Sunday, 27 November 2016

The election of Trump

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign - with racist messages at its heart - had clear echoes of two previous campaigns. One was the Republican Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968. This followed the passing of historic legislation three years earlier by the Democrat president Lyndon Johnson to increase the rights of blacks and to ensure that they could exercise their right to vote.

Nixon sent coded and not-so-coded racist messages to whites in the South. These had the affect that the South, which had been solidly Democrat since the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the first Republican president Abraham Lincoln, turned solidly Republican and it remains so today. This is why the poorest states in the US, which are all in the South, all vote Republican.

The other campaign was fictional. 

Since the election of Trump, there has been a huge surge in demand for a book published in 1935. It is a novel called “It Can’t Happen Here” and is by Nobel prize winning American author Sinclair Lewis.

The book describes how Senator Buzz Windrip is elected president after a campaign based on fomenting fear and grandiose promises. After his election, he becomes a fascist dictator.

It is impossible to read “It Can’t Happen Here”, without thinking of Donald Trump.

Windrip is described as a "clownish swindler”.  He is “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic…” 

The fictional Windrip has barely ever read a book, as is also the case with Trump - a fact revealed by Trump’s one-time ghost writer.

This account of Windrip could be describing Trump too: - “He was an actor of genius. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts - figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

And Windrip, like Trump, was a “Professional Common Man.”  So that, “they’ll all be convinced that, even if he maybe has got a few faults, he's on the side of the plain people”.

Key to Windrip’s political appeal is the technique which has been used by the ruthless and unscrupulous for centuries. He tells the American people that their problems are caused by “the other”. He advocates restricting rights of Jews, blacks and women. He reasons, “Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on”.

Over 130 million people voted in the US election and it is now reported that over 2 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump. 

However, as the world knows, it is not the popular vote that counts in US presidential elections but the votes in each state which go to decide the Electoral College votes. The result was decided by about 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, all in the Rust Belt, an area of the US which was once a power house of industry but which has been in decline for decades. Trump won Pennsylvania by 1.1 percentage points (68,236 votes), Wisconsin by 0.9 points (27,257 votes), Michigan by 0.2 points (11,837 votes). 

The Washington Post described Trump’s victory as the “Revenge of the working-class whites”. Trump won among whites without college degrees by a huge 39 percentage point margin - much larger than Mitt Romney’s 25 point margin in 2012. No doubt this was crucial in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and elsewhere.

However, it is the white rather than the working class which was more important in deciding how people voted. Trump won white voters by an overwhelming 58:37 margin.

However, amongst voters - of all races - earning less than $50,000 a year, Clinton beat Trump comfortably 52:41. 

As the Financial Times reported, “Trump’s support lay predominantly with those earning more than $56,000, the median income.” 

Just as with Brexit, although the narrative is of the working class being responsible for the victories, in fact both the Leave campaign and Trump relied on more middle class than working class voters.

How did Trump appeal to the blue collar white voters without alienating the college educated middle class white voters? Among white voters with a degree, Trump won 49:45.

Tens of millions of well-educated, comfortably off white Americans voted for Trump. They knew about his racism, his sexism, his bullying, his links with white supremacists, his lack of respect for the democratic process and the rule of law. They knew the danger of Trump in power being authoritarian or even fascist. They still voted for him.

Don’t just blame the “poor whites” for Trump’s election. It was middle-class and rich whites too.

Monday, 14 November 2016

W.H. Auden, Martin Luther King and Donald Trump

Here is a fine poem by W.H. Auden. It is called "Epitaph on a Tyrant".

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Donald Trump has just been elected president of the USA after a campaign based on fomenting hatred and an open disdain for the Rule of Law. See how many of our “respectable” politicians and opinion-formers are eager to laugh when he laughs. Shudder at their sycophancy.

Many people in the US are fearful of a Trump presidency – not least American Muslims. We should not think that this is nothing to do with us. Here are some quotes from Martin Luther King to help dispel that idea.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

“…the greatest tragedy was not the strident clamour of the bad people but the appalling silence of good people.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

One thing we can do is to let Theresa May know that we oppose her giving Trump backing without giving him any signal at all that she cares what he does in terms of the law and the norms of a decent society.

This is the final verse of another poem by Auden entitled "1 September 1939".

Defenceless under the night                                                                          
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

We may feel despair at what is happening in the world but we need to “show an affirming flame".

Saturday, 5 November 2016

“Votez escroc, pas facho!”. Presidential elections in France 2002 & USA 2016

A foul-mouthed, racist authoritarian with unconcealed disdain for the Rule of Law is pitted for the presidency against an opponent who personifies the ruling elite and is accused by many of crooked behaviour.  Next week, on Tuesday 8 November, that will happen when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face the American people. It also happened on 5 May 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jaques Chirac in the run-off for the two candidates who had come top in the first round of the election for the French president on 21 April 2002.

Whereas it would be foolish to predict the result on Tuesday (Clinton is favourite but who knows in this time of shocks?), it is safe to say that it will be nothing like the result on 5 May 2002. Chirac crushed Le Pen by 82.2% to 17.8%. 

In the first round when votes had been split between 16 candidates, Chirac had won 19.8% and Le Pen had been only 3% behind on 16.8%. In the two weeks between the rounds, France saw mass demonstrations and was gripped with widespread feelings of horror and revulsion at the possibility that a neofascist like Le Pen could become president. 

Millions of voters who could not stand Chirac, both for his right wing programme and the fact that they thought he was corrupt, nevertheless voted for him to stop Le Pen. A famous poster encapsulated the mood of these reluctant Chirac voters. It was a picture of Chirac with the slogan - “Votez escroc, pas facho!”. “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!”

Trump is every bit as dangerous a man as Le Pen was in 2002. Clinton is as flawed a candidate as Chirac. 

So, why will we not see Trump crushed in the way Le Pen was crushed? Personalities and policies matter but far more significant for an explanation, I believe, is how the circumstances have changed between 2002 in France and 2016 in the USA. Karl Marx was right when he said: -“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Here are three ways the circumstances are different.

First, since the Financial Crash of 2008 there are many more people in Western democracies who have been reduced either to penury in the case of the poor or to deep insecurity in the case of the middle class.

Secondly, since 2008 the elites in the West have continued to do very well. Those in the middle class who have not done well - or who see their children struggling - and those in poverty have increasingly bitterly resented what they have seen as the elites’ indifference or complacency to their plight.

Third, the level of political abuse in the USA over the last few decades has robbed the language of meaning. Trump is a highly dangerous man, unqualified to be president who will imperil democracy in the USA and, indeed, the future of the world itself. That is the truth. 

However, mainstream Republican politicians and operatives have been saying similar things about Obama for years. Much the same applies to the rhetoric of mainstream Democrats about their opponents. Now when the mainstream say that of Trump it is hardly surprising people do not believe them. 

If Trump loses, we can celebrate - but not for long. The circumstances that allowed him to flourish will not have gone away. Imagine how much more dangerous, electorally, would be a cleaned-up Trump - someone much like him but more disciplined. 

This has happened in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen was replaced by his daughter Marine Le Pen. She is a cleaned-up version of her father. Polls are indicating that she will actually lead in the first round of the presidential election in France in 2017. It is expected that she will lose the second round just as her father did. But no one expects that she will be crushed 82:18 like him. It will be much closer.

These are dark times, indeed.