In it's coverage of the US election, the British media has largely focused on personalities. In doing so, it is impossible not to spend a lot of airtime talking about the flamboyant (to put it mildly) personality of billionaire former Apprentice host Donald Trump. A great deal of this is the result of Trump’s own overt racism and misogyny. But the Clinton campaign has a good deal of responsibility for this too. This is because they are running a carbon copy of David Cameron’s failed Brexit campaign.
Hillary Clinton is the US Remain candidate; the self-proclaimed safe pair of hands who will maintain business as usual for the next four years. Like the British Remain campaign, there is no vision of the bright future that Americans can look forward to if Hillary wins. Instead, the mainstay of the campaign is about just how awful her opponent is, and just how horrible things are going to be if people are dumb enough to vote for him.
As David Cameron discovered – to his, and our, cost – there comes a point when your austerity policies have ground a sufficient number of faces into the mud, that people will vote against anything that the government supports… even Brexit… even Donald Trump.
The problem for those of us on the eastern side of the North Atlantic is that our media rarely reports on the domestic politics of the USA. This leaves us fondly believing that the presidential election is something akin to a British general election. Trump and the Republicans are assumed to be something like the UK Tory party, while Clinton and the Democrats are assumed to be like Labour. In reality, Bill Clinton did to the Democratic Party what Tony Blair failed to do to New Labour; turning it into the centre right, establishment party. This forced the Republicans to breakdown into an approximation of UKIP, containing warring factions of Tea Party head-bangers, Christian fundamentalists and gun fanatics… although still presided over by Washington insiders who had no intention of ever delivering on the promises they made to their followers.
A more accurate way of viewing the current US election would be to imagine a contest between Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Farage. Seen in this way, you begin to understand why so many women and black voters look set to stay at home, even if this gives the presidency to someone as hateful as Trump. It is why at least a minority of Bernie Sanders’ supporters look likely to actually vote for Trump, while many more will support Jill Stein. And it is why, despite all of the Trump scandals, not only is he still in the race, but he appears to be overtaking Clinton.
Dig beneath the surface of the official statistics that the Clinton campaign uses to claim that all is well with the US economy, and you discover a more disturbing picture. While those fortunate enough to hold salaried positions within the orbits of Wall Street, the Washington Beltway and Silicon Valley continue to enjoy six- and seven-figure salaries and all of the benefits of a globally integrated economy, Middle America has been decimated. As American essayist John Michael Greer observes:
“I suspect that a great many financially comfortable people in today’s America have no idea just how bad things have gotten here in the flyover states. The recovery of the last eight years has only benefited the upper 20% or so by income of the population; the rest have been left to get by on declining real wages, while simultaneously having to face skyrocketing rents driven by federal policies that prop up the real estate market, and stunning increases in medical costs driven by Obama’s embarrassingly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” It’s no accident that death rates from suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning are soaring just now among working class white people. These are my neighbors, the people I talk with in laundromats and lodge meetings, and they’re being driven to the wall.”
One cannot help but notice the similarities that underlay the British vote to leave the European Union. As Guardian journalist John Harris warned in the weeks leading up to the vote:
“Hardly anybody talks about the official campaigns, and the most a mention of the respective figureheads of each camp tends to elicit is a dismissive tut – but just about everyone agrees that this is a fantastically important moment, and a litmus test of the national mood…
“In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into clichés, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. “I’m scared about the future” … “No one listens to us” … “If you haven’t got money, no one cares.”
Promising business as usual to millions of families in the respective rust belts of the UK and USA is simply not going to work. All of the hope that swept Obama into office has been spent. Nobody is listening to the political class anymore because (just like Tony Blair’s fictitious “third way”) it was a confidence trick. As Greer points out:
“The talking heads insisted that handing over tax dollars to various corporate welfare queens would bring jobs back to American communities; the corporations in question pocketed the tax dollars and walked away. The talking heads insisted that if working class people went to college at their own expense and got retrained in new skills, that would bring jobs back to American communities; the academic industry profited mightily but the jobs never showed up, leaving tens of millions of people buried so deeply under student loan debt that most of them will never recover financially. The talking heads insisted that this or that or the other political candidate would bring jobs back to American communities by pursuing exactly the same policies that got rid of the jobs in the first place—essentially the same claim that the Clinton campaign is making now—and we know how that turned out.”
When Trump says he is going to tear up the trade treaties that allowed corporations to move people’s jobs to Asia, it resonates. When he tells Ford’s executives that if they move their factories to Mexico, he will slap a 35% tariff on them so that they will never sell another car in America, it resonates. When he tells the member states of NATO that they have to pay their fair share if they want to remain in the club, it resonates. These are the messages that have brought thousands of people to Trump rallies. They are the messages that the media has largely ignored.
Perhaps it takes a comedian to draw the conclusion that nobody else want to make. US comic Bill Burr (contains swearing) points out that:
“If Trump wasn’t such a jerk-off, it’s really what the country needs. You need somebody who isn’t part of the f***ing system…”
In this, the Clinton campaign’s decision to focus on Hillary’s long career in politics is backfiring in exactly the same way as Cameron’s decision to use a parade of establishment figures to warn of the dangers of leaving the EU backfired. When the people – or at least a large enough minority of them – have lost faith in the system, you have to demonstrate how you are going to change things.
Will Trump deliver? We may never know. The US Electoral College system awards Hillary Clinton around 100 delegates before the election has begun because of the Democratic Party’s control of California and New York. Even if Trump wins the popular vote, Clinton is still favourite to win the election. But Trump can still do it if he is able to swing key states like Florida (where Bush defeated Gore 16 years ago).
While a Trump victory is likely to produce the sort of media hysteria that followed the UK referendum result, Trump is no more likely to be able to deliver on his promises than are the Leavers in the UK. Trump will have to sway a resentful congress to deliver on his domestic policies. And while he will have more freedom of movement in foreign affairs, the military-industrial complex is unlikely to roll over if the trillions of dollars of military spending (and all of the jobs that go with it) is threatened.
This hints at a deeper and far more troubling problem. If Clinton wins – as is most likely – things will stay as they are. Inequality will increase. Poverty will worsen. US taxpayers will continue to bail out a finance and banking industry that should have been allowed to crash eight years ago. The US will become ever more embroiled in foreign wars from which it has no idea how to extricate itself. It will continue to support global corporations at the expense of domestic jobs. It will continue to incarcerate a third or more of its black population. And gradually, the anger and resentment will grow.
If, on the other hand, Trump wins, it is highly unlikely that he is going to reverse the ills of four decades of globalisation and neoliberalism. The power of the corporate lobby in Washington more or less guarantees that what few reforms a Trump presidency is able to deliver will favour the already wealthy… most likely at the expense of the poor. And gradually, the anger and resentment will grow.
As Greer warns us:
“Thus the grassroots movement that propelled Trump to the Republican nomination in the teeth of the GOP establishment, and has brought him to within a couple of aces of the White House in the teeth of the entire US political class, might best be understood as the last gasp of the American dream. Whether he wins or loses next week, this country is moving into the darkness of an uncharted night—and it’s not out of place to wonder, much as Hamlet did, what dreams may come in that darkness.”
Four year from now (if not before) the anti-establishment leader who emerges to take on the Washington insiders is unlikely to have the kind of skeletons that fell out of Trump’s closet on the road to 8th November. But he or she may have all of the racism, misogyny and misanthropy of the very worst kind of right-wing populist… a candidate with all of the skills and none of the flaws of Trump. In the absence of a serious shift in economic and social policy, American democracy would struggle to defeat such a figure… still less outlast one.