US 2016: The fall out

Make America great again!

“Make America great again!”. “It’s already great!” came the reply that epitomised the disconnect of the American elites from the lives and distress of working and middle class people.

The establishment and their media allies greeted the presidential election result with shocked disbelief crying that no one saw it coming.

Michael Moore retorted:

“Everyone must stop saying they are “stunned” and “shocked”. What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair,”

trump_2016_victory_speech
Donald Trump 2016 election victory speech

Jenan Moussa, a Lebanese journalist, posed it honestly when she observed:

“Everyone on my timeline said Clinton would win. How did this happen? The disconnect between the media and reality is huge.”

Clinton, a tainted candidate representing a failing system

In Hilary Clinton many ordinary people saw a tainted candidate representative of a failing system that they held in contempt.

This was exploited as a former convention manager, Paul Manafort, explained:

“..He [Trump] really does make the connection between the rigged system, as he calls it, the corruption of Washington, the gridlock of Washington and the all-talk, no-action approach that Washington takes. . . . His point was that the opponent was more than just Hillary. She was the symbol.”

But the elites and the intelligentsia saw none of this. They saw Trump as a loud mouthed buffoon hardly worth taking seriously, a figure that surely no one in their right mind would vote for!

Candidates; vehicle for change

Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns tapped into and revealed the depth of discontent and the loathing for the elites and their acolytes. Tours through white working class communities, especially in the Rust Belt, showed the fears these communities had for their futures. Trump was able to shrewdly exploit this desperation and position himself as a vehicle for change.

manufacturing_town_rust_belt
Manufacturing town in America’s Rust Belt

The vote

While the democrats narrowly won the popular vote, it collapsed from the 2008/2012 elections on a low turn out, Clinton simply failed to enthuse her base which were disillusioned with her corporate light policies.

This election exposed the fault lines in American society. It highlighted the readiness of the working and middle classes to turn to more radical solutions. It must be especially alarming to the elites to find socialist ideas openly and widely discussed for the first time in decades.

Limitations of polls

This election and the Brexit results show the limitations of polls. Even so, if the probability pronouncements were ignored, the electoral college results for the swing states were actually within the margins of error. Too many in the media and elsewhere have a slavish subservience to the polls with the unrealistic expectation that polls can deliver certainty in the midst of volatility.

Geopolitical back drop

The USA are in relative decline as an economic power. On the world stage the country is challenged by the rise of Russia and China.

Russia has been particularly astute in rebuilding its influence and defending its strategic interests in the Ukraine and Syria. Some anticipate that a Trump administration will be less confrontational in its dealings with Russia but that is not certain at this stage.

south_china_seas_spratly_islands
China claims the disputed Spratly Islands

China is now the second largest economy and expected to be the largest by 2030. It’s become a direct rival the the US in all parts of the globe. As part of its growing power it has moved to assert its interests in the South China Seas.

The US problems are further complicated by the rise of regional powers such as Brazil and Iran.

It’s the economy stupid!

The driving force behind all the jostling for power and influence is the world economy and the balance of economic power.
The recovery from the Great Recession of 2007 has been very slow. It has come at the expense of wages and job insecurity and a shocking increase in inequality. The IMF predicts a rise in the probability of recession, WTO figures also point to a slowing of world trade to 1.7% in 2016. This will be a motor force for growing protectionism and conflicts over market control.

Unity of interests

Trump is a member of the Elite and represents one of the factions in the split over the future for American capitalism. Though the disputes within the elites can break out into open warfare, as seen in the UK Brexit campaign and the US election, their motivation is defending the system they depend on.

The problem they face is that these battles have opened up Pandora’s box and released right wing xenophobic nationalism on the one hand and worse for them, on the other have seen a greater uptake of socialist ideas.

Trump’s promises

Trump’s policies are pro big business. It is estimated that his tax cuts could cost in the region of $6.2 trillion over a decade with around half going to the top 1%. There is also a commitment to raise military spending by around $1 trillion over ten years.

Rotting infrastructure

This contrasts to a commitment to infrastructure expenditure, vaguely priced at twice Clinton’s promise of $275 billion over five years at $550 billion. This is still woefully short of the estimated $3.3 trillion needed through to 2020. Nothing more highlights the US terminal decline and the dead hand of the elites than its rotting infrastructure.

Public spending will have to be slashed

With a budget deficit running at $587 billion for 2016 and a national debt of over $19 trillion the only way Trump can make his sums add up is to slash spending. This would have the most impact on the working and middle classes and in particular the most vulnerable and poor.

In the event of failure

Over the longer term, reaction to Trump’s failure to deliver depends on the depth of a possible recession and the strength of the left. If a recession is mild or avoided, the hand of the labour unions would be strengthened and through that the left as well.

It will be encouraging to those on the left that the ideas of socialism struck a chord during the campaign. A complicating factor is the lack of a party of labour to act as the political focal point for the working and middle classes.

A deeper recession coupled with a failure on the left to build support among the working classes could add further fuel to the forces of racism and xenophobia.

Careful what you wish for

The disputes among the elites are an expression of their deep foreboding and the crisis they face. The reaction of some leading sections of the elites point to an intellectual decay, they no longer have the capacity to foresee events. Their panicked and increasingly extreme reactions just set the scene for further crisis. In this respect Donald Trump represents the ugly face of American capitalism at an impasse.

The next period will see even more sudden shocks and upheavals. Even the most apparently secure of leaders can be suddenly swept aside by events or a clumsy miscalculation.

Trump nurtured presidential ambitions for decades, that prize could turn to ash and end up an example of ‘careful what you wish for’…

Gary Hollands – November 13th 2016

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