Donald Trump will be US president: Many challenges await the American Left
The unthinkable has happened.
Donald Trump has won the US presidency.
Only a month ago, this weak candidate seemed to destroy his own prospects by his first debate performance; falling as he did into an obvious trap Hillary Clinton had laid, by tweeting in the middle of the night about a Miss Universe contestant. After that, and in the wake of the release of an appalling “hot mic” tape where he spoke about sexually assaulting women, he watched the entire Republican establishment abandon him.
Now Trump has emerged as the winner, with a convincing electoral victory, although at the time of writing, he is losing the popular vote. However improbable — and most poll-tracking sites, with the notable exception of Nate Silver’s 538, had his chances well under 10 percent as of Tuesday — his victory followed the lines people had speculated it might. Basically, he won the white vote by a wide margin, 58 to 37 percent, doing particularly well among whites with without college degrees, 67 to 28 percent. None of Clinton’s possible firewalls materialised.
Her share of those with college degrees or more was up eight percent — not enough, nor did an enlarged gender gap materialise (Clinton won 41 percent of votes from men and 54 percent from women; worse among men and about the same among women as Barack Obama in 2012), nor did Latinos swing even further away from Republicans. In fact, notwithstanding Trump’s often horrific rhetoric on race matters and immigration, he improved on Romney’s share of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. Although Trump lost the lowest income categories, he substantially improved on Romney’s share, while Clinton made more modest gains among the upper middle class.
As is usually the case, those who believe the economy is in good shape went with the party in power, while those unhappy with it went with the party out of power. In an election in which many wanted change, Clinton embodied the establishment, and was tarnished by the focus on minor scandals. Basically, Trump’s coalition of whites, particularly those without college education, came out in big numbers, while Clinton’s coalition did not. And Trump’s coalition has more weight in the electoral swing states. Not surprisingly, Trump’s victory has also resulted in the Republicans maintaining both Houses of Congress. Undoubtedly, one of the first orders of business will be to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority to that body, with more appointments likely in the next four years given the age of liberal justices there.
Although the picture above is not too far from norms of American politics, Trump’s victory has horrified and devastated liberals in the United States. His rhetoric often seemed little more than a stew of racist, anti-immigrant and misogynist resentments. With no experience whatsoever in public office, he also showed little respect for freedom of the press and seems personally vengeful. Rather than a simple passing of the baton back to the Republicans, Trump emerges as a surly No from “flyover country,” hollowed out of decent paying jobs over the past 30 years and fearful of cultural changes epitomised by a Black president, to a multicultural, corporate establishment. This vote thus joins a number of similar ones around the world this year, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Brexit, and the failed Peace Accords in Colombia, in all of which a mobilised Right was able to defeat the establishment, notwithstanding the screams that such votes would be practically suicidal.
What should we expect?
Trump will be of the same party as both Houses of Congress, and soon, as noted above, the Supreme Court. At the same time, many Republicans are not presently on the same page as Trump. Trump attacked bipartisan policies, including trade pacts, Nato, and fiscal austerity, although for all of his populist appeal, he tended to drift back towards Republican promises of deregulation and tax cuts as the campaign went on. Many Republicans have close connections to donors who want little more than the status quo with cuts to taxes. Trump has no ties to them, but rather to a working class base whose lot he has promised to improve, although it is unclear how.
The more traditional Republicans will probably cave to his will out of fear for their own positions — some donors and upper middle class voters may drift to the Democrats in search of a new home. His foreign policy ideas, such as they are, mix a dampening down of tensions with Russia with extremely belligerent rhetoric. The Paris Climate deal is likely dead. The FBI seemed to be on Trump’s side, particularly in the last couple of weeks of the campaign; it is conceivable it will be deployed against his enemies.
The Left side of the political spectrum faces a very serious reckoning. The Democratic Party will likely be pulled in two different directions. Some will argue that it must deepen its appeal to the upper middle class, perhaps by stepping to the Right from the modest economic measures Clinton proposed as her agenda, making it more amenable to the homeless Republicans noted above, while pulling some working class whites back by taking less pro-immigration stances. Others, associated with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, will likely argue that the party should deliver a Left populist alternative to Trump, staking out opposition to corporate domination of Washington and mapping out ways government can work better for ordinary people through redistributive measures.
Probably the former position — moving to the Right — will be more popular with pro-Clinton Democratic office holders, while the latter position — moving to the Left — will be more popular with the Democratic base.
African-Americans and Latinos would be in the middle — they put Clinton over the top during the primary, but clearly lacked enthusiasm in the General Election. They could conceivably be pulled to the Left. Already during the primary season, majorities of younger cohorts of these groups went for Sanders, who was not particularly adept at navigating the Democratic Party’s multiracial terrain. This tension would have emerged under Clinton, but it is hard to deny that the struggle will occur under more difficult conditions under Trump, where it will play out under conditions of Trump’s choosing.
The last five years have been lively ones for protest in the US, and these social movements will also face new challenges. Both Occupy and Black Lives Matters showed signs of producing multiracial coalitions. Movements around climate, immigration and the minimum wage have also shown promise. All, however, have a limited organisational presence in American life. How will they fare under conditions where nearly all white uniformed officers (police, border patrol, corrections officers) support Trump, who they likely anticipate will provide them with support after being on the defensive for the last couple of years?
Although fascism has been a popular optic to frame Trump, it might be more productive to look at other periods in US history in which racism was successfully reinvigorated to isolate poor and working class whites from multiracial coalitions of the oppressed (Reconstruction, Populism). If this were to occur again, it would be devastating to long-term hopes for a more equitable United States.
Today, it is hard to be optimistic about the capacity to meet these challenges, but this is what is ahead for the Left in the United States.
The author is a sociologist and author who lives in Brooklyn, New York