Let’s begin with the purely electoral aspect of Trump’s victory in November. He lost the popular vote by 65 million to 62 million, but that didn’t matter because he won the archaic Electoral College by 304 to 227. The Electoral College was established in the late eighteenth century to appease the slaveholding states: it was a device to turn the non-votes of the slaves who counted to determine the number of representatives in the House into votes that would count in the presidential election. The trick was to use the number of representatives plus the two senators as the basis for determining the number of electors—thereby enshrining the deep fraud of the three-fifths compromise into the presidential election system.
Trump lost the entire Northeast (New York State, Massachusetts, etc.) and the West Coast (California, etc.), and won most of the states in between.
Further, there are 220 million adults of voting age in the United States, of whom 90 million did not vote at all, and studies have generally shown that the non-voters are overwhelmingly in the poorer half of the population and on specific issues (healthcare, welfare, etc.) are to the left of both the major Democratic and Republican Parties. Non-voting in the United States is not merely a radical gesture of “who cares?” but is a conscious policy, starting in the Southern states, of active voter suppression. The long-term “war on drugs” has created millions of convicted felons (mainly black and brown) who can never vote again, and conservative state governments create all kinds of other obstacles to the votes of the poor, and especially the black and brown poor.
That’s the basic outline of the purely electoral aspect of what took place in November 2016. Strictly in terms of votes, Trump takes power as the most vulnerable and unpopular United States president in memory.
Far more important was the success of Trump in winning significant support among working-class and poor whites, especially in the so-called “Rust Bowl” of formerly industrial states: above all, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. Trump, the billionaire, survivor of serial bankruptcies, succeeded in casting himself as the “outsider,” the “anti-establishment” candidate against Hillary Clinton, whose ties to Wall Street could never be hidden away. Further, Clinton’s campaign consciously chose to ignore the working-class vote, expecting to win with the more affluent middle and upper-middle class vote. This strategy backfired badly. (See the brilliant article “The Unnecessariat” about poor whites in rural and small town America, who have the highest rate of death by suicide, drugs and alcohol, and who live precisely in the counties with the highest rate of votes for Trump.)
It should be noted that the virtual entirety of the Republican and Democratic establishments, including military, intelligence services and diplomats, denounced Trump before the election, much as the entire British establishment had denounced Brexit. It made no difference; it only underscored the distance between the entire political (and intellectual and media) elite and ordinary working people. And as one British politician famously commented, “Ordinary people are sick of experts.”
The liberal left behind Clinton hammered away about Trump’s racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim posture—all true enough. But this ignored the warped, distorted “class” appeal of Trump that attracted many people who may or may not have shared such views but who heard and gravitated to Trump’s promises to “rebuild American industry” and put millions of workers back to work, an appeal never made before by any major party candidate.
Further, there were important examples such as Macomb County, Michigan, in the suburbs of Detroit. It was and is a white, blue-collar population which already in the 1980s became “Reagan Democrats,” i.e., workers voting for Ronald Reagan’s promises to “rebuild America” after the crisis and stagnation of the 1970s.
In 2008 and 2012, Macomb County voted for Barack Obama; in the 2016 Democratic primaries it voted for the left-populist Bernie Sanders, and in the fall election voted…for Trump. This is a well-observed phenomenon of unstable left and right populism going back to the 1960s. It undermines any simple analysis of Trump’s base being primarily racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim though it may also be those things. Fifty-three percent of voting women voted for Trump, as did 30 percent of voting Latinos.
No question that Trump’s rise and victory unleashed hardcore fascist and proto-fascist forces, from the Ku Klux Klan to the so-called “alt right,” a vicious Internet phenomenon of significant weight but with relatively few people “on the ground.” Anti-Semitic episodes have skyrocketed, as have attacks on Muslims; a mosque in Texas was burned to the ground, as was a black church in the South. Further, Trump’s announced plans to deport millions of illegal immigrants have struck fear deep into the Latino and Muslim communities in the United States, including among people with established middle-class lives and United States citizenship.
Once in power, Trump appointed the most right-wing Cabinet in history, including seven billionaires: a Secretary of the Treasury, Mnuchin, from Goldman Sachs, who had specialized in thousands of home foreclosures in the 2008–09 meltdown and thereafter; a Secretary of Education, the billionaire Betsy DeVos, who wishes to privatize all public schools; an Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, from Alabama, with a long proven record of anti-black legal measures; a Director of the Environmental Protection Administration who thinks global warming is a fraud; a Secretary of the Interior who wants to sell off public lands, including national parks, to mining and oil companies; a Secretary of State, Tillerson, who resigned as CEO of Exxon after years of oil deals in Russia and ties to Vladimir Putin. And so on.
One might wonder what Trump’s blue-collar base makes of such a witch’s Sabbath, but the truth seems to be that they are largely unaware of such nasty “facts,” dependent as they are on trashy media such as Fox News, if they pay attention to news at all. Trump’s immigrant ban has apparently played very well with such people.
Meanwhile, Trump’s alt-right top counselor, Steve Bannon, former editor of the far-right Breitbart News, had emerged as the most powerful figure in Trump’s inner circle. He called in the heads of various craft unions in the building trades, representing the workers who will most directly benefit from Trump’s plan to rebuild United States infrastructure, thus potentially, à la Mussolini, establishing some kind of trade union base.
Yet Trump’s first three weeks in power point to a regime aware of its weakness and unpopularity (his polls, in the 30 percent range, are the lowest in history for a new president). Hence Trump (and Bannon) have issued a steady stream of presidential decrees, many of dubious legality, and most notoriously the recent ban on travel and immigration from seven Muslim countries (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Sudan), which led to mass mobilizations at airports around the country demanding that detainees be allowed to enter the United States. As of this writing, the ban has been declared illegal in the courts, but the outcome remains to be seen.
We might conclude, provisionally, with the Orwellian overtones of Trump’s non-stop propaganda machine, starting with his daily flood of “Tweets.” This is the claim to create “alternative facts” to those reported by the media, which latter Trump has declared to be the main “opposition party” in the United States. Another Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, openly defends these “alternative facts,” such as Trump’s claim that three to five million illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 elections, to the assertion of a link between the measles vaccine and autism, to the fraud of global warming created by China to undermine United States industry. Well before the election, it was established that the “blue states” and “red states” lived in separate digital realities with little or nothing in common. Now, a regime in power is openly committed to creating “alternative facts” whenever necessary and convenient, making Hitler’s antiquated “Big Lie” of an earlier low-tech era seem amateurish by comparison.
Trump’s most vulnerable point is exactly his strong point in the election: his claim of providing the millions of industrial or infrastructure jobs that his blue-collar supporters are expecting. (As indicated previously, he comes to power as extremely vulnerable.) There is in fact little room in American capitalism for such a program, given the government deficits implied, not to mention the ongoing automation of industrial sectors by robotics. Faced with that cul-de-sac, Trump will have to create a smokescreen of more “alternative facts,” which will be fairly transparent. At that moment, to head off a working-class rebellion, Trump and Bannon will be tempted to create a state of emergency based on an ostensible war scare (most probably with China) and/or a terrorist action in the United States on the scale of 9/11. (Lacking the latter, they can always create their own.)
Such a crisis will be a turning point in Trump’s administration, depending on what the working class, black, brown and white, will do.