred other things in which they have no control. Ceaselessly told that they live in a society of opportunity, when in fact they live in a society where there is little capacity to steer your own life, this contradiction is constructed as someone actively holding you back, running the show.
[Rundle: deafened by the Trump fervour]
This was a diabolical public culture for Hillary to walk into, and worse still as her leaked emails showed a culture of influence peddling and image manipulation behind the scenes. When the FBI and the bizarre sexual scandal-prone Anthony Weiner was drawn in, in the final weeks, Clinton’s milieu was exposed as a cynical, decadent, elitist group who fit exactly with the suspicions of the culture. She ran in an era of the Hunger Games and Twilight, both mega-franchises that depict a bejewelled and self-flattering, knowing elite, lording it over hapless and doomed masses. These franchises work because people do believe that the elites are, literally, trying to kill them, and, metaphorically, trying to suck their life blood away.
This was not Clinton’s “fault”, in that much of the conspiracy was exaggerated and fabricated. But much of it wasn’t, and part of the conspiracy — the use of the Clinton Foundation to build an unchallangeable base in the Democratic centre — was exactly what foredoomed the party to pick a candidate with too many flanks to be attacked on. Had third or fourth serious primary candidates been able to emerge in the primaries — neither Sanders nor Clinton — the party would have had the possibility of choosing a centre-left cleanskin figure, whom Trump would find difficult to attack at length.
Didn’t happen. This did. Trump did comparatively well in every constituency, except college-educated women and African-Americans. He won college educated white men by 10 points. he gained near 25% of Latinos, and he won all white high-school-educated people by 67% to 28%. The last figure is the most significant because it covers both men and women. Some 45% of college-educated women voted for Trump; 62% high school-educated women did, a 17% gap. The gap between high school-educated men and women is far less than the gap between college women and high school-educated women. So the notion that this is first and foremost a gender-split election is bogus — unless one dismisses high school-educated women as possessed of false consciousness. The inconvenient fact is that they preferred a proud exponent of systemic workplace sexual assault to the first woman candidate. Possibly, they thought the pussygrabber would do more for them than the moneygrabber (yes, that is unfair — but not an inaccurate picture of how the thinking went).
Nor is there any indication that support for him was particularly racist — outside the south, where it’s always racist. The issue of high levels of immigration, legal and illegal, the perceived effect on wages, meshed with trade and jobs drove people to Trump — the “businessman” who could “sort this mess out”.
Bitterly disappointed at their candidate’s poor performance, poor campaign, lack of message, and, yes, plain old bad luck, progressives are lashing out at anyone in range. The voting numbers don’t lie: Hillary is 5 million votes short of the vote Obama turned out, even in 2012. She couldn’t get them to the polls and so now everyone is being blamed: the Russians, WikiLeaks, Bernie Sanders, the Bernie bros, brocialism, “renegade” women, Gary Johnson!, and even poor old Jill Stein of the Greens, sitting at 1.3%. As the projection outward continues, a curious thing is happening: left and right “progressives” are coming together, a process that was underway before this disaster. Now, the obvious and natural stitch-up between free markets and “diversity” politics is coming to pass, as economic communalism comes to be claimed by the right.
So, yes, your correspondent will now take his bragging rights. To be honest, I thought Hillary would prevail, based simply on the polls, but that it would be close run. The counter-voice in me said that Trump had it, and the polls missed it, as they missed the Tory victory in the UK in 2015. Hence I noted, several times, Hillary’s terrible, vacuous campaign, and advised Crikey readers to “prepare yourself for the idea of a Trump presidency“. And you didn’t, did you? You really thought it was a plain impossibility. The moment for me came in that bar in North Philadelphia, with a bunch of reluctant Trump voters — not racists, not misogynists, just people willing to make what’s called in gridiron the “hail Mary” pass — the last wild chuck of the ball in the dying seconds of a game, which may land a field goal. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t met many Hillary randoms, but plenty of Trump ones. Sure enough, Trump won Philadelphia, the two-decades-sought prize of Republicans.
[Rundle: sitting ’round the round bar, in the wilds of north Philly, just talking Trump]
Interestingly, both these pieces attracted scorn from, well, the usual suspects: professional progressives, policy wonks, advisers and commentators — who believed that Hillary would obviously win this, and/or that to talk to people in a bar, in the most important swing zone in the country (Philly suburbs), told you nothing useful about what Americans were thinking. You folks should simply admit that your jobs only exist courtesy of the very class split that has fed the Trump victory, and, with this set of results, are made visible as self-perpetuating bullshit work. They perpetuate themselves because they have no content, got from mates, partners, “mentors”, loss-leader websites, or, godhelpus, your mum. You never saw this coming, even as a possibility, because it doesn’t really matter what your findings are. Your world is under attack.
In the US, that attack is about as serious as it gets. The Republicans have the White House, the House, they have almost certainly retained control of the Senate. They will create the most conservative Supreme Court ever, which could last decades. They control the governorship of 30-plus states, and nearly 40 of the state assemblies, and those they keep in 2018 and 2020 will allow them to further gerrymander their state congressional districts. The Trump presidency may be a spectacular disaster, but if it’s not, then progressives in their 20s and 30s will be carried into middle-age under a regime combining rampant American suprematism, with a mix of corporate clientalist economics and a soft nativism, and in an alliance with state-enforced religious conservative culture. That offers many chances for political upheaval (of which I’ll say more anon), but for those that aren’t fighters, these will be tough years.
None of the implicit promise extended by the Obama victories is being borne out. The Democrats are about to have a blood-letting and civil war of vast magnitude. Before it really gets going, the party centre, the Hillary anarcho-communists, the brohunters and all and all, will resist to the last the idea that things are changed, and blame everyone but themselves. The people have lost the confidence of the progressives; they must be dissolved and another constituted, real or fantastical.