Where to from here? Observations from the US Election

In the beginning, the universe was created.

This made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

Contrary to how I felt when I called the election for Trump at 3:45 on Wednesday, when a combination of shock and nausea convinced me the apocalypse had arrived, the sun has risen again and the Earth has shown a lot more dedication to the laws of physics than American electoral polling has. It’s a glorious day outside. Even my atheist ass, riddled with cynicism at a world which seems to have confronted the challenges of the 21st century by shitting itself in the corner, can’t help but wonder whether this is the universe telling us to relax.

To be fair, the universe has nothing to worry about – it will keep rolling onwards and upwards regardless of whether humanity decides to wipe itself off the face of the Earth. We play no role in the functioning of the universe; the sun will rise with or without us. Still, as I look at the pieces of a shattered electoral map and one of the most stunning upsets of power since Brutus and Cassius assassinated Julius Caesar, I can’t help but make some observations about what this election means, and where we go from here.

A spectacular piece of electoral strategy

Move over the Von Schlieffen Plan, Trump’s pathway to the Presidency is the most tactically brilliant and audacious piece of strategy I have ever seen. I mean it, I’m in awe – this is the modern electoral equivalent of Hannibal crossing the Alps in the Second Punic War. After Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican Party decided the Southern White strategy was dead, and it needed to embrace Latinos, African Americans, and Women. Trump threw their strategy out the window and doubled down on white. Where was this election won?  There were 9 million registered white voters who didn’t vote in 2012, Trump figured he just had to bring them into play.

Years from now, when we get over the shock that a country elected a billionaire President to fix its rampant inequality, we will still be talking about what happened next. Trump eschewed the traditional path to victory – he gave up bringing states like Nevada and Colorado back into the fold. Much like Hannibal, he surveyed the opposition’s defences, spotted an unsuspected weakness and exploited it ruthlessly.

If you had told me that Trump would win Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, I would have laughed at you. Even as November 8 turned to shit, we were still reassured that the firewall would hold and bring Hillary sneaking home to 270. What astounds me is that Trump saw his path to victory 14 months ago, and it played out exactly as he said it would. He targeted the heartland of America’s structural unemployment with complete disregard for whether they were Democrat strongholds. He didn’t need college-educated Republicans in urban areas – he wanted the rural white disenfranchised, and they carried him home in a tsunami. Turns out the Orange Bill Cosby had a little more Karl Rove in him than we thought.

Trump’s message, even though populist and couched in racism and misogyny, struck the nerve of some very real grievances in white America. The decline of manufacturing might not actually be the product of free trade, rather the structural consequences of technology as robots and microchips have replaced man and hammer, but the distinction is irrelevant to the guy who can’t put food on his family’s table. Ditto the decimation of America’s middle class – it is easier to blame NAFTA than to say ‘structural inequality was exacerbated by the catastrophic failures of Reagan’s neoliberal tax reforms in the 1980’s, trickle-down economics is a fallacy and social mobility is crippling America’. The irony in this is that Republicans have done far more damage to middle America than the Democrats, yet were significantly better at harnessing the outrage and transforming it into political capital.

This election was a revolt against royalism

Probably the best observation I have seen coming out of this election is that this was the American middle class making a statement against the royalist tendencies which have dominated presidential politics since the 1980’s. Since 1981, there has only been four years where there hasn’t been a Clinton or a Bush either in the White House or in a senior position in the Executive:

1981-1989: George H W Bush (Vice President);

1989-1993: George HW Bush (President);

1993-2001: Bill Clinton (President);

2001-2009: George W Bush (President);

2009-2013: Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State).

Consider, for a moment, that Hillary only left in 2013 to begin building her machine for the 2016 election, and the image is quite stark: If Hillary won, then by the time of her re-election in 2020, a Bush or Clinton would have been in a senior level of government or running for President for the last four decades. You can imagine that Jeb Bush would have had another tilt too – painting himself as the great healer.

Think about it for a moment – a year ago, who were the presumptive favourites for nomination for the two parties? Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Whether by chance or by machination, 2016 was shaping up as a representation of politics as usual; two dynasties sharing power, presenting America with no real choice. Now, as I have said above, I think there are significantly more complex reasons to America’s structural inequality problems and the decimation of its middle class, but the everyday reality of the situation is that there has been an enormous decline in the fortunes of Middle America, and the Bush and Clinton families have been an effervescent presence for almost all of living memory.

The fact that many of us missed this until it was too late is an indictment on both the left and the right. We were so caught up were in the walking-talking outrage machine that was Trump’s campaign, we overlooked the fact that his incendiary approach was actually a grassroots arson attack on the political establishment. Like dumbstruck tourists in a tsunami, we didn’t notice the water had drained from the bay until the wave was bearing down on us and it was too late to make it to higher ground.

Jeb Bush did everything right in the primaries – he built a machine, built support networks right through the party establishment; he was the presumptive favourite for a good reason. The only person that we thought would seriously challenge was Marco Rubio – if anyone was positioned to be the face of the new ‘post-2012’ Republican party, it was the fresh faced Hispanic senator from Florida. The fact that Trump dispensed with every comer in the primaries with such ease, the fact that he sucked up so much political oxygen, should have been a warning of what was to follow. Instead, we just assumed that it was the second coming of Sarah Palin.

Hillary’s difficulty to beat Bernie Sanders should have served as a similar warning that the grounds had shifted on both sides of politics. She had seemed insurmountable – First Lady, Senator of New York, Secretary of State – her resume made her the most qualified Presidential candidate since George Bush Snr. Yet Bernie Sanders made her look lethargic, stale and out of touch. We rationalised this as a difficulty because Bernie was going for the energised left of the Party whilst Hillary was focusing on being able to attract disaffected Republicans in the general.

We were wrong – both the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republican royal family lost to a party insurgent, the Democrat royal family was swept away by an eroding base they didn’t see coming.

What will the Trump Presidency look like?

Like a lot of people, the big question we will be asking ourselves is what will a Trump presidency look like? The man has released little in the way of policy beyond the soaring rhetoric that he will fix the problems and make America great again. How you fix America’s broken health and education systems, how you address the rampant inequality and the structural unemployment issues outside of the major cities, when no President has had any wholescale success in these areas since FDR, is anyone’s guess.

Similarly, America’s position in the world and its foreign policy direction is up in the air. If the campaign rhetoric is to be believed, then America’s position as the leader of the post-1945 consensus is well and truly in jeopardy. A more isolationist America is a scary prospect for the Western world, an isolationist America with a friendly view to Putin is even worse. We face some truly epoch-defining decisions in the coming decade, and America needs to be front and centre.

What happens depends on the decisions Trump makes over the coming months. On one hand, he can surround himself with the very best thinkers (and actually listen to them). On the other, he can allow his strongman caudillo tendencies to dictate his decision making, and treat the cabinet as an opportunity to reward his biggest supporters. From the early view, patronage appears to be dominating – there is talk of Chris Christie becoming Attorney General, and of his children taking positions in his Cabinet. If that is the case, look to the most rampant nepotism since JFK. It is, however, early days – if this election has taught me anything, it is that you underestimate Trump at your own peril. What can’t be ignored is that Trump is the least experienced President in US history; he needs all the help he can get or this administration will be a disaster.

The problem with populism is that it often works a lot better in opposition than as an actual strategy for governance. In Australia, this can be seen from the rapid decline of Tony Abbott one he reached the office he had fought so hard for. Quite simply, there is a different standard for the driver than the backseat driver. What can’t be denied is that Trump has made a lot of extravagant promises in this campaign – from two thousand mile walls, to hardline immigration reform, bringing back manufacturing jobs that have been replaced by microchips, repealing and replacing Obamacare and fixing Washington corruption. How he does this is anyone’s guess, but they are quickly going to become anchors around his neck once he assumes office.

The lessons for Democrats

The Democrat’s post mortem of this election will be enormous – it will be a painstaking review of what happened, what went wrong, and how to fix it. The fact that Donald Trump is in the White House means it is time for the party to address how it connects with the disenfranchised whites in middle America. I don’t think this is a seismic shift of voters away from the Democrats like in the South after the end of Segregation; I suspect this is a protest vote and, like the Reagan Democrats, they will return to the fold.

I have three observations here though:

  • This depends on what Trump manages to achieve; if he somehow manages to bring back the manufacturing industry to the Rust Belt, then it will become a Republican stronghold. If people are still poor an unemployed four years from now, expect the backlash to be enormous.
  • The Democrats can no longer afford to assume the votes of the industrial North whilst it focuses on building the turnout of people of colour in swing states.
  • Decisive action must be taken against Wall Street. Despite the rhetoric, the Obama presidency has been anaemic in its efforts to rain in the excesses of Wall Street since the GFC (with the exception, of course, of Elizabeth Warren). Middle America is hurting, and it looks at a Party which has talked tough, done little and taken enormous donations from Wall Street.

The lessons for Republicans:

Why would they need lessons, they pulled of a stunning upset, didn’t they?

Well, yes and no. A Republican is in the White House, but for all its finger waving and self-indulgent ‘I told you so’ to the left, there are some very serious and dangerous consequences for the Republicans in this election.

  • The demographic problem continues. The Republicans lost the popular vote, again. I have said before that the Republicans have an enormous demographic problem, and nothing in 2016 changes that. The vote count is only 92% complete, so at this stage Trump could still catch up, but Hillary is approximately 200,000 votes ahead of him on a national scale. If she holds on, then 2004 will remain the only time since 1988 that the Republicans have won a popular vote in the Presidential Election. Just allow me to reiterate – as it stands, more people have voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.
  • Trump is not a ‘real’ Republican. As Bob Carr so eloquently put it, Donald Trump led a one-man insurgency on the Republican Party. Unlike his colleagues in the House and Senate, he shares no collegiality or allegiance to his brethren. This is not ‘his’ party in the sense of most Presidents. Rather, it is the platform he used to essentially run as an independent. Despite the jubilations at an unexpected win, there are going to be some very hungover people at the RNC wondering where in the hell they go from here.
  • 2020 could be a disaster for the Republican Party. Trump has got to deliver on some very some very difficult promises. It is one thing to sell Middle America a dream that you can fix all of the problems, it is another to deliver policies that achieve this, especially when some of them go against the principles of your party (which controls both houses). Considering the way Democrats have engrained support in minority communities over the past decade, and the fact that traditional Democrats have delivered him his victory, 2020 could be catastrophic for the Republicans if they fail to fulfil Trump’s agenda.

Pence for President?

The lingering question for Trump is whether his presidency goes the full term. As I have said already, he is not a real Republican and this has two implications – one, he does not share the ideological positions of a lot of his colleagues. Two, he lacks the broader support network and allegiances within the party structure to protect him when he gets into trouble. This was apparent throughout the campaign – senior Republicans publicly struggled with supporting their candidate, some to the point where they went weeks without uttering his name.

This is significant because Trump is prone to controversy. I don’t think it is particularly partisan to say that this man is entering the White House with more baggage and lingering questions about his finances than any President in history. Unravelling his corporate structures and interests to put into a ‘blind trust’ will be an exhaustively and (potentially) prohibitive exercise. Trump is one dodgy tax return away from a motion from an impeachment. The uncomfortable reality for him is that most Republican’s in the House and Senate like his Vice President far more than they like him. You can assume Democrats will happily vote in favour, the question is whether a few Republicans can be tempted to put a real Republican in the White House.

Finally, America remains sexist

The odds of flipping a coin 45 times in a row and having it land on Heads all 45 times is 0.0000000000028%. America has now had 45 Presidents and every single one of them has been male. Hillary may not have been your choice; you may have felt that Trump was more qualified. The situation, however is getting ridiculous. Since George Washington became President in 1789, England has had two Queens (despite having a rule of succession based on male preference primogeniture) and two female Prime Ministers. At some point very soon, in a country of 300 million, there must be a woman that the electorate can consider to be presidential material.

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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

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