“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”
Donald J. Trump, the outsider billionaire, defeated Hillary R. Clinton, the insider politician, in a stunning upset for the US presidency. All polls and all pundits assumed that Clinton would win in a landslide. Confidence ran so high that Clinton’s people in the Democratic Party felt that she might even win traditionally Republican states – even Texas, the bastion of American conservatism. It was suggested that Clinton could win the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, denying Trump any path to victory. As it turned out, Trump won each of these states, comfortable in his victory.
Not only did Trump win, but the Republican Party – in deep disarray about his candidacy – retained the US House of Representatives, the US Senate and the majority of the governorships. This means that the Republican Party will – from January 2017 – control every major branch of US government. The electorate has delivered, in other words, a mandate to the conservative political party.
Why is this so?
It has nothing to do with persona of Trump. After all, he is a billionaire who has made his career by squandering the livelihoods of his workers, and disregarding the well being of the people hurt by his real estate projects. In comments made during the race, Trump disparaged non-white people, calling Mexicans rapists and calling for a ban on Muslim immigration into the United States. His sharp and nasty comments about women amplified his remove from the discourse of polite society. He is ‘unfit to serve’, said the ruling class, which included not only stalwarts of the Democratic Party but also of the Republican Party. The Bush family – which has produced two Republican presidents – shunned Trump. So did many of the Republicans who ran for the Senate. High-minded society saw in Trump the worst instincts of humanity.
But the vote for Trump did not likely come because he was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest white supremacy group. Certainly Trump drew his support largely from White voters – White men in particular, but also White women. Did they vote for him because he disparaged Mexicans and women? My own reporting showed that Trump’s support came to a significant extent for two reasons: because he talked openly about a forgotten America and because he offered a robust denunciation of unequal globalization.
Most American politicians repeat the view that America is not only the greatest country but that it is also going to remain eternally great. Trump’s slogan – Make America Great Again – suggested that America was not great, but that it was suffering. It is true that the statement had within it older lineages of racist thinking, namely that it could be read as saying that America was great when whites were fully in power. But this is not the only way to read the slogan. It could also be read to say that there are ‘forgotten men and women of our country’ – as Trump put it in rural Appalachia – ‘People who work hard but who no longer have a voice’. When Trump’s team released that speech to the press, the next line was written in capitals – ‘I AM YOUR VOICE’. The idea of the ‘forgotten men and women’ has two histories. The first is from President F. D. Roosevelt (FDR), who – in the aftermath of the Great Depression – called upon the country to tend to the ‘forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid’. This was in 1932, as FDR pushed for an economic stimulus to prevent both the rise of fascism and the rise of communism. The second is from President Richard M. Nixon, who spoke of the ‘silent majority’, who – in the aftermath of the ‘race riots’ of 1968 – referred to whites who resented the end of formal racism in the US (Jim Crow) and who despised the anti-war movement. In other words, the idea of the ‘forgotten’ person has roots in economic and cultural politics. Trump refrained both these lineages in his speeches – talking about the need to bring economic activity back to the forgotten parts of rural and small town America and the need to address racist grievances against immigrants and the newly enfranchised racial minorities. Resentment along cultural grounds spilled over into disdain for Obama (a black man) and Clinton (a white woman).
Trump’s victory cannot be merely chalked off to resentment. The idea of the ‘forgotten men and women’ suggests Trump’s quite forceful criticism of globalization – his appeal to the dying factory towns and farming communities, the parts of the country afflicted with desolation and opioid addition. His criticism of the hemorrhaging of jobs was real and it went under the skin of neoliberal policy prescriptions. No more blather about high-end jobs to replace the working-class jobs – that is bewildering to a population with little access to higher education. Themes raised by Bernie Sanders fit in with the bluster of Trump’s critique. Large scale, buried unemployment, and failure to recover from the credit crisis of 2008, came to the surface. Trump was the ventriloquist of these themes.
Across the Western world, from the United Kingdom’s Brexit Vote to the US vote for Trump, a harsh, even monstrous, form of denunciation of neoliberalism has emerged. The Left is weak in these parts and unable to capture the imagination of the public with its more sober, historically based criticism of neoliberalism. This is a criticism that rightly sees the problem, but then whips into anti-immigrant xenophobia and racist hyperbole. The era of neoliberalism is dead. That is clear with the victories across the Atlantic world, but also in the tired statements of the neoliberal class towards the real crisis of inequality. A new era is not born yet. It cannot be born without the emergence of a robust Left. In the interim appear monsters – whether Boris Johnson in the UK or Donald Trump in the US. This is the time of monsters.
The last time a Republican won the US presidency, their candidate – George W. Bush – was the epitome of neoliberal globalization. He pushed hard on the neoliberal agenda already put in place by the Democratic standard-bearer of these views, Bill Clinton. Rather than fight deindustrialization, they accelerated it. Increased police and prisons domestically became the mirror image of increased belligerence overseas. The collapse of the financial sector in 2008 and the planetary wars after 9/11 sharpened the decline in the United States. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton inherited the leadership of this dangerous policy agenda.
Trump and his confreres in Europe have no adequate answers to the problem. The team around Trump has little idea about trade policy. Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation and Larry Kudlow of CNBC are Trump’s advisors on trade. Both live within the consensus, pro-free trade and pro-globalization. Neither have a problem with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nor with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). What they disagree with is the decision-making process of these trade deals, not the deals themselves. Strikingly all that they could offer – in a conversation with Ben White of Politico – is more robust intellectual property protections, better protection of technology advances and better negotiations of bilateral deals. No one in the pro-globalization wing of the ruling elites would disagree with them. Trump raised the lid on the failures of neo-liberalism, but his own team seems incoherent in its assessment of how to go forward. In other words, a Trump presidency is fated to fail in terms of its economic promises of bringing jobs to the heartland.
Which means that Trump will only be able to deliver the harshest tonic of racism and misogyny as alibis for the failures of his economic policy. He will not turn his gaze on the banks, but he will look hostilely at multicultural policies and at gestures to make the social order more tolerable. This will be attacked directly. It is what his movement has evoked; the ghouls of intolerance will now feel as if they have inherited the earth. Harshness will the way forward.
The Democratic Party, certain of victory, will now plunge into political depression. It could not defeat Trump! It will blame the Green Party and low turnout – as Brecht sang, if you are unhappy with the result then ‘Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?’
The miniscule American Left will have to dust off its electoral compromises and come to terms with the need to defend the gains of the civil rights movement, but also speak robustly against a trade policy that kills jobs and creates forgotten people. It is the failure to be bold and clear in the language of anti-neoliberalism that gave that space to Trump. Even Bernie Sanders was too timid. Far more forthright and legible criticism is necessary. It is the only way to push back against the Monsters.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.org.