The Democrats’ vote collapsed. Many people who had previously voted Democrat, and many people who might’ve been expected to, didn’t go to the polls for Hillary Clinton. There is, undoubtedly, a degree to which sexism is involved here. I don’t want to minimise that. Hillary is the subject of a great deal of venomous misogynistic hatred. She comes in for loathing more than male politicians with equally grubby histories. She is often the redirected hate-object for people who have come to hate her husband and his legacy. The Clintons generally have become obsessive hate-objects for many Americans – particularly but by no means exclusively conservative Americans, despite being both extremely right-wing in real terms. The reasons are interesting but somewhat outside our scope here.
There is much to dislike about Hillary Clinton her purely on her own account. Some people might not like my taking the time to go into this at the moment, but I think it’s very important we don’t allow (entirely rational and reasonable) horror at Trump to make us forget the very real horror of the system and its apparatchiks under ‘normal’ conditions.
Clinton has – as those tapes made all too clear, as if it weren’t clear already – been perpetually a friend of plutocrats, of Wall Street, of big financial firms, of corporations generally. Those tapes were of speeches designed to reassure such people – people like me are silly and old-fashioned enough to call them ‘the ruling class’ – when, later, she made public speeches containing what would be, to their ears, dangerously left-wing rhetoric designed to woo the plebs. (Her fee for private speech is, by the way, about a quarter of a million dollars.)
She is authoritarian on ‘law and order’, and – like Bill – has employed racially-charged dogwhistles. She has been wobbly-to-retrograde on womens’ issues, including abortion. Always she has cloaked herself in inspirational soundbites about equality. In this election campaign she has made lots of noises about inspiring little girls, noises which have created rapture in the hearts of many white liberal feminists. Samantha Bee, for instance, fawned over Clinton revoltingly, taking her ball about inspiring little girls and running with it all the way to a friendly, jokey chat with Bill’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who once said that the deaths of half a million Iraq kids from US-supported sanctions (half of them presumably girls) was “worth it”. Meanwhile, we were also supposed to be inspired by the activities of the partly Saudi-funded Clinton Foundation… which turned out to be a bad idea, even if we grant that charity is anything other than a way of managing the perpetuation of an evil system, usually run by the same people who benefit from it.
She has been a consistent enemy of welfare, helping articulate the right-wing arguments against it from within an ostensibly liberal discourse. When Bill was governor of Arkansas, she joined with him in victim-blaming the poor, welfare recipients, and then teachers. They extended the same logic to the Clinton presidency. She loudly supported her husband’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which Bill boasted would “end welfare as we know it”. Based on pandering to the accreted racist myths of the “welfare queens”, this bill was a violent attack on America’s most vulnerable people, and its legacy – for which she must bear some responsibility – still festers away today as part of the creeping, racialized erosion of social care. She has voted to make it harder for people to file for bankruptcy. Despite later repudiating TTP in public she was herself instrumental in pushing it while Secretary of State. Her repudiation, like so many of her triangulations, was opportunistic.
Her candidacy was supported by the heads of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, the Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and other such vampire squids. She has had a snuggly-wuggly relationship to corporate capital for her entire career, starting out as a corporate lawyer defending big firms against claims of negligence, etc, which led her to a seat on the board of Wal-Mart.
As a vehemently pro-corporate candidate, there was never any chance that a Hillary Clinton presidency would represent any kind of real threat to the continuation of the ravages of neoliberalism, or to the ongoing carte blanche of the financial system that was the proximate cause of the Great Recession. The hope that she would do anything sufficiently urgent about climate change was faint at best, since such urgent measures would necessarily involve challenging the power of corporate capitalism, and that was never on the cards. The best that could’ve been hoped for was a few more band-aids on the wound to slightly slow the infection. That would’ve been worth having, but only in the same way that a splash of whiskey on a stab wound to the stomach is worth having if it’s going to be a long time before you can get to a doctor.
She is a perpetual hawk, an enthusiast for NATO, a hardened neo-con imperialist. She voted against the Levin Amendment, which was an attempt to make any US invasion of a foreign country dependent upon a UN resolution. She was energetically supportive of the Bush/Cheney drive to invade Iraq, doing more than any other non-Republican politician to spread the myth that Saddam was linked to al Qaeda. She has since said that invading Iraq was a “mistake”. However, this was yet another opportunistic and insincere triangulation. She promotes Islamophobia through her reliable tendency to hawkish attacks on the Arab world, notwithstanding all her hypocritical rhetoric about peace and tolerance. Though to the right of Obama, she made herself at home in his administration, which broadly continued the policy of endless war in the Middle East and Central Asia, albeit in in a more tentative, scaled-down, hands-off way – at least in appearance. The bloody mess that is present-day Libya is very much her personal handiwork.
To quote Jonathan Cook:
Personally, as secretary of state, she helped engineer the overthrow of Col Muammar Gaddafi. That policy led to an outcome – one that was entirely foreseeable – of Libya’s reinvention as a failed state, with jihadists of every stripe sucked into the resulting vacuum. Large parts of Gadaffi’s arsenal followed the jihadists as they exported their struggles across the Middle East, creating more bloodshed and heightening the refugee crisis. Now Clinton wants to intensify US involvement in Syria, including by imposing a no-fly zone – or rather, a US and allies-only fly zone – that would thrust the US into a direct confrontation with another nuclear-armed power, Russia.
Clinton circumvented even the Pentagon’s own strategy for Libya in favour of NATO strikes, also shutting down any talks about a deal for a peaceful transfer of power brought to the Americans by Gaddafi’s regime. Her leading role in the destruction of Libya has, of course, been studiously ignored by the same media that helped legitimate and enable it in the first place, and which routinely fawns over her enlightened record.
Then there’s her role in Honduras. She used her position as Secretary of State to nix the effort made by the Organization of American States to reinstate the democratically-elected reformist president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, after the coup which unstead him in 2009. Despite formally condemning the coup, the US was no friend of Zelaya, who had signed agreements with Venezuela. She actively helped hand Honduras back to the criminal oligarchs, and thus shares responsibility for hundreds of reprisal murders by them, and for ruining the chances of Honduras achieving real reforms – including on many of the issues she claims to care about, and for which US liberals champion her, including gay rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights, etc.
As a senator, in 2007, Clinton joined the Republicans in voting down a military appropriations bill that would’ve restricted the use of cluster bombs in densely occupied areas. She wants little girls in America to know they could be President one day, but doesn’t care if little girls in foreign countries get their limbs blown off by US-dropped explosive balls of razor-sharp metal. How inspiring. Of course, the reform she helped kill was itself only a slight mediation of an obscene normality.
With all this, and consequently with much of the mainstream establishment backing her – including several Bush-era Republicans – it would be hard for many people at the margins of US capitalist society to see her as likely to drastically change a world that, from their point of view, desperately needs fundamental change. (She has been undermined and smeared by the right-wing media, as was Obama, but it seems to me – and I stand to be corrected here – that, again like Obama in ’08, she was generally supported by the big capitalist class, which found its way into her press coverage.) Her rhetoric sounds inspirational only if you don’t know anything about her real record, or you choose to ignore it, or you can afford to worry only about your well-fed daughter’s confidence to pursue an elite political career in the future. If however, you sense the truth, or infer its broad outlines from her profile, and the way the establishment embraces her, then you’re likely to feel different. It is precisely this well-justified feeling of mistrust of the establishment that feeds into large numbers of eligible voters in America staying away from the queues on voting day. And also to a relatively small but significant number of similar people straying over to Trump who, despite his billions, seems like an outsider to that club.
It’s important to note that none of this dirt on Clinton makes her any less liberal. The dirt is liberalism. Liberalism has a nobler tradition of idealism that has played a genuinely progressive role in history, and has many good people as champions today. But even at its best, as an intellectual tradition it is inherently bound up with capitalism. Its conceptions of justice and liberty have always grown from private property, from markets, from the logic of exchange value. And this logic has always depended upon the capitalism’s spread and growth, not only in the countries where it emerged from older forms, but in the territories where it is implanted by invaders and colonizers. And capitalism is inherently, inescapably, irreformably based on injustice and oppression and exploitation, on racial and gender hierarchies, on invasion and imperialism and coercion, on theft and murder, on brutality and callousness, on treating people as material and grinding them up into bloody mince.
The people who reject the system, the establishment, the mainstream, in the person of Clinton, actively or passively, are right – in principle – to do so. Or at least, their rejection is comprehensible. For all but miniscule minorities, this is not consciously fascism any more than it is nihilism or accelerationism. (This is not, by the way, to excuse the act of voting for Trump. Voting for Trump was an inherently racist act, whatever the consciousness of the person doing it.) If, for some, the rejection takes the form of apathy, then even that apathy does not come ex nihilo. Apathy is not the default state of fallen humanity. Apathy is not genetic. Like its close cousins Cynicism and Despair, it is generated socially. It is a product, and some people labour to produce it, even if they don’t mean to. It is a waste product of the manufacture of hegemony and ideology and consent, and of systematic exclusion. As far as Trump is concerned, it just happened to become a very valuable commodity to him, and he profited doubly since the specific apathy from which he benefitted (as opposed to apathy in the abstract) was actually manufactured largely by his opponents.
Trump is not, of course, anti-establishment or un-mainstream, in any way. The liberal wing of the same ideological establishment that made him a TV star tries to disown him. The same establishment that coddled him, enabled him, deregulated him, sponsored him, let him (almost certainly) evade taxes, funnelled money to him, and permitted and encouraged him to accrue huge amounts more money than he inherited from exploiting the working class, now reacts to him with horror. And he is delighted by that horror, he plays up endlessly anything that makes him look like he is ridiculed, disowned, criticised, persecuted, mocked, and hated by the establishment. Because he knows his supporters want to believe him to be a source of horror and fear to that establishment. But this pretence is carefully cultivated. It is a nonsense, of course… but it’s easy to sell a bridge to people who really, really want to believe they’re going to get one.
The paradox is that it is Trump’s very mainstream-ness that allows him to successfully posture as anti-establishment. Because what could be a more mainstream idea in American popular culture, what could be a more common ideological product in the American capitalist culture industries, than the millionaire/billionaire businessman as hero, as buccaneer, as authority-scaring rebel, as charmingly un-PC dynamic outsider who ignores stuffy old rules and structures, who asserts his moral will on the world, and consequently gets things done? (Hello Tony Stark. Oh look, you even have a tower.)
There is, of course, a sense in which he is an outsider. (There would have to be. Myths and misconceptions tend to need to look true, at least from some angles, given that most people don’t spend most of their lives actually concussed and hallucinating.) He is not a career politician in the normal sense. He has not been schooled in the conventional ways of the professional political class (I use that handy term here, though they are not actually a true ‘class’ in themselves). He has not learned the slick art of the political speech, where every word is analysed for all shades of meaning by twenty people weeks in advance. He has not learned how to dress, talk, or conduct himself like the pros. He doesn’t even dogwhistle like them. Ordinary career conservative politicos have learned that there are different times and venues for different levels of forthrightness, that you have to keep – at least formally – to within the accepted rules of the game of code and cipher, and that the mainstream ideological discourse of neoliberal capitalism demands an ostensible adherence to the right noises about equality and anti-racism, etc. They’ve learned not to say the kinds of things in public that they – Hillary and Mitt Romney were actually caught at this – will say openly in private gatherings of the rich. They’ve learned that the bubble of the thinkable and sayable in mainstream public discourse protects them far more than it hinders them, as long as they practice a little restraint. They’ve learned that the appearance of ‘extremism’ worries the powerful because any form of it, even right-wing extremism, suggests a destabilisation of the normal functioning of the society that serves them so well. Trump, by contrast, brings the only lightly-censored discourse of the boarish, trustafarian, fratboy locker-room to the stump. His narcissism – the underlying psychological mechanism that enabled him to do any of what he’s done – could permit nothing else. And it proved to be a winning formula. And not just because of the paradoxically mainstream worship of the rich permeating American pop-culture.
Countless Trump supporters have told bemused reporters that what they like about him is that he “speaks his mind” and “tells it like it is”. A lot of them realise, but don’t seem to mind, that what he says is often foolish gibberish. It is just such a relief to hear someone on a stage talking politics without sounding like a robot. The secret inner element here is his supposed lack of concern about the opinions of the elite. Politically disoriented by decades of neoliberal ideological domination, most people don’t sense the class aspect of his behaviour. American capitalism had adopted, to a large part, a hegemonic ideological discourse that entails lip-service to values of inclusiveness and tolerance. (Another paradox is that, historically, it has been forced into this, and forced to adapt itself to it, by the victories of liberatory struggles from below.) Trump cannily plays into a rejection of the ideological hegemony via a rejection of these markers. A triangulation worthy of the Clintons. It is deeply satisfying for many to see such markers flouted. This is, undoubtedly, partly owing to a rejection of the values supposedly represented in the markers. But it is as much because of their patent insincerity and hypocrisy in mainstream discourse, coupled with their very hegemony. The reactionary yowl of anger at those whose liberation erodes one’s privilege is there, and Trump has masterfully tapped into it (or intuitively and blindly stumbled into it – it looks the same either way) but there is also the sheer enjoyment of denying that which the powerful ideological organs of society all agree on. There is the thrill of rebellion against the eternal verities of the powerful. But it is a safe rebellion, a managed and channelled rebellion. That’s why these are the specific eternal verities being rebelled against. It’s precisely because they are not really the eternal verities of the ruling class, but rather their specious and performative pieties. It is also partly because they are the ideological markers which represent progress, even if the progress is often only in the way people speak in public. Conservatism, reactionary politics, is always a coalition around the defence of privilege. Capitalist society has survived so long by allowing the oscillation of modes of erosion and recovery of privilege. It looks like slow progress. It looks like debate. It looks like an arc of history being long but bending towards justice. It isn’t. It’s an evolutionary mutation of capitalism’s mechanisms for regulating ideological hegemony. Trumpism is a specific iteration of this. It is as carefully managed as any Clintonian triangulation, any establishment PR campaign.
Part of the fossil record of how 21st century capitalism evolved these mechanisms as they currently stand is fascism.