“Explaining Trump” in the UK

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

I spent all last week in London, attending the Historical Materialism conference.

Again, and again, as a Brit who’s lived in the US for decades, I was asked by genuinely puzzled people how it was possible for Trump to become president.

After all, if you are a Brit, this would almost be the equivalent of Nigel Farage, the far-right buffoonish fringe politician and millionaire, becoming prime minister.  Farage of course has already rushed across the Atlantic to congratulate Trump on his victory, the first foreign politician to do so.  If he had American citizenship Farage would probably be in Trump’s cabinet, a scenario which makes many Brits split their sides with laughter.

(An insight into Farage’s personality is supplied by his joking comment on a Trump-Theresa May meeting:  he’d be happy to be there in case someone had to intervene if the lecherous Trump tried to grope Mrs May.)

And it wasn’t just intellectuals at the conference who asked me about Trump’s victory.

I did a little shopping, and when I handed over my American bank-issued credit card, the sales assistant asked me if I was going to go back to the US now that Trump was elected.

(With my red star lapel badge and English accent, I suppose I did not look like someone who supported Trump.)

Of course, this was asked tongue in cheek, but no one asked me this question during my stays in the UK when the ghastly Ronald Reagan and George W Bush were presidents.

Reagan, among other things, armed vicious death squads in any number of Latin American countries, and Dubya we all know about, but even they drew the line when it came to mocking a disabled reporter or bragging about grabbing pussy.  (Though who knows what Dubya said and did in those well-reported dissolute days before he found God, therapeutic brush clearing at his dude ranch near Waco, and now painting extremely unremarkable portraits of world leaders from photographs.)

Trump clearly does not have the compunctions of Reagan and Dubya.  If Reagan and Dubya were truly awful, for many of the Brits I encountered, Trump is simply horrifying.

It is difficult even for Americans to grasp the opaque role of the electoral college. Most seem to think it is harmless quasi-aristocratic flummery conjured-up over two hundred years ago by illustrious (slave-owning) gentlemen who wore breeches and wigs.

For Brits, or indeed anyone from outside the US, the electoral college is a rank absurdity.  The correct explanation that it was a device intended by the founding fathers, fearing the so-called “tyranny of the majority”, to overturn a majority verdict delivered by the popular franchise, by overriding the voting result in a presidential election, makes some Brits incredulous.   “How can this be democracy?”, one person asked me.  It isn’t, was the only reply I could give.

Its underlying principle is the American version of Stalin’s dictum (doubtless apocryphal): “What matters is not who votes, but who counts the votes”. Stalin’s vote-counters could magic away the outcome of the ballot, the electoral college permits a functionally similar occultation.

Thinking it was going to work against him, Trump railed against the electoral college before election day, but he now says he’s in favour of it —  an understandable change of mind, because he would not have been “elected” president without the electoral college’s jiggery-pokery.

As for the rest, it has been amply recounted by numerous CounterPunchers and others in recent days.

How Clinton accorded priority to raising boatloads of money from corporate fat cats over campaigning in the rust-belt states (which might have made sense to her because she is a wooden campaigner, and drawing small crowds would not look good on TV).  Trump’s combined margin of victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was under 110,000 votes, so more time on the stump in the rust belt could have made a difference for Clinton.

How she and her surrogates thought their job was done once they sabotaged the campaign of Bernie Sanders, thereby overlooking the fact that the latter was attracting so much interest precisely because he was speaking about issues people, especially millennial voters, considered important.  Yes, Clinton did steal some of Sanders’ clothes, but nothing more than a scarf and pair of socks, certainly not his jacket, shirt, and shoes.

Instead, she presented herself as Obama’s proxy for a third term, a fatal misjudgment because for the Sanders’ crowd, and certainly for many of those seduced by Trump’s demagoguery, Obama had done little or nothing to address the pressing issue of widening inequality, and had only prated about improving public services, infrastructure, and the health and education systems (perhaps because his hands were tied by a do-nothing Congress, though he certainly could have tried harder).

As Michael Hudson, Paul Craig Roberts, Rob Urie, and others, have pointed out on this site repeatedly, a growing segment of the electorate has been screwed for decades by the US’s macroeconomic (mis)management, and the Clintonite Democrats have done nothing about this, preferring instead to construct a (losing) coalition of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, hedge-fund and venture capital, and minorities.  The shattering irony is that inequality is going to worsen under Trump, even though he gave voice to his constituency by saying repeatedly that they had been screwed.

How the Democratic establishment was able convince itself that this ad hoc coalition dominated by the plutocracy, with its “business as usual “mantra, was going to prevail against a rising tide of discontent over globalization, downsizing, flexibilization, and off-shoring, is a mystery to be probed in the coming years.  This plutocratic coalition over-filled Clinton’s electoral coffers, but provided her with no real and concerted strategy for dealing with the mounting travails of a postindustrial middle America which experienced semi-prosperity once upon a time but is now crossing the collective threshold of real poverty.

However, while the coalition could not secure a win for Clinton, its primary individual components, such as Wall Street, will still rule the universe during Trump’s tenure.   In 2015 Wall Street bonuses, not standard remuneration but bonuses only, seven years after its banks were bailed out by the taxpayer, totalled $28.4 billion. Total compensation for the mass of those in the US on a minimum wage was $40 billion.

A 2015 US Government Accountability Office report indicated that 40% of US jobs are now contingent, so that “millions of workers … are in temporary, contract, or other forms of non-standard employment arrangements” which have no “employer-provided retirement and health benefits, or … job-protected leave”.

Trump’s xenophobic and nostalgic fixations are not going to change this.

However, neither party caters to the median voter.  As my Duke University political science colleague Jerry Hough points out (we should remember that his book Changing Party Coalitions:  The Mystery of the Red State-Blue State Alignment appeared 10 years ago), neither of the American parties caters to the median voter, since

both parties have structured their economic policy so as to try to maximize support in the upper class of the population—the 25 per cent of the population that makes above $75,000 a year in family income. Without any meaningful choice on economic questions, voters have been forced to choose between the parties on cultural issues alone.

Trump, however, did make a show of offering voters a meaningful choice on a range of economic issues, even if his proposed remedies are half-baked and seriously misconceived.  Moreover, he drew the bulk of his support not so much from the median voter, but from those in the $50,000-$100,000 income bracket, a better-off segment of the population as Hough indicates, which may seem surprising to some.  But as a sociologist friend pointed out to me, these are the people who, especially in relation to the generation before them, are now feeling squeezed economically.

A self-employed electrician or owner of a small car-repair shop, after they have paid business insurance, their taxes, and the wages of the one or two employees they have, may seem flush with $50,000 a year in the bank.   But health insurance has to be paid for out of this, as have the ever-increasing fees of two college-age children (say).  If there are elderly parents, often with mounting healthcare needs and an insurance plan not adequate to pay for expensive treatments, then our self-employed person may have to top-up their insurance, as well as providing other forms of financial assistance.  The $50,000 soon melts away, and most of the time this person could be one serious emergency away from a financial crisis.

This is the America of a great stagnation for all but the 1%.  An America of payday loan outfits, pawn shops, boarded-up shop fronts, ramshackle discount stores, and fast food joints offering cholesterol on disposable plates.  It is the America of the crazed and unhinged, such as the Republicans in Muncie, Indiana, who asked the excellent Guardian journalist Gary Younge, spending time there covering the election campaign, whether he felt safe in London given that its mayor was a Muslim and Brits aren’t allowed to have guns.

Actually, it was easy for my fellow Brits to grasp most of this, because their own country is hurtling down this same road towards public squalor and private splendour.  Many postindustrial northern towns there, where Brexit drew most support, are similarly blighted.

Earlier this week a Guardian article drew attention to the rapid expansion of the UK’s gig economy:

More than one in five workers, some 7.1 million people, now face precarious employment conditions that mean they could lose their work suddenly – up from 5.3 million in 2006, according to analysis of official figures conducted by John Philpott, a leading labour market economist. Half of the biggest group – the self-employed – are in low pay and take home less than two-thirds of the median earnings, according to the Resolution Foundation thinktank. Two million self-employed people now earn below £8 per hour.

To state the obvious:  the growing numbers of desperate people have found it hard to resist the allure of the demagogic slash-and-burn solutions, amply laced with xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racism, proffered them by Trump and the Brexiters.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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