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The rise of Trump – what we got right

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan

In the aftermath of Trump's election victory, many are trying to explain and make sense of it. But to readers of Spiked and this blog, his win was not entirely a surprise. We identified the forces behind Trump's rise that other pundits and analysts today are only just discovering.

We didn't predict his victory, but we took him more seriously than those who dismissed him as a reality-TV blowhard. For more than a year we recognized Trump's potential to upset, mainly because knew, even before the election contest had begun in earnest, how the longstanding political parties had lost their influence on voters, and how much the working class had become seen as a problem to be managed, rather than a group to be won over. That gave Trump his opening.

For a start, we recognized that, in 2016, the key driver was a desire for change among many Americans:

“With the emergence of outsiders like Sanders and Trump, this year is turning out to be a change election, even if there is no agreement on what that change should entail. And that hurts a stay-the-course candidate like Clinton. Indeed, it can almost seem unfair that she – and not Obama himself – is taking the hit for people’s frustration with economic and social stagnation.” “Why it’s been such a slog for Hillary,” 2 June 2016.

While others treated him as a joke, we said that Trump had a serious chance of winning the election:

“It is precisely the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the establishment and status-quo politics that has provided Trump with his opening. And who have the establishment put up to stop Trump? Hillary Clinton – one of the most flawed, hackish and unlikeable of candidates. Thanks to the mess they have made, Trump – one of the most unqualified and buffoonish people ever to run for president – now has a real shot of winning in November. “ “The GOP is the Trump Party now,” 23 July 2016.

And:

“If [Hillary] cannot find a positive message that genuinely inspires, that addresses the concerns of the left-out masses, then many will feel they have nothing to lose by choosing Trump. And she and the Democrats will have only themselves to blame.”  – “Note to Democrats: being anti-Trump is not enough,” 2 August 2016.

Early on we identified early on how the condemnation of Trump's supporters, from Democrats and the media, was problematic, and how Trump was capitalizing on this:

“The denigration of Trump supporters is one of the ugliest aspects of the anti-Trump hysteria. As it became known that a core part of Trump’s support comes from those without a college education, some began to use that fact to dismiss his voters as ‘uneducated’, ‘low-information’ or just moronic…Those core Trump supporters who are disparaged as the ‘uneducated’ are what we used to call the working class. Sections of the working class have been alienated from the political process in recent years. In the 2012 election, many white workers without a college education abstained rather than voting for Obama or Mitt Romney. Now that it appears that Trump has them engaged in politics, the establishment parties have only themselves to blame for ignoring them for so long.” – “Why the Donald trumps the opposition,” 15 December 2016.

When many said the Trump movement was the same old GOP, we noted that Trump's support came from sections of the working class in the blue states, many of whom were former Democrats:

“Onlookers lazily see in Trump’s support a racist blob, the same old Republican Party at it again. As it happens, Trump’s followers don’t neatly fit their stereotypes. Many are from the industrial North, not just the much-demonised ‘red states’ of the South and Appalachia. Many have moderate views, and don’t feel that certain hot-button issues, like abortion, should be a priority. Many are secular, although they often are, like many of the religious, traditionalist (rather than cosmopolitan) in cultural terms. And some Trump supporters are Democrats: 20 per cent of Democrats say they will vote for Trump, and many who back him were once registered Democrats.” - “Treating Trump supporters like an exotic tribe,” 1 February 2016.

The most high-profile moment of denigration happened when Hillary referred to Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables" - racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes. It was a way to assert her moral superiority - but at the expense of a masses of people. In addition to being a bigoted write-off of millions, Hillary's statement indicated she had no need of their votes:

 “In dismissing so many as ‘deplorable’, in such an open way (she knew the remarks were being recorded), Hillary shows that the Democrats are willing to write off white working-class votes. Over decades, white workers have left the Democratic Party in droves, switching to the Republicans (or not voting). But in 2008 and 2012, Obama still sought to appeal to this group, even though his strategy was mainly predicated on big turnouts among African-Americans, Latinos and higher-income populations. Now Clinton is not even pretending to care; in her own words, they are ‘irredeemable’.” – “Trashing the white trash: Hillary and the new bigotry,” 19 September 2016.

Unlike many others, we distinguished between Trump the man, and his supporters, who, we argued, had legitimate concerns. And once this group was singled out for condemnation, a new dynamic began - his growing number of supporters wanted to use Trump as a weapon to hit back at the elite:

“Upon hearing all of these derogatory remarks thrown at them, Trump supporters might reasonably reply: tell me something I haven’t heard before… Indeed, much of Trump’s support comes from people wanting to kick back against the condescending views they experience from those on top – like being told they are dumb and racist. Saying you are for Trump is a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the snobs.”  [my italics] - “Treating Trump supporters like an exotic tribe,” 1 February 2016.

And:

“Many of Trump’s working-class supporters dislike the way they are looked down upon and written off as bigots. Elites dismiss their concerns about controlling the border or fighting domestic terrorism as inherently racist, and place these topics off-limits. Rather than engage or try to convince Trump’s supporters, the cultural establishment simply denounces them as having unacceptable views, and seeks to silence them via public shaming or more coercive methods. In response, supporting Trump then becomes a way of saying, ‘Screw you, I’m not shutting up’.[my italics] – “Trump: a monster made by PC,” 14 March 2016.

In the process, support for Trump had become a cultural as well as political phenomenon, and he became means of backlash against political correctness:

“Trump is becoming a larger character in American life by the day. His prominence in the social imagination, and the strong reactions he ignites on all sides, shows that he has become a cultural phenomenon, something more than just a contender for political office. Saying you are for or against Trump sends a broader message about where you stand culturally, not just politically…. Trump’s supporters are willing to overlook his inconsistencies and embrace him, perhaps because they know that just the mere mention of backing the uncouth Trump will send a message to the cultural elites. As interviews with Trump supporters reveal, the number-one reason given for supporting him is not his proposals on immigration or trade, but his willingness to be politically incorrect… Trump’s fans are as much signalling their defiance of PC culture as they are supporting particular political solutions. “Trump: a monster made by PC,” 14 March 2016.

In my mind, one of the most significant signals that 2016 would be different was the response by Trump supporters to the attacks on them. Rather than cower and be silenced, many embraced the "deplorables" label:

“When it comes to Trump, it appears that the Clinton approach is to hope to make people embarrassed to appear to side with him, to fear being branded ‘deplorable’. In that regard, it is interesting to see how many have proudly embraced the ‘deplorable’ label. Go online and you can buy a range of merchandise: ‘T-shirts, key chains, car decals, buttons, pendants, coffee mugs and even a deplorable pocket watch.’ Outside a Trump rally, a supporter holds up a sign saying ‘Deplorable Lives Matter’. This may not be an effective retort to Clinton, nor does it transcend the terms of the debate. But it is encouraging that people are not defensive and are responding in a feisty way.”  – “Trashing the white trash: Hillary and the new bigotry,” 19 September 2016.

At the same time, we recognized that the rise of Trump was part of a new populism in the US, as evidenced by both Trump and Bernie Sanders, with parallels internationally. Moreover, we identified the disintegration of the two major parties as the impetus for their rise:

“The fact that insurgents in both major parties won in New Hampshire indicates that what we’re witnessing is a broader crisis of the American political establishment, not a problem limited to one particular party or candidate. Sure, you can identify certain strengths that Trump and Sanders have, and reasons why they are appealing to their supporters. But what is really driving these outsiders to the top is the decay of the old politics and collapse of the party machines. Trump and Sanders are at the right place at the right time.” – “New Hampshire: rage against the political machine,” 10 February 2016.

And:

“This latest wave of populism in the US, as represented by Trump and Sanders, is filling a vacuum left by the slow disintegration of the Republican and Democratic parties. Both groups have adopted top-down, technocratic policies, and both are widely viewed as dysfunctional. Populism is also fuelled by a backlash against the political and cultural elite’s apparent disdain for lower-class people, whether it’s President Obama’s dig at people who ‘cling to guns or religion’ or Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the ‘47 per cent’ who are ‘takers’. The new American populism has been more successful than anyone imagined only a few months ago. It is shaking up the old order. What is unusual about today’s populism, from the perspective of US history, is that it is emerging on both the left and right simultaneously. This reveals that populism is now a society-wide phenomenon, and calls into question how meaningful the traditional left-right categories are today. “ – “Trump, Sanders and the New Populism,” 24 February 2016.

Many were critical and even frightened of this new populism. We argued that, despite its flaws, it indicated a new era in politics was beginning, and was something to be welcomed:

“However, despite the problematic baggage that Trump and Sanders bring with them, their new-style populism is, in my view, something to be welcomed. Mainstream politics hasn’t served the mass of people well. The elites are out of touch, distant in geographical as well as political terms, as evidenced by the sharper self-segregation of communities along class lines. Today’s populists have interrupted the elite echo chamber, and forced a discussion of the needs of the masses. Now, instead of discussing what should be done to the people, politics is being reoriented around what should be done for the people. And that’s a good thing.” – “Trump, Sanders and the New Populism,” 24 February 2016.

As Trump ascended, we noticed how his rise was facilitated by the fact that few were taking his arguments seriously, and trying to challenge them. Instead, they focused on his outrageous personality and how he broke norms of how politicians are supposed to behave. For example, few gave substantive arguments on immigration in counter to Trump's views - many preferred to denounce Trump, and concealed the fact that their own views were not that far from his:

“Trump adherents are most often called racist for their support for his anti-immigration stances, like building a wall along the Mexico border, deporting the 12million in the US illegally, and enforcing a ban on Muslims coming into the country. But Trump backers might wonder why only they get the racist label slapped on them. Other Republican politicians share his views: candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have also called for bans on Muslims, without the uproar. Democrats brag that ‘President Obama has the most border patrols and security deployed at the border of any previous president’, and Obama has been called the ‘deporter-in-chief’ for his record-setting number of deportations.” – “Treating Trump supporters like an exotic tribe,” 1 February 2016.

As all of the experts applauded Hillary for her post-convention strategy, which called for a focus on Trump as beyond the pale, we noted how that wouldn't work, as it didn't put forward a positive case:

“As Clinton and the Democrats pivoted in Philadelphia towards fighting the upcoming election, their strategy became clear: they will seek to demonise Trump as a dangerous aberration, as a ‘dictator’. As the New York Timesnoted, the Democrats will ‘recast the 2016 race not as a conventional battle between left and right but as a national emergency that requires voters of all stripes to band together against a singularly menacing candidate’. Democratic strategists seem to be overlooking an important fact: that this was exactly the strategy deployed by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and many of the other Republican contenders for office. Rather than deal with Trump’s arguments, they demonised the man himself. They thought that just by saying Trump was extreme and beyond the pale, they would encourage voters to rule him out. That approach failed spectacularly.” – “Note to Democrats: being anti-Trump is not enough,” 2 August 2016.

Further, many assumed that Hillary's spotlight on Trump's sexual harassments and boorish behavior - especially after the release of the Access Hollywood "pussy-grabbing" video - would sink him for good, we noted that this was not only a "low" road, but wouldn't be likely to work:

“‘Trump’s a sexist pig’ is not a guaranteed winning electoral strategy for her, either. Clinton is very lucky in having an opponent in Trump, a man who embodies the new-feminist stereotype that all men are sexist. But by engaging in such a negative and petty campaign, Hillary has continually given left-for-dead Trump new leases on life.” “Trump and Clinton: how low can they go?” 11 October 2016.

As the race headed towards the conclusion, many Democrats started to rally around Hillary, and portrayed her in glowing, saintly terms. Once they would admit she had flaws, but now they would not hear any criticisms, for fearing of losing to Trump. This flight from reality was not a sign of confidence. As voting day neared, there was a lot of pressure to vote for her, if only as a lesser evil to the crazy Trump. We, like most, didn't like either candidate, and so we stood our ground, and said neither deserved our vote. We noted their mutual dependence needed to be broken:

"You could say that Hillary created Trump, and that Trump drives people back to Hillary. Clinton is the very definition of establishment, and it is establishment policies — coming from both the Democratic and Republican parties — that have created a ‘populist’ backlash…Rather than embrace one or the other, we need to break this cycle which generates support for both of them.” - "Neither Trump nor Clinton," 7 November 2016.

We also anticipated new fights that would come afterwards:

“But [however you vote], know that, if you want the fullest freedom and highest living standards for all, we’ve got a battle on our hands after the election, whoever wins.” - "Neither Trump nor Clinton," 7 November 2016.

As the Trump years begin, you can be sure to find lots of valuable analysis and opinions about what it will all mean. But ask yourself: should I listen to those who got it wrong about Trump's rise, or to those who got it right?

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