June 2017        

It wasn’t meant to happen

Ciarán Larkin

It wasn’t meant to happen. As presidential election day in the United States approached, pollsters and pundits, bar-stool sages and the proverbial man in the street chorused with swelling confidence that Trump could not win. The American people would pull back from the appalling vista of a Trump presidency and elect the safer Hillary Clinton, consigning Trump’s bid to a somewhat ludicrous, if deeply disquieting, historical footnote.
     Instead the people did what, for the capitalist class, is a distressing habit they tend to have: they did the complete opposite. They voted for Trump in greater numbers than anybody could have predicted.
     They didn’t give Trump the presidency: the Electoral College ensured that. They didn’t even give him more votes than Clinton: she won by more than three million in the popular vote. But they gave him enough votes to swing crucial states away from the Democratic Party and secure his election.
     At this point it’s important to stop and state that while the election of Clinton would have been preferable, a Clinton victory would have made scant difference to the American worker. Yes, a few sops would have doled out to minorities, with much high-flying rhetoric about fairness, equality, and justice; but the material circumstances of the workers would not have advanced a single millimetre with Clinton in the White House.
     While Trump might preach a message of absurd capitalist nationalism, Clinton is very much an acolyte of neo-liberalism, that purest form of capitalism that over the last forty years has cowed workers around the globe into submission, forcing them to accept lower wages, longer working hours and reduced living standards and submerging their lives in an endless river of fear and uncertainty about the future.
     In the days after the election many Americans asked just how Trump had come to be elected. Others asked perhaps a more vital question: just how had the Republican Party been invaded and ultimately cannibalised by a group of rabidly racist, misogynist, fascist-leaning right-wing fanatics, for whom Trump became their figurehead.
     This was, after all, the party of Lincoln, a radical party founded in the mid-1850s that espoused the abolition of slavery and complete civil rights for black people. It was only the veto of Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s successor and a Democrat) that denied full equality.
     By the 1880s the radical zeal of the party had ebbed and it had aligned itself with the interests of the capitalist class. Still, Republicans tended to display more socially liberal tendencies than their Democratic counterparts, the support of many of whom was anchored in the socially conservative South. The Democrats’ Southern support would not finally collapse until the 1960s, when much of it migrated to the eastern and western coasts.
     So what had happened to the “Grand Old Party” of American politics? The Republican Party always had right-wing elements: one only has to think of Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. But the leadership remained predominately eastern “WASPs” (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants). In many cases these were both capitalist and patriarchal. It was in the early 1960s that a splinter group comprising mainly white middle-class office workers and small businessmen began their slow agitation against the party leadership.
     While the post-war years have often been described as a golden period for capitalism, they were in many ways the high-water mark of trade union success. Heavily unionised work forces were able to leverage their strength and extract a range of concessions from employers, such as higher pay, better working conditions, and a larger slice of the profit pie.
     And while large transnationals such as Ford and American Steel could afford such concessions, the petit-bourgeois element could not. Caught between the demands of Labour and big Capital, they saw their profit margins shrinking and a Republican Party leadership that was wilfully adding erosion of their profit line. The insurgency was on.
     The first inkling of rebellion came with the nomination of the right-wing Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide; but the message was clear: the old elite of the Republican leadership would no longer have free rein.
     For the next forty years the revolt continued, ebbing and flowing in strength but all the while eroding the elitist core of the party, pushing liberal Republicans either to the margins that the ultra-right had once occupied or, in most cases, out of the party entirely.
     Yet the capitalist, elitist centre, through offering minor concessions to the hard right on marriage law, abortion, and affirmative action, were able to remain dominant. Then came the perfect storm of the Bush and Obama governments and the financial crisis. The Republican electorate became even more radicalised as they witnessed the bank and home-owner bail-out.
     From this anger the Tea Party burst forth, uniting older white managers, professionals and small business people with younger middles-class ranks, all of whom resented the bail-out of “undeserving” home-owners and corporate welfare.
     The capitalist leaders of the Republican Party, seeing an opportunity to defeat Obama’s modest health reforms, offered an alliance to the Tea Party, which was gleefully seized.
     The partnership was initially a fruitful one. They were able to thin out much of the more radical elements of the Affordable Care Act. Still, and despite successes, such as capturing the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections, tensions continually bubbled to the surface.
     The Tea Party tenaciously refused to toe the line, especially on economic matters. They supported stricter limits on immigration and advocated an economic nationalism utterly at odds with the capitalists’ neo-liberalism, and they had no qualms about pushing the country to the brink of a federal default.
     All this was too much for the capitalists, who broke off the alliance. But they had underestimated the depth of the radicalisation that had taken hold of the working-class and middle-class component of the Republican Party. When Trump announced his candidacy, the radicalised right-wing elements of the Republican Party and middle class flocked to him. Many of the traditionalist stalwarts of the party, repelled by Trump’s economic nationalism and his views on free trade, fled to Clinton.
     It mattered little. Trump, by rejecting the elements of neo-liberalism that had impoverished sections of both the middle class and working class, gained huge swathes of votes. He ran a campaign primarily based on fear, and it worked.
     The ultra-right had captured the Republican Party, and American politics had changed utterly.

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