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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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No, Donald Trump isn't starting World War Three in North Korea

The US president is living up to his promise to be "unpredictable". But is he using war as a sales pitch? 

“I plan on not dying,” Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen told Spin magazine in 2008. “But if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.” And so it was that nine years later, when war in the Asia-Pacific region suddenly seemed plausible, perhaps even likely, the musician pulled out of a solo show in Tokyo that was scheduled for 14 April and, according to Japan Today, left the country without even informing the event’s organisers. “We apologise for this significant inconvenience,” they later tweeted to ticketholders, blaming “news of an armed conflict between the US and North Korea” for the abrupt cancellation.

McCulloch isn’t the only one spooked by the heightened tensions between the two countries. Japan, America’s most strategically valuable ally in east Asia, lies within striking distance of Pyongyang’s weapons – military hardware that North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, recently insisted would continue to be tested “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. On 8 April, three days before the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly was scheduled to convene, the 333-metre-long US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson left its home port of San Diego, accompanied by missile destroyers and a cruiser. The American president declared that he was sending an “armada” to the troublesome peninsula. If this was intended as a deterrence, however, North Korea was not deterred, and it fired a test missile from an eastern port on 16 April. The experiment ended in failure: the weapon exploded almost immediately after launch. Yet the message was clear. Don’t mess.

So the Korean War, which began in June 1950 but was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, has seemingly reached a crisis of a magnitude not felt since the armistice of 1953. Kim In-ryong, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, has accused the US of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. If that’s true, McCulloch did well to take the first plane out of the area.

Such an apocalyptic scenario, however, remains unlikely to play out. It would serve no one’s interests, least of all North Korea’s, since the country could be wiped out almost immediately. Donald Trump demonstrated as much when he deployed the “mother of all bombs” – the Moab, the largest conventional explosive that the US has ever used in combat – on Isis bunkers in Afghanistan on 13 April. Perhaps more concerning to other heads of state than the damage done by the weapon was the apparent irrationality of the strike: Isis’s presence in the country is limited in comparison to that of the Taliban, and such an attack was unlikely to lead to any long-term resolution of the various crises there.

The US president, in effect, was signalling that he could match foes such as Kim Jong-un in terms of unpredictability – something that he had already underscored on 6 April with his surprise strike on a Syrian government airbase. It was a showbiz gesture.

On the campaign trail in January last year, Trump was asked whether he would consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I’m gonna do what’s right,” he said. “I want to be unpredictable.” Since his inauguration, he has stuck to the latter part of that plan, from his on-again-off-again flirtation with Putin to his recent reversal on Chinese currency manipulation. Trump, it seems, is a president who wants to keep both enemies and allies on their toes. It’s a deal-making mentality – the sensibility of a salesman, not of a statesman. And it’s a dangerous one when applied to the global stage, where trust between nations is essential for any meaningful diplomacy.

If Trump is applying his “art of the deal” to America’s recent international ventures, it’s worth asking what the deal – or deals – in question might be. North Korea has long been a proxy for other problems in east Asia. The winding down of its nuclear weapons programme for its own sake looks, to me, unlikely to be the president’s principal objective (the US had a chance to pursue this in 1994 when it signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but political enthusiasm for it cooled almost before the ink had dried). But for a Third World War, even a thermonuclear one, to be put on the table as a potential reality, surely the stakes must be high?

I have my doubts. Trump’s foreign policy seems nowhere near as coherent or developed as, say, that of Barack Obama (imperfect though his doctrine of “patience” turned out to be). America’s recent actions have seemed opportunistic, rather than strategic. Brinkmanship from either side won't achieve anything, as both are reluctant to make concessions. So what could the US be up to?

Maybe the supposedly impending nuclear apocalypse is, at least in part, a ruse to sell stuff. Among the policy areas closest to Trump’s heart during his presidential campaign was trade. Last month, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s national trade council, told the Wall Street Journal: “Any country we have a significant trade deficit with needs to work with us on a product-by-product and sector-by-sector level to reduce that deficit over a specified period of time… That can be achieved, if they buy more of our products than they now are buying from the rest of the world, whether it’s chemicals or corn or whether, from a national security perspective, it’s submarines or aircraft.”

The countries with the largest trade imbalances with the US are China, Japan and Germany. China denies that it is deliberately pursuing a surplus in its dealings with US (and, frankly, what could America do about it anyway?), while Germany’s trade relations are handled by the European Union and so are difficult for the US to reset on a nation-to-nation basis. But Japan – which the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited on a trade tour this week – has a pliable leader in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a nationalist by instinct who has long struggled to remilitarise Japan and has incrementally reinterpreted his country’s pacifist constitution to permit increased military engagement, signed a significant arms trade pact with the US last year. Resistance to his agenda has been vocal in Japan at every step. However, fears of a rising threat from North Korea would give him more wriggle room. A Japanese commission is considering the potential benefits of deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. This system will soon be in use in South Korea – much to the annoyance of China, which suspects that it would be capable of tracking and countering its nuclear programme.

Trump’s insistence that trade imbalances be remedied is unrealistic in many sectors, not least in the auto sector, since Japan already allows US cars into its market tariff-free and they still don’t sell. Upping trade and collaboration in arms, however, would help Abe appease Trump while getting closer to fulfilling his own goal of a militarily robust Japan. The threat of war could also allow him to establish a more active role for the nation’s “self-defence forces”. The US president, meanwhile, would have succeeded in getting one of America’s supposed “free-rider” allies to contribute something closer to what he deems its fair share, while strengthening his hand against the real adversary: Beijing.

While US arms dealers are doubtless readying their wares for sale, war with North Korea will probably be averted by pressure from China, without whose oil, airports, trade and access to financial markets the rogue nation could not function. (Some 80 per cent of North Korean exports and imports are with China.) From this perspective, the recent tensions between the US and North Korea represent an admittedly melodramatic episode of the US “pivot” to the east, more than the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s an unstable stability, but stable enough to allow for shallow political game-playing – and I suspect Trump is gaming it (as the revelation that the Carl Vinson flotilla was 3,500 miles away from North Korea and heading the wrong way at the time of Trump’s “armada” threat suggests). So McCulloch needn’t have denied Japanese fans a rendition of “Killing Moon”. The bombs aren’t likely to fall yet.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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