Wednesday 9 November 2016

Race, Class, and Donald Trump

How did the unthinkable happen? If only a short blog post hours after the biggest upset in world politics since the Soviet Bloc went under could provide the answers. Hot takes rarely do. Usually we have to wait months - years for perspective to form, and see an event in its singular aspect. Unfortunately, we do not have the time, the people who are going to be at the sharp end of a Trump presidency don't have the time. We need to understand what has happened not because it's a jolly fun thing to do, though there will be plenty who build careers off the back of providing comment and analysis of this kind; we need to get to grips with it to stop it from happening again. Here are some very sketchy thoughts.

The knee jerk nonsense of sundry liberals, which is already trying to carve a space for itself as the received wisdom on matters Trump, is most unhelpful. That the centre could not hold because the majority of white voters, some 62% of the population, voted because racism is the wrong conclusion. Yes, it was white people, but to mangle a phrase from a different context, not all white people. It was the well-off white folks, the middle class (not in the traditional American sense of the term) and the vast legion of small business people who are the constituencies who tipped it. In other words, the beginning of wisdom about Trump's victory begins with taking race and class together, of doing a touch of maligned intersectional analysis.

Just so we're clear, racism is as American as Mom and McDonald's. All through the American Revolution's heroic phase and down to today, the division of labour has always been heavily racialised. All whites, regardless of poverty and destitution, could draw deep from ideological resources that justified and maintained slavery to create an imagined superiority, and one that has blighted generations of white Americans. Of course, the Jim Crow laws in the South institutionalised racist supremacy and though they're long gone, the regular killing of black men by mainly white police forces show it hasn't gone away. Not completely separate from this is racial segregation. Despite being the great melting pot, it's probably fair to say that post-imperial Britain, with all its problems and issues, has proven much more successful in integrating ethnic minorities than the land born entirely from immigration. However, segregation and the racialisation of work, like all over the advanced West, had started to dissolve. More advanced in the socially progressive, metropolitan coastal states, it had a long way to go elsewhere, but nevertheless showed the interior its future. For the majority of white America, evidence of integration's insidious creep was felt through immigration. Year after year, more Hispanics appeared waiting tables in their restaurants, tending their gardens, working in their hotels, their service stations, their supermarkets and malls. They were a visual reminder that white America is a group in relative decline.

This is only part of the story. The race anxiety vote theory doesn't stand up. None of this is new, it was the case in 2008 and 2012 when enough white people voted for Obama. If whites are essentially racist, why the variance over time, and why were plenty prepared to vote for the mixed race fella with the very non Anglo-Saxon name? Economics might have something to do with it too. Neoliberal economics and governance, the subordination of all to the demands of capital and the whims of the market ceaselessly undermine our senses of self-security. The lot of the majority, regardless of ethnicity and race, is to sell our bodies and our brains, and therefore our freedom for a set period every week in return for a wage or a salary. For too many of us, there's even uncertainty whether there will be work enough available to pay the bills. Doubling down on this way of being has been the great transition of the last four decades, where the memories of industrial capital echo around crumbling factories. Manufacturing jobs, Proper Jobs, have either disappeared, got themselves exported, or absorbed into manufacturing machinery. They are now replaced by office jobs, service jobs, caring jobs, of jobs that no longer make things and instead produce the intangible. Across the Western world, but particularly in America and Britain, governments have overseen and connived with the abandonment of millions by capital. These are the left behind, a strata of people with a skill set and a mind for another time, and they have been discarded. That is the unmissable, crucial context for Trump's victory in the rustbelt states.

Yet, as we have seen, while white workers of modest means did vote for Trump, fewer than half of them did. It was the better off. How then to explain this? It doesn't seem to make sense. In studies of voting behaviour concerned with economic voting, summed up by another Clinton in a happier time as "it's the economy, stupid", researchers typically distinguish between two sub-categories. There is 'pocket book voting' (behaviour conditioned by the prospective impacts on one's finances, and/or those of relatives and friends) and 'sociotropic voting', which is where a voter looks at the health of the wider economy over and above personal circumstances. All aspiring governments construct narratives that address the personal and the social, and they are emphasised and de-emphasised when expediency requires. In Trump's case, the pocket book was addressed by cutting taxes, and attacking higher health premiums for the better off to pay for Obamacare. The macro story was about restoring industry to the rustbelt by repatriating it from the Far East and Latin America, and curbing immigration to ensure the right (white) people got the jobs. As a pitch, on paper it seems something you might expect white working class voters to get on board with. And some of them did. But it was the white middle class who were proper beguiled. Why?

Generations of Marxists have talked about the petit bourgeois - small business people - as if caught between the fundamental forces of capitalism. On the one hand, big capital can out compete and always threatens to put the smallholder out of business, throwing them down into the wage-earning mass. On the other, ungrateful employees are always bellyaching about not having enough hours, wanting pay rises, having more time off, wanting more autonomy, and, through incompetence or, heaven forfend, strike action threaten the viability of the business. To occupy the position of the petit bourgeois is to surrender to the icy grip of permanent existential dread, of not having mastery over one's fate (despite the promise of being one's own boss), and feeling hemmed in and under siege in the market place and at work. Second, for privileged layers of white people, the managers and the professionals, they share a certain outlook with their small business counterparts. Their good fortune is a consequence of their talents and graft. The privileges accumulated, the good salaries, nice house, multiple cars, expensive holidays, and the million and one trappings of the good life are theirs By The Sweat Of Their Brows. And they too are anxious it could all get take away, either by economic crisis leading to redundancy and unemployment, or ever-encroaching taxes and health insurance premiums. For both these groups, their sources of status anxiety are bound up with the great intangibles of class dynamics and process, they are therefore very likely to respond sociotropically to economic policy. Trump's pledge to decent, secure, well-paid manly jobs, to get Motor City motoring again perversely had more of an impact on the non-working class segment of white America than the worker. By giving the impression of a return to stability for the worker, so too the more excitable petit bourgeois is swept up in enthusiasm.

There's no real excuse for us commentators and so-called professionals not to have seen a Trump victory coming. His platform is backward and deeply troubling, but his campaign team - and The Donald himself - understood that stability and security, served as it was in racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric might appeal to enough people. And so it proved. One of the reasons why Hillary Clinton's campaign didn't, despite just edging the popular vote, was because it stripped out emotion and values. Technocratic managerialism was the order of the day, just as it was for the failed Remain campaign, just as it was for Labour's failed 2015 election campaign. For the future, assuming a Trump presidency affords us the luxury of having one, there has to be a revolution in the Democrats. It needs a vision of the good life and not rely on how awful Trump's presidency is bound to be. It needs to challenge the nativism and racism, and win enough people back to a positive programme that understands insecurity and is sincere about tackling it. They need to construct their own American story around a credible, non-political establishment candidate. It has to fight shit values with good values, not pander to them. Unfortunately, though it's early days yet, shrieks of liberal despair across today's media aren't good. Some have not only learned nothing about Trump's shock victory, they don't want to learn anything. If the Democrats choose to listen to these people again, come 2020 there's going to be exactly the same outcome.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this article very much - a refreshing antidote to the wall-to-wall wailing and confusion. I think you're on the money here, and that while the picture might develop considerably you've nailed the basics on day one.

The other thing that has attracted no comment at all is that Trump is historically a Democrat. He actually endorsed Mrs Clinton in 2008's primaries. There is therefore at least a strong chance that he is going to turn out to be a 'sheep in wolf's clothing' in office.

And finally, a lot depends on the team he assembles. The president can only do so much, and the indication is that Trump isn't particularly interested in the fine detail of governing so much as he is 'the brand'. His nativist populism is therefore likely to be tempered with the input of some experienced political minds.

We've already had one presidency in which the nation was essentially run by the Vice-President while a bumbling dope (who was also an unsuccessful businessman) did all the public appearances and publicity stuff for TV. And if the USA can survive two terms of W Bush -- a period when the US really and unarguably did seem to be lurching in an overtly fascist direction -- it can probably survive Trump too.

johnny conspiranoid said...

No doubt lots of people behaved as you describe but I think your focusing on your favorite things a bit.

The vote was 50/50, it was the electoral college wot won it.

What about the things HC did to loose the election?

Stitched up the selection to get rid of Bernie, creating a lot of pissed off Bernie supporters.

Accepted money for the Clinton Foundation from Qatar etc.

The thing with the e-mails.

Being a hawk.

All these things featured on-line but not in the old media so much. Perhaps the papers and TV just ignored the reel action.

BCFG said...

Awful centrist claptrap. But was I expecting anything else?

I think you are wrong to play down the fact that a sizeable number of white working class people voted for Trump. I think the hatred created by the war on terror and Islamophobia etc has inevitably created a population fearful of immigrants and terrorists. I say inevitably because us idiot anti imperialists warned you decents this would be the outcome! But you decents, being the decents you are, will always claim you are right and everyone else has it wrong. I also think top down political correctness has alienated many white working class people and driven them into the arms of a fraudster. The role of the media in creating a stupid and ignorant working class goes without saying.

The point to make here is that the centrist values are actually no better and in many respects far worse, because they give the impression of being progressive and getting stuff done even while for example carbon emissions ever go up and a million corpses pile up in those far away lands we see on TV! At least with Trump some people may wake up! You say if we have a future with Trump, what a blatant disregard for the horror that your centre loving policies have had on the world! This is the sort of centrist arrogance that will no doubt drive ever more people to the right!

On segregation in the US, this is almost as American as apple pie and it doesn’t just apply to race but also religion. There is a culture in the US of communities developing based on some shared identity, so for example Amish settlements. You might put Indian reserve into this mix, though obviously that has a history all of its own! The point is that the separation of the church from the state has led to a culture of separate identity and therefore segregation. I am not calling for central authority, quite the contrary but you can’t bury your head in the sand and ignore the issues. Although I think the US have a better record on Catholic-Protestant relations than say the West of Scotlnad!

On ignoring the issues you have missed out a crucial aspect of how upper and middle class people view the world. Yes the upper classes are fearful of economic crises, and this goes for the middle classes also, that layer of lower level managers, self employed etc. The aspect missing from your view is that these groups are not just fearful of economic crises but actually they are more concerned with the lower orders threatening their existence and draining their wealth. This is the most important aspect of the mind of your average conservative. “I am not paying for those lazy people to have kids” is the essence of the conservative base. It is essentially an anti welfare movement. This is why those leftists who take an anti welfare stance are effectively on the side of the upper and middle classes and stand against the concerns of the lower classes.

But if you think everyone who sells their Labour power is proletarian then I guess the revolutionary movement can spring from all sorts of strange places! Actually I think this is the fundamental flaw with the idea that everyone who sells their Labour power is proletarian; it fails to be specific about what constitutes the revolutionary class. I think Marx was more specific about that than you. But then he was no centrist!

Speedy said...

I think you miss the broader point - the democratisation of information has exposed the convenient illusion of democracy in both the UK and US as a system of organisation and rule. It has massively amplified the sense of powerlessness the formerly powerful (or so they thought) sectors believed they had - they have woken up to the reality that in most nations there is no more real choice than there is in Putin's Russia. Subsequently, when the elite errs (as in the Brexit referendum) or an individual emerges who presents the opportunity to smash this system, the masses seize it, whatever it is. Their rage overcomes their economic self-interest. This does not come from cognition, Phil, it comes out of the cave. In ancient pre-political Greek societies, they used to have a king for a year, before sacrificing him. These events represent a similar impulse.

Blissex said...

«The vote was 50/50, it was the electoral college wot won it. [ ... ]»
«a sizeable number of white working class people voted for Trump.»

Indeed, and I'll elaborate... I have seen an estimate of the vote by income quintile, and the bottom 2-3 quintiles voted around 47-48% for Trump and 48-49% for Clinton, and the top two quintiles voted 48-49% for Trump and 47-48% for Clinton. In other words, nearly a 50-50 split across the whole income spectrum.

But why ever would the bottom two quintiles vote that much for Trump and the top two that much for Clinton? After all turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

«I think the hatred created by the war on terror and Islamophobia etc has inevitably created a population fearful of immigrants and terrorists.»

Ah the usual "bigots" theory from the identity-politics people.

My interpretation is that Clinton campaigned as an identity-politics (bait and switch to) neocon and a neoliberal, and Trump didn't, or at least gave the impression of being pragmatic and not a neoliberal, and the since the lower income classes were denied by the anti-Sanders tricks of the Democratic party the ability to vote for a centre-left anti-neoliberal, enough of them voted for a hard-right "let's hope" anti-neoliberal to swing a number of historically democrat-leaning "progressive" states.

After all Sanders was in the poll before the nomination leading Trump by a much larger margin than Clinton, and crucially among rust-belt states. Does that mean that Sanders politics were attracting «a population fearful of immigrants and terrorists»?

«Trump is historically a Democrat. He actually endorsed Mrs Clinton in 2008's primaries.»

It surely helped that Trump was not the "real" Republican candidate, and that he was disowned by the entire neocon neoliberal wing of the party. Probably that he was wealthy in his own right, and spent much less than Clinton on his campaign, resonated with voters who understood well that Clinton was working hard to make her sponsors happy. Those in the sinking working and middle classes who voted Trump, despite or because his being a New York billionaire, probably largely hoped that he will turn out less neocon and neoliberal than Clinton, using the logic of better the devil that you don't know than the devil you know is going to screw you over.

This article explains a similar point of view.

Anonymous said...

A number of factors were at play, among them race, gender and economics.
Something that does need to be flagged up is the low turnout - just 53%. There was an alarming drop in the Democrat vote, down to 59 million from 66 million in 2012. The Dems simply didn't their vote out, possibly due to their choice of candidate.
It's also worth mentioning that Trump got LESS votes than Romney in 2012 who lost. Trump garnered 59 million votes to Romney's 61 million.


BCFG said...

Another aspect of this is the physics, which I am no expert in, but I think it is worth a consideration. The average American uses 11.4kw of energy, the global average is 2.2kw. The Americans are way way above the global average and in themselves skew this average! Now Trump has promised to put the US first and specifically mentioned ‘aid’ projects to the rest of the world. So we can expect that the US will roll back on some of its overseas commitments, apart from the military bases of course, I assume making the US great again will not involve dismantling the too big to fail military industrial complex which has brought such damage and misery to the whole world! And which will continue to do so whether centrists or fraudsters are in the White House!

So the assumption here is that Trump will ensure that the average American increases their energy consumption above the 11.4kw. So the wealthiest part of the world thinks it is suffering and must put itself first before everyone else! And the wealthiest part of the world has just elected a fraudster of fascistic character to ensure this materialises. Now if a society consuming 11.4kw sees fit to elect a leader of dubious character then how do we imagine those societies living around the global average of 2.2kw are going to look! I think this is the fundamental problem with the terror of liberal interventionism and the terror of imposing liberal universal values everywhere at once. Not that these wars are ever about something so noble!!

I think the fact that the wealthiest part of the world is rebelling against its condition of existence is a damning indictment of the inefficiency of capitalism and the massive inequality that it creates. An inequality the centrists came to embrace, we are not against wealth creators was the mantra from Blairites and Clintonites, and we love the ambitious and aspirational they said in their appeal to the middle classes. Every spiv was given a knighthood, arise Sir Philip Green!

Centrism is THE enemy and is a mortal threat, it must be defeated if the progressive agenda is to win out. Trump is just a satire on the whole sorry affair. Forget the loons like Trump, forget the howling of the centrists, as the centrists are the mortal threat that we need to fight!

Igor Belanov said...

"One of the reasons why Hillary Clinton's campaign didn't, despite just edging the popular vote, was because it stripped out emotion and values."

No, it didn't 'strip out' emotion and values, it just restricted them to identity issues. Unfortunately this is counter-productive. Anti-racism on the basis of mobilising 'difference' is proving to be decreasingly successful. It didn't make minorities any more likely to vote Democrat, and it helped to corral more people into the 'white' identity camp. Any real opposition to Trumpism has to be based on citizenship, common values and shared interests.

BCFG said...

"Ah the usual "bigots" theory from the identity-politics people."

So you are denying that bigotry exists?

I am surprised Blissex has not put the Trump victory down to the need to keep South East house prices afloat as this seems to be his/her sole explanation of almost everything!

jim mclean said...

The white working class that voted for Trump were in areas where the recession is receding and employment on the upturn so cheap taxes would certainly have an influence. The Democrats were down 7 million votes from Obama result, that is not racism within GOP supporters but it is apathy as the most oppressed in society realised they were going to lose out no matter what happened, so structural racism may have had a part. Soon there will be figures published in relation to minorities support for Trump and the current indicators are the may be from an expanding minority middle class.

Blissex said...

«So you are denying that bigotry exists?»

To me it seems to exist but not have been a large factor in this election: the victory to Trump was given by several northern midwest states swinging from nearly a hundred years of voting for democrat candidates to Trump, it seems unlikely they suddenly became bigots, especially as Sanders did really well in those states.

«the Trump victory down to the need to keep South East house prices afloat»

Well, that applies to marginal seats in southern England. As to the USA I read an interesting argument that his victory was also due to the Wall Street wing of the democrats to which Obama and Clinton belong bailing out the bankers who fed property speculation with debt but not the individual property speculators after 2008. But that does not fit so well with his victory coming from a swing in northern midwest states, as in those property prices have been going sideways or down for decades.

BCFG said...

Well according to the data the 2 biggest issues for those that voted Trump were immigration and terrorism.

I don't know about you but I am seeing some sort of link between the war on terror and this result.

Whether those attitudes harden as the money belt tightens I don't know. I suspect those saying its the economy stupid, while they have a point up to a point, are missing how the media has contributed to a climate of racism and fear. And are missing how backward the working class are. Backward not in the sense of mentally stupid but in attitudes etc.

David Timoney said...

Seeing the result in terms of racism or cultural values is to continue the errors of the liberal media in the preceding years, like imagining that evangelicals would shun Trump because of his potty-mouth or that right-libertarians would be put off by his invocation of an activist state.

The tale of the tape is that Trump got out the usual Republican vote, though fractionally down on previous years. He won not because he "swung" voters in Ohio or Florida but because Clinton (literally) decimated the Democrat turnout. Consider the popular vote numbers for the last 3 elections:

2008 - Obama: 69m; McCain: 60m
2012 - Obama: 66m; Romney: 61m
2016 - Clinton: 59m; Trump: 59m

(Anon is on the right track, but a 53% turnout is actually par for the course. Obama's 58% in 2008 was high. Turnout hasn't been over 60% since Nixon in 1968).

Americans have stopped voting for the Democrats. Some of this is presumably down to disappointment with the Obama years, including Clinton's performance as Secretary of State, but the over-riding impression I get is that people simply didn't expect Clinton to do anything substantive for them. It wasn't the emails or the Clinton Foundation, it was a pragmatic recognition that a neoliberal leopard doesn't change its spots.

Two further observations:

Only 1 in 4 adults voted for the orange-haired clown, so let's avoid condemnations about racist rednecks and know-nothing rubes. Most Americans are either embarrassed or alienated from politics entirely. A much larger share of the UK adult population (37%) voted for Brexit.

The importance of the "ground game", whose potency has often been displacement for a lack of policy, has been shown up as myth. The Democrats' superior organisation proved ineffective, while the Republican's patchy ground support proved no impediment.

BCFG said...

I would say Brexit was 90% anti immigration, the product of liberal policies as well as the unfree media. The media is nothing but the propaganda wing of the imperialist state anyway. But if we are to blame errors in the liberal media we cannot ignore those same errors in the conservative media, who have played the identity card equally as much. In fact liberal concern was a response to very real actual facts. Such as blatant discrimination in the workplace, racist language used in everyday conversation. Let us hand it to the identity wing of the left for at least tackling this problem, rather than worrying if they were following the exact path set out by pure socialists. So while I can criticise the form that political correctness has taken and its use as an oppressive weapon I can still take my hat off to the original good intentions and acknowledge that it did help change society for the better.

The US election was more of a mix of things admittedly but for those who did vote Trump their top priorities were immigration and terrorism. So these were the concerns that gave Trump victory and gave him the advantage over his rivals, particularly in the republican race for the nominee. Also as well as gaining the majority of white voters Trump got more the less educated the person is. Hardly a clear sign of him appealing to the wealthiest!

Yes the other side of the coin was the unpopularity of Clinton and Sanders could possibly have beaten Trump. Does this prove that centrist liberalism wasn’t really the issue, no I think it confirms it. Bernie Sanders as well as trump scored higher with white people and black people were more likely to vote for Clinton. However in a race between trump and Sanders it is likely he would have taken some white votes off Trump and kept enough of the ethnic minority vote to make it at least a close contest.

The point to amplify again is that the reason Sanders didn’t win is because the centrists got in the way, as they stitched him up in the primaries. What better example is there that the centrists are the enemy!

MikeB said...

A good analysis is by Adam Shatz on the LRB blog.

As i posted there, what deepens the tragedy is that Trump's policies will of course sharply accelerate economic, foreign policy and environmental crises. With the coalition around the Obama-Clinton "elite" disposed of, it is hard to see where a new progressive alliance is coming from. Further demagogic divisiveness seems inevitable.

asquith said...

Seeing so few votes for Gary Johnson was disappointing, obviously people didn't want free trade and peace from a mountain climber. :(

To paraphrase the Leave campaign, I say to Drumpf's supporters: you won, get over it.

Drumpf and his party, having won, now bear responsibility for sorting things out and delivering, which is about as likely an outcome as the £350 million a week Brexshitters promised us.

It is their job and they should tool up and do it. But we already know that they won't and will seek to blame the inevitable clusterfuck that follows on anyone, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, blacks, judges, gays, anyone rather than look in the mirror and accept that the rottenness of both Drumpf supporters, allegedly "moderate" and "mainstream" neocons, and the shameful bunch of neocon turds around Killary who stitched up Bernie Sanders despite the fact that he actually did address the concerns of the working-class folk lied to by Drumpf.

The right need to get on with doing what they said they were going to do, stop blaming other people and accept that the buck stops with them.

And I just hope when it all goes horribly wrong the lynch mob turns on Drumpf, Farrago, Bozza, Mayhem etc rather than the people they've ridden a wave of hatred towards.

Don't blame me, I (would have) voted Gary Johnson, mountain climber and foreign policy realist.

asquith said...

MJW said...

"Technocratic managerialism" is a good phrase. It is what Clinton offered, unfortunately it's also what people suspect is no longer delivering the results they want. That's not to say Trump is better, but maybe they see it as a leap away from what isn't working?

johnny conspiranoid said...

"Centerist", centre of what?
"Moderates", what is being moderated?

asquith said...

I find it nigh-on impossible to imagine Drumpf winning in 2020, I'd imagine his support would melt away and those gloating over their "victory" will, like Brexshitters and erstwhile supporters of the illegal war in Iraq, be disowning their own opinions soon enough.

The possibilities are:
1. A challenge within his own party from the same old neocons like Jonah Goldberg and Little Marco Rubio.
2. The re-emergence of the people galvanised by Bernie Sanders emerging as a Democrat challenger and accepted by an elite chastened by the stupidity of their wranglings in 2016.
3. The just about scraping across the line of another Obama-esque centrist and the re-emergence of the gridlock that plagued the period between 2010 and 2012.

The domimnance of the legislature by Rethugs will have negative consequences. Making peace with Iran was a great achievement that Obama was never given enough credit for, Drumpf will put that at risk as a cheap play for support, reflecting the fact that unlike Gary Johnson he isn't a true forteign policy realist and the more cunning neocons have wormed their way into his inner circle. (I don't imagine Binyamin Netanyahu is having any sleepless nights over this result).

Drumpf fundamentally doesn't believe in our care about anything other than his own advancement and will be the creature of his party. He has swallowed them and forced them to abase themselves but, as in Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, so long as they accept the orange one's suzerainty they can do whatever they want in their own field, given that he isn't bothered.

Phil said...

Despite the usual froth, BCFG is right. The offering above, as it made quite clear, wasn't a finish product but were sketchy thoughts. It might come as a surprise to our ra-ra-revolutionary that there is nothing in his/her contribution that disproves my "centrist" analysis, but instead complements it.

Gary Elsby said...

Was Donald Trump's Father a prominent member of the KU Klux Klan and was he prosecuted for violence?

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