Trump’s election is no ‘rejection of elites’

Picture of Donald Trump with an angry look on his face, raising his middle fingerIn yesterday’s Observer, there is a piece by one John Daniel Davidson, identified as “a senior correspondent for the Federalist” who lives in Austin, Texas, defending Donald Trump from claims that he is a fascist and offering the standard defence that his election represents “a rejection of the elites” and that the real divide in America today is not between “fascists and Democrats” but between “the elites and everybody else”. He claims that Trump’s supporters cheer at such actions as ripping up trade deals, threatening Mexico with invasion and withdrawing from a deal to accept refugees Australia refuses, alleges that “For years, millions of voters have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver”, and alleges that the protesters and the “elites” do not understand why Trump and his policies are popular. It’s a familiar argument, also articulated on this side of the Atlantic by the Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore who claimed on the BBC Radio 4 Media Show the other week that BBC news programming is characterised by ‘groupthink’ on issues such as climate change (!) and immigration which blinded it to the popularity of Trump and Brexit and the reasons behind it, and a staple of the Right going back at least as far as the Bush years, and it’s wrong.

To start with, Donald Trump may not identify as a fascist as such, but the manner of his campaigning and his behaviour since certainly have some of the characteristics, much as have some genuine dictators who also do not identify as such, or are commonly called fascist — Assad of Syria being a classic example, more than some straightforward autocrats such as Pinochet. In any case, very few people identify as fascist; even the likes of the National Front (and its successor, the British National Party) have used terms like “nationalist” as the word ‘fascist’ has rightly become toxic. What’s not a secret is the violence that accompanied his rallies, which is not a characteristic of a politician who intends to govern as part of a democratic system, nor the wave of police and vigilante violence against minorities that marked Barack Obama’s second term, nor the appointment of unqualified men with clearly stated opinions consistent with fascism to positions of great importance. And the fact that he is popular with “heartland” Americans does not mean he is not a fascist; it may just mean he represents fascism in terms and behaviour that is familiar and acceptable to them.

Second, there is the claim that he is a “champion for the forgotten millions”. It is true that he won votes in some mid-western “rust belt” states that had previously voted Democrat (in some cases right throughout the Bush and Obama eras) with promises to tear up trade agreements that destroy American industry and bring jobs back. However, he is not previously known as a businessman who supports American manufacturing himself, as a Daily Mirror reporter found when he stayed in one of Trump’s hotels recently; it has also been observed that Trump campaign paraphernalia, such as hats and ties, were not made in the USA but in Far Eastern countries. In trying to restore manufacturing to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trump will be ham-strung by Republican opposition in Congress, politicians who have their base in southern “right-to-work” states where unions are weak and companies were attracted by more “liberal” (for them) labour markets (ironically, Democrats are more likely to support him here). Davidson notes that Trump has promised a “border tax” to hit companies that move American jobs abroad and try to import the goods made there; he will not be able to do that by executive order. He will need congressional support.

Trump is, in addition, not one of the “forgotten millions”. He is a billionaire who did not build his empire from scratch, but developed it from his father’s. This fits a pattern with the sort of people the pissed-off American provincial middle class turn to to “save them” from the “liberal elite”; they are always extremely wealthy, though they will put on a common touch when out campaigning, and generally support reducing the tax burdens on the wealthiest and on business, reducing environmental regulations that stop companies polluting the environment that everyone else has to live in (though rarely do they pollute their own), cutting public services that benefit everyone so as to facilitate tax cuts, while focussing public discussion away from economics and onto moral issues like abortion. As Thomas Frank described it in his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (reviewed here; published in the UK as What’s the Matter With America?):

The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privelege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills [a suburb of Kansas City], hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

It is tempting to compare the invocation by Trump’s supporters of the angry, overlooked millions, combined with anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism (and other open bigotry) with Poujadism, the populist movement of 1950s France, but Poujade was a small shopkeeper from southern France, not a big-city property magnate. Trump is from New York; the Bush family, although both the Bush presidents had been governor of Texas, actually originates from Massachusetts. Trump, therefore, is not one of the “forgotten millions” and is a poor champion for them. Men elected as champions of America’s ‘forgotten’ white middle class do not champion their material interests, only their prejudices. 

It was not, of course, only the “rust belt” that voted for Trump. All the states that had supported Republicans since 2008 supported Trump, both in the South and the midwestern “heartland”. In the South especially, voters had to overlook Trump’s manifest foulness of character and his lack of any previous interest in their politics (he had supported Hilary Clinton’s previous presidential campaigns, for example) as well as Hilary Clinton’s personal connections to Arkansas. One can only assume that many voted for Trump out of blind partisanship, having been persuaded by 20 years of propaganda from the church and media that the Democrats were godless liberals who would not protect the unborn and would raise taxes — and they did not let the displays of thuggery, Trump’s contempt for women or the obvious shallowness and undeliverability of Trump’s promises deter them.

Davidson alleges that “the crowds of demonstrators share something in common with our political and media elites: they still don’t understand how Trump got elected, or why millions of Americans continue to support him”. Actually, they know why Trump was ‘elected’ despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes: because an electoral college system originating in the time of slavery reduces the voting strength of populous states while inflating that of smaller ones, allocates block votes regardless of turnout which usually all go to the single biggest candidate in the state, and so on. Trump ‘won’ an election that was biased in his favour, although it is true that Trump’s and Gary Johnson’s votes combined outnumbered Clinton’s, so perhaps a more credible Republican might have beaten Clinton, especially in the (unlikely) event of his embracing Trump’s trade policies. I’m sure most of them are well aware of why millions voted for Trump, but it was really not that significant; what mattered was that the misogyny, xenophobia, contempt for disabled people and contempt for the rule of law that Trump and his movement represented (and continue to represent) was not going to be accepted and would be resisted, and that the now-dominant faction knew they had a fight on their hands. Disabled people are not the élite; they are a generally impoverished group which had difficulty getting healthcare until Obama’s healthcare reforms, are often institutionalised even as mentally-competent adults, something that Obama actively opposed and which Trump’s allies have not, and are widely treated with contempt and abused, especially if they look or sound ‘odd’. Why should these people expend time on understanding why people voted to impoverish them?

Finally, there is the usual narrative of a “liberal metropolitan élite”, based in the USA’s case on the two coasts (the upper Midwest always getting left out), who looks on the rest of the country with snooty contempt; it has been a regular trope of the conservative persecution narrative since the Clinton years. Trevor Phillips, in his 2015 documentary “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” (reviewed here), makes the same claim about that so-called élite when depicting a man refusing to talk to him at a UKIP conference, suggesting that he was typical of the “ordinary white people” that vote UKIP. In fact, the ruling class of this country was not ‘metropolitan’ but based in the suburbs and south shires and its voting base was in rural and provincial England, and it was ‘liberal’ only on gay rights. Phillips was also praised by the Daily Mail for saying “things that nobody will say” about race, yet such claims had been the Mail’s stock in trade for decades. The same is true of conservatives in the US; they have ample access to the media via TV, talk radio and many newspapers, even if the New York Times, Washington Post, and other ‘establishment’ big-city papers don’t give their views priority. In the case of the recent election, where the mainstream media largely did not anticipate Trump’s nomination, let alone victory, one could say that they gave Middle America some credit by imagining that they would not vote for an openly racist, vulgar lout, possibly a criminal, with no political experience. It was once observed during the Civil Rights era by the first Black student in a hitherto all-white university in South Carolina that “if you can’t appeal to the morals of a South Carolinian, you can appeal to his manners”; whose manners could Trump possibly have appealed to?

It’s actually possible to understand why millions of Americans voted for Trump without justifying it: they are racist, blindly partisan, ignorant and resentful of people who know better than them. So he boasts that more Americans support than oppose Trump’s orders on immigration; what this demonstrates is that these people are racist ignoramuses, given that the order targeted the law-abiding and had no justification in security, terrorism prevention or anything else and was struck down by the courts almost immediately (pending appeal), resulting in Trump throwing one of his many Twitter tantrums and showing outright contempt to the judiciary. The contempt for the law, the use of the language of enmity and betrayal, the use of violence in political campaigning, as well as vicious and libellous verbal assaults on other nations, are characteristics of fascism, of tyranny, not of democracy or statesmanship. Whether “the people love him” or not is irrelevant, and in any case, they will not be so happy when Trump’s caprices result in companies moving their money or whole departments abroad — though whether they take it out on the government or on their fellow citizens, or immigrants, time may well tell if he does not learn his lesson nor is deposed quickly.

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  • George Carty

    I wonder how much migration may have contributed to Trump’s victory?

    Trump may well have won Florida due to an influx of conservative retirees (from non-competitive states such as New York, California and Texas) and the Rust Belt states due to an outflux of young liberals to places with better economic prospects.