Understanding the anti-elite Trump vote

The aftermath of the stunning victory of Donald Trump to the White House has left many asking the same question: how on Earth did he do it?

While the analysis is still fresh, and formulating, one can highlight three theories as to why Trump will be the next President of the United States.

The first, and probably most common among liberals, is that Trump’s victory was due to him effectively stoking racial fears. This theory is based on the idea of a “whitelash”, the idea “that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage.” Donald Trump’s victory was the result of a backlash from white people who saw their status diminishing with increasing diversity in the United States.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Gage Skidmore

The second explanation is that Trump won due to economic insecurity, particularly among lower-income voters in the traditional rust-belt states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where Trump pulled off three upsets to take the election (the same states where Democrats are now calling for a recount). It is in these states where Trump’s anti-free trade and pro-infrastructure spending messages were most effective, positions that spoke largely to working class people who have been under increasing pressure since the Global Financial Crisis.

The final explanation is that Trump was the beneficiary of a general ‘anti-establishment’ mood in the United States, a mood that runs across party, gender, racial and socio-economic lines. In this explanation Trump’s promise that he would ‘drain the swamp’ was the most effective line of the campaign — a promise to clean up the mess of US Politics and replace it with something powered by the people. This message was most prominent in Trump’s final two minute ad; an ad that if you were to remove the reference to illegal immigration, as well as the implicit anti-semitism, could easily be read as a campaign from the far left.

I’m not here to try and provide a definitive answer to Trump’s victory. There is still too much analysis to do, and a lot of reflections to make. More importantly it seems like elements of all of these explanations are true to some extent — there is little doubt that much of Trump’s appeal is due to his racial bating as it is to his economic messages in the rust-belt.

However, what is interesting about these conclusions is how they have become so separated. Many seem intent on demanding that it is either one or the other — either Trump won due to a ‘whitelash’, due to economic insecurities, or due to an anti-establishment mood, and none of these paths shall cross. Much of this is likely due to what seems to be the many contradictions in Trump’s agenda. Trump confounds standard political discourse, having a mixture of often quite left-wing economic policies (i.e. ending major free trade deals) matched with retrograde social positions. He is a man, for example, who regularly talks about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, while at the same time attacking immigrants, muslims, women and queers.

While not trying to use this as a way to explain Trump’s victory I would like to at least argue that these positions are not actually that disparate, and that in fact they are extremely coherent under the anti political establishment lens in which Trump, and many of his voters, see the world. This has many important lessons for the broader left.

A number of weeks ago I attended the launch of Clive Hamilton’s new book “What Do We Want: The Story of Protest in Australia”. In a discussion about left-wing protest movements today Hamilton presented an interesting thesis.

Climate rally in Melbourne, 2009.
Climate rally in Melbourne, 2009.

In this context Hamilton was discussing how left-wing social movements have changed since the rise of neoliberalism in the seventies and eighties. In a simple formulation he posited there are two key areas of political debate — economic and cultural. Hamilton’s thesis was simple: in the past thirty to forty years the right has largely won in the economic field, while the left has won in the cultural. Hamilton describes this as a decoupling in an article he wrote for The Conversation. He argues:

“One of the consequences of the remarkable success of the new social movements has been the decoupling of social change from economic change, superstructure from base. If the new social movements transformed Australian culture and society so completely, in the realm of economics and politics the battle has been won decisively by the other side.”

We can see this decoupling quite clearly. On the economic side, for example, all major parties, left and right, in all Western States have adopted the neoliberal economic paradigm. Australia is the clearest example of the left adoption of neoliberalism. While Thatcher and Reagan for example crushed unions in the 1980s to implement neoliberal agendas, Australian unions signed up with the Hawke and Keating Governments to do the same; albeit in a more conciliatory manner.

On the flip side, the last forty years has also seen a massive cultural revolution. The sixties for example saw massive changes in race relations, with the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the land rights movement in Australia radically changing the way we see race. Spurned on by the sexual revolutions of the sixties and seventies women have entered the workforce on mass, gays, lesbians and trans people have received increasing legal recognition, and we’ve seen huge changes to divorce and sexual assault laws. Again, while the mainstream of the right first opposed many of these changes, they, over-time eventually adopted them, with the rhetoric of diversity being a core part of neoliberal discourse.

While these two victories are still subject to significant debate on the fringes of both the right and the left, in the mainstream, we have seen the development of a general consensus. Mainstream ‘left wing’ parties have adopted a neoliberal economic agenda, while mainstream ‘right wing’ parties have agreed in large part of the left’s cultural agenda. We have seen, at least within mainstream politics, a right and left wing consensus on both economic and cultural issues, with political debates existing largely on how best to implement these changes.

It is here where I start to understand Trump, as well as similar figures such as Pauline Hanson, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage (among others) more clearly. While the political agendas of these political figures seem extremely disconnected and even potentially confused, the clarity lies in their reaction against this political consensus. Their agenda lies in a total reaction against the victories of both the left and the right over the past decades, and in particular the institutionalisation of that process. It’s the reaction against the consensus of the political establishment in both economic and cultural spheres — a consensus that in reality has not worked for many people or all colours, sexes and classes.

How do we respond as the left? This is the big question I want to leave with. I’m not going to pretend at all to have the answers to this question, and do not want to leave this with some directions that we must all take. However at the same time we must look at the success of figures such as Trump, and understand what it means for us.

The challenge for much of the left is how similar much of his economic agenda is to ours. As I noted before Trump’s final messaging during the campaign was the stuff of dreams for many in the left, and already his win has seen the death of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP); two deals many on the left have been fighting against for years now. I think it is actually important to recognise these victories, and even to work with Trump on them, as former Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has already promised to do. An integral part of this process is reconnecting with the issues and agendas of working class people, a group that once formed the core of left wing politics, but who have increasingly been left behind by the progressive establishment and mainstream left-wing parties.

Does this mean giving up on our cultural agenda?

Clearly not. Let’s be clear that understanding the ideology that drives Trump does not mean accepting his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, sexist or homophobic views or positions. We must fight against all of these policies tooth and nail.

At the same time, the victory of Donald Trump must force us to finally question and reject the liberalist approach to cultural change. While many of the cultural victories of the past forty years have undoubtably been for the better, and must be defended, the politics of ‘diversity’ is now too focused heavily on the elite and disconnected from the working classes. It has failed not just the ‘white working class’, as often spoken about in the reaction to the election, but those people of colour, queers and women who are in the working class as well. The focus on Hillary Clinton’s gender is the perfect example of this, an emphasis on ‘trickle down’ cultural reform that states that if we elect a more ‘diverse’ elite then that will create longer term change.

This elite-based focus is not just one that has disconnected progressives from the general population but also one that has created greater distrust of this population. With votes such as Brexit and the election of Trump, liberal progressives have increasingly reacted against the democratic imperative of the general population, labelling them wholly as a mass of ‘bigots’. In turn liberalism is placing even more faith in the powerful elite over the general population, despite the fact that it is the elite who continue to work against our agenda. As Alan Jacobs argues, while the left used to work to break down hierarchical systems of power, we now work instead to ensure these power systems keep us ‘safe’ from the general population.

In this context it is no wonder many are reacting against the left’s cultural agenda. Cultural issues have become not just disconnected from the general population, but have become framed around an active distrust of that community. While large majorities therefore continue to support policies such as same-sex marriage and equality for women, they simply do not support they way in which this agenda is being framed.

Again, this is not an acceptance of the racist, homophobic and sexist tirades of Trump, or politicians such as Hanson, Farage or Le Pen. I’ll restate that we must fight against these tooth and nail. But to do so we cannot continue to rely on an elite that places huge distrust in the general community. Instead, as Jeff Sparrow argues, we must work from the ground up. There are lots of elements to this, but most importantly it means working with, rather than against, working class communities who are struggling not just in the United States but in much of the world.

 USA activist Angela Davis grafitti in the "Abode of Chaos" museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhône-Alpes
USA activist Angela Davis grafitti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes

Angela Davis potentially explains this best in an interview she did on a recent visit to Australia:

“Certainly the phenomenon of Donald Trump, candidate for the US Presidency has revealed the depth of racism in our society. He has given voice to a kind of white rage that is emerging, in my opinion in part because those of us who have been involved in progressive politics have not been able to create a discourse, a narrative, that has allowed white people who are suffering as a result of the economic depression to understand that the conditions they confront are very much related to the conditions that have allowed for the thriving and the continuation of racism.”

The challenge we face is how to engage with this question. Instead just making out working class people, who are really struggling, to be a ‘basket of deplorables’, we must look at the reasons people may be reacting against the left’s cultural agenda. This means finding a way to move beyond the scapegoating of immigrants and people of colour to instead channel anger to the real causes of these economic problems — the state and the capitalist class. What I love about what Davis is saying is it means creating a narrative that connects the problems white people are facing with those that people of colour are facing, because this is the reality. It is the narrative that Davis discusses that I think we should be looking towards, one that can incorporate the economic concerns of Trump voters with an anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist agenda.