the left and within progressive movements there were two immediate
responses to Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections.
First, shock, frequently accompanied by despair. How could an openly
racist, misogynist authoritarian — personally unstable to boot — be
elected president? Second, anger with the Democrats for the sort of
campaign that they waged. At that point, however, a division emerged
around a third point: what, we asked, was the source of Trump’s
victory? And, even more important, what are the strategic implications?
It is important to approach any examination of the November election
with a degree of nuance. As widely noted, Hillary Clinton won the
popular vote by what now appears to be at least two million votes. The
Libertarian and Green Parties received far more votes than the margin
of victory in no less than eleven states, including Pennsylvania,
Michigan and Wisconsin. This election was decided by a razor-thin
margin due to the undemocratic Electoral College.
Approximately 55% of eligible voters went to the polls, down from both
2008 (61.6%) and 2012 (58.6%). Trump, then, actually received around
25% of eligible votes. This figure of 25% is quite significant because
it appears to be that percentage of the electorate that has, for at
least a decade, been fairly consistently reactionary.
Senator Bernie Sanders and several other commentators have attributed
most of Trump’s success to the fact that he played to allegedly
legitimate concerns of the masses. We disagree quite strongly. The vast
majority of the Trump vote was the Republican base. These are the
voters who have long adamantly opposed the Obama agenda from a
staunchly right wing perspective and, for that matter oppose almost all
progressive causes. In various opinion polls what is notable is that
for this segment of the electorate, terrorism and immigration are a top
concern. It is also worth noting that, at least during the primaries,
Trump’s base had a median income above both the national median and the
median for both Sanders and Clinton voters.
So, while it is true that Trump received 14% more votes from white
people with less than a college education than did Romney, and 10%
fewer from whites with a college degree, Trump voters were not mainly
poor and unemployed. As Mike Davis points out in
a recent blog post, there was no massive defection of white working
class voters to Trump. In fact, Clinton won the majority of voters
earning under $30,000 (53% to 41%) and voters under $50,000 (51% to
42%). These figures are critical to keep in mind when commentators
describe the Trump victory as a working class vote. How are they
defining “working class”?
Moreover, it is never to be forgotten that Hitler and Mussolini had
large support in the working class. The full Nazi party name was the
National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Mussolini was previously a
top leader of the powerful left wing of the massive Italian Socialist
Party. Even had November 8th been a working class revolt—which it was NOT—that could not be looked at in isolation from its politics and color.
Yet, Trump voters as a whole were overwhelmingly white, and herein lies the discussion that truly needs to happen.
Trump’s real triumph was his ability to shift Republican politics to
straight racism, misogyny and xenophobia with a potent authoritarian
tone, yet still create a winning voting coalition — time will tell how
stable — that brought together the core Republican electorate,
including right-wing evangelicals, as well as some disaffected former
Democratic voters. While many Trump voters interviewed after the
election said they made their choice despite concerns about his
character, what is remarkable is how many “returned home” to the
Republican Party in the face of the continuous string of revelations
about the Republican candidate, including his boasts about sexual
assault and his obviously erratic behavior. A huge effort to win white
evangelicals, for instance, centered on Trump’s promise to create a
lasting anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court. Thus, it would be
wrong to suggest that this was something of a protest vote or a “lesser
of two evils” choice by Republicans. Trump, as many of them suggested, articulated what was on their minds.
election results must also be understood as Clinton’s failure to fully
mobilize the so-called Obama coalition to her side. As we have noted
elsewhere, Clinton was not the candidate to lead an anti-corporate and
progressive populist insurgency, which is precisely what is needed at
According to the national exit poll sponsored by all the main news
organizations, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, unmarried women, young voters,
union households — the core of the Obama Coalition — all voted for
Clinton, but in somewhat smaller percentages than they had voted for
Obama in 2012. The Black Democratic vote fell from 93% in 2012 to 88%,
including only 80% of Black men. The Democrats’ winning percentage
among Latinos fell from 73% to 65% (although a poll conducted by Latino
Decisions concluded the real number was 79% for Clinton.*); Asians from
76% for Obama to 65% for Clinton (another poll says 75%); unmarried
women from 67% to 62%; young voters’ Democratic support declined by 5%;
and union households fell to 51% from 58%. The only strongly
progressive voter group that increased its vote for Clinton, according
to the national exit poll, were lesbians, gays, bisexual and
transgender folks. And the hoped for surge of Latino voter
participation apparently did not materialize.
Trump did not address the concerns of most voters. He addressed the
fears of many white voters. Those fears, again documented in various
polls, are both economic and racial. The economic fears focus largely
on the potential for
economic disaster. The great majority of Trump voters were not hammered
by the economy. What scares them is that the American Dream is no
longer theirs for the taking. They are no longer convinced that their
children’s lives will mark an improvement over their own. Linked to
this fear is that of the changing racial demographics. In a post-election report by Toronto Globe & Mail columnist
Doug Saunders, what is most interesting is the concern among Trump
voters about the changing face of the US. Immigration, especially in
regions where there were previously few, if any, immigrants, became an
inflammatory issue. In short, the white middle class and its upward
mobility — the traditional white version of the American Dream — are
feared lost forever.
Terrorism needs to be added to this list because, as a category, it,
too, was long ago racialized. When the word terrorism is used, the
assumption is that it refers to actions carried out by a Muslim, Arab,
or some other brown or black person. The reality is that a person in
this country is less likely to be killed by terrorism than to be struck
by lightning; and, if they are so unlucky, far more likely to be killed
by a white supremacist than a Muslim.
November 8th was a revolt by 58% of white voters. It was a revolt
spearheaded by a significant, but not very large, segment of the
electorate that had been energized by the appeal of white nationalism
and right-wing populism. The nature of the appeal is the call for a
return to the past; actually the return to a mythical past, in the face
of a complex and changing world.
November 8th also represented a slight but electorally crucial
demobilization of an important segment of the so-called Obama
Coalition, partly by multiple efforts at voter suppression, e.g., the
elimination of polling locations in the South, and the removal of
voters from registration rolls.
While there is no question but that neoliberal globalization has
contributed to the growth of right-wing populism through its
destruction of segments of the economy and its concentration of wealth,
that alone does not explain what happened on November 8th when one
realizes that African American and Latino workers have been
disproportionately hurt by neoliberal globalization yet there is
nothing approaching the sort of Trumpist reaction among those sectors.
The right-wing populism of the Trump campaign also rests, in part, on
the notion of the American Dream. Trump, as a successful businessman
and media celebrity, is an iconic figure. His success, while not
derived from his work alone (he was born wealthy), is something that
appeals to the largely white sentiment that the average person can make
it good, even though Trump is not the average person.
Yet the deeper and darker feature to right-wing populism in general and Trump specifically is that what neoliberal globalization has done
has been to limit and capture the world’s resources and place them in
the hands of the global elite. To the extent to which these resources
are not available for the billions of souls on this planet there is an
immediate question: how should one divide up what is left over? The
answer provided by right-wing populism is found in identifying
so-called legitimate and illegitimate populations. The allegedly
legitimate populations should have access to Medicare, education
grants, and the like (at least until Congressman Paul Ryan gets his
hands on them), and the so-called illegitimate or undeserving
populations should be cordoned off, jailed, or excluded entirely from
society. This is what one could call either “global apartheid” or the
genocidal impulse that exists within capitalism generally and
right-wing populism in particular.
The white voter revolt of November 8th occurred under the banner
of restoration of the “white republic”; the national “humiliation” — in
the words of one author — of the Obama presidency must be removed and
what the mayor of a West Virginia town alluded to as “the ape in heels”
vanquished as First Lady; the undeserving must be excluded; and the USA
must be allowed to do whatever it chooses around the world.
To lead this process, there must be a “Great Man.” And while it would
be premature to describe this as fascism, it is not too early to remind
the reader that fascism is a subset of
right-wing populism and that, contained within the Trump movement have
been very open and vocal neo-fascists and secessionists who believe
that the time is fast approaching for a racial and ethnic cleansing of
the US and the restoration of the natural (white) order.
This leads to a final point inherent in the election results. A
backdrop to the campaign has been the emergence of the Movement for
Black Lives, largely in response to the police killings of unarmed
African Americans. This movement shook the U.S., and Trump took
advantage of it in order to play to the deep-seated fear within white
America of a supposedly ever-present threat of Black violence. Much
like Richard Nixon, the appeal to law and order, reiterated throughout
the campaign, was a call to put further restraints on African Americans
in particular. No one could miss the coded and not-so-coded language.
Where do we go from here?
the initial shock, spontaneous anti-Trump protests began to spread as
despair turned to anger. While this has been understandable and
positive, it is far from sufficient. This is precisely why an accurate
analysis of the election is essential in order to develop longer-term
strategy. Our suggestions are as follows:
The top of our agenda must be to defeat Trump and Trumpism. We need to
make him a one-term president, and build the forces over a longer
period of time to decisively defeat the far right in all branches of
the federal government, most states, and in workplaces, neighborhoods,
and the streets. Defending communities that Trump attacks and building
progressive power are crucial to defending our peoples and defeating
Trump. But, barring extreme circumstances, he will ultimately need to
be taken down at the polls.
2. Even with the
technical defeat of Clinton, what is clear is that there is a “new
majority” inexorably coming into existence. This progressive new
majority crosses racial and ethnic boundaries and needs to be
galvanized into a major force in the streets, schools, workplaces,
neighborhoods — and in the Democratic Party and elections.
3. Freedom and
justice will not spontaneously emerge, however, from demographic shifts
in the United States. One need only identify apartheid and
apartheid-like societies to see that demographics alone are not enough.
In 2016 far too many racial justice forces and organizations sat
passive during the presidential election and we have too few in the
field that can truly reach hundreds of thousands, let alone millions of
people. We need to step up big time if we are going to get the huge
movement at the polls, and throughout the society among people of color
(and whites) that will be needed to defeat the plans of the incoming
4. Race neutral
economic populism alone will not win back those whites (workers and
others) who turned to Trump allegedly because of the economy. If, for
them, economics was the key, they would have voted for Jill Stein or,
in the primary, Bernie Sanders in their millions. The fact that they
did not, but instead turned to a rich, white, misogynistic, racist,
xenophobe, tells us that something else was at play. We must try to
break off the section of the Trump base that cares about economics, the
environment, misogyny, peace, and anything else available: but if we
ignore racism, such concerns are likely to remain tinged by the
frameworks offered by Trump and right-wing populism. Given their big
victory, this is not likely to show quick results. A key starting point
will be to amplify the organization and influence of whites who already
reject Trumpism. Unions will be one of the key forces in this effort.
While they pretty much universally threw down against Trump, voters
from union households chose Clinton by only 51% to 43%.
5. The sort of left
populism that we need is one that truly takes on neoliberal
globalization, including but not limited to trade deals. It must
actively oppose privatization, deregulation, casualization, and
anti-unionism, not to mention the impact of an increasingly automated
6. That same left
populism must challenge the racial differential that permeates all
facets of society. Unity against neoliberal globalization will not come
from ignoring race and gender disparities, but instead by working
together to overcome them. This was the weakness of the Sanders
campaign and many other populist and semi-populist initiatives.
7. The fight for
power will necessitate a renewed effort for voting rights. 2016 was the
first presidential election since the weakening of the Voting Rights
Act. As noted, more than 800 polling places were closed in the South
prior to the election, sites that overwhelmingly served communities of
color. This may help to explain at least some of the voter drop-off.
Surely legalizing voter ID and other voter suppression rules will be at
the top of the Trump/Republican agenda once they get hold of the
we will need to build progressive united fronts based in the
constituencies of the “new majority” and expand from there. Such united
fronts will have both an offensive and defensive set of tasks, with the
aim of defending communities and democracy, defeating the Republicans
and gaining of power for populations that have been historically
excluded and those under threat of new exclusions by an increasingly
The first steps in
our journey begin with accurately assessing what actually happened on
November 8th and realizing that this election result is part of a
growing right-wing populist trend that has been churning in our soil
since the 1960s, with roots that go back to the arrival of the first
European settlers. This fight will likely take center stage for years
to come, and is being fought out throughout Europe as well. Literally,
the future of the people of the world is at stake.
Decisions was founded by veteran political scientists Gary Segura and
Matt Barreto. They argue that their survey included a much larger
number of Latino voters than did the national exit poll and the sample
was specifically designed to take account of the many different Latino
nationalities. In addition, they say a much larger percentage of the
Latino Decisions survey interviews were conducted in Spanish than in
the national exit poll.