Illustration: Steve Bell (Guardian)
The US Presidential election is the culmination of the long-standing economic and cultural grievances of America’s non-commissioned officer class, a subclass largely composed of white men from the rust-belt, whose factories have been asset stripped and sent abroad and whose unions or small businesses, pensions and prospects have been decimated. They are not the poorest of the poor – not even the poorest of the white poor.
But neither was this a revolt led by the white working class rank and file, the many who never fully shared the benefits of life in the skilled trades and ascendant key industries of a dominating economic power. From this platform, they had assumed a quasi-social leadership role over the traditional working class and, through their unions, often fought for broad programs of social remediation within the existing social order that they also jealously defended.
This election was a revolt headed by those who had acquired a modest stake in middle class life and now find that life, and the institutions that made that life possible, disappearing. It is led by white working men whose fortunes have fallen, afflicted by wage stagnation and an ever-widening social disparity in income and wealth that has consigned them to the wrong side of the divide. They prided and deluded themselves that they and they alone had reliably done society’s heavy lifting and were, in turn, entitled to certain expectations. Above all they had the expectation of a well-run and stable social order, an order in which they would continue to enjoy a place of respect and authority and a rising standard of living, which could be passed down to their children.
They had, above all, placed their confidence in the ruling class, who had historically indulged this self-estimation only to find themselves abandoned in an increasingly globalizing economy. This sense of free-fall has been massively reinforced by a shift in equality’s center of gravity owing to greater racial and gender inclusiveness, with which it coincided. That abandonment has become the crucial factor in the increasingly polarized and caustic political conflict, a conflict that can be resolved in a progressive or reactionary direction.
Society’s NCOs asserted themselves. But they did not assert themselves in a vacuum. Nowhere in the developed capitalist world has the left acquired traction. Our manifold debacles need not be rehearsed. Suffice it to say that the left has not provided an oppositional center of gravity that could capture this white working class disenchantment and channel it into a progressive direction.
No one expecting to extract a concession from the system could reasonably vote for the Greens. There are perfectly honorable and noble reasons to cast a protest vote, to put a place marker on a vision of liberation that may yet be. But this is not where concessions are realized absent a massive movement surge from below. And that, unfortunately, does not describe the current American scene.
But the liberal wing of the American ruling class, having neutralized the Sanders’ insurgency, effectively corralled this discontent into the Trump alt-right pigsty, where, they thought, it could be contained. Clinton had something to offer Wal-Mart and fast food workers: a raise in the minimum wage, subsidized childcare, a modified Obama plan. She could offer a path to citizenship to the dreamers and subsidized public tuition. But by failing to derail voter suppression through the South – and even in Wisconsin, and by failing to offer a grand inclusive program of economic reconstruction to restore the white working class and sweep up the multiethnic poor and near poor into co-prosperity, she could not counterbalance the appeal of the far right.
Clinton was perceived, and correctly so, as being the agent of global financial and corporate interests, the very interests that had inflicted this protracted social setback to white workers. She was the face of the status quo.
This is a neo-fascist moment and it is bleeding into advanced economies throughout the world. It was all but announced here by the open intervention of the deep state, in the form of the FBI’s bombshell intervention on behalf of Trump barely two weeks before the election. And make no mistake about it. Neo-fascists, unlike traditional reactionaries and conservatives, are unencumbered by economic orthodoxies and can run an economy. They, like the far left, fully understand that capitalism is not self-correcting and place no faith in markets. They fully appreciate the need for massive doses of state intervention and are fully prepared to blow a sky-high hole through the deficit.
That is why, contrary to Paul Krugman and others, the stock market, after an initial shortfall, began to boom. Massive tax cuts, a protective wall of tariffs, relaxation and elimination of environmental and Wall Street regulations, huge public works in the forms of infrastructural renovation, the promise of a border wall and the spend-up on military hardware all herald and shape the state-led investment boom to come. Caterpillar and Martin Marietta soared. As did Big Pharma, soon free to price gouge without fear of criminal investigation. Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin had field days. Private Prison corporations are licking their chops at the prospect of the FBI and police being let loose on immigrant communities and communities of color. Student loan services and lenders, no longer facing government competition, got a new lease on life. Even too big to fail banks stocks rose with the prospect that Dodd-Frank being repealed. Increasing after tax incomes will stimulate working class demand and in the hands of the wealthy drive up share prices.
Paradoxically, gun manufacturers saw a drop in stock prices. Speculators shorted gun stocks presumably because the threat of gun regulation has been removed thereby eliminating the perceived urgency on the part of gun enthusiasts to stockpile arms in anticipation of that threat.
The Trump insurrection, fueled by this NCO revolt, effectively defeated the two political parties, the Republicans no less than the Democrats. It appealed to white workers equally on the basis of anxiety over economic decline but also on the basis of prejudice, the loss of class status and the promise of a return to class collaboration, a new deal –if you can pardon that usage, with a responsive nativist-oriented ruling class. It promises, in other words, rule by like-thinking CEOs who can be relied upon to restore prosperity within the confines of a retro 1950s-like social order that erases the gains of women – right down to basic bodily autonomy — and minorities. In that regard, Trump will refashion the civil service, the permanent government bureaucracy, on a purely political basis, essentially ending the primary path to upward mobility on the part of minorities who cannot be relied upon to pass a political litmus test. If proof is needed, see how an tea-party Republican such as Scott Walker could decimate the civil service in Wisconsin and then tweak that example to fit Trump’s outsized predilections.
The nominal Republican Party has been effectively transformed into a white nationalist party and if it succeeds in raising rust-belt white incomes and economic security on that basis, while checking the aspirations of Blacks, Hispanics and women, it will have legitimized and institutionalized that transformation.
The Democratic Party has discredited itself. It is an empty vessel, unable to defend the living standards of the multi-ethnic American work class. It is a party of split loyalties, in which workers, women and minorities take a back seat to corporate interests. And the corporate interests they take a back seat to are precisely those global, financial and tech sectors that are decimating living standards and feeding the revolt.
Trump has started the political realignment in this country. Social movements, central to which is labor, can stay loyal to the Democrats and cave, or they can find their way to political independence and make a credible appeal to Trump workers to jump ship on the basis of class solidarity.
Barry writes for New Politics magazine