Political commentators are explaining Donald Trump’s victory as the revenge of the white working class on the US political elite. The New York Times says it amounted to “a historic rebuke of the Democratic Party from the white blue-collar voters who had formed the party base. … To the surprise of many on the left, white voters who had helped elect the nation’s first black president, appeared more reluctant to line up behind a white woman.” The fact that Hillary Clinton relied on identity politics for much of her campaign and marginalized Bernie Sanders’ message that Americans had the right to healthcare, college and a living wage, was a major part of her undoing.
According to Juan Cole, Trump’s appeal to white workers was his rhetoric of economic protectionism, attacks on NAFTA and TPP over outsourcing jobs, attacks on Clinton’s well-paid speeches to Wall Street, and anti-immigrant sentiment. He added: “The Democratic Party’s refusal to do anything about Wall Street mega-fraud in 2009 and after came home to roost. In other words, the Clintons were inextricably entangled in the very policies that white workers saw as having ruined their lives.”
Hillary Clinton was probably the worst candidate the Democratic party could have chosen for this election. Author Thomas Frank blames the Democratic liberal establishment for selecting “an insider when the country was screaming for an outsider … She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch. … And so Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest.”
For many citizens, the deindustrialization of large swathes of the country due to corporate globalization and the economic recession has destroyed the American dream – or illusion – an expectation of an ever-increasing standard of living.
But while attention is focused on the white working class, the white professional middle class also voted for Trump in large numbers. The racism of his attacks on Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants did not deter these voters from choosing the Republican ticket. Actual exit polls showed “the election result seems to have been more about the clear backing of America’s white and wealthy voters for Donald Trump – including white graduates, and white female voters. Far from being purely a revolt by poorer whites left behind by globalisation, who did indeed turn out in greater numbers for the Republican candidate than in 2012, Trump’s victory also relied on the support of the middle-class, the better-educated and the well-off.”
This was exemplified in Florida, which the Washington Post described as “a microcosm of the story in many contested states. Clinton and her allies had helped spur record turnout among Democrats and Latino voters in early voting, but Trump rapidly made up ground on Tuesday with record turnout in exurban communities and GOP-leaning counties.”
“People like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in,” wrote Paul Krugman. “There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. And there were many other people who might not share those anti-democratic values, but who nonetheless were willing to vote for anyone bearing the Republican label.”
So the ideology of white exceptionalism or white entitlement, which has its ultimate roots in slavery, was excavated from the national psyche and laid bare by the Trump campaign, attracting white supremacists and neo-nazis. CNN commentator Van Jones described it as “a white-lash against a changing country. It was a white-lash against a black president in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes.”
Populist resentment of political elites converged with white nationalism in the Trump “movement.” But what will happen when, like the British Brexiteers, he reneges on his promises to create jobs and disrupt the status quo? The Republican party is split between its Senate establishment and its fired-up base, but Trump’s policies are identical to those of mainstream Republicans except for his stance against trade deals.
The Guardian reported from Youngstown, Ohio: “Trump has set expectations for the presidency extraordinarily high. Millions of people voted for his promise to achieve an improbable reversal of the decades-long structural decline in American manufacturing. By November 2020, the voters of Mahoning County will expect results. ‘I want him to bring America back,’ said Kerri Smith, a 48-year-old carer for disabled children and a former Democrat. ‘Bring back the jobs, bring our country back’.”
There is now no question of renewing the bipartisanship that Obama attempted unsuccessfully to establish with the Republican leadership after 2009. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will have a much greater weight within the Democratic party: The New York Times noted “there is unlikely to be much appetite among Democrats for conciliating Mr. Trump, and — as Republicans found over the last eight years — the loudest and most potent voices in the party are most likely to be those of blunt ideological opposition.”
Already, thousands have protested against Trump’s victory across the USA, from Massachusetts to California. College students and activists angrily cried “not my president,” since Clinton won the popular vote, but not the electoral college. At Berkeley High School, California, about 1,500 students, or half of the entire student body, walked out of class before 9 a.m. in protest of Trump’s victory. Students tweeted “#NotMyPresident,” and pledged to unify.
“I was just devastated,” said Drae Upshaw, a 19-year-old college student in Oakland. “I come from a Mexican community. I have family and friends crying tonight in fear that Donald Trump will deport them.” Demonstrations spilled out on to the streets from a number of University of California campuses, an estimated 2,000 people rallying at UCLA.
One bright spot in this electoral cycle is the defeat of hardline anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, a major supporter of Donald Trump, when his bid for re-election was overturned by Latino voters in the state. “The people Arpaio targeted decided to target him. He lost his power when undocumented people lost their fear,” said immigration rights activist Carlos Garcia. Arpaio’s so-called “saturation patrols, sweeps in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in and around Phoenix, were routinely done without evidence of criminal activity, violating federal safeguards against racial profiling,” reported the New York Times. Arpaio faces the possibility of jail time himself, after federal prosecutors announced they’re charging him with criminal contempt of court over his refusal to end unconstitutional immigration patrols in Arizona.
The liberal left needs to get over its quest for ideological purity and align itself with mass social struggles – resistance to a rapid enforcement of Republican authoritarian policies will grow. Grassroots campaigns need to be linked with efforts to unseat rightwing Republicans at state level and in the next round of congressional elections, despite the gerrymandered constituencies. This will mean confronting the Democratic administration which is wholly to blame for Trump’s ascension to the presidency.