Trump’s victory and the ignoble death of ‘progressive’ neoliberalism

Trump’s victory marks the defeat of “progressive” neoliberalism. The astonishment and dismay at his victory show that the basis for this defeat was laid a long time ago. It wasn’t Trump who was disconnected from reality, but the political establishment, the A-list, the media and inner city liberals – in other words, people to whom the last few decades have been kind.

But if you venture out of the gentrified suburbs of US cities, it is glaringly visible. I have driven through the Deep South twice in the last two years. Rural Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee are grindingly poor. In downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, at a conservative estimate, 50 percent of shop fronts are shuttered or abandoned. Other towns are even worse. As you drive into an urban area, huge signs advertise payday loans and pawn shops – markers of extreme hardship.

Commentators should (dare I say it) check their privilege before reacting with incredulity, disgust or elitism. Despair is also a selfish response. Real despair has existed for a long time: Trump is its result.

To understand Trump (and the rise of populism around the world), we have to understand what neoliberalism did to politics. It ate it out from within.

Going into the neoliberal age, the Democrats took the working class vote for granted. But almost four decades of austerity have taken their toll. While Silicon Valley and Airbnb-style entrepreneurs have done well, the flexible economy left millions behind. A deep bitterness at the economic system and the privilege of elites has emerged.

How could Clinton offer hope when she helped create this situation in the first place? In fact, she systematically destroyed the candidacy of Bernie Sanders – the only politician in the US who really spoke to this class-based anger.

This is why her Wall Street connections and her former position as a Walmart board member were so deeply resented. Trump may be an egotistical billionaire, but politically and economically, he is less criminal than Clinton. When he said, “Make America great again”, it resonated. When Clinton replied, “America is already great”, it seemed like a sick joke.

I don’t want to imply that the vote for Trump was a working class vote. Sarah Smarsh wrote one of the best pre-election analyses, destroying the myth of the racist white worker, pointing out that many of Trump’s supporters are solidly middle class.

In truth, neoliberalism atomises people, destroying class solidarities. So the Trump vote was a cross-class populist vote. When class and political loyalties disintegrate, personality rises to the surface. To the incredulity of the establishment, Trump supporters – including 42 percent of female voters – were attracted to Trump as a person.

Trump’s appeal was not in spite of, but because of, his crudeness. The man is openly and admittedly a liar, but he was their liar. Hence also his honesty – he isn’t intimidated by political correctness and isn’t beholden to the political machine. He is an open bully, and like all bullies, he exercises an attraction over those less powerful who both crave power and despise those below them.

This was always the attraction of The Apprentice. These qualities meant that a repulsive billionaire could pose as an outsider, capturing the disaffected, anti-establishment vote.

In addition to personality politics, neoliberalism gave rise to identity politics. Often assumed to be the domain of the left, identity is just as important for the right.

Trump mobilised injured identities: people who identify their own decline with that of their nation. Patriots who avoid facing the bleakness of US freedom by hating its supposed enemies. Whites who blame their own marginalisation on the empowerment of non-whites. People proud to be called “deplorables” by the people responsible for driving their lives into the ground.

What does this say about Clinton? Another common misconception about neoliberalism is that it was simply a conservative or right wing project. In fact, neoliberalism has a “left” wing: the Democratic Party. Obama led the golden age of “progressive” neoliberalism. Even his signature reform – Obamacare – was neoliberal through and through: rather than providing free, state-funded health care, it forces people to choose between $700 tax penalties and dramatically rising insurance premiums.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest asset was his charisma. In lieu of this, all Clinton really offered was neoliberal identity politics. She appealed to women, Blacks and Hispanics. And she did this on a negative basis: Trump is a sexist and a racist. Sadly, however, fine sentiments cannot beat intolerance unless they are backed up with real change.

So what reforms did Clinton offer? More women in corporate boardrooms, paying their employees the minimum wage? LGBTI drone pilots to bomb the Middle East? More Black police?

African-American and Hispanic voters did largely vote Democrat, but this wasn’t enough. Clinton’s technocratic and soulless personality inspired distrust and even hatred. This wasn’t primarily a result of misogyny, but a result of her deep and thoroughgoing ties to the status quo.

“She is the most qualified candidate”, her supporters said. This is precisely what Trump voters most distrusted about her! This is why the email scandal mattered; it was a cipher for her general dishonesty.

Trump’s victory is a turning point. But we should remember that other countries (Poland, Italy, Hungary, Russia, the Philippines, India and more) have blazed this path. An era is ending and a new one is taking form. Despair, anguish, incredulity are expressions of grief for the lost era. But why should we mourn the loss of the neoliberal period, whose promises were frantic, individualistic self-improvement and austerity?

The new era of politics, with Trump at its head, is ugly. But on the bright side, clearing out the neoliberal left might afford the real left – the class struggle and solidarity left – a chance to rebuild. Sanders’ immense popularity shows that this is possible. Meanwhile, if you want to blame anyone for Trump, blame Clinton. Progressive neoliberalism has reaped what it has sown.