The Big Stakes at Play in the US Presidential Election
October 20th 2016
The US Presidential election has been mesmerising, compelling and a warning from a future that doesn’t work.
As with every recent US election we have had wall-to-wall UK broadcast media coverage. Often this has been presented as a fantasyland larger version of Britain – something which is getting less and less plausible given the differences between the two countries politically. There is something increasingly questionable about the time BBC, ITV and SKY spend on covering US elections compared to say French and German elections (both coming up next year): something which aids the whole Eurosceptic climate which led to Brexit.
Yet, the US election, its politics and public sentiment matters not just for the UK but entire world. For the next three weeks I will be in the States – so here are some brief thoughts – after the three Presidential debates and with three weeks to go to Election Day.
- This is what imperial hurt, confusion and decline looks like. The US has been permanently at war since the 9/11 attacks, and the public is understandably angry, war weary and fed up. Some want to lash out more, some to pull the drawbridge up (or build a wall).
- The US economy hasn’t been working for the vast majority of people since the mid-1970s. That isn’t a sustainable long-term position: hence Trump and Bernie Sanders this time and who knows what in the future.
- Hillary Clinton looks set to win, bearing an upset we haven’t seen since Truman won in 1948 against Dewey. If she does the pattern of the US Presidency since 1988 will look like:
American politics in the age of imperial and economic decline has entered the age of dynasty.
- Hillary Clinton has failed to make out a positive case for her Presidency. The only people I can find who are really enthusiastic about a Clinton Presidency are the corporate consultancy class and mainstream political feminists. One member of the former group told me: ‘Hillary Clinton will be the most progressive President since Lyndon B. Johnson’. That’s both delusional and a statement of how rightward American politics have drifted over the last four to five decades.
- Clinton should be beating Trump out of sight – and clearly isn’t. But a much more competent Republican candidate would be way ahead of Clinton.
- Trump’s negatives are huge. There is his dodgy backstory and deals, unsavoury business practices, prejudice and unacceptable behaviour, and questions about his character. Then there are Hillary Clinton’s negatives: the Clinton Foundation, accusations of cash for access, the Wikileaks revelations and Secretary of State e-mails, as well as all the allegations against the Clintons.
- Hillary Clinton will start – if she wins – as the most unpopular President in US history. Will she have a mandate to govern and will the Republicans accept she has a mandate?
- What happens to the Republicans? How do they come back to sanity after Trump and Trumpism? Since the Reagan revolution took over the party they have bought into a simplistic anti-government, anti-tax, searching for bad guys in the world perspective. This has cumulatively become more and more populist, toxic, delusional and fact-free – resulting in the Tea Party, the Obama ‘Birthers’ and Donald Trump. What is the future of a party which has been taken over by such fringe elements? The Republican establishment has been dis-established.
- Where does the anger, which the Trump campaign has amplified, go? The Trump camp didn’t invent it and it illustrates the desperation and disillusionment many people feel that they would even consider Trump as the answer.
- Trump’s ‘rigged’ claims are risible. US democracy is for all its populist myths built on shaky foundations and practices, but not of the kind Trump is talking about. There was Gore v. Bush and the Florida count in 2000 being stopped thus giving Bush the Presidency by the disputed margin of 537 Florida votes. Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960 by a slender national percentage with numerous allegations that ‘the Mob’ had swung key states such as Illinois.
- There is systemic voter suppression by the US Republicans for decades driving non-white voters off the voting roll; and there is gerrymandering by both parties at state and House level. More fundamentally, there is a huge difference between the number of US registered voters and potential voters – which is deliberately skewed against non-white, poor and young voters.
- The implosion of the US Republicans says something about the state of centre-right politics. It is bad news for the UK Conservatives – with the two parties enjoying a close relationship in ideas, strategy and personnel for the last forty years. The British Conservatives aided by Brexit have embarked on a strategy, which is internationally, and geo-politically without close political friends and allies. That doesn’t help them – particularly after the Theresa May honeymoon fades – given their aging membership and reliance on the City of London for funds.
- Traditional politics are in crisis. Why should that be a surprise? And why does it have to be seen as a bad thing? Some of the forces unleashed are ugly and unedifying such as Trump, Marine Le Pen and worse, but the decline of the conventional politics of left and right is surely understandable and also a major opportunity. Is it really inevitable that the future is a race to the bottom of the loudest, most offensive and simplistic populists?
- So much of the mainstream (as well as supposed alternative) media plays into this. Politics becomes even more about symbolism and the clash of personalities. This election saw the eleventh consecutive Presidential debates – running from Carter v. Ford in 1976 onwards (after a sole Kennedy v. Nixon set of exchanges in 1960). This year the Presidential debates didn’t create the nastiness, but they have magnified and crystallised it. The US media have aided a combative, substance free politics, and struggled to deal with the Trump phenomenon.
Clinton v. Trump will be studied for years. It is a warning from a politics which is for and by the elites, but tries to mask and disguise this by claim and counter-claim. This is the future if the people let the elites away with it: as one commentator observed: ‘the worst of humanity (Trump) versus the worst of government (Clinton)’.
More than likely Hillary Clinton will win the Presidency and prove yet another transitional figure unable to come to terms with US economic decline and its diminished status in the world. She will in all probability (like Bill Clinton before her in 1992 and 1996) be elected with under half the popular vote, and in a mandate disputed by Republicans. At best she will have a narrow majority in the Senate and face a Republican majority in the House of Representatives – a sizeable element of which in the Freedom Caucus will be out for revenge.
Donald Trump is a symptom of pain, anguish and confusion. He has presented a number of alarming harbingers for the future: racism, xenophobia and misogyny, along with near-total ignorance of policy and foreign affairs. Perhaps most worrying has been his talk of a ‘rigged election’, ‘civil war’ if he doesn’t win, and in the last Presidential debate his refusal to say he would accept the result of the election.
Trump isn’t just then about populism and phony raging against the elites but shows where a self-preening, self-absorbed culture of selfishness and narcissism ends up. This is the face of asocial, destructive individualism – which has ripped apart societies and caused such damage across the world. Trump has provided us with a warning from the future: of immature adult-children lashing out at anyone if they don’t get their own way. We have been warned. It is time to wake up.