Oh dear. 2016 really hasn’t been a good year for those of a progressive persuasion, has it? Yet after Brexit, all the portents were there for a Trumpocalypse. The breezily confident pollsters, the media and leading personalities and politicians of every stripe queuing up to denounce the Donald, the somewhat muted enthusiasm for Clinton in an anything-but-Trump kind of way. The more they denounced him, the more it fed into his one key point that he was an ‘outsider’ not an ‘elitist’. A billionaire outsider at that, but hey, there’s no point grumbling now.
I can’t pinpoint any particular writing on the wall moment, but in hindsight, there were many. Clinton struggled to beat a single opponent for the nomination, despite Sanders being an unknown maverick who was outside the Democratic caucus. Trump emerged from a crowded field of 17 Republican potential nominees, most of whom raised far more money than him, and was initially written off as a two percent chance to be the eventual nominee. Trump’s rhetoric was crude and appallingly divisive, but the one time such an approach always plays well is in the role of anti-establishment iconoclast. One even wonders if the Dems’ and GOP’s own internal late polling was telling them the real truth about how close it was. It was noticeable that in the final week, Clinton’s tone, though couched in terms of unity, was still pouring criticism on her opponent. Trump, for the first time in the entire campaign, talked of being a hope for all Americans – this is the language of someone in the lead looking to run out the clock.
However, after wailing and gnashing following Brexit, I’ve decided to take a longer view this time and look more optimistically (and in some cases, pessimistically) at what trends seem to be emerging and what they might mean.
This is as big a headache for the Republicans as it is for the Democrats
Apart from Bob Dole and a handful of others, the entirety of the Republican establishment ranged from lukewarm to openly hostile. Dubya pointedly left his vote for President blank. The GOP may well embrace Trump and talk of unity now, basking in the joy of Democrat humiliation, but all of the policy reasons that underpin their distaste for Trump (he is a populist; they are becoming ever more neocon) and all of their own infighting which led to their Tea Party-Freedom Caucus splintering will come bubbling back in January once the hangover has worn off.
What about ‘draining the swamp’? Well, given what happened down ballot and the trends over the past few federal and midterm elections, that swamp is mostly full of Republican alligators now. Neither Clinton nor Obama will be around to moan about. And that presents a dilemma for Trump and Congress: if Trump backs down from his grand promises, particularly the economically protectionist ones, in the teeth of Congress obstruction, he will disappoint his fans faster than any poundshop demagogue. If he stands firm, then the GOP risk becoming the problem, as they were during their ludicrous standoffs with Obama. The party that has contributed the most to political stasis and an increasingly unhinged and divided narrative in Washington had better end their ideological bickering because they will have nobody to blame but themselves now.
‘Hate’ only triumphed on one level
However ugly this campaign may have been at the federal level, amidst all the carnage on Tuesday, real progressive change continued to happen at the state level. Across a whole range of states, voters chose to control access to guns, improve access to marijuana, make healthcare more affordable and increase the minimum wage. Yep. And this wasn’t just in kooky liberal places like Vermont and Oregon. Southern, red state Arkansas legalised medical marijuana, as did conservative, rural North Dakota; meanwhile the enlightened voters of solidly Republican South Dakota rejected a bill which would have reduced the youth minimum wage. In all, 110 of 161 mostly liberal-progressive ballots were approved: Ayn Rand must be spinning in her grave.
The lesson here for Democrats is that amidst all the success of Clinton (Bill) and Obama at the Executive level, they have sure taken their eye off the ball state by state. The one curse / blessing when your ‘side’ wins / loses the White House (and the bit that many non-Americans too easily forget) is that the US President has limited powers. The Democrats need to forget about finding a nominee for 2020 for the time being, and concentrate on finding better candidates and campaigning more effectively in House, Senate, Gubernatorial and Local races, starting with the 2018 midterms. This is something the GOP has been doing quietly and effectively for a long time. What use would it have been if Hillary had limped across the line on Tuesday anyway, faced with the same intransigent, hostile Congress as Obama, but without his greater political gifts?
Even if Obamacare is repealed and the Supreme Court is packed with conservatives, there is little to stop states continuing with their own versions of a modern progressive polity. SCOTUS is often reluctant to interfere below the federal level, whatever its ideological leanings. And the more these blue states have fewer gun deaths, greater tolerance and diversity, better healthcare and protections for the low paid, the more traction these ideas can gain elsewhere. That said, rust belt ‘blue’ states like Wisconsin and Michigan were notably absent from these ballot initiatives. What the hell were the Democrats playing at? Is it any wonder voters in Clinton’s ‘firewall’ felt left behind?
America is becoming an ever more polarised nation
This is not an emotional statement. As the actual (not the pollsters’!) polling data emerges, the drearily predictable divides and fissures in the US electorate are becoming gaping chasms. Clinton actually made gains in this election on Obama. Yup. She did better than any Democrat in living memory with college-educated white voters: not enough to get her over the line, obviously, but further evidence of education becoming a major electoral faultline. Clinton even improved on Obama in 2012 is some states. Sadly for her, they were either piled up in already blue states like California (and therefore wasted in the electoral college system) or they were wasted in red states because there weren’t enough to turn it blue (e.g. Texas, Arizona). It’s telling though, that Clinton walked New Mexico (theoretically a swing state) while losing or struggling in her rust belt firewall. What does this mean? Put simply, these red, southern states are becoming ever more urbanised, and less rural: another major faultline. If (and it’s always a big ‘if’ with the Dems) the Democrats can get their act together, the future trends for them are powerful. The GOP is fast becoming the party of the rural, the less educated and the ever more exclusively white. Trump would need to close schools, universities and cities as well as building his ‘wall’ to reverse that trend.
And yet for all this optimism, I don’t want to underplay my dismay at this result. If all political careers end in failure, then the careers of populists with wild talk and big promises usually end in spectacular failure. Trump cannot possibly deliver on his ‘manifesto’: it is incoherent and self-contradictory. Furthermore, the role of president requires compromise and pragmatism far more than dead-eyed decision-making. And even if we accept that a serial bankrupt has some business, if not political, acumen, he might just have broken Golden Rule #1: never over promise and under deliver.
As for his temperament, and his measured victory speech which praised Clinton and talked of healing and unity, well, they all say that. Thatcher quoted St. Francis of Assisi in 1979, for crying out loud. What will he say the next time a gun nut runs amok in a school? Will he argue that it wouldn’t have happened if the kids had been armed? He claims to be sick of NATO and wants the US to take a back seat in international strife. Okaay, but I seem to remember Dubya wanting a bit of good old isolationism until 9/11 rudely thrust him right back in the thick of it. And does his mancrush on Putin mean he’ll just let him walk all over Eastern European states? Reagan would be horrified.
Will he even give up TV? Roosevelt had his fireside chats. Trump could get a new show – “Prez” – where he puts aspiring young political through a reality competition with the winner joining his executive cabinet. Don’t laugh: did you think this guy was going to win a year ago?