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The Trump Election: Increasing contradictions bring bitter fruit
by Christoph Hermann
Thursday Jan 11th, 2018 4:48 AM
The democracy crisis, the neoliberalism crisis, and the crisis of the Democratic Party led to the Trump victory. Capitalism is largely deregulated with a comparatively meager public sector except for the defense industry. The greatest unknown is the announced infrastructure investment package of billions of dollars. The legitimation crisis of neoliberalism will create news possibilities for an emancipatory left.
THE TRUMP ELECTION


Increasing contradictions bring bitter fruit


By Christoph Hermann


[This article published in: Kurswechsel 1/ 2017 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.kurswechsel.at.]


The election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president was a striking turning point in many regards. It was surprising for many including the author of these lines. The liberal media from the New York Timers and the Washington Post to the CNN television station exploded one election campaign bomb after another (paid no income tax in the last 10 years, grabbed women and ridiculed military heroes etc) and announced Trump’s election would be practically impossible. Most polls predicted Hillary Clinton’s victory, even if her distance to Trump periodically rose and fell. During the whole election campaign, I did not meet a single person who openly supported Trump. I live in the Bay Area of California, one of the most liberal and most progressive regions of the US (with many Bernie Sanders supporters).


The shock after the election was great. The University of California at Berkeley immediately set up a psychological and legal consultation service for students (some had no residence permits and some had parents who could be affected by possible deportation). Others showed their annoyance by participating in the many protests and demonstrations including students at Berkeley High who left their classes the day after the election and marched through the campus of the university.


My own experiences are only a piece of evidence for the extremely different worlds existing in today’s US. While people suffer in the northeast in the so-called Rust Belt in a lack of good-paying jobs and the desolate infrastructure where voters made Trump the president, residents in cities like San Francisco grieve under rising prices and a shortage in affordable housing for persons who are not part of the High-Tech elite. In addition, there is the plight of many immigrants who are exploited everywhere and still hope that at least their children will fare better (while the future of the white and black lower classes looks rather depressing). These oppositions should not be surprising. They are the logical consequences of a largely deregulated capitalism with a comparatively meager public sector except for the defense industry.



The Election


To understand Trump’s victory, the peculiarities of the American presidential election system must be comprehended. Two parties constitute the election. The respective candidates are chosen by party members in a primary battle lasting months (by influential so-called super-delegates in the case of the democrats). [1] The state primaries run according to a certain timetable can generate unforeseeable dynamics. In this process, Clinton was chosen for the democrats and Trump for the republicans – she as a candidate of the party establishment and he as an outsider who did better than his rivals with his politically incorrect remarks. Both Clinton and Trump had negative poll numbers that were historically unparalleled. The majority of states or delegates was crucial, not the candidate with the most votes (that was Clinton). Seen historically, the delegate system was introduced to guarantee the political influence of southern states where fewer votes were cast because Afro-Americans were excluded from voting until the 1960s).


Remarkably, more than 40% of Americans do not vote or are excluded. To vote, one has to register and prove one’s identity. The criteria are different from state to state. Strict regulations exist in conservative states that often block Afro-Americans from voting. In addition, millions of black persons sit in prisons and therefore cannot vote. This means only a quarter of voting age persons actually voted for Trump.


Polls say white Americans voted for him – including many women contrary to expectations. It was not really the uneducated lower class that was receptive to Trump’s messages, as the liberal media predicted (similar to the descriptions of FPO voters in Austria). On the other hand, Clinton did not mobilize Afro-Americans and Latinos to vote as Obama did. As expected, Clinton triumphed on the west coast (in California, she received more than 60% of the votes) and in the northern east coast including Virginia while the rest of the states with few exceptions went for Trump. To a certain degree, voting for Trump represented a revenge of white America for the fact that a black president governed for eight years. Many whites who voted for Trump voted for Obama the last time.


Analysis


There are many reasons for Trump’s victory. In my opinion, it is an expression of the increasing social contradictions and crises generated by those contradictions. These crises seem very important to me: firstly, the election of Trump was a manifestation of a legitimation crisis of neoliberalism or neoliberal globalization. The legitimation crisis is reflected in that a tiny part of the population profited from the neoliberal economic system in the last four decades while maintaining their living standards or simply surviving became harder for the great majority – the so-called 99%. [2]


While Clinton stood for the continuance of this system with a few cosmetic changes (her husband Bill as president in the 1990s was active in the neoliberal reorganization of the US), Trump stormed against the consequences of free trade and against the related de-industrialization. The latter befell the Rust Belt where he ultimately won the election. Trump announced the TTIP would not be signed and the North American Free trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be renegotiated.


The appeal to nationalism (Make America Great Again) and the game with racist prejudices – above all against undocumented immigrants from Mexico (build the wall) are also expressions of this crisis since the real problems and the chasm between the rich and the poor are repressed. The legitimation crisis of neoliberalism was expressed even clearer in the unexpected support for Bernie Sanders who evoked a wave of euphoria among younger voters that was prevented very effectively by the super-delegates of the Democratic Party and by the Clinton camp. That does not mean neoliberalism was not in crisis or that Trump will fulfill his promises.


The legitimation crisis of neoliberalism is not only an American phenomenon. The same crisis also played into the hands of the advocates of BREXIT and will also play a role in the upcoming elections in Europe. At the moment, the right unfortunately seems to profit more than the left.


Secondly, the victory of Trump is also a manifestation of the crisis of western democracies. Western democracies have been in crisis for a long while. However, the fact that a top candidate lies repeatedly and spreads abstruse rumors to repudiate his opponent (crooked Hillary) represents a new stage in the crisis process. In this connection, past political standards like the assumption politicians like all other citizens pay taxes or that they do not cheat or attack persons physically are questioned. (This does not mean politicians did not do these things in the past. Rather, these actions usually meant the end or at least a pause of their political careers) If Trump is up for reelection, his rivals will have the problem that he simply denies the negative consequences of his policies and instead invents evidence for his successes. In my opinion, the solemn declaration of the democratic establishment including President Obama in acknowledging Trump’s victory was an expression of the fragility of the system. The attempt of the Green presidential candidate Jill Stein to challenge the election was only supported half-heartedly by the Clinton camp and was successfully blocked by Trump’s lawyers (Trump repeatedly declared Clinton’s lead in the number of voters was the result of an election fraud).


At the same time, the election showed voters believed the untruths exposed by the liberal media or that the lies of politicians simply did not matter to voters since they assume all politicians lie. Therefore, the crisis of western democracies is closely connected with the crisis of the traditional media. More and more people gain their information from dubious Internet pages that publish rumors and slanders… In this connection, the Internet appears more and more as a rumor mill where the wildest conspiracy theories are spread more than a medium making access to information easier. Twitter, the preferred communication medium of the new president limits political messages or programmatic statements to 140 characters. More complex connections obviously cannot be communicated this way (Clinton also avoided at all costs facing questions of the media in press conferences). On the positive side, the influence of money was weakened by dethroning the traditional media and using new technologies, it should be noted. Interestingly, the candidate with the most resources – that was Clinton – did not win this time.


Thirdly, the Trump victory also reflected the crisis of the liberal left or what is sometimes called the third way (introduced in the US by Bill Clinton). A leftist program with a few liberal reforms that does not essentially break with neoliberalism is not a credible alternative to right-wing policies (the fact that the Clintons dined with Wall Street and Silicon Valley millionaires was certainly not helpful). It is characteristic that Trump as the candidate of the republicans helped Clinton to her campaign slogan (Stronger Together). The focus on preventing Trump brought her the majority of votes but was not enough to convince the voters in the so-called Swing States. They sympathized more with Trump’s slogan Make America Great Again. This should be a warning to social democrats in Austria and in Europe. Vote for us because the others are even worse as right-wing radicals is not a convincing campaign program. I thought nominating such a nauseating candidate like Trump would help Clinton to an election triump. I was very wrong.


In the US, the crisis of the liberal left is also a crisis of the Democratic Party. In the election, it also lost a large number of congressional seats and not only the presidency (so Trump can count on a majority in Congress). The next months will show whether the party is willing to draw lessons from the election setback and move programmatically to the left…


The crisis of the liberal left opens up a chance for the progressive left. Before the election, few observers thought a candidate who calls himself a socialist and urges classical socio-democratic policies could endanger Clinton’s nomination. [3] In the US, advancing leftist policy outside the Democratic Party is extremely difficult. Many things depend on the renewal of the Democratic Party. Much will depend on how the American union movement reacts to the new situation and whether it radicalizes itself. Characteristically, one of the largest unions of the country, SEIU, supported Clinton instead of Sanders in the primaries.


Hopefully, there will be an upswing of the social movements. As a first sign, more than a million persons joined in women’s marches all over the US the day after Trump’s swearing in ceremony. This points to a new wave of mobilization. Trump may have helped close the ranks between environmental protests (as against building an oil pipeline in Standing Rock, South Dakota), campaigns against racist attacks (thematicized by Black Lives Matter) and initiatives for defending women’s and LGBT-rights. Initiatives to protect undocumented immigrants will be especially important. This includes the establishment or continuance of sanctuary cities where undocumented immigrants are not persecuted.


Outlook


Wall Street reacts to Trump’s victory with a high altitude flight of the stock exchange index. The first nominations of his cabinet including an unparalleled number of billionaires indicate that Trump will make rich Americans even richer (including many of his friends). The announced tax cuts will help the super-rich above all. Appointing former generals suggests that a militarization of the borders and domestic security is coming. The defense industry will profit from a further increase of military spending. The oil industry is also prominently represented in the cabinet which points to its revival – with dramatic consequences for environmental policy. Wall Street or Goldman Sachs supplied the Treasury Secretary and could rejoice over the bailout of the financial sector presided over by Obama…


A few industrial businesses announced their production will not be shifted to Mexico – partly on pressure of the Trump administration and partly on account of financial incentives. With Trump’s victory, the Transpacific and Transatlantic trade agreements are off the table. Whether Trump will really encroach in existing agreements and tariffs is doubtful. Some penalty duties for selected products or producers could be introduced. However, a permanent disturbance of the trade with China and other countries is unlikely.


The greatest unknown is undoubtedly the announced infrastructure investment package of many billions of dollars. Investments in the outdated infrastructures have long been on the wish lists of democrats but were consistently rejected in the past by the republican majority in Congress. Under Trump, they could become reality and actually stimulate the economy – even if private developers (including some of Trump’s business friends) and financial management will profit through public-private partnerships.


Altogether there is hardly a breach with neoliberalism. Like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Trump seems to interpret neoliberal doctrines much more flexibly than the custodians of neoliberalism in Brussels and Frankfurt. This includes acceptance of an enormous budget deficit that the republican representatives in Congress allow to climb to an all-time record. In another regard, Trump follows Reagan’s example. Political-economic pragmatism is coupled with an explicit social-political conservatism. The extremely reactionary Vice-president Mike Pence reflects this. [4] In summary, the legitimation crisis of neoliberalism will create new possibilities for an emancipatory left with all the frustration and irritation over the election of Trump. In any case, the next years in the US will be exciting.


NOTES

1. The Republicans also have super-delegates but they play a much more trifling role in the decision-making process.
2. 99% was a slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Actually, the top 10% profit from the neoliberal economic system.
3. Even if there are indications that Sanders would have won the election against Trump, his defeat would have discredited the progressive left in the US for many years.
4. Some authors describe Reagan’s economic policy as military Keynesianism.
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