by the editors of Marxism-Leninism Today
November 15, 2016
To date, much of the liberal and left commentary has focused on President-elect Donald Trump, and the danger that his ascension to the White House portends.
While that is a matter of great and serious concern, it should not overshadow the meaning of the election — what the election says about the two-party system and the mood of the electorate. Without a class analysis, without an understanding of what the vote expresses and a diagnosis of the condition of the institutions of succession, future results will be even more disappointing.
Donald Trump won the US presidential election by winning enough popular votes in several key US states to enable him to accumulate the most votes in the Electoral College, the peculiar US institution devised as a bulwark against too much direct democracy. Trump did not garner the votes of most citizens, most “eligible” voters, or even most voters; that victory belonged to his opponent. Of course winning the Electoral College and not the popular vote is not an entirely uncommon outcome. Trump’s party — the Republican Party — kept its majority in both houses of Congress.
The general election leaves the Democratic Party in disarray, just as the primaries created disarray among the Republicans.
Trump represents right-wing populism, not fascism. Right-wing populism, a contradictory ideology, combines attacks on socially oppressed groups with distorted forms of anti-elitism based on scapegoating. Trump’s populism represented an amalgam of white racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, isolationism, anti-intellectualism, American nationalism, nostalgia for a golden past (Make America Great Again!) and hostility to “establishment” elites.
He campaigned as a right-wing populist. Now a key question is: will he seek to govern as one?
Though the Trump movement has certainly attracted fascistic elements of the so-called “alt-right” (a phrase which refers to the Internet presence of far right ideologies, including white supremacism, Islamophobia, and anti-feminism) and could conceivably morph in a fascist direction, as of now it lacks, except in embryonic form, most of the classic elements associated with fascism: anti-democratic terrorism, attacks on unions and an independent judiciary, attacks on the rights of free press and free assembly, anti-Semitism, and anti-Communism.
And of course, unlike Germany in the early 1930s, as of now there is no existential political crisis in which the US ruling class feels threatened enough by revolution to turn away from normal bourgeois democratic methods of rule. The internal governance of the two monopoly parties is in disarray, not monopoly capital’s grip on state power.
Right-wing populism has a long and essentially racist history—from the Know Nothing Party in the 19th century, to rightwing populists like Tom Watson at the turn of the 20th century to Huey Long in the 1930s and George Wallace in the 1960s. Make no mistake this is populism, but not the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders but the right-wing populism of George Wallace. It is driven by the preposterous idea that government social programs benefit African-Americans and other minorities more than whites and the pernicious idea that minorities are criminals who refuse to work.
Trump’s victory was a surprise when measured by the historically reliable indicators of electoral success: money and media. Clinton had an uncommon advantage in fundraising and spending. With the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, the door opened to largely unrestricted campaign contributions, a decision widely and correctly condemned by liberals and the left. Consequently, 57% of super PAC donations were made from 60 billionaires and millionaires.
It is important to note that nearly 85% of those super PAC contributions went to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, a fact that should have identified her clearly as the candidate of the rich and powerful. Similarly, the media showed a clear bias for Clinton. Nearly every major newspaper endorsed her. And Wikileaks revealed the widespread collusion between media figures and political operatives working in her favor. Like most of monopoly capital, most of the vast news and entertainment empires favored Hillary Clinton.
Among the big losers in the November 8 US federal elections were the commentators, the media, the electoral consultants, the pollsters, and the two major political parties. With Donald Trump winning the presidential election, the multi-billion dollar election-industry failed to produce the desired and expected results that most of the rich and powerful had financed. Trump won in spite of the decided, but not decisive advantages enjoyed by his opponent: enormous corporate campaign contributions, an aggressively pro-Clinton media, a polished Clinton campaign machine, the support of a reasonably popular incumbent President, and favorable party demographics.
The Democrats lost because they refused to address the issues that mattered most to the electorate. By nearly twice the number of the next most popular trait, voters sought a candidate who “can bring needed change”. Instead, Clinton offered experience and continuity.
Voter participation this year continued the historic decline that had been briefly interrupted by the turn-out for Obama. This decline shows the long-term disillusionment with the two-party system. In 2016 voter participation for eligible voters was 57 percent. In 2012 it was 58.6 percent and 61.8 percent in 2008.
Moreover, this was the first presidential election since the 1965 without a Voting Rights Act (gutted by the US Supreme Court in 2013) . Consequently, countless number of African-Americans and other minorities were effectively disenfranchised by various devices designed to suppress their vote.
The two-party system is effective in channeling discontent away from true political independence. In spite of a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo, “the establishment,” and the economy, most of this discontent paid heed to Trump’s demagogic promises and scapegoating. Jill Stein and the Green Party, representing an extension of Bernie Sanders’s reformist program, received only one percent of the vote.
Nearly three-fourths (70%) of the electorate were “dissatisfied” or “angry” with how the government was working. Clinton was identified closely with the upper echelons of aloof federal government for over two decades. Indeed, no public figure was more closely associated with distant government than Hillary Clinton.
Voters (62%) thought the economy was “not so good” or “poor”. Clinton hailed the “recovery” after the 2007-8 collapse, citing misleading employment figures that masked the loss of good-paying jobs, benefits, and homes — the pain and insecurity of working people.
Thus, Trump’s victory was fueled by a great disillusionment with neo-liberalism (free trade, open borders and “regime change” wars abroad) felt by workers in rural areas, in the South, and in the Midwest’s former industrial and mining areas. These were the folks who experienced the loss of 50 percent of mining jobs and over 30 percent of industrial jobs in the past quarter century. These working people experienced the loss of 11 million jobs and 12 million homes while seeing the banks benefit from $1 trillion in government bailouts after the economic crash of 2008. What made Trump different from his rivals in the Republican primaries and from Hillary Clinton was his rejection of this neo-liberalism.
The Democratic Party failure is demonstrated clearly by the electoral returns. For example, a Democratic Party stronghold like Luzerne County in Eastern Pennsylvania accounted for 40% of the state’s margin for Trump. In 2012, President Obama won the county by a 5% margin; in 2016, the results swung, giving Trump a 20% margin. Luzerne County is a predominately white working class area. Hunger for change, dissatisfaction, anger, and economic distress were overwhelming factors in the swing.
Three key states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — voted Democratic from 1988 (1992, Pennsylvania) through Obama’s two terms ending in 2012. All exhibited a double digit or greater turnaround from Obama’s last Presidential run. All were de-industrialized regions neglected by successive administrations, regional and local governments.
Undoubtedly, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia — fear-driven nativism — were factors in these results. The Trump campaign tolerated, even encouraged open expressions of derision for vulnerable groups from the physically disabled to Muslims. Trump’s public language was the contemptuous private language of the country club and the board room. His policies exploit fear of the ‘other’. Emboldened by the electoral results, organized and outspoken racists have crawled out from their hiding places. They must resolutely be driven back.
Yet it would be a mistake not to see the economic distress, frustration, and anti-elitist anger as the central force in the Democratic Party defeat. Many key, if not most, predominantly white, working class areas that abandoned the Democrats in 2016 backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. And they backed Obama, not necessarily from racial identity, but from a thirst for change. They voted for Trump — a corrupted, wind bag businessman — for the same reason.
Ironically, the Democratic Party very likely would have better addressed the issues pressing upon these voters with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s primary election opponent. But elites in the corporately owned Democratic Party covertly blocked an insurgent, modestly social democratic victory that might have paved the way to the Presidency. We know, thanks to leaked documents, that the Democratic National Committee worked tirelessly to undermine Sanders’ candidacy. We already knew that the system was stacked structurally against insurgency with its undemocratic “at-large” delegate system. Sanders didn’t lose the nomination, it was stolen.
Trump shrewdly exploited voter dissatisfaction, pain, and anger. He made wild, often contradictory promises targeting constituencies ignored or demeaned by elites and the media. He stoked the ugly sentiments of xenophobia and racism, while taunting, to great effect, powerful and self-satisfied leaders of the Republican Party. Trump used his histrionics and outrageousness to draw free media attention and separate himself from the vapid conformity of mainstream politicians. His approach mimicked the equally demagogic buffoonery of the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Politics as vulgar entertainment.
Conservatives, like everyone, are uncertain of what to expect from the renegade, Trump, a born-again politician with no policy track record. The divisions within the Republican Party are deep, so locating Donald Trump is critical for Republicans who hope to bridge the differences. One prominent conservative, National Review editor Reihan Salam, writing in The Wall Street Journal, depicts Trump in the “anti-elitist”, “pro-government” Republican tradition, a tradition that he identifies with Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.
Salam makes note of the “hybrid” nature of all four candidates, how they pragmatically (or opportunistically) combine libertarian doctrine with some defense of New Deal policies. Regardless of how accurate that observation may be, all three Republican Presidents re-defined the Republican Party and re-aligned its support. Nixon and Reagan successfully won over disgruntled Democrats, as has Trump. Nixon exploited President Johnson’s unpopular war and racial fears and Reagan gained from Carter’s betrayal of the most progressive platform since the war as well as the economic stagnation of the late 1970s. Trump similarly exploited Democratic Party failings.
Increasingly, in the besieged two-party system, the mantra of “change” and the posture of “outsider” drives outcomes.
Monopoly capital, while voting with its cash for Hillary Clinton, has tried to quickly repair its relations with Donald Trump. Global equity markets were initially roiled with news of the Trump victory, but quickly settled and rebounded smartly in the aftermath. US stocks set new highs following the election. Trump, like Clinton, will ultimately serve the interests of the corporations. However uncertain they are about the details of his program, they are confident that Trump will be no class maverick.
Market reactions to the Trump victory suggest that investors see a shift from the eight years of monetary policies to fiscal stimulation (Trump promises one trillion dollars invested in infrastructure over 5 years). They see a retreat from global trade and a focus on domestic growth with accompanying inflation.
The Left and the Labor Movement
The 2016 election season brought forth an impressive left insurgency in the spring Democratic primary, centering around Bernie Sanders. Millions of voters — many of whom were quite young — worked passionately to re-direct the corporate-minded Democratic Party.
While, after Clinton’s nomination, many were shepherded back into the Democratic Party fold by the Party’s cry of impending doom, still others saw clearly the corruption and corporate-complicity of the Democratic leadership. They recognized the impossibility of securing real change through the vehicle of the Democratic Party. They give hope to the emergence of a truly independent movement, one that understands the need to replace capitalism with people’s power — socialism. This election could well mark an important step in that direction.
Nevertheless, social democrats and liberals are already busy trying to “rejuvenate” the Democratic Party, keeping masses of people from even considering the possibility of a breakaway from the two-party system.
Democratic Party operatives are working feverishly to channel the anti-Trump sentiment into nothing more than a fresh campaign of uncritical support for Democrats. Their liberal allies are attacking the Electoral College, even proposing secession in California, and urging Electoral College electors to cast their tradition-bound votes for Clinton — anything, but addressing the profound social justice failings that cost the election for the Democrats. They assiduously avoid any remedies to the inequalities, declining living standards, and indebtedness that plague working people. Instead, they rail against Trump’s personal failings and vulgarity, but make no demands on his administration.
As for US labor leaders, they are hoping that Trump will stick to his pledge to overthrow trade deals, build a virtual trade wall against corporate competition from abroad, and spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure construction projects. They demand little more, hoping that Trump will aid corporations that will, in turn, pass on some crumbs. They have learned little from the Democratic Party fiasco.
For the people, this election marks a further deterioration, a deepening crisis, of the US two-party system. The distance between the interests of the masses and the actions of elected public officials are, today, virtually unbridgeable. The working class loses again, as it would have if the Democratic Party candidate had won.
Nonetheless, there is an anger — often misdirected, but understandable — that can serve as a spark for a genuine challenge to the rich and powerful, a movement for socialism.