Populists, the Elites, and Us

By Michael Hirsch

My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency
By Doug Henwood, OR Books, 2016

Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire
By John K. Wilson, OR Books, 2016

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What an election! First, shock and bore throughout; then, fright night. During the course of the tortuous presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and the feral Donald Trump both had large, tub-thumping support sections and ample rubbishers. With the outcome now history, is there any reason to reopen the trash bin? I think yes, because two books released during the campaign elaborate on far more than its detritus. They warn not only that the struggle against far-right nativism and neoliberal austerity continues but also that the political center is cracked.

Let’s start with Doug Henwood’s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency, a masterly exposé of a politician who talks a populist game but who throughout her career has acted as a neoliberal warrior-cum-austerity-freak. Feeding off corporate money, she is certainly not a liberal, a progressive, or a left populist.

Henwood charts in painful detail Clinton’s rise from “the Rose law firm, which represented the moneyed interests of Arkansas,” to her defense of her husband’s welfare “reform” initiatives, which gutted public assistance to the poor. Her economic record includes embracing (until recently) free trade over fair trade. Her vote for the Iraq War in the Senate and her role in the Obama administration as the most vociferous opponent of reversing the coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and her leading the charge to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi mark her clearly as a hawk.

The circumstantial evidence that she used her position for what she loftily called “economic statecraft”—aiding corporations with financial deals abroad—is compelling. Microsoft, Boeing, GE and others appear to have returned those favors with massive contributions to her family’s ostensibly philanthropic nonprofit Clinton Foundation.

Although many of us would have breathed a little more easily if Donald Trump had been defeated, the actual benefits of a Clinton administration—with the not inconsequential exceptions of a decent Supreme Court majority and National Labor Relations Board—would not have been great. Could there have been even a modest increase in the federal minimum wage or Social Security benefits if the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party could not prevail? Adam Nagourney, writing in the New York Times about her 2000 Senate race, reminded readers that “she went out of her way to note her support for the death penalty, welfare restrictions and a balanced budget.” 

And then, there’s John K. Wilson’s encyclopedic Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire. Wilson’s is a scorchingly fierce and first-rate piece of opposition research, exhaustive in its profile of Trump as a grifter and misogynistic poseur. His comment at the Las Vegas debate that “we have no country if we have no border” ranks among the worst sort of nativist toxins.

George Orwell got it right, in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” when he said, “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty…..Christianity and internationalism are as weak as straw in comparison to it.” The evangelicals who flocked to Trump’s side proved the point. Readers of Democratic Left know this and more about Trump. But Wilson’s book is worth reading, to remind us what a bad actor like Trump can do.

What Wilson doesn’t deal with, though, is why Trump is idolized by so many who would be his victims. Why is this mad clown popular? The book does not offer a broad enough context. As Joan Walsh said in the Nation, “Donald Trump didn’t invent this nativist, racist, paranoid appeal; he just dialed it to 11.”

Maybe the greatest crime of the Democrats is that they gave Trump a free ideological ride instead of taking the fight for ideas to the GOP—something Bernie Sanders at least offered the ideological frame for doing—by bringing into the arena class issues such as jobs, inequality, free public higher education, and reining in the financial industry pirates.

Neither Clinton nor Trump hinted at opposition to the core principles of neoliberalism. Would the response to a Clinton presidency by the left have been a resurgence of opposition or continued efforts to flatten the social movements in the interests of electoral viability? Will Democrats be able to at least win the 2018 state legislative elections and redesign congressional and state district lines preparatory to ending the right’s hammerlock on state governments?

The election campaign points to a real weakness in news reporting. When interviewing potential voters, the media rarely asked deep questions that went beyond a voter’s visceral dislike for Clinton or Trump to what at bottom the interviewee believed either could actually be accomplished or why their candidate had the capacity and program to accomplish anything that would help them. The media mostly treated its campaign coverage as a sporting event if not a video game, without any sense of understanding the game or the stakes. And now, with the appointment of Stephen Bannon—former executive chair of the oxymoron that is Breitbart News and head of Trump’s campaign operations at the end—as Trump’s consiglieri, the line between fact and fiction may be completely erased.

And finally, although we want to blame the capitalists, who certainly have more power than we, the left has not yet been able to present a plausible program or an ideological vision that goes beyond hope or “horizontalism.” We might have had slightly more space to maneuver with Clinton as president, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the center can be as harmful to our cause as the right.

Michael Hirsch is on the editorial boards of New Politics and Democratic Left. Longer versions of reviews of these books appeared in New Politics online October 27, 2016, and the online and print Indypendent of June 29, 2016.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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