How Trump Shook America and the World: My Letter from America
Scottish Review, November 10th 2016
America has shaken itself and the world. Something seismic has happened which has compounded experts, the political classes, and observers all round the world. But in this year of revolt and surprises – from Leicester City and the Cubs to more seriously Brexit and Trump – the question is why should we be surprised anymore?
I spent the last three weeks in the States, attending rallies, speaking and listening to people, and trying to understand what was going on. It was clear this was a change election, one where people were losing patience with business as usual politics and Washington, and one where at least two Americas talked and shouted past each other – one conservative and angry, one liberal and conceited, both believing in their own moral superiority. All of this has produced one of the most electrifying electoral shocks in American history: a victory with no real comparison in recent times and remaking the political mood.
Trump ran an unprecedented campaign by any modern standards. It was terrible and offensive, giving voice to a ragged, confused anger and fury at the state of contemporary America and the world. That much was said all the time, but it represented much more in ways which should have been more obvious and discussed.
The Trump campaign with all that noise actually had a whole strand of understandable, popular themes and slogans. It stood for something obvious and tangible which voters could recognise and either embrace or reject, that they could feel they were part of or feel threatened. That is because it stood for something whether you like it or not.
All of this cannot be said for Clinton and her campaign. For all their millions, organisation, ‘big data’ and ground war, they ran a campaign bereft of real ideas, which failed to connect to people or anything meaningful. Compare its pitiful key slogan ‘Stronger Together’ with Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ – one is abstract and vague; the other touches not only the American dream, but the palpable feeling of decline and a country going in the wrong direction.
The Clinton rally I attended was the one where Elizabeth Warren gave her electrifying ‘nasty women’ address which ignited the crowd in their anti-Trumpism. But it was a rare moment, for the ageing, white, middle class audience seemed to be going through the motions, strangely detached for the whole rally, and unmoved by a Clinton address that had not one single rousing moment or message.
Clinton was the consummate professional politician and advocate for the globalised elite, Wall Street and the insider class. Her platform was one which was inadequate for the times that the US and world faced. It was filled with micro-policy, technocratic details, mixed up with an attempt to sell the notion that America was in decent shape and progressing in the right direction. Spending the last few weeks criss-crossing small town North East America, on the eve of poll I listened to President Obama tell an adoring crowd in New Hampshire that the economy showed US employment at a record low of 4.9% for eight years with 15 million private sector jobs created after 73 consecutive months of growth. All a bit New Labouresque, and far removed from ‘feeling your pain’ which Bill Clinton stressed in 1992.
At a Donald Trump rally last week in the same state, the mood was more subdued and serious than the stereotypes suggested. For a start in the last few weeks, Trump embraced a more disciplined set of messages. Even the Trump supporters I spoke to were much less incendiary and furious than often presented. There was even astute observations from some, one person commenting on the last days of the campaign: ‘Trump is not giving any hostages to fortune now. We are ending with Clinton sounding mad, talking about Trump all the time.’ There was truth in that comment last Friday; it looks even more penetrating nearly a week later.
There were of course points of rage and hatred in the Trump world I encountered. There were continual cries of ‘Lock Her Up’, even ‘Kill Hillary’ and at the worst moment, a solitary cry of ‘Execute Hillary’ from the body of the kirk which could be heard by everyone and made ripples in the national news. All the other over the top comments were ignored, but this was so out there, that the then speaker John H. Sununu, ex-Governor of New Hampshire, had no choice but to confront it saying, ‘You can’t say that. There are limits’.
But elsewhere people showed unease at lots of the raging hatred. Thus, when one speaker invoked Anthony Weiner’s sexting, several members of the audience said loudly, ‘Do you mind. There are children here’. More importantly, Trump as a campaigner, began morphing his message from his earlier, even more irresponsible days to believing that he was going to win. The older refrains of the Great Wall of Trump were passed over in tokenistic form, like an aging pop star reprising by popular demand one of his biggest hits for the crowd.
He talked all the time of what a ‘Trump administration’ would and wouldn’t do: repealing Obamacare, the call of ‘Drain the Swamp’ (his slogan for cleaning up and clearing out the Washington political establishment) and reversing the human and political cost of what was continually presented as Obama and Hillary’s wars – but of course was really the legacy of the neo-cons under George W. Bush. He had by then convinced himself he was going to win.
Many different emotions and voices fed the winning Trump coalition. It was a rage against the machine. A populist insurrection. Many of the open wounds of American society were exposed in public and became some of the key factors in a Trump victory – class, how the economy does and doesn’t work for millions, and how working class people struggle and have been so taken for granted by the Democrats (as well as Republicans) for at least a generation. In this long Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton did not visit the rustbelt state of Wisconsin once. The result was viewed as in the bag, and Trump’s threat to sweep through the rustbelt judged empty rhetoric. How wrong and damaging that proved.
The contours of the Trump victory are remarkable. Class seems to have in places trumped gender. White non-college educated women voted 62% Trump versus 34% for Trump; white non-colleged educated men voted 72% Trump and 23% Clinton. The America that is increasingly diverse and multicultural wasn’t enough for Clinton who won 88% of the black vote versus 8% for Trump, but she only won 65% of the Latino vote, compared to 29% for Trump; and in key battle ground states he polled even better, winning 34% of the Latino Florida vote.
Many use the words ‘cultural wars’ to describe this divided America, but these are barely adequate. The fissures and lack of understandings run deep in so many directions. America’s mixture of denial, fear and rage on race and racism scars much – from mass black incarceration, to voter suppression of black and non-white voters, and anxieties over police shootings. Van Jones, a former Obama official, spoke for many in liberal America when he said on election night on CNN: ‘How do I explain this to my children?” and spoke of an election which he described as more like a ‘whitelash’.
Republicans are now unambiguously the political establishment. They are more dominant than at any time since 1928 and pre-FDR, controlling the Presidency, House, Senate, and a majority of state Governors. They will shape a Supreme Court which could become conservative for a generation, threatening Roe v. Wade and other landmark liberal judgements.
Any political party and movement is, at the time of its greatest peril, at its biggest moment of strength. The tensions within the Republicans are not difficult to identify, given that Trump isn’t a casebook Republican, but a maverick populist. Large parts of the party establishment and organisation removed themselves from the election, and now have to deal with the Trump train and its resultant wreckage.
For the moment the harder questions will be for the Democrats. The party let Hillary Clinton stand as if campaigning for the Presidency was her entitlement; she scared off other contestants with the amount of corporate monies raised, reducing the race to her versus Bernie Sanders. Maybe Vice-President Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren could have defeated Trump, but they stood aside and let Clinton win the nomination.
Liberalism and what passes for ‘progressivism’ is in trouble. The Democrats in the Bill Clinton and Obama Presidencies, for all the rhetoric and charisma, have represented a liberalism of the rich and the elites. In so doing, they have patronised the older labour and class traditions of the party, telling workers they have to embrace change, and assuming they have got nowhere else to go. Sounds familiar in its conceit, doesn’t it, because some of this has already happened here.
The left-liberal view of the world is increasingly part of the problem. A New York commentator dismissed Trump’s decent polling pre-election with the words, ‘40% of Americans are racists’. Many in the US and UK hurled insults at Trump such as ‘fascist’ or ‘far right’, when he is clearly neither: echoes of all the insults thrown at UKIP and the Brexit vote.
Democrats and liberal-left-wingers need a wake-up call about how they do politics. The demographic determinism which assumed the ‘rainbow nation’ of the US would produce a natural Democratic majority now and into the future, has been shown to be built on shaky foundations. Identity politics founded on race, ethnicity and gender has been outmaneouvred by class, status and whether people feel outsiders or insiders.
Then there is the more recent Democrat language –used by Obama and many others – of fusing the power of the civil rights movement with biblical imagery to continually remind black voters where they came from. Obama was at it, in my eve of poll rally, talking of the power of ‘We’ and declaring that ‘We the people, we shall overcome, yes we can.’ Such words become empty versus the patchy records of Democrats in office, and there is even evidence that it turns off and reduces turnout with younger black voters. The Clinton and Obama generations cant keep replaying the same worn out records.
The real Hillary believers I met were few and far between, present in the insider class, and amongst old style feminists, who had reduced a previous generation’s radicalism to the clarion call that now was the time for a US female President. Such opinion choose to blindside itself to the ever-lengthening charge sheet against Clinton, which wasn’t invented by Trump. Many dismissed all the negative poll ratings against Clinton with sweeping comments such as ‘all this is because she is a woman’, ignoring the criticisms made by Bernie Sanders earlier this year in the primaries.
Trump is clearly a phenomenon, widely portrayed in the US as a ‘empty vessel’ who ran at times a one man show and campaign – with the only real backup and ballast his extended family. This is not as some Republicans have tried to claim in retrospect a Ronald Reagan moment. When Reagan won the Presidency in 1980 he had been a senior Republican since winning the California Governorship in 1966, one of the leaders of the conservative movement, and had a kitchen cabinet of advisers.
However, where there are similarities is in their cross-cutting appeal. Reagan once famously was a public Democrat before converting to the Republicans, and Trump was once a liberal Democrat – something he spoke about in the campaign saying at last week’s rally, ‘I was on the other side, but we had to do this for the sake of the nation.’ That is a populist language, giving a pretence of putting country before party, and it has resulted in a remaking of the Republican coalition in ways which could prefigure a wider realignment, of the scale of 1980, 1968 or 1932.
The Democrats have managed to blow the numerous advantages they had over the Republicans again. They may have just won the Presidential vote (in the narrowest margin of a popular result since JFK beat Nixon in 1960), but they lost the Presidency. Since 1992 they have only lost one out of seven Presidential contests in the popular vote, but they have three times lost the battle to win the White House. That begins to looks more than a little careless.
They assumed that because they had favourable demographics into the future, the politics would follow, but numbers never automatically go in one direction, and a complacency set in at the heart of the Democrats. Combine that with cosmopolitan elitism and Clinton entitlement, and you have an unattractive brew. Voters have finally and belatedly called time on the Bill and Hillary Clinton era of the party, but it has cast a long shadow and trashed any real commitment to economic and social justice leaving it unsure what it stands for.
There is the question of how Trump can convert his campaign rhetoric into government, and how effectively he can lead an administration, when all he has run is the Trump Empire, and a whole series of questionable business deals (including the embarrassment of his Menie Golf Estate in Aberdeenshire – the subject of Anthony Baxter’s recent film ‘You’ve Been Trumped Too’). His victory will carry shockwaves across the world, and bring joy to the likes of Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
But perhaps one of its consequences will be to give further permission to the pampered, bloated plutocrat class, who already see their own vested interests as the same as their respective countries. In Italy there has already been Berlusconi, while Arron Banks has bankrolled UKIP and the Brexit vote and has grand designs for future influence.
In a world where large parts of society and culture swan over the vulgarian super rich, it is possible that Donald Trump as well as seeming a very old-fashioned ‘Citizen Kane’ story, is also a warning from a future which increasingly doesn’t work for millions. It has been a long rocky road to the Trump Presidency, but we really should have seen this coming, and if we continue in denial, it will only be one in a future of many more unpleasant shocks as politics and the world get coarser and less civilised. This may be a crisis for centre-left politics, but it is also one of the myth of the republic and the American dream. If we are unlucky, it could become one for the planet as well.