In my previous post, on America’s Christian Right, I said:
Trump (a loose cannon of broadly neocon instinct) was never going to “bring US jobs home” when globalised capital-labour relations, and Wall St need to maximise profits, dictate that wealth be produced wherever it is cheapest to do so.
I stand by that but it is a macro view whereas I do so respect granularity, in a well made case that drills down to the nitty gritty. This assessment, forwarded by a friend, is a case in point. I can’t say whether or not author Tony Swash has the same take as I do, on a global situation marked above all by Eurasia Rising and the West Resisting, but nor does it matter here. We may not see eye to eye on China – whose rise I cautiously welcome as a check, one that may benefit much of the imperialised world,1 to US Exceptionalism – but that would not detract from the force of these arguments:
The central question of US politics is why Trump won the second largest number of votes in US history, and the answer is that he delivered a lot to his constituency.
In 2016 real median household income in the US was $62,898, just $257 above the level in 1999. That’s two decades of income stagnation, in fact for a large part of the last two decades median income had actually been falling. Under Trump by 2019 the median income grew to $68,703. Last month 56% of US polled voters said their families were better off today than they were four years ago.
For the first three years of his presidency, Trump produced steady growth (which a number of presidents have managed) in which a disproportionate share of the gains went to low-income workers (a much rarer feat). Workers in the lowest quarter of incomes saw their wages rise almost 5 per cent. This was the first sustained downward redistribution of income and wealth since the last century, a vindication for voters in the forgotten parts of the country who voted for Mr Trump in 2016. It may account for the unexpected and marked rise in support for Trump from young Latinos and black men.
Trump also delivered on other promises, or at least could make a plausible claim to have delivered. He brought troops home and avoided foreign wars, and it’s mostly the poorer communities who suffer the casualties in such wars.2 He also very publicly challenged China, even if that challenge was clumsy. The Democrats barely mentioned China, rightly seen by many in the old collapsing industrial communities as one of the main sources of their local economic decline, and in fact have been talking with great enthusiasm for the last few decades about increasing free trade.3
Mike Davis4 in a very interesting article in the London Review of Books entitled “Rio Grande Valley Republicans”, examines how Trump won, and the Democrats lost, the communities of poor Mexicans living along the border in Texas. Davis writes:
The border, after all, is one of the poorest regions in the country, with a population routinely vilified in Republican propaganda as aliens and rapists. In any case, the polls were predicting historic Democratic victories; a blue wave along the Rio Grande was assured.
As the fantasy of great gains in Texas dissipated, Democrats were stunned to discover that a high turnout had instead propelled a Trump surge along the border. In the three Rio Grande Valley counties (the agricultural corridor from Brownsville to Rio Grande City), which Clinton had carried by 39 per cent, Biden achieved a margin of only 15 per cent. More than half of the population of Starr County, an ancient battlefield of the Texas farmworkers’ movement, lives in poverty, yet Trump won 47 per cent of the vote there, an incredible gain of 28 points from 2016. Further up river he actually flipped 82 per cent Latino Val Verde County (county seat: Del Rio) and increased his vote in Maverick County (Eagle Pass) by 24 points and Webb County (Laredo) by 15 points. The Democrat congressman Vincente Gonzalez (McAllen) had to fight down to the wire to save the seat he won by 21 per cent in 2018. Even in El Paso, a hotbed of Democratic activism, Trump made a six point gain.
As for working people, forced every day to choose between income and health, Biden’s vow to put science in charge of the pandemic was easily spun by Republicans as proof of a economic apocalypse overseen by the dread Dr Fauci. Democrat counter-response was weak, in part because the union movement had even less prominence in the campaign than in 2016. The uncontrolled spread of Covid restricted the door-to-door canvassing that has always been the contribution of union members to electoral battles. The Biden campaign did give greater emphasis than Clinton to workers’ rights, collective bargaining and the $15 minimum wage, but it broadcast the same empty messages about job creation and the future of work. ‘Millions of green energy jobs’ is an abstraction that utterly fails to connect to the concrete circumstances of Rustbelt and inner-city communities. Mainstream Democrats have had more than a generation to respond to the simple question: what will you do to increase job opportunities here in Erie (or Warren, Dubuque, Lorain, Wilkes-Barre and so on)? They have never offered a serious response. Concrete solutions would involve geographically targeted public investment, control over capital flight and financial outflows, and, above all, a massive expansion of public employment. These are avenues most Democrats are too terrified to go down.
Davis is right to point out that trade unions had an even smaller role in the Democrats election campaign than previously, their presence in the party has been declining for decades. The radical political struggles in the 1960s, above all the campaign against institutional racism and for civil rights in the South, and against the Vietnam war, led to the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention and this led directly to the party’s McGovern Commission of 1972 that implemented a series of organisational changes in the party.
The primary outcome of these changes was the expulsion of the Dixie Democrats (the southern organised white working class) from the party, and the downgrading of the institutional position of organised labour in the party. The latter were seen by the party activists of the SDS generation as being a reservoir of conservative social attitudes on race, women and gays, and of being unacceptably and uncritically patriotic and pro-war.
The upshot was that that the southern working class defected to the Republicans. The response of the Democrats under Clinton was to reorient the party towards the new post-Fordist knowledge workers, the educated and the suburbs. In the process the party became the vehicle of free trade, large-scale immigration of cheap labour, presided happily over the erosion of organised labour, embraced a robust punitive criminal justice system that started the massive expansion of incarceration of poor people, and adopted a wide swathe of progressive social causes largely unassociated with the issue of class or poverty but deeply popular amongst the prospering suburban educated communities which were now seen by the party as its core constituency.
This left large numbers of voters in declining and fragmenting communities un-represented – until Trump’s insurrectionary take over of the Republicans. The ‘Trump Bloc’ is not going away and assuming the Biden presidency seriously under delivers in the next two years (something I would happily bet on), is waiting to decimate the Democrats in the mid-terms. The roots of American populism are broadly the same as the populist insurgencies in other western liberal democracies and have the same roots.
Towards the end of my previous post, quoted at start of this one, I wrote of a Mike Pompeo:
… laying down serious markers for when the hour cometh for God’s Warriors to rescue His Most Favoured Nation from the mess Biden and his successors will assuredly have made. Maintaining capitalism, under the stark circumstances sketched out in this and other posts, is compatible with no other outcome
The ‘God’s Warriors’ I speak of, Christian fundamentalists of whom Pompeo is a prominent example, are not the same as ‘the Trump Bloc’ but it is to that bloc they will look for support – and with greater focus than Trump did. As for Tony Swash’s Biden bet, I’ll be with him at the bookies the moment they start offering decent odds on that aspect of the matter.
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- China’s rise “may benefit much of the imperialised world” . This despite tensions with other littoral countries on the South China Sea, i.e. Vietnam, and with those, also including Vietnam, downstream of China’s huge dams on the Mekong. China’s ability to fund infrastructural projects in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Europe – and a willingness to do so driven in part by the wisdom of diversifying investment of its vast surpluses away from US Treasury Bonds – offer debtor nations an alternative to IMF loans conditional on ‘austerity’ and on key sectors privatised for Western investors. (See my 2016 post, Perilous Days.) History never repeats itself (except as farce) but I sense echoes of an era when states recently decolonised could, if geopolitically well placed, play Washington against Moscow. (Nasser and those his Pan-Arabism inspired – Gaddafi, Saddam, Assad Snr – spring to mind. But Indira Ghandi played her cards unusually well, allowing a protectionism inconceivable today – though not, perhaps, tomorrow. By slamming eye-watering tariffs on imports, and using emergency powers to crush the attendant domestic unrest, her government built up the industrial bases which made India, its immense poverty notwithstanding, the economic powerhouse it now is.) China’s challenge offers a sliver of hope to the global south.
- “… it’s mostly the poorer communities who suffer the casualties in such wars.” Or as Steve Earle put it in Copperhead Road, “I volunteered for the Army on my birthday. They draft the white trash first, round here anyway”. But Washington learned from Vietnam. America’s non stop war machine has switched to (a) high tech killing from the air and (b) proxy forces like ‘moderate’ Islamists. Body bags returning from far-off lands that pose no threat to Americans – as opposed to Wall Street bottom lines – is a sure-fire vote loser.
- “China [is] rightly seen by many in the old collapsing industrial communities as one of the main sources of their local economic decline”. Here Tony Swash and I may differ on ultimate causation. I say the problem is not China but capitalism: specifically, the race-to-the-bottom logic of a globalised economy in an imperialised world. But this does not alter the truth of Tony’s argument. Trump’s popularity is not to be dismissed with the charges – lazy and unwittingly elitist – of racism and stupidity so often made by a liberal intelligentsia thus far shielded from the logic I speak of.
- Planet of Slums author Mike Davis featured in my April reads post