If we had a dollar for every explanation published in the last week for the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the National debt of the United States would likely remain as deep and dirty as the ocean. Still. That’s what happens when you use public funds to fix a broken private banking system, but who wants to talk about money?
Well. Actually, a few people do. We’ll briefly review their claims that the finance sector and its champion, Hillary Clinton, won a world, but lost an election — claims, by the way, my friend and colleague Bernard Keane vehemently dismisses as both “Trotskyite” and obliviously white. But let’s look briefly at the primary causes named for the defeat, and see if we can’t agree that the ascension of Donald Trump to President — when will that not sound like a prank? — has multiple causes.
In the US, Amanda Marcotte, political correspondent at Salon, has been unstinting in her claim that opposition to Clinton derives from social disgust for the female. The Trump win, she says in a piece typical of our era’s hyperbolic writing, is not the unlucky result of an election with low voter turnout but a “misogyny apocalypse”. Previously, Marcotte has remarked that female supporters of the successful Democratic nominee were apt to “soften my heart” , while those of nominee Bernie Sanders were “maniacs” and “brogressives”. Australian writer Van Badham had an identical take, chiding all those, presumably male, persons who had an unfavourable opinion of Clinton as driven by “testosterone”.
It was generally agreed in such accounts that women who opposed Clinton did so only due to “internalised misogyny”, or, as Gloria Steinem said during the primaries, because they were hungry for dick. As this respected founder of second-wave feminism had it, “the boys like Bernie, and the girls go where the boys are”. In the same weekend, former secretary of state Madeline Albright addressed a crowd of Clinton supporters with the advice that there was “a special place in hell for women who don’t help women”. Which will be welcome electoral news for Marine Le Pen, a woman herself divulged from hell.
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Writing in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny, who claims to be red like the blood of the proletariat, echoed the sentiment of the woman who once shrugged of the death of half a million Iraqi children, when she implored those who did not support Clinton to look in the mirror, “and ask yourself, truly, if you might not be a little bit sexist”.
In short, many men hate women and many women, dodging the brutal fist of the patriarchy, affirm the sexist theatrics of Trump, or retain their girlish attachment to the gentler daddy, Sanders. I’m just telling you what I read.
There is a great, and not unfathomable, frustration that commentators who insisted that Trump was elevated by the issue of class alone were unable to see America’s racism. David Masciotra expresses this succinctly when he writes: “Many leftists won’t acknowledge the totality of what Trump has exposed about America.”
Vox has published many widely read pieces about the role racism played in this election. Bernard Keane is also of the view that it was racism that seduced voters, whose stories of economic and social hardship had been falsified by Trots.
While some black press, like The Root, tends to offer compelling, if depressing, accounts of strategies for survival under (another) racist leader, white liberal press has approached the matter of race much as it did gender. Which is to say, by upbraiding the economic left — what shred of it remains — for its insistence on being so damn economic.
Well, Bernard may have a point about the overwhelming paucity of this argument. While there are panoramic accounts, notably by Brown’s Mark Blyth — if you have a spare 90 minutes, this lecture is a very rewarding way to spend them all — on the role that global capital played in this and in other Western elections won by nativists, there is also a lot of shit. And it’s mostly written by Brendan O’Neill, fond of denying the racism that fuelled Brexit, or by the fools of Twitter.
Economic, or material, leftism is a very new concept to many young Westerners. It may have been around for almost two centuries, but there are many kids, from many different identity groups, who have only just picked it up — and Brendan never got the hang of it in the first place. These youngsters are yet to get to the older, more difficult Marx, where they will grapple with the idea of how a complex of material relations forms between persons, and currently on the social internet, it’s a lot of “people are poor and that’s why they voted for Trump”. This is sometimes accompanied by a link to one of Clinton’s leaked Goldman Sachs speeches, or, to Bernard’s vexation, the word “neoliberalism”.
4. The People
The people no longer trust professional media. Media, in turn, have forfeited their trust in the public. They would like to elect a new one. Peter van Onselen says that he cannot “excuse the collective failure of voting a deplorable human being into the White House”. Laurie Penny, the well-known writer who asked you to gaze into the mirror to see the serial abuser of women looking back, says of democracy, “Just because millions of people believe something does not make it right.” The very good political correspondent Katharine Murphy is similarly perturbed by a people who seem to come to such terrible conclusions, for which she tries, and fails, to accept some responsibility as a member of the press.
The people, in short, are idiots.
5. The Media
Everyone, even media, is blaming media, for the successes and the failures of both Trump and Clinton. Breitbart blames the liberal press. The liberal press blames the few socialist writers who can actually get work. Murphy blames Fox News, and nearly everyone has had a go at blaming WikiLeaks, curiously charged with the crime of being a publisher that publishes things. Those journalists who still can stomach the thought of the people, or at least just realise that they will probably always vote, write long accounts of why the people should trust them.
Then there are a few precious journalists who understand why their profession is hated. One of these is Glenn Greenwald, whose work in The Intercept across the election has been peerless. Here, he speaks candidly about why the people are entirely justified in their disdain for media. While feebler analysts say that media was too soft on Trump, and that in their failure to “call him out” they “normalised hate”, etc, Greenwald saw the Trump problem in a different way.
The out-and-out refusal of media to take Trump’s policy pronouncements seriously, to say instead that he was a buffoon billionaire with a gold elevator or a guy in league with Russia, was, Greenwald said in interview during the election, bad for readers. Perhaps he would now say that this approach, this refusal to really analyse anything the man proposed, turned out to be very bad for the nation.
Murphy might decry “post-fact” journalism, but she works for a publication that presented unsubstantiated assumptions about Trump as fact. As did the New York Times. It was in July that Greenwald was frustrated by the paper when it suggested “that Trump was literally putting in a request to Putin for the Russians to cyberattack the FBI, the United States government, or get Hillary Clinton’s emails. That is such unmitigated bullshit.” And the people do not trust the media, and the media demand a new people.
In my view, all of these accounts have individual substance. We do live in a sexist and a racist West. Many of our lives have been reshaped, particularly over the past few years, by a reduction in real wages and a diminished access to social services, or to community itself. Towns are all but shut down. Dentists are rare. Democrats might defend Roe, but you try getting access to an abortion in the towns that Hillary forgot. There are people in the rust-belt who are strip-searched before walking kilometres a day in an Amazon warehouse. There are those who work for Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, who can still remember something better. There are also people who are quite comfy, but idly decide to blame their lack of a vacation house on the Muslims nonetheless. Trump did score higher with white voters, but he did better with minorities than Romney. He will benefit the investor class and he can’t bring manufacturing jobs back, but he did secure a good portion of the vote in regions where there was little job security. He is a racist clown, but Hispanic male voters did swing to him. And, yes, the people are terrible, and so are media, just as unable to see beyond their own extreme liberalism as certain white Americans are beyond their cultural privilege.
All of these accounts have something to say on their own. It is when they are taken together, however, that they form a more reliable picture. There are a few commentators who have done this, including Thomas Frank, Greenwald and Blyth. But the people prepared, or even able, to tackle more than one explanation, in an era that has settled on niche markets, are rare.
It’s not very modern to say that big events are complex. It’s better and more profitable to say that they derive from a single cause. In the past week, many commentators have accrued many page views in behaving like a Rorschach oracle. It’s this, they say, so it can’t be that. And if you say that it is not all that, then you are a racist/capitalist/communist cheerleader for sexual assault.
This, an analysis of the motivations of millions, is not intellectually useful. It’s astrology, or, at best, it’s the Barnum Effect. This term, used by psychologists to rightly malign the unscientific foundation for popular “psychometric” tests like Myers-Briggs, means that people like the delusion of “There’s Something For Everyone”. In press and on social media, there’s a Trump-splanation tailored to many different interests.
The only problem is that what we need right now is probably not what we find most self-affirming.
Many of these explanations have value when considered as mutually constituting — for example, race and economic class have long produced social friction in nation-states, like Australia and the US, founded on immigration. Some of these have little value for anyone but the outlet that published them.
The Guardian out-guardianed itself when it printed a cri de cœur by a Hallmark liberal asking how she could explain Trump to her little girl.
If commentators are so reluctant to explain Trump, and the Western rise in right-wing populism of which he forms a, frankly, more moderate part, fully to themselves, I don’t know how they hope to explain it to an infant. But good luck to those who think they know the answer. I’ve read a hundred infographics and at least a million words of text this election, and all I can currently agree with is the analysis offered by the AFR’s wisest subeditor, World is Fukt. World is fukt, and the people want it back. On this occasion, they may have erred tragically.