The Politics of Refusal

From New York City to Los Angeles, protests greeted the news that Donald J. Trump had won the United States presidential election. Chanting “Not My President”, the crowds blocked highways and major streets. They came with equal measures of grief and anger—young and old people, from all kinds of backgrounds, united in a sense of disbelief. How could it be possible that Trump had won the election? All the media outlets, all the polls, all the political consultants and most of the political elites had suggested that Hillary R. Clinton’s ascension to the presidency was utterly given. The mood was dour at a gathering of political consultants in Denver, Colorado, after the election. “It was impossible to conceive of an incoming President Trump,” said Margie Omero of PSB Research. It is this impossibility that is now reality.

To be fair, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by something like a million votes out of the 120 million-odd votes cast. If the election were to be decided merely by who got the most votes, then Hillary Clinton would be the President-elect. Democracy in the U.S. is managed between the will of the majority and the interests of the States. The Electoral College system gives each State a certain number of electors, who then cast their own vote according to the voting pattern in the State. States with high populations have a greater number of electors, but these are not sufficiently proportionate to prevent the kind of problem the U.S. faced in 2000 and in 2016. In both elections, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer—Al Gore and Hillary Clinton—won the popular vote but lost the election.

Fault lines were cultural

The election campaign—all of 598 days—opened up deep social wounds in the U.S. The fault lines were not economic per se but cultural. This is one of the great mysteries of the U.S.—how economic inequality in the country does not appear always as a class question but can just as easily be seen as a question of race. White workers who have been hit hard by the policies of globalisation are likely to frame their discontent against immigration, affirmative action and political correctness, rather than against what the Occupy movement called the “One Per cent”. Trump’s slogan—Make America Great Again—is not as innocent as it sounds. It suggests that America had been great, but does not say when: perhaps when racial apartheid was in place? It suggests that someone has made America less great: perhaps Barack Obama, America’s first black president. The slew of hate crimes in the aftermath of the election suggests that there is now an army of Trump supporters who believe that it has the licence to make America Great Again by attacking those whom it sees as the problem. “Make America White Again,” says graffiti in the University of Florida library. It is a more blatant rendering of Trump’s campaign slogan.

In 2008, President Obama inherited a country that was in the midst of at least two major wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and which had plummeted into a serious recession. Not long after his election, vitriolic protests took hold across the country in the name of the Tea Party. These protests rejected the results of the election, suggesting that Obama was not really an American and that he would sell the country to some combination of terrorists and socialists. Racism against the first black President certainly drove these protests but so too did a populist hatred of “Washington”—namely of the political class itself. Trump, then merely a billionaire businessman, joined this rebellion. He earned his spurs in that early opposition to Obama. When Obama moved an agenda to reform the way Americans buy health insurance, he was pilloried as a socialist. It was “Obamacare” that mortally wounded the Obama presidency. It allowed the Republican Party to win the Senate from the Democratic Party and consolidate itself as the party of refusal. It was this stance of uncompromising opposition that hardened the edge of the right-wing base.

Trump was the inheritor of that politics of refusal. None of the establishment Republicans or the anointed liberal who ran for the presidency this year found an easy way to undermine Trump. No rational argument was enough. His is a politics of emotion and trust. “Believe me,” he says of his agenda, which was not spelled out. Trump’s nastiness counted as a plan. His machismo was sufficient to prove that he would stand up to the powers that be to repeal Obamacare, tear up the Iran deal, build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and ban Muslims from entry into the U.S. These are oddball proposals with no real argument about how they would tackle the real problems of tens of millions of “forgotten Americans”. No elaborate plan was necessary. Trump’s appeal lay in his persona.

It bears repeating that Trump lost the popular vote. He won no landslides in any State except the hardened Republican ones that he was fated to win. Strikingly, Trump’s open misogyny did not deter the majority of white women from voting for him rather than for the first woman running for President. Other parts of their identity drove them at the polls. Trump was able to hold the well-heeled suburban voters and the evangelical conservatives. None of them abandoned the Republican ticket despite the fact that Trump’s vulgarity and his lack of religiosity suggested that he might have alienated these sections.

Large sections of the white working class, including the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, had already decamped from the Democratic Party—largely driven into the arms of the Republicans on issues of guns, God and race. Trump was guaranteed to get a large part of the votes from these Reagan Democrats. His own coalition drew from the “outspoken epicentre of the revolt against globalisation”, says Mike Davis, author of Prisoner of the American Dream. “The defection of the white working-class Obama voters to Trump,” Davis says, “was a decisive factor” in the region around Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania “which are experiencing a new wave of job flight to Mexico and the U.S. South”. Trump zeroed in on a Carrier air-conditioner factory from Indianapolis (Indiana), which is moving to Monterrey (Mexico). “All you have to do is take a look at Carrier Air Conditioner,” Trump said in the first debate with Hillary Clinton. “They fired 1,400. They’re going to Mexico. So many hundreds and hundreds of companies are doing this, and we cannot let it happen.” It was Trump’s emphasis on this “forgotten America” that earned him their loyalty.

Voters bludgeoned by globalisation

Hillary Clinton could not summon the energy to outflank Trump’s populism. Her long career in government was littered with her commitment to a kind of globalisation that had hollowed out places such as Indiana and Ohio. It was this that made her vulnerable in the Democratic primaries to the 74-year-old socialist from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders understood that the mood in the country did not support continuity but favoured change. Sanders pointed his finger at income inequality and proposed—unlike Trump—concrete measures such as free college and higher taxation on the wealthy as the means to ease the suffering of the population. “The hunger of hope and change that Obama awakened remained,” said Nikhil Singh, author of Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Yet, Singh told me: “Democratic voters were told that they needed to bring back these scandal-tainted, now well-heeled plutocrats as the best leadership that the party had to offer.” The Sanders challenge, Singh said, revealed Hillary Clinton’s weakness not only with the base “but in terms of the zeitgeist”. The times wanted populist change. Trump—despite the fact that he is a billionaire with no plan—had an appeal to crucial voters in essential States who had been bludgeoned by the trade deals favoured by globalisation.

Reliable Democratic voters—African Americans and Latinos—did not come to the polls with the same enthusiasm that they had brought for Obama. Hillary Clinton’s dithering on issues of police violence and on immigration did not fire up her base. That she picked a conservative Democrat—Tim Kaine—as her running mate rather than a Latino or an African American leader or indeed a white working-class leader also made a difference. Such figures could have lifted the spirits of the black, Latino, Asian and white working class, dispirited and divided by this election. It is of course the case that this is the first election that took place after the U.S. Supreme Court diluted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Voter suppression is an art in the U.S. It was on display this year. But voter suppression does not explain why fewer people turned out to vote for Hillary Clinton than had voted for Obama or why Trump was able to make gains among African Americans and Latinos despite his openly racist associations and statements. That African American and Latino workers are also hurt by globalisation should be under consideration. As some black voters said to me over the course of the campaign, they would rather not vote than vote for either Trump, whom they considered a racist, or Hillary Clinton, whom they considered part of the establishment that has made them more vulnerable.

A fifth of Trump’s voters—namely 12 million people—said that they had an unfavourable opinion of him. Their vote for him was as much a vote against Hillary Clinton.

What will Trump now do?

Trump’s closest adviser is the white supremacist Stephen Bannon. His influence on Trump should not be underestimated. They promise to conduct “the type of continuous low-intensity race and gender war that became the style of his campaign”, Singh tells me. Raids on undocumented immigrants will come alongside attacks on dissenters with the police given licence to go into urban areas to conduct full-scale warfare against the population. If Trump decides to moderate his own views as far as state institutions are concerned—which is unlikely—his supporters will still believe that they have the licence to act with impunity. The Southern Poverty Law Centre said that in the first week after the election they counted 437 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation. Many of these took place in schools, where children are coming in and telling other children that they will be deported. It is this kind of violence that provoked the high school walkouts against the Trump presidency.

Since the Great Recession of 2007, the U.S. has added 11 million new jobs. Of these, 8.4 million went to people with college degrees, 3.1 million went to those with associate degrees, and only 80,000 went to those with only a high school degree. Trump has promised those who have no college degree a better life. The trajectory of growth in the U.S. suggests that in the absence of a radical transformation there will be few jobs for them. No such radical move is visible from Trump. His promise to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement and levy a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports will spark trade wars and isolate the U.S. It will not easily bring manufacturing jobs into the U.S. Sparks will fly, but smokestacks will remain unlit. Which is why it is likely that Trump will fail his constituency, who will then turn, angrily, against those who they see as the problem, namely racial and sexual minorities. This is the danger that Trump’s incoherent populism promises.

Even Trump’s isolationism is incoherent. He campaigned against wars of aggression and pilloried Hillary Clinton for her record on Iraq and Libya. Threats to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation came alongside warm words for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, Trump promised to allow Israel to fully annex the Occupied Palestinian Territory and said that he would tear up the Western deal with Iran. On the one side, promises of pullback and on the other side, promises of more U.S. force.

Trump is not allergic to U.S. military adventures. What he suggested in his comments is that he does not like them to be half-hearted. He would commit more troops, sell more weapons to U.S. allies and push for a renewed American preponderance in the world. It is an illusion to see Trump as somehow less belligerent than Hillary Clinton. How the U.S. will be able to concentrate on the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in which Iran is a necessary ally, while it tears up the Iran deal is hard to fathom.

After Trump’s election, Mike Davis, an editor at New Left Review, reflected on the violence of Trump’s populism. “On the night before the 1972 election,” he said, “a girlfriend and I managed to sneak into the final Nixon rally, a Nuremberg-like affair at the Ontario [California] airport. We chanted ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’ a couple of times as the Reagans and Nixons walked down the red carpet. Of course we were immediately pummelled and tossed on our duffs. What has haunted me since, however, was not the reactionary anger and hatred—which we had all experienced so many times before—but rather the repulsive ecstasy of the mob before their deities. It reminded me of a description I had once read of the sentimental fellow feeling induced amongst cannibals as they feasted together on their enemies: that is to say, us.”.

Eve Ensler, the playwright who wrote The Vagina Monologues and the founder of StopHateDumpTrump, told me that “we are in the fight for our lives”. She listed a great many arenas where Trump will move a dangerous agenda. But then, she said: “I am also strangely hopeful that we will see a uniting of the progressive Left, coming out of our silos in unity. We will perhaps marshal our forces with new strategies and tactics, and hopefully see the emergence of either a reconstituted Democratic Party or a new party altogether.”

The progressive Congressman Keith Ellison is the favoured candidate to take over the Democratic Party. His ascension, with backing from Bernie Sanders, will certainly provide an opportunity. “The demonstrations and protests,” continued Eve Ensler, “have been very powerful. It is the first time I can remember that we are all there together marching with our various issues, but marching as one.”

This column originally ran on Frontline (India).

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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