My response to the victory of blithering pea-brained plutocrat Donald J. Trump in the recent US Presidential election just kept getting longer and longer. So I’ll have to split it up into sections and post them separately. Here’s the first bit:
There was, of course, the initial opening flurry of Oh Shits and What the Fucks and You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kiddings. And quite right too. (Though Michael Moore predicted Trump’s victory, even if his analysis is deeply flawed.)
Then there were other equally predictable things. The orgy of masochistic doom-and-gloomery, for instance. (Again, not unjustified. It’s gonna be an awful 8 years, amongst other things.) We can forgive most of the hyperbolic and rhetorical That’s It, I’m Moving To Canadas, precisely because they were hyperbolic and rhetorical. The sentiment may, at bottom, be selfish and short-sighted, but it’s no more so than a cry of “If my parents find out about this I’m dead!” from a kid who’s been caught smoking weed by a teacher. (Conversely, the odious Katie Hopkins says she’ll now move to America… which puts me in a horrible dilemma.)
We also had the spectacle of some people realising that it was possible for someone who seems ridiculous to them, and who has consequently been ridiculed by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, etc, to not seem ridiculous to other people. Satire, they learned, doesn’t actually kill. You wouldn’t think grown-ups would need to learn such lessons, but apparently… You wonder how insulated some people can be. You wonder how they thought Donald Trump was coping in the world before now. You wonder how they think this world works. Do they genuinely still assume that it’s basically a meritocracy which prizes dignity and good behaviour over wealth? You wonder if they realise that Trump was already very powerful before being elected President, simply on the basis of his (inherited, grabbed, and swindled) wealth, and that his venality, vulgarity, stupidity, incoherence, and ridiculous appearance, never caused him any significant trouble in the exercise and enjoyment of that power.
But then we move into uglier territory. We move into the inevitable blaming of people who voted for third-party candidates, even though this is self-evidently silly and, as it turns out, factually impossible. And even if third-party ‘protest’ voters had swung the election for Trump, I have a couple of questions for those now wagging fingers at them:
1) if we grant that protest voters helped Trump (which they, on the whole, simply didn’t), and if such phenomena are such a big concern of yours, then why don’t you make reform of the grotesquely unfair voting system a big priority of yours all the time, even when there isn’t an election happening? (If you do, good for you, but most of you don’t, do you?).
2) Why don’t you, instead of finger-wagging, actually take the time and trouble to listen to people who voted for third party candidates as a protest, to find out why they did it? Why don’t you try extracting yourself from the snug duvets of short-termism and mainstream purblindness, and actually try to take in a longer view?
As I have said repeatedly during the run-up to this election, I would vote for Hillary if I had a vote (and then go home and have a very hot shower). And I have encouraged people to vote for Hillary if they think they can. I’ve done all this because I viewed Hillary not so much as the lesser of two evils (I don’t really think she’s any less evil than Trump, or that she’d do less evil on aggregate) but rather as the lesser of two catastrophes for the American working class. But I totally ‘get’ why some people couldn’t bring themselves to do it. And I think there are better things to be done, better questions to be asked, than metaphorically sticking your self-righteous jaw out at such people, jabbing them in the chest with an accusing finger, and making them listen as you bring yourself to a shuddering climax of self-righteousness in front of them, using their choice about what to do with their vote as a masturbatory aid.
We move into the inevitable blaming of those who abstained or didn’t bother voting. The assumption is always that such an act represents laziness, selfishness and stupidity, and so the holier-than-thou recriminations fly. But perhaps, again, it would benefit us to ponder why it is that so many people (just under half the eligible population in this election) simply don’t believe that voting is something they need to do. I daresay there are a fair few of those non-voters who are simply so sunk in their own concerns that they barely noticed an election was happening. But there’s no reason to assume those reasons are hedonistic. Generally, less affluent people are more likely to not vote. There’s no way to comprehend this within a matrix of assumptions about poor people which sees them as lazy, feckless, and stupid. People who have never been poor simply do not know what hard work it is, how stressful it is, how exhausting and demoralising, how bad it is for your health, how bad it is for your powers of concentration, how much cunning and ruthlessness it can take to survive it. People chatter about self-reliance as the answer to escaping poverty… but few are as self-reliant, perforce, as the poor, especially nowadays with the constant and drastic erosion of the safety nets. Being poor, unemployed, or in low-paid work, is an all-consuming business. And many poor people have seen Democrat and Republican administrations come and go with little change being evident in their lives. Is it any wonder that, combined with other more urgent concerns, getting to the voting booth can seem less of a priority? Again, we can never hope to understand this within the matrix of mainstream assumptions about poverty, which will instantly discount any idea that the poor are not to blame for their own condition the moment they find a poor person paying for anything that isn’t a basic bodily necessity. The liberal flavour of the victim-blaming of the poor uses various strategies, not least the usual tricksy manoeuvre of accusing anyone who doesn’t blame the poor of talking about them as if they are passive objects. And then there is the massive issue of race. There are entirely different strategies when it comes to blaming the poor when they don’t have pink skin. The Clintons know all about those, with their ‘superpredators’, and Bill’s toxic legacy of racially-inflected welfare ‘reform’.
Let’s not forget how difficult it is to vote in America. The government doesn’t register you automatically, you have to register yourself, and there are deadlines that lots of people miss – because, again, day to day life is hard and busy for low-income people, full of more urgent priorities than paperwork about things that are comparatively distant. Then there is the scandal of the vast queues you have to join, and wait in line for hours, always on a work day when the boss (owing to decades of successive governments – Dem and Rep – chipping away at your power as a worker) can flatly refuse to let you take time off, and/or make your life hell. You could vote after work, I guess, as long as you don’t mind bringing your kids to wait in line for hours too, or can afford a babysitter, etc etc etc. And that’s if the machines don’t break, and you haven’t been disenfranchised through some new Republican-organised purge of low-income voters…
There’s all this, and then there’s also the millions who don’t vote because they reject – actively or passively – the idea that voting makes a difference, that it matters, that it is something that should concern them.
It’s very easy to climb onto a moral high horse and gallop away from such people, but I’d like some of those who do to live the lives of such people for a while and then honestly say they don’t have a point. Liberal commentators have enjoyable collective fits of disdainful panic about people who reject the establishment, the government, the mainstream, etc, without ever really asking themselves why such things shouldn’t be rejected. To them, these things are – at least – eternal facts of life, inescapable verities. That’s when they’re not fawning over them as bastions and bulwarks of freedom and so on, or guarantors of this, that and the other wonderful thing. It’s easy to see the value in a system that has served you relatively well. That’s why so many liberal establishment types have swooned with horror as much at Trump’s noises about revoking NAFTA as at his noises about deporting immigrants… without stopping to wonder about the connections between NAFTA and poor Mexicans trying to escape a country which hasn’t seen economic growth for more than twenty years.
The establishment seems like something alien, foreign, remote and useless to millions of Americans, and they have a point. Millions of Americans have seen their jobs get harder, their hours get longer, their bargaining power eroded, their wages stagnating or dropping. Millions have seen their jobs being shut down and moved abroad. Millions have seen investment in their communities evaporate, and their neighbourhoods become wastelands. Millions have seen their schools become increasingly overstrained and underfunded. Millions have seen their kids go to fight foreign wars and not come back. This has continued under the aegis of both the donkey and the elephant. It’s understandable – or it should be – that these millions, distracted by the effort it takes to just keep going in such a predicament, decide that voting is not a priority. It’s very easy to preach at such people that they should care about their country’s future, but they feel – with great justification – that their country, if we define their country as its elites and their institutions, doesn’t give a shit about them. Altruism, social responsibility, are pleasant hobbies that can be indulged in by people who don’t have to worry where the next meal is coming from, or how they’re going to keep a roof over their heads.
We see the cries of despair at Trump’s election from people who don’t routinely have to emit cries of despair about their and their kids’ futures. And we see those cries of despair at Trump’s election turn into bitter recrimination against the people of America. (There is, of course, a version of this playing itself out in Britain, with the proliferation of “bloody Americans” sentiments… as if we had a standpoint from which to criticise.) But this is all far too easy and too self-comforting for elites.
The figures show various interesting things.
Trump won with the structurally unfair electoral college system, which was set up centuries ago by slave owners, and was designed to ensure the hegemony of slave owners… oh, sorry, I meant ‘to be a safeguard against demagogues’. (See what I said above about making voting system reform into a priority.) Trump lost the popular vote. More people voted against him than for him, if only by a whisker.
Voter turnout was low. Just over half of those eligible voted (see above). The Republican vote was basically the same as it has been for the last few elections, actually slightly down overall. There was no groundswell of support for Trump. He didn’t bring more voters to the polls overall. His was, parenthetically, not the much touted rallying of the previously lethargic and disenfranchised. His was not a huge and new mass movement. His support was a particularly vehement, vicious, and vociferous energising of already-existing Republican support, of those sectors of the Republican base which has always held far-right views and has longed for a Republican candidate who will express them as frothingly forthrightly as they do. His supporters were the Tea Party tendency writ large. To the extent that Trump alienated Republican voters (and he did alienate quite a few – most Republicans didn’t choose him as their candidate in the primaries), the loss was re-supplied by a relatively narrow slice of people attracted to him by his perceived ‘outsider’ and ‘anti-establishment’ status.
Trump was elected by just under half of just over half of those eligible. So don’t blame ‘Americans’. Don’t blame ‘people’. Don’t fall into the easy trap of despairing of humanity. That’s the lurking contempt for ordinary people that perpetually hides within the secret heart of liberalism. To indulge in it now is to provide liberalism with a much-needed alibi. Because it was liberalism that failed here. It wasn’t the Right that triumphed. They’ll try to take credit, but they did next to nothing except hold their hands out and catch pennies as liberalism was shaken upside down by history. They accidentally reaped the benefits of the collapse of liberalism – that is, liberalism as the dominant political ideology of capitalism. Liberalism would love you to blame ‘people’ for being selfish and stupid and lazy and inherently given to xenophobia and ignorance. Its claims for its own continued existence depend upon this victim-blaming, this ideology. Its ability to cover up its own sordid venality and hypocrisy are similarly dependant. These have always been the secret inner claims of liberalism: that democracy is when elites govern the mass of people from above, from their elevated position of enlightened and educated open-mindedness; that this is for the people’s own good; that democracy is when the best people get to say what is best for the rest of us; that we’re children who need special and careful handling. Check out almost any of the great liberal thinkers or journalists or historians or politicians – Mill, Tocqueville, Russell, Lippman, Berlin – and you’ll find it in there, tacit or implicit. This is the dominant ideology of the mainstream political and journalistic establishment today. It is the underpinning of the entire electoral/representational system in most Western democracies. It was the logic underpinning the whole idea of Clinton’s candidacy, and of the conception of her as a progressive, or even as a lesser evil.
And it collapsed in this election. The zombie will get up again, but it did collapse.
Do I sound happy? I’m not.