Did Trump matter?

At long last, you say, another blog piece about the aftermath of the election! I have consciously been dialling back the amount of coverage, particularly opinion pieces, that I consume, but I've still read way too much and become submerged in the internecine arguments everyone's been having for the last two weeks. I'm not going to reiterate stuff that I and probably you have read in a dozen other places, so this is going to be relatively short, but I have three thoughts.


1. Hillary Clinton is already following a very similar path to the one Julia Gillard has done, post-politics, and it seems almost dead certain that'll continue. This is a politician who had a lot of fierce critics on the left, but who ultimately was denied office by a divisive, often-sexist political opposition that created a lot more unity of left support and sympathy for her than she enjoyed while politically active. And it doesn't hurt that she went down as a standard-bearer for a cause that will with time become more central to her co-partisans' political project. (The carbon tax for Gillard; anti-racism for Clinton, more on which below.) Hillary is still the first woman to be a major party nominee; there are still a lot of people out there who'll want to hear from her about her life and political experiences. In a year or two, once the dust settles, there'll probably be a few international organisations that would love to have her onboard.

2. One reason that Clinton lost the election is that she swapped millions of votes from working-class white voters in the Midwest for millions of votes from people of colour and well-educated white people in non-competitive states. The 'radical' view (if 'radical' and 'liberal' are the two basic sub-categories of the left more broadly) about this is that the white working-class needed to be won over with more radically progressive economic policy that would have appealed to class solidarity, but instead the Clinton campaign opted for a kind of 'identity politics' that alienated those voters.

That might well be right, but it highlights a pretty serious division among people on the left. The Democratic platform at this election was far more economically progressive than in 2012, or 2008, or indeed almost any year you'd care to name. (Ask Bernie Sanders.) If this kind of policy was what's needed to win over the white working-class, you'd expect Clinton to have done better among those voters than Obama, rather than significantly worse.

What this theory of the election has to be is that progressive economics wasn't pursued or emphasised enough relative to the emphasis put on 'cultural liberalism'. The solution it implies is not - not just, and perhaps not at all - more radical economic policy. It's reducing the prominence of the kind of anti-racist and anti-sexist themes Clinton adopted - it's literally unthinkable that a candidate in a previous cycle would have talked about implicit bias in a presidential debate - in favour of a class-based message, that lets white working-class voters see themselves as on the anti-rich-guy side of politics without being unsettled by cultural and social change. (Think about how Sanders, when challenged on the issue of reparations, suddenly declared his view that the impossibility of getting a policy through Congress was a good reason not to talk about it.)

That's where the division comes from. The best thing you can read on this is Jamelle Bouie, a month before the election, discussing the fact that Democrats no longer had to shy away from anti-racism in order to reassure white voters. This turned out, devastatingly, to be wrong. In 2016, the Democratic Party still did need its old electorate. But this piece was not just analysis; it was a celebration of the fact that the concerns of people of colour could finally be discussed in the open, without needing to sugarcoat or pussyfoot around them for political reasons. (Ta-Nehisi Coates' pre-2012 feature is brilliant in many ways, and it sheds some light on the same themes.) The move to a politics which de-emphasises these kinds of considerations in favour of a race-neutral economic message is not going to be welcomed by activists of colour who have just, for the first time, felt that their insistence on the inadequacy of colourblindness was getting through.

3. If this analysis of Clinton's loss is right - and it must be at least part of the story - that raises the possibility that Donald Trump was ultimately not relevant to the way this campaign played out. Clinton picked the 'identity politics' focus very early on, and doubled down on it during the primary campaign to outmaneouvre Sanders. Trump responded to this in a particularly virulent way, but the core moves - calling implicit bias a slander, rejecting any criticism of police violence, condemning black activism as violent and disorderly, talking tough on illegal immigration, raising suspicions about voter fraud - are basically the ways you'd expect a vanilla Republican to respond to this Democratic platform. One possibility is that another Republican wouldn't have been so single-minded about this, and might have drifted back to the kind of let's-cut-taxes-and-regulations politics that Mitt Romney emphasised in 2012. But I don't think there's any good grounds for saying that would definitely have happened.

Which is to say that maybe Donald Trump, in particular, didn't really win; that the Democratic and Republican campaigns (to borrow a phrase from Ezra Klein on the latest Weeds) conspired to make the election about racism and socio-cultural change, rather than colourblind economics; and that 2016 is still a little too early for the American left to win on that terrain.

Before you let that give you any comfort, remember that even if Trump wasn't really central to his own win, he should have been central to his own crushing defeat. Even if he got only the votes a generic Republican would have got, the fact remains that he did get the votes a generic Republican would have got, despite being a vindictive, illiberal and fundamentally unfit candidate. Over sixty million people were willing to overlook this. And many millions, in the primary campaign, were actively enthused by it. That he did as well as any other Republican might have done given 2016's economy, demography and configuration of salient issues should be a cause for serious alarm.

Comments

  1. Stimulating, as ever. Correction of typo under point (2), first paragraph: "won over" vs. "one over". Otherwise, semi-OK pun on the (dis)unity achieved by the Left..? xoxo

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