By Jude Woodward
The victory of Donald Trump has handed the most powerful office on earth into the hands of someone whose promises include a giant wall along the Mexican border, the expulsion of 11 million ‘illegal immigrants’ – roughly 6 per cent of the US workforce – ‘extreme vetting’ for any Muslim seeking to enter the country, the repeal of Obamacare, keeping existing gun laws and punishing women who seek an abortion. He denies the existence of climate change, proposes to engage in a new era of protectionist trade policies, professes to ‘love war’, and is prone to casual racism, misogyny and bigotry towards Jews, LGBT people, Latinos and any other minority group.
Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton is a hard-line right-wing Democrat, with a particularly hawkish approach to foreign policy, anyone who did not understand that it mattered whether she or Trump got elected is now going to learn a very harsh lesson.
With Republican control over the Presidency, House of Representatives and Senate, and therefore over appointment to the outstanding vacancy on the Supreme Court, Trump will have few checks in pursuing his personal variant of far right Tea Party politics in the US. Moreover the triumph for these extreme right politics in the US – the most powerful country on the planet – will be a huge boost to the exponents of similar politics elsewhere. The carnival of racist reaction unleashed by the Brexit vote in Britain will be insignificant compared to the wave of racism that will sweep the US itself and across Europe.
So how did this happen?
Fundamentally, despite the rosy spectacles with which most of the world now views Barack Obama’s eight years, with the exception of Obamacare, his presidency saw no measures that addressed the falling living standards and growing inequality that have beset the US since the financial crisis in 2008 and before.
The fall in living standards and rise in inequality in the US is quite shocking, and underpins the disruptions that have rocked US politics and brought a maverick, right-wing outsider like Trump to the presidency.
As Figure 1 shows, US median household incomes by 2015 were still below the level of 16 years previously in 1999. At their lowest point following the crisis, in 2012, US median household incomes were more than 9% below their 1999 peak level. The improvement after approximately 2012 was not due to any measures taken by Obama but solely due to the anaemic economic recovery, meaning median incomes remained depressed compared to prior to 2008.
The US population has therefore suffered more than a decade and a half fall in incomes – which would produce deep political discontent and anger in any country.
The political consequences of this fall in median incomes have been exacerbated by the huge rise in income inequality in the US and the falling share of incomes received by the great majority of the US population. This trend has been continuing for over three decades, having begun with the introduction of neoliberal ‘Reaganomics’ in the 1980s. Figure 2 shows that the share of total US incomes received by the bottom 80 per cent of the US population fell from 56 per cent in 1967 to 49 per cent in 2015. Over the same period the share of total incomes received by the top 20 per cent of the population rose from 46 per cent to 51 per cent. In other words, by 2015, the top 20 per cent of the US population was receiving a more than half the US total incomes.
In monetary terms, the total income of the top 20 per cent of US households in 2015 was $5.1 trillion while that of the entire bottom 80 per cent was only $4.9 trillion. The total income of the top 5 per cent of the US population in 2015 of $2.2 trillion was over seven times that of the bottom 5 per cent of the US population of $0.3 trillion.
These trends, which had begun with Reagan in the 1980s, were not reversed or addressed under Obama. The fundamental economic tenets of neoliberalism were maintained – of eschewing state intervention in the economy, relying on the ‘hidden hand’ of the market to deliver growth, and ‘trickle down’ benefits rather than redistributive measures to deliver support for the less well-off. This was stuck to even in the face of the 2008 economic crisis that these policies eventually spawned. The refusal to make a state-led intervention into the economy to boost growth through a coordinated investment programme aimed at stimulating the productive economy meant the Obama administration’s remedies were limited to ‘quantitative easing’ to prop up the financial markets. US growth averaged only 1.27 per cent since the onset of the crisis in 2007, and only just cleared an average 2 per cent per annum since emerging from recession in 2010. (UNCTADStat 2007-2015 GDP growth rate) Without growth in the economy there could be nothing to ‘trickle down’ – even if the trends in inequality since 1980 hadn’t already clearly demonstrated that this did not work.
In this context, discontent has fermented across all sections of the US working class – white, black and Latino – reflected in the emergence of movements like Black Lives Matter as well as in the increasingly polarised politics of the Republican and Democrat parties.
This discontent across the entire working class was reflected in the political divisions that opened up in the Republican and Democrat primaries, but with contrary outcomes.
In the Democratic Party for the first time for almost a century a candidate openly calling themself a socialist, Bernie Sanders, won mass support and very seriously challenged Clinton, despite coming up against the full weight of the party machine that sought to ensure that Clinton won. In the end the Democratic Party selected the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. However polls have consistently shown that Bernie Sanders would have won a higher share of the popular vote in Tuesday’s Presidential election and would almost certainly have defeated Trump. Whatever the weakness of Sanders’ politics – he is certainly not a ‘socialist’ in any sense it is understood in Europe – this would have presented the oppressed and disenfranchised American working class an alternative between the mainstream neoliberalism of Clinton and the racist, protectionist neoliberalism of Trump. This could have galvanised a higher turnout among black and Latino voters, and even won over some of those white voters that supported Trump.
In the Republican Party the outcome was the opposite. One after another the establishment candidates fell before the rising wave of Tea Party, right-wing support for Trump, and the radical, ‘change’ candidate emerged victorious.
The election on Tuesday therefore saw the American working class faced with a choice between a candidate representing continuation of the same policies that had led to falling living standards, and a candidate claiming to stand for fundamental change: to ‘make America great again’, which in the minds of his supporters meant delivering rising living standards through driving out illegal immigrants, erecting real or figurative walls against Mexicans and Muslims, and protecting jobs through tariff barriers and punitive measures against cheap Chinese (in particular, but not exclusively) imports. As with the similarly suicidal vote for Brexit in Britain, a section of white working class voters were deceived into blaming immigrants, black people, Muslims, refugees and ‘foreign countries’ for the running down of their communities and the pressure on their living standards; while a similar polarisation to that around Sanders propelled an actual socialist, Corbyn, into the leadership of the Labour Party.
However despite the hype, Trump did not galvanise a new electorate for the Republican Party. His total vote is projected to be lower than that of either McCain or Romney when they lost in 2008 and 2012 respectively. He may have fired up existing Republican voters on a racist basis and created a greater personal commitment among his supporters, but he did not win over a new section of voters. His success in the north central states where the media has drawn attention to the tribulations of the rust-belt white working class is less down to any increase in support for the Republicans than a stay-at-home disillusionment among Democrat supporters, whose vote fell.
While the racism and casual misogyny of Trump’s campaign repelled black and Latino and most women voters, Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to mobilise them behind her campaign. According to exit polls only eight per cent of Black Americans who voted supported Trump, and only 29 per cent of Latinos (which would include the hard right Cuban émigré community in Florida that opposed Obama’s partial lifting of the US blockade on the island). 52 per cent of women voters supported Clinton, with 42 per cent voting Trump; whereas 53 per cent of men voted Trump and 41 per cent Clinton.
But despite leading in these sectors, and among poorer white workers, overall Clinton’s vote fell by about 6 million votes compared to Obama in 2012. These voters did not go to Trump – they just stayed home. The turnout in this presidential election – 48.6 per cent – is the lowest since Coolidge was elected in 1924, and compares to 54.9 per cent in 2012, about 7-8 million voters down. The most accurate summary of the outcome of this presidential election is not that Trump won – he did not win over a big swathe of Democrat votes on a racist basis, he lost votes overall – but that Clinton lost. Her right wing, establishment politics could not galvanise an electorate that rejects Trump, but wants a radical change that offers hope for the future. Clinton only offered business as usual.
However, the degree of disdain for Trump is reflected in the fact that – despite the momentum behind his campaign and Clinton’s failure to enthuse the electorate – with a small number of votes left to count it looks almost certain that he lost to Clinton in the overall popular vote, despite winning handsomely in the electoral college. This will be only the fourth time this has happened in a presidential election since the civil war, on each occasion a Republican becoming president having lost in the popular vote to the Democrat contender.
The electoral college itself is of a piece with other undemocratic features of the US’s two-party system – such as the role of the ‘primaries’ in selecting candidates, the function of the ‘super-delegates’ in the Democratic Party convention, and the entire way the system excludes any real chance of representation for third parties – that are precisely designed to thwart the full expression of popular opinion in US politics, even if this time they did not work to the establishment’s advantage.
In fact one of the most telling things about this US election was the inability of the ultra-powerful US ruling class to get the electoral outcome it wanted, despite a very large majority, including most of the Republican Party establishment, opposing Trump. Of course, it would be a mistake to underestimate its continuing strength and to confuse the outcome of an election with the ability of the US ruling class to fundamentally control the situation. Having been elected, Trump in office will undoubtedly drop many of the things he said during the election and on key policies will adjust to the priorities of the US establishment, including on foreign policy (his admiration for Putin for example) and globalisation. But nonetheless it signals the increasing political problems for the US ruling class as its declining relative economic weight means it is increasingly unable to deliver prosperity at home purely on the basis of its international position. The US has lived beyond its means since the 1970s, maintaining an artificially high standard of living for American workers compared to its real economic growth rate and negative trade balances through borrowing secured by the role of the dollar and the US’s position as military and economic guarantor of the world capitalist system, with all the consequences that eventually came home to roost in 2007-8. As the US ruling class has no intention of taking steps that could seriously turn around the fortunes of the US economy – because this would imply breaking from neoliberalism and the Washington consensus by stepping up the role of the state – it has no choice but to progressively squeeze working class incomes, with all the political consequences that are signalled by Trump’s election.
The consequences of Trump’s victory for the rest of the world are both frightening and painfully clear. A president who claims to ‘love wars’, and question why the US has not used its nuclear weapons, can be relied on to provoke new conflicts and wars. Standing up to US imperialism and its war-mongering will remain an absolutely central task.
At the same time the myth still beloved of Western liberals – and peddled in the rest of the world – that the US is the uniquely reliable source of progressive ideas, democracy and human rights is evidently no longer tenable.
The claims of American exceptionalism are debunked by Trump. With the politics of Trump at the helm, who can seriously contend that, in the words of American founding father Thomas Paine, ‘The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind’. Or who would give any credibility to George W Bush’s claim of 200 years later: ‘Our nation’s founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: In our world and here at home we will extend the frontiers of freedom’. Or believe, along with Bill Clinton and Obama, that America remains the ‘one indispensible nation’.
There is no good to be expected from the victory of Trump, only the need to struggle more determinedly against US imperialism, backwardness and racism and their apologists and acolytes at home. But at least no one should be allowed to claim that the US represents the source of progress in a fallen world or that its wars are fought for the good of humanity and the rights of all.