It just might happen. What seemed, a year ago, like a laughingstock candidacy is now a plausible winner in the wildest political year (and there is still the forthcoming “October surprise”) since 1968. No matter what happens, the old US party system is broken. Donald Trump is like no major candidate in living memory. Just as one had to reach back to Eugene Debs to find a candidate as seemingly radical as Bernie Sanders, finding a serious precursor to Trump is even more difficult. The quiet eclipse of Sanders in August guaranteed that many of his ex-supporters will stay home or vote for the Green Party. Respectable official society, including a good swath of the Republican establishment and even the normally “apolitical” military, is either in withdrawal or openly supporting Clinton. Generals, diplomats, foreign policy wonks and the New York Times all agree that a Trump presidency will be a disaster. The Financial Times sheds tears over the possible demise of the “internationalist” (read: US-dominated) world order in place since 1945. Such declarations make no difference; if anything, they only add to Trump’s “anti-establishment” credentials and panache.
The situation shows important parallels to the Brexit vote in Britain in June; there, the entire political and academic establishment, “left” or “right,” came out to “remain” in the European Union, and something like a class vote (albeit mixed with other less savory elements) came back with a big middle finger. That is what is brewing in the United States. What is occurring is nothing less than a (very) skewed referendum on the past 45 years of American politics and society, and those who feel they got the short end of “free trade” and “globalization” think they have finally found a voice, even as Trump’s economic program, such as it is, is a chimera. Just as in France or in Britain, the new right-wing populism does not make its inroads in the wired yuppie metropolitan centers of Paris or London, but rather in the passed-over middle and small towns, including towns where gentrification has forced the former urban working class to relocate. So it is in the United States, where Trump does not play well in the San Francisco Bay Area or in New York City, but in the medium, small-town and rural preserves of the “unnecessariat.” We might also see the rise of Trump-style authoritarian populism in a disturbing global context, one that includes the ongoing advances of the far right in western Europe (France, Scandinavia, Austria and now Germany), in eastern Europe led by Hungary and Poland, along with Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and, most recently, Duterte in the Philippines.
It is perhaps remarkable that, in America’s supposedly “middle class” society, the white working class is being discussed and catered to as the ultimate arbiter of this election. So unprecedented are the politics of 2016 that mainstream ideology suddenly feels the need to talk openly about the working class it previously disappeared or took for granted. UAW bureaucrats and AFL-CIO blowhard president Richard Trumka scurry hither and thither to convince the union rank and file not to vote for Trump.
Trump, for his part, when able to stay “on message,” has made disarmingly lucid speeches about what has happened to workers in the decimated former heartland of mass industry, the key “swing states” of the Midwest. The hard-scrabble white working class of the former mass furniture industry in Virginia and North Carolina is also easy pickings for Trump, not to mention the West Virginia miners and ex-miners turned off by Clinton’s “green” agenda. And why should we be surprised, when the main surprising thing is that for the first time a candidate of a major party has bothered to talk directly to such workers about what has happened to them in the past decades, in contrast to the feel-good rhetoric of the Walter Mondales and Bill Clintons and now of Hillary Clinton? Saying “America never stopped being great,” as Hillary Clinton and the Democrats do, is already ideology run amok, and is even colder comfort to ex-industrial workers in the heartland, to a large swath of black people north and south, or to poor whites in Appalachia and elsewhere, currently subject to the highest death rates in the country by suicide, drugs and alcohol. We should not overlook, when identifying the class fractures at work, the role of identity politics, so rife in the metropolitan centers, in fueling the rise of Trump. Identity politics always had and has an explicit or implicit “suspicion” of workers qua workers, just as they have been supremely indifferent to the dismantling of the old industrial heartlands, which ravaged communities of white, black and brown workers alike. The rise of Trump is in part payback for the decades of condescension and barely concealed contempt for, or at best indifference to, the fate of ordinary working people rife in elite academia, the corporate media and the higher-end publishing world of the New York Times and posh journals of the chattering classes. Trump is a racist, you say? A misogynist? An immigrant and China basher? Yes, he is all those things, but these accusations from the garden-variety left and liberals do not get to the heart of his appeal as an “anti-establishment” figure. His apparent base does also have the highest per capita income of the major candidates and ex-candidates (Clinton and Sanders), indicating that he has forged a coalition of middle-and upper-class whites with some white workers and poor whites, itself rather unprecedented. All these groups have in common a conviction that the older America they knew is being replaced by an America with a blacker and browner working class, and multiple immigrant groups from East and South Asia, and from Latin America. Last but not least, Trump has indeed brought many elements of the far right, the David Dukes and gun-show crowd, into broad daylight, allowing them to emerge from the dark corners of the alt-right, and “freed their tongues,” as one of them put it, from the dominant “politically correct” atmosphere. Whether Trump wins or loses, such forces will not be going quietly back into their previous relative obscurity. To conclude, these advances of the far right and authoritarian populism around the world are the mirror of the failure of the moderate “left” which has collapsed into the happy family of center-right/center-left consensus of the past 45 years, led by the Tony Blairs, Francois Mitterands and Gerhard Schroeders in Europe and by the Jimmy Carters, Bill Clintons and Barack Obamas in the United States, and now joined by Hillary Clinton. Such forces are no stop-gap barrier, as many “lesser evil” theorists would have us believe, to the ascending right, but rather feed it, making it and not a serious left, of the type Insurgent Notes aims to help bring into existence, the apparent “anti-establishment” alternative to the status quo.