By grappling with class, however crudely, the President-elect has smashed a smug consensusby / November 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
And so the United States has embraced the demagogue, a man who ran for the presidency as a kind of lone entrepreneur, without benefit of funding or even a political party, really. Every poll had him losing, some of them had him losing massively. And he won, thanks to the votes of millions of working-class whites which he did not really have any business winning.
How did it happen? Well, consider the traditional party of the American working class. For years the Democrats have been beguiled by the idea that all political victories lay in a kind of squishy centrism that involved making compromises with the Republicans. Working-class people, they assumed, had “nowhere else to go” as the party’s leaders triangulated to the centre. And so, led by Hillary Clinton’s husband, they got the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) passed and the banks deregulated—measures that were like poison to working class people and their organisations.
The great promise of centrism was that it delivered political victories. The Democratic Party’s various constituents would be abandoned, yes, but the Party itself would go from triumph to triumph. Here and there, certain people in the US pointed out that Republicans were making their own peculiar pitch to the working class, but Democrats closed their ears to that argument. In 2008, the Democrats succeeded by promising hope and action on behalf of middle-class Americans. They oversaw Wall Street bailouts instead. In 2016, with working people in fevered desperation, the Democrats chose to nominate the centrist par excellence, a woman who was visibly associated with trade agreements and Wall Street banks. Clinton was singularly ill-equipped to deal with the politics of class. She has never showed real interest in her party’s traditional mission. Her great vision, as she described it on the campaign trail, was a juiced-up meritocracy in which every talented person got a chance to compete.
Her party suppressed the Bernie Sanders challenge and lapsed immediately back into its usual complacency. Washington Democrats have long believed that demographic changes would eventually deliver every future presidential election to them forever, wrapped up like a Christmas present and without regard to what they actually achieved in office. To say they took voters for granted, as Donald Trump repeatedly charged, is to summarise their strategy accurately.
As for Trump, he has ended the debate about the direction in which the Republican Party will go in the future. Clearly this man understood something that his Republican rivals and predecessors didn’t: for all his thought-terminating egotism, he still managed to struggle through and put his fingers on The Grievance of our time, what economists call “inequality” and others describe as the disintegration of the middle class.
This is the real story of 2016: even with the economy recovering robustly on paper, a preposterous and dangerous protest candidate won by raging against trade agreements, immigration, a “rigged system,” and the Washington insiders who rigged it. He mobilised the ill-mannered and the disinherited by the millions for the Republican Party.
Much of Trump’s movement was racist, and much of it was misogynistic, mobilised by a horror of a woman president. But it also had this other thing going for it, this ephemeral grasp of The Grievance. And so he wiped out the free-market crowd in the Republican primaries; he triumphed even though he was a first-time candidate with no backers who drove away voters that a real politician would have known how to win.
I truly fear the Trump presidency. Many of his policy ideas portend disaster. With a Republican Congress, he will be able to inflict all manner of horrifying setbacks on American progress. But right now I am stunned at the way a complete rookie just laid low the entire comfy world of the Washington consensus.