Understanding Trump and how to fight him
First published at www.socialistworkeronline.net
The surprise election victory of Donald Trump has shocked tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people round the world and rightly so. That a politician who ran such a disgusting campaign full of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and bigotry and insults of every kind should find himself in the White House is both appalling and frightening to women, to people of colour, to minorities of all kinds, everywhere. Moreover his success will have encouraged and emboldened far right racists and fascists from the Ku Klux Klan to Marine Le Pen and the Front National.
It is therefore a disgrace that Enda Kenny, who called Trump ‘racist and dangerous’ when he was a candidate, should now congratulate him ‘on behalf of the Irish people’ and be looking to visit him in the White House on St.Patrick’s Day. Not in our name, Enda! Rather the Irish people should stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Americans from
and Portland to New York
and Miami who
have taken to the streets in protest announcing that Donald Trump is not their
But rage and alarm, entirely justified as they are, should not give rise to panic or despair. As well as anger and protest we also need analysis and understanding so as to better ground our resistance now and in the future.
We need to begin by understanding that what has occurred in America is part of a political polarisation that is developing internationally and which is in turn a product of the deep crisis of global capitalism and the fact that neo-liberalism, for so long triumphant, is running into the sand. In the US this has produced a society in which the wealth of the richest 1% has gone through the roof while the wages of working people have flat-lined since 1973 , 48 million people live below the poverty line, 8 million people have lost there homes since the 2008 crash and twelve million people are living on food stamps. This is the context in which some people ‘rebel’, albeit in a dreadful way, against what they see as the status quo and the establishment.At the same time we should not jump to the conclusion, the ‘Trump wins’ headline might suggest, that the American people have embraced racism and misogyny en masse.
First, any idea that the American people as a whole, or indeed the ‘stupid’ American people as a whole, voted for Trump is completely false. There are 325 million people in the
USA, of whom about 260 + million
are of voting age and approximately 230 million are registered to vote. [There
are many obstacles to registering e.g. being a convicted felon, which of course
most affect the poor and people of colour]. Out of these about 56%, 124
million, actually voted – a lower turn out than in 2008 and 2012 when Obama won, and out of those only 59 million actually
voted for Trump, i.e. less than 25%, maybe only 22% of adult population.
Moreover, Trump actually lost the popular vote by about 200,000, it was just
that he won in terms of electoral college votes which is what counts. These facts are important both as a warning
against casual generalisations about Americans and in regard to Trump’s
legitimacy in the face of mass popular protest which is beginning to develop as
Second, who voted for Trump? Was it a working class vote, a middle class vote or a vote of the rich? The answer is complex with elements of all three. Wall St and the tiny minority who constitute the upper echelons of the ruling class clearly favoured
These people count in terms of their money, power and influence but not
statistically as voters. According to the New York Times exit poll the richer
middle classes split fairly evenly with those on over €250,000 voting 46%
Clinton and 48% Trump, those on $200-249,000, going 48% Clinton and 49% Trump;
$100-199,000 went 47% Clinton and 50% Trump; $50-99,000 46% Clinton, 50%
Trump.; $30-49,000 51% Clinton and 42% Trump and under $30,000 53% Clinton, 41%
% for Trump
$200,000 to $249,000
$100,000 to $199,000
$50,000 to $99,000
$30,000 to $49,000
So the class factor, the class divide, is much less evident on the surface than it would be in most European elections, as is to be expected with two bourgeois candidates from two obviously capitalist parties. Other factors such as region, rural v urban, gender, race and education are more obviously pronounced. Women went 54-42 for Clinton, men 53-41 for Trump; Blacks went 88-8 for Clinton, Hispanics 65-28 for
Clinton, big cities 59-35 for Clinton, small
towns and rural areas 62-34 for Trump. Education was also significant with
substantial correlations between higher education and voting Clinton and lack of education and voting Trump.
How all this played out in the election can be seen when we look at the map of how the states voted (which, to repeat, is what determines the outcome). Trump carried all the states which ‘normally’ vote Republican i.e the Deep South, and more or less the whole centre of the country from Texas to North Dakota and Montana (except Illinois, with Chicago, and Minnesota) – the traditional, right wing religious and conservative vote turned out for him. Christian evangelicals etc were undeterred by Trump’s vulgarity and groping. The densely populated, highly urban, multi-ethnic and ‘liberal’ North East (
Massachusetts, New York,
New Jersey etc) and West Coast ( Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, plus
Colorado etc) stayed Democrat and Clinton.
What shifted and made the difference between 2008/12 and 2016 was that Trump won a series of key ‘swing states’ – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio (‘as Ohio goes so goes America’) and crucially Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These last three were won by Obama, were ‘normally’ Democrat, and were regarded by the
campaign as their ‘firewall’ against any sort of Trump wave. The ‘firewall’ was
breached and it was decisive; together they represented 46 Electoral College
votes and if Clinton
had held them she would now be headed for the White House. Why did this happen?
Why it happened
These states, with the exception of
and North Carolina
form part of what is known as ‘the Rust Belt’. This refers to their dramatic
economic decline and urban decay due to the collapse of industrial
manufacturing – think of car manufacturing in Detroit
or steel in Pittsburg
– since the 1980s. These areas have become economic and social wastelands and
the people who live in them, especially the white working class people, feel
utterly abandoned and bitterly angry and a lot of them, by no means all but
enough, voted for Trump.
From the point of view of relating to these people Hillary Clinton was close to the worst candidate the Democrats could have run. They already felt badly let down by Obama whose ‘hope’ never materialised and here was Clinton, the establishment career politician par excellence, backed by Wall St and Washington (the tiny Washington DC voted 92.8% for Clinton – the biggest landslide in the country) essentially just offering more of the same. Moreover, Clinton took Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania more or less granted, whereas Trump saw his opportunity and targeted it skilfully, focussing on bringing back jobs and ‘making America great again’ which to many of these voters meant precisely making it again an economic powerhouse and bringing back jobs.
In the New York Times exit poll one the strongest correlations is between those who thought the condition of the economy was excellent or good and voting for Clinton (86% and 76% respectively) and those who thought it was poor and voting for Trump (79%). Bernie Sanders with his attacks on
on inequality and on the 1% and his call for a ‘political revolution’ would
have had a chance with these people. Clinton
did not and many of those who didn’t vote Trump simply wouldn’t vote for her. Clinton polled 10 million
less votes than Obama in 2008 and 6 million less than him in 2012. Of course
the high ups in the Democratic Party were oblivious to this. They wanted a
‘safe’ i.e. completely pro-capitalist Hillary Clinton rather than a ‘dangerous’
socialist Sanders at all costs.
How do Trump’s evident racism and misogyny fit into this and how do they relate to racism and misogyny in the working class? The question is complex but important. The first thing to say is that socialists fight racism and sexism fiercely and as a matter of principle not only because these bigotries and oppressions damage people of colour and women but also because they are mechanisms for inducing working class people to support vile reactionaries like Donald Trump who are completely opposed to their own real interests.
In this election Black people who saw in Trump an open racist, voted (those that did vote) overwhelming for Clinton by 88 - 8% and Hispanics voted for Clinton by 65- 29% [There appears to have been a difference here due to ex-Cubans voting Republican] and this, by the way, explains why the majority of those on under $30,000 went for Clinton, because the poor are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. But it is undeniable that among the white working class in these decaying areas there was a vulnerability to being pulled by racism and sexism combined with (fake) economic populism and (phoney) anti-establishment rhetoric which was exactly what Trump offered.
The psychology of this is not hard to figure. On the one hand some working class people who are bitter and angry may say to themselves, sure this Trump is racist and sexist but never mind, at least he may do something for us which is more than anyone else will. On the other hand some – again not all – will fall for the argument that the reason we are impoverished is because of the immigrants/blacks/foreigners etc and that what we need is a real ‘man’s man’ to stand up to them and those ‘liberal elites’. This is how racism and sexism work in the working class and they are immensely more powerful when there is no serious challenge to poverty and exploitation from the left – as was the case in this election. But of course this phenomenon is in no way confined to
Similar processes were clearly at work in the Brexit vote in Britain and at play in much of Europe.
It is not at all the case that racism and sexism are less prevalent in the upper and middle classes than in the working class - quite the contrary – but there are differences in how they operate. First, they are often expressed more ‘politely’ in higher circles (at least in public) whereas working class speech is ‘cruder’. Second racism and sexism don’t lead the upper classes to vote or act against their own class interests as happens with the working class, rather they use them to further their interests. Third, there is a section of the relatively comfortable liberal intelligentsia for whom racism and sexism and homophobia etc are spoken of as absolute principles of the highest order, I emphasise spoken of, but who are more or less uninterested in issues of exploitation or class inequality. In
Ireland, for example, such people
simply couldn’t understand why working class people got so worked up about
water charges when there were ‘so much more important issues’. This contempt
was evident in Clinton’s
‘slip’ in describing Trump voters as ‘deplorables’. And the same attitude was
there in Britain
in the failure of some on the left to grasp the popular anger, in areas similar
to the Rust Belt, that lay behind the Brexit vote.
Working class people can’t see the world in this way. For them economic issues are matters of day-to-day necessity. .In so far as they are drawn into struggle and come into contact with and under the influence of socialist ideas working class people can and do come to see that they need unity – between black and white, men and women, straight and LGBT etc – and that bigotry only serves to divide them. But in the absence of collective struggle and socialist ideas – and in the US these things have largely been absent in many working class communities – the danger of populist bigotry is very real and so any inclination to ignore or ‘right off’ the ‘white’ working class must be rejected because it plays into the hands of the far right. This is why the defeat of Sanders and his own endorsement of
Clinton were so damaging and why the question
of politics, of a left challenge to the system, is so vital.
Resisting the Trump Presidency
None of us, and that probably includes the man himself, can know exactly what Trump will do now. But some things can be said with a fair amount of confidence. His election promises will count for next to nothing. Just as there is no parliamentary or presidential road to socialism, because neither the White House nor Congress nor any other parliament is where real power is located, so there is no presidential road to ‘Trumpism’ whatever that might be. The
class, the 1%, and the US
state, which is the state of that class, are too strong for that.
This is not Hitler in 1933. Trump does not have behind him an organised and disciplined fighting force like the SA ( ‘the Brown Shirts’) and the US ruling class have not opted for fascism in response to the threat of socialist revolution. The ruling class are far more likely, at present, to work to constrain Trump’s ‘madness’ than simply to unleash it. By the same token Trump will be completely unable to fulfil the vague promises he made to the working class people we have been discussing. He won’t be able to fix the inner cities, rebuild the infrastructure and ‘make
great again’ in a way that means anything to the dispossessed and deprived. So
there will be real potential for resistance from both those sectors of American
society already in revolt – some of whom are on the streets right now – and from those who will feel betrayed by
Over the last five years there have been a number of real signs of hope in the
the massive Occupy movement of 2011, the Sanders ‘insurgency, Black Lives
Matter and the Standing Rock revolt. Now there are the magnificent anti-Trump
protests. The challenge facing the US left and US socialists is to relate to,
and join the dots between, these sectors and these struggles and connect them
with working class struggle, Black, Hispanic and white, in communities and
workplaces. Then the important fact referred to at the start of this article
that Trump’s victory was achieved on the basis of less than a quarter of the
population will really come into its own and
the fundamental reality that we are many and the billionaires are few
will become clear. That road, the road of struggle from below, not the road of
accommodation to and with the high ups of the Democratic Party is the real
route to an anti-Trump majority.
The glaring problems facing US society- the mass poverty and extreme inequality, the racism and mass incarceration, the crude misogyny, the imperialism and war mongering, the destruction of the environment at home and globally - are not superficial; they are deeply rooted in the structure and nature of US capitalism and its underlying crisis and decline. They cannot be fixed by replacing Donald Trump with the more ‘hopeful’ Michelle Obama. What is needed is, as Bernie Sanders said, a political revolution and a social revolution too, but that requires a mass movement from below.
In this respect the challenge facing the left in
America is fundamentally the same as the
challenge facing us in Ireland,
and the world.