There are times when being right is a luxury too far. This is one of those times. It was possible to see Trump coming, but it was also possible – until about midnight on November 8th – to hope that his coming would be aborted. It was not.
In the end, Donald Trump didn’t win the popular vote, but he did break the ‘blue firewall’ that the Democrats thought Hillary Clinton could hold in rustbelt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin; and the Democratic Party’s mobilisation of Latino and African Democratic votes, though large, was still insufficient to deny the Trump campaign victory in key battleground states like Florida and North Carolina. Since the media largely failed to see this victory coming, and since the constituencies in play behind the victory have obvious UKIP parallels, the temptation on both sides of the Atlantic will no doubt be to collapse the Brexit vote and the Trump victory together, and to explain them both as a rebellion of those left behind by neo-liberal globalisation. The temptation will be to create a modern version of Trotsky’s ‘levée en masse of the petit-bourgeoisie’ explanation of inter-war fascism.
There is much to be said for collapsing the two phenomena in that way. Both the US and UK economies have experienced serious levels of deindustrialisation and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in the last two decades, in the process creating rustbelts, wrecking rural and small-town communities, and slashing both wages and job security in areas that once were the heartland of working-class prosperity. So there are currently lots of frustrated workers in both countries looking for an explanation for, and an escape route from, their diminished circumstances. And the fact that – having looked – many of those frustrated workers turned to Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, rather than to Jeremy Corbyn or Hillary Clinton, tells you just how deserted they felt (and still feel) by mainstream centre-left parties, and just how complicit those parties have been in the neoliberalism that has so adversely affected them.
The necessary policy lessons to be drawn by the Democrats in the US, and by Labour in the UK, seem, in consequence, obvious.
But there are local variations too that need to be borne in mind. Three at least.
1. I have been away from the UK too long to judge just how central working-class racism was to the success of the Brexit campaign, but be in no doubt – it was absolutely front and centre to the Trump success. His was a victory on Tuesday night of small town and rural America over the large cities and their suburbs – a victory that was anchored firmly in white working-class America’s desire ‘to take the country back’ – code for the anger at what they see as the disproportionate sensitivity of Washington politics to the concerns of African-American and Hispanic constituencies. Washington is not so sensitive, of course; and most of the American poor are black or brown rather than white. But there is no easy escape from the fact that the Democratic Party has played a role, since the civil rights era and the clash with American trade unions over Vietnam, in allowing sections of the American poor and near-poor to fight each other on ethnic/racial lines, rather than directing their anger at Wall Street or at the senior American managerial class in total. The Trump vote was not simply overwhelming on Tuesday. It was also overwhelmingly white.
2. A second variation is this. As far as I could judge from afar, the Brexit campaign was well organized, with a strong ground game. The Trump victory was not. There was hardly a ground game to speak of. The mobilisation of white working-class racism and xenophobia was largely spontaneous. Donald Trump articulated it, and his supporters came looking for him – hungry to hear him say loudly in public what they had long said quietly in private. His campaign was centred around rallies and he filled halls with crowds which were disproportionately white, non-college educated and low paid. There are a lot of such people in contemporary America, especially away from the big cities; and away from the cities, the popular culture that prevails in small-town America is far more Protestant evangelical and libertarian than it is in any European sense social-democratic. If the centre-left is to get those white working-class voters back, and get them back on progressive terms, it will have its work cut out for it. There is no easy or quick fix to the Trump phenomenon in current American politics. White racism, social conservatism and gun culture run too deep for that.
3. There are chinks of light however, amid all this gloom and doom. One is that many of the mainstream Republican voters who came back to Trump in the last weeks of the campaign seem to have done so only because of their aversion to Hillary Clinton. The vote was as much against her as it was for him; and she will now go away. Moreover, there is a generational dimension at play here. Many of the most vocal Trump supporters are over 40. Remarkably, they are as often women as they are men: to America’s lasting shame, many white working-class women tolerate, even dismiss, Trump’s misogyny while discounting the importance of Hillary Clinton’s potential to break the ultimate glass ceiling in American politics. The fact that Hillary Clinton was a woman did not draw them to her, just as the fact that Donald Trump has a record as a sexual predator did not seem to alienate them from him. But the millennial generation that is coming to its maturity don’t share this pattern of tolerance and indifference. When you map their voting, it was country-wide pro-Clinton on Tuesday, with just a handful of states (Kentucky, West Virginia North Dakota, Montana and Idaho) breaking this trend. The Brexit coalition may outlive the baby-boomers, but the Trump one most likely will not.
And the Trump coalition is not likely to hold for one other reason. Trump and the Republicans were able to gather votes by blaming the Obama administration for slow economic growth and Hillary Clinton for Benghazi. But no more. Now the Republicans will control all three seats of power in Washington: the White House, Congress and soon again the Supreme Court. When they fail to deliver on their grandiose promises for the return of jobs and wages – and they will – there will no ducking the bankruptcy of their policies. Trump may be riding high now – and is likely do great damage while he does so – but pride always come before a fall: and there will be a mighty one in his case.
The centre-left in the United States is not dead. 51 million people just voted for it. It will take time to regroup but, believe me, it will come again; and the sooner it finds its way to the construction of broad class alliances rather than rainbow coalitions that exclude the white poor, the sooner that day will come.
DAVID COATES is Professor of Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, USA. His recent publications include Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments (2010); Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger US Economy (2012); America in the Shadow of Empires (2014) and Capitalism: The Basics (2015). He is writing the book Flawed Capitalism (2018) for Agenda.