Talking sense about Trump

RW Johnson says liberals and left wingers are tending to hyperventilate over the US President

Liberals and left wingers around the world are so horrified by the arrival in power of Donald Trump and his right wing cabinet that there is a clear tendency to hyperventilate – and this at a time when clear-headed analysis is vital. This is nowhere more true than in the American Democratic Party. Straight after the election they re-elected Nancy Pelosi as their Congressional leader – an enormously rich woman of nearly 77 who lives in a politically correct bubble, who is at home on either coast but who has no inkling of interest in the flyover states. Given that that is where the election was won and lost, this is about the worst thing they could have done – a pure knee-jerk. Secondly, they seem all set to elect Keith Ellison, a left-wing black Muslim, to head the Democratic National Committee. Nothing would delight the Trump forces more.

In the weeks following the election similarly bad decisions, produced by the same distraught condition, were made by many journalists. We were assured that Jeff Sessions, the Trump pick for Attorney General, had once been accused of racism. This was immediately conjured into depictions of Sessions as a latter day Bull Connor, setting police dogs onto blacks. There was no reflection on the fact that accusations of racism are the small change of politics in a racially divided society. In fact Sessions seems to have had an excellent record on racial issues. He may come from Alabama and be right wing in various other ways but he is a man of some integrity and his nomination will sail through the Senate.

Secondly, we were repeatedly told that Steve Bannon, Trump's senior White House adviser, was a white nationalist and an anti-Semite – this on the basis of a hastily written hatchet job in Mother Jones. Any examination of his background provided no support whatsoever for either charge. It was true that he was an American nationalist and had edited Breitbart News, but Andrew Breitbart, its founder, was Jewish and set it up in order to help give Israel a better image in the US media. The last thing he would have done was to recruit an anti-Semite. In any case, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who will work alongside Bannon in the White House, is himself Jewish – and, as we know, Trump can hardly wait to endorse an Israeli agenda somewhat to the right of Netanyahu. Was it really ever plausible to call Bannon an anti-Semite? No, it was pure hyper-ventilation.

The much more significant fact about Bannon is that he saw the opportunity presented by a deeply alienated white working class and worked hard to ensure that Trump took it. If you actually listen to what Bannon says you realise that his main objective is to try to win such folk over permanently to the Republican side and thus to put together a GOP coalition to last a generation. His eyes are already set on winning elections for Trump-successors in the 2020s and 2030s. This is deeply serious stuff. Lyndon Johnson's embrace of civil rights lost the white South for the Democrats. If the GOP could add to that the northern and mid-western working class then the old New Deal coalition would have been dismantled for good and all.

It is equally silly for liberals to keep harping on the fact that Hillary won the popular vote. And, often, blaming the pollsters for misleading everyone. This is ridiculous on every count. First, the national polls foretold that Hillary had an edge in the popular vote and in this they were quite right. But no political professional has paid any attention to national polls in the US for a long time now. To be sure national polls may work in Britain or France but the USA is far bigger and more varied and it is federal. And everyone knew the rules before they started. If you looked at poll results in each of the individual states you would have been far less surprised by the Trump victory: in all those key rustbelt states he was either level, winning or moving up. And that's all he needed to win.

Hillary was always going to win California easily so all the time she spent there was, effectively, wasted – while in the mid-west, where she lost by thin margins, she spent far too little time. Indeed, her campaign was jejune. Polls have long shown large majorities of American voters believing that Hollywood has far too much influence in politics. Despite that, Hillary's campaign depended heavily on celebrity endorsements, thus repeating a mistake made by the Remain side in the British referendum. People don't like being told how to vote by people with far more money, status, fame and privilege than them and the ability to dodge any negative consequences.

Indeed, if the Democrats want to get mad at anyone, best to start with Hillary. She was a uniquely bad, unpopular candidate. Bernie Sanders could have won and so could Joe Biden. Probably so could Elizabeth Warren. But Hillary's hugely funded behemoth of a campaign just squeezed them all out. From a Republican point of view, she was the dream opponent. The most striking things about her campaign were that she spent hugely on attack TV ads against Trump, to no effect; that she had far more money than Trump; that she gave voters almost no positive reasons to vote for her; that when she lost she gave an accounting to her big donors and not to the public; and that she was simply yesterday's woman. She liked to boast of her experience but she had been First Lady thanks to her marriage. She had been pushed in without Democratic opposition to a complete shoo-in Senate seat in New York and she had been appointed Secretary of State. One thing she had never done was fight a competitive election. She was a candidate mainly because of an overweening sense of entitlement.

There is also a distinctly bad odour around the Clinton Foundation. For several years running it falsely filed tax returns claiming it got no money from foreign governments. The Washington Post speaks of “the aggressive strategy behind linking up (Bill Clinton's) consulting contracts and paid speaking engagements that added tens of millions of dollars to the family's fortunes”. Already donations to the Foundation have plunged with governments like Australia and Norway pulling back and many others investigating the flow of money to what is generally termed “Bill Clinton Inc”. Aside from the ongoing Department of Justice probe, the IRS has also been conducting its own investigation for months past into allegedly “using a non-profit group for personal enrichment”.

There is no doubt at all that a lot of money was raised on the expectation that Hillary was a politically powerful person and was about to become even more so. It may be that, once again, the Clintons will get away with operating very near red lines but there is a distinct possibility that this may not end at all well. The fallout could well do further serious damage to the Democratic Party.

It was, however, two fundamental flaws in Democrat strategy which helped produce Trump's victory. First there was the concentration on “identity politics”. For years now there has been excited talk about “the emerging Democratic majority”, pointing to the growing numbers of Hispanic and black voters, the growing gender gap, with more and more Democrat-voting women, to which one could add young voters, gays, Native Americans, Muslims and so forth. This was foolish in a number of ways. First, simply having a group identity is not enough to make people vote for you: you have to be able to offer them things they really want. Second, there is no natural solidarity among such groups.

Thus despite all the talk about Hillary “breaking the glass ceiling” and Trump's “war on women”, 42% of women voted for Trump, including 53% of white women. I was much struck by a TV interview with a woman assembly line worker in Ohio. The (young and female) interviewer somewhat excitedly demanded to know what she thought about Trump's “grab them by the pussy” remarks? “I've heard worse. Every day”, she replied. This was a voter deciding not to vote her group identity.

And finally, of course, the basic idea is that all these groups have hitherto been oppressed but must now have their day in the sun: there is a sort of competitive queue of victims, all requiring special measures such as affirmative action in their favour. This creates a difficult situation with the large number of voters who are white or male or heterosexual or who simply think of themselves as Americans. There is often not even an acceptable way in which they can celebrate their identity or heritage and they naturally resent their marginalization. For some time now this has led to such cultural phenomena as actively celebrating being “rednecks” or the No.1 best-seller, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.

It is worth lingering on the word “marginalization”. We have heard ad nauseam how Trump voters were “marginalized by globalization” and, more truthfully, how many were victims of automation. But it is also striking how heavily marginal groups went for Trump. For example, 51% of white working class voters said they did not believe that Trump “had a sense of decency”. But in the end they flocked to him. Around 20% of voters said they disliked both candidates: this group too went overwhelmingly to Trump.

Finally, because of a choice between two unattractive candidates, an unusually high number (12%) were still undecided in the final polls – as compared to 3% in 2012. Yet if we use exit poll data we can see that this group went to Trump over Clinton by 59-30 in Wisconsin, 54-37 in Pennsylvania, 52-37 in New Hampshire, 50-39 in Michigan, 46-43 in Ohio, 55 - 38 in Florida and 49-41 in North Carolina. This not only delivered all these marginal states to Trump but nearly also gave him the once invincibly Democratic bastion of Minnesota (where the margin was 53-31).

However, Hillary's defeat was also due to the way in which she exacerbated longer-run trends. Ever since 1988 when George Bush Sr. beat Michael Dukakis, the Democratic vote has been concentrating more and more heavily in the large urban centres. If one goes back to 1988 one finds the Democrat vote was fairly even across all types of constituency, from rural areas all the way up to the nine megacities of over five million population (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington DC). However, in each election since then we find the Democrat proportion falling in the rural areas and small towns and increasing in the megacities and the large cities (1m.-5m. population).

This trend has been continuous for thirty years – even Obama lost the once-Democrat constituency of Appalachian whites – but it was greatly magnified in 2016, so much so that Hillary took 64% of the vote in the megacities but only 30% in the rural areas. (In California she even beat Obama's record majority of 2012.) Putting small towns and rural areas together, her vote there was 20% less than Bill Clinton's in 1996. This doomed her bid not only because it caused her to lose the Mid-West and Pennsylvania but it also wiped out all of Obama's gains in the South – in 2008 he had won North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Florida. It is true that Hillary's campaign was focused on the big city liberal vote but a trend thirty years long has a force all its own, irrespective of the candidate.

This trend spells enormous trouble for the Democrats for it means that they are piling up huge majorities in their bastions (and thus wasting those votes) while losing a host of more marginal areas in small town/rural America. This has also made them into a different party. Not long ago they had a substantial Southern wing and there were many “Blue Dog” Democrats (loyalists who liked guns, disliked abortion and so on but were otherwise prepared to vote the party ticket) but this is now an extinct species.

This process is also largely neutering the party's advantages among blacks and Hispanics for these groups are concentrated in areas which are either safely Democrat or heavily Republican. To matter, they would have to be in swing states – and they're not. Worse still, several of the megacities have large rural hinterlands, cancelling out the Democrats' urban advantage. This is how Hillary lost Georgia, Pennsylvania and Florida despite her big majorities in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami.

Once these facts are taken into account they rather deflate the significance of the Women's marches on Inauguration Day. Some 3.2m women marched – but 80% of them in states won by Hillary. Again, this sort of opposition to Trump is bottled up in safe Democrat areas where it is not persuading any new voters. Worse, the marches were a sort of festival of identity politics – in favour of women, minorities, Palestine, LGBTQ, indigenous people, the diabled and so on. Michelle Cottle described the marches as “an exercise in group catharsis” and “basically a chance for those appalled by Trumpism to meet up for a big group hug”.

Some of the speakers – Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis, for example – were really the voice of the 1960s. Madonna's speech made plentiful use of profanity and obscenity and she said she had “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House”. It is not difficult to imagine the effect of the sight of such over-privileged celebrities misbehaving on swing voters: in effect Madonna and her ilk are working for Trump's re-election.

It cannot be sufficiently emphasised that if the Democrats are to hold Trump to one term they will have to box much cleverer than that. It is, for example, easy for big city liberals to work themselves up over Trump's many outrageous statements – e.g. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. Or Mike Pence, asked about evolution: “I believe with all my heart that God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that's in them. How He did that I'll ask Him about some day”.

All one may glean from this is that Pence is definitely going to heaven. But it is foolish to waste energy on such howlers: they are mere throwaway lines compared to the main act. Similarly, young urban feminists can get so excited about Trump's win being a victory for sexism that they fail to notice that what pollsters call “implicit gender bias” (agreeing that men must concentrate on careers, women on family) is particularly pronounced among women. At all points in the liberal-conservative spectrum women show more implicit bias than men, with conservative women scoring highest and moderate men showing even less bias than liberal men.

As yet it isn't clear what Trump's victory will resolve itself into. At present Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are happy to go along with Trump despite all his flaws because they see their chance to enact a radical conservative agenda – big tax cuts for the rich, law 'n order, a defence build-up, and huge cuts in regulation and in every level of government. If this works out Trump will be a Tea Party president. The Tea Party, it should be noted, started as a populist revolt in the wake of banking crisis in which the bankers successfully off-loaded all the costs of the crisis onto ordinary tax-payers, workers and home-owners, but its policy prescriptions are strictly classic conservative. This is beatable by any decent Democratic candidate: there is no natural majority for the Tea Party agenda. At the moment by far the favourite choice for the Democratic nomination is Michelle Obama (dynastic politics again) but happily she refuses flatly to run. Probably the Democrats need someone entirely new and it would help if they came from the Mid-West.

The far more alarming possibility is that Trump will follow Steve Bannon's strategy. Bannon, despite all the left fulmination against him, is a shrewd, clever and often funny man. Bannon's aim was not just to elect Trump but to bring about a party re-alignment such that Trump's successors will rule for at least another generation.

This is far more ambitious than anything Karl Rove tried for George W. Bush. Bannon wants to lock in the working class support that Trump won in 2016 by a mixture of industrial protectionism, populist nationalism and resistance to immigration. It was thanks to him that on his first full morning at work Trump spent 90 minutes with labour leaders – a strange innovation for a Republican leader, but Bannon wants to make the GOP the workers' party, no less.

He is well aware that despite the media fuss over the Wall and the ban on Muslim immigration and refugees, these measures are playing pretty well with the good 'ole boys down in Peoria. He also knows that he has a tremendous opening: Democrat leaders like Hillary and Nancy Pelosi – both super-wealthy upper class women in their 70s – have precious little connection to the world of labour.

The Bannon strategy may seem pretty far-fetched given that Trump's cabinet is a plutocracy reinforced by the military, with Exxon and Goldman Sachs both well represented. On the face of it this is pretty hard to square with Trump's endless castigation of “the elite”, for the CEOs are the very men who exported all those jobs and caused the banking crisis. But - and this is a key point – what Bannon and Trump mean by the elite are CNN, the New York Times and Washington Post, and their cosmopolitan readers and viewers. In a word, the elite consists of politically correct liberal intellectuals at Ivy League schools (in a word, the editors and readers of the LRB and NYRB).

These, in Bannon's canon, are the folk who betrayed the workers with their liking for affirmative action, international trade treaties and their disdain for those they too easily condemn as racist, sexist, homophobic. They can afford such attitudes because their jobs are not threatened by automation and the only Hispanics they meet are their domestic servants. In a word, we are back to the elite as conceived by George Wallace - “the pointy-headed professors”, a group resented for its presumed arrogance and, above all, its cosmopolitanism.

Against all that stands Trump's “America First” patriotism, a chauvinistic appeal with deep popular roots. Here too there is a trap for the left. Too easily this stirs memories of 1930s isolationism and of such straightforward fascists as Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh, both of them anti-Semites: Lindbergh castigated American Jews for trying to “pull America into the war” to save their German brethren (though he claimed to side with “the good Jews”), while Coughlin published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and openly admired Hitler and Mussolini. It is easy to point out that rumours always swirled that these men were being financed by the Nazis, just as they do about Trump as Putin's Manchurian Candidate. (It doesn't help that Trump's facial gestures are the spitting image of Mussolini's.)

But the America First Committee set up in 1940 was actually a strange beast which included not just Lindbergh but Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerald Ford, Gore Vidal, Sinclair Lewis and the Socialist leader, Norman Thomas, while the Communists tried hard to infiltrate it and take it over. It was, in other words, the same uneasy mix of right and left that Bannon is aiming for. Trump is taking this quite literally and has put up a picture of that first great populist nationalist, Andrew Jackson, in the Oval office.

Whether Bannon is able to drive this Jacksonian crusade will depend in large part whether he can keep his footing in the Trump White House. This will not be easy. Bannon's whole style – tousled, hard-driving, profane - is anathema to GOP leaders and to the Cabinet plutocrats and probably to the military as well. He could easily be elbowed out by Jared Kushner, Trump's plutocrat son-in-law. And on top of that there is the whole problem of controlling the thirteen year old narcissist who is President.

Trump does not read books, has no knowledge of history, no intellectual depth and probably only dimly descries what Bannon's strategy is and what its historical roots are. Harry Truman, a poor boy from Independence, Missouri, with no higher education and a background in machine politics, read voluminously all his life and maintained that it would be simply impossible to do the President's job without a thorough knowledge of American history. That theory is about to be tested to destruction.