Donald Trump has become the 45th president of the United States.
I am in a state of shock as I write those words. Even given my poor record as a predictor of elections, I would have thought this was impossible.
In the months leading up to the vote Trump had established himself as the worst candidate for president put forward by a major party in American political history, running by far the worst campaign. The election itself should have been declared a no contest.
And yet there he was running against Hillary Clinton, herself a historically unpopular candidate. Despite her many failings, however, I still thought she would win, with Trump registering only as the end point in the death spasms of a certain strand of American conservatism (a point I’ve addressed elsewhere). She had overwhelming systemic advantages in money, the electoral college (yes, this was to her advantage), and the favour of the media, while he was . . . well, he was Trump.
These strengths, however, were part of Clinton’s undoing. Her election came to be seen as a near-coronation, the campaign a one-horse race. This suggests something very damaged in American democracy, and voters rebelled against her inevitability, their sense that they had been denied a choice.
Defenders of Clinton made much during the campaign, and no doubt will continue to do so, of how her enemies were ignorant bigots. They were the “deplorables” who hated women and non-white immigrants (specifically Mexicans and Muslims). Trumpism was only the politics of the white working class, a.k.a. losers. No doubt there was some truth to this, but I think the problem with Hillary Clinton was something simpler.
For starters, every election is about change. This has led to the cult of the “outsider” and the non-politician politician. It’s hard to overstate how essential this branding is. Hence Bill Clinton calling his wife “the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my whole life” at the Democratic convention. He had to say that because it was so obvious that Hillary Clinton was a status quo figure. Her own professed desire was for “incremental” change only, which may be realistic but is not inspiring rhetoric.
But who could expect anything more from her? She had been in the highest offices of American politics for decades, as much a figure of the establishment as any single person could be. No one could mistake her as representing change, and indeed in her campaign’s final days she appealed repeatedly to the need to continue the legacy of Barack Obama.
The first problem, then, with Hillary Clinton was not that she was a woman but that people were sick of her. They were sick of her twenty years ago, when “Clinton fatigue” was a thing encompassing both her and her husband, and she hadn’t been out of the public eye since!
The second problem with Clinton as a candidate was that she was a political operator. I hesitate to say “politician” because politics, at least of the retail variety, was not really her calling. She would admit on the trail that she wasn’t a “natural” like her husband at campaigning. Though courtiers built her up as someone likeable in intimate settings, she had difficulty projecting charm or charisma. One felt a weariness, discomfort, and not least paranoia on her part whenever she had to appear in the public eye. It was enough to make even the rank vulgarity of Trump seem human in comparison. The overriding question I had watching Clinton over the course of the past year is why she was even doing this. By all accounts she experienced her husband’s presidency as something of a nightmare. Was her run for the presidency an attempt at some belated validation? Or, worse, revenge?
In any event, her awkwardness as a candidate does a lot to explain her curious political career. She went from being the wife of the president, which in her case was a position of some power, to being air-lifted into a super-safe seat in the senate (Patrick Moynihan retired to make way for her in New York, a state she had little personal connection to). She would go on to an appointment as secretary of state under Obama and then win a Democratic primary against an eccentric figure who wasn’t even a member of the party (and who the party itself plotted against). She then ran for president against an even more impossible figure, with all of the above-mentioned institutional advantages providing a strong wind at her back.
Some critics referred to this career trajectory as “falling upwards,” but it was really just a combination of good luck and skilful operation of the system. She has always carried with her an air of inevitability and entitlement. None of this made her popular. If people want change, and look to outsiders rather than politicians to effect it, what can one make of the ultimate career politician preparing to take the highest office in the land virtually unopposed? And with Clinton there was always a certain odour attached to the label of politician even beyond the usual dislike. “How did Hillary Clinton end up filthy rich?” ran the main television ad for the Trump campaign (titled “Corruption”). It was a question that stuck, to be answered (in the ad) by charges of the “politics of personal enrichment” and “pay for play.” Her defence was simply that there was no “smoking gun” or hard proof of a quid quo pro or criminality. This was weak. No matter how legitimate the sources of “Clinton cash” there is still, I think, a lot of native feeling that people in public office should not be getting rich off of it. As for why people were paying the Clintons up to half a million dollars to listen to them make a speech . . . it just smelled bad.
In sum, the problem with Hillary was not that she was a woman but that she was hard to like, harder to trust, and someone people were tired of. The charge that people who opposed her only because they were bigots or ignorant was, however, the first (and often last) line of defence of most liberals – and I say this as a liberal myself (or someone a little to the left of that). It was a defence Clinton herself would adopt in her concession speech, taking on the persona of a feminist martyr cruelly crushed against the patriarchy’s glass ceiling while heroically lighting the way for those who would follow in her giant footsteps. The liberal media — that is, the same media that had enabled her at the expense of all common sense and cast her campaign in the language of a battle against misogyny and for human rights — echoed these sentiments. If Democrats make this their preferred narrative for what happened then they will have learned nothing.
The truth is, Bill Clinton would not have fared any better. Clinton, Inc. had, in the years since his leaving office, become the face of liberal oligarchy. This is an over-class – financial, political, business (most prominently tech), and media – that believes very much in individual freedom and human rights, but also in rule by a managerial elite whose attitude toward democracy is paternalistic at best. It’s no coincidence that many of its leading lights are prominent spokespersons for what’s been called “the new philanthropy.” This is a world not of corporations but of benevolent private foundations.
Such philanthropy meant nothing to the American middle class, who neither wanted nor were in line for a hand-out. What use was the Clinton Global Initiative to Americans? Globalization, they had been told, had lifted billions out of poverty all over the world. But so what? What good had it done for homegrown “losers” aside from giving them cheap shit to buy at Wal-Mart? And was that supposed to be enough?
Well, there are scarier things than rule by a liberal oligarchy, as we may find out. I think Hillary Clinton was a much safer choice than Donald Trump. But I think we would be wrong to write off critics of the elite as rednecks or white nativists only expressing the time-honoured anti-intellectualism of American politics. Clinton was unfairly accused during the campaign of being ambitious, which I think was a clear example of a sexist double standard. Anyone running for president has to be ambitious. Ambition can be a good thing. But no elite or oligarchy can be expected to look after anyone’s interest as well as their own. I have never been one to accuse any government of taking a “nanny state” attitude, and I’m no enemy to government regulation, but I look at the liberal oligarchy and I fear its benevolence.
If you’re looking to lay blame this morning, lay it on both parties. The Republican establishment didn’t want any part of Trump, but all the same he is on them. They created the matrix that spawned him and then couldn’t control the forces they thought to cynically exploit. Even more at fault, however, is the Democratic party, which was so out of touch, so enamoured of its own good intentions, it thought it could ride a deeply flawed candidate who many Americans despised into the most powerful office in the land by wrapping her in a feminist mantle. Trump v. Clinton should never have happened. Never. That it did is an indictment of the system.
There has been much hand-wringing recently over the rise of populism in Western democracies. Populism, in these arguments, is equated with xenophobia, racism, authoritarianism, and nationalism. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think there’s a way for a healthy politics to be more populist. Moving forward, both parties are going to have to find it.