Behind Trump’s lies is a hard truth about the US
And under Biden’s truths is a lie.
It shouldn’t be close. Yet over 45% in Ohio say they will vote for Trump. He leads across the immensity of Texas. Forty-four per cent of US voters approve of him. The man oozes corruption, abuses his office, casually lies, fires independent investigators and fans racism and violence.
He is jealous of the virus, the one thing that has upstaged him. The planet burns while he curates his online image. The US is being torn apart, its authority in free fall.
Tens of millions of US voters see all this, and support him. As do influential financial and media interests. They see it through different lenses, of course. They use different words to describe it. Nonetheless, they see it. And, on balance, they approve.
This is something that we have to try to understand.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
Who is the Trump base?
Many keyboards have been strummed to compose a great fiction about Trumpism: his support is angry working class America, he rides on the shoulders of imagined ill-educated, overweight buffoons with guns on their hips and spittle on their lips. His rallies echo with the howls of underdogs.
This imagery appeals to liberal snobbery and conservative mythology. But it is a lie. Trump’s voters in 2016 were, on average, richer than Hillary Clinton’s. And much Whiter, slightly maler and significantly older. These aren’t the marginalised. They are a coalition of marginalisers.
They are wealthy bosses, Washington lobbyists, conservative Catholic congregations, corporate predators, much of the media-entertainment complex, the growing mercenary industry, realtors and bankers.
They are kleptocrats with offshore cash – not just from Russia, but everywhere burdened with asset-stripping oligarchs.
They are White and male supremacists with their evangelical churches; boat-owning, share-owning, home-owning middle-class America with its giant fridges, neat lawns and SUVs.
They live in the wealthy suburbs of poorer cities, own family businesses, act as middle management for the police and armed forces and corporate workforces. Or they did, before they retired to a life of fishing and Fox News, facilitated by their Wall Street pension pot.
They are each only some of these things. Many will vote for him next month without enthusiasm, but permissively: his racism isn’t to their taste, but they’ll ignore it for the sake of their shares. They disapprove of his misogyny, but the idea they’ve benefited from structural racism offends. They can’t stand the man, but oppose abortion more. They forgive his crudeness for the sake of his supremacism. They like his isolationism, and so pretend away his proto-fascism.
Most of all, he stands for the few things which make them feel secure. He encourages them to identify with the part of themselves they see as a winner. And they like that.
After all, they were the winners of neoliberalism. Iraq was invaded to protect their prosperity. House prices were inflated to ensure they kept feeling richer. African Americans are oppressed to protect their dominance. Latinxs toil on low wages to upholster their comfort. They are certain that they earned it, and see it is threatened. Push has come to shove, and they’re doing the shoving.
They aren’t the only USA. But they sure as hell think they are.
And they are truly American.
Their roots suck from the brutality of US power: the two genocides on which the country was founded, the treatment of African Americans after emancipation; what the modern US has done to the rest of the world – from mass slaughter in Indonesia to endless war in the Middle East – and what the modern US has done to itself.
Unity is a mask
“Even as we speak there are those who are preparing to divide us,” he told the Democratic Convention in 2004. It is worth watching again. “I say to them there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America…” It was the speech which launched Barack Obama’s White House hopes.
He campaigned on hope and change and “Yes We Can”. But the ‘we’ became a cabinet more of Goldman Sachs partners than trade union alumni. His presidency began with the 2008 crash, bailing out the banks with record-breaking largesse. Unlike the 1930s, home-owners were not rescued: instead, 10.4 million homes were repossessed. Federal Reserve vice-chairman Alan Blinder says he advocated preventing this but was “laughed out of court”.
Pause and think about the 10.4 million families who lost their homes, perhaps 30 million people: one in ten Americans. Who knows how many children, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters experienced it at one remove, offering sofas and hugs and cars to move. And how many of their bosses, or luckier neighbours, or wealthier cousins, didn’t rush to help, but did catch the underlying message: in this country you are a winner or a loser? And they sucked up the implication: you are a winner only if you keep on winning.
Brutal Democrat policy split the country into borrowers and lenders, and tried to bridge the gap with Obama’s fine words. But everyone saw that they needed to scramble for their own survival. And while the captain pleaded for unity, the shock-jocks of talk radio and Fox News screamed ‘every man for himself’. Yes, ‘man’.
Behind his lies, make-up and hair spray, Trump represents an honesty about the US which its leaders tried to hide. He speaks the truth of power, with a clarity that Washington wants to obscure. His is the ugly, angry, unmasked face of misogynist, racist US hyper-capitalism. Obama begged the country to unite, and the loudest voices replied: “Fuck you!”
Trump’s opponents – from centre to radical Left – believe in political process, that society’s decisions should be made through democratic institutions, one person, one vote.
His supporters are an axis of those who prefer other institutions: the market, or father-led families, or the church, or racial hierarchies. For many, the presidency is less ‘appropriate decision-making process’, more ‘patriarch of the nation’. It’s not any kind of surprise that those who do well from these structures tend to believe in them more.
And it’s equally unsurprising that huge numbers have come to distrust democracy. The current version of politics is obviously corrupted.
If you see politics is broken, and you are accustomed to winning from some other way of organising things, it’s no surprise that you’d support the person best at trolling the political system, the one who the people you hate keep telling you they hate. If everyone’s a liar, then the truth doesn’t matter. What matters is power. What you care about is winning.
An establishment Biden its time
Obama was an adrenaline shot for Washington’s institutions, an attempt to inject the energy of his youth and the moral legitimacy of his race into an increasingly hated establishment: a clutch of losers, defeated in Iraq. Eight years later, greying and tiring, he handed over to Trump. Washington had sucked him dry and was more hated than ever.
This year, Joe Biden is more like a flu jab: an unpleasant necessity designed not to improve anything, but to prevent it getting worse.
Don’t get us wrong. We take our flu jabs. We want to see Trump thrashed. But what lies on the other side?
In the same way that Trump’s lies hide a deeper truth about the country, Biden’s triangulations and tribulations – though usually true individually – shroud a deeper lie. They are a poster advertising a functional US. But everyone watching the two old men on the stage knows it’s broken.
Biden offers little change when so much needs to change. He offers no discernable solutions to any of the deep crises facing his country or the world. He represents decades of entanglement in DC’s disasters, a simulacrum of folksy charm and the only hope of beating Trump; the chance to vote for a paler version of a better before: the same before that led to today.
And if Biden becomes a mere return to Obama-ism, with most that was good about Obama erased, then he likely sets the US back on a path to Trumpism, with the risk of added competence.
What to do?
Senior Democrats see this risk. Their solution? Legal bureaucracy.
Susan Rice was one of four final candidates for Biden’s vice-president, said to be his personal favourite. Last month, she wrote in The New York Times that the lesson of Trump’s calamitous behaviour is that Democrats must “strip a future demagogue of the power to abuse the presidency”.
Writing in the arrhythmic jargon of Washington junkies, she argued: “New laws must ensure that the coequal branches of government effectively constrain a president who seeks unchecked power. Enforcement cannot remain dependent on the executive branch policing itself or vulnerable to the complicity of the president’s party in Congress.”
She presumes and assumes the US system will again produce “a future demagogue”. She asks not how to prevent this, only how to tweak the constitution to bind him or her in legal cords. She does not even suggest making voting reform a priority to prevent gerrymandering and voter suppression, let alone obliging state governments to actively register all citizens.
Anyway, constitutions only work when all the main players agree to follow them. When the underlying political culture has gone, the rules don't stand a chance. Politely signposted security ropes can’t hold back stampeding buffalo.
But if you’re not willing to examine why the beasts took fright, if you’re not willing to investigate the brutality of racialised capitalism for fear that you will find yourself complicit, then pointless signposts are all you’ve got.
The US Left understands this risk better, but has no clear solution either. There hasn’t yet been a compelling account of how Bernie Sanders could have won the nomination, and there’s little discussion of whether to renew the Washington system, or replace it. And, as in the UK, none of us has much understanding of what to do about people who are accustomed to winning once their empire starts to die.
We do know, though, from where the answer will come. It will be the climate strikers, the Black Lives Matter protesters, twentysomethings in precarious jobs and mouldy apartments seeing through the lies of rentier capitalism, the young women refusing to accept the misogyny of the old world, millennials who graduated into the financial crash to be parents in the pandemic, Generation Z, which has embraced its queerness, which knows it is in a fight for the planet, and which understands that defeating Trump will only be the start of defeating Trumpism.
Their leaders are emerging. Their politics are forming. And the future is theirs.
Get our weekly email