I am aware that our media has thoroughly poisoned discourse with personal anecdotes paraded in place of meaningful and objective data, and I apologize in advance, but I can not think of a better place to start than my own Tuesday.
I work in several locations only blocks away from the pinnacle of stolen public funds and Freudian overcompensation that is Trump Tower. I walk past it in my normal commute. On election day, there was a crowd of people in front of the tower demonstrating their support for the soon-to-be-president elect in his $100 million penthouse above us. They shouted a lot of slogans (some quite reasonable, as I will discuss), but what caught my attention was the chant “I like grabbing pussies too!” I felt this was disturbing enough to merit protest, so I joined the very small improvised group demonstrating their opposition. In our caged section of the sidewalk there were two supporters of Dr. Jill Stein (including myself), four Clinton voters, and one gentleman I can’t quite place who held a sign with a lengthy excerpt from Corinthians and promised that he alone had discovered a solution to our political crisis in scripture. We faced easily 60 Trumpists, also in a police cage. None of this is particularly important or indicative of anything, I’m sure Clinton supporters were busy standing with her at the Javits Center about a half-hour’s walk away.
Then the media arrived. Reporters surrounded the anti-Trump cage, focusing especially the four people in “I’m With Her” t-shirts. We watched representatives of Politico, New York1, ABC, Bloomberg, and other news outlets stand feet away from an organized group of 60 people voicing their deafening opposition specifically frame shots so that Clinton’s 4 dedicated representatives were the only people visible in front of the building. I was there for several hours and only saw foreign journalists even acknowledge the presence of the other cage (incidentally, it was also only foreign journalists spoke to our Green Party corner). In front of my eyes only hours before the polls closed, I saw journalists in a securely blue state, with so little left to gain, go out of their way to exaggerate Clinton’s popular support and deny Trump’s. And they told us to be shocked when their predictions for the election proved categorically, absurdly, and disastrously wrong.
Only a few months ago the British media controlled by and marketed to elites chose to publish only statistics that promised their victory, and of course failed to predict the highly predictable Brexit. Leaked emails proved the left’s longstanding educated assumption that mass media is directly colluding with the Clinton campaign to manufacture support indisputably correct. The conditions in pre-fascist Europe tell us that our own country is perfectly situated to launch a charismatic, anti-establishment xenophobe into power. We had absolutely no reason to believe anything we had been fed about the election.
And yet I was shocked. I felt sick. I called my parents. I grieved. I had been irrationally holding on to some hope that our society was not at the point indicated by this election, that my own comfortable existence would be able to carry on for four more years as if the outside world does not exist. And the world is different now. But we must be careful in what we make of that difference.
But first, and this important, Donald Trump did not win the election. The electoral college is a tool developed by the founding fathers to prevent democratic control of the electorate, part of an agenda specifically created, in the words of James Madison, “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” While we have a bizarre nostalgia for our constitution, it is a profoundly anti-democratic treatise written by tax dodging merchants and slave owners who started a war to avoid paying taxes. It holds no legitimate authority over the democratic will of the people. Regardless of who was awarded the most electoral college votes, in no democratic sense did Trump get as much support as Hillary Clinton. His victory is not the result of a mandate by the American people and thus there is no reason for the American people to endorse it. As I would not have accepted the court-ruled presidency of George W. Bush, as I would have rejected Thomas Jefferson’s arbitrary victory over Aaron Burr in 1800, as I would have advocated against Clinton’s victory if she had lost the popular vote, I will not acknowledge Donald Trump as the legal head of state in my country. (If his tweets from 2012 when he incorrectly believed Mitt Romney won the popular vote are any indication, neither would he).
And even had he not lost by 2 million votes, the race in no way reflects a democratic competition. The over three million inhabitants of US territories (most significantly Puerto Rico), while US citizens subject to federal law, do not have the right to vote for president. Nearly six million people (most of whom have already served their sentence) are prevented from voting because of felony charges. And though it’s generally written off as apathy, many millions of people understand that whatever candidates they elect will be corporate puppets with no interest in their well-being, and feel it is not worth missing work to try to overcome major voter suppression initiatives to support bought-and-paid-for candidates. As in almost every election in American history, the real democratic consensus was to not vote, with over 90 million eligible voters (43.2%) handing in no ballot, unheard of in so-called democratic societies. His victory implies consent from at least half the population of the country, Trump had nowhere near that.
Still, 60 million Americans knowingly voted for a man who entered the political arena claiming with no evidence the first black president was a Muslim born in Kenya, started his campaign calling 12 million people “killers” and “rapists,” who enthusiastically called for killing innocent family members of terrorists, who claimed there should be a religious test for entering the United States, who offered “a lot of respect” to the police officers who murdered Freddie Gray with impunity, and most famously bragged about committing sexual assault before denying 13 (and counting) accusations of doing so. Our new president elect is a petty narcissist whose wealth was built on tens of millions of dollars from his father, on $885 million in public subsidies, on refusing to pay his workers, on ignoring hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, on discriminating against clients of color, and on fleeing to the stable industry of ranking women on their appearance when his business models inevitably failed. The consummate conman, he fed the American people a long train of lies, some insidious and some just pathetic, and enough of them ate it up.
How did this happen?
Clintonites, Democrats, and mass media claim that hatred and bigotry determined this election, and they are not incorrect. Trump’s appeal was grounded in racism, sexism, and xenophobia. He was backed by the white nationalist movement that has largely ignored national politics since the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater. He used the alt-right, a nihilistic rape-endorsing neo-Nazi online community that embodies the most sadistic possible bourgeois rebellion of white male millennials, to bolster his online presence. And Clinton’s unusual lack of Democratic support was largely related to her gender. Her campaign has left her looking cold and (not unfairly) corrupt, while charismatic male Barack Obama has enjoyed rising approval ratings despite the fact that the famous leaked emails showed more corruption on his part than hers (such as proof that CitiBank chose 31 members of his cabinet only months after helping crash the global economy). But dismissing the Trump phenomena as a bubble of hatred is simplistic and dangerous.
Liberal thought paints racism and bigotry as a force that rises through society in the antiquated and ignorant attitudes of racists and bigots (caricatured in elite media as cousin-marrying, meth-addicted, trailer park “white trash”). But regardless of the liberal attachment to free agency, empirical analysis of history shows that cultural attitudes are not shaped by personal interactions. They are defined by the structure of the society in which they exist.
In the 1970s, the conglomeration of business leaders, media elites, and politicians that are today referred to as the “business community” won their decades-long battle against social democracy in the United States. Banking on propaganda playing up the threat the Soviet Union posed against the free world, both political parties cooperated to unravel the regulations and social protections of the last great populist effort in American history, the New Deal. The Keynesian assumption that an economy requires a stable working class was replaced by Milton Friedman’s doctrine of neoliberalism: states subservient to a globalized market in which deregulation and concentration of wealth are the only rules.
Neoliberalism has been a constant war against the American people for forty years. Democratic President Jimmy Carter privatized railroads, airlines, and trucking, completely dismantling democratic control over our country’s now crumbling infrastructure. Republican Ronald Reagan opened free trade with China, singlehandedly crippling American manufacturing, and cut taxes for the rich while raising them on the poor. Democrat Bill Clinton removed regulations on major banks and financiers, setting the stage for the explosion of fraud that cost the country $12.8 trillion dollars. He also effectively ended the welfare state that saved millions of families from absolute poverty. Republican George W. Bush reduced taxes on corporations and capital gains while pouring unprecedented money into military aggression. And Democrat Barack Obama used public funds to rescue banks and private companies when their fraudulent gambling collapsed on itself. He has dedicated his lame-duck presidency not to any progressive cause, but to pushing through what would have been the most toxic neoliberal accord of all time, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which seems this week to have finally and thankfully failed).
The uniformity of these politics has been matched with a uniform decline in working class and lower middle class wellbeing. While wealth for corporate elites has skyrocketed, average wages have barely increased since 1979, and cost of living has doubled. The quality and quantity of services offered by the government has plunged. Unemployment is low but underemployment, or employment that does not secure the cost of living, consistently climbs (currently a staggering 66%). People report feeling substantially more stressed, young people have fewer chances to establish homes and careers away from their parents, elderly people are far less likely to be able to afford retirement, the suicide rate is at a 30 year high, and death rates are increasing, a phenomenon globally unheard of except in wartime and famine. While a small minority of elites live in a remarkable world where new technologies and socially progressive consumerism promise a utopia, the reality for most Americans is extremely bleak.
People are aware that something is happening, and they are terrified. If it was common knowledge that the decline came from specific state and corporate policies, there would be a revolution. So the media and politicians have worked very hard to divert attention to specific groups with very little social power. Your job isn’t gone because of your government’s deal with China, your job is gone because of illegal immigrants. Your social security isn’t in jeopardy because of tax cuts for the rich, it’s in jeopardy because of black women in cities living on welfare. Don’t worry about fighting for just employment, worry about being murdered by a Muslim terrorist or a black drug dealer.
Like all elements of neoliberalism, the spread of misdirecting hatred has been a bipartisan effort. Both of our presidential candidates are complicit in it. Watch this video from 2003 where Hillary Clinton talks to voters about the need to install a barrier between the US and Mexico. Watch this video where she calls black men superpredators in 1996. Read the interview when she explicitly linked needing welfare support to bad parenting in 1997. Look at the picture she circulated of Obama in a turban to paint him as anti-American when she was running against him in 2008.
She was not shouting into a void. Neither are the television news outlets that are more likely to feature stories about black men as criminals than positive stories about people of color. Neither are the popular shows that over represent white murder victims to an absurd degree. Neither are the newspapers that misrepresent the threat of terrorism and the role of Islam in conflicts in the Middle East. They are and have always been specifically targeting consumers who are terrified by their sudden disenfranchisement, and intentionally promoting racism as an alternative to useful political action.
So of course the neoliberal establishment, the so-called liberal media, and Secretary Clinton herself have no right to act surprised when a candidate spewing disgusting racism and xenophobia resonates with the American public. For them to blame Trump for the racism of America’s electorate is like a chef blaming a waiter for a terrible meal; the waiter’s only crime is bringing it to the table.
As participants in a racist and sexist structure, Trump supporters, like all Americans, are guilty of racism and sexism, and their votes demonstrate a particular apathy (I will not discuss here whether that apathy is worse than Clinton voters’ apathy towards, say, the people of Syria or Haiti). But Trump voters are more complicated than that. Trump’s populism has drawn masses of disaffected people to the Republican Party and in doing so changed its complexion rather drastically. Polls find that Trump supporters are more conservative than average Republicans on immigration, but they are substantially more likely to support legal abortion and same-sex marriage. They are also far more likely than average Democrats to oppose military intervention or global free trade, placing them on the far left of the American foreign policy discussion. For the party once synonymous with a dynastic old boy network, their embrace of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corrupt career politicians is almost a breath of fresh air.
Their bigotry points less to ignorance than to a resentment of the metropolitan elite whose liberal values have been pushed not with compassion but with condescension, and to a media-driven misplacement of fear. And contrary to what mass media would have you believe, bigotry is only one facet of a movement defined much more by a misguided but undeniable call for revolutionary change.
It was this specter of revolution that cost Clinton the presidency. It is now no secret (and it was never much of one) that the Democratic National Committee broke their promise of neutrality to help Secretary Clinton’s campaign. Through unilateral media support, through illegal cooperation with Super PACs, and through primary elections closed to independents (the largest voting bloc), Clinton and the DNC blocked Senator Bernie Sanders from the Democratic nomination. Sanders’s anti-corporate message resounded with frustrated voters, and even under a constant media blackout he raised over $200 million from small individual donations and raised unprecedented crowds because, like Trump, he recognized that voters are seeking change. Unlike Trump, he proposed viable and productive routes to that change. During the primary, Sanders supporters, like Trump supporters, demanded political change, while Clinton supporters were more likely to say that the country was on the right track. This perhaps won a majority of registered Democrats, but it is desperately out of touch not only with the national electorate but with the reality of neoliberalism.
Every poll indicates that Sanders would have won democratically and electorally in the general election. But because he could not be bought by their corporate backers, the DNC installed their candidate and her toxic and unpopular politics, and they have paid the price.
I refer to Trump’s demand for revolutionary change but I do not suggest that this will in any way materialize during his presidency, which is good and bad news. Trump, whose business model has always been lying, of course believed nothing he said on the campaign trail (he could barely keep track of the positions he claimed to hold, and changed virtually all of them at one point or another). He is not a right-wing ideologue, and it should not be surprising that he has sold out enthusiastically to the familiar corporate heart of the Republican Party. Since winning the primary he has gladly accepted Republican Super PAC millions and surrounded himself with lobbyists for everything from Goldman Sachs to Disney. And Trump’s victory speech made no mention of building a wall or banning immigrants, no mention of draining the swamp or of jailing his opponent, in the only policy promise he touched on was rebuilding infrastructure. Like every president since Roosevelt, Trump will serve as nothing more than a cheerleader for his elite financiers, and the radicalism he espoused to gain popular support will vanish. His politics will be standard Republican politics: toxic, but not new. He has already begun to abandon the radicalism of his supporters.
His election has sparked a mass panic, inspired by months of media portrayals of the candidate as a neofascist. These portrayals are inaccurate and alarmist. Although the circumstances for his rise in many ways mirror the right-wing dictators of 1930s Europe, fascists did not temper their words for corporate lobbyists. There are of course many reasons for alarm at a Trump presidency, but very few new ones. His foreign policy will be brutal and violate international law, but illegal brutality has been a constant of American imperialism for nearly a century. His attitude towards sexual violence is nauseating, but he is the fourth of the past six presidents to be elected despite outstanding allegations of rape. He will deport millions of immigrants, but likely not as many as Obama, who imprisoned and exiled many more people than any other figure in American history. He will assassinate political foes in a drone war that has been expanding for a decade. He may illegally detain people in secret prisons based on their religion, a crime our government has been actively committing for nearly two decades. He will not take action on climate change, which is only slightly worse than taking meaningless symbolic action when carbon emissions have already passed catastrophic thresholds. He will not end the prison industrial complex that will determine the fates of one in three black men, largely thanks to Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. He will move to defund public services, including reproductive health care, but these services are already jeopardized daily due simply to the insurmountable cost of bipartisan military aggression, corporate subsidies, and tax breaks for the rich that every year eat away more of the discretionary budget. Reports of Trump-inspired hate crimes are pouring in, and are of course tragic and disgusting, and I stand in full solidarity with the communities that are being targeted. But I come from a rural state, and I have experienced vandalism, harassment, and assault due to my sexual orientation more times than I can count. I feel comfortable saying that anyone just now surprised by America’s bigotry lives in a bubble. I’d be fascinated by America’s reaction if racist and homophobic hate crimes inspired by sports were as well reported as hate crimes inspired by Trump.
I say this not to excuse Trump or to excuse bigotry, both of which we must unify against. But the media’s effort to inspire fear of working class white people, who liberals are alarmingly comfortable stereotyping and dehumanizing, is yet another distraction. Because there is perhaps only one element of this election that stands out as historically significant, and the elite media, along with the Democratic and Republican establishments, have very good reason to suppress it.
Neoliberalism, and politics in general, relies on the fact that money poured into the system can outweigh power of a democratic movement. This fact has been protected by Supreme Court rulings (notably without elected officials) Buckley vs Valeo in 1976, which legally defined money as free speech, and Citizens United vs FEC in 2010, which gave legal personhood (but not legal accountability) to corporations. But it has more or less ensured for much longer due to the shared interests of corporate conglomerates, the media, and the political ruling class. As neoliberals have done less and less for the majority and more and more for the infinitesimal minority of the elite, it has become exponentially more expensive for corporations to market their choice candidates to an electorate that objectively does not trust them. Bankers, oil magnates, agro-giants, technocrats, and other megadonors spent over a billion dollars getting Barack Obama reelected in 2012. And this year elites maintained control over the election, but just barely, and only at the last moment.
During the primary season, the rulers of both parties faced massive and somehow unanticipated popular resistance to corporate politics. The DNC, a substantially wealthier force than its Republican counterpart thanks to the backing of the tech industry, was able to suppress that populism (though leaked emails show just how terrified they were that Sanders supporters would return the New Deal party to the people). The RNC failed to do so. Because of his ability to manipulate the sensationalist media and because he spoke to actual concerns of the Republican electorate, Trump swept the primaries spending only $5 per vote (Jeb Bush, the party favorite, spent $126 for each of his 279,000 primary votes). Once his nomination was inevitable, the heads of the Republican Party and their Super PACs got behind Trump and convinced him to stick to an establishment script, but for a while it was extremely apparent that a candidate without Wall Street or armaments money had shattered the RNC’s expectations and left them terrified. Not of his bigotry, which shouldn’t stand out in their party, but of his stated opposition to neoliberal trade and military intervention.
Politicians will come and go, and devastate the lives of millions as they do it. That is the nature of the American political structure. It will be our job to fight against the atrocities President Trump’s government will commit here and around the world, as it is our job to fight against President Obama’s government now. But this election, 60 million people voted against a candidate who spent $1.3 billion, more than any candidate has spent on any election in history, to protect the status quo. 60 million people voted against the candidate almost unilaterally backed by the media in their efforts to control the process of democracy. And for the first time since Buckley vs. Valeo in 1976, the candidate who raised the most money did not win the presidency. We have watched the rules of our rigged democracy almost unravel under the pressure of millions of people who will not accept business as usual. We know how thin the line sold to us has become. And we know that if not now, very soon those who have always been in control will be powerless against democratic forces in the collapse of neoliberalism.
This could go two ways.
Populist sentiment could attach itself to an actual right-wing zealot, a true fascist who will combine establishment-planted fears and anti-establishment anger into a nuclear armed version of Nazi Germany. Trump is a very close call; as anger rises (and it will inevitably rise when Trump, like his predecessors, does not fix America), the next Trump will not need to sell out to the destructive but momentarily stabilizing forces of capitalism. The leadership of the evangelical right gives America a deeper and more unsettling list of charismatic despots to choose from than most dying empires. A version of Trump not held back by financial interests could very feasibly enact genocide or start a nuclear war.
Or, the left could provide an alternative. Had the Democratic Party not gone to such extravagant measures to sabotage him, Bernie Sanders could be president elect right now. Trump mobilized the white working class. An effective leftist populist could mobilize the communities of color suffering the most under neoliberalism, but to form a popular mandate would also need the support of the Trump demographic. This means compassion, not condescension; it means choosing courage over fear. And it will take more than a president. The entire political structure will need to be replaced by a political body independent of corporate money, genuinely committed to the popular demand for economic, racial, and environmental justice. Through provisions such as a breakup and redistribution of financial institutions, the construction of a new and environmentally sustainable infrastructure, a complete withdrawal from neoliberal trade agreements and foreign conflicts, and free healthcare and higher education to weaken the grip of entrenched class structures, the neoliberal crisis could be averted. This sounds daunting, but anything less (literally anything less) will only continue our trajectory towards fascism.