Election 2016 Analysis: New York Über Alles


New York City vomited up one of its own for the presidency on November 8th for the first time since 1944. In these increasingly unhinged times of 2016, instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, we were granted with what could  be taken as some sort of twisted parody version in Donald J. Trump. Both of them wealthy would-be populists and self-styled speakers for the forgotten man, aimed at attacking the establishment. The key differences here being in party, mission, and temperament: Roosevelt was a natural, eloquent speaker, whose calm, smiling demeanor, as history books like to tell us, helped guide the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War. In contrast, Trump is a vicious, short-fingered vulgarian whose penchant for ugly, unapologetic verbal hardball is his appeal and who has succeeded despite the best efforts of the press and the establishments of both parties to defeat him.

Trump comes to the presidency not only shocking the world with his victory but perhaps himself as well. Trump’s victory surprised his top campaign staff, who hadn’t even bothered to brief him on the day-to-day operations of the West Wing, and Trump himself seemed cowed at the prospect of having to be the ceremonial and administrative head of the nation’s imperial center. With little support for or from the traditional Republican Party apparatus, Trump has resorted to carving up an administration out of the die-hards who stood with him throughout his campaign. The result, as of this writing, has been a feeding frenzy for a laundry list of Republican hacks and has-beens, who have come to claim their share of the carcass. Breitbart’s Steve Bannon has been tapped for White House Strategist, unrepentant warmonger Tom Cotton is in the running for Secretary of Defense, Sarah Palin mentioned for the Interior, and Rudy Giuliani or (dear god) John Bolton are being given serious consideration for Secretary of State.

More troubling, however, is not really President Trump and his low-rent supervillain team assembling in the White House, but the locked and loaded Republican Congress, standing en masse behind him. With its sights set on not only just repealing the Obama administration’s meager reforms and accomplishments, but finally taking a hatchet to Social Security and Medicare and the very concept of public social welfare itself if it can’t help it, these are grim times for anyone looking for at least some shelter from the ravages of an increasingly automated and merciless market society.

And there’s every reason to believe they’ll be within striking distance of being able to try and do it. As Mike Konczal notes, the Republican Party can’t, say, outright repeal Obamacare without running into a Democratic filibuster, but they are perfectly capable of using the process of reconciliation to throw a wrench into the core pieces of the program so that it is completely ineffective. This is a process for which they have of course rehearsed and explicitly prepared for during their spare time in the Obama years.

Similarly, the Republican Senate could overcome a Democratic filibuster of one of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees by confirmation through installing the “nuclear option” allowing a mere 51 senate votes to confirm Antonin Scalia’s successor over filibuster. This would continue the current court status quo, which would thankfully not put Roe v. Wade immediately at risk but would make at least the next four years with two aging justices (one liberal with health issues and the other the closest thing the court has to a reliable swing vote) a nail-biting one. On the other hand, public unions are almost certainly fucked. They dodged a big bullet when Scalia died before being able to rule in the Friedrichs case, that would have almost certainly led to the Court gutting public unions as much as possible, but now Trump can place a conservative appointment to pick up where Scalia and company left off.

Finally, beyond the Congressional and Presidential level, the Republican Party has reaped a mighty taking at the state level (now controlling nearly 33 state legislatures), putting an increasingly radical party within increasing distance of being able to ratify a constitutional amendment for whatever it is they damn please.

The good news, if you can call it that, is Trump might not completely rip up the Iran Deal. This is despite his squawking about it being the worst deal ever and his bellicose neocon entourage seemingly eager to drop a few bombs on Iran as soon as possible. He has also made some noise about reneging on Obama’s thaw with Cuba but it’s hard to know how serious his intentions are in this area.

And on the other side, we have the Democratic Party.

Let’s be clear here, Trump didn’t so much win the election as much as Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment completely fucked up this election and fucked it up spectacularly. Despite all the media talk of the 2016 election being a whitelash and the white working-class decisively breaking for Trump, nationally the Republican voter share barely grew in 2016. Trump has actually hardly done better than 2012’s corporate Republican muppet, Mitt Romney. What did happen is Clinton utterly failed to turn out the electoral coalition that elected Barack Obama twice.

Clinton currently leads the popular vote by one-and-a-half million votes as ballots continue to come in from California, but she currently trails President Obama’s 2012 totals by more than 2 million ballots. Most importantly, voter turnout is down in 19 states compared to the 2012 election, including several important swing states and states that Clinton assumed would be her firewall in defeating Trump. There are of course suggestions that voter restriction laws run by the Republican Party helped contribute to seal the deal for Trump’s victory, which is in part true, but cannot really explain why say Trump beat Clinton by nearly 10 percent of the vote in Ohio (nearly 400,000 votes) in a state that Obama carried in 2012 by 3 percent of the vote (200,000 votes). Or why she lost Pennsylvania, which has gone for the Democratic candidate in every Presidential election since 1988, up until just now.

Another thing: at no point should anyone feel particularly sorry for Hillary Clinton or her 2016 campaign. It is clear that she and the Democratic establishment she embodies have utterly and irreversibly screwed themselves. In the postmortem of this election, reports from survivors of the Democratic campaign wreckage indicate that the Clinton campaign team generally spent most of the general election assuming it was going to win. What they thought apparently, was they just needed to work further to decide by how much. Generally, this meant abandoning campaign infrastructure and staff in states like Michigan and Wisconsin. As reported by Sam Stein in the Huffington Post, the Clinton team wanted to expend as few political resources as possible in a war of idiotic mindgames with the Trump campaign:

A senior official from Clinton’s campaign noted that they did have a large staff presence in Michigan and Wisconsin (200 and 180 people respectively) while also stressing that one of the reasons they didn’t do more was, in part, because of psychological games they were playing with the Trump campaign. They recognized that Michigan, for example, was a vulnerable state and felt that if they could keep Trump away ― by acting overly confident about their chances ― they would win it by a small margin and with a marginal resource allocation.

One has to assume the amount of resources pulled away from getting out the vote in Democratic-leaning states was being sunk into pandering to Republican women or Republican-leaning independents in states like Arizona and Georgia. This would ensure, of course, that Clinton could boast a healthy electoral landslide come election night. Notably, however, absolutely none of these potential “swing” voters came to aid Clinton’s gambit when the day was over.

They also apparently thought that any risk of losing the average Democratic voter in regular Democratic-leaning states could also be offset by this strategy. Back in July, Chuck Schumer seems to have outlined the mentality, saying that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” It is hard believe that Democratic leadership thought Clinton could bank on wrapping up any Republican of any stripe. Unless they seriously somehow hadn’t noticed during the campaign, the vast majority of Republican voters view her as a corrupt hellspawn who might possibly be an antichrist. With Clinton’s highly unfavorable personal image, it was an incredible risk to do anything but focus on ensuring that Clinton could turn out the bare minimum of the Democratic voting coalition needed for victory, and yet they took that risk.

Clinton generally ran a calculating, utterly establishment-oriented campaign suited for nearly 20 years ago in 1996. It emphasized her experience and grasp of policy in an era when voters are desperate and could care less about those things. In utter denial about how utterly fucked and desperate vast swathes of the country are, Clinton’s tone-deaf campaign slogans included things like “America Is Already Great” or meaningless pabble like “Stronger Together”. In an era of incredible social dislocation and rocketing inequality, this banal and inoffensive messaging helped reinforce Clinton’s public image: that she is an emotionally distant technocratic figure, who doesn’t really care or relate to the average person or their everyday concerns, outside of their existing as statistics or numbers in a policy brief.

She also didn’t help herself by throwing her enemies plenty of rope for which to hang her by. In 2014, for no particular reason other than to enrich herself, Clinton ran around to different Wall Street banks giving secret speeches to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. She did this understanding on some level that she would be campaigning for president the next year and that the mood in the country remained incredibly anti-establishment. That she chose to do so speaks either to her arrogance or cluelessness about how these speeches and her behavior could be used against her.

Most importantly: the campaign selected Tim Kaine, a human salt-shaker and complete nonentity, as its running mate which meant, despite the campaign’s rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, it had a massive gaping vulnerability: there was absolutely no one of color on the ticket following the first black president. Accordingly, Clinton’s black voter turnout dropped more than 11 percent compared to 2012 and Trump did better than Mitt Romney among Latino voters despite his vile campaign rhetoric. Clinton took black voters and voters of color for granted, assumed they would come out to vote for her at the same rates Obama achieved, and thought all she had to sell them was that she wasn’t Donald Trump. She sold them this despite her own sorry history of inflicting damage on communities of color during the 1990s and beyond.

Finally, it is fittingly symbolic that that the Clinton campaign sank on the rocks of the Great Lakes Rust Belt states, since she has been actively helping screw over the voters in those states for 30 years. Clinton ran against Trump as the Democrat most closely aligned, outside of perhaps Al Gore or her husband himself, with passing NAFTA in the 1993. That she went on to try and negotiate the TPP in Obama’s administration did her no favors and also meant that when she cynically flipped to half-heartedly oppose free trade agreements during the Democratic primary, absolutely no one believed her. The Democrats handed Trump the candidate he could most effectively attack on job outsourcing. Despite generally bumbling the fuck out of his campaign everywhere else, he effectively savaged Clinton on free trade during the Presidential debates and on the stump, and this can’t have gone unnoticed by voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

As Clinton, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the Third Way triangulating politics they embody saunter off into the dark night, they leave the Democratic Party in general shambles, despite being handed a candidate in the general election that they wanted to run against and that would have been a cinch for anyone who wasn’t an endlessly scandal-laden member of an aspiring technocratic political dynasty to defeat.

So what now?

For those of us at the bottom, who have to pick up and build something out of the wreckage of the Democratic Party’s failures, this is going to be a very tough and very grim time. But there are reasons to hope. The Trump victory has inspired protests and resistance by young people across the country and we can be guaranteed that the Trump administration itself will supply an endless list of actions to kick and scream and shout about. The president-elect and the Republican Party itself seem as befuddled by their victory as everyone else, with a generally incompetent-looking White House, and if they start their march towards undoing healthcare, social welfare programs, or civil rights, they’re damn well not going to be ready for the blowback if they are hit hard enough. Power that is obtained and poorly wielded can be just as much of a death sentence as anything else, if the current plight of the Democratic Party has anything to teach us.

Trump himself is the most unpopular president-elect in history and as long as he remains the identifiable standard bearer of the Republican Party, he is going to be an easy, immediate target for which to rally around resistance akin to the conservative revolt Obama faced. One of the positives of the Obama presidency is that from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the Sanders campaign, there has been finally something akin to actual emancipation and social justice movements incubating in this country that can operate outside of the voting booth every 2 to 4 years.

That Keith Ellison, who correctly and intelligently foresaw the threat that Trump posed in 2015 while being laughed at for it, is a leading candidate for the DNC Chair is as close to a thing you can point to as a nice start. And that even bland, inoffensive liberals have signed up in a campaign to do something about white nationalist Steve Bannon being quietly shooed into Trump’s cabinet is the budding example of a lot of the kicking and screaming people are going to have to do to be heard.

And we need to be heard. Not only are we facing down a looming climate crisis but there’s also a sinister fascist and nationalist specter brewing both here and in Europe to contend with, with Trump’s election unleashing a rise in racist harassment. With nothing left but our entire future to lose, there’s no more triangulating or moderating or negotiating to be had. At the end of 2016, New York City spit up its very own favorite orange authoritarian for the rest of the country and the world to contend with.

We should be ready to take up the fight.

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