Saturday, January 21, 2017
Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency seems almost unreal: a man, caught on camera talking about his predilection for sexually assaulting women has been deemed fit for high office. It is the culmination of a long campaign, and although it is tempting to so many to see it as indicating some sort of defect in the reasoning of American voters, it is, with the magic of hindsight, explainable.
One feature of his election is celebrity: Trump has been famous for a long time, and has built a brand around success and opulence. His supporters during the election could be heard pointing out that he is a billionaire, that he has been a hugely successful businessman and suggesting he could bring those skills to the White House. Of course, the reality is that he inherited his wealth, and the main skills he developed were the tactics to use that wealth to bully and control: indeed, his line of business, real estate, is not productive, and works largely by siphoning off wealth produced elsewhere. It would be hard to lose money by owning substantial chunks of Manhattan Island.
This aura has been added to by his presence in the American version of ‘The Apprentice’, with a regular audience of millions: this will not only have bolstered his entrepreneur image, but also given him instant brand recognition in a way which few time served or professional politicians could match. As with Reagan and Schwarzenegger before him, he wouldn’t be the first to translate media celebrity into a successful political career. Although he might be the first person who was famous for being famous to do so.
During the Obama administration he added notoriety to fame. He was seen as a prominent participant in the ‘Birther’ movement: the campaign that alleged that Obama was not a ‘natural born American’ as required by the constitution, and so could not hold presidential office. From 2011 (after Obama had published a short version of his Hawaian birth certificate) Trump publicly disputed Obama’s citizenship. He eventually laid claim to credit for forcing Obama to publish his full birth certificate details. The birther movement campaign has been seen in many quarters as being coded racism, challenging the validity of having an brown skinned man in the White House. As events would turn out, it certainly did not hurt Trumps electoral chances.
Indeed, one of the take home lessons of the vote was the racial split: 58 percent of white respondents in exit polls states they had voted for Trump. 80 percent of black respondents voted for Clinton. Likewise, Trump secured 67 percent of white respondents without college education, and 49 percent of those with. His voters were overwhelmingly concerned about immigration and terrorism, the key themes of his election campaign.
The ideological fantasy of race, and the consequential lived experience marks US politics deeply, and much of the split analysed above was not a substantial change over the previous election. Trump only gained 1 percent against 2012 among the white population, but given the preponderance of that category (about 70 percent of the vote), such as shift was significant.
The other biggest shift was amongst the poorest section of the population (family income under $30K), where Trump gained 16 percent over 2012 (but still only had a 41 percent share to Clinton’s 53 percent). Indeed, the only income bracket Trump had a majority in was the $50K-$99K (the average income in the States is around $44K). The people in this bracket will likely be the ones who feel vulnerable to losing the status and advantage they have: and will feel that they have 'worked hard' to get what they have, and resent welfare payments or anything that seeks to redress economic disadvantage, up to, and including feeling that such things are taking away from them, rather than helping lift others up. It also helped Trump that this income bracket makes up 31 percent of those who voted.
This is the bracket that the so-called 'Alt-Right' appeals to: largely male and professional, they see the ‘Social Justice Warriors’ coming to take away their privilege. In the name of victimhood and ‘fairness’ against the structures designed to ameliorate poverty and inequality, they are seeking to strike back and defend what they have. Using racial ideology to divide the poorest sections of society, and bring them on board (perhaps with a sense that they will benefit if the money stops being given to their racial others) is possibly the key to account for the Trump coalition.
Of course, what needs to be seen is that with sclerotic growth, stagnant or falling wages, and real terms failures of those ameliatory measures to address inequality at all it’s not surprising that the Federal government is seen as failing, and the established party in power has been punished for those failures.
The Republican Party has made a great play of opposing the Affordable Care Act (succeeding in rebranding it as Obamacare), and they look set to abolish it. One for the hardened ideologues, those who genuinely believe that if people cannot afford their own health care – because it’s their own fault for not having worked hard enough – they shouldn’t get any. Of course, Obamacare was simply compulsory insurance and health regulation (barely registering on the scale of publicly organised health regimes around the world), but it was enough for a Republican rallying cry. That many of their voters will directly lose out from its repeal shows what a masterpiece in propagandising their campaign has been. The point remains, that it was not enough to get people to come out in numbers to support it: voters didn’t feel any benefit from the system.
The fact is, though, that Trump did not get a majority across the country. The point is, he won under the current system (and has himself pointed out, in his defensive way, that he would have used different tactics if the system had been about the national popular vote). Republican control of state governments played a strong role in this election. The more naked aspect was the introduction of voter ID laws, and an aggressive campaign of challenging inclusion on the electoral rolls. Trump himself still maintains that he only lost the popular vote due to voter fraud (though none has been proven).
The cry of ‘Voter fraud’ has been taken up to add in series of measures which deter voting and registration. Some forms of ID can be difficult to obtain, and require going long distances from poor areas. Also, the states control the staffing and position of the ballot stations (often relying on volunteers).
Control at state level has also helped the Republicans establish a healthy majority in the House of representatives: the states are responsible for drawing up the constituency boundaries, often producing very oddly shaped districts to produce majorities for one party or the other (hence the famous Gerrymander was named after districts under Governor Gerry in the 19th century). Much of this districting breaks into the distinction between inner city, suburban and rural. The Democrats are heavily concentrated in the urban areas. Trump carried the majority of the suburban and rural vote, it was Clinton’s preponderant vote in the inner cities which gave her majority.
Such shenanigans may suggest why, despite all the hoopla, only around 55 percent of the electorate voted at all: so not only was Trump's 2.8 million votes shy of a majority of the vote, but he barely represents a quarter of the electorate at all. His election is a Triumph of propaganda putting the gloss on machine politicians gaming the system.
That he immediately handed over the Washington machine to his fellow Billionaires suggests that his electoral coalition will gain little from his administration, and that it represents state capture by a clique that will set about filling their boots in ways which it will be complex to bring to public attention.
America has frequently been ruled by millionaires: this is the first time that a billionaire and practising capitalist has elbowed the professional politicians aside to give direct power to a clique of billionaires and corporate executives. The biggest risk to the capitalist class collectively in the US is that this clique with form a kleptocracy that will use state power to their advantage, much as with the murky relationship between Dick Cheney and Halliburton during the Bush II presidency.
This is where the question of the Russian hacking gets interesting (if it happened): Trump’s minority was only marginally able to win the election, in such a tight situation, if there was state interference by a foreign power, could it have swung the election? Is the oligarchic clique in charge in hock to the oligarchic clique in Russia? Targeting and emphasising discontent could only work if there was discontent to work with, the hacking could not have whistled a victory up from thin air. Claiming hacking happened is in the factional interest of the Democrats, and Putin has an interest in having the possibility that he could do such a thing hanging in the air. Trump has a direct personal interest in being President.