Thursday, November 10, 2016


I haven't blogged for a bit. It's been a difficult time and I have been preoccupied. Ideas have been swirling round my head though not making it to the screen, but Trump - something as horrendously bizarre as Trump - how could I not add to the noise?

I don't really like instant judgement, which is why I am attempting some, and I have read a lot of commentary since the American election. Most of it is saying that 'Trump's election shows I have been right about everything all along.' You have the standard tropes about the white working class. Either they are uneducated, stupid hicks, or they are racists, or they are the left behind victims of the system, protesting about their poverty. Either the media is to blame for indoctrinating them or the liberal intelligentsia is at fault for ignoring them. Not many bothered to look at Trump's middle class support. Then there is the internet and Facebook taking a kicking. And, of course, there are tales of a right wing populist surge. Others pick on the weakness of Clinton as a candidate and sigh, 'if only …' There are elements of truth in all of them, but few are looking at the complete picture. Let's look at some facts that tend to be overlooked.

The first thing, though this is now getting a lot of attention, is that Clinton won. She won very narrowly, but none the less got more votes than Trump. She lost in the Electoral College because her votes were in the wrong place. It's crazy. Any presidential electoral system based on a simple plurality would have given her victory. She had just about held off the challenge. She may also have been hit by the loss of votes to the Greens and Libertarian Party in very close run states, though we have no idea how those votes would have been cast if there had been no other candidates. Trump lost, but still won. It's another example about how we cling to institutions created for a different era because they appear to work approximately or conveniently. As I have argued before about the design of the Brexit referendum and proportional representation, we need to reconsider the appropriateness of our democratic systems for a modern mass society.

Second, Trump had an automatic advantage. Not because he was a crazed racist bully, but because he was a celebrity. He was familiar to millions. His TV image was that of a ruthless, successful businessman. The apolitical already admired him. They had watched him hosting The Apprentice on TV for years. They knew him. Many of his supporters did not vote for the demagogue, they voted for the businessman from the telly. Those in the know about his methods thought he was a crook, but not the average punter. Clinton was a mystery to them. Bill Clinton's presidency ended sixteen years ago.

Third, despite that advantage, he only performed moderately. He polled fewer votes than either McCain or Romney when Obama roundly beat them. There was no vast populist surge. He lost votes rather than won them. But the support he did pick up was in the right places for the Electoral College. He had the good fortune that the Democrats' vote dropped further than the Republicans. Democrat voters didn't turn out. If Democrat numbers had held up, he was toast. For whatever reason, Clinton did not inspire.

Fourth, this was not wholly a working class insurgency. Though there was strong white working class support, it could not have won on its own. His support was an electoral coalition between the poor and the affluent. Neither could have won without the other. What appears to have held that alliance together was cultural conservatism rather than economics, and, just like Brexit, it was the older generation that formed the bedrock of Trump's vote. The black and Hispanic working class were firm in their support for Clinton. The ethnic divide was critical.

Finally, it didn't come out of the blue. There were authoritarian and culturally conservative movements that had prepared the ground. Conservative Christian fundamentalists and The Tea Party had led the way. Fox news and shock jocks on the radio had built an audience by preaching anti-elitism from their own elite pulpit. More importantly, the Republican Party had deliberately targeted blue-collar workers since the Reagan era. This had been years in the making - it had been a conscious effort. It was never intended to pave the way for a Trump presidency, but he was a perfect fit for the paranoid and reactionary political style that had been mainstreamed by this movement. Once the campaign was underway, his team devised a highly professional operation that completely understood the uses and abuses of communications technology. Liberals had hardly challenged this movement. They didn't take it seriously, and preferred to mock it and talk amongst themselves.

I am reading lots of angry stuff about the Democrats. 'Why didn't they choose a better candidate?' 'They should have done this rather than that?' 'Why didn't they do what I have been saying all along, even if I didn't say it then?' They rarely say just who is this mythical beast that would have inspired the masses. Some of this is relevant, but as a whole it misses the mark. The real anger should be directed at the Republican Party that adopted and adapted to a candidate absolutely unsuitable for any public office, let alone the presidency. Individual Republicans did distinguish themselves by refusing to support Trump, but the rest either persuaded themselves that he would be OK or were crazy enough to join in the hatefest. The Republicans not only let down their country, but those of us in the rest of the world who depended on the result. They allowed a candidate to go forward who was the reflection of the wildest fantasies of their most extreme membership. They were grossly irresponsible.

At this point, it is easy to cue the Hitler analogies. There are plenty around. There always are. But Trump is not Hitler. I think we should consider historical parallels, but this is one of the rare times I agree with Niall Ferguson. In a very good article he looks back to the populism of the 1880s in the wake of a previous economic crisis. 1873, not 1929, is his model.

This is not the sanest moment in American history, but not all of the USA has gone mad. What it is though is extremely dangerous. The racism, the demagoguery, the authoritarianism, and the Putin-friendly isolationism don't bode well. And if this particular evil does turn out to be banal, the huge conflicts of interests over his businesses promise a presidency devoted to self-enrichment at the expense of the people who foolishly hoped for something different. And before we get too hung up about Americans, our European crazies are on the march too. I am very anxious about the French presidential elections.

The presidency is passing into the hands of an inexpert, sociopathic narcissist. He has issued wild promises and don't kid yourself that he won't try and deliver on them. The big problem is that they will not work. Niall Ferguson again:
Indeed, populists are under a special compulsion to enact what they pledge in the campaign trail, for their followers are fickle to begin with. In the case of Trump, most have already defected from the Republican Party establishment. If he fails to deliver, they can defect from him, too. 
Of course, populists are bound eventually to disappoint their supporters. For populism is a toxic brew as well as an intoxicating one. Populists nearly always make life miserable for whichever minorities they chose to scapegoat, but they seldom make life much better for the people whose ire they whip up. 
Whatever the demagogues may promise—and they always promise “jam today”—populism tends to have significantly more economic costs than benefits. 
And what will happen in the wake of that failure? Who knows? But it certainly makes Britain's own act of isolation look even more foolhardy.


SP said...

Much as I want to agree with Ferguson’s conclusion I don’t. Populist followers are not homogenous and whilst some might desert when he does not “build the wall” plenty of others will find a (probably conspiracy based) apologia for why he could not.

Like Brexiteers many, but not all, share a core set of deeply ingrained, reactionary views – whipped up as you describe. They also reject evidence and facts, making their politics deeply irrational and yet unshakeable.

I am pessimistic about either group learning and moving on from the shit show which is set to follow.

The Plump said...

I agree with you in that the failure of populism, at least in the short term, will intensify the lunacy of some followers, not diminish it. That is absolutely true of the hard core, but then what matters are the voters who are more loosely connected.

I have both optimistic and pessimistic thoughts on the consequences.

The optimistic one is that enough people may detach themselves to make them beatable in the short term. That is compounded by demographics. Trumpery, like Brexit is a movement of the old. Younger generations don't share these views to anything like the same extent. This is especially true of Brexit, when the natural passage of time may well see remainers in a distinct majority right at the moment we exit the EU. The problem with the referendum is that there is no going back once we leave and no way out until then. At least there will be another election in four years.

The pessimistic one is that the added legitimacy of the presidency will mainstream obnoxious views and entrench them. If that is the case, we will be in for the long haul.

Unfortunately, I think that the latter is more likely.

The irony is that support for Brexit is more fragile than support for Trump. I doubt whether a referendum would be won today, but it is the one that will be the most difficult to reverse.

I have to say this has been a crap year.

roybaintonwrites said...

Thanks again, O stoutmeister, for the depth and erudition of your views. Education is a wonderful thing. I wish I'd had one. My simplistic view does include comparisons to Munich in the late 20s-30s. America may not have been labouring under a Treaty of Versailles, yet has suffered under an economic system - aggressive, irresponsible capitalism, which answers to nothing but a Swiss bank account. As in the UK, demonstrated by Philip Green, the old Biblical expression is prominent; to those that have, more shall be given. This voracious bulldozer has no time for what 'made America Great'; it cares nothing for closed factories, jobs outsourced to cheaper markets, the landscape of dispossessed, shattered lives left in its wake. The era of the rise of the Nazis and Italy's fascists compares in some ways to the situation we are now in. The only difference is that in the terms of jobs, industry etc., for a short time Hitler delivered, albeit at the cost of civil liberty. Trump and Brexit offer nothing but lies, lies and more lies. They will deliver nothing but an even lower standard of living, and yet more moolah for the billionaires. Thus I am glad to be approaching my 74th birthday. I may, if I'm lucky, have ten years left. The shape of the world when the time comes for my exit is not something I wish to contemplate.

The Plump said...

Don't be a pessimist Roy :-) You will have at least twenty years. We will share a beer on your 94th.

As for the state of the world, well, you might have a point there.