A triumph of rage over reason

The dark question looms: can a candidate who helped create the worst campaign in US history avoid becoming its worst president? 

Robert Matthews
11 November 2016
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.The deplorable carnival of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, falsehoods, hypocrisy and character assassination, orchestrated by Donald Trump, which befouled the US electoral process and made a travesty of the US democracy before the world — is finally over. 

And the unthinkable happened: Trump, while losing the popular vote (by 1-2 % as of now) won the Electoral College (279-228), which is what matters. He is now the president-elect of the world's remaining super power. The dark question looms: can a candidate who helped create the worst campaign in US history avoid becoming its worst president? As crushing as his victory is for half the country, will the real disappointment come with his presidency?

Clinton bears some responsibility for how she conducted her campaign. She spent too much time defending herself against Trump’s vicious attacks and in counterattacking by questioning his fitness to serve. She spent too little time speaking of her policies and when she did, they often sounded too bureaucratic and less inspirational; she thus failed to articulate a coherent, integrated and lofty vision and hammer it home with conviction. In the end she was viewed as a status quo candidate in a change-oriented election environment. 

However, for the time being, those of us in the US who still cling to the quaint notion that political leadership should be in the hands of sane, responsible and stable personalities for the moment are devastated. A real estate tycoon, never having held public office elected or otherwise, and a shameless self-promoter (worse than a businessman), who disdained even minimal preparation on the issues, will in January begin to address the complex array of problems, domestic and foreign, that confront the US — not least of which are the vertiginous social and political divisions revealed and exacerbated during the campaign. 

The electorate 

This may have been the last chance for Republicans to win by dominating the white vote and Trump managed to outdo the percentages of the recent past by wide margins. He even received 10% more votes from white women than Hillary. 

But in every election since 1988 the percentage of white voters has decreased by 3% and this shrinking constituency is more evident with older less educated white males. Thus, over the long term, Republicans need to expand this base by encroaching on Democratic turf, towards minorities, people of colour and educated urban and suburban whites. 

Clinton’s message of sympathy to undocumented immigrants (distinguishing herself from Obama’s deportation polices), combined with extensive voter mobilisation efforts by the Democrats in Florida and the Southwest — and, equally important, the bigotry expressed by Trump toward Mexicans and immigrants in general — accounted for a massive and unprecedented Hispanic turnout. However, their votes could not be taken for granted; Trump, while losing this constituency to Clinton 65% to 29%, nonetheless did better than Romney who received 27%, while Clinton received 6% less than Obama’s 71% in 2012. 

The abortion issue among Catholic voters was a factor, as well as Clinton’s own negatives in balancing the sympathy she garnered over immigration and the hostility to Trump’s racist comments on Latinos and threat to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

The reaction

Michael Probst AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

A broker reacts as President-elect Donald Trump shows up on a television screen at the stock market. Michael Probst AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.As testimony to the nervousness of Republican — as well as global — economic elites to a Trump presidency, markets initially sank yesterday. Trump not only represents uncertainty and caprice, but leads a movement which is opposed to free trade and still holds disdain for capitalistic and corporate elites following the economic crash of 2008. This bespeaks the possibility of some financial and trade volatility in the near term.  

But the markets recovered and ended on the upside, hinting that capitalists in the US are probably adjusting their sights and are already gearing up for another collaborative effort with White House to protect their profits.

Trump has won, but nearly half the country voted against him and damage has been done to the US body politic, in a society which was already challenged by deep divisions, hostility, and intolerance. The campaign also wreaked havoc with the reputation abroad of the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and to its foreign policy which has traditionally relied on the promotion of a US model of electoral democracy as both a vehicle for defending its interests and as a worthy goal in itself for others. 

What’s next? 

After a campaign marked more by the bludgeon of invective than the rapier of sharp policy debate, an exhausted and sharply divided American public awaits the next chapter in the US election saga of 2016. 

The wounds will not heal quickly and Trump will have his work cut out for him to bring a semblance of unity back to the US. He faces a host of questions and uncertainties regarding the future of a still abysmally divided society, and its rancorous politics.

To wit:

1. What is Trump’s larger agenda and priorities? He actually said little about his projected programs and policies in the campaign. Will he be able to follow through on any sort of immigration reform, or the repeal and dismantling of Obama’s health care program as Republicans want to do? How conservative will his pick for the vacant Supreme Court be?

2. How will Trump impact the divisions between radical conservatives and more traditional conservatives in the Republican Party? The party which seems so united behind him now, and his Republican-dominated Senate and House of Representatives. 

Congress could still be rent asunder by Trump as he diverges from classic Republican conservatism. Can Republicans remain viable as a major party? Will he exercise a moderating influence on extremism? (After all he has often changed positions, including on abortion, and before this campaign he was not considered a rock-robbed conservative on all issues.) Or will the radical Tea Party types in Congress be energised by a Trump presidency dedicated to shaking up the status quo. 
Congress could still be rent asunder by Trump as he diverges from classic Republican conservatism. 

3. How sound are his economic proposals? Trump’s idea to roll back globalism and free trade with protectionism and a combination of arm-twisting and tax incentives to bring jobs back is surely wishful thinking. Likewise, tax cuts may run into budgetary problems quickly. Only some sort of government intervention in retraining, infrastructure and education can begin to address the inequality and economic insecurity of an angry working class. And of course, such a role for government is anathema to Republicans — one of the paradoxes he will have to confront. 

4. Can a leader govern sensibly without having developed a team of credible advisers and, in any case, if he has a reputation of not listening to advice? It is still an open question how capricious and authoritarian his presidency will be, and this creates the possibility of Trump committing missteps or serious blunders. 

5. Can Trumpism be defused or mitigated to any extent? What realistic plan does Trump have to address the real grievances of those victims of globalisation and the increasing inequality of income in the US working class? How long will he be given to produce results before his coalition of disaffected white voters begins to fray? Of course, the most obvious vehicle a Trump administration would use is the same federal government that is so mistrusted by Trump supporters and Tea Party types, and opposed in its spending powers by mainstream Republicans. 

6. Inequality is an issue, but it is not the heart of the problem, as with many Trump supporters it is more a fear of being left behind. Many Trump supporters are not faring badly economically, but fear for their future in a society that no longer respects their ‘identity’ and no longer prioritises their needs. They see an indifferent government which neglects them, taxing them for the benefit of the undeserving ‘other’ (read non-white, immigrant etc.). These ‘others’ are different and often dangerous. 

Thus, for these people there is a species of ‘identity crisis’ rather than a real material deprivation dilemma. They are facing an uncertain future in a country in which they formerly had a large stake and a sense of control over their lives. Thus, many are consumed with a sense of betrayal.  

Trump supporters are not faring badly economically, but fear for their future in a society that no longer respects their ‘identity’. 

For these people Trump’s anti-establishment stance represented change, a finger in the eye of the elites of both parties, and a clarion call for change — a visceral rejection of Obama. In this sense Trump is the paladin of opposition to Obama — the ultimate anti-Obama — and the scourge of too-liberal governments, indifferent to them and their needs. 

Trump’s supporters have a strong sense of victimhood reminiscent of many Germans in the 1930s. These are intangibles that feed a modern malaise in the US and Europe today, and which cannot be resolved by embodying the problem in a supposed enemy: immigrants, muslims Mexicans, African Americans or any other. 

Moreover, how will Trump address the vague but visceral bias against the educated, ‘cosmopolitan’ elites, of which he has been a member, with policymakers and bureaucrats who would be called upon to address this phenomenon? 

The real message of Trump’s clever campaign slogan resonated well. “Make America Great Again” with its proto-fascist overtones (c.f. “Deutschland Uber Alles”) plays on both the word ‘great’ — easily interpreted and phonetically close to ‘white’ — and ‘again’, which harkens back to a past in which the white working class and middle classes held sway. And Trump is neither black nor a woman. How does he manage to recreate a US society that has disappeared over the past half century?  

How does he manage to recreate a US society that has disappeared over the past half century?  

7. How will someone, who does not practice religion and who has defended gay rights in his past, address the cultural antagonisms that have eclipsed economic issues for many of those angry anti-Washington voters? To name a few: the role of religion and separation of church and state in contemporary US society, intolerance for gay rights and implacable opposition to abortion. 

8. How dangerous was the Trump campaign’s unleashing and legitimising of the violence-prone extreme right, including militia movements and white supremacy hate groups? Will Trump and the Republican triumph steal the thunder of these groups and their newly acquired prominence? (These are movements that thrive on opposition to the powers in Washington and a certain sense of martyrdom; historically they have become more active during Democratic administrations.) 

Or on the other hand, will they wrap themselves in the warm afterglow of Trump’s victory and continue to be a lightning rod and standard bearer for the anti-establishment message of Trumpism, encouraged to take more forceful action in the future?

These and other questions form the backdrop to the euphoria of the arch-conservative forces at this moment. The answers may lay bare the historical dimensions of this grave mistake.

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