It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
The political neophyte businessman Donald Trump, who kicked off his campaign by descending from a golden escalator at one of his luxury hotels to call illegal Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals has defeated former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady Hillary Clinton to become the 45th U.S. president.
Though Clinton won the popular vote 60,828,358 to 60,261,924, which comes to half a percentage point, it was not spread evenly enough amongst the states to give her an advantage in the Electoral College, which Trump won handily with 290 votes to Clinton’s 232.
Clinton had a compelling narrative set up for her victory: the first female president who set herself apart from her ex-president husband, who she stood behind through all his sex scandals, by starting her own career in politics. But it was all for naught.
What the hell happened?
As has been written many times by now, Trump successfully tapped into the anger and resentment of the rural white working class who felt the benefits of the economic globalization championed by Hillary’s husband during his presidency had passed them by.
Trump gave outlet to their frustrations, blaming their woes not only on unfair trade deals, which is quite reasonable, but fear of the Other – illegal immigrants, Muslims, the Chinese and a “global economic elite” that often sounded like a metonym for “Jews.”
By contrast, Clinton didn’t inspire enough enthusiasm to motivate the Latinos and African-Americans who voted in droves for Obama to come out for her on Election Day. Their lot hadn’t improved significantly under the first black president, so, many of them reasoned, what would another Clinton do for them?
Trump won outright amongst white men and women. The latter is considerably shocking, given the multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him and the “grab ’em by the pussy” recording that came out prior to them.
Like Rob Ford in Toronto’s 2010 election and the Brexiters in this year’s referendum in the U.K., Trump seized upon the chasm that opened between a core of city-dwelling “elites” and the peripheral rest of the country, motivating many disenchanted people to go out and vote for a brash outsider who promised to improve their lot, defying pollsters in the process.
Clinton came to embody everything that Trump said he opposed – a corrupt elite so entrenched in its own sense of entitlement that it was blind to the plight of the country’s downtrodden, those left behind by the closure of factories and mines.
In this regard, it didn’t matter that Trump is an elite by any measurement. After all, he started his business career with a “small loan of a million dollars” from his millionaire father.
While Clinton spoke of specific policy proposals tailor-made to appeal to a large cross section of the educated public, Trump spoke in platitudes that appealed to rural America, who were dismissed by Clinton as a “basket of deplorables.”
True, few if any Trump supporters would have voted for her in any event, but it’s generally a bad idea to insult your opponent’s supporters, as Romney learned in 2012.
When faced with a choice between the status quo that Clinton represented and “making America great again,” many Americans opted for the latter. One can strongly disagree with this decision, as I do, but it’s perfectly understandable, especially for those who feel excluded from the modern political economy.
Wikileaks and the FBI
At times, it seemed like Wikileaks and its leader Julian Assange was in the tank for Trump, leaking speeches, documents and private e-mails that cast the Democratic nominee and her inner circle in a negative light. Assange strongly denies that this was intended to help Trump, insisting that he simply publishes whatever secret documents are given to him in the name of radical transparency.
Perhaps the most damaging release was a paid speech Clinton gave to the National Multi-Housing Council where she admitted to having a “private” and “public” positions on issues like trade. For instance, Clinton told an audience of Italian bankers that she was fully in favour of “open trade and open borders,” despite her publicly stated opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership she helped negotiate as secretary of state, putting the sincerity of her other token progressive positions – $15 minimum wage, opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and increasing taxes on the wealthy, to name a few – into question.
To blame Wikileaks, or the Russians for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) server and passing the information on to Assange is to shoot the messenger.
These leaks, whatever their source, fueled Clinton’s image as a manipulative member of the ruling class concerned with nothing but her own advancement.
And the e-mails she sent from a private account as secretary of state – those “damn e-mails” as Bernie Sanders foolishly dismissed them in a Democratic primary debate – came back to haunt her in the campaign’s latter days, as FBI Director James Comey, a Republican Obama appointee, announced they were being re-investigated and then a week later said nothing noteworthy was found.
Still, the damage was done. The Clintons were correctly viewed as part of a crooked aristocracy to whom the rules need not apply.
Interestingly, the FBI, who formally accused Wikileaks of hacking the DNC and interfering in the election, was also involved in leveling the playing field for Trump.
Would Bernie have fared better?
Hypotheticals are always difficult, but it’s quite clear that Sanders tapped into the same populist rage as Trump. This is why he was able to give Clinton a far tougher primary challenge than anticipated.
Whereas Trump channeled this mass angst towards immigrants and minorities, Sanders’s focus was primarily economic, with a little bit of racial justice thrown into the mix under pressure from Black Lives Matter activists.
As we know thanks to Wikileaks, the DNC conspired against Sanders from day one. He was regarded, particularly by former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as a mere obstacle on Clinton’s inevitable path to the presidency and not a serious challenge. Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign her position as a result of the revelation, being replaced by yet another Clinton surrogate, Donna Brazile.
Had Sanders been the nominee, I suspect Trump would have gone into full red-baiting mode. It’s doubtful that the white rural voters who voted overwhelmingly for the KKK’s candidate of choice would vote for a Jewish socialist senator from Vermont.
It seems, unfortunately, that it was Trump’s time.
What will a Trump presidency actually look like?
Anyone’s guess is as good as mine, but Trump released a list of policy proposals for his first 100 days in office that is mostly frightening.
It does not bode well that that the Republicans now have control of the White House, both Houses of Congress and soon the judiciary. They’re already intent upon working with Trump to roll back Obama’s modest environmental, health care and taxation regulations.
His reported cabinet choices reads like a rogue’s gallery of right-wing ideologues: former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, George W. Bush’s UN ambassador John Bolton, Mr. 9/11 Rudy Guiliani and Sarah Palin, whose stupidity needs no introduction, are just a few.
I suspect and hope that some of Trump’s more outrageous proposals – banning Muslims, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, prosecuting Clinton and bringing back “a hell of a lot worse than water boarding” – were just to get the rural masses riled up and set him apart from the other candidates.
If true, Trump will govern like any other modern Republican president, which is bad but could conceivably be worse.
He’s already toned down his rhetoric considerably, giving an uncharacteristically gracious acceptance speech and mysteriously removing his proposed Muslim ban from his website before restoring it.
One of his signature proposals, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, seems particularly unlikely, given his repeated insistence that Mexico will pay for it. That appears to be a trap door – if the wall doesn’t get built he can blame it on the Mexicans and move on.
And as a businessman, he must be aware of the economic havoc his plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, many of whom work low-wage jobs U.S. citizens won’t do, would wreak.
Still, his environmental policies – scrapping the Paris climate agreement, building pipelines and categorically rejecting any form of carbon pricing – are cause for immense concern, because they’re entirely plausible from an economistic standpoint.
An erratic foreign policy
In terms of foreign relations, the big question is whether he will make good on his promise to thaw out relations with Russia, one issue where he ran as an unambiguous dove.
Intimately connected is the fate of NATO, whose other members Trump has insisted must pay up to continue as part of the alliance that was founded to counter Russian foreign policy. NATO requests that its members spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Canada, for instance, spends half that.
The former, mending ties with Russia, seems much more doable than the latter and could assist in solving the Syria’s bloody civil war, where Russia and Iran support the government and the U.S. and its allies back rebel forces.
Of course, Trump’s vow to renege on Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a promise likely made under the pressure of the powerful right-wing pro-Israel lobby, would have the opposite effect on Syria.
Combined with his dismissal of man-made climate change, it’s especially scary that the incoming U.S. commander-in-chief, with control over a vast nuclear arsenal, has such a contradictory array of global policies.
The Democrats: What’s next?
This election, as horrible a result it was for Democrats, was a vindication of the party’s progressive wing.
But for much of the party establishment and its apologists, blame falls on everything and everyone but themselves for the electoral upset: racism, sexism, the media, Wikileaks, the Russians, the FBI and Green leader Jill Stein for having the temerity to run to the left of the anointed one.
To New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, a Clinton devotee who did all he could to sandbag Sanders during the primaries, it’s inconceivable that Clinton lost because she was a weak candidate who ran a poor campaign.
“The Democratic Party has mastered lying to itself and its core constituencies,” wrote New York Daily News columnist Shaun King. He added:
It claims a progressive identity, but is as moderate and lukewarm as it has ever been on so many issues that matter to everyday people. It claims to be tough on Wall Street, financial corruption and white collar crime, but is awash in donations from lobbyists and executives in the industry. Democrats claim to be the party of working people, but so often seem to be deeply out of touch with their problems and needs.
This is precisely the form of elite corruption and hypocrisy that Sanders and Trump railed against.
Sanders will likely be too old to run again in 2020, but someone will undoubtedly take up the mantle of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party. It’s just a matter of whether the current DNC establishment and its allies will allow them to win.
The Democrats elected some young progressive women of colour to the Senate: Kamala Harris (Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). Any of them, and others like popular Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, could become the first female president.
If the Democrats can take back the Senate in 2018, there’s the potential for even more young progressives to get elected and stand up to Trump.
But the mass movement that propelled Sanders in the primary needs to continue causing trouble for the establishment and exerting pressure on progressive members of Congress to ensure they stay on the right track.
Yes, Trump’s presidency does have the possibility to be a catastrophe of historical proportions, but it also serves as an opportunity for progressives to unite and offer meaningful, fundamental change of the sort Clinton didn’t offer.