The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

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DEC 16-JAN 17 Issue
Field Notes

A Door to the Unknown

On November 5, just three days before the presidential election, Hillary Clinton was quoted on the first page of The New York Times saying she believed “our economy is posed to really take off and thrive.” In the Business section of the same paper Neil Irwin—a supposed expert in economic matters—asserted that the US economy “is basically healthy.” These were standard reactions of the media and many economists to recent reports that jobs were being created at a brisk pace, resulting in the unemployment rate dropping to 4.9% in October—the lowest rate since December 2007.

To a large part of the country, this was probably just media bullshit. Indeed, what Donald Trump claimed at the time was that reports revealed that the US economy was a disaster, a complete disaster. With millions of people hurt in recent years by the transition from manufacturing jobs to service jobs paying much lower wages, and with additional millions out of the labor market, living on disability payments, off relatives, shrinking savings, or a combination of all of these, Trump’s assertions on the state of the economy, on the corruption of Hillary Clinton and the politicos, and on the need to stop all those foreign countries of “stealing from us,” clearly hit a chord with the large numbers of Americans who made him President.

According to preliminary results available November 14th, in the presidential election of 2016 the voter turnout rate was 58.1% of the voter-eligible population, Clinton received 61.3 million votes, Trump 60.5 million, 6 million voted for other candidates, and more than 100 million eligible voters did not vote. In 2008, when Obama was elected president he received 69.5 million votes, about ten million more than McCain, and the voter turnout had been 61.6%. In the 2012 election Obama was reelected with 66 million votes and Romney was voted by 61 million—which may end up very close to the final count for Trump in 2016. Even though Hillary Clinton may end up winning the popular vote by perhaps a million votes, the 2016 election could be characterized as a defeat for Clinton rather than a victory for Trump, who won the election with almost ten million votes fewer than Obama in 2008. This in spite of the fact that in 2008 the voter-eligible population was 213.3 million and it is now 231.6 million.

In most nations elections emerged as a method to select those who occupy high positions in government just one or two centuries ago, and initially the eligibility to participate in these elections was highly restricted, with only rich males or male members of the aristocracy allowed to participate in electing representatives or authorities. The constitution of the United States, undoubtedly one of the oldest democratic constitutions of the world, was compatible for many decades with the slavery of Blacks brought from Africa by force, or born in America as descendants of slaves. It was equally compatible with women of all races and classes being deprived of the right to vote. But electoral rights were increasingly expanded both in the U.S. and elsewhere, and politicians who based their power on appealing to the population emerged as a phenomenon in every country. Today many of them have important roles in history books and in the popular imagination. It is possible to identify an archetypal typology of politicos which, although fuzzy and highly arguable, is nevertheless useful in understanding political processes.

One typical type is the conservative politician, the leader of a traditionalist, conservative party, intensely nationalist, usually connected to economic power by personal or family links, often involved in politics from a young age, and frequently a member of one of the predominant religious congregations in the nation. Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl in Germany, Winston Churchill in Britain, Raymond Poincaré in France, and George Bush in the United States could be classified as politicians of this type. These politicians often envelop themselves in an halo of moderation, civility, and good form, though, if needed, they are happy to “do business,” i.e. to reach agreements and alliances with more extreme political forces or even with an enemy camp that at least temporarily becomes an ally. In the 1930s Adenauer tried his best to reach a modus vivendi with the Nazis, and perhaps as a result of these early attempts and his proven services to conservatism in Germany, he was able to survive Nazism, though deprived of all his power until his return to government after the war. Poincaré attempted rapprochement with Germany in the early 1910s, but then remained in power all through World War I. Slightly anti-clerical, he also attempted to reach agreements with the Vatican to enhance his stance in a French population still strongly influenced by the Catholic Church. Though strongly anti-communist and anti-Russian, Churchill reached an agreement with Stalin to fight Germany and managed to have a very long political career, into his 80s.

A quite different type of politician is the reformist leader, which comes in a large number of varieties. The reformist leader usually rises over the political landscape as a figure of progressive change, decency, and justice who leads the country with calm and wisdom, often in turbulent times. Olof Palme in Sweden, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter in the United States, Manuel Azaña and Felipe González in Spain, and François Mitterrand in France could perhaps serve as examples of this type. The ability of these leaders actually to reform the system often depends on how long they are able to stay in power, and on how historical circumstances hinder or give an impetus to their reformist drives. Roosevelt, riding the waves of the Depression and World War II, was able to stay in power for more than a decade, until he died, and during this decade important reforms took place in the American political and social system. Carter was able to remain in office only four years; his attempts at reform in favor of justice, rationality, and respect for human rights overseas were cut short by the ascendancy of the right-wing reaction led by Ronald Reagan. Mitterrand was able to stay in power for almost fifteen years, but only by changing his course and going further and further away from the initial left-wing goals of his alliance with the Communists. Felipe González departed from his original goals even more. His initial reformism turned towards neoliberal policies and his decade presiding over the Spanish cabinet was tainted by major confrontations with labor unions and with the left intelligentsia, which had helped him into office but became increasingly alienated from a president who apparently used grossly illegal means—paid gangsters—to fight Basque terrorism. Manuel Azaña saw his attempts to transform Spain into a modern democratic and secular republic destroyed by the military and the Catholic Church. Olof Palme’s attempts to maintain the welfare state in Sweden and the position of his country as a progressive force opposed to the abuses of the superpowers—he strongly criticized both U.S. and the USSR—were cut short by his assassination, which was never fully clarified. Of course, none of these reformist politicians attempted to transform the social and political system in essential ways, but all of them had specific reforms in their programs.

Then we have the fascist politicians. There is no accepted definition of fascism; the adjective has been applied, usually as a derogatory term, to people as different as Adolf Hitler, António de Oliveira Salazar, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, Chiang Kai-shek, Juan Domingo Perón, Rafael Trujillo, and Joseph Stalin. Indeed many on this list reached power by procedures that had nothing to do with elections and political parties. But Hitler, Trujillo, and Perón reached government through elections. It would be defensible to assert that the adjective fascist can be applied with absolute propriety only to Benito Mussolini, as Mussolini applied it to himself as the leader of the Partito Nazionale Fascista.

Trump ran as an anti-conservative, and he is clearly not a reformer. Is he a fascist, as many have suggested? The American Heritage Dictionary defines “fascism” as “a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.” Since most of these characteristics concern the way a politician rules, and Trump has not ruled yet, we can still wonder if they will be applicable to him. What is not doubtful, though, is that Trump based his ascent to power on belligerent nationalism and barely disguised racism. His disrespectful comments about Muslims and Mexicans, his macho attitudes and language, his open acceptance of torture as an acceptable method to extract information from real or assumed enemies, his rude insistence on building a wall on the border with Mexico and deporting ten million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, are very closely aligned with a proneness to rule in an authoritarian way. His slogan of making America great again bears more than a slight similarity to the ideas of Mussolini about rebuilding the Roman Empire and to Hitler’s insistence during his ascent to power in redressing the supposed or real grievances that France, Britain, and America had inflicted on Germany.

An important consideration about Trump is his previous stance as an outsider to the political system. Though obviously a member of the ruling class, until last year he had not tried seriously to participate in electoral politics, limiting himself to keeping up good relations with politicians of all sorts, including the Clintons. On the other hand, during his campaign his blunt style and lack of use of “proper language” and “proper form” were disgusting to the political class that he continuously attacked, so he alienated most politicians, including many in the Republican Party. But all that probably was seen as positive by the disenfranchised Americans who do not use proper language themselves and voted for him precisely because he was not a member of the hated political class. Of course, that sixty million Americans had voted for someone like Trump says a lot about the acceptability to the American public of open sexism, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. That for millions of Americans denigrating Muslims and Mexicans and proposing mass deportations are not major reasons to reject voting for a politician worryingly resembles the times of lynching in America or periods of European history when Jews were considered worse than rats.

The Trump presidency is an open door to the unknown. Some of Trump’s campaign promises and policy options will probably be implemented soon, and he will likely intensify the deportations that have already become a terrible reality with Obama. It is also likely that in efforts to garner support he will soon cut taxes for the corporations, the rich, and the middle class. To reinforce his not very strong links with the rest of the billionaire class and the reactionary constituencies of the Republican party he will likely destroy regulatory agencies of the government—like the EPA or the FDA—that somewhat and sometimes hinder the profit-making of corporations. Being a climate change denier, he will do his best to stop any effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions—but major wildfires, flooding and droughts will likely occur, as they have occurred in recent years. Trump’s fantastic promises—to bring back manufacturing industries and create good jobs, making Mexico to pay for a border wall, and bringing much better and much cheaper health care for all—will soon be revealed as what they actually are, pure rhetoric. Indeed, developing industries inside the U.S. would require transforming the U.S. into an autarkic economy and completely severing the links of U.S. capitalism with the rest of the world—which is of course not in the interest of the American capitalist class and would not be tolerated. Making Mexico pay for the wall would be possible only by invading Mexico and converting it in a colony, which would be a disaster for the interests of the United States.

A further consideration is that very soon, I would say probably in 2017, Trump is likely to face a new economic crisis, with rising ranks of the unemployed that will include many of those who voted for him. If frustration because of the contrast between expectations and realities has been substantial after the eight years of the Obama presidency, it is reasonable to expect that frustration after four years of the Trump presidency—if they are completed—will be, to quote the man himself, “huge.” The unrest that has already been triggered by the election will be stoked by further conflicts in the near future. There is little doubt that Trump will use power in an authoritarian way, but at the time it is impossible to know how far he will go. That will depend on many factors, including of course the intensity and strength of the opposition to him. In our brave new century the U.S. government has not been shy about bombing foreign countries and killing thousands of individuals abroad—including U.S. citizens—considered dangerous. The use of drones has resulted in scores of deaths in the Middle East, many of them of children, men, and women who were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (This must be one of the major recruiting tools used by Islamic terrorist organizations.) On the other hand, government agencies like the NSA and the FBI have persistently involved themselves in illegal activities against U.S. citizens. These activities have included assassinations, for instance, of Black Panthers. Will these activities be intensified in the future? Probably they will. Will police brutality against blacks, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, or human beings in general be encouraged by the federal government? Very likely it will. Will media critical of the government be censored or shut down? We do not know, but it is possible. Will people who write or say things critical of Mr. Trump be put in jail or killed? This also is not impossible. Will President Trump start a war, for instance with China? That does not seem likely, as he has often emphasized his isolationist stance, but on the other hand acute conflicts can appear, given Trump’s macho style and his inflammatory statements about the U.S. “being robbed” by foreign countries. Will the next few years bring major trouble to the United States? I think there is little doubt of that.


Jose A. Tapia

José A. Tapia teaches courses on international political economy, political economy of climate change, social development, and political parties at Drexel University. He previously worked for WHO, and the University of Michigan, and before moving to the US in 1989 he worked in Spain as a primary care doctor, and in the publishing industry. His research has been published in PNAS, Journal of Health Economics, Demography, American Journal of Epidemiology, Social Science & Medicine, Research in Political Economy, and other journals. His book on Chernobyl and the Mortality Crisis in Eastern Europe and the USSR was published by De Gruyter in 2022; Six Crises of the World Economy: Globalization and Economic Turbulence since the 1960s to the COVID-19 Pandemic is to be published in 2023 by Palgrave-Macmillan.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

All Issues