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American Studies Notes on the Elections III

Date:20 November 2016
The White House
The White House

For those who voted for Donald J. Trump for president, his ascent to the White House marks the end of an old (bad) era and the beginning of a new (great) one. But it is neither. Trump’s election is merely more of the same - just the latest, predictable bubbling to the surface of a now decades-old reactionary populism.

If Americans, including the pundits and pollsters, better understood the nation’s recent history, they would see more clearly that we are caught in an endless loop, living a political Groundhog Day over and over again. Americans have been here and done this – voting for populist candidates who, once elected, never deliver - several times in the last fifty years. It is hard to understand why. Part of the problem, I submit, is that the Trump voters who believe the new president will somehow bring back their jobs seem unaware of this dead-end history.

For starters, most obviously, there is no disguising the way that Trump lifted his campaign themes of law and order and making America great again directly from Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Just as Nixon appealed to the “great silent majority” and the “forgotten American,” so, too, has Trump (with his supporters re-embracing eagerly the “silent majority” label).

And just as Reagan projected a sunny, misplaced optimism in the wake of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, and Jimmy Carter’s dour pronouncements on the nation’s “crisis of confidence,” Trump has practically plagiarized Reagan’s promise to return America to its former greatness.

Those who voted for Trump often seem like clones of the Americans who, in the mid-1970s, prompted by the film Network, shouted from their windows “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” They are not unlike those who went out and bought David Hapgood’s The Screwing of the Average Man (1974), and showed up in sociological studies as formerly union Democrats seeking a return to midcentury stability and prosperity by voting for a Republican former movie actor. The Reagan Democrats in Youngstown, Ohio and elsewhere in the deindustrialized north – who got no relief under Reaganomics – are now Trump Democrats.

There is no question that tapping into this persistent disillusionment is a winning electoral strategy, and not just for Republicans. In 1992, in the midst of another economic recession, Bill Clinton’s campaign famously declared, “it’s the economy, stupid,” as a way of mocking the incumbent, George H. W. Bush, for being out of touch with the average American’s precarious job security and stagnant wages.

In each of those campaigns, as in Trump’s, the candidates did their best to smear their opponents and their parties for selling out the average American, for putting the interests of others – minorities in Nixon’s and Reagan’s case, corporations in Clinton’s – first, for running the American economic ship aground.

But that was the great lie, told and re-told, by nominees of parties equally complicit in the dismantling of a mid-century economic powerhouse. Anyone who read the newspapers knew that the meagre allocations for welfare and entitlements were hardly as determinative in the course of economic decline as the massive spending on defense and, most important, the flight of private capital – and jobs – overseas.

Both the Democrats and Republicans embraced the neoliberal mantra of “free trade” in the era after the 1960s, and both parties – and the presidents they produced – sat idly by as deindustrialization quickened, manufacturing jobs disappeared, and communities went into decline. Both parties watched as the Rust Belt rusted.

And that is where the most fraudulent claims of the president-elect lie. With no sense of history or decency, Trump has somehow convinced enough swing voters that the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and the decimation of cities like Youngstown and Detroit are the fault of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Such claims are preposterous.

The deindustrialization and decline of American cities began decades ago – in fact, corporations started moving capital overseas in pursuit of cheap labor and fewer regulations at the height of the great American economic boom in the middle of the twentieth century (see Jefferson Cowie’s brilliant book, Capital Moves, for example). By the 1970s, that process was well past the tipping point.

And although it is true that presidents, with the Congress, can take the lead in negotiating trade agreements - as Bill Clinton did with NAFTA, hastening the disappearance of manufacturing jobs – there is little that Trump can do, even if we take him to be sincere (really, what are the chances?), to bring those jobs back.

Those who voted for Trump no doubt did so in part because they believed that the president-elect can deliver on his promise to make America great again, to make their lives great again. In fact, Trump will do no more than keep the nation on this endlessly tedious cycle of blaming others – Democrats, immigrants – for economic misfortunes brought upon American workers by corporations and their political accomplices in both parties. In the meantime, he will hide that total failure by pretending that persecuting Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, etc., is “getting things done.”

For at least forty years now, purveyors of political paraphernalia have been selling bumper stickers that say, “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.” Populist appeals to that outrage clearly wins votes. The problem is that too few Americans possess sufficient historical literacy to see that we are being sold old beer not even with new labels – we’re being sold old beer under the same old labels.

Trump voters are outraged, alright, but they seem not to understand recent historical trends: that voting for the latest presidential candidate to promise not to forget the forgotten Americans has produced little except new candidates, four years later, promising again not to forget them. Perhaps they are too busy just trying to make ends meet to spend much time reading history, but that is where the left needs to do a better job of educating voters.

And that is why this disastrous election result is not completely the fault of the voters. As I say, the Democratic Party – particularly the centrist Clinton-Gore-Obama majority – worships at the neoliberal altar, too, and, therefore, offered nothing new to voters of the precariat. Bernie Sanders – who spoke quite deliberately to forgotten Americans himself – might have done better with swing voters than Clinton did, but it’s hard to imagine a democratic socialist, faced with massive Wall Street opposition, being able to re-industrialize the Rust Belt and return the region’s cities to their former economic health. Instead, the party nominated Hillary Clinton, a candidate these swing voters saw as part of the problem.

Invoking philosopher George Santayana’s famous dictum that “those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it” has become so overused in popular discourse that it has lost its potency. But as this election has demonstrated, we Americans need to better understand our recent history, so that we stop repeating the same mistakes and instead seek and chart a new path forward. Because the path we’re on now isn’t new, and it’s leading us nowhere.

Prof. Michael Stewart Foley, Professor of American Political Culture and Political Theory