We got Trumped

Results and prospects after the 2016 election

On the night of November 8, 2016, I boarded a flight to London, on my way to the annual Historical Materialism conference.1 As the plane took off at 7:30 p.m., the polls across the United States were still open. I was confident that when I arrived in London the next morning, Hillary Clinton would have been declared the president-elect of the United States. I believed that not only would Donald Trump be defeated, but also that the Democrats might regain their majority in the Senate. Only three weeks before, I had predicted that Trump’s middle-class, right-wing populist insurgency, which had temporarily captured the main party of capital in the United States, would go down in flames.2 

Clinton was the clear favorite of the US capitalist class, who were repelled by Trump’s nationalist hostility to neoliberal trade policies and the system of imperialist military-diplomatic alliances that guarantee US world domination, and his threats to deport all undocumented immigrants. According to Opensecrets.org, Clinton received over 92 percent 

of corporate contributions in the 2016 election cycle, including over 80 percent of the contributions from finance, insurance, and real estate, communications/electronics, health care, defense, and “miscellaneous business.” Trump’s support was limited to 60–70 percent of contributions from construction, energy and natural resources, transportation, and agribusiness—which together accounted for less than 10 percent of total capitalist donations.3 With such a huge war chest, I expected the Democrats to build a “get out the vote” machine across the United States that would deliver a victory for its unpopular candidate.

When the plane landed on the morning of November 9 and I turned on my phone, I was greeted by the unexpected—Trump had been declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election and the Republicans had maintained their majorities in both the House and Senate. The media had declared Trump’s victory a “landslide,” winning 306 Electoral College delegates, compared with Clinton’s 232. The revolt of the “white working class” in the former industrial Midwest and Great Lakes region was credited for Trump’s sweep. 

What really happened?

I was not alone in my failure to foresee a Trump victory. Most of the political commentators in the United States and globally, based on pre-election polling, had predicted a Clinton victory. How do we explain this unexpected turn of events?

First, we cannot overlook the fact that Clinton won the majority of the popular vote. She leads Trump in the current vote tally by approximately 2.7 million votes. If the United States had direct election of the president, Clinton would be on her way to the White House. However, the Electoral College—created by the slave owners and merchant-bankers to prevent challenges to their class rule—allowed a popular minority to elect the president. As in many elections in the past forty years, extremely small changes in the participation and preferences of miniscule portions of the US electorate produced a sharp swing in electoral votes and the continued Republican majority in Congress.

While it initially appeared that voter participation rates dropped in 2016,4 as paper ballots were counted, voter participation came within 1 percent of 2012.5 Clinton’s vote is still about one million below Obama’s last election. More importantly, voter participation among traditionally Democratic segments of the electorate fell.6 African Americans dropped from 13 percent of all voters in 2008 and 2012 to 12 percent in 2016. In some predominantly African-American communities, the drop was even more precipitous. In Milwaukee’s Council District 15, which is 84 percent Black, voter turnout was nearly 20 percent lower than in 2012.7 Households earning less than $50,000 per year, who made up 51 percent of the US population in 2014,8 dropped from 41 percent of voters in 2012 to 36 percent in 2016. The percentage of households earning over $100,000, a mere 17 percent of the population, rose from 28 percent to 33 percent of voters between 2012 and 2016. Put simply, the electorate in 2016 was even more disproportionately well-off than in the last three elections. 

Within these key categories, there were also small but significant shifts in voter preference. While 60 percent of voters in households earning less than $50,000 a year voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, Clinton’s share of these voters dropped to 52 percent. Clinton only won 88 percent of the Black vote, down from 95 percent and 93 percent for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Especially alarming for the Democrats was their falling share of the Latino vote. Democratic pollsters had been confident that Trump’s racist diatribes would allow Clinton to sweep this key sector. However, the Democrats’ share of the Latino vote declined from 71 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2016. Finally, the percentage of union households voting Democratic fell from 58 percent in 2008 and 59 percent in 2012 to a mere 51 percent in 2016.

Trump’s ability to retain the core sectors of the Republican’s voter base since 1980—primarily the traditional (self-employed and small businesses with less than ten employees) and new (professionals, managers, and supervisors) middle classes, including evangelical Christians; and a minority of older, white workers—was clear in all of the exit polling. However, Trump’s margin of victory—greatly exaggerated in the fun-house mirror of the Electoral College—came from a tiny group of voters who had supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.9 Of the 700 counties that had voted for Obama twice, nearly one-third (209) swung to Trump; and of 207 counties that Obama won once, almost 94 percent (194) went to Trump. The swing to Trump was concentrated in traditionally Democratic states of the Great Lakes and Midwest, which had suffered the loss of manufacturing jobs and were experiencing a rise in the Latino population. 

However, Trump’s victory was primarily a result of a sharp drop in the participation of traditionally Democratic voters, rather than a sharp swing to Trump. Trump did gain approximately 335,000 more votes than Romney among households earning less than $50,000 per year in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, Clinton received 1.7 million fewer votes than Obama among the same group.10 It was these miniscule shifts in voter preference and participation that gave Trump his razor-thin margins in a number of key states: less than .25 percent in Michigan, less than 1 percent in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and less than 1.5 percent in Florida. According to one analysis, had about 100,000 Trump voters in these areas voted for Clinton instead, she would have swept the Electoral College.11

Put simply, Trump did not so much win the 2016 election, as Hillary Clinton lost it. Despite her enormous campaign treasury, Clinton did not build a “get out the vote” operation to mobilize traditional Democratic constituencies—African Americans, Latinos, and working-class households.12 Instead, the Clinton campaign took these groups for granted, believing that they would have little or no choice but to turn out to defeat Trump. Time, funds, and energy were focused on “socially liberal” suburban new middle-class professionals and managers. At a Washington Post symposium in July 2016, Chuck Schumer, the neoliberal Democratic senator from New York, was quite clear: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”13 

Rather than knocking on doors in working-class and minority communities, and making a pretense of supporting the sort of social-democratic policies championed by Sanders, the Clinton campaign targeted upper-middle-class suburbs, allowing her to win substantially more votes than Obama among households earning over $100,000.14 Traditionally Democratic working-class voters were faced with the choice between a neoliberal who disdained working people and a right-wing populist who promised to bring back well-paying manufacturing jobs. Many stayed home and a tiny minority shifted their allegiances from the first African-American president to an open racist and xenophobe.

The social foundations of Trumpism

The core of Trump’s support, like that of the Tea Party since 2009, is the older white and suburban/exurban middle classes.15 His success among non-college-educated whites—he won 52 percent of all voters without bachelor’s degrees—appears to be concentrated among traditional small businesspeople (construction contractors, small shopkeepers, etc.) and those supervisors (factory foremen, store and office managers, etc.) and semi-professionals (technicians, etc.) who do not require a college education. His success among households earning over $75,000 a year reflects the support of the managerial and professional elite of this class. Put another way, Trump’s social base is that of the Republican Party since 1980—politically and socially conservative older, white middle-class voters. 

However, the politics of these groups have radicalized since the economic crisis of 2008. Prior to 2008, hostility to the democratic gains of racial minorities, women, and LGBT folks animated the hearts and minds of Republican voters. For most of the past four decades, these voters were willing to settle for symbolic concessions on these issues (restrictions, but not a legal ban on abortions; limiting access to contraception; local anti-LGBT ordinances), while loyally supporting the neoliberal agenda of the mainstream Republicans—those who traditionally represented the majority of capitalists in the United States. 

The 2008 recession radicalized this base, leading them to challenge key components of the Republican establishment’s agenda. Faced with declining living standards and the possibilities of downward social mobility into the working class,16 the Tea Party and later the Trump campaign put forward a distinctively populist political and economic agenda. The new middle class right now wanted the wholesale deportation of undocumented immigrants, threatening the supply of cheap and vulnerable workers that capitalists in agriculture, large-scale construction, garment, and other industries depend upon. They opposed the pro-corporate immigration reform proposals that would institute a permanent guest worker program in the United States, and offer a circuitous “path to citizenship” for the undocumented. The Tea Party was also willing to shut down the federal government—threatening the US public debt and the entire global financial system—to achieve their goals, alienating the major organizations of the capitalist class, the Business Roundtable, and the US Chamber of Commerce. 

While the Chamber helped defeat a majority of Tea Party supporters in the 2014 Republican congressional primaries, their middle-class supporters radicalized further in 2016. Not only were traditionally evangelical Christian voters willing to support a twice-divorced, profane billionaire who routinely made jokes about his penis size, but they also rejected key elements of neoliberal economic and political policies for a populist nationalism. No significant segment of the capitalist class in the United States wants to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement, withdraw from the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or slap prohibitive tariffs on Chinese imports. Nor is there a substantial group of capitalists willing to threaten the existing system of military and diplomatic alliances (NATO, alliances with conservative Arab and Muslim regimes, etc.) in favor of an “America First” foreign policy. 

It is the radicalized middle-class supporters of Trump who have embraced economic protectionism and diplomatic isolationism.17 Caught between a decimated labor movement and an extremely aggressive capitalist class, parts of the middle classes globally have been drawn to a politics that scapegoats immigrants, unions, women, LGBT people, and people of color, fueling the growth of Trumpism in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom Independence Party, French National Front, Italian Five Star Movement and similar formations across Europe.18 

Recent sociological studies demonstrate how populist nationalism, with its deadly mixture of anti-elitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, provides a “mental road map of lived experience” for the middle classes since 2008. Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism point to growing economic and social anxiety among the older white middle classes, who see undocumented immigrants as a threat to their “quality of life” and competitors for scarce social services, particularly Social Security pensions and Medicare.19 Mass deportations and denying the undocumented any path to citizenship (and access to social services), combined with lower federal deficits, would protect the “earned” social benefits (Social Security, Medicare) upon which they rely. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land portrays people who believe they are “hard workers” who “play by the rules” and never ask for “handouts” (government subsidies, etc.) but are constantly falling behind socially and economically.20 They are threatened both by powerful economic and social elites and “line jumpers”—African Americans, Latinos, women who benefit from affirmative action, undocumented immigrants, and refugees. 

The Marxist Left has a rich analysis of the attraction of the middle classes—what Trotsky described as the “human dust”—to right-wing populist demagogues. Caught between the fundamental social classes, capitalists and workers, the middle classes are attracted to political “strong-men” who promise to defend the “little man” against the forces that squeeze them from above and below. However, the socialist Left has had a more difficult time explaining the support of a minority of workers for right-wing politics. Why have approximately 40 percent of union households supported Republicans or other right-wing candidates (e.g., Ross Perot in 1992) in most of the elections since 1980?21 Why did another, minute group of white working-class voters embrace the nationalist populism of Trump? 

For many on the left, working class support for the Right is some form of “false consciousness”—a mistaken identification of their own interests with those of their bosses as the result of capital’s control of the means of ideological production (press, media, etc.) For others, working-class racism and sexism is the defense of some form of racial or gender “privilege” against threats from below. Both of these explanations are inadequate. “False consciousness” makes capital and their ideologists all-powerful, and portrays workers as passive consumers of capitalist ideologies. Simplistic notions of “defense of privilege” ignore the increasing precarity all workers face today. 

Grasping the contradictory character of capitalist social relations of production allows us to explain the attraction of some workers to right-wing politics. The objective, structural position of workers under capitalism provides the basis both for collective, solidaristic radicalism and individualist, sectoralist, and reactionary politics. As Bob Brenner and Johanna Brenner pointed out in their 1981 analysis of Reagan’s election: 

Workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc. This individualistic point of view has a critical advantage in the current period: in the absence of class against class organization. It seems to provide an alternative strategy for effective action—a sectionalist strategy which pits one layer of workers against another.22

As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of politics that pit them against other workers—especially workers in a weaker social position. Without the lived experience of mass, collective and successful class organization and struggle, it should not surprise socialists that segments of the working class are open to right-wing politics. 

Workers in the United States have experienced forty years of attacks on their living and working conditions. The labor movement has responded with one surrender after another, as concession bargaining and futile attempts to forge “labor-management cooperation” have destroyed almost every gain workers made through mass struggles in the 1930s and 1970s. Faced with an impotent labor movement that tails after an ever rightward moving Democratic Party, it is not surprising that a minority of older white workers are attracted to politics that places responsibility for their deteriorating social situation on both the corporate “globalists” and more vulnerable workers—African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, women, and queer folk. Kirk Noden, writing in The Nation, grasps why the Republican right wins working-class votes:

Two narratives emerged about the collapse of the industrial heartland in America. The one from the right has three parts: First, that industry left this country because unions destroyed productivity and made labor costs too high, thereby making us uncompetitive. Second, corporations were the victims of over-regulation and a bloated government that overtaxed them to pay for socialist welfare systems. Third, illegal immigration has resulted in the stealing of American jobs, increased competition for white-workers, and depressed wages. . . . The second narrative, promoted by corporate Democrats, is that the global economy shifted and the country is now in transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. This story tacitly accepts the economic restructuring of the heartland as inevitable once China and other markets opened up.23

Trump and his nationalist populist ideologues from Breitbart and the “alt-right” added a fourth element to the right’s narrative—the role of globalizing corporations and “free trade.” Given a choice between an elitist neoliberal who refused to speak to the realities of their lives (and rejected Sanders’s social-democratic program as “unrealistic”), and a populist demagogue who offered an illusory solution to their problems, it is not at all surprising that a minority of white workers embraced Trump.24 Trumpism is the fruit of decades of the politics of “lesser evilism,” where the Left trails after the labor officials, who continually surrender to capital, while tailing after a rightward-moving Democratic party in the name of “fighting the Right.” Without a clear and potent independent working-class political alternative—one rooted in mass struggles in the workplace and communities—more workers will see no alternative to the neoliberal capitalist offensive other than white populist nationalism. 

Trump in office

Not only were left and liberal commentators shocked by the election results, but also, it seems, was Trump himself. Like a drunken frat boy who wakes up after a bender to discover that he is now the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Trump appears to be completely out of his depth. Ultimately, the chaos in his transition team and the behind the scenes struggles over key appointments evident before he assumed office were the result of the contradictory pressures pulling on Trump.25 On the one hand, there are the establishment Republicans, with their ties to key segments of the capitalist class, which Trump consistently denounced throughout his campaign. On the other, there are the alt-right nationalist-populists, who helped script his simultaneously anti-corporate, isolationist, and racist appeals. 

A situation of veritable “dual power” was created within Trump’s team with his concurrent appointment of Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff and his campaign manager and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon as chief strategist.26 The Republican establishment was outraged that a “right-wing media provocateur”—an economic populist, and “America First” critic of the US role in the world—has the ear of the President. The alt-right was deeply angered by Preibus’s appointment, denouncing him as “the enemy within” and “everything the voters rejected.”27

What are the politics of Breitbart and the alt-right? Despite their claims to the contrary, the alt-right is racist. They eschew the biological racism of openly white supremacist and fascist groupings, which they refer to as the “1488ers”—a reference to a neo-Nazi slogan “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children”, and “Heil Hitler.” The alt-right instead embraces cultural racism—that certain groups have superior, and others inferior values and behaviors—to justify the exclusion of non-European immigrants and the segregation of “cultural groups.”28 Trump and Breitbart have attempted to distance themselves from open white nationalists like Richard Spencer, who originally coined the term “alt-right,” defining themselves as primarily nationalists and populists.29

In a multi-part article in Breitbart, the pseudonymous “Virgil” argued that a successful Trump administration would need to achieve two goals. First, it must revamp US foreign policy, ending the subordination of American to its historic allies (NATO). Trump needs to put “America first” and “treat China and Russia as great powers to be dealt with as potential partners, not as bad actors to be ‘reformed’ by America.” Second, Trump has to defend “blue collar America” against the “globalist” corporate elite.30 In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bannon insisted: “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist. . . . The globalists have gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f-ed over.”31 Central to saving “blue collar Americans” is the dismantling of neoliberal “free trade” deals and the deportation of all undocumented immigrants. The forces around Bannon are clear that they are at war with the Republican establishment, and in particular House Speaker Paul Ryan, over both cabinet appointments and economic and military policy.32

The battle over cabinet appointments has produced mixed results.33 Most of Trump’s appointees come from the extreme right of the Republican establishment. Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education, is a bitter foe of public education and teacher unions, but is a mainstream Republican on economic policies and did not support Trump’s candidacy. Attorney general candidate Jeff Sessions, a nasty racist and early Trump supporter, is well within the Republican consensus on trade and diplomatic alliances. Nikki Haley, his nominee for UN ambassador, broke with many southern Republicans’ defense of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the racist shootings in a Charleston church in 2015 and opposed Trump’s populist nationalism. Elaine Chao, the second Bush’s labor secretary and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his pick for Transportation secretary, is a consummate Washington insider. Scott Pruit, the Oklahoma attorney general tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is a close ally of the energy companies and climate change denier, but not an opponent of “free trade.” General John F. Kelly, nominated to head Homeland Security, shares the bipartisan consensus for “greater border security,” but is not an advocate of wholesale deportations. Ben Carson, the nominee to head Housing and Urban Development, advocates massive privatization of public housing, but is a mainstream neoliberal on trade.

Several supporters of the populist camp have been nominated. Tom Rice, the choice for Health and Human Services, is a militant critic of Obamacare and “free trade.” Mike Pompeo, nominee for director of the CIA, has been highly critical of “free trade” and is hostile to the UN. Michael Flynn, Trump’s nominee for national security advisor, is a former Democrat and Islamaphobe who is perceived by mainstream Republicans as too sympathetic to Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey. Rice may have the greatest room to pursue his agenda of dismantling Obamacare, but will face pressure to preserve both popular aspects of the program (coverage for pre-existing conditions and coverage for children to the age of twenty-six) and massive tax subsidies to private health care corporations.34 Pompeo and Flynn will have to negotiate any changes in policy with the “professional staff” of the CIA and the Defense Department.

Ultimately the appointments to head the four most important cabinet offices—State, Defense, Commerce, and Treasury—will shape the Trump agenda. Trump has nominated two Wall Street financiers who had supported his candidacy for two key positions. Both Wilbur Ross, who has been nominated for commerce secretary, and Michael Mnuchin the pick for treasury, have made statements hostile to “free trade” in general and Chinese “currency manipulation” in particular. However, it is unclear whether they actually want to dismantle the neoliberal financial and trade policies of the past three decades. In fact, Trump has selected Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a longtime advocate of free trade with China, as US ambassador to the People’s Republic.35 James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the choice for secretary of defense, is critical of the Obama administration but has not advocated an abandonment of NATO or the traditional US alliance system. 

The debate on who to appoint as secretary of state—Mitt Romney, a quite mainstream Republican who opposed Trump’s candidacy; the disgraced former CIA director David Petraeus, the Trump loyalist Rudolph Giuliani; or Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson—wracked the Trump transition team. He finally settled on Tillerson. Whatever the final cabinet ends up looking like, it will need to secure the cooperation of the thousands of permanent bureaucrats in the key federal departments, who are likely to resist any sharp shifts in policy towards economic and diplomatic nationalism.

In Congress, the populist nationalists will face resistance from the Republican establishment. Despite Trump’s victory in the presidential election, the congressional Republican Party is solidly pro-corporate. The US Chamber of Commerce announced, “95 percent of Chamber-endorsed candidates in House and Senate won.” 36 This is reflected in Ryan’s “A Better Way” legislative proposals.37 Most of Ryan’s proposals continue “business as usual” with new cuts to public education and social welfare and more deregulation of capital. However, in both “A Better Way” and in public statements, Ryan and the establishment Republicans in Congress have made clear their opposition to any retreat from “free trade” or the central military and political role of the United States in preserving and defending global capitalism. 

They are also adamantly opposed to mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, other than the “felons” already targeted by Obama, and support expanding guest worker programs to provide cheap and vulnerable workers to capital in labor-intensive industries.38 Despite the bitter opposition of the remnants of the Tea Party, Paul Ryan was overwhelmingly re-nominated for speaker of the House by the Republican caucus.39 In sum, the Trump administration will probably be unable to carry out most of its nationalist-populist proposals on foreign policy and trade, and will be a hard right neoliberal regime.

What’s next? Neoliberalism is not dead

Despite riding to the White House on the revulsion of a segment of the white middle- and working classes with the political class (“drain the swamp”) and its commitments to neoliberal policies, the Trump administration will continue and intensify neoliberal attacks on working people, racial minorities, immigrants, women, and LGBT folks. Put another way: Do not expect a sharp break with the forty yearlong bipartisan capitalist offensive. There is no question that the minor regulations placed on the financial industry after the economic meltdown of 2008 will be repealed, while new cuts to corporate taxes are on the agenda. Although Wall Street overwhelmingly supported Clinton in the elections, they appear willing to give the new administration “a chance.”40 

Similarly, there are few obstacles to Trump’s removing the modest environmental regulations the Obama administration imposed. He can easily rely on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a creation of the Clinton administration, which has the final say on authorizing new regulations.41 Both Trump and the Republican congressional leadership agree that the time is ripe to massively reduce funding for antipoverty programs like Head Start, Medicaid, and food stamps (which suffered their sharpest cuts under Obama).42 Trump and Ryan agree on a major overhaul of Obamacare—but one that will probably continue to provide huge subsidies to the private health care-insurance industry. Trump may find himself in an uncomfortable position, as Ryan and the congressional Republicans try to privatize Medicare and Social Security, programs Trump’s older supporters depend upon.43 

Trump will also intensify the Obama administration’s policy of deporting “criminal” undocumented immigrants, while backpedaling on his promise of wholesale deportations and even hinting he may not rollback Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which protects undocumented immigrants who arrived as children.44 For all of Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, his policies will continue the Obama presidency’s toleration of police killings. The first two African-American attorney generals in US history, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, have not indicted a single cop for violating the civil rights of the young black men they have murdered. We can expect the Justice and Defense Departments to continue the sale of surplus military equipment to local police forces that began under Clinton. While the Democrats, who are the primary beneficiaries of union election contributions and support, will oppose a National Right to Work Act, they are unlikely to stop its serious consideration.45

Trump’s nationalist-populist proposals will face much more resistance both from congressional Republicans and the unelected, permanent professional bureaucracy in the executive branch of the federal government.46 His infrastructure program, which relies primarily on tax credits to encourage private companies to rebuild and repair roads, bridges, and the like rather than massive federal spending, may well pass Congress. However, it is unlikely to provide the sort of Keynesian stimulus that would create the “good paying jobs” that many of his middle and working-class supporters hoped for.47 However, on the key populist elements of his program—repealing neoliberal trade pacts, wholesale deportations of undocumented immigrants, and a realignment of US foreign policy toward Putin’s Russia—Trump will either continue to back-pedal, or face concerted opposition. 

Trump has already backpedaled on some of his more populist and nationalist proposals. Not only is Trump no longer threatening to indict Bill and Hillary Clinton, but he has also waffled on calls for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord (which would require congressional approval) and reinstituting waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” (torture).48 Other key elements, like the renegotiation or withdrawal from NAFTA or the imposition of tariffs on companies moving production abroad will likely require the cooperation of Congress to implement. The repeal or restructuring of Obamacare and the building of a wall on the US-Mexico border also requires congressional approval. Other policies, like the suspension of immigration from “terror prone areas” (having abandoned a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants), ending foreign trade “abuses,” and leaving the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership could be done through executive order.49 

However, it is clear that key congressional Republicans and key groups of capitalists will oppose any and all attempts to undermine the neoliberal order.50 Any attempt to realign US imperialist alliances away from traditional allies in Western Europe and the Middle East in favor of Putin’s Russia, will face other resistance from both capitalist policy advocacy groups like the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce and the permanent officialdom of the State, Defense, Commerce and Treasury Departments.51 Trump will likely face the sort of structural-institutional obstacles social democrats face when attempting to implement anticapitalist reforms through the capitalist state.

Trump’s vacillations and the opposition to his nationalist populist proposals portend a continued civil war within the Republican Party. In this battle, the Republican establishment, with its historic ties to old-line WASP capitalists, has all of the advantages in a confrontation with the populist nationalists. The Republican leadership controls the party’s purse strings and they are well situated to change the rules for the next presidential nominating race. They already have the Democrats’ road map to prevent any future insurgency: the creation of unelected “super-delegates.”52 Trump’s failure to “Make America Great Again”—rolling back neoliberal trade deals, mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and the revival of industrial employment—will disillusion many of his white middle- and working-class supporters. Without their support, the populist nationalists may find themselves marginalized in the Republican Party well before the 2020 election.53

The biggest danger comes not from the corridors of power, but from the streets. Small groups of organized fascists and individual right-wingers believe they have the “wind at their back,” freeing them to assault people of color, immigrants, Muslims, queer folks, and leftists. Through November 16—just one full week after Trump’s election—the Southern Poverty Law Center counted approximately seven hundred violent hate crimes in the United States.54 The greatest number occurred in the three days following the election, but incidents continue to be reported from across the United States. Approximately 29 percent of the attacks targeted immigrants, 22 percent African Americans, 11 percent LGBT folks, 7 percent Muslims and 5 percent women. Another 11 percent involved swastika vandalism, while less than 4 percent involved verbal or physical attacks on Trump supporters. 

The fight back against Trumpism will have to take various forms—organized, collective anti-fascist defense against attacks; mass protest demonstrations, and, ultimately in struggles in the workplace. Strategically, new organizers need to understand that we cannot rely on either the Democrats or the forces of official reformism (labor officials, middle-class leaders of people of color, women, immigrants, LGBT folks, etc.) in these battles. With most leading Democrats, from Clinton to Sanders, arguing that we “need to give Trump a chance,” any notion that the Democrats will tact to the left after their 2016 defeat is illusory. 

The “insurgent” bid of African-American Representative Keith Ellison (MN) for chair of the Democratic National Committee will likely go down to defeat, especially after the routing of Representative Tim Ryan’s (OH) challenge to Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader. While the labor officials and their allies may be more willing to mobilize against Trump than they were against Obama, we can expect them to “double down” on their support of the Democrats in the 2018 congressional election. Given the commitment of most of what passes for a left in the United States—social democrats and former Stalinists who share a commitment to a “strategic alliance” with the forces of official reformism—it will be an uphill battle to build movements capable of acting independently of the Democrats and their reformist supporters.

The spontaneous protests in many cities and the growing campaign to wear safety pins as a sign of solidarity against racist and homophobic violence are promising beginnings. However, the danger is that these struggles, like the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, will be short lived and leave little independent organization in their wake. The way forward for the Left is rebuilding the militant minority—the layer of activists with a strategy and tactics that go beyond reformism, if not explicitly to revolution—in workplaces and social movements. Without such a layer rooted among broader layers of working people, the labor officials, Democratic Party politicos, and the middle-class leaders of the social movements will be able to continually derail and demobilize promising struggles—as they have for most of the last forty years. 


  1. This essay was completed in early December, 2016 and does not reflect developments since then. 
  2. Charlie Post, “The Republicans Have Been Trumped,” Jacobin, October 14, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/trump-gop-republicans-tea-party-populism-fascism/.
  3. For information on the Clinton’s contributors, see https://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/industries?cycle=2016&id=N00000019, and on Trump’s, see https://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/industries?id=N00023864&cycle=2016&type=f&src=b.
  4. Gregory Wallace and Robert Yoon, “Voter Turnout at 20 Year Low in 2016,” CNN, November 12, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/11/politics/popular-vote-turnout-2016/.
  5. This data is drawn from the running total on uselectionatlas.org
  6. Voter participation by demographic group for 2008 and 2012 is drawn from Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, http://ropercenter.cornell.edu/polls/us-elections/how-groups-voted/how-groups-voted-2008/ and http://ropercenter.cornell.edu/polls/us-elections/how-groups-voted/how-groups-voted-2012/. Data for 2016 is drawn from CNN Exit Polls, http://www.cnn.com/election/results/exit-polls
  7. Sabrina Tavernise, “Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote—and Don’t Regret It,” New York Times, November 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/many-in-milwaukee-neighborhood-didnt-vote-and-dont-regret-it.html?_r=0. Matt Karp points out that similar shifts took place in other predominantly Black areas of major cities like Detroit, St. Louis’ northwestern wards, West and North Philadelphia, and East Flatbush in New York. See his article, “Fairfax County, USA” Jacobin, November 28, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/clinton-election-polls-white-workers-firewall/.
  8. http://www.census.gov/library/publications/2015/demo/p60-252.html.
  9. Kevin Uhrmacher, Kevin Schaul, and Dan Keating, “These Obama Strongholds Sealed the Election for Trump,” Washington Post, November 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/obama-trump-counties/?tid=ss_mail; and Loren Collingwood, “The County-By-County Data on Trump Voters Shows Why He Won” Washington Post, November 19, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/19/the-country-by-county-data-on-trump-voters-shows-why-he-won/?postshare=6041479586306602&tid=ss_fb-bottom.
  10. Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, “The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt,” Slate, December 1, 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/the_myth_of_the_rust_belt_revolt.html.
  11. Eric Asson, “Blame Trump’s Victory on College Educated Whites, Not the Working Class,” New Republic, November 15, 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/138754/blame-trumps-victory-college-educated-whites-not-working-class.
  12. See Christian Parenti’s excellent analysis, “Garbage In, Garbage Out: Turns Out Clinton’s Ground Game Sucked,” Jacobin, November 18, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/clinton-campaign-gotv-unions-voters-rust-belt/; and Karp, “Fairfax County, USA.” 
  13. Quoted in Jim Geraghty, “Chuck Schumer: Democrats Will Lose Blue-Collar Whites But Gain in the Suburbs,” National Review, July 28, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/438481/chuck-schumer-democrats-will-lose-blue-collar-whites-gain-suburbs.
  14. Karp, “Fairfax County, USA.”
  15. Much of the following draws on Post, “The Republicans Have Been Trumped,”; “Why The Tea Party?” New Politics 53, Summer 2012, http://newpol.org/content/why-tea-party; “Whither the Republican Party? The 2014 Election and the Future of Capital’s ‘A’ Team,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 18, 2014, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/12/field-notes/whither-the-republican-party. Eric Sasson makes a similar point in “Blame Trump’s Victory.” 
  16. Michael A. McCarthy, “The Revenge of Joe the Plumber,” Jacobin, October 26, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/trump-small-business-whites-xenophobia-immigration/.
  17. While he correctly points to Trump’s ability to win the vote of the Christian Right in 2016, Mike Davis mistakenly labels this a “cynical covenant,” underestimating the populist radicalization of these layers of the population. “Not a Revolution—Yet” Verso Blog, November 15, 2016, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2948-not-a-revolution-yet.
  18. For the European populist Right, see F. LePlat (ed), The Far Right in Europe (London: Resistance Books, 2015).
  19. Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  20. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016).
  21. Phillip Bump, “Donald Trump Got Reagan-like Support from Union Households,” The Washington Post, November 10, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/10/donald-trump-got-reagan-like-support-from-union-households/.
  22. Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class,” Against the Current (Old Series) 1, 2, Winter, 1981, 30.
  23. Kirk Noden, “Why Do White Working-Class People Vote Against Their Interests? They Don’t,” The Nation, November 16, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/why-do-white-working-class-people-vote-against-their-interests-they-dont/
  24. See Richard C. Longworth, “Disaffected Rust Belt Voters Embraced Trump—They Had No Other Hope,” The Guardian, November 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/21/disaffected-rust-belt-voters-embraced-donald-trump-midwestern-obama. Also see Rick Rommel, “In Western Wisconsin, Trump Voters Want Change,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 27, 2016, http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/11/26/western-wisconsin-trump-voters-want-change/94436384/. For an excellent analysis of Trump’s appeals to working-class voters see Christian Parenti, “Listening to Trump,” Jacobin, November 22, 2106, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/trump-speeches-populism-war-economics-election/.
  25. Lauren McCauley, “Ugly and Unprepared, ‘Knife Fight’ Breaks Out in Trump Transition,” Common Dreams, November 15, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/11/15/ugly-and-unprepared-knife-fight-breaks-out-trump-transition; Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Mark Mazzetti, and Maggie Haberman, “Firings and Discord Put Trump Transition Team in a State Disarray,” New York Times, November 15, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/us/politics/trump-transition.html; Michael D. Shear, “Trump Says Transition’s Going ‘Smoothly,’ Disputing Disarray Reports,” New York Times, November 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/us/politics/donald-trump-administration-twitter.html
  26. Michael D. Shear, “Donald Trump Picks Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff and Stephen Bannon as Strategist,” New York Times, November 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/us/politics/reince-priebus-chief-of-staff-donald-trump.html.
  27. Julia Hahn, “Michael Savage Warns Donald Trump: ‘Rinse’ Reince; He’s ‘Everything the Voters Rejected’,” Breitbart, November 13, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/11/13/michael-savage-warns-donald-trump-rinse-reince-priebus/.
  28. Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” Breitbart, March 29, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2016/03/29/an-establishment-conservatives-guide-to-the-alt-right/.
  29. Alan Rappeport and Noah Weiland, “White Nationalists Celebrate ‘an Awakening’ After Donald Trump’s Victory,” New York Times, November 19, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/us/politics/white-nationalists-celebrate-an-awakening-after-donald-trumps-victory.html?_r=0; Joseph Goldstein, “Alt-Right Exults in Donald Trump’s Election with a Salute: ‘Heil Victory,’” New York Times, November 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/alt-right-salutes-donald-trump.html?ref=todayspaper. Trump, in his interview with the New York Times distanced himself from the white nationalists saying “I don’t want to energize the group,” while claiming that Bannon was not a racist. “Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript,” New York Times, November 23, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/trump-new-york-times-interview-transcript.html
  30. Virgil, “How a Newly Elected Republican President Can Gain 17 Points in His Reelection Campaign,” Breitbart, November 18, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/18/virgil-how-a-newly-elected-republican-president-can-gain-17-points-in-his-re-election-campaign/; “It’s On! The Battle for Blue Collar America: Remembering the Forgotten Man,” Breitbart, November 21, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/21/virgil-battle-blue-collar-america-remembering-forgotten-man/’.
  31. Michael Wolff, “Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect’s Strategist Plots ‘An Entirely New Political Movement’,” The Hollywood Reporter, November 18, 2016, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steve-bannon-trump-tower-interview-trumps-strategist-plots-new-political-movement-948747
  32. Julia Hahn, “Day Before Election Paul Ryan Said GOP Not Trump’s Party,” Breitbart, November 12, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/12/day-election-paul-ryan-said-gop-not-trumps-party/; “GOP Lawmakers Work Behind Closed Doors to Stop Donald Trumps Mandate,” Breitbart, November 15, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/11/15/gop-lawmakers-work-behind-closed-doors-to-stop-donald-trumps-mandate/.
  33.  “Donald Trump is Choosing His Cabinet: Here’s the Latest List,” New York Times, December 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/...
  34. Reed Abelson, “Health Insurers List Demands if Affordable Care Act is Killed,” New York Times, December 6, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/business/health-insurers-obamacare-republicans.html?emc=eta1.
  35. Binyamin Appelbaum, “Terry Branstad, Iowa Governor, is Trump’s Pick as China Ambassador,” New York Times, December 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/politics/terry-branstad-china-ambassador-trump.html?emc=eta1.
  36. Thomas J. Donohue, “US Chamber President Comments on Election Results,” US Chamber of Commerce Press Release, November 9, 2016, https://www.uschamber.com/press-release/us-chamber-president-comments-election-results
  37. Paul Ryan, “A Better Way,” http://abetterway.speaker.gov/.
  38. Pam Key, “Ryan: Border Security is Our Focus, Not Mass Deportations,” Breitbart, November 13, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/video/2016/11/13/ryan-border-security-focus-not-mass-deportations/; Julia Hahn, “Paul Ryan: No Deportations,” Breitbart, November 13, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/video/2016/11/13/ryan-border-security-focus-not-mass-deportations/; Julia Hahn, “GOP Rep: Paul Ryan’s Immigration Policy Not ‘In Best Interest of America,’” Breitbart, November 14, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/11/14/gop-congressman-mo-brooks-paul-ryans-position-immigration-not-best-interest-america/. Ezra Klein, “Senate Republicans Can Save the Country—and Their Party—From Trump,” Vox, November 28, 2016, http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/28/13758376/senate-republicans-trump.
  39. Julia Hahn, “Dave Brat Urges Delay on Speaker Vote: A ‘Better Way” Did Not Animate This Historic Election,” Breitbart, November 14, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/14/dave-brat-urges-delay-on-speaker-vote-a-better-way-did-not-animate-this-historic-election/
  40. Landon Thomas, Jr. “Investors Make Bullish Bet on Trump, and an Era of Tax Cuts and Spending,” New York Times, November 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/business/dealbook/investors-make-bullish-bet-on-trump-and-an-era-of-tax-cuts-and-spending.html?ref=todayspaper.
  41. Henry Fountain and Erica Goode, “Trump Has Options for Undoing Obama’s Climate Legacy,” New York Times, November 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/science/donald-trump-obama-climate.html?ref=todayspaper.
  42. Bob Herbert, “Get Ready for War on the Poor,” The Nation, November 22, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/get-ready-for-a-war-on-the-poor/
  43. Robert Pear, “ A Battle to Change Medicare Is Brewing, Whether Trump Wants It Or Not,” New York Times, November 24, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/24/us/politics/donald-trump-medicare-republicans.html.
  44. Amuy Chozick, “Trump Appears to Soften on Deporting Thousands of Young Immigrants,” New York Times, December 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/immigration-dreamers-trump.html?emc=eta1.
  45. https://nrtwc.org/facts-issues/national-right-to-work-act/. See also Harold Meyerson, “Donald Trump Can Kill the American Union,” Washington Post, November 23, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/23/donald-trump-could-kill-the-american-union/?postshare=6271479932172355&tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.29ed659b93ab.
  46. Leon Neyfakh, “Can the ‘Secret Government’ Save Us?,” Salon, November 14, 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/11/can_the_secret_government_save_us_from_donald_trump.html
  47. Jennifer Steinhauer, “Senate Democrats’ Surprising Strategy: Trying to Align With Trump,” New York Times, November 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/us/politics/democrats-house-senate.html; Jared Bernstein, “Trump’s Misguided Flirtation with Keynesianism,” Politico, November 21, 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/trumps-misguided-flirtation-with-keynesianism-214468.
  48. Demetri Sevastopulo and David J. Lynch, “Trump Reverses Course on Core Campaign Promises,” Financial Times, November 22, 2016; Michael D. Shear, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, and Maggie Haberman, “Trump, in Interview, Moderates Views but Defies Conventions, ” New York Times, November 22, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/us/politics/donald-trump-visit.html. The permanent staff of the CIA opposes the reintroduction of waterboarding. Michael Hayden, the former CIA director said that Trump should “bring his own bucket” if he wants to bring back waterboarding. Matt Apuzzo and James Risen, “Donald Trump Faces Obstacles to Resume Waterboarding,” New York Times, November 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/us/politics/trump-waterboarding-torture.html?ribbon-ad-idx=17&rref=politics&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Politics&pgtype=article.
  49. Larry Buchanan, Alicia Parlapiano, and Karen Yourish, “How Hard (or Easy) It Will Be for Trump to Fulfill His 100-Day Plan,” New York Times. November 24, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/21/us/politics/what-trump-wants-to-do-in-his-first-100-days-and-how-difficult-each-will-be.html
  50. Carl Hulse, “Trump’s Next Battle: Keeping These Republican Senators Happy,” New York Times, November 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/us/politics/donald-trumps-republicans-senate.html; Klein “Senate Republicans Can Save the Country,” Vox, November 28, 2016, http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/28/13758376/senate-republicans-trump
  51. Among other recent articles, see Eduardo Porter, “Trump Campaign’s Easy Answers Confront Hard Reality,” New York Times, November 15, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/business/economy/trump-campaigns-easy-answers-confront-hard-reality.html; David E. Sander, “From Iran to Syria, Trump’s ‘America First’ Approach Faces Its First Tests,” New York Times, November 17, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/us/politics/from-iran-to-syria-trumps-america-first-approach-faces-its-first-tests.html; Neil Irwin, “What Will Trump’s Trade Policy Actually Look Like? Three Possibilities,” New York Times, November 22, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/upshot/what-will-trump-trade-policy-actually-look-like-three-possibilities.html; Eduardo Porter, “A Trade War Against China Might Be a Fight Trump Couldn’t Win,” New York Times, November 22, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/business/a-trade-war-against-china-might-be-a-fight-trump-couldnt-win.html; Nelson D. Schwartz, “Wary Corporate Chiefs Keep an Ear Turned to Trump’s Messages” New York Times, December 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/business/donald-trump-corporate-chiefs.html?emc=eta1.
  52. See Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party,” Jacobin 20, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/democratic-party-realignment-civil-rights-mcgovern-meany-rustin-sanders/.
  53. Michael Kruse, “What Trump Voters Want Now,” Politico, November 18, 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/donald-trump-voters-pennsylvania-blue-collar-214466; Sherryl Gay Stolberg, “Trump’s Promises Will Be Hard to Keep, but Coal Country Has Faith,” New York Times, November 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/us/donald-trump-coal-country.html
  54. Hatewatch Staff, “Update: Incidents of Hateful Harassment Since Election Day Now Number 701,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Hatewatch, November 18, 2016, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/18/update-incidents-hateful-harassment-election-day-now-number-701.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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Features

Interviews

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