The following is a preview from the forthcoming journal Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, edited by Robert Brenner and Vivek Chibber, and out this spring from Jacobin.
History has been hacked. Trump’s “impossible” victories in June and November, together with the stunning challenge of Sanders’s primary campaign, have demolished much of elite political wisdom as well as destroying the two dynasties, the Clintons and Bushes, that have dominated national politics for thirty years. Not since Watergate has so much uncertainty and potential disorder infected every institution, network, and power relationship, including the Trump camp itself.
What was unimaginable a few months ago, has now come to pass: the alt-right has a foot inside the White House, a hate-curdled maniac advises national security, a white supremacist controls the machinery of the Justice Department, the coal industry owns the Commerce Department, and a wealthy homeschooler is in charge of national education policy. Obscure billionaires like the DeVoses and Mercers who have spent years transforming Michigan and Texas into right-wing policy laboratories will now cash their support for the president-elect into the kind of national influence once enjoyed by Rockefellers and Harrimans. Carbon has won the battle of the Anthropocene and Roe v Wade has been put on the butcher’s block. Out of an election that was supposed to register the increasing clout of women, millennials, anti-climate-change activists, and people of color, a geriatric far right has wrested policy-making power on a terrifying scale.
Trump’s victory, of course, may turn out to be the ghost dance of a dying white culture, quickly followed by a return to Obamian, globalist normalcy or, conversely we may be heading into the twilight zone of homegrown fascism. The parameters of the next four years are largely unknown. Much depends on whether the Republicans succeed in incorporating the old industrial states of the upper Midwest into their mid-continental reich of solidly red Southern and plains states. In this case, their structural electoral advantages, as the National Review recently pointed out, might override the popular vote for another decade.
But whatever the scenario, the issue of the utmost immediate importance to the Left is whether or not the Sanders coalition, including the progressive unions that backed him, can be kept alive as an independent movement bridging the racial and cultural divides among American working people. An extraordinary restructuring of political camps, cadre, and patronage is taking place in an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty, but we need to understand more clearly whether 2016 actually reflects, or necessarily anticipates, a fundamental realignment of social forces.
This is not going be an election on niceness.
The mainstream narrative, accepted by much of the right and the left, is that Trump rode a wave of white working-class resentment, mobilizing traditional nonvoters as well as alienated blue-collar Republicans and Democrats, some of whom were also attracted to Sanders. Political analysts, as well as Trump himself, emphasized the campaign’s affinities with European right-nationalist movements that likewise claim to fight against globalization in the names of forgotten workers and small businesses.
Endlessly cited have been exit polls that demonstrate Trump’s extraordinary popularity among non-college white men, although the same polls indicate that he ran up his highest margins in middle-class Republican constituencies. (If the polls in Wisconsin and elsewhere are to be believed, moreover, a fifth of Trump voters had an unfavorable opinion of their candidate and held their noses when they checked his box.) In any event he flipped a third of the counties that had voted for Obama twice. However until the US Bureau of the Census’s Current Population Survey releases its analyses of turnout demographics, political scientists can only speculate on whether changes in allegiance or changes in turnout were chiefly responsible for the results.
What follows is skeptical interrogation of this narrative using county-level vote data to compare the 2016 presidential campaign with the 2012 campaign in older industrial regions of the Midwest and Appalachia. A number of distinct voting patterns emerge, only one of which actually conforms to the stereotype of the “Trump Democrats.” The phenomenon is real but largely limited to a score or so of troubled Rust Belt counties from Iowa to New York where a new wave of plant closure or relocation has coincided with growing immigrant and refugee populations. Election punditry has consistently conflated blue-collar votes long captured by Republican presidential candidates with the more modest and localized defection of working-class Democrats to Trump. Several hundred thousand white, blue-collar Obama voters, at most, voted for Trump’s vision of fair trade and reindustrialization, not the millions usually invoked. I’m not implying that these substantial beachheads cannot be expanded in the future by continued appeals to white identity and economic nationalism but merely that have been over-interpreted as the key to Trump’s victory.
The “miracle” of the mogul’s campaign, apart from his cunning success in manipulating negative media coverage to his advantage, was capturing the entirety of the Romney vote, without any of the major defections (college-educated Republican women, conservative Latinos, Catholics) that the polls had predicted and Clinton had counted upon. As in an Agatha Christie mystery, Trump eliminated his dazed primary opponents one after another with murderous innuendo while hammering away on his master themes of elite corruption, treasonous trade agreements (“greatest job theft in the history of the world”), terrorist immigrants, and declining white economic opportunity. With the support of Breitbart and the alt-right, he essentially ran in Patrick Buchanan’s old shoes.
But if visceral nationalism and white anger gave him the nomination it was not enough to ensure that the big battalions of the GOP, especially the evangelicals who had supported Ted Cruz, would actively campaign for him. Trump’s stroke of genius was to let the religious right, including former Cruz cheerleaders David Barton and Tony Perkins, draft the Republican program and then, as surety, to select one of their heroes as his running mate.
At the same time, Rebekah Mercer, whose family super-PAC had been Cruz’s chief backer, seconded Trump her crack political team: pollster Kellyanne Conway, Citizens United head David Bossie, and Breitbart chair Stephen Bannon. (“It would be difficult to overstate Rebekah’s influence in Trump World right now,” one insider told Politico after the election.) This fusion of the two anti-establishment Republican insurgencies was the crucial event that many election analysts overlooked.
They exaggerated the blue-collar “populist” factor while underestimating the equity acquired by the right-to-life movement and other social-conservative causes in Trump’s victory. With the Supreme Court at stake and Pence smiling from the dais, it was easier for the congregation to pardon the sinner at the head of the ticket. Trump, as a result, received a larger percentage of the evangelical vote than Romney, McCain, or Bush, while Clinton underperformed Obama among Catholics, especially Latinos (down 8 points). Against all expectations, Trump also improved on Romney’s performance in the suburbs.
But – and this is a very important qualification – he did not increase Romney’s total vote in either the South or the Midwest; indeed he fell slightly shy in both regions. Clinton, however, received almost one million fewer votes than Obama in the South and almost three million less than the president in the Midwest. (See tables one and two.) Abdicating any serious effort in smaller industrial towns and cities, she focused almost entirely on major metropolitan counties and media markets.
Furthermore, in contrast to Obama, she had no outreach strategy toward evangelicals and her position on late-term abortion, even if misrepresented, alienated untold numbers of Obama Catholics. Likewise she ignored Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s urgings to invest campaign resources in rural areas. While Trump was factory-hopping in the hinterlands, her itinerary skipped the entire state of
Wisconsin as well as major contested centers such as Dayton. The Clinton camp obviously believed that aggressive campaigning in the last weeks by the Obamas and Sanders, reinforced by celebrities such as Springsteen and Beyonce, would ensure strong turnouts by African Americans and millennials in the urban cores while she harvested votes from irate Republican women in the suburbs.
She inexplicably ignored danger signals from the Rust Belt, going “totally silent on the economy and any future plan that would be helpful to people.” Her stupefying inattention to voter unrest in long-Democratic non-metropolitan counties proved to be her undoing in the electoral college, despite big popular majorities on the West Coast. (She equaled or exceeded Obama’s 2012 proportion of the vote only in Massachusetts, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and California — the latter three, of course, proof of a tremendous Latino mobilization).
In three key states — Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan — an additional factor in her defeat was a smaller, less energized African-American turnout than in 2012. Welfare reform and super-incarceration, like NAFTA, had come back to haunt her. Furthermore in Wisconsin and Michigan she failed to rally Sanders’s youth support and in both states Jill Stein’s vote ended up larger than Clinton’s margin of defeat.
But we should be cautious about dumping all the blame on Clinton and her troubled inner circle. If she had been the principal problem, then local Democrats should have consistently outperformed her. In fact, that seldom happened and in several states her vote was significantly higher than the hometown Democrats. The malaise of the Democrats, it should be clear, permeates every level of the party, including the hopelessly inept Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the Midwest, in particular, the Democrats have largely been running on retreads, nominating failed veterans such as former Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett (who lost to Scott Walker in 2012) and ex-Ohio governor Ted Strickland (slaughtered by Rob Portman in the Senate race).
Meanwhile, for the gifted team around Obama, holding on to the White House, not strengthening the state parties, has been the relentless and at times exclusive priority. East of the Rockies, as a result, Republicans have surpassed their 1920 benchmark in state legislative seats. Twenty-six states are now Republican “trifectas” (control of both chambers and the governorship) versus a mere six for the Democrats. Progressive initiatives by Democratic cities such as Minneapolis (paid leave) and Austin (sanctuary) face the veto of reactionary legislatures.
In addition, as Brookings researchers have recently shown, since 2000 a paradoxical core-periphery dynamic has emerged within the political system. Republicans have increased their national electoral clout yet have steadily lost strength in the economic-powerhouse metropolitan counties. “The less-than-500 counties that Hillary Clinton carried nationwide encompassed a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity as measured by total output in 2015. By contrast, the more-than-2,600 counties that Donald Trump won generated just 36 percent of the country’s output — just a little more than one-third of the nation’s economic activity.”
Trump voters, the countryside against the cities, have become something like the American version of the Khmer Rouge. Parts of this “other America,” to be sure, have always been Stone Age Republican territory, dominated by big farmers, Elmer Gantries, small industrialists and bankers, and the descendants of the KKK. But the not-so-benign neglect of once staunchly Democratic factory towns and mountain coal country is a reflection both of the marginalization of the former CIO unions within the party and — here the stereotype is accurate — the preempting priorities of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street. Digital America is blue and Analog America, despite being poorer, is red.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the bizarre framework of the contest. In comparative election analysis the structure of the system is usually assumed to be unchanging between cycles. This was manifestly not the case in 2016. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, this was the second presidential election with the dark money floodgates wide open and in contrast to 2012 the national party apparatuses lost control of the primaries to the shadow parties of Trump and Cruz and, in the case of the Democrats, to the unprecedented grassroots-financed crusade of Sanders.
It was also the first election conducted after the gutting of key sections of the Voting Rights Act and the widespread adoption of voter-suppression strategies by Republican state legislatures. As a result, “14 states had new voting restrictions in effect in 2016, including strict voter ID laws, fewer opportunities for early voting and reductions in the number of polling places.” Poll closures were outrageously extensive in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama.
And as a horrified David Brooks emphasized, this was first “post-truth” election, surreally awash in Trumpian lies, false news manufactured in Macedonia, invading chatbots, “dark posts,” dog whistles, conspiracy theories, and a deadly drip of hacked email revelations. Of all the thumbs on the scale, however, including the interventions by Comey and Putin, the most disastrous for the ex-secretary of state was the mainstream media’s decision to “balance” reportage by giving equal coverage to her emails and Trump’s serial sexual assaults. “[O]ver the course of the 2016 campaign, the three network news shows devoted a total of 35 minutes combined to policy issues — all policy issues. Meanwhile, they devoted 125 minutes to Mrs. Clinton’s emails.”
The Mythic Blue Wall
Looking ahead to future presidential elections, the Trump strategy points to a red wall that could be bigger and more beautiful than the Democrat’s blue one.
Clinton’s “blue firewall” cracked in Minnesota; was narrowly breached in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; and totally collapsed in Ohio (and Iowa, if we consider it a Democrat-leaning state.) Whole swathes of 2012 Obama counties in northwestern Illinois, eastern Iowa, western Wisconsin and Minnesota, and northern Ohio and New York were won by Trump.
The “margin shift” — winning or losing percentage of Clinton 2016 versus Obama 2012 — was over 15 points in West Virginia, Iowa, and North Dakota; 9 to 14 points in Maine, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Hawaii, Missouri, Michigan, and Vermont. In southern Wisconsin’s former auto belt (Kenosha and Rock counties), where Obama had crushed Romney by huge margins in 2012, the Democratic vote was down 20 percent and the former UAW stronghold of Kenosha went for Trump.
Even in New York Clinton finished 7 points behind Obama, thanks to a massive Republican vote in eastern Long Island (Suffolk County) and poor support from blue-collar Democrats in older industrial districts upstate. According to exit polls, she won 51 percent of union households, a poor showing compared to the 60 percent of Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trump beat the union vote of the previous three Republican candidates and in Ohio won a flat-out majority.
This pattern is particularly ironic since Democrats in many of these areas had cast outsized votes for her during the 2008 primaries. Indeed this had been presumed to be Clinton country. “How could they lose Michigan with 10,000 votes!” groused veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg, a key architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, when he saw the final figures.
But one overriding fact determined the outcome: the Republicans have had an aggressive strategy for winning dominance in the Rust Belt, supported by an impressive infrastructure of state-level think tanks, regional billionaire donors, and wizard gerrymanderers from the Republican State Leadership Committee. In contrast, the Democrats, especially those in the industrial but non-metropolitan counties so common throughout the upper Midwest, have been left to swing in the wind by a national party that (the 2009 General Motors and Chrysler rescues aside) offers no remedies to further decline and communal pauperization.
As readers of David Daley’s bestselling Ratf**ked know, Rove and his conservative quants responded to the meltdown of Republican power in 2008 with an audacious scheme for retaking power in Washington through control of decennial redistricting. The Midwest was the bullseye. “There are 18 state legislatures,” Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal,
that have four or fewer seats separating the two parties that are important for redistricting. Seven of these are controlled by Republicans and the other 11 are controlled by Democrats, including the lower houses in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Republican strategists are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats.
In the event, as Daley shows, chump change (about $30 million) spent on targeted state races in 2010 produced a revolution in party power with the Republicans winning nearly seven hundred seats and control of key legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan as well as Florida and North Carolina. Computer-generated redistricting punctually produced a dream map that made Republican control of the House virtually invulnerable until the 2020 census, despite the demographic forces favoring Democrats.
The piece d’resistance was the gerrymandering of Ohio overseen by John Boehner. “The GOP controlled the redrawing of 132 state legislative and 16 congressional districts. Republican redistricting resulted in a net gain for the GOP state house caucus in 2012 and allowed a 12-4 Republican majority to return to the US House of Representatives — despite voters casting only 52 percent of their vote for Republican congressional candidates.” (There are worst cases: in North Carolina in 2012 Democrats won a majority of the congressional vote statewide but gained only four out of thirteen House seats.)
In the Midwest the 2010 Tea Party victories brought a new generation of feral Republicans to power, many of them groomed by far-right think tanks such as Indiana’s Policy Review Foundation (once headed by Mike Pence), Michigan’s Mackinac Center, Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute, and Minnesota’s Center of the American Experiment, all of them spoiling for a fight to the death with the region’s public-sector unions and progressive big-city governments. Coordinating through the State Policy Network (sixty-five conservative think tanks) and the American Legislative Exchange Council, they launched campaigns to destroy public-sector bargaining rights, defund unions through right-to-work laws, and privatize public education through vouchers.
They focused in other words on increasing their structural and legal advantages in ways that Democrats would find difficult, even impossible to roll back. Unions and students, of course, conducted an epic resistance in Wisconsin but were unable to recall Scott Walker, in large part because of the lackluster character of the Democratic candidate. In Ohio the unions were more successful and repealed right-to-work by referendum, but in Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia, Republican majorities rammed through right-to-work and in Michigan, a Mackinac Center-inspired receivership for Detroit’s schools.
The Republican down-ticket in 2016, from Senate incumbents to state representatives and judges, ironically benefited greatly from Trump’s poor backing from the Kochs and other conservative mega-donors who switched funding from the presidential race to preserving control of Congress. For the first time super-PACs spent more on the Senate races than the presidential campaign. Trump, whom the New York Times estimated received $2 billion of free publicity from the media, was little affected, but the huge injection of dark money into state races was revolutionary.
More than three-quarters of Senate campaign funding came from out-of-state sources in 2016 and “just three groups, One Nation [Adelson], the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity, and the US Chamber of Commerce, account[ed] for 67 per cent in dark money spending.” The result, according to some political scientists, has been the “nationalization” of state politics. “As a result of the growing connection between presidential and state elections the once clear divide between state politics and national politics has largely disappeared in most of the country.” Thus for the first time in history, “there were no split votes in 2016 between Senate candidates and presidential contenders; the thirty-four states with Senate contests all voted the same party for both offices.”
It is no secret that the inadvertent ally of the Republicans in the Rust Belt has been Obama himself, whose lofty conception of the presidency does not include being the leader of the party, at least not in the old-fashioned, out-in-the-hustings style of an LBJ or even Clinton. In 2010, 2012, and again in 2014, Democratic candidates bitterly complained about their lack of support from the White House, especially in the upper South, Louisiana, and Texas.
Obama ended his presidency with the Democrats having lost nearly one thousand legislative seats across the country. Republicans legislatures are now targeting Missouri and Kentucky — possibly Ohio again, as well as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — as the next right-to-work states. (In Missouri and New Hampshire right-to-work amendments recently had been passed by the legislatures but were vetoed by Democratic governors. Both states now have Republican governors.) You might call it the Southernization or Dixiefication of the Midwest.
Cradles of the CIO
In 1934, a konor predicted not merely the coming of a four-funnelled steamer with Mansren on board but an event which was to become a very important element in the Cargo ideology of northern Dutch New Guinea movements: the miraculous coming of a factory.
The millenarian aspects of the Trump campaign — the magical nativism and promise of a world restored — have received surprisingly little comment although together with his erratic ravings they were perhaps its most striking features. Clinton’s promise to competently manage the Obama legacy seemed utterly jejune next to Trump’s assurance, more chiliastic than demagogic, that “jobs will return, incomes will rise, and new factories will come rushing back to our shores.”
Among “Trump Democrats” especially, those white working-class Obama voters who flipped Ohio and Pennsylvania, the embrace of Trump took on the desperate overtones of the Papuan cargo cult, its members praying for factories, described in Peter Worsley’s classic The Trumpet Shall Sound.
If Trump is one part P.T. Barnum and one part Mussolini, he’s become another part John Frum: the “mysterious little man [an American sailor?] with bleached hair, high-pitched voice and clad in a coat with shining buttons” whom some Melanesians worship because he supposedly brought cargo out of the sky to the island of Tanna during World War II. At the end of the day, is the Trumpian field of dreams — Mexicans depart, Chinese surrender, factory jobs return home — that much different from a landing strip hacked out of the jungle?
But perceived anthropological condescension is precisely what drives people in Dubuque, Anderson, and Massena to pick up their pitchforks against “elite liberals” as well as “establishment conservatives.” “Deplorables” indeed. The counties in Table 4 all have industrial unionism in their DNA; they were the cradles of the CIO in the great labor wars of the New Deal. With few exceptions (1972 and 1984) they remained loyally Democratic in rain, sleet, and snow; voting strongly for Obama in 2008. So why, in the face of positive economic indicators and the lowest national unemployment rate in a decade, did these older industrial counties suddenly desert the Democrats and embrace Trump’s reindustrialization cargo cult?
Fumbling with the odd pieces of the Trump puzzle, the Economist decided that “the pitch of economic anxiety motivating Mr. Trump’s supporters has been exaggerated.” But when analysis goes micro plentiful reasons for such anxiety emerge. Table 5 itemizes plant closures that occurred during the campaign season — striking evidence of a new wave of job flight and deindustrialization. In almost all of these flipped counties, a high-profile plant closure or impending move had been on the front page of the local newspaper: embittering reminders that the “Obama boom” was passing them by.
Some Ohio examples: Just before Christmas, West Rock Paper Company, the major employer in Coshocton County, closed its doors. In May, GE’s century-old locomotive plant in Erie announced that it was transferring hundreds more jobs to its new facility in Fort Worth. The day after the Republican Convention ended in Cleveland, FirstEnergy Solutions announced the closure of its huge generating plant outside of Toledo, “the 238th such plant to close in the United States since 2010.”
At the same time in Lorain, Republic Steel formally reneged on its promise to reopen and modernize the enormous three-mile-long US Steel plant that had once been the area’s largest employer. In August, meanwhile, GE warned of the closing of its light bulb plants in Canton and East Cleveland. Simultaneously, pink slips were being handed out to workers at Commercial Vehicle Group’s big stamping plant in Martin’s Ferry on the Ohio River (Belmont County).
“I think 172 job losses in the community and even the county in an area like ours is devastating,” said the local superintendent of schools. “This is another kick in the gut to the valley, with the coal mines closing, the power plant and now this. It’s just one piece of bad news after another.
But what about race? Trump, of course, won the white vote nationally by 21 points (one point more than Romney), and his campaign rallies were Woodstocks for bigots. Yet as commentators on both the right and the left have emphasized, these flipped counties had with only one exception voted at least once for Obama. (Trump nationally won 10 percent of Obama supporters.) Perhaps a distinction that needs to be made is between the true Sturmtrumpen who mobbed the rallies and the former Obama voters who joined the cargo cult in protest. As a British journalist, contradicting his own paper’s characterization of the white working class as the “engine” of the insurgency, pointed out: “At over a dozen Trump rallies, in almost as many states, over the past year, your correspondent has met lawyers, estate agents, and a horde of middle-class pensioners — and relatively few blue-collar workers.”
On the other hand there is evidence for a regionally generated backlash, long nurtured by Tea Party types, against immigrants and refugees. In part this may be the result of federal policies that allocate refugees to areas with cheap housing and a low cost of living where they’re often perceived as competitors for remaining service-sector jobs as well as beneficiaries of state support denied to citizens. Erie, where refugees now constitute a tenth of the population and a labor reserve army for the nearby casino industry, is a well-known example.
In other Rust Belt areas, such as Reading, Pennsylvania, rapidly growing Mexican communities have been the target of sustained nativist attacks, encouraged by Tea Party and alt-right types. In a recent study of the state policies and programs, Ohio was ranked worst in its treatment of undocumented immigrants; a rating that was confirmed when Republicans in the legislature drafted a congratulatory message (HCR 11) to Arizona and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
A Note on a Forgotten Land
“We’re going to put the miners back to work!” Trump declared just minutes into his speech. The crowd roared, Trump smiled, and several miners frantically waved aloft signs that read “Trump digs coal.”
Newfoundland, Ordinary, Sideway, and Spanglin are hamlets in Elliot, a typical Appalachian county in eastern Kentucky. Its residents once grew tobacco and corn, now many of them — fortunate by local standards — work at the Little Sandy state prison. Elliot’s great distinction, however, is its voting record: the last white county in the South to vote Democratic.
Indeed it has been blue in every presidential election since the county was formed in 1869. George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis all won here and in 2008 Obama buried McCain by a two-to-one margin. In 2012, despite having endorsed gay rights, he nudged past Romney. Last year, however, Elliot finally put out the lights for the Democrats, voting 70 percent for Trump and the old-time religion of the Republican platform.
In all of postwar political history, Appalachia (defined by its regional commission as 428 upland and mountain counties from Alabama to New York) has had only a single season in the sun. Thanks to best-selling books by New York socialist Michael Harrington (author of The Other America) and maverick Kentucky lawyer Harry Caudill (Night Comes to the Cumberlands), the region briefly became a major focus of the War on Poverty, but then was shunted aside after the inauguration of Nixon.
The largest concentration of white poverty in North America, the Southern mountains have been orphaned not just in Washington but also in Frankfort, Nashville, Charlestown, and Raleigh where coal lobbyists and big power companies have always dictated legislative priorities. Traditionally their henchmen were county Democratic machines and the blue faded from Appalachia only reluctantly at first. Carter won 68 percent of the vote in the region and Clinton 47 percent in 1996.
However as the national Democrats became increasingly identified with the “the war on coal,” abortion, and gay marriage, local Blue Dogs were euthanized by popular vote. The United Mine Workers and Steelworkers, under the best leadership in decades, fought desperately in the 1990s and 2000s for a major political initiative to defend industrial and mining jobs in the region but were turned away at the door by the Democratic Leadership Council and the ascendant New York/California congressional leadership.
Ironically, Clinton this time around did have a plan for the coal counties, although it was buried in the fine print of her website and poorly publicized. She advocated important safeguards for worker health benefits tied to failing coal companies and proposed federal aid to offset the fiscal crisis of the region’s schools. Otherwise her program was conventional boilerplate: tax credits for new investment, boutique programs to encourage local entrepreneurship, and subsidies for the cleanup and conversion of mining land into business sites (Google data centers were mentioned — talk about cargo cults). But there was no major jobs program or public-health initiative to deal with the region’s devastating opiate pandemic.
It was a mirror image, in other words, of her equally slim offerings to the urban poor. Ultimately the plan made no difference, as the only Clinton promise that everyone remembered was: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Her only Appalachian victories were a couple of college counties. Trump meanwhile hitched a ride with Jesus and recapitulated Romney’s vote.
The exception was West Virginia where the Democratic wipeout was so enormous that it will probably end up in Guinness World Records. Only Wyoming gave Trump a higher percentage of its presidential vote. But even more striking than his 42-point margin of victory was the fact that Clinton received 54,000 fewer votes than were cast earlier for candidates in the Democratic primary — a contest that Sanders (125,000 total) won in every single county.
The failure to carry primary voters was a stunning index of her unpopularity. Meanwhile the Mountain Party, West Virginia’s sui generis affiliate of the Greens, focused on the governor’s race (won by billionaire Democrat and self-proclaimed pro-coal populist, Jim Justice) and picked up 42,000 votes, an encouraging result. Otherwise the Republicans took over the legislature and congressional delegation of this once-famous Democratic state for the first time since dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Making sense of West Virginia’s non-linear politics is not always easy, especially since the Democratic Party has largely devolved into a personal election machine and survivalist cult for Joe Manchin (ex-governor, now senator) and his sidekick, Jim Justice, but one lesson is clear and it probably holds true for most of Appalachia: a large minority of working people, custodians of a heroic labor history, are ready to support radical alternatives but only if they simultaneously address the economic and cultural crises of the region.
The struggles to maintain traditional kinship networks and community social fabrics in Appalachia or, for that matter, in the embattled Black-majority counties of the former cotton South, should be every bit as important to socialists as defending individual rights to make free reproductive and gender choices. They’re usually not.
What Witches Brew
Any future demagogue who attempts to carve a road to power in the United States — for instance through the next depression if one comes — is almost certain to follow Huey’s path.
“Huey Long, had he lived,” wrote John Gunther in Inside U.S.A. in 1947, “might very well have brought Fascism to America.” Is Trump giving good ole’boy fascism a second chance?
Like Gunther’s Long, he’s also “an engaging monster,” as well as “a lying demagogue, a prodigious self-seeker, vulgar, loose … a master of political abuse.” Likewise he has
made every promise to the underpossessed,” appearing “a savior, a disinterested messiah.
But the great Kingfish actually made good on most of his pledges to the plain folk of Louisiana. He did bring them “cargo” in the form of public services and entitlements. He built hospitals and public housing, abolished the poll tax, and made textbooks free. Trump and his billionaire cabinet, on the other hand, are more likely to reduce access to health care, increase voter suppression, and privatize public education. “Fascism,” if that’s our future lot, will not “come in disguised as socialism,” as Gunther predicted (and Sinclair Lewis before him), but as a neo-Roman orgy of greed.
This analysis has focused on only one part of the puzzle of the heartland: the old industrial and coal counties, now in decline for two generations. It is hardly a comprehensive account. The regional portrait, for example, might look considerably different if we took the perspective of the larger public-sector and health industry workforces. Moreover the story of the Rust Belt is in many ways the old political news; the major novelty of the last election was the politicization of the downward mobility of young college graduates, especially those from working-class and immigrant families. Trumpism, whatever its temporary successes, cannot unify millennials’ economic distress with that of older white workers because it interposes geriatric white privilege as the touchstone of all of its policies.
The Sanders movement, in contrast, has shown that heartland discontent can be brought under the canopy of a “democratic socialism” that reignites New Deal hopes for fundamental economic rights and the Civil Rights Movement’s goals of equality and social justice. The real opportunity for transformational political change (“critical realignment” in a now-archaic vocabulary) belongs to the Sanderistas but only to the extent that they remain rebels against the neoliberal Democratic establishment and support the resistance in the streets.
Trump’s election has unleashed a legitimation crisis of the first order and the majority of Americans who opposed him have only two credible political rally points: the Sanders movement and the ex-president and his coterie. While our hopes and energies should be invested in the first, it would be foolish to underestimate the second.
With Hillary’s descent into hell, there is no successor to Obama. The only world-class political figure left on the American scene, he will become even more formidable out of office, particularly as his presidency becomes heavily burnished with nostalgia. (Most will forget that the current debacle, beginning with the rout of Democrats in 2010, bears the signature of a president who pardoned Wall Street while deporting 2.5 million immigrants.)
Chicago is likely to become the capital of a government in exile with the Obamas directing efforts to reinvigorate the Democratic Party and centrist politics without ceding power to the Left. (If this dual power scenario seems fanciful, one should recall the precedent of Teddy Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill during the Taft years.) Those who believe that the Progressive Caucus now holds the balance of power within the Democratic Party may be rudely disenchanted when Obama again picks up the lance on behalf of the party’s elites.
Meanwhile Trump, augur of fascism or not, seems destined to be the American Macbeth, sowing brutal chaos throughout the dark highlands of the Potomac. The political and social war that is now inevitable in the United States could shape the character of the rest of the century, especially since it is synchronized with similar eruptions across the European Union and the collapse of left-populist rule in South America.
As Trump’s spiritual godfather, Pat Buchanan, recently gloated: “The forces of nationalism and populism have been unleashed all over the West and all over the world. There is no going back.” Hair-raising global scenarios are only too easy to imagine. One could envision, for instance, an angry, foundering Trump regime that represses protest and incites late 1960s-like revolts in US cities, while futilely trying to reconcile its contradictory economic policies and promises. The ensuing geo-economic turmoil might prompt Europeans to invite China to take increasing monetary and financial leadership within the OECD bloc.
2016, in this scenario, would mark the end of the “American century.” Alternately, Beijing might be unwilling or unable to arrest a world downturn or prevent a partial unraveling of transnational production chains. It might pivot from the Pacific toward Eurasia. In that case, 2016 might be remembered as the birthday of de-globalization and a world more recognizably like the 1930s than the 2000s.
Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy will be out this spring, this essay is featured in its first issue.