In this essay we will explore the notion of ‘centre-ground’ politics, why this ideology is coming to an end, and the part it plays in the 2016 American presidential election. We’ll do so by looking at the reasons for Bill Clinton’s successes; take an unsentimental look at which of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would be less terrible; try to explain why so many people are attracted to Donald Trump; and we’ll look at the performances of America’s ‘third party’ candidates in this election cycle. We’ll then make the case that electing Hillary Clinton would not be a pragmatic necessity, but the start of a bright dawn for the American left.
Bill Clinton is Emmanuel Goldstein – the False Saviour of American Politics
Back in 1992, in a Presidential debate between George Bush and Bill Clinton which now looks amazingly polite, an audience member asked the two candidates how they’d been personally affected by the state of the economy. Bush answered blandly, saying that a strong economy helps everyone, but Clinton’s response was more empathetic:
“I’ve been governor of a small state for twelve years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me. Every year Congress and the President sign laws that make us do more things and give us less money to do it with. I see people in my state, middle-class people, their taxes from Washington have gone up and their services have gone down while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts. I have seen what’s happened in these last four years. In my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them. I’ve been out here for thirteen months, meeting in meetings like this ever since October, with people like you all over America. People who have lost their jobs, lost their livelihoods, lost their health insurance. What I want you to understand is that the national debt is not the only cause of that. It is because America has not invested in it’s people, it is because we have not grown, it is because we have had twelve years of trickle-down economics, we’ve gone from first to twelfth in the world in wages. We’ve had four years where we’ve produced no private sector jobs. Most people are working harder for less money than they were ten years ago. It is because we are in the grip of a failed economic theory.”
The “failed economic theory” of trickle-down economics essentially argues that tax cuts for the rich benefit everyone, because that leaves more money to invest. It’s a very right-wing argument, because it leaves the power to decide how and where investments are made in the hands of the rich few, rather than the more left-wing idea that investment should be directed by the state, where there is at least a framework for the people to control how investment is directed.
The problem with Clinton’s attack on this system is that, while in power, he pushed through both NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagal – a Depression-era piece of legislation which regulates how much risk the stock market can take. The absence of such legislation was a major factor in the trends which led towards the 2008 financial crisis – after attacking Bush for tilting the power structure of American society too far towards favouring the rich, Clinton did the same himself.
In George Orwell’s 1984 Winston Smith tries to seek out Emmanuel Goldstein, an enemy of the state and political theorist who is prepared to lead the people against Big Brother. However, Smith is eventually betrayed and handed over to the state – the torturer O’Brien makes the claim that Goldstein was merely a construct to allow Big Brother to control the people’s opposition.
Reality is subtler than fiction, and it would be a mistake to think of the Clinton and Bush families drinking together and laughing at having given the American people the pretence of choice. In reality, both men offered their own slight variation on the same “failed economic theory”. A 2014 Politico piece on how Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren – a genuine opponent of trickle down economics – are perceived on Wall Street is worth reading.
In essence, while both President Bushes and Reagan are right-wingers, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are left-wingers, the Clintons (and Barrack Obama) are better defined as economic centrists rather than left-wingers – a mixture of the two philosophies.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan moved their right-wing parties further right, implementing more extreme right-wing policies than had been traditional. As a reaction, the major left-wing parties of the UK and USA moved to the centre to take some of the voters driven away from their rivals – Bill Clinton and Tony Blair can be better understood as centrist rather than left-wing. If left-wing policies are defined as being those which give power and protections to the many, while right-wing policies are those which give financial and creative elites more freedom to innovate and lead without constriction, then the economic platforms of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were more centrist than left-wing or right-wing.
That definition could easily be dismissed as leftie bloggers trying to disown now unpopular politicians. But we’d argue that it’s important to clearly define what left-wing and right-wing mean, rather than just accepting that politicians have the right to define themselves however they want.
We certainly accept that it’s possible for leaders to be left-wing and bad. For example, Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister from 1976-79, is generally seen as letting the unions become too powerful for the public good, and Venezuala’s economic troubles are widely blamed on the economic policies of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro. We’re not clear if the commonly remembered ideas of Callaghan and Chavez are fair or oversimplified by their opponents, but the folk-memory versions of Callaghan and Chavez certainly work as examples of bad left-wing leadership.
The success of the centrist approach has led to right-wing politicians using the language of left-wing and centrist politics (though not the substance). Take, for example, David Cameron claiming that “we’re all in this together” as part of a “big society” – moving away from Thatcher’s famous appeal to rugged individualism, her claim that “there’s no such thing as society”. While making these claims, cuts to the National Health Service have put ordinary people under greater pressure, and the further academisation of schools make it harder for members of society to hold increasingly profit-motivated schools to account.
George Osborne (then the man in charge of the UK economy) went further. With support growing for the bold left-wing argument that everyone in full-time employment is entitled to a ‘living wage’ (enough to live on) Osborne renamed the National Minimum Wage the National Living Wage, but failed to raise it to the standard of a living wage – like Cameron, taking the language of the left, but sticking to the substance of the right. The political theorist Tariq Ali has noted that this clustering around “the extreme centre” makes it harder to predict with certainty what a political party will do, and makes it harder for ordinary people to hold our rulers to account.
Donald Trump has performed a similar trick to Cameron and Osborne with his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a bill supported by both Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama which would make it easier for rich businessmen like Trump to stifle opposition. Trump has been able to appeal to ordinary Americans by claiming that he’ll stand up for them, despite having no track record of doing so – often the opposite. He’s refused to pay bills, attempted to use compulsory purchase orders to force Scots to sell him their homes against their will, and despite making maternity leave a part of his electoral platform, gives his own pregnant employees no more time off than the ultra-low standard that US law requires them to give.
Given Bernie Sanders’ obscurity until relatively recently, the novelty of his politics must have played a major part in his rapid rise. (He was recorded as having just 4% support for the Democratic nomination in October 2014, but by August 2016 had become the second most popular political figure in America, behind only Michelle Obama.)
There’s an argument to be made that the centrist compromise was the correct choice if it prevented right-wing politicians taking power in the UK and US. But one of the consequences was that rather than politics being a philosophical battle between left and right, in many countries mainstream political discussion became a battle between centre and right. A generation (the writers of this blog included) came into political awareness with their horizons limited, their first solid idea being that they opposed Blair or Clinton and as a result blamed ‘the left’ for the failures of the extreme centre.
It’s easy to dislike Donald Trump for exploiting people’s desperation, but he’s only one symptom. A rejection of traditional politicians of the centre has happened across the world, in favour of those from the radical left and radical right. It’s often often left-wing parties seen as having moved too centrally who lose out to more left-wing parties. This happened to PASOK in Greece, PSOE in Spain, and to SDP in Austria.
In Austria, the most recent Presidential election went to a run-off between the Green Party and the Freedom Party, whose logo is a cornflower – a secret symbol Austrian Nazis used to identify each other when the party was banned between 1934 and 1938. If that was too subtle, their leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, recently quoted a segment of a poem written for the Austrian Nazi Party, named ‘The Swastika’ on his Facebook page.
America isn’t the only place where the centre’s loss of power to left and right happened within the party. The UK’s Labour Party received a lower number of voters for three successive elections from 2001 to 2010, made a slight improvement under Ed Miliband (their most left-wing leader for decades), then elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, a man significantly more left-wing than Miliband.
Worldwide, the centre-ground consensus is collapsing – the question is what replaces it.
not-Clinton vs not-Trump
In the final months of the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s main message has been clear – Donald Trump is a hot-headed, underqualified egomaniac who’s unsuited to being president. At the same time, Donald Trump’s main message has been equally clear – Hillary Clinton is a corrupt incompetent who deserves to be in jail, and has been far too close to Wall Street.
The debate has been toxic, but there’s a reason why both campaigns have focused more on their opponents’ flaws rather than their own candidates’ positives – it’s a much bigger target to hit. In normal circumstances, we’d be tempted to consider the not-Clinton candidate. So how bad are each of the possible future presidents?
On September 11 2012, a US outpost in Benghazi, Libya was attacked, resulting in the deaths of 4 Americans. There have been multiple investigations into the attacks and specifically Clinton’s part in failing to prevent the attacks. We’re not clear on how far these were because of legitimiate questions and how far it was political opportunism from Republican politicians – frankly it’s a quagmire trying to make sense of the various vested political interests at play.
The investigations did uncover evidence that Clinton used a private server rather than her official governmental email accounts, deleted 33,000 of 60,000 emails that were considered to be ‘private’ in nature, and that inadequate security precautions probably allowed the server to be hacked, possibly by foreign governments. However, it’s important to note that the Bush administration had a similar unofficial server during their time in power.
Henry Waxman, investigating, noted that “in some instances, White House officials were using nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications,” and that may well have been Clinton’s motive as well. This doesn’t excuse the terribleness of Clinton probably using a private server specifically to make herself less accountable, but it’s important to note that she’s not uniquely terrible in this regard.
The left-wing political journalist John Pilger has argued that Clinton’s foreign policy would be more dangerous than Trump’s, as she has a history as part of the Obama administration of participating in the Honduran coup and Libyan War, as well as supporting the building military bases around the South China Sea, which increase tension and makes war more likely. It’s not criticism that should be ignored. Nor should the allegation that she played a large part in replacing the democratic government of Honduras, and has been accused of playing a part in forcing down wages in Haiti.
However, this is standard US foreign policy. The US was instrumental in the 1953 Iranian coup, the Nicaraguan contra rebellion, and the existence of the School of the Americas (officially fighting loosely defined ‘communists’ then ‘narcoguerillas’) shows how routine this is. The 2003 Iraq War was unusual not because the USA sought to replace a foreign government they didn’t like, but because they were open about it. As with the emails, Clinton’s record is terrible, but not uniquely terrible.
As part of a speech in June, Trump asked a crowd “What do you think about waterboarding? I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee, reporting in 2014, found that “the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information”. This isn’t a moral dilemma – a moral dilemma is when we are faced with the option of doing something possibly morally offensive but helpful. Trump’s position is the equivalent of saying he’d cut off his soldiers’ fingers to improve their shooting – it’s not just nasty but nonsensical. He’s putting a child-like desire to look tough above what the evidence says. And engaging in torture will act as propaganda for foreign forces – encouraging them to become more violent towards American troops.
Trump has reportedly asked why America doesn’t use the nuclear weapons it has, and has said that he would order the deliberate killing of terrorist families, despite this being a clear breach of the law.
As if to underline how poor his judgment is, Donald Trump has praised Vladimir Putin’s “very strong control” over Russian society. Putin has been heavily linked to the unsolved murders of several journalists (forty before 2012), and Freedom House ranks Russia 180th out of 199 measured countries for press freedom. Many other critics (notably Alexander Litvinenko) are rumoured to have been murdered by the Russian state.
Ivanka Trump has holidayed with Wendi Deng – strongly rumoured to be dating Putin – and at least one FBI spy with expertise on Russia believes that they are using Trump as an agent to indirectly control the US. That’s probably too big a leap to make at this point, but at best Trump has a naive and rose-tinted view of Putin, which would make him easy to outmanoeuvre.
Putin is a devious and clever propagandist, who regularly tries to build Russia up as the respected international peacebroker the US and UK have struggled to be in the wake of the war on terror – a sharp mind is needed to match wits with him. There’s a strong argument that Obama has performed poorly in this regard, but given that Donald Trump wasn’t aware of Russia’s move into Crimea, it’s likely that he would make the current president look like a tactical genius. It’s incredible that Trump, a man of many enemies and many feuds, seems to reserve his most wide-eyed adoration for literally the one person in the world an American president should be most suspicious and wary of.
We’re not absolutely confident that Clinton did nothing wrong over Benghazi, and consider it feasible that she could cause an escalation of international tension that could lead to a major military confrontation. But she is far less hot-headed than Trump, who has been open about his intent to do much worse than Clinton has been accused of. Trump’s supporters tend to say that he’s a strong leader who gets things done, but that the military leaders would hold him in check and prevent him overreacting. They can’t have it both ways.
Clinton and Trump Charitable Foundations
The Clinton Foundation has been central to accusations of corruption against Hillary Clinton. The Foundation received between $10 and $25 million from Saudi Arabia, and the family of the chairman of Uranium One donated millions to the foundation as Clinton’s State Department approved their purchase of several uranium mines. There’s clear potential for conflicts of interest, but no solid proof of corruption.
By contrast, the evidence of the Trump Foundation spending on Trump businesses is very strong. At least $258,000 of donations to the Trump Foundation were used to settle lawsuits against a Trump resort and golf course. The largest known payment by the Trump Foundation is $264,000 to refurbish a fountain outside a Trump hotel. $20,000 of Foundation money was spent to buy a six-foot portrait of Trump at auction, which appears to have been hung in the boardroom of a Trump golf course. It’s possible that Trump Foundation money was used to pay for Trump’s son’s $7 boy scout membership fee.
Despite boasting about his philanthropy, investigators can only find record of $7.8million since the 1980s – far less than he’s claimed credit for (and $5.5 million of that went to the Trump Foundation). Trump has a history of giving the impression he’s donated more than he has – he once turned up unannounced and claimed a podium seat at an event honoring donors to the Association to Benefit Children, despite having never donated to the cause.
Charity watchdog Guidestar gives the Clinton Foundation it’s highest transparency ranking level (platinum), a ranking the Trump Foundation doesn’t have.
It’s not just donors that Trump has milked. In 2005 his Mar-a-Lago golf resort claimed $17 million in damages after Hurricane Wilma, but appears to have only spent $3,000 on repairs. New Jersey governor Chris Christie agreed to settle a $30 million tax bill for $5 million around the same time that Trump donated $620,000 to his re-election fund, and Trump’s personal property empire was founded on a tax break worth over $360 million, on property Trump spent only $120 million on.
As with his charitable foundation, Trump’s business successes appear reliant not on business acumen, but on personal connections, and knowing how to milk the system.
Language and Free Speech
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Donald Trump’s early remarks on Mexican immigrants have now become somewhat iconic, despite the available evidence showing that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than those born in the United States.
Clinton is often criticised for similar callousness for supposedly volunteering to defend a child rapist she knew was guilty,and not just helping him get away with his crime, but laughing as she did so.
Obviously the truth is less cacklingly evil than the meme version of the trial. The accused made the decision that a female lawyer would be more likely to help him win his trial, and the judge assigned Hillary Rodham to the case. Eventually the accused pled guilty, and years later Clinton spoke to a journalist about the trial. This recording includes laughing at the ridiculous result a polygraph test produced during the course of the trial. That’s it. Maybe she shouldn’t have laughed, but Clinton’s reaction clearly isn’t cocky indifference, but the kind of gallows humour that’s right out of Law and Order. It’s the kind of dark joke that Lennie Briscoe would make two or three times an episode, and a pretty tame example at that.
Whereas Clinton is treated as being contemptuous for making a dark joke to a journalist, Trump either boasted about, or pretended, that he regularly sexually assaults women. And at least ten women came forward to corroborate Trump’s claim. That’s not people getting upset that he said a rude word, that’s people who are angry that he boasted to a journalist about criminal acts.
Given that Trump likes to shoot from the hip and say whatever’s on his mind, he has been remarkably litigious. In 2005 reporter Tim O’Brien interviewed many of Trump’s friends – and Trump himself – as part of a 275-page biography. The book, in many ways positive, included a three page section in which O’Brien tried to calculate Trump’s worth, which, based on available evidence, he put at between $150 and $250 million. (Trump asserted it was somewhere between $1.7 and $9.5 billion.) Trump spent three years trying to suppress the publication of this section. In preparation for Trump’s 2011 Comedy Central ‘roast’ participants were told that jokes that suggested Trump is not as rich as he claims were off limit. O’Brien isn’t the only person to fall foul of Trump’s litigation – a recent report by the American Bar Association which concluded that Trump is a libel bully was censored, because the ABA feared being sued. For a man who’s very loose with his own tongue, Trump expects others to be careful in what they say about him. It’s a bizarre mindset that says it’s fine for a major politician to say Mexican immigrants are rapists, but it’s unacceptable to claim that a businessman might not be a billionaire.
Voting Fraud & Corruption
Donald Trump has claimed that Democratic voter fraud is widespread, and claimed that rigged ballot boxes were the only way he could lose in Pennsylvania – despite polls showing that Clinton was ten points ahead of Trump in Pennsylvania at that point. It’s very unlikely that the Trump campaign had access to polling data that the mainstream media didn’t (they’ve spent more on hats than on polling) so Trump was probably pulling this assertion out of nowhere. The claim was, however, rooted in long-term Republican propaganda, used to justify putting barriers in the way of voting for black and poor people – who are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. In a Daily Show segment back in 2013, a GOP precinct chair named Don Yelton was stupid enough to openly say that he supported such voter ID requirements because “the law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt.”
Courts are beginning to pick up on the evidence that voter ID laws are meant to disenfranchise the poor and black, and the most thorough study, carried out by Loyola University, shows that there is evidence for possible voter fraud in 31 cases out of a billion. That isn’t a typo.
Trump has also claimed that the dead are casting their votes for Clinton (the reality is that in a lot of cases electoral rolls haven’t been updated to take deaths into account). But maybe Trump has Hillary Clinton confused with Sideshow Bob Roberts.
Donald Trump has been encouraging his voters to vote twice, which at least one supporter has been caught doing. Ironically, this election will probably be off the scale for voter fraud, because of Trump’s supporters. Dissatisfaction and lack of faith in the process means that violence is probably inevitable somewhere on November 9th, with a decent possibility of large scale riots. But there is no substantial evidence that the general election will be rigged to an extent that any results will be affected.
The Democratic primary process is another matter.
Former party chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz resigned when leaked emails showed she had deliberately rigged the deck in favour of Hillary Clinton, not sharing DNC data files equally and stacking committees with Clinton loyalists.
Further email leaks have indicated that Donna Brazile, the interim chair until Wasserman-Schulz’ replacement can be confirmed – tipped off Clinton’s campaign on a question CNN would put to a debate between Clinton and Sanders. It’s comical – it’s the kind of extreme political corruption that in most years would be without parallel in American politics. There’s a conspiracy theory we’ve heard – one of the lesser-known but more plausible – that after failing as co-chair of Clinton’s 2008 bid for for the nomination, Wasserman-Schultz took the position as DNC chair specifically to make sure Clinton picked it up this time around, with her predecessor Tim Kaine ensuring she got the job in return for being promised the Vice Presidential position. This would also explain why Clinton settled on such a bland, uninspired choice of running mate.
It may well be that the connection to Clinton is what kept Wassserman-Schulz in her job so long – according to The Atlantic, Wasserman-Schulz was “a poor communicator whose gaffes often caused the party headaches; a mediocre fundraiser; and a terrible diplomat more apt to alienate party factions than bring them together.”
Despite being the person who was screwed over by these actions, Sanders continues to insist that Clinton will make a better president than Trump, and enable Sanders to pursue his politics most effectively. If you’re a former Sanders supporter who intends to vote for Trump, then you’re going against Sanders’ clearly expressed wishes, and ignoring the judgment of the man you claim to admire.
Rape has been a major focus of political news this election. Not in any serious, substantative way, just as a way of determining who is the most repulsive person bidding to move into the White House.
The Clinton-leaning Slate.com consider Juanita Broaddrick’s claim that she was raped by Bill Clinton credible, and her description of what she claims Bill Clinton did to her sounds horrifically plausible. There are at least two other substantial allegations against Bill Clinton. None of that proves that Hillary was complicit in covering for her husband – the Huffington Post have made the valid case that rapists rarely confide in their spouses, and that Broaddrick may have been misreading Hillary’s body language. There should certainly be a thorough and systematic investigation into the allegations against Bill Clinton, and into what part, if any, Hillary played in covering for him. Ideally this should have been done a long time ago, and it certainly should be done outside the red-hot atmosphere of a presidential campaign.
What we do know for certain about Bill Clinton is that he had a sexual relationship with a young woman he had power over, then ridiculed her claim in front of the nation rather than face up to the consequences of his actions. That’s the kind of sleazy behaviour he should be forever looked down on for.
Donald Trump was recorded boasting about committing sexual assault, and at least 14 women have claimed that Trump forced a kiss, groped their breasts, or violently raped them. He almost certainly has a history of abusing the position of power his riches and celebrity have given him. In his own words he “just start[s] kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” Six former employees at Mar-a-Lago resort claim that Trump had a system fitted which allowed him to listen in to private phone calls made by paying customers.
It strongly appears that Trump is a man who routinely abuses the power he has over others to satisfy his desires – it’s incredibly partisan for Trump supporters to argue otherwise.
The Clintons are terrible people, but to say that both candidates are as bad as each other is an extraordinary act of false equivalance. In our view, Hillary Clinton is terrible in the normal way you’d expect an American President to be, whereas Donald Trump is off-the-scale terrible, an unpredictable agent of chaos and self-indulgent ego. We don’t expect anyone to be happy about putting Hillary Clinton into office, but to us it’s the clear rational choice.
The Three Simple Reasons so Many Voters are Sticking with Donald Trump
Despite the framing of them as ‘deplorables’ we’ve spoken with some calm, reasonable Trump supporters, whose motivation for backing him sounds fairly reasonable. Their logic for doing so generally fall into three reasons.
The Grass is Greener on the Other Side
Having had experience of politics at a high level (and liking money), various scandals have attached themselves to Hillary Clinton’s reputation – Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and her husband’s rape allegations. Although unproven, these are serious allegations, and Trump doesn’t have anything as bad attached to his name.
The argument seems to be that, as Trump has never held high-level political power, who knows how he’d react? Over the course of his career he has always abused whatever power he’s held, but the argument seems to be that because we don’t know with absolute certainty that he’d misuse that power, there’s a chance he might not. Hillary Clinton is a known quantity to an extent that Trump isn’t, and while that’s appealing to those who prefer her, Trump is appealing to many for the same reason. The argument goes that the system needs shaking up, and it can seem to many that someone as dramatically different as Trump is necessary. We’d argue otherwise – millennials rallied behind a pseudo-idealist turned middle-of-the-road centrist in Barrack Obama but found a candidate worthy of their idealism in Bernie Sanders… and he came very, very, close to taking the White House. Trump supporters might argue that the inability to affect change proves that Trump is necessary. But we’d argue that this movement is growing stronger and learning from it’s mistakes, and is now only one more round away frm making a major historic breakthrough.
It’s Only Words
A common argument from Trump supporters is that all the things that Trump has done or said in this campaign are just harmless words. But the things high-profile people say impact on the broader national atmosphere. Just in recent days, one Trump supporter has been recorded chanting ‘Jew S-A’ at a rally and another hung a pair of black mannequins from a tree. Trump’s rise has won the endorsement of various neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and not only has he picked a fight with the decent, restrained parents of a dead soldier, he suggested that, as a Muslim, the mother wasn’t allowed to speak in public. There has to be a baseline level of mutual respect for a society to stay coherent. A Trump presidency would divide the American nation against itself, with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans no longer feeling welcome in their own nation. After the UK’s Brexit vote large numbers of immigrants have commented on the change in atmosphere, with one woman booed during a televised debate because she said that she didn’t feel welcome.
America can expect a far, far more divided society under a President Trump…but his supporters generally don’t seem to see the wider psychological impact of Trump’s words.
He Must Be Smarter and More Moderate than he Seems
We’ve seen repeated assertions from Trump supporters that, despite his melodramatic acts of self-indulgence and unwillingness to listen to his advisors (even on such basic matters as debate preparation) he must listen to them behind closed doors, or how would he have built up such a large business empire? But as we’ve shown in the previous segment, a lot of Trump’s success has been down to political connections (many of the initial connections inherited through his family) allowing him to milk the state to fund his projects. Certainly Trump has a relentless genius for self-promotion, whether that’s through media appearances or turning up at a ribbon-cutting to give the impression he’d donated to a charity who’d never met him.
But his business record is less clear-cut, when his range of errors are looked into. His Atlantic City casinos ate into each others’ profits when times got tough, and he famously managed to lose $916 million in a single year. There is a tendency among Trump supporters to think that beneath the bluster must be a sharp mind. But there’s little evidence that this is true.
A recent ‘Black Jeopardy’ sketch on Saturday Night Live drew parallels between black America and Trump supporters. Among other things, Trump-supporting Doug (Tom Hanks) shares the black characters’ distrust of long-term financial plans, the belief that elections are decided in advance. These are beliefs shared not just by the black American and Trump supporting characters in the sketch, but by working-class Brexit voters here in the UK.
Among Trump supporters we’ve seen online, there are scary alt-right Breitbarters who are so taken with their cause that they don’t seem able to consider the possibility that Donald Trump might be less than perfect. But there are also plenty of decent, perhaps angry and scared ordinary people, who see a Clinton presidency as dangerous in the same way we consider a Trump presidency to be. It may now be too late to convince them to change their mind, but that should be taken into consideration when trying to heal the social wounds after the election.
Jill Stein and Gary Johnson – the Alternative Options
In 2012, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were the presidential candidates for the Libertarian and Green parties respectively, picking up 0.99% and 0.36% of the popular vote. Pretty much all the polls have them massively outpacing that standard in this year’s election. The terribleness of Clinton and Trump is almost certainly the major factor in more voters looking outside of the traditional duopoly in American politics, but both expose tensions which were already there. The question is whether the smaller parties can make the most of this opportunity.
The fourth place candidate in this year’s election will probably have the highest share of the popular vote a fourth place candidate has received since 1948, and there’s a chance of them picking up the highest share since 1912, when, even up against Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft, the Socialist candidate Eugene Debs was able to pick up 5.99% of the vote.
Gary Johnson, unlike any of his rivals, is a former governor with practical experience of running a large government body. But his policies and performance don’t bear the evidence of his experience. Johnson’s idea of a flat 28% sales tax replacing a number of current taxes would probably drive up prices and drive down labour wages. He didn’t recognise the name of Aleppo – the epicentre of the Syrian refugee crisis, probably the biggest political story in the world at this moment. In what should have been an easy win – asked to name a foreign leader he admires, and in the process defining himself in the glow of another person’s achievements – he failed to think of anyone. Johnson believes that there should be no limits on how much money corporations are able to throw behind their favoured candidates, supports both TPP and the Keystone XL pipeline, despite, in his own words, not totally understanding either of them, and thinks that “showing up on time and wearing clean clothes gets you way above the minimum wage.”
His record as governor of New Mexico isn’t impressive either – he turned a $4.4bn debt into a $7.7bn debt in his eight years in charge. His answer to climate change seems to be to either let the free-market sort out the problem or to wait for the Sun to consume the Earth.
Gary Johnson’s record make Ron Swanson’s deliberately comic interpretation of libertarianism sound well thought out.
Given that the writers of this blog are both members and active campaigners for the Green Party of England and Wales, our (theoretical) votes should be Jill Stein’s to lose. But we’re not sure that we’d vote that way were we Americans. Donald Trump can be dismissed as an option for many reasons. Then Gary Johnson’s ideas on climate change and unregulated free markets make it easy to rule him out. But, as strongly as we dislike and distrust Hillary Clinton, we’re not sure that we’d back Jill Stein over her.
There’s been criticism that Stein’s tax policy is accidentally pro-austerity because it’s been badly thought through. (Supporting tax hikes and spending cuts rather than raising the debt ceiling.) While Stein supports vaccinations, she’s done so in a way that echoes anti-vaccine arguments that exaggerate corporate influence in the process. Slate.com compared Stein’s and Bernie Sanders’ responses to the vaccine question –Sanders’ is much more straightforward and understandable. Maybe it’s unfair to demand that Green and Libertarian Party leadership reach the high standards of Bernie Sanders, but that’s what’s needed to gain the faith of a significant number of people.
The communication skills of the Stein-Bakara campaign haven’t just fallen short of Sanders’ standards, but have often been downright amateurish. In the past few days, Jill Stein’s facebook page appeared to be claiming that the news media are deliberately misinterpretting polling data to make Clinton look more popular than she is. An officially released infographic (see left) misused the term ‘free trade’, (which is a technical term for the type of deal TPP is), and the GPUS media team appear to be ignorant of the politics behind Brexit. GPUS initially released a statement in support of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, in spite of the Green Parties of Northern Ireland; Scotland; and England and Wales all being to oppose Brexit.
There is an arrangement between the Scottish Green Party and the Green Party of England and Wales to take the lead from the other on issues that affect the other nation primarily. The Scottish Green Party has no MPs in the United Kingdom’s Parliament, but on issues which exclusively affect Scotland, members of the Green Party of England and Wales are expected to follow their sister party’s policies – for instance doing what they can to support the SGP’s policy of Scottish independence. (The Green Party of England and Wales has an MP and a Baroness in the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively.)
The Green Party US doesn’t have a similar arrangement, but logically, they should try and make their policies fit together coherently with their international sister parties. Worse still, after putting out a press release that was idiotic on it’s own terms and contradicted their local sister party’s policy, GPUS apparently tried to change the statement and deny knowledge of the original statement. Their actions were shambolic on a number of levels.
After John Oliver aired a segment on Stein and Johnson which to us seemed critical but fair, a number of Stein supporters called for a boycott of HBO because of his critical analysis. Not only is it over-reactive and hyper-sensitive to try and censor a political pundit you disagree with, the first time we saw the headline to this story we got the impression that it was Stein herself calling for the boycott, and there’ll have been some potential Green voters who picked up that mistaken impression and haven’t gotten beyond it. Even if you disagree with a political pundit’s opinions, it’s possible for them to be wrong in good faith. For instance, Oliver has mocked the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who we like a lot, but that’s merely a difference of opinion, not evidence of corporate corruption. Claiming otherwise makes the Green Party sound paranoid. In a political movement which is about decentralisation and empowering the masses, it’s vital that grassroots campaigners are aware of how their actions impact on wider perceptions of the party.
You’ll probably recall Hillary Clinton’s famous description of Bernie Sanders supporters as ‘basement dwellers’. This has been interpretted as her openly showing her true contempt for the young who are struggling with debt. Listening to the full quote reveals a different story:
“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. And so if you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”
Whether her concern is genuine or not (and there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that Clinton is the kind of person who merely pretends to show concern for the working classes) the interpretation of this quote that’s entered into popular imagination, that Clinton was caught expressing open contempt for the young, is clearly false. If even the most well-connected, media savvy candidate in this election is vulnerable to this kind of misinterpretation, then it’s foolish to suggest that a candidate with as many communication issues as Jill Stein is the victim of a corporate conspiracy.
Whether it’s fair or not, we have the sense that Stein panders to her base rather than applying the hard, difficult thinking and political bravery necessary to run a country with wildly divergent opinions. Maybe this problem is purely a communication problem, and we’re being too harsh on Dr. Stein. But even then, the Green Party needs leadership that doesn’t sound like it’s pandering to the base, or getting paranoid about the motivations behind media criticism.
Our perspective is that a vote is a finite resource, so is best applied where it can do the most good – keeping Donald Trump out of power. If you’re really committed to seeing your favoured ‘third party’ grow, then the best way to do so is by getting involved. By getting stuck in and connecting the party to local causes and people, helping develop the local party infrastructure in your area, spreading the party message in a clear, easy to understand way. Your time and skill will be more valuable to a growing party than a tick in a box for an election they can’t possibly win, and where they probably won’t reach the 5% needed to unlock further funding.
Though we’ve focused on the Jill Stein’s campaign, we’re confident we could be equally harsh to Gary Johnson if we wanted to – it’s just that we aren’t as invested in the idea of a strong, intellectually thought-through Libertarian Party as we are in the idea of a strong hard-headed and clear Green Party. If the ‘third parties’ want to make the breakthrough to being seen as serious parties capable of taking power and shaping the world for the better, a lot of harsh self-reflection is required first.
Snow, Baelish and Bolton – American Pragmatism
There are three major reasons for left-wingers to feel positive about a Hillary Clinton presidency – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan.
A repeated line used in this election is that ‘if you keep choosing the lesser of two evils, you’ll always end up with evil’. This isn’t necessarily true, and ignores all the work that can be done in between elections. The most widely known exploration of power in modern pop culture is Game of Thrones. The most recent series has, as a major plot, Jon Snow preparing for a seemingly unwinnable battle against Ramsay Bolton – who is not just indifferent to the suffering of his people, but an outright sadist. Jon’s half-sister, Sansa Stark, encourages Jon Snow to form an alliance with Peytr Baelish – who has a complex relationship with their family, and is certainly not a trustworthy ally. The question put to them was essentially whether it was better to form an alliance with Baelish, or attempt to defeat Bolton alone. Co-operation with a man like Baelish doesn’t necessarily mean complete trust. It can be the smart option, as long as preparations are made for the battle after next – when the immediate enemy is defeated and the inevitable betrayal from Baelish comes.
Co-operation with Hillary Clinton does not mean surrendering to her centrist politics. In fact, she was forced to move significantly to the left in order to defeat Bernie Sanders, most notably in following Sanders in opposing TPP, a treaty which would hand greater power to corporations. Despite the feeling from some of his supporters that Sanders ‘sold out’ by backing Clinton, he remains one of the most popular and trusted figures in American politics.
Recently he’s pledged that after the election he’ll “do everything possible to make certain that the new president and Congress implement the Democratic platform, the most progressive agenda of any major political party in the history of the United States.”
Sanders is no careerist, nor does he have reason to put loyalty to the Democratic Party ahead of his principles.
Likewise, Elizabeth Warren is growing in popularity as a left-wing firebrand. There was hope that Warren would be chosen as Clinton’s running mate as a way of reaching out to Sanders supporters, but perhaps she would be less powerful locked into that largely ceremonial position. She has a large media and social media profile, and, as a member of the Senate Banking Committee, has been credited with pressuring Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf to resign.
We wouldn’t suggest that American lefties should trust Hillary Clinton, not for a minute. But Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have forced Clinton to move in their direction in return for their support, and they are both clever and clear-headed enough to use public pressure to make sure Clinton sticks to the promises they’ve coerced out of her.
If Clinton is elected, the in-fighting in the Republican Party will be vicious. Already Trump supporters are spreading the message to make sure any down-ticket candidates backed Trump before voting for them, and Trump is certain to cite the ‘betrayal’ of leading figures like Paul Ryan and John McCain who failed to give him their full support as being the cause of his defeat. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has tried to encourage Republican voters considering staying at home on election day to vote in the lesser elections by raising the prospect of Bernie Sanders being named chairman of the Senate budget committee. This probably won’t be the case – the complexities of backroom deals are hard to predict, and it looks likely that the Republican Party will hold the Senate, this year at least. But it’s an error that Trump and Trump supporters will seize on to support the idea that Ryan is a “weak and ineffective” leader. The split on the American right will be vicious, and as a result, the future is looking bright for the American left. It’s not Bernie Sanders in the White House, but in some ways it’s even better than that. When looking ahead at the major figures who will be expected to influence American political discussion during a Clinton presidency of 2017-21, the most obvious candidates are Clinton, Sanders, Warren, Ryan and Trump. The inevitable feud between Trump and Ryan will be vicious, personal and policy-free (because that’s how Trump does politics) which will eat up a large proportion of Ryan’s time. Fox News and Trump TV will fill their airwaves with melodramatic mudslinging, which leaves the substantial debates to be a discussion between the left and centre. Given that for decades debate has been dominated by right and centrist voices, this is a massive step into the mainstream for left-wing ideas. Recall how well Sanders was able to shame Clinton into backing a higher minimum wage and opposing TPP, and imagine that discussion taking place right at the heart of American politics.
Ryan and Trump’s ability to shape public opinion shouldn’t be written off. It’s vital that the American left begins 2017 strongly – that means Warren and Sanders pressuring Clinton into making left-wing appointments and pursuing left-wing policies, and ordinary Americans convincing Trump voters that Clinton can be pressured into making the changes they wanted to see, and, if not, the Clinton and the Democrat Party more broadly can be held to account. This can be done using similar architecture to that which the Sanders campaign built, a deeper version of the Green Party, or non-partisan single issue community campaigns.
This would also be an opportunity for the American right. For too long the Republican Party has been arguing positions with no internal logic – such as doing everything in their power to prevent Barrack Obama appointing the very centrist Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, despite Republicans trying to force Obama to make that same choice in 2010.
There is certainly the potential for America to have a hard-headed conservative party, one which looks at the evidence and finds ways to make the state more efficient. A conservative party which works out where tax cuts will stimulate the economy, rather than seeing any kind of tax cut as a good thing. A conservative party which sees obstructing a left-wing government as one possible tool, rather than a goal in itself. This movement could emerge from the Republican or Libertarian Party, but it doesn’t seem to exist yet. The soul-searching that could follow Trump’s defeat would be more likely to lead to this movement taking shape than an actively anti-rational right-winger like Trump taking office.
Anger is building against the type of centrist politics that claims to look out for the little guy, but which tries to push through trade deals like NAFTA and TPP. We’re in a different historic and political moment to where we were in the 1990s. That kind of compromise politics is losing it’s appeal.
Things fall apart – the centre ground cannot hold. The question is what will replace it. If power is handed to Donald Trump – a man who thinks nuclear weapons should be a conventional weapon of war, torture should be used routinely, and that US foreign policy should be an explicit protection racket, then sheer anarchy will be unleashed upon the world. It’s easy to take the current election cycle as confirmation of all our worst opinions about humanity, that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. But there are plenty of good people applying their passionate intensity for the broader social good – Sanders, Warren, and tens of thousands of others that most of us have never heard of. We need to build networks, to connect the people, and hold to account those who would put the interests of themselves and the super-rich above the interests of the majority. When talking to Trump supporters, the majority seem not to be the racist caricatures who dominate the media spotlight, but good people who are rightly angry that Hillary Clinton has gotten away with so much for so long, and underestimate how corrupt and how much of a bully Donald Trump is. Like with Black Jeopardy’s Doug, there are a lot of shared goals and values beneath the superficial differences. What seperates most Sanders, Stein and Trump supporters is tactics, rather than principle – all want a world in which the super-rich are held to account, and ordinary people are given a fair chance. In America, all the pieces are in place to make that happen. The centre-ground is collapsing, and will do so quicker with a centrist rather than a right-wing demagogue in the White House. If Clinton is elected and follows through on her promises, life improves for ordinary Americans. If she’s elected and doesn’t follow through, Sanders, Warren and the Green Party grow in strength by opposing her – electing Clinton is a Xanatos Gambit.
Given that there are several scandals still swirling around Clinton (the uranium mine; setting up a private email server to circumvent accountability; the probability that high-ranking members of the DNC tried to fix her contest against Sanders, possibly with her blessing) there’s a decent chance that Clinton won’t run again in 2020. It’s very plausible that in January of 2021 Elizabeth Warren could be sworn in and begin the work that will lead to her being remembered as America’s first great female president.
A lot of good things are possible in the near future, but they rely on a Clinton presidency. For the British left, we can’t see a clear path to victory, things are almost certainly going to get worse for us. We’re not saying that she in any way deserves that privilege, but it’s in the best interests of the American people and the world for you to hold your nose and vote Clinton. And then fight like hell to hold her to account.