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Home Opinion The American left ignores Trump’s supporters at its peril
State of the Left - United States

The American left ignores Trump’s supporters at its peril

Claire O'Connor - 09 March 2016

Despite a setback in Michigan, Hillary Clinton look set to eventually seize the Democratic presidential nomination. But to hold the White House, the left must urgently re-evaluate its offer to the white working classes

The inevitable

Who needs series four of House of Cards when the real life US presidential election is so compelling? At the time of writing, Hillary Clinton is in the lead with 762 delegates to Bernie Sanders’ 552, when to win the Democratic nomination a candidate needs 2383 votes. Over a quarter of delegates’ votes have been allocated but the remaining states and the 712 superdelegates, not included above, are expected to be more supportive of Clinton. Since Super Tuesday it seems more likely, if not inevitable, that the Democratic candidate will be Hillary Clinton. Pundits this past weekend acknowledged her sheer grit and noted the shift in her strategy to comport herself as the presumptive nominee with her sights firmly set on her Republican counterpart.

The unimaginable

However, the unimaginable keeps happening of late: the Scottish referendum; Jeremy Corbyn; Brexit? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Sanders has had an amazing run considering he is a 40-year outsider. His consistent focus on inequality and campaign finance reform has motivated millions to attend his rallies and donate to his campaign. His win in Michigan gave Bernie back his ‘bern’ after his bitter loss in Nevada. He has no intention of going quietly and will continue to shape the agenda, if not win, for as long as he can. Born in Brooklyn, he will take the fight to Hillary’s home turf of NY and keep her on the defensive with his focus on trade and jobs, and special interests.

And then there’s Trump. Trump is the only thing people are talking about. Bombastic. Narcissist. Pugnacious. Fake. Phony. Conman. These are the more polite terms being used to describe this unusual candidate. He continues to astound: Trump criticises the Pope. Trump fails to condemn white supremacists. Trump talks about the size of his manhood during a live presidential debate. His speech after Michigan and Mississippi was more like an infomercial for Trump products than his policies. Remember the old days when Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house? Now Putin is Trump’s role model to run a country.

It was funny at first – like watching Saturday Night Live but all week long – until he became the frontrunner for real. Trump is way ahead in the delegate count with 441 of 1237 delegates needed to win compared to 331 for Ted Cruz, 152 for Marco Rubio and 53 for John Kasich. His wins this week lay waste to the much-anticipated softening of his support despite the best efforts of Mitt Romney, John McCain and ‘#NeverTrump’. If Rubio and Kasich do not carry their winner-take-all home states of Florida and Ohio, or even if they do, this could come down to a two-man race by next week. It will be hard for Cruz to catch up with Trump so this fight looks set to continue to the floor of the Republican convention in July.

The irreversible

The problem for the centre left is not Trump, it is the vast and growing numbers of people supporting him. It is like the Hydra – first the Tea party, then Trump – we cut off this head and another grows. Vast swathes of the country are eager to rage against the established political order that has been telling them for years that globalisation is good, and to get over it. Wage stagnation and job losses have been around for decades and yet politicians have failed to come up with a robust response to arrest the sense of decline and dread. 

Trump draws support from many groups but the bulk of his base is white working-class America. Buffeted by economic angst, a decline in marriage and religious attendance has further undermined their sense of meaning and purpose. Between 1999 and 2013, there was a jump in the death rate of high-school educated whites aged 44 to 54 of more than 20 per cent. This is a highly unusual occurrence in advanced societies during peacetime. Black people and Hispanics, not to mention other countries, have lived through deindustrialisation and economic shocks, and yet it was only white working-class Americans who saw this uptick in death rates from suicide, drug and alcohol addiction. This is shocking and attests to the pessimistic worldview of the white working class.

Economic trends are exacerbated by demographic changes in the US. Take just two: America is predicted to become a minority-majority country in 2043 according to the latest census. For under-18s that shift happens in 2018. Latinos are expected to form almost a third of the population by 2050, due to birth rates rather than immigration. Second, the US is now an unmarried majority country with singles outnumbering married adults, in large part because women across all groups are choosing not to marry. Aside from the obvious policy implications, these trends put the white male demographic further on the defensive and accounts for, but does not excuse, the levels of bigotry and misogyny seen from the Trump camp.

The inexcusable

Of course, building a 10ft wall with Mexico won’t make any difference to their plight, not even if the Mexicans pay for it.  But what is our policy offer? We murmur something about life-long learning and jobs of the future but not very convincingly. How do we create a meaningful coalition between emerging blocks of unmarried women, Hispanics, black people, Asians, and the white working-class male? We have work to do. It is partly our indifference and incompetence that voters are rebelling against. We know that when people feel they have no control over their lives or stake in society, there is always a popular revolt against ‘so-called’ progress.  We ignore or mock Trump’s supporters at our peril.

Claire O’Connor is former head of policy for the British Labour party. She lives in Washington DC and runs Leadership Rethought, a consulting firm that teaches, coaches and consults on adaptive leadership challenges

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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