Celebrity Apprentice: Notes on the US Election
The acute capitalist crisis of 2008 has in the years since developed into a chronic complaint, to be managed but not overcome. In wealthy countries, ultra-low interest rates prop up consumer spending and, for investors, inflate the value of stocks, bonds, and other paper or digital assets. Swollen private portfolios induce luxury spending, and the size of the resulting wealth effect, as Alan Greenspan liked to call it, does a lot to determine what volume of crumbs spills from the banquet table in the form of worker’s wages. Because the rich spend a smaller proportion of their income than others, asset-price Keynesianism, as it has been called, is an inefficient way to inject demand into an economy. But the method has its allure: what could suit the rich better than rapidly rising prices for what they have to sell – namely, financial assets – while prices of the ordinary goods and services that they buy fall short of even the 2 per cent annual increase sought by central bankers as a minimum rate of inflation? To purchase the results of toil with the weightless gyrations of fictitious capital is a good bargain.
Nowhere has the availability of cheap money inspired enough new investment – either by corporations in production, or by governments in infrastructure – to return mature economies to the rates of growth known in past expansions, and in Europe per capita GDP is little if any higher than before 2008. In the US, economic conditions have been better, but the gains from new growth have gone mostly to the wealthiest decile and, especially, percentile of the population, a point reiterated by Senator Bernie Sanders in every stump speech during his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in the bygone spring. In other words, capitalism still turns M into M’ for the rich, their money becoming more money. For the rest of the population, sustained income growth appears to be over, perhaps for good – a scenario that if it persists can only erode the legitimacy of national variants of capitalism and, at length, capitalism tout court.
In Europe, a chief result of stagnation has been to breed new populisms, in some countries of the right (France’s National Front), in some of the left (Spain’s Podemos), in other countries of both left and right (Syriza and the Golden Dawn in Greece, Corbyn’s Labour Party and UKIP in Britain), and, at least in Italy, a sort of muddled populism of the centre (the Five Star party). Twenty-first century populism took longer to reach the US, where the economy has been stronger and the winner-take-all electoral system suffocates new parties. Unlike in most of the EU, populist challenges from Sanders and Donald Trump emerged from inside long-established parties (respectively, the Democrats and the Republicans), though in both cases attached to a figure who had only recently joined the party he sought to lead. Otherwise, the new American populisms of right and left broadly resemble their European counterparts: the former is hostile to immigrants, minority populations, and educated elites, and the latter to large corporations and the rich. Both strains are skeptical of the benefits of the selective liberalisation of international markets known under the fond name of free trade.
It can be said about all populisms, in spite of their bewildering historical variety, that at a minimum they construct a virtuous ‘people’ to pit against a more or less real or imaginary elite that places its own interest above that of the people. Just which segments of the actual populace identify with the symbolic people evoked by a given populism determines its social character and political strength; but since ‘the people’ is a generic unity aspiring to maximum size, its contingent makeup will rarely be specified and thereby restricted by populists leaders themselves. Populists are quicker to specify the membership of perfidious elites, invariably in a way that evades the question of class even as it raises it: that is, the elites of the populist imaginary will be smaller and more perverse groupings than those great blocs, united by natural self-interest, known as socioeconomic classes.
For Bernie, the people turned out to be younger voters especially, white and non-white, and poorer ones (while Hillary Clinton’s strongest support in the Democratic primaries came from wealthier and older voters, as well was as older – and, needless to say, typically poor – African-Americans). The elite that Bernie inveighed against consisted particularly of ‘the Billionaire class’ (there are fewer that 600 billionaires in the US, a nation of 300 million); of the 1 per cent evoked by Occupy Wall Street; and of the corporations and wealthy individuals who largely underwrite US electoral politics. The policy proposals defining Sanders’s populism included universal healthcare, free tuition at public universities, transition to a post-carbon energy system, a less interventionist foreign policy, and reform of the ‘criminal justice’ system that makes the US uniquely barbarous among wealthy neoliberal nations. (This last item would be hardest for a president to achieve, since the sentencing, disenfranchisement, torture, forced labour, and legalised murder of American prisoners occurs mostly at the discretion of the individual states.) In all, Sanders the ‘socialist’ – an old self-description that in 2016 he neither repudiated nor emphasised – floated a program of modest social democratic reform that would hardly transform the US into a socialist country but would unquestionably make it more humane and equal.
Trump’s ‘people’ is made up especially of older whites who appear to consider themselves American in an ethnonational sense that may be the more profound for often going unconfessed. While some can be described as working class, his supporters – with a poverty rate of less than 3 per cent, a median income of almost $80,000, and, typically, prior to retirement, white-collar jobs – mostly belong to a sort of American petite bourgeoisie, consisting not so much of shopkeepers as downwardly mobile professionals. As for Trump’s elite, if it is vaguer than the one pointed to by Sanders, certainly it encompasses whatever censorious media and academic figures have imposed their regime of political correctness on the country and outraged the (bigoted) common sense of l’americain moyen sensuel; it also includes the professional politicians who – so Trump, the unbeholden amateur, could declare – have sold out the country, permitting its invasion by (Latino) immigrants and infiltration by (Muslim) terrorists.
From time to time, uncoordinated sightings of real conditions emerged in candidate Trump’s unscripted monologues, in allusions to the parlous state of American infrastructure or the diminished life chances of rural whites. He also had the candour, rare in the GOP, to acknowledge a generation-long stagnation of wages and the catastrophe of the Iraq War. As for the policies whose vague outlines could be discerned through the Trump’s haze of unspecified and – racially – unmentionable grievances, he proposed a foreign policy at once more isolationist and sadistic than the recent norm: fewer ‘interventions’ (the going euphemism for attacks and invasions) abroad, but more ‘waterboarding, and a hell of a lot more than waterboarding’ of suspected terrorists. Economically, he promised to unleash growth through ruinous tax cuts; force American allies to pay for their own military protection; and refrain from trade deals prejudicial to the national interest. Perhaps his signal issues were mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and the aggressive ‘vetting’ or outright prohibition of Muslim refugees and visitors. Some appeal to commonsensical egoism, looking out for number one, seemed to unify this miscellaneous program, and, at the crest of his popularity, Trump, in his very peculiar person, could appear to have hit upon a temporary solution to the paradox of neoliberal populism: how to inspire collective feeling among deep-dyed individualists, and massify the atomised?
Above all, Trump appeals to Americans afflicted by a not-inaccurate sense of comparative national decline. In military terms, the US remains by far the preeminent power but seems unable to win wars, as it was during World War II and must have briefly appeared to be during the recent Bush years. Destroying the Ba’athist government in Iraq to defeat Salafist terrorism was a non sequitur, but it could be done; the caliphate of Da’esh is another matter, and Obama’s initial helplessness in the face of ISIS was in sharp contrast to Bush’s bluff adventurism (never mind that the former was in part a consequence of the latter). Economically, comparative US decline has been going on since the late 1940s, but the long Chinese boom, together with feeble growth at home, has shaken that sense of singular providential prosperity that infuses the national feeling of especially those Americans born before the mid-60s. For much of Trump’s constituency, personal ageing has coincided with a loss of international stature for the country with which they identify, as well as the swift if incomplete erosion, within the US itself, of the caste status of whites. (You might say they are downwardly mobile in status more than income.) Trump’s promise to reverse these developments possessed much of the fraudulent appeal of an elixir of youth.
Even after Trump’s shock victory in the general election on 8 November, some comfort can be taken from the thought that the coalition briefly assembled by Sanders looks like an emergent property of the American scene, and the one successfully marshalled by Trump, a residual one. While Trump’s base is largely older and white in a country where whites will soon cease to be a majority, Sanders’ politics were most attractive to young people from all ethnic and racial categories, and nothing suggests that new batches of high-school and college graduates will enjoy much lighter debt burdens or rosier job prospects than those of so-called millennials today. The tolerant social views of younger Americans – nonchalant about race and sexual orientation, laissez-faire about drugs and religion – also make them less vulnerable than their elders and inferiors to being divided by the culture-war battle lines that configured so much of American politics over recent decades. The best hope for future experiments in rancid ethnonationalism along Trumpian lines, short of cancelling elections or otherwise interfering with the franchise, would probably be to reconfigure real Americanness to include brown-skinned non-Muslims but implicitly exclude African-Americans as a dependent and criminal surplus population, and continue stigmatising Muslim communities as incubators of terror. Indeed, general-election exit polls revealed, surprisingly, that Trump garnered more support among Latinos and Asian-Americans than the patrician Romney in 2012.
Too much was made during the spring primaries of the apparent similarities between Trump’s populism and Sanders’, from a supposedly shared ‘anger’ (as if indignation were always unseemly in voters, regardless of the cogent or cracked reasoning behind it) to an allegedly overlapping appeal to white workers. The two campaigns were utterly contrasted in their constituencies, ideology, and intellectual cogency, and vanishingly few former Bernie supporters switched to Trump after Sanders conceded the Democratic nomination. Still, two broad similarities between the candidates – one practical, the other rhetorical – seem important.
First, both Bernie and, during the primaries, Trump refused corporate or ‘big money’ funding of their campaigns. Trump’s enormous – if characteristically exaggerated – personal fortune enabled him to underwrite his own candidacy, while his celebrity ensured him vastly more free publicity or ‘earned media’ (in the euphemism preferred by the press to describe its economy of attention) than any other candidate. Sanders, for his part, declined, unlike Clinton, to collaborate with or approve so-called SuperPACs (for ‘political action committees’) acting on his behalf, and denounced the 2010 Supreme Court decision that permitted these entities to collect unrestricted quantities of money, often from obscure sources, in promoting one or another candidate for public office. Individual supporters, whose average donation, Bernie boasted, was only $27, financed his campaign instead, more handsomely than could have been imagined; prospective future political candidates surely took note that small donors made Bernie’s official campaign wealthier than Clinton’s and, in spite of the largesse of Clinton’s nominally independent SuperPACs, allowed his spending on advertising to rival hers. Thanks to their unusual approaches to campaign finance, Sanders and Trump could both criticise the capture of public elections by private wealth with a rare air of sincerity. Later, the financial exigencies of the general election led Trump to drop the theme of the bought-and-paid-for politician that he used to great effect against Republican rivals in primaries, but, during the spring, he and Sanders together showed that a huge portion of the electorate disdains the purchased politics and open-air corruption that naturally result from a system which rations political influence according to the ability to pay. And here, too, it is the Sanders model that looks more promising: a mass of small donors is easier to replicate than personal celebrity and a private fortune.
It can’t be coincidental that Sanders and Trump also – a second similarity – broke with the conventions of US politics on the plane of rhetoric. No doubt partly because they had few large benefactors to fear offending, both came across as having formed their political opinions independently of pollsters and as saying more or less what they thought. Of course they produced this impression in the most opposed ways. For Bernie, it was dogged adherence to the same political values across the half century of his adult life, including long decades when socialism remained a dirty word and most people would have regarded Sanders’s politics as a holdover from his 1960s youth. Trump, on the other hand, appeared candid – if never the least bit honest – thanks to the frankness of his narcissism and prejudices, the unembarrassed vulgarity of his tastes, and his remarkable incapacity for shame. In short, it was Bernie’s decency that made him seem straightforward, and, for Trump, his indecency. Together they considerably expanded the range of respectable politics in the US, in the polar directions of social democracy and something like fascism.
Notwithstanding the unexpected success of both apparently straight-talking populists, it appeared to almost all observers, until the night of the election, that the next president of the United States would be the most careful and rehearsed of American politicians, identified with the very elites – in finance, politics, and media – castigated by Sanders and Trump. What accounted for the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton in a country fuming with anti-elitist grievances?
Hillary – with whom the public has long been on a first-name basis – owed much of her strength as a candidate in 2016 to her prior fame, exceeding even Trump’s. Not widely beloved, the former First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State was nevertheless a familiar and, for many people, comforting presence, associated with the popular president she represented abroad, and with the booming economy and happier pre-9/11 mood of her husband’s second term. These were advantages peculiar to Hillary, and can’t ground any general strategy for centre-left neoliberals in the years ahead. But the campaign Clinton waged against Sanders during the primaries, and the lines of battle she later drew against Trump in the general election, suggest how the dead centre of social or centre-left neoliberalism may try to hang onto power, in the US and elsewhere, with populism encroaching on both sides.
Hillary’s first great liability against Bernie was simply that his program, distinctly to the left of hers, more closely aligned with the preferences of the average Democratic primary voter. Her second was that the consistency of Bernie’s views over the years and his refusal of corporate money made him the more appealing personality in many eyes: principled where she was opportunistic, sincere where she was none too forthright. In the face of the first problem, Clinton shifted her proposals and rhetoric leftwards for the duration of primary season, a customary feint. But her campaign and its media boosters also deployed a newer tactic against Sanders, using identitarian tropes of symbolic achievement and semantic grievance to present Hillary as the more progressive candidate. The logic of symbolic achievement made it imperative to put a woman in the White House rather than another white man, never mind that Sanders would have been the first Jewish president. (In extreme form, the argument was, mutatis mutandis, that of Daisy Benson in the Independent arguing against Corbyn and in favour of a woman, any woman, as head of the Labour Party: ‘If it’s truly progressive, Labour will have voted in a female leader – regardless of her policies.’) The complementary tactic was to cast the further-left campaign as in fact a stalking horse for racism, misogyny, and the jealous retention of class privilege.
Thus Bernie’s loud speaking voice and interruptions of Hillary in their televised debates (no more frequent than hers of him) testified to his sexism, and the enthusiasm of his male supporters to an aversion to powerful women. When polls showed that women in their twenties supplied Bernie’s strongest constituency, liberal feminist pundits adverted to the naiveté of young women (less aware of the enormity of sexism because of scanter experience of the job market) and even their boy-craziness (backing Sanders, as Gloria Steinem surmised, to gain the favour of young men). That Hillary enjoyed more popularity among black voters could likewise be taken to suggest that Sanders supporters paternalistically presumed to know better what lay in African-American interests. So could Bernie’s references to ‘the Deep South’ as a place where his campaign fared poorly and to poor black neighbourhoods as ‘the ghetto’ be construed – or, you might suspect, deliberately misconstrued – as bespeaking a loss of touch with black concerns. (It’s true that ‘ghetto’ is no longer the flat factual word it was during Sanders’ youth as a Civil Rights activist, when an even younger Clinton campaigned for the segregationist Goldwater.) Finally, the support Sanders drew from students and intellectuals, in a country where higher education is a luxury item priced out of most budgets, was said to mark his proposed ‘political revolution’ as the idle fantasy of privileged children with little to lose from the election of Trump, in spite of the facts that it was the richest primary voters who chose Hillary in overwhelming numbers while Bernie prevailed among the hard-pressed and indebted, and that polling suggested Sanders, not Clinton, would do better against Trump.
Identitarian neoliberalism, if you like, proposes not just that bigotry and chauvinism can be found on the left, as no one could deny, but that they discredit the left in particular. Presumably this is either because leftists, given their professed commitments, don’t need to be unusually bigoted to count as unusually hypocritical, or because leftward politicians and voters who benefit from privileges of race, class, or gender, or all of these at once, are secretly more determined than anyone to guard their perch. Most insinuations along these lines against Sanders (or Corbyn in the UK) are plainly, if unprovably, in bad faith. The question is whether they can be effective in splitting the left side of the electorate so that the neoliberals come away with the larger share. Politicians and journalists of the centre left must think so, to judge by their persistent and often comically strained attempts to impute reactionary attitudes to the most progressive political formations to appear in the US or Britain for decades. In the US, these attempts were, if anything, redoubled after the election among liberal pundits. Their liberalism indicates a centre-left position on the ideological spectrum rather than any taste for the fair-minded consideration of opposing arguments or penchant for self-reflection that Mill and other thinkers once commended as basic endowments of the liberal disposition.
Identitarian neoliberalism seems likely to feature in national politics on both sides of the Atlantic as long as Democratic or Labour voters favour a social-democratic programme over the dead centre’s neoliberal holding pattern: at one moment trimming left toward public provision, at another trimming right toward further privatisation, but basically circling in place while economies grow less dynamic and incomes more unequal. Unable to defend this complacency on its own terms, the centre left first warns that nobody advancing a more attractive program can be elected. To the extent that this stops being convincing, it tallies up discrediting examples of left hypocrisy – ideally unrepresentative but, if need be, imaginary. Identitarian neoliberalism will always find left populism at once excessively radical and insufficiently woke. The rhetoric of ‘breaking down all barriers’ of social injustice – as Clinton assured primary voters was her ultimate object, in contrast to Sander’s alleged preoccupation with economic matters – vouchsafed that her program, if it fell short of universal emancipation, represented the maximum of the currently achievable. With luck, the mainly symbolic conquests and discursive progress proposed by identitarian neoliberalism will seem, to progressives or would-be radicals, the utmost that is it able to do and, to centrists more at ease with the status quo, the utmost that it intends.
The ‘inevitable’ nominee before the primaries began, Hillary escaped them, Democratic nomination in hand, far more narrowly than anyone anticipated at the outset. By late summer she had become inevitable again, now as president. People who can stomach the oddly mawkish gloating of US nationalism in full spectacle mode pronounced the Democratic convention a triumph, and at the very least it baited Trump into a quarrel with the Muslim parents, brought on stage by the Democrats, of an Army captain awarded a Purple Heart after being killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. In the two months after, Trump’s hopelessly undisciplined campaign further lost the plot and staggered from scandal to scandal. There were grounds to suspect this wealthy man had paid no personal income tax for years; he meanwhile flirted with suggesting his opponent be assassinated or that he might deny the legitimacy of an unfavourable election result; and, most vividly, he was exposed by leaked video tapes and the testimony of numerous female acquaintances as an inveterate harasser and assaulter of women. The succession of blows obscured Clinton’s own scandals, including the release by WikiLeaks of hacked transcripts of talks she delivered in recent years before Goldman Sachs and other financial firms. In one, Clinton located the public’s alleged reluctance to see the very wealthy appointed to high office in ‘a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives’; in another, she recognised bankers as the ideal authors of financial regulation: ‘The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry’. Other leaks had her deriding climate-change activists as irritants who should ‘get a life.’ The New York Times published on its website a daily revised estimate of Clinton’s and Trump’s respective chances of victory and for months consistently rated hers above 90 per cent. None of Hillary’s scandals counted for much until, hardly more than ten days before the election, the FBI director announced he was reopening an investigation in her possible misuse of a private email account while Secretary of State. Director Comey’s wildly unjustified action reawakened the justified impression, among much of the public, that Clinton was not to be trusted, and may have cost her the presidency.
Such things are contingencies. In other liberal capitalist countries and future US elections, the right-wing populist won’t likely be such a grotesque as Trump, and the standard-bearer of the centre left so evidently entitled and triangulative as Clinton. For now, it’s enough to wonder what Clinton’s exceedingly cautious strategy in the general election suggests about the viability of centrist politics at a time when the neoliberal consensus is crumbling on both sides. Clinton’s case against Sanders was that, while she shared and indeed improved on his progressive values, she possessed a better understanding of the limits of the feasible in US politics and greater capacity ‘to get things done’, never mind which; facing Trump head-to-head, she stressed his unpresidential temperament and departures from bipartisanship more than her own programme. (According to an analysis in the New York Times, ‘Only 9 per cent of Mrs Clinton’s appeals in her ads were about jobs or the economy. By contrast, 34 per cent of Mr Trump’s appeals focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and trade’. Some three quarters of Clinton’s spots attacked Trump’s character.) The vacuous patriotism of the Democratic convention, and Clinton’s overtures to uneasy Republican voters and neocon foreign-policy thinkers, proposed Hillary as the tribune of a national common sense, while Trump’s personality was deemed too outlandish for the presidency.
The trouble was, Clinton’s courtship of the GOP reinforced the impression that she was a politician faithful mainly to expediency, just as her efforts to cast Trump as an unhinged interloper in the circle of elite agreement and collaboration made her seem complacent, comfortable, in a way that much of the electorate clearly was not. Trump himself became the national emergency, rather than the stagnation, inequality, and perceived decline that made Trump and Bernie plausible candidates in the first place.
Altogether, Clinton played not to lose, rather than to win, against a man who seemed incapable of winning. The strategy, though grievously mistaken, was not irrational. In a two-party, winner-take-all system, a centrist neoliberal, from whichever party, would seem to enjoy the advantage against a populist from left or right. The populist challenger, after all, represents merely the more extreme end of one side of the electorate, while the sensible centrist can speak for centre left and centre right alike as well as appeal as a defensive measure to whatever constituency lies ideologically opposite the populism on offer. In the name of realism, the centrist can represent a settled understanding whose assumptions scarcely need explaining or defending. With the aid of academic experts and old policy hands, mainstream politicians propose to manage the economy (and foreign policy) in the circumscribed ways that alone count as realism, assuring the public that to get any bigger ideas would be irresponsible. ‘Populist’ is the favoured term of abuse in the respectable press for such contraventions of reality. And yet neoliberal realism is faltering, its plausibility impaired by runaway inequality, lingering stagnation, and the vagaries of capital flows that leave whole industries and regions derelict. Its status as common sense slips away at its premises become harder to explicitly assert. In a two-party system, the political centre won’t give way – until it does so all at once.
Calamitously, this is what happened in the US on 8 November, in a result that surprised me as much as anyone.
The legislative stalemate and largely bipartisan foreign policy of the Obama years combined with Obama’s race to make the office of the presidency seem of little practical consequence at the same time that it possessed huge symbolic value. In 2016, voters accordingly voted for who they wanted more than for what policies they could expect, and everything depended on whether – and in which ‘battleground’ states – The Shatterer of the Glass Ceiling or the Artist of the Deal made for the more inspiring national totem. But the symbolic force of Clinton’s campaign was vitiated by its political timidity. Many voters who would have cast a ballot for Sanders simply didn’t vote, and the same seemed likely to go for GOP voters put off by Trump but lukewarm to Clinton. In other words, it was clear that Hillary’s ‘sane’ or realist constituency wouldn’t turn out in proportion to its size while the less-numerous Trump supporters would muster enthusiastically. In combination with the reflexes of automatic GOP voters, this – so I wrote before the election – ‘might have been just enough to make Trump president if he weren’t dragging after him such a vile career as a misogynist.’
Clinton did win the popular vote, by almost 3 million ballots, but Democratic turnout was sufficiently depressed in the deindustrialised or rustbelt states of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and sufficiently suppressed by new voter identification laws in Wisconsin, that Trump carried these states and, with them, the Electoral College. Trump’s promise to repatriate manufacturing jobs won him a few voters where Clinton’s apparent aloofness from the concerns of the working class, white or otherwise, lost her many more. The final result should not be taken as a repudiation of the dead centre, which nearly carried the day. But it is a colossal defeat, and a warning that realism and electability, never very rousing slogans to begin with, may no longer have either realism or electability in their favor.
As long ago as the first caucuses and primaries in February (the most anomalously warm month on record: a reminder that, from now on, all comparatively petty electoral dramas play out against the backdrop of planetary ecological crisis), 2016 already counted as the most interesting election year in the US since 1968, when Nixon promised ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam and defeated Johnson’s Vice President, Humphrey, on the basis of the so-called southern strategy of inducing white voters in the historically Democratic states of the old Confederacy to vote Republican in protest of Johnson’s accommodation of the Civil Rights Movement.
The most lasting effect of the 1968 election on the international posture of the US was to rule out lengthy ground wars for a generation. Congress replaced a conscript army with a professional force (incidentally providing a sort of jobs guarantee to poorer youth), and no extended foreign occupation took place before Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, a bipartisan adventure in which the broad public acquiesced, expecting that, like the Gulf War of 1991, it would cost little time and few American lives. Since Bush’s 2007 ‘surge’ in Iraq ebbed away, aerial attack, now by remote-controlled drones, and sponsorship of friendly local factions have resumed the place they have occupied since the 1970s as preferred techniques of US imperialism. Domestically, the most important consequence of 1968 was a Republican Party committed from now on to securing the allegiance of poorer whites nursing racial grievances against blacks and, more and more as time went on, cultural grievances against freer-thinking and relatively feminist college graduates. Almost half a century later, this program of resentment, combined with traditional Republican fealty to business, continues to win elections for the GOP. What was once called the New Left failed to assemble, in 1968 or after, any similarly effective coalition. Its main components – organised labour, the non-unionised non-white poor, and college-bred liberals and leftists like myself – have never coordinated themselves very well. Electorally, this reduced the broad American left to the position it still endures today as the appendage of a Democratic Party it can neither possess nor abandon.
Much of the interest of the 2016 election came from putting into question the durability of what might be called the 1968 settlement. Would the GOP coalition – of the economically prosperous together with the racially and culturally resentful, including of course those who are both – survive Trump’s candidacy, which looked like a lurid epitome and last gasp of the southern strategy? And did the strength of the Sanders campaign prefigure a new opening for social democracy in the US under the aegis of the Democrats?
Truthfully, I imagined that these questions, though raised by 2016, would receive postponed answers. Clinton would attain the White House and, once there, oversee the continuation of imperialism by drone warfare abroad and legislative inaction at home. Interesting as the election had been, institutional drift looked to me unstoppable and populist polarisation – so far – ineffectual. Neither Trumpian plutopopulism nor Sanders-style ‘socialist’ populism would triumph earlier than 2020.
Now the battle of the populisms – against each other, and against the dead centre – is joined, sooner than almost anyone expected. In the grim weeks after the election, many commentators accused Trump of abandoning his ostensible populism. But his regressive tax plan was never disguised; he has reiterated his intention to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ‘Obama’s signature trade deal’, as the papers call it; and he still pledges to clamp down on that internationally mobile factor of production known as labour power, which in the US substantially takes the form of undocumented workers from Latin America. Trump’s casual hypocrisy is more evident in flagrant contradictions of his campaign promise to be ‘fighting for every citizen that believes government should serve the people, not the donors and not the special interests’. He has put campaign donors and lobbyists, especially for the energy industry, in charge of staffing federal agencies, and, by refusing to sell off his investments and commit the proceeds to a blind trust, shown that there is one special interest above all that he believes the government should serve: his own. His celebrated infrastructure plan, which induced credulous liberals to imagine a public-works program along New Deal lines, turned out, on inspection, largely to envisage subsidies to the builders of toll roads: highway robbery in the most literal sense. Private prison corporations also anticipate a windfall from the incoming administration, to judge by their rejuvenated share prices.
And yet the clientalist corruption promoted and embodied by Trump seems almost picayune compared to the other damage he threatens. His billionaire nominee for education secretary would privatise primary and secondary education through a voucher program; his nominee for secretary of health would do the same with Medicare, through which the federal government provides health care for retirees. Privatisation of education will be difficult to execute nationwide so long as education remains in the hands of the states, but may proceed in those twenty-five states with both a Republican governor and legislature. The possibility illustrates a more general dynamic of social deterioration in the US. Because ‘blue’ or reliably Democratic states like California, New York, and Massachusetts are also atypically wealthy and contribute more than their share of national taxes, conservative states with older, poorer, and more rural populations are disproportionate recipients of federal outlays, especially on highway maintenance, military bases, and food stamps. The overall effect is that more leftward Americans subsidise precisely those communities whose voters are most opposed to social provision of health and education. (Lavish spending on state violence, at home and abroad, is viewed far more indulgently on the right.) This strangely socialistic subvention to neoliberalism not only encourages rural voters in the fantasy that they are rugged individualists uncontaminated by handouts, but jeapordises what little the US possesses in the way of social democracy. Much struggle over the next years will go into the mere defense of dismal education and health care systems.
The danger Trump poses to non-Americans is probably even greater. He has pledged to better Obama, who deported more than 2 million immigrants, by expelling 3 million. Intensified air campaigns over the Middle East are foreshadowed in the counsel Trump receives from a belligerently Islamophobic lieutenant general, a candidate to serve as national security advisor. World-historically, the worst news about the cabinet is probably that Trump, a doubter of climate change who promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, has nominated an outright global-warming denialist for head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The feat of Orwellian trolling is almost enough to raise a laugh. But it is no hyperbole to say that the president-elect is an enemy of life on earth.
The hope must now be that Trump and his collaborators forfeit what little legitimacy they enjoy swiftly enough that the 2018 mid-terms cripple his administration, by installing a hostile Congress, before the 2020 elections dispatch it altogether. In this question, two kinds of contingency seem likely to play an important role if either occurs: namely, any successful operations by Islamist terrorists in the ‘homeland’ or on the soil of wealthy allies, or any new outbreak of vertigo for the global economy.
A sort of economic sugar high – from exciting the banks with more deregulation, indulging corporations and the rich with tax cuts, and juicing demand with privatised public works – may bless the first few years of Trump’s tenure. But should he see out his first term, he will probably run into difficulty. Engels long ago observed that ‘the whole industrial and commercial world’ is ‘thrown out of joint about once every ten years.’ During the so-called Golden Age of Capitalism from the aftermath of WWII to the oil shock and real-estate bust of 1973, these periodic recessions were smoothed by Keynesian demand management and their dimensions partly restricted to the national level by capital controls and the – less globalised – character of post-war economies. In the neoliberal period since, Engels’ law of decennial crisis holds as a rule of thumb, with system-wide recessions in 1973–4, 1980–81, 1990–91, 2000–2001, and, most spectacularly, 2008 and after. The investor panics that typically herald recessions have grown more dramatic over the same span, now that finance capital is ever more mobile internationally and, by comparison to the rest of the economy, gargantuan. In the event of another crash, Trump’s legitimacy seems likely to crumble further, in particular among rustbelt voters who will see few if any manufacturing jobs restored and, more generally, with the vast public whose incomes have stagnated and household wealth shrunk since the last recession or two. Like an already concussed NFL player, this population, not yet recovered from the last blow to head, is in no shape to absorb another without lasting damage.
No administration welcomes a recession. But who can trust that Trump won’t greet successful acts of terror with private pleasure (and sham mourning)? An occasion for righteous vengeance will divert attention from his own failings, economic and otherwise. Unlike the schedule of recessions, the periodicity of Islamist terror in the West can’t even be guessed at. But everyone knows, or should, that the massacres will go on being attempted for years to come, especially in countries with militaries engaged in the Muslim world. Whenever they occur next, there is every chance that Trump will stake his legitimacy on defending – as he will say – American lives, while he neglects – as he will not say – American livelihoods.
Vengeance will bid to compensate for economic frustration, in a bare populism of injured and infuriated nationalism. A renewed War on Terror, one again cast as a civilisational crusade after eight years of bloodless rhetoric from Obama as he dispatched his drones, would of course further imperil populations from North Africa to Pakistan. Less certain is whether it would also threaten domestic dissenters. Trump’s extraordinarily thin skin – was any similarly powerful man ever so petty? – suggests that radical critics may no longer be protected, in the accustomed way, by their ineffectualness.
Throughout the rich Atlantic countries, the undeniably real but insistently exaggerated menace of jihadi terror serves, for politicians from Hollande the ‘socialist’ to the gathering front of aspiring fascists, as a blessing that must be described as a curse. In these politicians’ counterproductive campaigns against terrorism, pretended fidelity to the unimpeachable idea that innocents shouldn’t be murdered, or not our innocents anyway, certifies their commitment to just those allegedly Western, liberal, or Judeo-Christian ‘values’ – whether of democracy, equality, or forgiveness of sins; of open-mindedness, feminism, antiracism, or respect for science – which in fact capitalist reaction betrays to the degree that they were ever realised in the first place. Talk of values obscures the fact that capitalist societies will abandon every last one before they do the value-form. If popular majorities aren’t yet ready to hear this old news, the Left must at least get used to saying that terror is no vindication of politicians whose foreign policies invite it and whose reactionary domestic programs terror only assists. This will be especially important in the case of Trump, who will have little to offer the public except for shows of force. All his life a simultaneously belligerent and pampered creature, he presents in his person a terrible likeness to the US military in its current form, capable of inflicting unprecedentedly great violence on others at unprecedentedly little risk to itself.
Where might effective opposition come from? It won’t amount to much if Trump and the GOP go on winning elections. During the primaries, Trump and Bernie together performed the service of revealing the Democratic and the Republican parties to be largely empty vessels, much more readily commandeered by ideological outliers than anyone supposed. But the empty vessels are not frail barks; these have been the two principal parties in the US since before the Civil War, and no matter what other developments perturb US politics neither party will readily cede to an upstart. Much easier than to displace either party, if still daunting enough, is to take it over, as Trump has at least temporarily done to the GOP, or to radicalise it from within, as a generation of politicians, activists, donors, foundations, and publications did in shifting the Republicans ever-further to the right.
The idea of similarly remaking the Democrats from the left, as well as attempting from now on to field presidential candidates closer in outlook to Sanders than Clinton, may not seem alluring or plausible after party officials undermined Bernie in the primaries and Clinton portrayed Trump as a renegade from both parties rather than the inevitable excrescence of the GOP. But the Democratic Party is essentially a shell, with a small permanent organisation in the form of the Democratic National Committee and no formal dues-paying membership in the European style. The gerrymandering of congressional districts meanwhile renders most contests for the House of Representatives uncompetitive: whoever wins the primary of the dominant party wins the general election. The same goes for the majority of Senate races in a country for the most part divided into inertly red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states with two senators apiece. (The national electorate is far more evenly split between the parties than most states or districts.) The advantage of established parties is that much of their support is habitual, as that of younger parties can’t be; the advantage of populists is their capacity to attract passionate new support. Together, these conditions suggest left populist candidates affiliating with the Democrats have a future to seize in the US. Sentimentally, this is a repugnant conclusion, given the long history of Democratic collusion with the worst US politics, and it underscores all the classical left fears of electoral participation as, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, apostasy. Logically, however, if US radicals are to have anything to do with contests for national office under a system innocent of proportional representation, then making use of the Democratic Party looks more promising than abandoning it altogether.
And yet this shouldn’t rule out forming and joining a new party of the left. In an important essay in the latest issue of Jacobin, Seth Ackerman argues for a party that would at once avail itself of European-style organisational discipline and, where necessary, the pre-existing claim on the American electorate of the Democrats. Such a party ‘would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country,’ as well as ‘a national educational apparatus.’ But ‘it would avoid the ballot-line trap’ of uniform party affiliation: ‘Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organisation could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organisation’s own ballot line.’ Socialists and perhaps other progressives or leftists – Ackerman stipulates that ‘all candidates would be required to adhere to the national program,’ but doesn’t say how narrow or broad this program might be – would put themselves forward as Democratic, Green, or other varieties of candidate as the case required, without disguising their precise commitments. Once elected, they could of course work with like-minded politicians from other parties in the popular front that will be required to slow and stop Trumpism and its sequels.
Ackerman’s elegant solution to the impasse between stillborn third parties and the seductions of entryism indicates only one path of resistance to Trump. Other paths will open in the streets, the courts, the workplace. At the moment – in more or less democratic circumstances and amid an ongoing and perhaps permanent slump, with a right-wing international sweeping governments from Delhi, to Budapest, to London, and Washington, D.C. – the Left’s project appears to have become of necessity a populist one, requiring the discovery and creation, in country after country, of new democratic peoples in the form of left majorities. In the US, among all the psephological entrails to be read post-election, at once the most heartening and most dispiriting piece of data is that half the eligible population didn’t vote at all on 8 November. Any movement that drew a substantial portion of this mass into the streets, the voting booths, and ideally into old unions and a new party would be one to be reckoned with. Weak as the Left remains for now, it alone stands to benefit from the political participation of the half of the country that is currently too discouraged to vote. The right and the dead centre will of course also seek their own majorities – but with the greatest hope of success the more reduced is the population of voters. If this tendency doesn’t quite amount to a contradiction of capitalism, it may nevertheless indicate a vulnerability.
27 December 2016
An earlier version of this piece was published on the Salvage website in October 2016, under the title Sweet ’16: Notes on the US Election. It can be accessed here.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision, a novel; Utopia or Bust, a collection of essays; and Buzz, a play.