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Saturn Devours His Young: President Trump

by | November 11, 2016

I. How could it possibly be?

Donald Trump, who exchanged the racist dog whistle for a howling at the moon. Donald Trump, who waxed ‘braggadocious’ about sexual assault. Donald Trump, who exhorted his supporters to violence, wished it on his rivals, and openly threatened war crimes.

The maven of alt-right trolls, the doyen of racist mediocrities, the gold-plated capitalist mountebank, the artist of the deal whose relationship to the truth is summed up in his catchphrase, ‘give them the old Trump bullshit’, will be the 45th President of the United States.

By surprising his rival in a series of rustbelt states, Trump has taken the White House. It was one thing for him to take Iowa where Obama had prevailed. Even his victory in Florida was anticipated in the polls. But to take Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which have been Democratic states for respectively thirty-two and twenty-four years, was remarkable. Even Michigan – which the NYT started the night 80 per cent certain Hillary would win, before abruptly shifting its prediction at 3am – which has been a Democratic state since 1992, and the water crisis of which is being driven by Republican governor and venture capitalist Rick Snyder, went to Trump. Jill Stein didn’t do that. Bernie Bros didn’t do that.

No matter how close the race was, polls consistently gave Hillary Clinton a lead, and not one anticipated her losing in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Michigan. And yet it moves. Now, the US presidency has been captured by a man vocalising the half-digested racism and resentment of that alt right and the wider currents of middle-class reaction. What remains of the ‘special relationship’ of Anglo-American global power is now mediated by political leaderships in thrall to this derangement.


II. Hillary Clinton had every advantage. Backed by the full range of business power, the overwhelming support of the media establishment, with a range of Republican and neoconservative intellectuals behind her, outspending Trump forty to one on advertising, outstaffing him in ground organisation five to one in Ohio and eight to one in Pennsylvania. If this election had been about artillery, technique and demonstrations of continuity in the smooth functioning of power, Hillary Clinton would have won. If it was about hating Trump, loving Hillary’s pantsuits, notional abuela-like qualities, or sassy ‘yaaaas Hillary’ memes, the Democrats would have their third term in the White House.

The run-up saw from the easily enthused a wave of degraded non-arguments, weaponised sanctimoniousness – and not only from establishment liberals from whom rigour and self-reflection is always too much to expect. To decide thoughtfully that in the face of the cataclysm of spite, the only option was to hold one’s nose and vote, shuddering, for Hillary Clinton, even to argue that the Democratic Party was, is, worth fighting for, have never been the positions of the Salvage editors, but we understood, sympathised and engaged with them, were glad to offer them space (as in this issue), in debate and solidarity. They are very different from the cavalcade of entitled #imwithher fantasia, let alone the apolitical, sexist, hectoring identitarianism, including from self-styled ‘leftists’. According to them not only was it ‘Hillary’s turn’, and ‘time for a woman’ – any woman? of any politics? – in the White House, but to oppose this was ‘sexist’: thus were thousands of radical women opposed to Hillary’s hawkish neoliberalism effaced and disciplined.

Such attacks would have been ugly and unworthy whatever the outcome. Given their abject ineffectualness, they were also pitiful.In 2016, the algorithms do not work, the machines are broken, and politics prevails over technique and personality cult.

What form of politics? The strength of Trump’s vote is counterintuitive to ‘normal’ operating assumptions about bourgeois politics, certainly – a matter to which we will return. However, what was decisive was not Trump’s overweening strength, but Clinton’s etiolation of the Democratic base in key states. Vox, the mouthpiece of know-it-all technocratic Clintonism, initially referred to the turnout as ‘surprisingly low’. Had that judgment been borne out, it would not have been the least surprising – and the early results suggesting this did not surprise Salvage. However, as the results filter through, they prove to be more nuanced.

Clinton’s problem wasn’t aggregate turnout. The nationwide turnout in the presidential election was fractionally higher than it was in 2012, at an estimated 55.3 per cent. Nor was Clinton’s problem even a loss of the popular vote. Her total vote, at 65.8 million, was only slightly lower than Obama’s 2012 total, at 65.9 million (albeit with an expanded electorate). But Trump only added two million voters to the Republican base, raising it from 60.9 million to 62.9 million. In terms of those who did turn out, by far the biggest shift was toward third parties. Approximately six and a half million additional votes were cast in 2016 compared to 2012, but less than two million of these went to the two main parties. Even with the US electoral system as locked down as it is, the appalling choices offered by those parties created a sizeable protest.

Trump’s win was made possible by his ability to change the arithmetic in a number of rustbelt states. In some cases, he was helped by declining turnout. In Wisconsin, for instance, the turnout fell from 72.9 per cent in 2012 to 69.3 per cent. This could have been in part due to restrictive voting laws passed in Wisconsin and thirteen other states, but, if so, the effect was negligible elsewhere. In other cases where Trump surged, the vote either remained more or less steady (in Ohio, it dropped slightly from 65.1 per cent to 64.1 per cent, while in Michigan it remained static), or actually increased (in Pennsylvania, turnout increased from 59.5 per cent to 62.8 per cent).

However, these state-level figures can obscure changes that took place at a local, county level. In the swing states, in counties where Trump won at least 70 per cent of the vote, the turnout increased by 2.9 per cent. In counties where Clinton won at least 70 per cent, it fell by 1.7 per cent. There is anecdotal evidence and county-level data suggesting that Trump attracted people who had previously not voted in these states, on top of ‘flipping’ former Obama voters. But if Clinton lost votes for the Democrats in the rustbelt, why was her total not much lower? In part, because of where she added votes. She added half a million to the Democratic vote in Texas, and almost a hundred thousand votes in Arizona, both Republican states. But neither state flipped, and she gained no electoral college votes. In wealthy Democratic states, she increased the turnout of college-educated voters significantly, adding a million to her total in California – with, equally, no effect on the electoral college.

Why was Donald Trump, universally scoffed when he won the Republican nomination, able to come right into the Democrats’ back yard and take their voters? Why was Trump’s reactionary politics enough to galvanise a Clinton surge among moderate Republicans but not among the Obama-voting poor of the rustbelt? Bernie Sanders supporters complained that after the primary, Clinton ignored their pleas to address this part of the Democratic base, especially on economic issues. The Clinton campaign regarded this as a leftist nuisance to be brushed off in pursuit of the centre ground. And indeed, Clinton herself announced that she was focusing her campaign on wooing suburban Republicans. It looks as though she succeeded in this strategy. A national analysis of 20 growing Republican suburbs showed that Trump had significantly reduced the advantage of the Republicans in almost all of them.

In her own strategising, in short, if Hillary Clinton mastered anything in this election, it was the old Third Way technique of demoralising voters. Beginning in the primary contest, she managed expectations down to close to zero, scolding Sanders supporters that universal healthcare was ‘never going to happen’. She barely even had the grace to be red-faced about her convivial relationship with Goldman Sachs and Wall Street. Far from embarrassed, she was proud of her plaudits from Henry Kissinger, Laura Bush and Dick Cheney. Meanwhile, her team noised it abroad that she would be looking to privatise social security, and to re-arm liberal imperialism after Obama’s ‘Realist’ detour. And, while position-jockeying to get on the right side of bien-pensant liberalism – dropping her old opposition to gay marriage, rowing back on locking up those ‘superpredators’ she once warned us about – her past did not inspire confidence that she would hold the line against an energised Right.


III. That such triangulation operates on outmoded assumptions must have been obvious to everyone outside the Beltway and many within. The market metaphysic according to which voters are consumers, and parties like corporations who must pursue the ‘optimal’ mass of centre-hugging consumers, was narrowly plausible for as long as there was a political-economic basis for a ‘broad centre’ – predicated on low voter turnout. The Bernanke-vaunted ‘Great Moderation’ in the business cycle allowed for such a fuzzy entity to emerge in the homeland of the Washington Consensus. A bipartisan consensus formed around the neoliberal centre, its ontological premises taken for granted, its historical rectitude rammed down everyone’s gullet with teleological conviction.

To this ‘centre-fishing’ for the largest single segment of a shrinking pie, low voter turnout is key: the strategy banks on mass demoralisation and abstentionism, embracing the hollowing-out of democracy. If discussed at all, this (relied-upon) mass disaffection has generally been traduced as ‘apathy’. At an ideologically grotesque extreme, as under Blair, it has been celebrated as ‘the politics of contentment’, of a people too happy to vote. And all too often, as for the most part so far amid the reams of liberal lachrymosity at the new President-Elect, it is simply not investigated. Intellectuals of that social cadre are more likely to rage against an utterly marginal third-party candidate than investigate this decades-long shame of a crisis of representation. That very close to half those eligible do not find anything or anyone to vote for is simply a given of the American process – where it has not been a predicate for strategy.

But since 2008, we have seen the makings of a ‘Great Polarisation,’ manifested in Occupy and the Tea Party – which, in their very wide-of-the-mark designation of it as an ‘astroturf’ (faux grassroots) movement, the bulk even of the far Left tried unconvincingly to understand as ‘business as usual’. The shift, though, was real. The mutating crises of capitalism passed in phases through the financial sector, the wider economy, the state and then – both by localised austerian means and a general employers’ offensive against wages and job security – was passed on to the working class. In parts of the United States already experiencing long-term regional decline, linked to declining class trajectories for previously organised groups of workers, this was an acute crisis made chronic. Given the prevailing weakness of the traditional forms of industrial union organisation, the effects of which on the flow of profit are so negligible that US government statisticians no longer bother to quantify it, the response to the crisis would most plausibly be expressed at the level of political organisation. And given the ongoing crisis of representation, wherein citizens have increasingly detached from the electoral system and the media, there have emerged vacua in which previously marginal political forces, with weak class roots, have been able to suddenly project themselves into positions of influence.

The early geography of Trumpism showed that it had laid roots in spatially, culturally and economically isolated areas, where ‘old economy’ decline has not been superseded by ‘new economy’ dynamism, however weak. This doesn’t mean that his voters are mainly the poor and ‘left behind’: to claim so is to fall into an ecological fallacy, to repeat the main rationale of right-moving liberals for accommodating racism and chauvinism, and to give credence to the class spite of those paleo-reactionaries at the National Review. Ample research and exit polls, necessarily reiterated endlessly given the class smears of middle-class liberals, show that Trump had stronger support from among those on higher incomes, above $50,000, than Clinton, including specific groups like male college graduates. The likelihood is that most workers, white or black, rather than rallying to Trump, simply didn’t vote.

This is not to deny that Trump won over some white workers, that he shook loose some elements of the Democratic coalition. But the granular particulars of the psephology are important. To render a judgment, we need to closely analyse the statistics across several variables. For example, in Michigan, where overall turnout was static, the level of Republican support increased by just over 165,000 votes. The bigger change was that the Democrats lost roughly 296,000 votes. This suggests that at least some of the Democratic vote had to go to Trump, and some of it had to go to third parties. In Wisconsin, where the turnout fell, Trump actually lost 2,700 votes, but Clinton shed an even bigger 238,000 votes, suggesting that most of the Democratic losses were not due to Obama voters flipping in Trump’s favour. In Pennsylvania, where turnout actually increased, Clinton lost 63,800 voters, while Trump added approximately 290,300 voters to the Republican total.

To assess the meaning of such figures, one would still need to understand how much of the Republican gain in these states was concentrated in the working class, and how many of these were new voters, as opposed to former Obama voters. Instead, every datum was quickly fed into the rapidly emerging nostrum that Trump ‘won over’ ‘the’ ‘white working class’. The national figures alone already tell us this is bullshit – as, of course, are much of the politics the anguished left derive from this non-fact. Usually, these are that ‘we’ need to tap into what he is doing – which all too often means blunting, with whatever niceties, our pro-migrant, internationalist, anti-racist politics. Quite apart from being unprincipled, this does not follow, nor will it work.

And as for the bruised right wing of liberalism, fumbling for answers? They can claim (wrongly) that Trump’s victory is on the back of the working class who have been left behind; or (wrongly) that Bernie’s economic populism of the left could never have beaten Trump. Logic precludes them claiming both, which fact evades their online cohorts, beams in their eyes, angrily denouncing motes.

Closer number-crunching is also demanded as the specific importance of geographies of decline becomes clear from other examples of hard-right surge, whether it be for UKIP or Brexit (Lexiters’ fairy tales notwithstanding, the animus against neoliberalism expressed by Brexit being at such a mediated level that to celebrate it as ‘proto-radicalism’ is magical thinking, and an appalling dereliction in the face of the spike of racism that accompanied it). Metropolitan centres headquarter large multinational firms, financial-service industries, major media corporations and centres of communications and political power. From these radiate other urban centres linked through ‘new economies’ and the higher education institutions that support them. Aside from a mass of left-leaning workers, they are populated by the upwardly mobile and affluent, by public-sector professionals and elements of the new middle class linked to internationalised circuits of capital accumulation. But in neglected, rusting, formerly growing areas, isolated from the networks of accumulation and detached from the dominant culture industries and representative structures, there are concentrated layers of unemployed and poor workers who don’t vote, downwardly mobile ‘skilled’ workers who often vote right, and middle-class strata who do resent being ‘left behind’ with the wreckage and are the groundswell of the trans-Atlantic Poujadism we are now seeing.

We are told by bourgeois pundits that racism, not ‘the economy’, mattered in this election. No such choice can be made. Unless we wish to reify ‘the economy,’ there is no way of talking about it except as an ensemble of social relationships structured by race, gender and class. The overdetermined nature of ideology means that it was possible for Trump to speak to polyglot class groups in the language of race and national chauvinism, ‘building the wall’ functioning as a metaphor for purification and protection against both global elites (subtly, and sometimes less subtly, coded with antisemitism by the Trump campaign) and the wretched of the earth. In the standard representation of right-wing populism, the losses incurred by these groups are interpreted as a national decline, inflicted by a collusion between the cosmopolitan rich and the denationalised poor.


IV. Much will be made, and rightly, of the self-evident misogyny at the base of Trump’s vote. But this must be grasped in its generational, familial aspect – that is, in its relationship to patriarchy. That Trump is a patriarch, a certain kind of boy’s idea of what a man is like, is nothing new. At the best of times, half of Presidential politics is about choosing between half-mad father figures.

In times of despair, many people reach for daddy’s hand more than usual. After 9/11, the boy king Bush worked at projecting a reassuring paternal presence. Reports of popular dreams about Trump reveal him to be a father figure who evokes half-buried fears and longings about peoples’ own fathers. He appears as a castrating dentist, a forbidding instructor explaining how things add up and divide, the man behind the wheel, a homicidal zombie or clown, an alien invader, orchestrator of a Saturnalian purge. He is both sternly repressive and cheerfully permissive – of the racist and misogynistic impulses long nurtured, disavowed and scolded by the liberal superego. He embodies the law, and its gruelling obverse: that law is enforced precisely through its bloody transgressions. He is the cannibalistic ogre of fairy tales, the Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth, Saturn eating his young to prevent them from overthrowing him, having already castrated and deposed his own father.

In this election, for the first time, Millennials were the largest generation, outnumbering Babyboomers. And Millennials, to the extent that they voted, supported Clinton by a margin of 54 to 46 per cent. Those aged forty-five and over, however, preferred Trump by a margin of 53 to 44 per cent. Generational change has brought changes in demographic composition as well as in attitudes to race and sex. One of the functions of Trump as father figure in this election was to devour the more multiracial, socially liberal young and their threat to the values, interests and property, broadly speaking, of older, whiter and more affluent voters – as well, of course, as that of those noisy outliers, the socially sadistic alt-right youth.

There was, for a brief moment, the possibility that a social-democratic campaign, launched to the surprise of veteran cynics of all wings from within one of the main capitalist parties, could galvanise and enthuse the left-moving young, linking debt-ridden students and racially oppressed young people in a chain-of-equivalences to the neglected in the rustbelts, as well as the working-class mainstays of the Democratic vote. Bernie Sanders, in his own way every bit the ‘anti-political’ politician that Trump is, also outpolled Trump and other Republican candidates far more convincingly than Clinton. There was no guarantee that he would have won, of course, but this was by far the best, the only plausible chance to counter the electrifying effect that Trump’s neonate potential fascism was having on the Republican base. The resilient and disgusted Democratic establishment, coupled with the inherited weaknesses and poor class-rootedness of the Left, ensured that it was passed up.

Clinton’s supporters, if they want to complain about the negligence of ‘Bernie Bros’ and the recklessness of third-party voters, must first remember the strident tones with which they greeted Sanders’s eclipse and Trump’s ascent. The Democratic Party leadership was delirious about Trump’s rise. They were delighted. By his politics and by his persona.

On the former, indeed, in a strategy that should be unbelievable, newly leaked emails show that the Democrat machine actively bolstered the hardest-right bigots of the Republicans, in what they called the ‘Pied Piper Strategy’ to pull that party right, leaving the Democrats that mythicised centre ground. To repeat: the Democrats cynically and deliberately enabled racist, nativist, misogynist, homophobic thuggery out of political calculation. And what of the sociopathic indifference this strategy bespeaks to the lives and security of those at the sharp end of an emboldened far right, those who had to face the dangerous shock troops of these Democrat-enabled streetfighters? Perhaps they were supposed to remind themselves that it was, after all, Hillary’s turn.

And on the latter issue, of The Donald’s character? The Democrat leadership loved it. They giggled, they joked, they rubbed their hands in glee. This clown, they crowed, would sweep them to power on the back of that broad centre, guaranteeing them a long hegemony in the apparatuses of government. Their metapolitical assumptions were arrogant, historically unmoored, elitist, anti-democratic, entitled – and ruinously, cataclysmically wrong.

That peal of liberal laughter was enabling prelude to joy from another quarter: now every fascist in the world is cheering.

Marine Le Pen, her own eyes on the prize, tweets her ‘félicitations’. Klan leader David Duke exults: ‘make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump’. Geert Wilders lauds ‘the people’ for ‘taking their country back’, promising ‘[s]o will we’. In India, the fascist Hindu Sena cheer in the streets. And on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, during Clinton’s concession speech, bankers echo Trump’s ‘send her to jail’, while in uncanny reversal of Obamamania, Trump’s yuppy-looking, suit-wearing activists drunkenly roar from inside luxury hotels.

It has been a bromide of much of the US Left that, in broad terms, the country is moving in a liberal, ‘progressive-ish’ direction. And thus – because it was in part ‘thus’ – that Hillary Clinton could not lose. As the catastrophe proves, even if the former is true, the latter was not. Salvage has insisted before that a precondition for the building of a serious Left is the humility to own up to the inadequacies of our traditional theoretical approaches and muscle-memory activism. That many radicals have admitted this in the wake of this election is a crucial start.

There remains an immense suspicion of political pessimism. Salvage has always stressed that our pessimism, born of analysis, is not at all coterminous with surrender – the opposite – and that it yearns to be wrong. At this moment, this fist in the face, any response other than a pessimistic sense of the growing gulf between us and emancipation would be delusional. It is precisely to fight the forces emboldened by this shift that we must start by acknowledging how strong, and how dire, they are.

‘Their world’, tweeted Florian Philippot, France’s Front National’s vice-president, ‘is collapsing. Ours is being built’. He is right. For the collapsing of the order of the centre – the very order that birthed Trump, the system of which he is not pathology but symptom, essence and excrescence combined – we shed no tears. But it is our worst enemies who are building in its rubble, faster and more effectively than are we. In 2017, we can expect major fascist advances. We can expect a Le Pen presidency of France. This is an epochal shift, and threat.


V. The Supreme Court is lost to liberals, and Roe vs Wade is likely to be overturned. Some of Trump’s policies he will not, cannot enact: he cannot make Mexico pay for any wall he might build; he cannot ban Muslims from entering the US. But this is cold comfort: unconstrained, with Republican majorities in both houses (and even the Republican ‘moderates’ who thought he had no chance now feeling permitted or obligated to follow his alt-right direction), he can approximate and jury-rig such measures, and usher in a program of delirious, murderous reaction. Which is to say nothing of the concomitant cultural shift, the emboldening of resentment, spite, and social sadism. And, of course, the promised bonuses for newly privileged sectors of capital, above all energy, construction and those associated with the military-industrial complex.

Yet Trump’s victory is fragile. He won because Clinton lost big chunks of her core vote. He won with several million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, because he concentrated his fire on flipping areas where the effect on the electoral college vote would be maximised. The form of politics he represents has been on a long-term slide, and this presidency is a one-off chance to halt that slide. And while now the Democratic establishment predictably lays down its arms – Hillary Clinton pleading to give Trump a chance, Elizabeth Warren promising to work with him – there are those who won’t take it lying down. High-school students in Arizona and California have already walked out in protest at Trump’s victory. There have been protests in Oregon, Texas and Pennsylvania, indicating that at least for some the knee jerks when it has to. And large upheavals, too, in Oakland, New York, Chicago, against the man the placards declare ‘Not My President’. A wave of the justly disgusted, the furious, the frightened and enraged. Undocumented migrants have already begun work to resist Trump’s threatened deportations. The platitudes about uniting, to which the political class are addicted, are thankfully not likely to be heeded by those against whom such uniting is taking place.

The Left must remain hard not only in its ‘support for’ but its aggressive, militant solidarity with migrants, with the black activists insisting that the police be held to account, against whom an onslaught is to be expected. We must work vigorously in united fronts without blunting our politics of opposition, without succumbing to the forthcoming wave of sentimentality about Obama – the mechanisms of drone death, whistleblower-attack and trenchant state surveillance now in the hands of a bloviating monster are, of course, Obama’s mechanisms. In response to the liberals with whom we will march, who insist to us that ‘love trumps hate’, we must argue instead for more hate, to hate more, to hate harder – in the right direction.

More than one commentator, and not only of the far Left or right, has discerned in this moment a slide towards a new civil war. This is only half-correct. It is one of the vanishingly few positive things one can say about Trump’s victory that it clarifies that: the war was here already.