It never seemed real until this moment. I joked about it happening, I even admitted it was a possibility, but deep down I never truly thought it was possible. Well, it is. Donald Trump, smarmy corporate fat cat, symbol of literally everything we despise and most of the things we fear, will for at least the next four years be President of the United States, God-Emperor of the world’s last crumbling empire.
There’s so much to be said about this unfolding nightmare, and most of it will be said at greater length by people much better qualified than me to say it. For now, I just want to say two things, the first at once painfully, infuriatingly obvious, yet somehow apparently so hard if not to grasp then certainly to allow to become real. This didn’t have to happen.
There was a candidate that could have beaten Trump. The polls back then indicated he would beat Trump. Sure, this awful result proves rather resoundingly that polls cannot always be trusted – something increasingly true in the aftermath of Brexit – but then again, a lot of the time they can, and they’re still the most accurate thing we have to go by. So let’s say it without hesitation; Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump.
His nail-bitingly close tilt at the nomination revealed a Democratic Party divided within itself. But it also revealed a hidden army of activists, young students, older unionised workers, people of all ages who give a damn about others and want a better world. Legions of people who were willing to campaign, to argue with others, to volunteer their time, energy and money toward the absurd proposition that a septuagenarian Brooklyn Jew and unabashed socialist could become President.
He nearly did.
It was never primarily about Bernie. It became clear, as time went on, that many Democrats were not eager or even willing to vote for Clinton. This isn’t because testosterone soaked legions of Bernie Bros hate her ovaries; for all the attempts of the Clinton campaign to paint anyone who opposed her from either left or right as a misogynist, this slur never carried much weight outside of the liberal Twitterati. It was because Bernie Sanders stood for something, a vision of a fairer, more compassionate and more equal society, and unlike Clinton he could articulate that vision credibly. He inspired people, whereas she seemed like the more ‘rational’ and ‘pragmatic’ choice. Well, that sure turned out well.
Not only was it possible for Sanders to beat Trump, all the evidence was there to suggest it would happen. In May/June this year, before the Democratic Party machine finally succeeded in driving Sanders out of its rigged nomination process, polls began to consistently indicate that while Clinton would lose to Trump in a general election, Sanders would win by about ten percent.
Sanders was more popular among independents, who form the biggest voting bloc in a weird and warped American electoral system which, by virtue of its extended primary nomination process, gives arguably undue attention to the views of registered Democrats or Republicans. Not only are most voters not registered with either faction, around half of Americans don’t vote at all, so for obvious reasons the independent voter is incredibly important to win over if you actually want to, you know, win an election.
When pushed, independents tend (like most people) to lean either toward either the left or the right. This is not some wavering, indecisive section of voters. What we’re actually talking about here is a mass of people who reject the partisanship of America’s rigged, two party plutocracy, are uncomfortable identifying as part of it and being complicit with it, yet who are still politically aware and prepared to take part (however grudgingly) in an election. After all, if voting changed nothing, they’d never have tried so hard to stop most people from doing it.
Not only was Sanders stronger against Trump among independent voters than Clinton, he was more popular among Republicans who opposed Trump – yes, some registered Republicans were willing to vote for Bernie Sanders, but not Clinton. What can we say? American politics is weird and complex, and a highly polled citizenry can throw up all kinds of interesting stats.
The other point from this is that politics is not a black and white exercise in rigid clichés – it’s a dialectical process, something that becomes real when in motion through the thoughts and actions of millions of people.
Not every person who votes Republican is an irredeemably deplorable monster – after all, Democratic Presidents like Bill Clinton launched vicious assaults on the industrial working class in rust-belt states, their free trade agreements destroying entire communities as companies abandoned their unionised workforces for cheap labour and wild-west markets abroad. This was a huge factor in why Clinton lost the Mid-West. It isn’t because Americans who live far away from the hipster cafes and beltway discussion circles of the coasts are inherently racist, or sexist, or whatever. It’s because they’re smart enough to recognise that the socially progressive liberalism of Clinton goes hand in hand with neo-liberalism, the ideology of economic warfare against the poor, the idea that the banks and the speculators and the CEOs can run riot without regulation and ordinary working people have to pick up the bill.
This is the real point here. Ordinary people are not fools. They may not be up to date with the latest terminology popular on college campuses, and many of them may tragically have wound up tricked into blaming immigrant workers for the crimes of greedy employers. But at the end of the day, Hillary Clinton could say whatever she wanted about being the candidate who’d stand up for ordinary people, who’d support good jobs, who’d oppose racism, who’d challenge the power of the banks and the super-corporations, or whatever. Nobody believed it.
Why? Because it’s somewhat difficult to believe the candidate who supported free trade deals like NAFTA, destroying millions of good jobs, can be trusted when she flip flops into opposing it as soon as it becomes clear people are angry about the results.
You’d have to be pretty naïve to believe a woman who sat on the board of directors of Wal-Mart between 1986 and 1992 – during which time the company waged a union-busting war against its own workers so vile and aggressive it’s almost hilarious to see evidence of today – can be taken seriously when she claims to be genuinely pro-labour, and a supporter of decent paying jobs with good conditions. After all, she did absolutely nothing to stick up for struggling union members at Wal-Mart when it counted.
Clinton is unlikely to come even close to the open, reprehensible racism that spews out of Donald Trump’s mouth. However, her description of black inner city youths as “super-predators” is well known. Living in communities devastated by the militarised police force’s War on Drugs and the mass incarceration policies of Bill Clinton, this crime wave and the poverty that surrounded it was met by the Clinton administration of the 1990s with a combination of authoritarian violence and punitive welfare cuts. Clinton and the Obama administration both continue to enjoy widespread support among the black community, the latter for fairly obvious reasons, but the actual historical record is chequered to say the least.
Trump’s threats against immigrants and his absurd plans to build a Game of Throne’s style wall on the southern border are a disgrace, but we should not forget (it’d be a start if more people actually knew…) that the Obama/Clinton administration has deported between 2.5 and 3 million people from the United States – more than every other president in the 20th century put together!
And of course, we all know about the obscene amounts of money she was paid in “speaking fees” by her mates on Wall St. Did anyone really, truly believe she was going to challenge the power of the banks and the corporate aristocracy? Please.
Let’s be real here; Trump obviously has to be opposed, but what exactly is there to defend? Some stuff, sure. But after all these years, after all the hopes dashed and change deferred, how much enthusiasm could really be mustered to fight for four more years?
Evidently, not much.
Hillary Clinton could say whatever she wanted, and the Democratic Party could put forward however progressive a platform it wanted – though that, of course, was more down to pressure from the Sanders insurgency than any sudden surge in socialistic sentiment from the party apparatchiks. End of the day, nobody was ever going to believe it, because ordinary people are not stupid. We live in an age where information is easily accessible, where most people have at least fairly good internet access, and Clinton was simply never going to be a credible candidate to a voting population sick and tired of the status quo.
She was the definition of a status quo candidate, a person utterly defined by the obviously corrupt and soulless machine she was an inseparable part of. The very inevitability of her dynastic rise to power made it seem somehow foul and undesirable.
She lost the election. Trump didn’t win it. Hillary Clinton, and all her corporate PR advisors and manipulative party hacks in the Orwellian-titled ‘Democratic’ Party, crafted with all their genius and power a campaign that was unable to defeat in electoral combat the most obscene, unqualified, incompetent, bile-filled and gaffe-prone idiot to ever take a tilt at the Presidency. It’s frankly a credit to their skills, however unintended, that they pulled it off at all. It really did seem impossible.
So where to from here?
The main lesson I think the left must take from this is that you need to stand for something, not just against something. Very few people actually like the status quo. From the way Occupy exploded out of nowhere to the way both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have revealed a millennial generation increasingly eager to push for socialist and progressive policies, it’s clear that a hunger for real change is out there. People aren’t stupid. In the aftermath of the financial crisis and the bank bailouts, they don’t actually believe America is great right now and it always was. Why would people turn out and vote for someone whose central message is “things are pretty good eh, don’t let that guy come in and mess them up”?
Donald Trump actually stood for something. Admittedly, it’s a nightmarishly horrible something, insofar as it’s possible to even articulate what it is or predict what he’s going to do. But to the millions who voted for him, he represented a rejection of the establishment, of the same old Washington hacks playing the same old game; he represented something else.
The task for the left in America after Trump, just like in Britain after Brexit and in New Zealand under the endless and eternal reign of our beloved John Key, is to find a way we can become the something else that ordinary people actually want. There must be a way to stand against the right-wing and its toxic, xenophobic nationalism, without either casting ourselves or being cast by our opponents as defenders of the status quo. If you don’t stand for something clearly, radically different, you’re not going to excite anyone. Horrible as it is to admit, the insurgent New Right is winning victory after victory, and it must be an exciting time to be one of those cave dwellers come exultantly into the light.
This does not mean, of course, that a radical left wing programme will automatically win support. If it was that easy, we’d be having an entirely different conversation. What it means is that people don’t like being hectored and bullied into voting for status-quo centrist liberals who tell them they’re racist, sexist or whatever if they don’t. The left needs to actually articulate a vision of real, daring, exciting change, in a way that meets ordinary people where they’re at and offers solutions to their existing problems, linked to a vision of something better and broader. People aren’t inspired to turn out if all you promise to do is tinker round the edges.
Clinton lost because she deserved to lose. That does not, however, mean that Trump deserved to win. It certainly doesn’t mean we deserve to live in a world where that orange buffoon has access to nuclear launch codes. We all deserve something better than this – rather than mourning our loss, let’s work in whatever small ways we can toward building something better.
Guest post by Alastair Reith. Alastair is a Dunedin-based socialist and Unite delegate at McDonald’s. He is an elected member of the Unite National Executive.