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Who is to blame for Donald Trump's victory?

A narrative that attributes Trump's triumph to the "working class" forgets the role of racism, sexism and the right-wing media. 

As it became clear that Donald Trump had won Pennsylvania, putting the presidency in the grasp of those tiny hands, the activist and academic Van Jones looked crushed. “It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us,” he told CNN viewers. “You tell your kids: ‘Don’t be a bully.’ You tell your kids: ‘Don’t be a bigot.’ You tell your kids: ‘Do your homework and be prepared.’ And then you have this outcome.”

There are many ways to read Trump’s victory, but all of them should acknowledge just how improbable it would have seemed even a few years ago. The real-estate magnate has been both a registered Democrat and a Republican; he has married three times and had numerous girlfriends; he was initially progressive on subjects such as abortion. Hell, he might even believe in evolution. Normally these would have been seen as disqualifying characteristics for anyone seeking the Republican nomination.

Instead, he carried all before him, sweeping away the $130m operation of Jeb Bush, the creepy and universally loathed Ted Cruz and the allegedly moderate Marco Rubio, borne on a great crest of free airtime. Every news show wanted Trump on air: he would call in, chew the fat, throw out a few incendiary remarks, and suck all the oxygen out of the news cycle. He was a spectacle: like in a car crash, no one could help themselves from slowing down to look.

It was too easy to treat him, and his candidacy, as a joke. Born in Queens, the heir to a small fortune made by dubious means, he was a prominent figure on New York’s social scene in the 1990s. He was known for his vulgarity, his divorces and his improbable hair. His next act came as a reality-television star. Among his other crimes, he once crowned Piers Morgan the champion of Celebrity Apprentice.

He made the leap to electoral politics by endorsing the right-wing conspiracy known as “birtherism” – the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and was therefore ineligible to be president. Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate in 2011, in the hope of quelling the faux-scandal, and mocked the egotistical billionaire mercilessly at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner that year, in front of the Washington media. “I know that he’s taken some flak lately,” Obama said. “No one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like: did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer sitting a few tables away, recorded Trump’s cold-faced, furious response: “His head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humour about him.” By legend, this is when Trump decided to run for president. He had been humiliated in front of the political class, and now he wanted revenge.

Never mind that, by any reasonable definition, he was part of the establishment: he owns a gold-plated penthouse apartment in Manhattan, and the Clintons were guests at his third wedding in 2005 to the new first lady, Melania. (The former model hails from Slovenia, while Trump’s grandfather was born in Germany. Clearly, some immigrants are OK in Trumpworld. What on Earth could be the judging criteria?)

As the race went on, he used language that hasn’t been heard in mainstream politics for years. The Mexicans who moved to the United States were largely not “good people”, but “rapists”, drug-pushers and criminals. A US judge ruling on a class-action lawsuit against Trump University could not be impartial because he was “a Mexican”. (In fact, the man in question, Gonzalo Curiel, was a US citizen, born in Indiana.) After the San Bernardino shooting last December, carried out by Islamist terrorists who were US citizens, he called for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the country. Although he declared repeatedly that he was not a racist, Trump’s rhetoric called to mind Molly Ivins’s comment about a speech by the conservative evangelical Pat Buchanan: it “probably sounded better in the original German”.

What wasn’t inflammatory was largely unintelligible. To read transcripts of his speeches is to be confronted with a man who trails off, interrupts himself and is prone to long, meandering diversions on any subject under the sun. (In one speech, there was a minutes-long riff on how hairspray wasn’t as good as it used to be, with the subtext that the ban on CFCs to protect the ozone layer was to blame.)

Still, none of this mattered. Neither did his lying. He lied and he lied and he lied. He lied about small things – claiming just this week that his rallies attract bigger crowds than Beyoncé and Jay Z – and he lied about big things. He claimed that he never supported the Iraq War and that he had given millions of dollars of his own money to charity. One dogged reporter, David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, phoned hundreds of organisations to see if they had received any of this largesse, and found that Trump mostly recycled other people’s donations through his foundation. Fahrenthold was also the reporter who found the rushes from an old, fawning TV profile of Trump, in which he boasted of how he would “grab [women] by the pussy” and they would “let him” because he was famous.

Tellingly, the television presenter who chuckled indulgently along with these boasts of sexual assault left his job after the tape came to light. Donald Trump sailed on. If there is anything this year has taught us, it is that public shaming works only if the object of it has the capacity to feel shame. Trump does not.

Trump’s misogyny is undeniable – and irrelevant to his supporters. After the tape emerged, a dozen women came forward to say that its contents weren’t just idle boasting and they had been on the receiving end of this behaviour. (Trump threatened to sue them.) Despite this, white women turned out in droves for the Republican candidate. Wild, pre-emptive condemnation of the possibility that women would “vote with their vaginas” for the first female nominee proved pointless.

The early voter breakdown suggests other surprising facts, and provides a corrective to Trump’s own narrative of speaking for the jobless, penniless and disenfranchised. Under Obama, unemployment fell sharply. What has changed is that white people are close to becoming a minority in the US; some of them feel that minorities are getting special treatment, through affirmative action and identity politics. Economic anxiety is clearly part of the picture, together with a sense that no one on Wall Street was held accountable for the financial crisis of 2007/2008. But there is also a “whitelash”, as Van Jones described it on election night. We must not be too polite to mention it. At the very least, the economically anxious were willing to overlook open racism. A minority appeared to revel in it: they liked the bully, the alpha male, striking back against those overmighty women and uppity minorities.

In the coming days, mentally insert the word “white” into any commentary you hear about the “working class” or the “left behind”. African Americans, not a well-off sector of the population, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton; she had a lead among Hispanic voters. The group that voted Trump is the same demographic that brought us Brexit: older, white, living outside the big cities, with not much, but something to lose. Many feel ill-equipped for the future: Trump scored a landslide among white voters without a degree.

The racism was there from the start. Trump’s candidacy was born through questioning the legitimacy of the first mixed-race president. Some of his supporters post anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter and shout “lügenpresse”, a Nazi-era term meaning “lying press”, at journalists. The campaign turned a blind eye to this. At rallies, Trump always included his own version of a two-minute hate directed at the media, which were confined to a press pen. His final campaign video named prominent Jewish public figures – Janet Yellen of the Fed, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs – alongside classic tropes of “global special interests” that “control the levers of power”. Although many conservative local newspapers turned against him, Trump did secure one coveted endorsement: from the Crusader, the official publication of the Ku Klux Klan.

There will be much soul-searching by the media in the next few weeks. Did they focus too much on the non-scandal of Clinton’s email server? Yes. Did they treat Trump as a joke for too long, making it impossible to pivot to worrying that he might be a fascist? Yes. But this ignores the fact that part of Trump’s success came from bypassing the media. This might be the first election of the post-media age. Trump’s 3am tweets gave him unfiltered access to millions of voters. The websites of the “alt right” – the logical extension of Limbaughian talk radio and Fox News – provided vocal support and, in the case of Breitbart, a strategic mastermind for his campaign. And Facebook made millions of dollars hosting ultra-partisan pages pushing the dirtiest, stickiest conspiracy theories about Clinton. It presented these to its users with the same appearance as reports from PBS or the New York Times.

Donald Trump now has the full set: the House of Representatives, the Senate and the ability to appoint a Supreme Court judge. He can oversee the repeal of Obamacare, help roll back access to abortion and ruthlessly attack Black Lives Matter protesters from his bully pulpit. He can look the other way as Russia grows ever more imperial. He can launch a nuclear strike. He can take the pain and rage of white America and unleash it on the world. There are dark days ahead. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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