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18 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:11pm

Donald Trump’s success is built on the ruins of the Third Way

The left needs to find a way past the legacy of the Clinton and Blair era to form a coalition capable of winning back working-class voters.

By Jacob Stevens

“Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” – Florian Philippot, a strategist for France’s Front National tweeted on the day of the US presidential election.

The collapse in the Democratic Party vote shows the bankruptcy of their strategy: the time of the Third Way has come to an end. With decades of political experience and the enthusiastic backing of media and economic elites on both coasts, Hillary Clinton was the perfect candidate for the Democratic platform. Previous setbacks — her loss to Obama in 2008, Benghazi, the email server — had since been turned to her advantage: Clinton turned out the Southern vote to defeat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, outwitted her partisan opponents during 11 hours of Congressional hearings, and finally brought the FBI to heel. Hillary’s “Lean In” feminism and multicultural appeal were perfectly attuned to her economic and political platform, as advertised in the speeches to Goldman Sachs. The Democratic Party’s 1% — open to applications from all — was poised to smash the glass ceiling of the 0.1%.

Explanations that focus on Hillary’s “unlikeability”, or the idea that the US wasn’t ready to elect a woman, obscure more than they reveal — Trump’s favourability ratings were considerably lower, and yet his vote held up by comparison with Romney’s in 2012. That sexism and racism were significant factors in Trump’s support is undeniable — they energised his base, and he gained more from stepping up his attacks than he lost in female or minority votes. But the sexism of his electorate was not Hillary’s problem, as her highly paid political operatives were well aware: it worked in her favour as the Democratic candidate, which is why the Democratic National Committee chose to elevate the “pied piper” candidacies of Trump, Cruz and Carson. Hillary’s problem is that she lost about four million votes from Obama’s 2012 total, while Trump almost matched Romney’s haul. The Obama coalition, already substantially reduced since 2008, fell apart under Clinton.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the first popular reaction in the US was the Tea Party, followed three years later on the left by Occupy Wall Street. Despite its inherent contradictions — “Keep Government Out of My Medicare” — right-wing populism in the US started earlier than its left-wing counterpart, and effectively targeted the electoral system: providing many of the votes that cost Obama control of the House in 2010, and taking state and city offices across the South. Trump didn’t invent this coalition, he inherited it — and then poured petrol onto its flames at every rally. That he only managed to match Romney’s vote should have provided an opportunity for the left.

Donald Trump paid close attention to the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, as did the increasingly alarmed leadership of the Democratic Party. The DNC, watching Bernie turn out new voters across the rustbelt and the Midwest, chose to neutralise the ageing firebrand they held responsible. Once they’d done so, the way was clear for Trump to borrow from Sanders’ speeches and turn his arguments against Clinton. The presidency was lost in Iowa, Ohio, Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida, all of which swung from Democrat to Republican, in most cases with a similar or reduced turnout from 2012 (Florida had a much higher turnout). Of those states, Bernie had won Wisconsin’s primary and Maine’s caucus. In elevating the pied pipers of the right, while attacking the “unrealistic” demands of the left, the Democratic Party leadership created the conditions for its own defeat.

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The tragedy of the Sanders story is not that he should have beaten Clinton, or that he would have won the election if he had — though both are true — but that he was then fated to stump for Hillary in the electoral wasteland that remained, while Trump stole his best lines. Trump’s approach to the question of party loyalty — threatening a third-party run if the Republican National Committee opposed him — would have spelled the end of Sanders’ campaign. And yet Republican Party disarray, which allowed Trump to repeatedly buck against the leadership and led to open warfare in the weeks before the vote, has been rewarded with all three branches of government. Party discipline used to be regarded as a prerequisite for authoritarian government. In this election, Democratic Party discipline was its undoing, and Republican Party chaos helped Trump to sweep into power. Labour Party grandees, pressuring Corbyn to step down in the interests of party unity, seem keen to follow the same script.

The early indications are that the American left is gearing up for a sustained, extra-parliamentary opposition: forming new coalitions and planning campaigns to oppose every Trump measure, from Inauguration Day onwards. Anti-deportation actions are likely to be an initial focus, as Trump contemplates overturning Obama’s DACA executive order, which granted a temporary reprieve to three quarters of a million “Dreamer” immigrants. Black Lives Matter is sending activists to Standing Rock to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline, alongside the Sioux and a vibrant coalition of environmental organisations and anarchists. The Movement for Black Lives has shown that it can unite dozens of different groups around a wide-ranging manifesto. The current, hysterical reaction of US liberals in the media is nothing more than an expression of bad conscience: those who failed to oppose Obama’s abuses of executive power — drone wars, assassinations and deportations, jailing whistleblowers rather than Wall Street — can now see that they’ve strengthened Trump’s hand.

While there is little agreement about the future of the Democratic Party, there does seem to be a widespread acceptance of the need to build a range of new political organisations outside it. The coalition needed — pro-immigrant and anti-austerity, in defense of workers’ rights and the welfare state, addressing the ecological crisis — is the same one that’s needed to oppose the new right in the UK and Europe. Florian Philippot’s quote should strike a chill into all of us — the right has been building on the ruins of the Third Way for years. Now it is time for the left.

Jacob Stevens is the Managing Director of Verso Books

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