Trump: consequence not cause
Trump is not the cause of liberal left failure, but the consequence of it.
In his illuminating account of its recent history, Matt Stoller writes that ‘In 1968, there was a great debate about the future of the Democratic Party. Robert F. Kennedy sought to win the primary with a “black-blue” coalition of black “have-nots” and working-class whites. … But Kennedy’s strategy to merge these ideas disappeared when he was assassinated. When RFK died, Democrats nominated New Deal populist and Vietnam War supporter Humphrey, which split the party between the new-left youth activists and the labor-influenced party regulars—leading to the turbulent 1968 national convention.
‘After Humphrey’s loss to Nixon, Democrats formed the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, also known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which sought to heal and restructure the party. With the help of strategist Fred Dutton, Democrats forged a new coalition. By quietly cutting back the influence of unions, Dutton sought to eject the white working class from the Democratic Party, which he saw as “a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the antinegro, antiyouth vote.” The future, he argued, lay in a coalition of African Americans, feminists, and affluent, young, college-educated whites.’
Who had the right approach, Bobby Kennedy or Fred Dutton? Doesn’t Trump’s victory shows us that Dutton was right? That the American white working class truly are ‘a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the antinegro, antiyouth vote’: inveterate, rotten, racist bastards concerned only with the maintenance of their racial privilege, defending the wages of their whiteness against the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ that rose under Obama, who the rotten, racist bastards opposed implacably?
Except, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn points out: ‘Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters… The truth was that Democrats were far more dependent on white working-class voters than many believed. In the end, the bastions of industrial-era Democratic strength among white working-class voters fell to Mr. Trump. So did many of the areas where Mr. Obama fared best in 2008 and 2012. In the end, the linchpin of Mr. Obama’s winning coalition broke hard to the Republicans. The Wyoming River Valley of Pennsylvania — which includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre — voted for Mr. Trump. It had voted for Mr. Obama by double digits. Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Obama won by more than 20 points in 2012, was basically a draw. Mr. Trump swept the string of traditionally Democratic and old industrial towns along Lake Erie. Counties that supported Mr. Obama in 2012 voted for Mr. Trump by 20 points.
‘The rural countryside of the North swung overwhelmingly to Mr. Trump. Most obvious was Iowa, where Mr. Obama won easily in 2012 but Mr. Trump prevailed easily. These gains extended east, across Wisconsin and Michigan to New England. Mr. Trump won Maine’s Second Congressional District by 12 points; Mr. Obama had won it by eight points. These gains went far beyond what many believed was possible. But Mr. Obama was strong among white working-class Northerners, and that meant there was a lot of room for a Democrat to fall. That fact was obscured by national exit polls that showed Mr. Obama faring worse among white voters than any Democratic nominee since 1984. But Mr. Obama fared very poorly only among white voters in the South. He ran well ahead of Mrs. Clinton just about everywhere else.’
That’s right: a sizeable – and as it turns out, decisive – chunk of the ‘major redoubt of the antinegro vote’ had voted for Obama previously, and Obama was more effective at retaining their support than Hillary Clinton, the friend of Wall Street whose husband signed in NAFTA. According to exit polling, every ethnic group – white, black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian – saw a swing to the Republicans from the Democrats, and Clinton’s shortfall on Obama’s vote in Detroit, Flint and Milwaukee directly led to the loss of Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s almost as if something more than just white supremacy might have been in play here. What could that be?
A brutal lesson from history
Most obviously, in an anti-globalisation election the Democrats fielded the ultimate globalisation candidate. The Financial Times calls Trump’s win a ‘challenge to the global liberal order’: like Brexit, that was rather the point. Central to Trump’s pitch were the curtailing of free trade, opposition to the further offshoring of American jobs – and yes, immigration. These were also central to Bernie Sanders’ pitch: ‘Open borders? That’s a Koch brothers, right wing proposal which says essentially there is no United States… What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that… I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer’. In Sanders the Democrats had a left-populist anti-globalisation candidate adept at turning out young and rural voters, and who polled better against Trump than Clinton. They went with neo-liberalism and identity politics instead.
But more fundamentally, the Democrats have lost the tribal loyalty of the white working class, and as pointed out above the ‘new left’ faction – which the Clintons were part of, who were products of the ‘Golden Age’ of capitalism and not the Depression, and who were ultimately seduced by Chicago school economic ideas – deliberately engineered this once they’d taken over the party: they did not want the white working class, as a mission statement. As a consequence, anything the Democrats manage to get from this constituency – as Obama did – is transactional and contingent, not instinctive.
New Labour went one better than the Democrats: they said the working class no longer existed. Now both parties are wracked with existential angst about how to win back their former core. But there’s a brutal lesson from history here that Fred Dutton and Peter Mandelson evidently never read. In November 1932, a Communist-inspired strike by transport workers was called in Berlin, right before the federal elections. This put the Nazi party in a quandary: if they backed the strike they risked losing middle class support; if they opposed it they risked losing working class support. They had to make a choice. Ultimately the Berlin Gauleiter, Joseph Goebbels, decided there was no option other than to back it: ‘We are in a by no means envious position. Many bourgeois circles are frightened off by our participation in the strike. But that’s not decisive. These circles can later be very easily won back. But if we’d have once lost the workers, they’d have been lost forever‘ [emphasis added], and his party leader concurred. The Democrats and Labour are now learning the hard way what Goebbels and Hitler knew from the jump: it’s the middle class that comes cheap, not the proletariat.
Consequence not cause
Marx denoted the working class the agent of revolutionary change not because we’re the most virtuous or least racist class but because our interests are those most materially opposed to capital. As such, class politics is always ultimately revolutionary politics. As such, social democracy and liberal reformism, which are counter-revolutionary, inevitably have to reject class politics, or at least working class politics: what Fred Dutton and Peter Mandelson recommended was a simple and inevitable outgrowth of their class interests and ideology.
But the consequence is that for the centre left, ‘the workers have been lost forever’. Trudeau in Canada aside, social democracy has been decimated across the west and barely exists as a governing force. So in the final analysis we are back to what Rosa Luxemburg – murdered by social democrats – diagnosed long ago: socialism or barbarism.
Trump’s victory is arguably the final nail in the coffin of neo-liberalism. As a matter of anti-fascist urgency, identity politics must be killed with it. Once the ‘white working class’ is deemed a distinct political entity apart from the working class, you’re already on deeply dangerous ground. If the left designates that entity as the enemy, the road to fascism – de-globalised capitalism and racial tribalism – is effectively built (in Cohn’s words, in this election ‘white working class voters just decided to vote like a minority group. They’re >40% of the electorate’). Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was of the view that ‘working class people of all colours must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class… our fight is a class struggle not a race struggle.’ Today’s liberals and identitarians – who by and large haven’t been harmed by globalisation, and whose anti-democratic loathing is matched either side of the Atlantic – would regard this sentiment as appeasement: as Adolph Reed notes ‘we now have a “left” in the United States for which socialism is considered a marker of backwardness. It’s good that that is now clear; it’s always good to know where people stand in relation to class struggle‘. The preferred liberal tactic of calling all they find objectionable ‘racist’ and reducing every political issue to one of race – regardless of justification – isn’t simply factually incorrect, it’s actively counter-productive and an enemy of effective anti-fascism, and has now been exposed as such. Anti-working class and on the side of barbarism, in fact. None of this is to under-estimate the difficulty of overcoming America’s poisonous racial history, especially in the South, but there were efforts made on the left to do this in the ’60s and ’70s. What’s the excuse now? With Trump in the White House, how successful has the identity politics approach been? Ultimately Trump is the consequence not cause of that calamitous failure.