Why did Trump get so many votes?

15 Nov

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.

* * *

  1. 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.
  2. “… 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.
  3. “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.
  4. Planet of Slums author Mike Davis featured in my April reads post

18 Replies to “Why did Trump get so many votes?

  1. Would it be crass to suggest that the vote for Trump may have been fired by negative motives as much as positive i.e. a vote of no confidence in the Democrats? I had a similar feeling about Brexit in the UK i.e. that many voted for Brexit not necessarily because they thought it would be a better option but they were so disgusted with the relentless drift of a neoliberal order that seemed to just carry on regardless? In short – there may have been an ingredient of throwing a spanner in the works. (Even if it meant a pyrrhic victory.)

    • Brexit/Trump parallels are striking. Re the vote of no-confidence in the Democrats, the second part of his commentary suggests that Tony Swash agrees with you and me both.

  2. Does anyone know how Trump managed to create a downward distribution of income and wealth for the workers in the lowest quarter of income?

      • I’m guessing there were stimulus packages of the kind the Dems – for reasons touched on by Tony Swash – wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. The GOP, and again I’m guessing, could perhaps flirt with demand side economics where the Dems would fear accusations not just of keynesianism but of the dread word, socialism.

  3. If you add this [from the piece linked in bevin’s earlier comment]:

    … California’s Proposition 22, a neo-feudal piece of legislation from the bluest of blue states that has effectively entrenched economic precarity for a large chunk of the state’s workers by undermining traditional employee protections and benefits included in California’s existing labor law. The Golden State has long been viewed as a leading indicator regarding future social, economic, and political trends, starting in 1978 with Proposition 13 (a property tax-cutting provision that prefigured Reagan’s supply-side fiscal policy two years later). If it is still true that “as California goes, so goes the country,” then today’s economic precariat ought to be very concerned about the passage of Proposition 22, a regressive union-busting measure that allows Uber and Lyft to continue classifying their drivers as contractors, not employees, thereby exempting them from a California labor law that seeks to outlaw the practice. Although both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris explicitly opposed Proposition 22, it certainly didn’t help the Democrats’ brand that Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law and adviser, Tony West, who is the chief legal officer of Uber, led the campaign in favor of Proposition 22; her niece, Meena Harris, is on Uber’s diversity team; and her ex-campaign strategist, Laphonza Butler, advises Uber on labor relations. After the passage of Proposition 22, workers at gig economy firms will continue to be classified as contractors, without access to employee rights such as minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and health insurance. There is no doubt that other states will take note…

    to Jeffrey St Clair’s

    …Biden leads Trump by about 4.5M votes nationwide (75.4M to 70.9M). Biden leads in California by 9.3M – 4.8M = (you guessed it!) 4.5M votes. So they’re even in the rest of the country. Take away Biden’s lead of 1.2M in Oregon and Washington, and Trump has a 1.2M vote lead east of the Pacific coast. (Thanks to Richard Kidd, from Winnipeg, for this astute observation on US political culture.)

    You are left with the conclusion that California is, simultaneously, a harbinger of neo-liberal assaults on workers and the great bulwark of the Democratic party.

    And Kamala Harris is a very apt symbol.

    • I spotted the Harris Klan/Uber thing too. Gives a new spin to the revolving door, no? Kamala publicly denouncing the Act her family has – at one step remove – benefited from. Cake. Have. It. Eat. And. Your.

    • “her niece, Meena Harris, is on Uber’s diversity team; ”

      An observation which jumps out of the paragraph as a litmus test to determine who gets it and who doesn’t. For far too many one encounters these days, the nominal corporate lip service of a ‘diversity team’ carries a great deal more weight than the economic precarity of shared common class relationships and the devastating impact of the neo-liberal dogma enforced by extreme centerist parties in the West.

      Selling the pass for a few ticks in the right boxes and an ocean of useless meaningless cant and hypocrisy.

      The other key issue in the piece posted by bevin is the impact – future as well as past – of technological substitution of jobs on the traditional 19th and 20th century definitions of the ‘working class.’ The time is fast approaching in which the bulk of the populace will be surplus to requirements in terms of the means to access resources being achieved via paid employment.

      Still, it will no doubt be a great comfort for the majority that actually being cold, hungry, without adequate shelter and any possible hope of ever escaping from that condition is a small price to pay for the right not to have people call them names or belittle them.*

      * Though this “principle” only operates one way. Liberal- “lefties” writing off tens of millions of the voting precariat as fascits and Nazi’s for not voting for their version of fascism doesn’t count when it comes to “hate speech.”

      • the nominal corporate lip service of a ‘diversity team’ carries a great deal more weight than the economic precarity of shared common class relationships and the devastating impact of the neo-liberal dogma enforced by extreme centerist parties in the West

        Precisely. With the irony that those who bear the brunt of neoliberalism’s logic are dark skinned and – because women always suffer disproportionately from the wars which flow from that logic – female.

        • A logic which has used the Identity “left” to expand the definition and practice of colonisation to new levels. Levels in which not only are there new, enforced, definitions of long and hard won sex based rights but also a hierarchy of oppressed identities which has done for the benefit of an extreme patriarchy what Thatcher and Reagan’s attack on the industrial working class did for neo-liberal Globalisation.

          To paraphrase a recent observation in the The Spectator (the sodding Spectator of all places!): ‘It never occurred to the political right to simply redefine away women’s rights (gained through generations of feminist struggle); it took the left to do that.’

          The right have been very devious – extending the logic of the 1950’s Tory analysis of Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations “A Giants Strength” – to further undermine the unity of class politics from the inside in a classic divide and rule maneuver. Resulting in the colonisation not of countries but of individual and collective spaces of whole societies and how those spaces are conceived.

          Conceived in terms of not simply what is and is not legally permissible but also morally and ethically in common “polite society.”

          When Caitlin Johnson gets around to writing her next anthology of poetry she could do worse than attempt a re-write of of the late Carribbean poet Louise Bennett’s “Colonisation in Reverse” to reflect this aspect of neo-liberal extreme right wing colonisation.

  4. The stats are slippery on this. It may be that some of the poorer working class families increased their income by a small amount. But after decades of job destruction and falling wages, a small percentage of not much still amounts to not much. It doesn’t pay the mortgage, health bills or college fees of desperate people. Chris Hedges book “America: The Farewell Tour” is a graphic, hard to read account of the lived reality.

    The thesis that these small wage rises maintained the Trump vote may hold some water, but voters with family incomes under $50,000 increased their share of the vote to the Democrats from 53% in 2016 to 57% in 2020. The WSWS has a detailed breakdown of voting patterns here

    The evidence suggests that desperation, not rising living standards, coupled with hatred of the Democrats, pushed 71 million votes towards Trump. There is not much doubt that business as usual will drive more into that camp unless a socialist alternative can be built.

    • I agree with the thrust of this, your final sentence especially. I like the first one too. The stats are indeed slippery and here’s the thing. I observed in the CV-19 ‘debate’ how so many zealots – weak opinions strongly held – seem sure of themselves on the basis of (a) imperfect and ambiguous data (blithely cherry-picked) and (b) conflicting expertise (ditto). As uncertainty on matters of importance rises, so does insecurity; one perverse effect being people – not confined to any one camp – taking leaps of blind faith on matters they cannot understand.

      For reasons I can’t entirely fathom, WSWS have gone out on a limb on the idea of a fascist putsch by Trump et al. So, like the CV-19 zealots I speak of, they have a stake in a certain understanding of what the election is telling us. The piece by Eric London is dated November 6, so was written November 5th at the latest. I’m neither psephologist nor statistician, and I’m sure there’s a lot of sound nuggets in what he is saying, but the data then available was – as with the CV-19 data – far from perfect or complete.

      Not sure where to go with this, except to acknowledge there’s much we don’t know as to why 70 million Americans voted Trump. Both Tony Swash and Eric London offer insights but that’s all they are. I welcome both as much needed correctives to the delusional view presented in liberal and, increasingly, conservative media too: viz, that thanks to Team Biden, America is emerging from an unprecedented nightmare – two decades of war on the middle east having passed unnoticed – with the proviso that tens of millions of racists and morons are still alive and kicking!

      As you say:

      business as usual will drive more into that camp unless a socialist alternative can be built.

      And the thrust of my previous post, on the Christian Right, on which you’ve made useful comments, is that next time round – after Biden-Harris have proved dismal – ‘that camp’ will be targeted by a malevolence more competent because more focused than that which Trump embodied.

      • Yup, I see on closer inspection the WSWS based their article on exit polls, but they have later analyses which also look interesting.

        On the CV19 issue, there is a definite flight into unhinged speculation. Again, I think, a reflection of desperation in the face of an apparently uncontrollable world.

        • In fact I’ve spotted your latest comment precisely because I’d awoken this morning with a mind to add a note of clarification. Though I deem WSWS wrong on the Trump thing I not only have to leave room for the possibility, remote though I think it in this case, of them being right and me wrong.

          I also meant to say I find their site a valuable resource, and applaud the way they’ve swum against the tide on the middle east. Most ‘far left’ groups have been every bit as uncritical of ‘evidence’ against Assad as have Empire cheerleaders at Guardian and (Peter Hitchens excepted) Mail.

          So I’ll keep checking out their analyses of this and other matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *