by Andrew Purcell
Hillary Clinton gave a brave and gracious speech, holding back tears as she addressed “all the little girls” who had seen her fall at the final hurdle. “We must accept this result and look to the future,” she said. “Donald Trump is going to be our president — we owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”
Having vilified Clinton throughout the campaign, Trump was conciliatory in his moment of triumph. “We owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country,” he said, as if the vicious misogyny at his rallies, the shouts of “lock her up” and “execute her” could be expunged by a single disingenuously noble gesture.
“The peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months we are going to show that to the world,” President Barack Obama told reporters gathered in the Rose Garden. “We are all now rooting for [Trump’s] success in uniting and leading the country.” Behind the cameras, White House staff wept.
Only a few days previously, Obama had warned voters in North Carolina that “the fate of the republic” was in their hands. Then, there was no doubting his sincerity.
Both parties underestimated Trump from the beginning, and they underestimate him now. Across Europe, white nationalist movements have been gathering strength. Trump is the first nakedly authoritarian leader of this new far-right wave to take power. Fascism is a word that demands to be used with caution, but if he governs as he campaigned, it may soon fit.
Trump’s appeals to neo-Nazis, militiamen, anti-semites and segregationists stretched plausible deniability to the limit. The white supremacists’ “God Emperor” is now the “leader of the free world,” as Americans like to say. Hate is laundered and hung out for the neighbours to see. The fringe has occupied the centre.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described Trump’s “fascism with an American face” best, writing that the “active agents within a Trump speech… are always the same: worship of power in its most brutal and authoritarian forms… the reduction of all relations to dominance contests; the contempt for rational argument; the perpetual unashamed storm of lies; the appeal to hysterically exaggerated fears of outsiders; and, above all, the relentless sense of ethnic grievance that can be remedied only by acts of annihilating revenge.”
In our new age of post-truth politics, propaganda is amplified by social media and opposing viewpoints and inconvenient facts are filtered out. From respectable but reliably mendacious Fox News to far right conspiracy theorists Breitbart News and Infowars, Trump’s media supporters spread one big lie after another: that President Obama was born in Kenya, that Clinton planned to dissolve the USA’s borders. Soon, manufactured truth will bear the presidential seal.
At rallies, Trump yearned for the good old days when protestors were “carried out on a stretcher”. He branded journalists “scum” and “horrible people” - fit for lynching from trees, according to one popular t-shirt. He said the freedom of the press should be curtailed, and banned reporters from campaign events for asking routine questions. Will he seek to stifle dissent as president? As Maya Angelou wrote: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.”
In the shock of defeat, Democrats grasped for excuses and explanations: FBI Director James Comey’s letter; the false equivalency drawn between Trump’s outrages and Clinton’s ginned-up scandals; the Electoral College overriding the popular vote. Sexism, vote suppression, Wikileaks and Putin. These are all fair points, but should not distract from the larger lesson: the technocratic, neoliberal Democratic Party has abandoned, and been abandoned by, its former blue-collar base.
Running as a change agent in 2008, and then against venture capitalist Mitt Romney four years later, Obama enjoyed substantial white working-class support. Clinton, representing the same multi-racial urban coalition, was wiped out in the heartland. In Trumbull County, Ohio, Obama won by 22% in 2012. Clinton lost by 6%. In Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, a former Democratic stronghold, his 63% became her 50%.
The Republican National Convention was a farce that exposed a divided party and a woefully unprepared nominee, but given a choice between the hate and fear on display in Cleveland, and the slick, cosmopolitan pageant put on by the Democrats in Philadelphia, white voters decided that protecting cultural identity was their primary concern.
The Republican Party’s metamorphosis into the National Front is almost complete. Barry Goldwater began it in 1964 with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. President Richard Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ accelerated it. From Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” to Sarah Palin’s paean to “the real America”, coded appeals to ethnic grievance have been a feature of every Republican presidential campaign, but it has never been so abundantly clear that they are the glue that binds the coalition together.
Trump was preferred by 67% of white voters without a university degree, but he also won among college-educated whites, 49%-45%. White men overwhelmingly voted for Trump, but despite his blatant misogyny, 53% of white women chose him to be their president, too.
Trump won old whites, middle-aged whites, thirty-something whites and young whites voting for the first time. Overall, millennials favoured Clinton, but millennials are the most diverse American generation ever. Among whites aged 18-29, Trump won 48%-43%.
He won among whites in all income categories, too. Economic uncertainty, rising inequality and the migration of good jobs across state and class lines can be blamed for at least some of the Democratic Party’s collapsing vote, but the Republican Party’s rise, and transformation, is primarily attributable to white cultural resentment.
In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." He failed, but the strategy of absolute, unbending resistance to everything Obama sought to achieve has paid off more handsomely than he can possibly have dreamed. The GOP has been rewarded for eight years of obstruction with control of both houses of Congress, plus the executive branch.
Trump’s first priority will be to “erase the Obama presidency,” in the words of one a campaign aide, by revoking executive orders and signing new ones. He will presumably introduce strict new immigration controls, cut funding for abortion clinics and get the Keystone XL oil pipeline back on track. Having described global warming as “bullshit,” he could choose to ignore emissions targets established by the Paris Agreement.
House Republicans were mocked for their many attempts to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act, but they now have a tested method of pushing a bill through Congress under the reconciliation process that cannot be obstructed with a filibuster in the Senate. Repealing Obamacare will deprive around 22 million people of health insurance.
As Governor of Indiana, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has signed some of the strictest anti-abortion legislation in the country, including a requirement that women who terminate their pregnancies bury or cremate the foetus. Trump has said he will nominate Supreme Court justices with a view to overturning Roe v Wade, the ruling guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose.
The GOP’s unprecedented refusal to consider Obama’s nominee to the court, Merrick Garland, means that Trump immediately gets to pick one justice. Three others are in their late seventies or early eighties. Two or three more activist conservative justices would roll back marriage equality, further curtail the power of trade unions, outlaw all forms of affirmative action and make it even harder to sue corporations for polluting the environment or bullying their workers. Unlimited, anonymous campaign donations are here to stay.
Congress has abrogated much of its power to the executive, and the past two presidents have shown that the system of checks and balances is alarmingly easy to work around. President George W. Bush introduced warrantless wiretapping and bulk collection of phone data without congressional approval. President Obama’s administration developed a legal rationale for the extra-judicial assassination of American citizens.
Power has been concentrated in the executive branch and Trump - a man with a hair-trigger temperament and a well-documented obsession with revenge - is about to inherit it. He will also command the world’s largest military, and a surveillance network of unprecedented reach.
There is still much he cannot do. He cannot “destroy ISIS” - indeed he is only likely to make radical Islam stronger. He will not be able to build a wall along the southern border and get Mexico to pay for it. Deporting 11.3 million undocumented immigrants would cost $600 billion, according to a conservative think tank, and require a deportation force of 90,000 agents.
He cannot bring back coal and steel industries that have been in decline since the 1950s. He cannot both pass a giant tax cut and make a massive investment in infrastructure while balancing the budget and protecting Social Security, as he has promised to. The day after Trump was elected, General Motors announced the closure of plants in Ohio and Michigan, making 2,000 people redundant and underscoring how hard it will be to bring manufacturing jobs back to the USA.
Trump, then, is set up to fail, and when he fails, he will blame anyone but himself. He will need scapegoats: the media, left wing agitators, immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, Democrats who oppose his policies and Republicans who blanche at his excesses. He will need war - to stimulate the economy and unite the country behind him.
In a Fox News interview in 2014, he seemed to welcome the prospect of martial law. “You know what solves it?” he said, when asked how to fix America. “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster… you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
During the primaries, researchers found that the two strongest predictors of support for Trump were racial resentment and a desire for authoritarian leadership. As a “law and order president” he will further militarise the USA’s police. In the militia movement, he has tens of thousands of willing Brown Shirts, should he ever decide that he needs them.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider that a reality TV star with no political experience and four bankruptcies to his name has just been elected President of the United States of America.
For his novel about an American demagogue, based on the rise of Adolf Hitler and published in 1935, Upton Sinclair chose the ironic title It Couldn’t Happen Here. Trump is so erratic, so willing to say or do whatever it takes to come out on top, that nobody can predict how his presidency will turn out. But make no mistake, it can happen here.