They got there early, hours before the door of the venue were due to open. Some middle-aged, mostly older, in their sixties and seventies. They were prosperous conservative types, in button down shirts and beige slacks, accessorised maybe by a stars and stripes cap or a Make America Great Again! red and white badge. They parked their Explorers and Priuses close, and walked slowly to join the line.
That was some of them. For the most part it was a down-at-heel crowd, thoroughly working class, in pink-and-white sweatshirts and light blue Mom jeans, Jack Daniels t-shirts and denim jackets. Their cars were older, boxier, scratched and taped together. They came in groups of five and six, an outing, brought food along for the long wait, popcorn and soda. They would need it.
Three hours before the doors opened, the line snaked around the building, and out into the streets. It took another two hours for them all to get in, passing slowly through the four metal detectors, people who didn’t do a lot of flying, unused to the protocol.
Besides the doors, Coke and Dr Pepper bottles, packs of Lay’s potato chips, Butter-finger chocolate bars piled up in a small pyramid, forbidden inside. As we came in and found seats in the vast auditorium, the music kicked in, Stones and Elton John, Billy Joel and then more Stones. ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Still Rock ‘n’ Roll’, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’, we’d hear them three or four times before the event proper kicked in.
About an hour in, the local Republican Party chairman came on, a pudgy bumptious man in a tailored suit, a smooth player unknown to anyone here. Joe Arpaio, the maverick Arizona sheriff did his five minutes. Michael Flynn, retired general gave us a burst. The national anthem was sung. Then everyone stood for the pledge of allegiance, save of course for the 30 or 40 in mobility scooters down near the stage, the injured and morbidly obese, looking up intently, hands over their hearts: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag…’
Then the music started again, and after another round of the Stones—‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, really?—there was a stir, the doors swung open and in came the Donald, his golden-orange glow picked up by the lights, his badger hair lustrous in them, daughter Ivanka close behind, sons Eric and Donald Junior further back, chunky Secret Service men in suits phalanxing. He waved, he smiled, the crowd went wild, ecstatic.
To the left and right of me, they exploded, they lost their shit, waving Trump-Pence signs, Let’s Make America Great Again, Lock Her Up, waving their caps if they didn’t have signs, holding their kids up, dancing them in the air to the music. The Donald reached the podium, he quieted them down, with a gentle lowering of the hands, and he began:
‘We Don’t Win Anymore. We Don’t Win … Anymore. We’ve Stopped Winning. We Don’t Win … Anymore.’ Pause. ‘We’re Going To Start Winning.’
And they erupted again. This was in Las Vegas. It was in Scranton. It was in Indianapolis. La Crosse, Pueblo and Tallahassee. They were always the same, I went to half a dozen of them, across the course of the election and it was like following the Grateful Dead—especially given the age of much of the audience—as a completist, wanting to see every variation Jerry Garcia put into Dark Star.
For a year and a half, since he announced his candidacy in July 2015, from the elevator in the atrium of Trump Tower to a crowd of hired attendees, Donald Trump barnstormed the country, speaking to real audiences in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, pulling them out of the woodwork, people who’d never been to a rally before, hadn’t been interested in politics for decades, since the end of the Reagan era.
They were Republicans, sure, and Tea Partiers, but there were people out beyond that, thousands lost in the wilds of America, the scapes of tract housing and foreclosed burbs, the strip malls and express ways, the hundred channels of basic cable TV and the empyrean of the internet, the vast sprawl of America.
They were high school graduates and drop-outs, bewildered by the most basic political discussion and language. They gained nothing from the Republican faux anti-elitism of Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and the other contenders whom Trump had effortlessly pounded into the earth across five months of primary elections. Sarah Palin had gained their attention with her folksy style, but she was Daniel Patrick Moynihan compared to Trump.
The scion of a New York property developer, Wharton-educated (film clips from the 80s expose a man with codded-up Manhattan upper-class accent and liberal attitudes to match) had reinvented himself as a working-class big guy, Mr-Lemme-Tell-Ya. The accent broadened, the vulgarities of his speeches were interspersed with the occasional policy pronouncement.
Across a dozen televised debates for the Republican nomination, Trump made visible just how faithfully the so-called anti-elitists stuck to an establishment script in their political discourse. He threw everything at them: baiting, psyching-out, personal insult, ridicule, unmentionable scandal, desperately unfair accusations.
They were nothing more than gets thrown around a heated meeting in an office, a factory floor, a bar or the parents’ bleachers of a Little League match, and the aghast reaction of his opponents simply exposed them as the pompous elitists and pseudo-everymen (and one woman, out of 17 contenders) they were. To this he added a program which went counter to much that the party had been advocating for three decades.
Against the worship of the free market and individual enterprise, he offered instead protectionism against foreign ‘cheaters’ who were ‘stealing American jobs’, and the return of big industry. Where his opponents celebrated the spirit of Steve Jobs, whose work at the nexus of hi-tech and marketing was utterly alien to many, Trump celebrated good jobs, the return of a world where someone willing to work at a basic skilled or unskilled job could earn a good middle-class living.
This was a memory of a brief period in America—the New Deal/Keynsian era from 1939 to the 1970s, and a false memory of the Reagan and Clinton eras, which preserved that moment for some people—but it was utterly compelling as a version of ‘how it should be’. That, combined with a nativist anti-illegal-immigration platform—‘build the wall’—and a disdain for ‘political correctness’; i.e. the culture and discourse of the rising progressive classes, gave him a sudden and serious following, whose regard quickly turned to devotion.
Much of the rest of his program, and all of the detail of it, was incoherent: his foreign policy combined a dose of isolationism, with a supreme commitment to projecting US power across the earth, his economic plan combined increased military spending, and a commitment to large social programs such as Social Security, with tax cuts and deficit reduction, and his healthcare plan veered between socialised medicine and a return to the status quo ante of the pre-Obamacare era. None of this mattered to
Said supporters were equally unfussed by revelations that Trump was a tax dodger, a huckster who had fleeced people with his ridiculous Trump University real-estate college, a man whose sub-contractors went unpaid, whose finances were enmeshed with Russian oligarch capital (no US banks would lend to him), and who had been a rich-kid draft-dodger during the Vietnam War. Sup-port from Christian evangelicals was undimmed by his past infidelities, his support for LGBT causes, and his musing aloud that if the blonde, dynamic Ivanka Trump were not his daughter, he’d probably be dating her. Conservative women were not fazed by his history of sexist insults, too numerous to catalogue here, even in summary.
Had all right-leaning people been similarly unfussed, Trump’s path to the White House would have been smooth indeed. But once the primaries were over, and he had secured the nomination, the Trump train kept coming off the rails. In the wake of the Democrat convention, he insulted the Khan family, parents of a Muslim-American soldier who had died in Iraq, and who had spoken out against him. A week of twitter-stream insults directed at his many enemies followed, while Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was left uncriticised, and her driving progressivist message, taken leftwards by the Bernie Sanders insurgency during the primaries, gained ground. When Hillary faltered—a three-week absence from the trail due to pneumonia turned into a political disaster by misleading press releases about the matter, a willingness to cancel rallies, but continue fundraising soirees at Californian mansions, and the fact that there was no real message out there, other than ‘vote for Hillary’—Trump gained ground. But he lost it again, after the first debate, when Hillary expertly baited him into defending old insults directed against a former beauty queen (Trump had owned the Miss Universe competition) whom he believed had put on too much weight. Another week of that saw his numbers dip again, and Hillary gain a six-point lead.
The campaign and the election itself cartwheeled at the end of the first week of October, when a tape of Trump ‘trash-talking’ about women surfaced. He was being filmed for a segment for an entertainment show, and didn’t realise the mic was on as he talked about pursuing married women, and how his fame allowed him to grab women ‘by the pussy’ without asking.
Furore over the sentiments was met with a harsh denial from Trump that he was doing anything other than bullshitting. When a dozen women came forward over the next week to assert that Trump had been true to his bragging, his staff implored him to focus on the issues. Instead, at a rally in North Carolina, he tore apart his tele-prompter to wild roars and launched into an extended attack on the women accusing him, and the media who were ‘rigging’ the election, urging everyone to turn up to their polling places to make sure ‘they weren’t stealing it from us’—a coded reference to ‘supervising’ black and Latino voters.
Trump appeared to struggle through all three debates, his aggressive bluster not capable of covering him through areas where a policy response was required. In the second—ostensibly a ‘town hall’ meeting—he launched a full-bore attack, claiming that Clinton should have been prosecuted, had no right to stand for President, and would be in jail if he became President.
None of these attacks did much to raise his poll numbers, and his advisors struggled to keep him ‘on message’, banging the drum about trade, illegal immigration, and ISIS. In response to continued failing numbers, he announced that he would redouble his efforts, creating a barnstorming set of appearances, two or three per day, upping to four or five, across any number of states. The cause seemed hopeless; there was a threadbare Trump organisation on the ground in most states, whereas the Democrats had 40, 50 offices per state, and hundreds of full-time workers.
Yet, as the campaign entered its final weeks, Trump’s luster returned somewhat. The sexual harassment allegations faded—they couldn’t be prosecuted because there were questions as to some well-documented accusations of sexual assault against Bill Clinton, and Hillary’s role in tamping them down—and the Clinton campaign ran out of juice. Policy-light, it was dependent on gaffes by Trump to give it a narrative, and these were failing to eventuate. Worse, a series of internal emails—the so-called ‘Podesta emails’—were being released daily by WikiLeaks. They gave a picture of an entitled, elitist bunch, disdainful of the party’s left, employing dirty tricks in the primaries, benefiting from collusion by party insiders in the media, and using the charitable works of the Clinton foundation to build networks of power, and personal contacts for the Clintons and their cronies. Then on October 28, disaster struck, when the FBI announced it was re-opening the investigation into Hillary’s use of a private email server, having found another cache of emails, on another computer, during another investigation.
When it was then revealed that the ‘other computer’ belonged to Anthony Weiner, the ‘sexting’ disgraced ex-congressman, currently being investigated for sexual communications with an underage girl, the amazement turned to ridicule. Weiner was married to (and estranged from) Clinton’s senior advisor Huma Abedin, and the picture of a planeload of 21st century Romanovs was complete.
The FBI would announce two days before the election that no further action was to be taken on the emails. It appeared to buoy up the Clinton campaign, which had been losing ground, as Trump’s Led Zeppelin ‘71-style tour peaked at five and six appearances per day, dominating news cycles, generating a sense of momentum.
As polling day dawned—though an incredible 45 per cent of people had already voted—it appeared that Clinton would prevail with a 2–4 per cent margin, losing a couple of the swingiest states, but holding the front line rustbelt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Across the nation, millions of Hillary supporters gathered at bars and parties to watch the progressive movement nail down a third victory. But, after a brief hour or so of leading the polls, it all turned to crap.
Florida started going down, North Carolina—a mooted Democrat gain—was never a chance, Ohio, and then Michigan and Wisconsin recorded a 5 per cent Trump lead, and by that point it was all over. One struggled to accept it for an hour or two—the notion of inevitable progress lies deeply ingrained—but there it was.
By the time Pennsylvania fell, most of the parties had dispersed, stray streamers and ‘I’m with her’ balloons lying amid the spilt beer. The next day it would be clear that Hillary had won the popular vote—
by 2 per cent—and lost the rustbelt states by mere tens of thousands of votes. That was a bitter blow, but it did not alter the basic failure—the Democrats should have had a candidate and a program capable of winning such states by 5-10 per cent.
Like many recent events, the actual occurrence of Trump’s victory has taken it from the realm of the impossible into the inevitable. But understanding what has really happened demands a focus on its contingency, and the possibility that it might not have happened—if only to understand how it did.
From the months of the primaries when he easily bested the dozen or so candidates lined up alongside him, into a campaign against the personification of progressive elitism, Donald Trump commanded a degree of devotion from sections of the population that was equal to the fear and loathing he produced in others. Throughout the campaign his numbers dipped, often lower than most previous candidates, but even at his worst he could still command around 37 per cent of the electorate, rising to 48 per cent for his victory.
Who were they? Four distinct groups went in a majority for Trump: a self-selecting section (about 67 per cent) of the white working-class (many of them non- or under-employed) and a majority of male college educated whites (54 per cent). He also did much better than expected among college-educated white women (45 per cent). Evangelical Christians, and the section of the Republican right more oriented to national strength and security than to free markets, supported him to more than 85 per cent.
His support amongst the latter two groups was a matter of political commitment to any candidate that the Republicans produced to counter the Democrats; it is the support of the first two groups, their stubborn refusal to accept the communicated vision of Trump as beyond the pale, that is of interest. Critics of the argument that Trump represented anything other than a politics-led right wing push were wont to point to the people who had voted for him in the Republican primaries—a well-heeled group, earning an average of $72,000 a year, far from the ‘working stiffs’ Trump claimed to represent—and the same sort of social class—white collar sales and admin, small business owners—that the Tea Party had been drawn from. But only around 4 per cent of the population participated in the primaries—the other 30 to 35 per cent total of Trump’s support came from a wider class (or the white section thereof, together with more than 30 per cent of Hispanics) than he claimed it did. Among such people, Trump’s support was reasonably equally spread between men and women; that gender equality fell away among college-educated people. His numbers among African Americans were less than 10 per cent, and only 4 per cent of black women voters chose Trump.
Those who supported him were attracted by four interlocking features of Trump’s message: his commitment to American industry and willingness to use tariffs and protectionism to rebuild home-grown manufacturing; his commitment to ‘build a wall’ and radically cut illegal immigration, and remove many of the 12 million ‘illegals’ currently in the US; his announcement that the US wouldn’t be engaged in ruinous ‘nation-building’ but would instead ‘win again’ with massive attacks against enemies; and that his history as a businessman independent of special interests, and a foe of political correctness would have him succeed where so many had failed.
None of these on their own would have gained him the enthusiastic support of his 25 per cent core—they had heard tough anti-immigration and military talk from professional politicians before, and were no longer impressed. They hadn’t been offered anyone other than professional politicians before, only those who claimed—often after decades in Washington—to be outside of the elites. Most importantly, they’d never been offered—from Republicans—anything other than free-market pabulum, and the notion that, in the US, everyone could make it on their own, and rise through effort and virtue.
They’d been getting that now, for a decade after the economy started to stagnate in 2006. With many seeing no improvement in their lives during a recovery marked by lower-than-ever job creation, the celebration of American can-do had started to reinforce a sense of couldn’t and didn’t among those who weren’t making it. Trump offered something else: the return of well-paid work that could be done by average people who weren’t particularly driven, and who were tired of the permanent squeeze on income—the desperate struggle from paycheck to paycheck—that has come to dominate large sections of American life. Trump presented himself to them as ‘The Boss’, the guy to whom the bewildering questions could be handed over, and who would see the glory days of post-war and Reaganite America—fondly misremembered—restored.
Trump’s audacious, iconoclastic campaign style showed up previous ‘anti-elitist’ campaigns as the professional political frauds that they were. Mocking his opponents, hanging nicknames on them, skipping debates, refusing to rule out a third party bid, travelling in his own plane, bragging outrageously, surreally, Trump played a role familiar to everyone—the gleeful office/workshop/parents’ group arsehole, the guy who takes charge of an environment through sheer force of personality.
The xenophobic race-baiting (‘The Mexican illegals … they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing guns’) was a part of that—but it had been tried before by right Republicans, and could claim only a section of the vote. Trump’s willingness to junk a core of the Reaganite message—that a free-market society at home mutually reinforced authoritarian military projection abroad—for a promise of simple and effective renewal, effectively gutted the core Republican ethos, the self-contradictory political ensemble by which it had held a mystical sway, and which had long since stopped working.
Every fresh insult to the hidebound traditions of American political life—a hangover from earlier eras, of real stump speeches and public meetings, oratory and calls to higher purpose—was felt as a liberation by millions, from dominance by a game whose rules no longer meant anything to them.
But Trump did something else too. By presenting a workerist message, combined with a communalist theme—one tending to outright xenophobia and disdain—Trump also broke up the old progressivist alliance between the white working-class, and the new class of tertiary-educated people working in the knowledge, culture, and policy industries, and their surrounding professions.
For twenty-five years, after the end of the Second World War, these groups had been part of a grand liberal alliance. The working-class and its demands dominated; civil liberties, civil rights and cultural transformation were add-ons, and not unwelcome to many workers. The success of the alliance hid the contradictions between the two groups. These began to emerge when post-war social democracy was driven into crisis by the crash of the Western economy and the years of subsequent stagnation. Through the next two decades, the Western working-class was decimated and rendered powerless by the offshoring of industrial capitalism, the managed decay of the education and social systems, and the powerful ideological apparatuses pumping out an idea of traditional values.
Meanwhile, the knowledge and professional classes began to rise in number and power. For decades they had been a small subgroup—the bohemians, the professions, the intelligentsia—and their production was marginal and supplementary to the main business of industrial capitalism. By the 2000s, knowledge and information production and consumption had come to the centre of the economy and society. By 2010, 40 per cent of people had some non-trade college or university education. Spending on culture and entertainment, which was once a matter of a movie and take-out once a week, became a larger part of people’s lives. Produced, commodified culture became the principal mode by which people were shaped as persons (as opposed to earlier modes such as neighbourhood, church, workplace).
As the knowledge classes began to feel at home in the culture, with an inherently liberal, multicultural global and universal ethos, the American working-classes lost their functioning cities (to decay and then to culturalist transformation), their workplaces, their powerful unions, and a sense of centrality or purpose in the social whole. The progressive classes no longer subordinated their politics to working-class politics, which had focused on share and control of the productive economy; they began to advance their own political imperatives which were increasingly socio-cultural: issues of gender, race, sexuality, and identity.
The life chances and life paths of each group diverged, and came to be in opposition. The ascendency of Obama, his ability to draw a large section of the working-class with him, amid the ruins of neoliberalism, and then his failure to make the real transformations that would have seen a genuine transformation of the economy, marked a political, organisational divergence.
Not for everyone in each class, of course. There are plenty of people in knowledge profession jobs voting Republican, and Hillary’s rallies had plenty of white workers (the preponderance of them having some connection to living union traditions). But the crucial question is where the centre of political gravity lies, and where the focus of a party’s rhetoric and programs are going to be. And 2016 was the year in which the Democrats decisively shifted their focus, and their loyalties, to the progressive class, and their universalist, global and diverse orientation, while the Republicans, led by the nose by Trump, found themselves the party of communalist nationalism, with a mix of xenophobia, and radical populism.
One might have expected that the Democrats would come out of this with more unity, win or lose. In fact, the opposite occurred. In the days following his victory, it became clear that the Trump team and the Republicans would manage to put together a new arrangement in which the free marketeers took a back seat, and the cabinet was filled with fervent Trumpistas. Whether this will last remains to be seen, but in the early days it satisfies much of the neo-Reaganite fantasy that its supporters want.
The Democrats had attempted something else, beginning at their Democratic Con-ven-tion, a grand affair which had followed on from the rather shabby and second-rate Republican event. At the Democrats’ do in Philadelphia, the first day had been devoted to a celebration of diversity, with speakers of every intersectional race, gender, sexuality, military and non-military background. The second day was the cult of Hillary, with speakers about her, the third day was the cult of progressive leadership with speeches from Obama and Biden. On the fourth and final day, we trooped into the arena to see it festooned with the stars and stripes hitherto absent from the event. The evening was devoted to national security and strength—but, crucially, as expressed in a thundering speech by Hillary, the strength was presented as an expression of diversity. As red, white and blue smoke bombs went off and red, white and blue balloons cascaded down onto a thousand waving red, white and blue flags, and the Clinton family and key party honchos came out to wave, the event hit me with a shock wave, a bodily tremor.
The Democrats had entirely reinvented themselves as the party of patriotism, rendered in a progressivist fashion. The progressive class was at the centre of national and economic life, and the Democratic Party was at the centre of that class, and the might of American power would project and protect diversity within and without the republic. The white working class were welcome to come along, but they were no longer at the centre of the Democrat conception of a progressive majority.
This was a new version of e pluribus unum, and at a stroke ruled off the decades since 1968, in which the party had not been able to articulate an undivided vision on the character of American power. The anti-war, social democratic and ‘materialist’ leftist wing of the party would be reduced to a loyal opposition. For decades the Democrats had lacked a simple unequivocal way to be the republic/empire that the US was. Now they had a simple and complementary ethos, one of imperial diversity: Benetton with missiles.
It’s a movement that attaches itself to the progressive class, and becomes their organic political representative. If the economy continues to become increasingly dominated by knowledge and cultural production, that class becomes the dominant social force—both the old manual/industrial working-class, and the bourgeois middle-middle class become subordinate to it. This has already started to occur, as can be seen in the social issues that have come to dominate political life, such as same-sex marriage. How did an idea that was seen as a science-fictive speculation become a political movement and then an achieved institution (in the US) in scarcely more than a decade? Because the social class that saw it as an imperative, a necessary advancement of the project of liberty and equality, rose to social dominance, and the issue rose with it. The apparent movement of politics was really the appearance of a deeper and more powerful social shift.
That plan has now fallen apart. The Clinton candidacy presided over the loss of states they had once thought they could rely on, and failed to gain the new ‘diversity’ states they had promised. The party’s progressive wing had been silent throughout the last months of the campaign out of solidarity, even though there were deep misgivings about the focus on Hillary, on Trump’s personal conduct, and the lack of a policy platform in between.
Now that the party centre has delivered such an appalling result, open warfare has commenced, and will run for some time. The elite centre are utterly discredited. Their only claim to legitimacy was that they could win elections. Now they have failed to do that. There is no advantage in intra-party solidarity, for the moment. A great sorting out is required.
So what happens next? The 2016 election and the rise of the Trump ‘movement’ is set within an America that is the world’s most extreme example of allowing the broader culture to be transformed and encircled by the market and commodity relations, rather than vice-versa.
The principal effect of that is a comprehensive ‘ungrounding’, with all that is familiar and ‘given’ in life subject to continuous dissolution and transformation. Hundred-year-old cities die without a word, trades and ways of life vanish without comment, the embedded networks of social life are emptied out. Human atomisation and alienation becomes dominant and are interpreted as autonomy and freedom.
As the given ground of life is worn away, hope and meaning is invested first in compensations—such as the novelty and dynamism of popular culture and consumer possibilities. As these start to pall—sometime around the 2000s—people search for simple and concrete narratives to give meaning to their existence. The search for a compensating content takes over, hence the rise of a literal, fundamentalist Christianity and, following that, increasingly elaborate and interconnected conspiracy theories.
The latter have now spread from their usual small core to encompass ever greater numbers of Americans. America was founded by a conspiracy of political activists who stirred a revolution and a resulting new order they claimed to be God-given. Nothing can be less surprising than that section of the nation will resort to conspiracy theories at a time when the culture that guaranteed a moderate and reasonable form of national life is being eaten away at by the nihilism of the market.
The more that everyday life becomes a wasteland dictated by monopoly consumer entities, the more flags, anthems and pledges come to the fore and the more that every social relationship becomes contested (such as the recent refusal of some black footballers to stand for the national anthem at the start of games, and the death threats against them. If the national anthem were not played, if this reassurance of collective identity were not required, the explicit social division would not open up at all).
The fanatical support for Trump from a section of the populace who believe they are losing everything with the passing of the old world, and gaining nothing from the new one, relies on him offering them a story of utter simplicity. His supporters are more than happy to ignore the fact that half of what he suggests is flagrantly unconstitutional.
The mythical America they want to restore has, paradoxically, very little to do with the Constitution, that fussy document of checks and balances put together by a bunch of eighteenth-century liberals and slave-owners. It is the Presidential, imperial America that long ago superseded constitutional America in the political imagination—power abroad, and no division at home, a European order with tolerated margins, e unum unum.
They are above all, self-selecting. For every angry man or woman from Rustbelt City, Ohio, chanting ‘lock her up’ at a Trump rally, there’s someone in a ‘Carpenters for Hillary’ t-shirt at a rally, maybe a true believer, maybe a Bernie supporter getting with the strength, who believes (wisely or no) in the art of the possible.
But, as we’ve seen, for each of those, there was a Trump voter in the bar, in the diner, in the line at McDonalds drive thru, someone who voted for him with some or great reluctance, on the hope that he would do ‘something’.
And Trump never managed, or even much tried, to gain a section of the black working-class, though he did manage to gain nearly a third of Latino voters. That was in part due to his personal racism, and the rational calculation that for them, race trumped class as a political imperative, but also because there was no way that his formula of power abroad and economic nationalism at home, could be extended to black people and (many) Latinos. However grievously oppressed both groups are, they tend to have access to greater solidarity and a sense of collective identity than do many working-class whites. Trump’s formula was aimed at filling a vast lack in a whole group of people—like all conmen (Trump University!) he knew that the more fantastical the promise, the more it would succeed—and it was always going to be a white thing. Trump’s appeal is to the same demographic as that appealed to by Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—with the same mix of nationalism and rejection of free-market economics.
Why, ultimately, would sections of the populace plump for a man who many others believe could bring the world to the brink of nuclear war? Because many such people believe, with good reason, that the world is out to kill them as a class.
For a century, the pulse of modern history was the march of the working-class to power through socialism. In the middle of the twentieth century they were fought to a draw by the power of capital—and then defeated when the circuit of capital was widened to the world. Now, in the West, the class is being extinguished. The investment in education, cities and jobs that would have allowed their children to make a transition to the new world has not been made. They know, even if they do not know the specifics, that mass automation is coming and that even such easy entry jobs as exist—such as fast food service—are about to be decimated.
They know, even if they do not know explicitly, that the old worker-progressive alliance has been sundered, and the progressive class are no longer excluded from the power structure—they are in fact holders of the new capital.
In another decade, the politics of the progressive class will have recomposed once more. They will combine their postmodern social liberalism, with centre-right economics, the worker-progressive alliance in the post war ‘new left’ and ‘left-liberal’ decades, a historical memory. This is difficult to imagine for many who lived through that period, even its tail-end, but that is how history happens.
The prospects for such ‘left-behind’ classes is challenging. Like other superseded groups—the indigenous, rural groups—they will, in their old form, lack the numerical strength to mount a serious resistance to the process. Only real alliances—or the creation by automation and globalisation of an enormous class of ‘surplus’ people—will make the contestation of forces promising a ‘new barbarism’ possible.
That is one trajectory anyway. But history rarely takes a linear path. That is especially the case with the US in this period. No-one expected Obama—not in 2008, anyway. When he had triumphed, no one expected the Tea Party—or that this would decay, and the Right be reborn in Trumpism.
Nor is there any guarantee that what comes next is a super-Trump, an out-and-out fascist who would make the Donald look as ‘reasonable’ as Mitt Romney does now. But perhaps the failure of Trump’s fantasy politics—if it does fail—will prompt not an extension of them to new extremes, but a reversal of their principles and the recomposition of politics.
If he succeeds, of course, then something is over.
Those baying arenas, their blasts of music and good cheer, will not have been a late and last protest of pre-diversity boomer culture, but a prelude to the next part of the century.