Trump: why the right are winning and what to do about it

The election of Trump was a surprise to many, including myself. Clinton was raising money at 20-1 among billionaires. Neo-cons such as Wolfowitz decided they were on board with Clinton. George Herbert Walker Bush, former CIA head and former President, was in the bag for Clinton. The media consistently portrayed Trump as the monster he is, even in that scion of conservative media, Fox News. Glenn Beck decided he’d tell his crazy right wing supporters that it was a moral decision to vote Clinton. Celebrity endorsements for Clinton were almost too numerous to count.

It’s a rare enough that virtually the entire political and economic establishment unite to back a candidate. The last time it happened was probably Nixon-McGovern in 1972, where Nixon was the clear favourite and McGovern lost overwhelmingly.

This time was completely different. Despite having nearly all of the establishment and elite firmly on Clinton’s side, the unthinkable occurred. Trump won. How could this happen?

Theories abound, but the most prominent ones essentially fall into two camps: “reactionary culture is spreading” and “it’s the economy, stupid”, with some number of “middle roaders”. It is clearly true that reactionary culture is spreading and that the economy is stagnating so both appear sensible. Since in political economy as with most complex interconnected systems, the movement of the parts depend on each other, one might be tempted to answer, “it’s a bit of both”.

This nuanced stance, however, risks giving the appearance that what might be termed “the culturalist” and the “economic primacy” viewpoints are equally valid. Nothing could be further from the truth. The economistic perspective is an oversimplification, but the core strategic proposal which it implies is the one which can stem the spread of reactionary culture. By contrast, those who elevate the culturalist perspective will find themselves arguing in support of the current ruling elite and pouring fuel on the reactionary fires. How we respond to this debate is perhaps the most central question of the coming decades.

It really is the economy

The working class in the United States is suffering a general economic deterioration[1][2]. While the media talks about rising employment and recovered profits, the workforce participation rate tells us a completely different story[3], showing a massive decline since 2008 which has seen no recovery. On virtually every economic measure, the working class has been stagnating or declining since 2008 and, on many of these measures, for even longer.

Child poverty levels are now worse than Greece, Lithuania or Estonia. US median income is now 27th world wide. The US now rates as having the fourth highest inequality in the world.

While the overall Republican vote changed little from previous elections, what did change was the demographic structure. Fewer of those on higher incomes voted Republican than in the past and more lower income workers voted Republican [4].

Perhaps the most significant shift which allowed a Trump presidency is the change in voting patterns of the white working class[5]. The white working class, and especially those without college degrees, are experiencing a decline which is rapid and punctuated. The mortality rate of white Americans without a college degree between the ages of 45 and 54 rose by an astonishing 134 deaths per 100,000 in 15 years. They are dying from suicides, poisoning and liver disease. Real incomes of this demographic have declined along with the rest of the working class.

Rabobank Economic Research
Rabobank Economic Research

The absolute situation for the white American working class is still better than for Blacks and Latinos. But it is often relative changes that people feel most strongly. Trump leads a cross-class alliance, as is typical of right-wing populist movements, and he has supporters across the class divide. But while Trump’s demographic still had a higher average income than Hillary Clinton’s, it is the shifting support from white working class voters which enabled Trump to win.

This shift was not only led by an overwhelming majority of support from white working class males without a college degree. Perhaps surprisingly, white working class women without a university degree voted Trump nearly 2-1 over Clinton, despite Trump’s obvious and routinely vocalised misogyny.

The black working class voted predominantly for Clinton but support for the Democrats fell 5% from 2012. In addition, around 11% fewer voters came out to support Clinton when compared to Obama. Hillary Clinton’s programme for dealing with the extreme violence from law enforcement faced by African Americans involved increasing funds to law enforcement and law enforcement training programmes[6], and urged that we understand the difficulties law enforcement face without addressing the economic and drugs trade issues at root. While Bernie Sanders engaged with Black Lives Matter to some degree, if perhaps too little, Hillary Clinton eschewed such contact almost entirely. This lack of concern for the conditions of black Americans is part of a long running pattern.

And not only did Clinton display a disinterest in the conditions of marginalized groups within the working class, she was consistent in her disinterest in the conditions of the working class in its entirety. Her closed speeches to Goldman Sachs on why so many millennials were interested in Sanders are instructive in this regard.

Some are new to politics completely. They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future. I met with a group of young black millennials today and you know one of the young women said, “You know, none of us feel that we have the job that we should have gotten out of college. And we don’t believe the job market is going to give us much of a chance.” So that is a mindset that is really affecting their politics.

It seems that in Hillary Clinton’s view, the economic problems people are experiencing are really a problem of mindset and the solution is expectation management and not fundamental change.

Racism and Reaction

Individuals are morally responsible for their behaviour and are culpable for racist attitudes and actions. However, when attempting to come up with strategies for intervening in politics on a mass scale, it is impossible to proceed without looking at structural tendencies of various demographics under different influences. This fact appears to be lost on those who are of the more “culturalist” persuasion. There is a tendency to look away from the mass demographic and economic factors and instead focus on moral condemnation.

In practice, the culturalist narrative aligns itself strategically with the crumbling edifice of the elites. If the core problem has little to do with fundamental changes in conditions, and is instead cultural, then we must focus on the racist public signaling and the spreading culture of meanness and bad behaviour. Strategically, it would then make most sense to hitch our wagons to the cosmopolitan neo-liberals who will make all of the right public gestures to multiculturalism, anti-racism and feminism. How a more vigorous expression of not being racist will remove racism remains unclear, especially since it has been the strategy for decades. The rise in racism appears as some inexplicable uncaused cause and we are then entreated to immediately reinforce centrist politics without delay.

The radical wing of the culturalists concede that mere signalling cannot work. The answer must be to smash racism and misogyny. Unfortunately for these well-intentioned and spirited activists, they do not have the capacity to pursue such a strategy successfully. They have neither the support of the radical-centrists who decry even the most minor infractions against the public order, nor adequate numbers with muscle and guns as compares their antagonists. It’s not a complicated proposition to work out who would currently win in an American death-match.

There is also another sentiment at play here, sometimes sublimated, but sometimes made quite explicit: that the poorer white working class basically deserves what they get. They are turning into losers because they are stupid and uneducated (but don’t mention the cost of access to college!). Because they are white they can’t expect anyone to feel sorry for their plight as there are other groups who are worse off. The history of structural racism in America and the consistent and continuing economic and carceral regime for blacks, reinforces the moral correctness of those who make such charges.

Duress often places people into situations in which they search for explanatory framework, and often ones that are right wing[7]. When the media cannot provide them with one that makes sense to their own experience, they’ll look further afield. The approach of claiming that grievances around deterioration in quality of life are not valid, risks driving even more of those who feel hopeless into the xenophobic and racist camps which provide an alternative narrative and an alternative hope, however darkly constructed it might be.

Ironically, as against Trump’s cross-class alliance, the culturalists are promoting a cross-class alliance between the cosmopolitan elite and the cosmopolitan proletariat who are by in large more urban. This alliance is then to be bolstered by minority groups rightly terrified of the alternative right racist populism. Those who oppose the alliance are often told that concern for economic deterioration is essentially a dog-whistle for racist attitudes. Despite its apparent inclusive narrative, this refrain seems to come most often from the university educated white working class who is not losing or not losing nearly as badly.

Stopping the Radical Centre

No group deserves to be systematically elevated because of race, creed, colour, sexuality or other characteristics. However, the worsening of conditions for one segment does not entail improvements for another. Conversely, it would be possible to raise everyone up economically, with the poorest segments being raised up at a faster rate to attenuate the inequalities in society.

To do this, the only demographic grouping which needs to systematically lose are the wealthy and the very wealthy. Cheering on the collapse of the white working class while the black working class are also doing worse year-by-year is the kind of schadenfreude encouraged by the right-wing when they talk about public sector workers versus private sector workers along with a host of other “divide and conquer” narratives.

The solution is a class-based alliance for the attenuation of inequalities within the working class and the raising of living standards on the broadest base possible. We must take up a traditional socialist approach to improving the lot of the population as a whole and in finding common cause together as against those who are generating the scarcity under which we suffer.

This cannot mean capitulating to sectional demands of groups who are doing better when it is at the expense of others. We should not give in to racist or xenophobic narratives in order to court support; these narratives should be forcefully suppressed within our movement where they can be suppressed. We do, however, have to look to methods of addressing grievances which can be alleviated by reducing sectional rifts within the working class, rather than exacerbating them.

Smashing the Radical Right

Racism in the United States has a very long and ignonimous history and is rooted in past economic structures. Narratives arose to justify slavery, westward expansionism which involved genocide, and the suppression of successive waves of cheap labour in immigration.

This racism has a long history of institutions which sought to retain sectional powers on the basis of race, such as the Klu Klux Klan, but many others besides, and with both formal and informal arrangements, institutional, legal and cultural. Overt racism is again making a significant come-back as can be seen from the alt-right on social media but most obviously from the election of Trump to the presidency and his subsequent appointment of Stephen Bannon.

To imagine that these facts are inconsequential is dangerous in the extreme. To imagine that they can be defeated merely on the basis of economic programme is myopic. The culturalists are right that we need to attend to the cultural perspective. The problem, however, is that our strategy needs to be one which understands the context in which the narratives are taking root.

Our cultural approach should manifest in the creation of socialist institutions with a message of hope that can undermine the story that the right are telling white working class Americans. A story for those who are drowning under impossible debts and can’t find work. A story which presents a convincing way forward which means they don’t have to be losers and can join together with others fighting to win back their conditions while also raising others up in solidarity.

Red Guards in Austin Texas
Red Guards in Austin Texas

At the same time we need to be totally aware that smashing reactionary forces who use violence is likely to be a necessity. Success in this fight will require winning over segments of the lower income white working class which are currently leaning towards the Trump camp.


Culture matters in that there is a political expression of sexism, racism and reaction with parties and institutions willing to promote the approach and discourse. The economic conditions provide the soil, but within this soil various things can grow.

The centrist approach of the liberal-elite, embodied in the Hillary Clinton campaign not only generates the conditions which stoke further reactionary formations, but it has further proved incapable of winning on its own terms. It was unable to evoke the enthusiasm of the broad working class necessary to win a presidential election even in the face of someone as farcical as Trump.

Unity often seems the best course of action in times of trouble. However, the basis of unity we choose is critical. It’s time for the socialist left to split decisively with the liberal centrist elite project. The unity must happen on a class basis. The billionaires and bankers, hollywood stars and literati, pundits and professionals are leading us down a path to utter chaos and we have to stop following them.

The rise of the radical populist right will continue until we break with the strategy of falling in-line with the centre. We must begin articulating a programme that can actually improve the conditions of the vast majority: black, latino, white, woman and man. This does not mean ignoring differences between groups, but it means overcoming these differences. It has sometimes been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time to try something different.