Keelan Kellegher is a first-year history student at King’s. He has identifies himself as being part of Labour’s left, and is an active member of the Cambridge Marxist Society.
What are the origins of Trump’s win?
A good place to start will be to look at how such an event has even been made possible. Several Bourgeois commentators have attributed Trump’s rise to the Presidency to him channelling an angry electorate against an unpopular candidate. This analysis is not incorrect but it is superficial, with no intention to find out what people are angry at or why. The Marxist seeks to provide an analysis from a class perspective, so as to look at the material conditions that have shaped the various class movements in American society.
The election of Donald J Trump as POTUS can be explained by seeing it as another episode in the continuing crisis of capitalism. This crisis, unleashed in 2008 but with no end in sight, has seen real wages remain stagnant or decline whilst the wealthiest in society have accumulated even greater wealth. Interestingly, one think tank, the Pew Research Centre, has concluded from a report that US wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years. Under such conditions, anger is an inevitable response and there has been anger building up in American society, unleashed with the 2016 presidential campaign. There is also the stark reality that Obamacare has failed, though partly down to Republican resistance, and American politics continues to abandon the poorest in society by cutting welfare through austerity and not providing healthcare or employment.
Thus, the American working class has essentially been left on the scrap heap as politicians, Democrat and Republican, attempted to deal with the 2008 crisis the only way their system of capitalism would allow, austerity. Eight years of austerity and job losses in old industrial sectors simply became too much to bear for America as the working class hit out. But even the petit-Bourgeois middle class have been squeezed by this crisis with many pushed into the ranks of the proletariat as Marx predicted. The way the two classes expressed themselves was markedly different though. The working class expressed their dissatisfaction with the liberal elite by abstaining with 46.9% of the American electorate not casting a vote. Referred to as the squeezed middle, the sense of economic security familiar to the middle class has eroded as their wages have remained stagnant alongside their loyalty to ‘sensible centrist economics’.
But why now? Why didn’t the stagnant wages and falling living standards lead to the emergence of a demagogue in 2012 or even in earlier crises such as the 1973 Oil shock.
The answers lie in the fact that the establishment has essentially run out of techniques to subdue or channel this anger. In the 1970s, the ruling elite still had the USSR as an opponent to channel anger and more importantly fear; to break from the norm would be to risk defeat to the Russians. In 2012, Obama was able to skilfully deploy identity politics and offer hope in the form of tackling America’s acute problem with race. Yet 8 years of Obama administration have overseen the killing of thousands of African-Americans by white police officers and America’s race problem has only intensified. Thus, when it became Clinton’s turn to carry on the mantle of representing the ruling, capitalist class, she had little to turn to but offer platitudes of unity as she could not offer real change but lacked a substantial enemy to draw fear towards; Trump made himself the candidate that would defeat ISIS, linking (quite rightly) Clinton’s disastrous foreign policy with the emergence of ISIS. Thus, for the first time, the liberal establishment was uncovered for its exploitation and its callous disregard for the working class and the enemies of US imperialism. It was unable to deploy smoke and mirrors. Perhaps the biggest reveal was the way in which the Democrats were found to have gerrymandered the nomination process in order to defeat Bernie Sanders; tarnishing Clinton’s credibility completely.
This does not answer why Trump though, for if Clinton was hated for her obvious disregard of the working class and her violent foreign policy, why was Trump, who arguably has even more disregard for working class people and says he will ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’ been able to draw support? The answer is partly because Trump, despite being another representative of the ruling class was able to portray himself as anti-establishment and framed the debate as him vs ‘political class’. We as Marxists know that politicians are simply representatives of wider socio-economic classes such as the Bourgeoisie. But Trump framed it this way in order to channel the anger that existed in society. But most importantly, it was the failure of the left or rather the lack of a left organisation in the USA. Americans had become sick of the situation and the answers that the centre ground could provide, it was desiring change but the only change that was offered was from the right, as the left simply wasn’t there. The right-wing populism of Trump was thus able to offer itself as the vehicle for change in a nation desperate for it.
The issue of race cannot be ignored in this election but it should be understood in Marxist terms. The racism that exists in America is a tool of the ruling class to divide the working class. Through Fox News and other media outlets, the ruling class feeds a diet of poison to millions of Americans as it pits white worker against black. As Bob Dylan highlighted in his 1964 song ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, the white man who killed the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was merely a symptom of ‘the politicians’ game’ of divide and rule. There are also striking parallels with Brexit where the right was able to successfully exploit people’s fears about migration in order to bolster the Leave vote. The fears people have are based on job security, whether there is enough homes, hospitals, school places.
The left has failed both in the UK and in the USA to alleviate these fears as they have failed to build homes, failed to properly fund the NHS or even develop one in the case of America, failed to fund education and have failed to defend immigration as not being the cause of problems. Instead, wedded to neo-liberalism, it stood back and watched as the right exploited these fears and put the failures of capitalism on the heads of those who had little to do with it. We as Marxists would say that the best way to fight this racism is to fight the Capitalist system that so heavily relies on it.
Similar to race, it is impossible to ignore the issue of gender and already many Bourgeois commentators have argued that the election of Trump over Clinton represents mass misogyny. This is quite frankly a cop out for Clinton and basically is a suggestion that had it been Bill and not Hillary, the Democrats would have won it. But this attitude was rightly admonished by many including Susan Sarandon who, in response to a reporter questioning why she wouldn’t vote for a women, said ‘I’m not voting with my vagina.’ This was not a rejection of female emancipation and to portray it as such is dishonest. However, the misogyny that Trump deployed can also not be ignored and similar to race, Trump used fear and division with implicit references to the threat to the role of men in society.
What does a Trump victory mean?
Firstly, his economic agenda is typical of Republican and Democrat presidents, to ensure the Bourgeois continue to make growing profits in the face of declining living standards for the majority. Trump’s policies will thus continue the ever increasing exploitation of the working class with severe austerity whilst at the same time there will be tax cuts for the richest (one of his campaign promises). The stark reality is that a very similar program would have been carried out by Hillary Clinton. Where the two differ is in the severity of their austerity, just as Miliband and Cameron differed in last year’s general election in the UK, with Obamacare being targeted by Trump. Of course, Trump has also made promises about a certain wall on the Mexican border. Indeed, the Republican Congress and Senate will shut this down because of the working reality (the USA does not have $25 trillion to spend on such a project) and the Mexican government’s opposition. But we can expect to see a continuation of the trend of rising racism in the USA as conditions get more severe and a beleaguered Trump presidency will likely have to turn to the tactics of division in order to preserve itself.
The international situation will become very complex indeed. Trump has indicated that he will largely withdraw the USA into isolation; basing his idea of America’s greatness on the 1920s presumably. In doing so, American imperialism will retreat and that opens up a host of problems because other nations will fill the vacuum. This isn’t a defence of US imperialism but instead an acknowledgement that if the American Bourgeoisie is no longer running the show then someone else is going to try. Putin may seize the opportunity for a land-grab in Eastern Europe and he will definitely use this position to become even more dominant in the Syrian Civil War. The Chinese may even use the opportunity to make a military claim over the islands in the South China Sea if Beijing senses that America is prepared to look the other way.
Trump’s presidency may well cause a greater amount of conflicts because America’s role as arbiter of stability, though done for American gain and dominance, will cease to exist.
The Donald is also set to run into severe economic problems that go beyond the existing crisis of capitalism.
His commitment to protectionism will put the US economy in all kinds of trouble as many Bourgeois economists have warned. Under capitalism, the free trade principle is essential for major producers such as the US as it allows the unhindered export of their goods. If the US puts up barriers to foreign imports, there will be a backlash from several of its trading partners, not least, China. And if China increases tariffs on American goods, given its trade surplus with America, the US economy will take a severe hit as it loses its export capacity and becomes increasingly reliant on the smaller, domestic market.
As Trump’s populism is about keeping jobs in America through protectionism, he will be stuck between a rock and a hard place given the economic necessities of the US position. At the same time, he will have one eye kept on the enraged supporters of his candidacy.
What this highlights is the problem at the heart of capitalism and why socialists must go further than reform. Under capitalism, there is now an outsourcing of manufacturing from the traditional economic centres to more peripheral areas yet any move to halt this would actually create new economic problems and reduce prospects of capital growth. The only real solution is socialist revolution.
The election of Donald Trump, on the surface, looks like the defeat of the working class as the far-right has taken power and racists everywhere are emboldened. But the reality is far different because the working class has not yet flexed its muscles, and this is very important. Though comparisons are being drawn between the 1930s rise of Fascism and now, the reality is that the situation is incredibly different because the working class have suffered no defeat as they had done in the crushing of the Spartacist Putsch and the Bavarian Soviet. Thus, this period can be seen as the vital point in which the working class in America must establish political representation.
How do we fight Trump and the right generally?
Liberalism’s fight against the right has totally failed. This centre-left approach of driving forward socially progressive policies whilst neglecting the poorest in society has created a right-wing backlash across the globe. The working class and the ‘squeezed middle’, abandoned by the Democrats in the US, New Labour in the UK, Francois Hollande in France have all created this monster. If liberalism has abandoned us, then we must abandon it and look for real, palpable change in the form of Socialism.
To fight Trump we must fight capitalism itself, the attempts of compromise have got us here. Without the failures of capitalism, Trump would not have been possible, his appeal is off the back of the unemployment, house price inflation and the depression of wages that capitalism has created. Marxists, along with our American comrades, must make this point and look to work with any working-class organisations which may spring up in the wake of the election, to foment the revolution to create the dictatorship of the proletariat.