Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How We Got Here: A 2016 Postmortem

Last night ended one of the most contentious presidential elections since 2000’s Bush v Gore. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fought a hard battle to the finish line. They were two completely different candidates, coming from completely different experiences and worldviews. Neoliberal versus unpredictable nihilistic anti-establishment tornado. All in all, it was recipe for political disaster and realignment. And nobody saw the result coming. Well, sort of. More on that later.
This was also a battle of parties. The Democrats in the waning days of what could be considered a middling Barack Obama presidency, much of its squandered promise tempered by unprecedented Republican opposition and a stay-the-course policy with regards to foreign policy and economic policy. The Republicans were seemingly in the political wilderness, but nominated a candidate that shocked their party establishment.
In one corner, there was Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was the Establishment candidate, tempered by relentless political battles from her time with her husband as governor of Arkansas and two-term President, the Senator from New York, and Secretary of State.
Clinton, as the establishment candidate, had every institutional advantage under the sun. She had full control and loyalty of the Democratic National Committee. After all, they were remnants from the first Clinton presidency and fellow Neoliberals, New Democrats, and Centrists
She was the first woman to capture the nomination of a major party in the United States. She was, quite probably and literally, the most famous woman on the planet. Through the Clinton Foundation and her political connections, she gained a reputation across the world (for better or for worse). Her 20-plus years in the spotlight made her the most vetted political figure in American history.
But it wasn’t without setbacks. She lost the 2008 Democratic presidential primary to a political shooting star in the form of Barack Obama, after eight years of a disastrous George W. Bush presidency and an economic crisis on par with the Great Depression. Clinton represented a return to the steadiness of the 1990’s. Obama represented hope and change. Nostalgia for Clintonism didn’t save her. And Obama, reconciler as he was, brought her into his cabinet as an olive branch after their emotionally charged contest.
After her time in Obama’s camp, traveling the world as an ambassador for women all over, and with even more experience under her belt, this should have been her contest to dominate. Unfortunately, the world continued to move on from the neoliberalism that she represented.
Events around the world and domestically spelled the death knell for Clinton’s candidacy before it even began. The political unrest in Greece over the European Union and International Monetary Fund’s attempt to install an austerity regime, which led to the rise of the anti-neoliberal Syriza Party. The rise of Podemos in Spain. The shift to the left in South America and Iceland. And the cherry on top, the shocking BREXIT vote that no one saw coming.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the rise of Occupy Wall Street surprised a complacent and ignorant Establishment. There was a legitimate reason for that complacency. To the Establishment, the reforms that President Obama installed were good enough to help them maintain their way of life. Outside of the DC-NYC Interstate 95 corridor however, it was different story. Americans outside of elite circles were still hurting from crushing income inequality because of policies dating back to Ronald Reagan. The idea that the entire system was rigged for a select view proliferated in Middle America’s cul-de-sacs, small towns, and exurbs. And it culminated in the rise of Occupy Wall Street.
Occupy Wall Street put the fear of God into the elites. They literally had no idea that the plebs were that angry. Cloistered away (aware or otherwise) from the struggles of the everyday American, they could not understand that anger. So, they did what any reasonable (to them, anyway) society would do to something that questioned everything they knew and held dear—they crushed it underneath the police state that they owned. OWS wasn’t a liberal rebellion against austerity and establishment. It was more of an anarchistic reaction to a system that completely ignored their struggles. While the elites toasted the end of OWS, people across the country saw what happened and grew even angrier.
While President Obama’s run may have staved off a global recession that could have lasted longer, he didn’t address the resentment that working class white people felt. They had pensions, good paying jobs, and enjoyed a degree of privilege which kept them insulated from the problems minorities already experienced—crushing debt, the loss of their homes, and various states of poverty. But that insulation was gone.
The jobs lost from NAFTA and WTO policies that neoliberals like Bill Clinton’s DNC championed were never coming back. Banks were stealing their homes. That angered populace found scapegoats in the wrong form—immigrants, women, people of color, LGBTs. Meanwhile, the establishment was on television claiming that things were okay. They obviously weren’t.
It was the middle of 2015, and the neoliberals in control of the Democratic Party thought they had a bulletproof candidate, a bulletproof strategy for a post-Obama world, and a bulletproof strategy to roll out an unopposed Hillary Clinton out to the world again. But they didn’t pay attention to their audience. Neither did their opposing party, the Republicans.
In the other corner was Donald Trump. He was what many in the establishment considered to be a joke candidate. He was called a carnival barker, a reality show star, and a fraud. Maybe he was some of that, all of that, or none of that. But he managed to galvanize a Republican base that was tired of the Mitt Romneys, the John McCains, and the Marco Rubios of the world.
Trump was already a celebrity, a questionable giant in real estate, one of the faces of the Greed is Good decadence of the 1980s. He had a successful reality show in The Apprentice (and its spinoffs), possessed of one of the more memorable catchphrases of the past decade, “You’re Fired!” He traveled in the same circles as the establishment, but he didn’t appear to be one of them.
Listening to his speeches, he used a method of pentameter and vernacular that captured the hurt that his base—the white working class—felt after eight years of being ignored, ridiculed, and outright vilified by mainstream media. His speeches could be sort of hypnotic and empathetic at the same time. He was frighteningly good. To the establishment, it seemed like rambling. To a certain segment of the populace at large, his simple style of speech and barebones policy prescriptions spoke right to their fears and anxieties in a rapidly changing world that was leaving them behind.
At the beginning of the Republican primary, things were status quo. The Republican Party was in control of most state houses and governorships, and had enough power on the federal level to check any move that President Obama wanted to make. After 2012 it was all gridlock, all the time. 2016 was fast approaching, and the Republicans had the opportunity to nominate a candidate that could propel them out of the political wilderness. They just didn’t predict what was coming out of their crowded primary.
Trump was the natural result of the Republican establishment not in tune with their party’s base. Their base was a combination of Economic Conservatives (Wall Street and Corporate America), the Religious Right (end-of-times Dominionists and Evangelicals), and the Neoconservatives (the Warmongers). They worked often at cross purposes, but they shared the same base values. After being rolled in 2008 and 2012 by Barack Obama because the establishment ran conventional candidates, the base wanted something new and different.
The party didn’t even take the clue that seemingly fringe elements such as Dr. Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, and Trump were catching the attention of the electorate during their primary crammed with also-rans that they expected to dominate, as they did in the past. The Republican Party establishment even tried to force Rick Perry and Jeb Bush into the nomination, with hilariously and predictably disastrous results.
When the dust settled, Donald Trump was the last man standing, sending shockwaves throughout the establishment, in both major parties. Unfortunately for both the Republican Party and Democratic Party, they could not have predicted the ultimate result.
Once the dust settled from the contentious Democratic and Republican primaries, we were left with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They were two of the most unpopular figures in American politics in history. Sky-high negatives for the pair of them, yet they survived to face each other. Both candidates took decidedly different approaches to campaigning.
Clinton won her primary through a heavy thumb on the scale from the Democratic National Committee. She defeated Bernie Sanders through dubious means, quite frankly. The debate schedule, the control of the media, and a myriad of other machinations led her to victory. Her attempts to unite the party were practically nonexistent outside a few ersatz fig leaves during the convention. But she had serious weaknesses.
Her main weakness was appearing to be inauthentic. Her wonkish nature led her to deliver lawyerly, meandering, and ambiguous answers to simple policy questions. Her ties to her donors and her neoliberal ideology prevented her from taking any populist positions. Hence the long answers that said nothing. It made her look fake. The constant attacks on her for decades created a negative image for her that was difficult to shake. And that’s all before her lack of campaign theme.
Hillary Clinton didn’t have a coherent, direct message. It was always “I’m with Her.” And that’s it. Her policy prescriptions were ignored in favor of a race run by weaponizing identity politics and racial/economic intersectionality. Looking at her advertisements, there was nothing that spoke to the needs of the populace that felt that they were being left behind in the post-2008 Recovery.
Where were, the commercials touting her debt-free college education plan? Why didn’t she go to North Dakota to stand with the Standing Rock Tribe? Why didn’t she show up in Detroit outside of a photo op in the wake of the lead crisis there? Where was she during the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina? Why didn’t her campaign try to absorb the popular ideas that Bernie Sanders brought to the mainstream? Why did her surrogates spend time hippie-punching anyone to the left of her who didn’t 100% fall in line?
She was already unpopular, yet didn’t attempt to make herself likeable to more of the populace? Why did they focus solely on pointing out on how bad Donald Trump was?
And that’s before the FBI and Clinton Foundation scandals, artificial or otherwise. She could have gotten in front of the situation and owned it, yet her camp decided to do what the Clintons always did—they kept hiding from the press and made what should have been an easily manageable crisis into a full-blown fiasco. She actively avoided the press, both mainstream and independent. Her people arrogantly thought they could drag her across the finish line. They kept calling Trump a monster—but didn’t know how to fight the monster.
Hillary Clinton instead became a victim of her own hubris. And, most importantly, she was also a victim of misogyny. There is no way around it. The misogyny was a super strong culprit in a crowd of culprits.
Trump won his primary through sheer force of will and personality, powered by his base’s inherent racism, sexism, homophobia, and resentment of intellectuals and the elite classes. He didn’t speak like the typical Republican. Some elements of his party establishment even abandoned endorsing him, some going as far as endorsing Clinton. This had the unintended result of emboldening his supporters.
The supporters at his rallies may have frightened the establishment in their displays of aberrant behavior, but at home his supporters were eating all his populism and nihilism up. They loved him. It was probably the first time they saw a candidate who they could directly relate to and understand, even though Trump was wealthy and well removed from their daily struggles. He spoke their language, and that’s all that mattered.
He may have had a seemingly insurmountable number of gaffes, scandals, and outbursts, but he managed to overcome all of that. He was the “No Filter” candidate. His shoot-from-the-hip style made him immensely popular to the point where no matter what controversial comments he spoke, he was bulletproof.
Trump’s general election strategy was simple. Attack, attack, attack. Attack the incumbent president’s policies, talk about issues white working class voters cared about, and attach himself to the emotions of that populace. He attacked NAFTA, immigrants, and economic policy, and he surprisingly hijacked elements of Occupy Wall Street’s “the system is rigged” rhetoric. He, unlike Clinton, had a message, and he relentlessly ran with it. Most importantly, he ultimately succeeded in channeling the backlash from victories for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and civil rights into a victory forged from white male resentment that leaves the country’s future in an uncertain place.
In a presidential election, a candidate must have a clear message. In 2008, Obama won with “Hope and Change” against McCain’s “Stay the Course”. 2016 was about, “What is next after Obama?” Trump answered the call. Clinton completely ignored the question. The population decided to change everything and through a potential chaos agent into the White House. So here we are.
A Donald Trump presidency is going to lead to a lot of things that Democrats, liberals, and leftists are not going to enjoy. Republicans are going to love him. What can we expect?
First, the bad news. The repeal of Obamacare. The attempt to reverse any marijuana legalization that passed. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (if it doesn’t pass in the lame duck session). Wall Street deregulation. Social Security cuts (and the Social Safety Net in general). Mass deportations that will make Obama’s already horrific immigration policy seem like child’s play. Massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Protections for LGBT people will be eroded at a frightening level.
Overseas tax holiday and repatriation for US-based multinational corporations ($4.2 trillion dollars at last estimate). Further gutting of the Voting Rights Act. The potential end of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Supreme Court. The Republicans now control all three branches of government—legislative, judicial, and executive.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. There’s no sugarcoating that. Things are going to get very bad. Sorry.
If the right people get organized, this will be a one-term presidency. The last time Republicans got everything that they wanted, they wrecked the planet, they wrecked the economy, and they were run out of the White House and Congress. The Republicans have gotten used to being obstructionist, and are rubbish at actual governing (because of what they want). This will become evident rather quickly. This is a good thing.
The Clinton controlled Democratic National Committee is over. This was their last shot. They’re done, opening an opportunity for a non-neoliberal to sweep into power. It’s going to take organization at the local level on up to affect a proper change in the organization. It can be done.
The midterm elections in 2018 should be promising, depending on who the Democrats nominate. If they go the route of bringing in retreads like Evan Bayh and Patrick Murphy, there’s no hope of retaking the House and Senate. If bring in candidates from the left end of the spectrum, a lot of the damage that Trump will do in his first two years can be seriously curtailed, and in the next two years slowed down to a crawl.
Finally, they should have put their support behind Bernie Sanders, who would have obliterated Trump last night. The Democratic Party committed political malpractice on a cosmic scale, and we’re all going to pay the price for their colossal mistake.
A Donald Trump presidency is nothing anyone expected. Yet here we are. The future is uncertain, domestically and overseas. 2016 has proven to be the darkest timeline. But things will get better. Light at the end of the tunnel and all of that. America has had darker days and emerged stronger than ever. Everything will eventually be okay.
We can only hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment