As demonstrated by both Trump and Sanders, a key feature in the 2016 US election has been a populist narrative about how foreign governments and companies, in cahoots with political and institutional insiders, have wrought ruin upon the nation
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has endured two populist insurrections over the past eighteen months, one from the Left and the other from the Right. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have played the populist card, a conviction that ordinary men and women have been rorted by “the system” and that strong decisive action was required on behalf of regular folk to take back control of the nation from a coterie of cronies. The populist’s worldview is invariably a Manichean one of blameless “outsiders”—in alliance with a would-be political saviour—fighting the good fight against the “wicked insiders”. Sanders’s gripe was the state’s failure to safeguard the little person; Trump’s grievance is much the same, albeit for mostly different reasons.
A populist movement is a function of voters going rogue after deciding that the political status quo has lost its legitimacy—in the American case, the customary policies of the Democratic Party and the customary policies of the Republican Party. Populist revolts in America have emerged before at times of stress, from the People’s Party of James B. Weaver in the 1890s to the “Share the Wealth” movement of the Great Depression, the latter cut short by Huey Long’s assassination in 1935. Jack Ross, writing for the American Conservative in March 2016, insisted that Sanders’s politics should be seen as a contemporary version of Huey Long’s proletarian-flavoured radicalism rather than in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt-style liberalism and Henry Wallace’s progressivism or, we might add, Barack Obama’s New Left-style identity politics. Ross rationalises Sanders’s recourse to the middle-class identity politics of Black Lives Matter as the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, then, Senator Sanders differentiated himself from Hillary Clinton in his populist morality tale by implicitly casting her as the establishment candidate, an insider compromised by long and intimate association with “Wall Street speculators”.
Bernie Sanders, fittingly enough, kicked off his primary campaign by refusing to set up a Super PAC (political action committee) as proof that shady plutocrats and their Washington accomplices could not buy off the aspiring people’s hero. He was free to remain an independent operator and, presumably, the champion of outsiders. Central to his populist narrative was that an overclass had subverted democracy in America; decisions were being made that profited powerful oligarchical interests by selling out ordinary American workers, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being two obvious cases in point.
Sanders’s self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” insurgency also drew on a pervasive bitterness at the wage and wealth inequality in the modern-day US. Accordingly, Sanders’s policy rollout began with a range of government-guaranteed benefits for ordinary workers, from a new minimum wage to longer holidays. Sanders also pledged full remission on student-debt loans and a $70 billion plan to make tertiary education free. It was payback time for the outsiders.
Five weeks before the November 8 election an audiotape (dating back to a March 2016 fundraiser in Virginia) emerged of Hillary Clinton dismissing Bernie Sanders’s supporters as ill-informed Millennials who believed America should have “free college, health care” and that the Obama administration had not “gone far enough” in transforming the United States into “Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means”. However, as Sanders’s campaign was surging at the time, Hillary Clinton entered into a bidding war with her rival. For instance, she promised a $250 billion infrastructure upgrade, only for Bernie Sanders to top this with a $1 trillion undertaking, throwing in high-speed internet access for rural America as a bonus. Why not? Add to that, of course, his plan for universal health care (or so-called Berniecare), a single-payer health plan that Sanders himself acknowledged would increase annual government spending on health from $1 trillion to $2.9 trillion. A Sanders presidency would have likely seen the resentments of the Occupy Wall Street movement to “the greed of corporate America” become the de facto creed of the White House.
Such was the appeal of Bernie Sanders’s leftist version of “the system is rigged” that he garnered almost 39 per cent of Democratic delegates in the primaries, possibly his most surprising victory being the March 8 victory in Michigan. In fact, he collected 46 per cent of delegates if “superdelegates”—party-appointed delegates not elected in primaries or caucuses—are excluded from the count. This was not the only way in which Democratic Party apparatchiks worked in favour of the establishment’s candidate. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, held in Philadelphia, WikiLeaks revealed that the leadership of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had conspired against Sanders from the beginning. For instance, some of the 20,000 leaked e-mails show that the DNC considered making Sanders’s Jewish background a campaign issue in some states. There was also evidence of collusion between the DNC and the Washington Post in the interests of the Clinton campaign. These troubling revelations forced DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign but, tellingly, immediately afterwards she was hired by the Clinton campaign.
Ironically, the leftist populist battling “the system” never fully grasped what he was up against. In October 2015, at the first televised Democratic debate, Sanders refused to address the issue of Hillary Clinton’s problematic use, as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, of a private server and attendant private e-mail system that could serve no purpose other than to obscure her electronic communications from management/government oversight, a practice unheard of in the Western world, let alone concerning someone working for the State Department with all the issues of national security involved. Instead of tackling the scandal head on, Sanders meekly surrendered to the proprieties of PC rectitude: “Enough of the e-mails—let’s talk about the real issues facing the American people.”
The right-wing populist critique of the current state of play in the US—and Hillary Clinton’s role in it—has proven less faint-hearted. For a start, there is the insistence that Emailgate involves more than Hillary Clinton and her inner circle being, as FBI Chief James Comely would have it, “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information”. Peter Schweizer in Clinton Cash (2015)—now a film and a graphic novel—makes the case, in the tradition of an old-style populist narrative, that behind Emailgate is an attempt by the Clinton family and allies to defraud the American people.
Between 2009 and 2013, contends Schweizer and a growing body of evidence, foreign governments and multinational corporations could donate to the Clinton Foundation or invite the loquacious Bill to opine on the general state of the world in the hope of receiving favourable treatment from the US Department of State. The key liaison person in all of this—and seemingly the only other member of staff with an e-mail account at Clinton.com—was Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s personal assistant. It was her job as contact person, according to an e-mail released to the public by the FBI, to “figure it out”. Certainly there would have been no shortage of liaising for her to do. Even Ed Pilkington, writing for the Guardian in May 2016, was disturbed after watching the film version of Clinton Cash:
Perhaps the most telling detail is the bald fact that between 2001 and 2013 Bill Clinton made thirteen speeches in which he made more than $500,000 in fees; eleven of those speeches were made within the period when his wife was working as America’s top diplomat.
For one speech, delivered on November 12, 2011, Bill Clinton received $750,000 from Ericsson, a multinational electronics operation previously criticised in Congress for selling surveillance material to repressive regimes.
While the gentlemanly Bernie Sanders politely averted his eyes from Emailgate, the Republican nominee Donald Trump turned it into a central theme of his campaign, which included giving his Democratic adversary the moniker (no pun intended) “Crooked Hillary”. Incongruously, perhaps, the owner of Trump Tower has aspired to the role of people’s champion no less enthusiastically than Sanders. Trump and Sanders, thus, share something more than “New Yawk” accents. Trump’s bellicose manner, not to mention the thick outer-borough accent, might be considered unsuitable for a country club, but it did a lot for his credibility as a populist maverick. Though fabulously wealthy, Trump has fashioned himself, in the words of his daughter Ivanka, as “blue collar with a big budget”.
Donald Trump’s “sensible conservative” insurgency has paralleled Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialist” not only with its denunciation of NAFTA and the TPP, but also in its focus on the plight of America’s Average Joe and Jane. Mitt Romney might have misrepresented himself in the infamous “47 per cent” remark captured on video during the 2012 election season, and yet it played into the stereotype, promoted by the Democratic Party, that a wealthy and well-connected businessman running on a Republican ticket would privately deride ordinary people as overly dependent on government handouts: “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Crucially, Donald Trump has eschewed all talk of “lifters and leaners” or “strivers and skivers”, and promised not to wind back social welfare, Medicare or Medicaid under his watch. Whatever its ultimate merits or explanatory power, a key feature in the 2016 US election has been a populist narrative about how foreign governments and companies, in cahoots with American political and institutional insiders, have wrought ruin upon the nation. Both Trump and Sanders, in their different ways, have ridden that populist wave.
The upshot is that the Republicans (under Trump) and the Democrats (post-Sanders) appear to have reversed their positions on Average Joe and Jane from the 2012 election. At a September LGBT fundraiser in Manhattan, Hillary Clinton disparaged “half of Trump’s supporters” as belonging in a “basket of deplorables”—they were, to put it bluntly, the scum of the earth: “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it”. Ordinary people, according to Hillary Clinton and her PC ideology, are not merely “leaners” and “skivers” but, to borrow from Orwell, “un-persons”, with Donald Trump being the loudest “un-person” of all. It was Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, who made the most poignant rejoinder:
The truth of the matter is that the men and women who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hard-working Americans, farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community, members of every class of this country, who know that they can make America great again.
The US sociologist C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956. Mills was left-wing but sophisticated enough to characterise the powers-that-be in America as a privileged elite rather than in Marxian terms of a ruling class. He wrote of celebrities, in the form of entertainers and media personalities, brushing shoulders with the CEOs of important companies, the corporate rich, notable families, military figures and key members of the federal government. Mills claimed this power elite collectively steered the country in the direction that best suited their own ambitions and worldview rather than the interests of the general population. Hillary Clinton, we might note, made her “basket of deplorables” pitch at an elite gala event hosted by the rich celebrity Barbara Streisand. Tickets cost $50,000 and the evening raised $6 million for the Clinton campaign. Maybe the time has come for a non-PC sociologist to consider writing an updated version of The Power Elite.
Daryl McCann darylmccann.blogspot.com.au