The 2016 election taught many lessons, few of which have penetrated the talking heads of the mainstream media. Most of what we could learn has been lost in the frenzy of the most outrageous political maneuvering witnessed in decades.
One of the more notable lessons is the diminished role of campaign money in determining this Presidential election outcome. Trump spent a third less than Clinton in this election (Washington Post: $932 million versus $1.4 billion). Some have made much of this discrepancy, along with the fact that Trump largely ignored the advice of his hired consultants and advisors. Of course, Clinton’s money actually bought over 3 million more votes in the nationwide count. And the mass media enthusiastically provided Trump with uncountable dollars’ worth of free coverage (Remember CBS CEO Les Moonves’s comment on Trump’s loud mouth, Berlusconi-like antics during the primaries: “I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us… Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ...Who would have thought that this circus would have come to town?”)
Nonetheless, the Trump election undeniably showed that it is possible to mount an impactful campaign outside of the conventional rules of the game, especially when a substantial portion of the electorate has soured on the rules of the game.
It was this fact-- the fact that there was a new mood emerging, especially among those most devastated by the continuing economic crisis -- that was underestimated or missed by the punditry and is still largely ignored.
While the Trump election was a surprise, something new is clearly in the air. I wrote nearly a year ago:
The Sanders and Trump successes suggest that voters are not appeased by the thin gruel offered by the party elites this go-round. But something more profound is occurring—a refusal to settle for the usual charade. Moreover, party loyalty is unusually thin this time, challenging party leaders’ ability to count on a transfer from one candidate to another. What the pundits call “unpredictability” is actually the exercise of a new level of political maturity and independence. A recent Pew Research Center poll (December 8-13, 2015) bears out the mood of voter alienation: 62% of all respondents maintain that “the federal government does not do enough for middle-class people.” Thus, the notion that anti-government sentiment runs deep in the populace is a media-inspired illusion. Instead, people want better government. (A Moment Charged with Possibility 2-11-16)
We now know, thanks to Wikileaks, that the Democrats had no intention of allowing an insurgent like Sanders to address the “new mood” of the electorate. Instead, they chose to covertly ensure the nomination of the candidate of more-of-the-same-- Hillary Clinton. In undermining Sanders, Democratic Party elites guaranteed that Trump would be perceived as the only authentic “outsider” candidate.
I wrote last year, in April, that the failures of the traditional support system for the “working class and poor people-- unions, religious institutions, the Democratic Party, ethnic organizations, etc.-- explains, in no small part, the desperate turn to Trump. Tepid, aloof liberalism breeds desperate options, like the outlandish Trump, when conditions deteriorate sharply and no radical options appear available.”
Thus, a careful assessment of the Trump victory should ascribe a role to working class disaffection with business-as-usual politics, but without a simplistic blanket condemnation of the working class, without a calloused dismissal of white workers as wholly racist, misogynist, or xenophobic.
But careful assessment is not popular after the recent election. Liberal pundit and darling of the “responsible” left, Paul Krugman, penned a harsh attack on the white working class:
...the fact is that Democrats have been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward… The only way to make sense of what happened is to see the vote as an expression of, well, identity politics-- some combination of white resentment at what voters see as favoritism toward non-whites (even though it isn’t) and anger on the part of the less educated at liberal elites whom they imagine look down on them. The Populist Perplex, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11-26-2016.
Krugman is hardly out of step with mainstream liberals with his barely concealed contempt for the motives of white workers. But compare this statement with what he said eight years earlier when he was shilling for Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama in the midst of their primary competition:
[Princeton colleague Frank] Bartels cited data showing that small-town, working class Americans are actually less likely than affluent metropolitan residents to vote on the basis of religion and social values… Does it matter that Mr. Obama has embraced an incorrect theory about what motivates working-class voters? His campaign certainly hasn’t been based on Mr. Frank’s book [What’s the Matter with Kansas?], which calls for a renewed focus on economic issues as a way to win back the working class. Indeed, the book concludes with a blistering attack on Democrats who cater to “affluent, white collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” while dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.”... Anyway, the important point is that working-class Americans do vote on economic issues-- and can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems. Clinging to a Stereotype, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4-19-2008.
Apart from the blatant hypocrisy exhibited by the marked reversal of Krugman’s views in only eight years, the earlier Krugman gets it right. Economic issues have been decisive in working class vote patterns, especially since the deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s and the economic catastrophe of 2007-8. And the earlier Krugman’s judgement that “working-class Americans… can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems” proved accurate with the campaign of Bernie Sanders. But with the Democratic Party actively burying that option, many workers misguidedly turned to the only other candidate promising to address their interests.
Contrary to the widespread impressions disseminated by media elites, the working-class vote was not overwhelmingly for Trump, nor was the working class vote the backbone of his success. The Electoral College totals swung his way thanks to narrow victories in a few key rust-belt states. Many factors contributed to the Trump victory, but two stand out, especially for a left analysis.
First, there was a discernable shift among many voters in working class strongholds previously giving majorities to Obama to turn in the direction of Trump in 2016. As Krugman noted in his 2008 alert and warning to the Democrats, addressing relevant economic issues is decisive in winning the working class vote. With the Sanders economic program strangled in the cradle, desperate voters saw nowhere to turn but to the false, demagogic hope of putting the industrial toothpaste back into the tube, of creating jobs out of Trump’s magic.
Democratic Party operatives and their media lapdogs have done their most to evade blame for the Party’s abandonment of working people’s interests. Instead, they have painted workers as pathologically bigoted and ignorant, a handy theme reinforced by elite media since the era of TV stereotype, Archie Bunker. Today’s archetypes for the socially dysfunctional (white) worker is found in the best-selling tell-all from a working class “escapee” (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance). By diverting the spotlight to working class dysfunction, the third-way, New Democrats who dominate the party can escape blame for their willful neglect of the multiracial working class’s increasingly desperate plight.
Second, Trump was a magnet for every backward, reactionary, racist element in the US. They, too, saw the arrogant, abrasive, loud-mouth as someone in whom they could place their hopes. Trump’s aggressive break with the typical politician’s syrupy civility was taken as a sign of contempt for the alien, the different, those perceived as threatening (Ironically, these same hates and fears were, in the past, invested in soft-spoken religious leaders and smooth-tongued conservative gentlemen). Trump engages in the Old South tactic of drawing attention by surpassing all others in race baiting and fear mongering, but it’s important to note that this simplistic tactic only works where an atmosphere of racial friction and fear already exists. It’s just that Trump opportunistically says it the loudest.
The contradiction between Trump’s appeal to workers and his courtship of the extreme right is unresolvable. Nevertheless, it is a common feature of right-wing populism, a political phenomenon emerging strongly in Europe and the US. It takes root where both objective and subjective conditions are ripe for radical change, but a weak or discredited left offers little hope. The extreme right reaches to fill the void with vague populism.
While it is not yet possible to entirely discern how Trump will attempt to resolve this contradiction, it is becoming increasingly clear that he is surrounded by advisors, confidents, and attendants fully committed to a pro-corporate, pro-capitalist domestic agenda, an agenda that, apart from theatrical moments, will leave little for workers.
Trump’s foreign policy is, however, a different kettle of fish. Domestic policy is crafted by many hands. Congress, which is 100% bipartisan for the interests of capitalism over any other interest, will have a big say over where Trump takes it. Moreover, there is space for debating divergent interpretations of the best interests of capital.
But foreign policy is largely crafted through the executive (even war powers have been commandeered by the executive branch). And there is little tolerance for dissidence from the policies of the foreign policy establishment. The tight reign over policy fixed by generations of rabid Cold Warriors continues to be a feature of governing. Many of Trump’s comments on prospective foreign relations challenge both the current consensus and those who police that consensus.
Trump’s deviance from that consensus on relations with Russia, NATO, and other matters explains the brazen intervention of US security services in post-election politics. A massive media campaign was mounted to distract the people from the Democratic Party fiasco and construct a reliable straw man, Russia, to take the blame for the embarrassing loss. The mainstream media shamelessly and nearly uniformly spread the speculative story that Russia had intervened profoundly in the US election. With skepticism rising, the joint US security agencies released an amateurish report, allegedly confirming Russian intervention. Many private security experts remained skeptical. Trump challenged the report.
Within days, government insiders released a second document-- an addendum-- reputedly based on a UK private investigation, alleging outrageous misconduct on Trump’s part and an extensive Russian disinformation campaign. The security agencies admitted sharing the report with Obama and Trump, denied leaking it, and refused to attest to its accuracy. In a recent interview, CIA Director Brennan was said “to give it no particular credence.” He said, instead: “I would have no interest in trying to give that dossier any additional airtime.” That, he says, “...would make no sense at all.”
So, if the report had no credence, if it made “no sense” to give it “more airtime,” why was it shared with the President and President-elect and leaked to the press in the first place?
The answer should be obvious to all but the gullible and kept corporate press: The memorandum was meant, on the part of the security agencies, as a threat to Donald Trump, a reminder that wandering off the establishment reservation is not tolerated.
The media’s failure to challenge this “memorandum,” its veracity, its timing, its source, and its leak is a new low in groveling before power. To think that the head of the CIA, the most formidable intelligence apparatus in the world, had a hand in confronting Trump with a document that Brennan claimed “he had no way to assess the allegations contained in the dossier of political opposition research…” (Wall Street Journal, 1-19-17) is outrageous (Brennan even claimed that he hadn’t read it). That the CIA held no interest or lacked the ability to confirm a dossier written by a former member of the close-knit intelligence community is preposterous. That the security agencies promoted a dossier that bore “no credence” and that they released it for any other reason than to intimidate Trump is unbelievable.
Of course, this would not be the first time that security agencies scared the hell out of politicians challenging establishment shibboleths. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover famously kept extensive files on virtually all political players and would frequently leak embarrassing information to media friends whenever he felt it was necessary to bring dissenters back into the fold. Among many other political maneuvers, the CIA notoriously overstated Soviet capabilities in order to influence US Cold War policies, elections, and funding. And beyond any dispute, the intelligence and foreign policy communities constructed an argument of lies to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We are asked to trust them today? And the too-often uncritical, gullible media believes them today?
In the wake of contemporary revelations of torture protocols and comprehensive spying on everyone, apparently witting opinion makers have now found the intelligence community to be wholly reliable and trustworthy. They surrender their critical faculties to the professional liars and plotters. Even George Orwell would be aghast!
We assuredly have every reason to fear the policies of President Trump and his supporters.
But based on recent events, we equally have every reason to fear the brazen power and intrusion of clandestine security agencies and the unreliability of the fawning, supine corporate media.