Trump and the rise of fascism: it’s not just the economy, stupid
Emer O’Toole: Explaining away fascism as economic discontent alienates feminists and race activists – Trump offers whites racial superiority and men masculine domination
There are myriad reasons for Trump’s rise to power: patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, Islamophobia, decades of Republican propaganda cultivating an image of Clinton as dishonest, sabotage of the democratic campaign by Wikileaks, the role of the mainstream media in normalising Trump’s fascism, and the role of social media in spreading phony news (#spiritcooking, anyone?) and in creating public space for extreme ideologies. To name a few.
In a recent piece for the Guardian, Naomi Klein asks us to ignore all of these intersecting elements except for neoliberalism. For Klein, the working class is acting out of the pain of economic insecurity and inequality. Clinton is neoliberal ideology embodied, and voting for Trump is the working class’s protest.
This is an attractive position. It allows us to see the best in Trump voters, positioning them as the oppressed, not the oppressor. Sadly, I do not believe that Klein’s economic theory of everything is sufficient to explain this political moment.
If you include people of colour, the working class plumps for Clinton. If you analyzse white voters you find that they support Trump across all income brackets, with middle classes in the $50,000-$99,000 (€46,000-€91,000) bracket favouring him most. Yes, in 2008 and 2012 Obama won a significantly stronger proportion of the white working class vote (40 per cent and 36 per cent respectively) than Clinton in 2016, but you need to remember that the white working class was the bulwark of the Reagan coalition through the 1980s and drove Republican victories in 2000 and 2004. The historical affiliation between the democratic party and the white working class began to rupture in the 1960s, due in part to the party’s embrace of the civil rights movement.
Obama’s comparative success with the white working class was based on Bush’s almighty tanking of the US economy as well as the quagmire of the Iraq war. The white working class is not an inherently liberal demographic driven to the right by economic policy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
If the white working class’s rejection of Clinton is a rejection of neoliberalism, why would it choose Trump – a silver-spoon-sucking billionaire running on a classic neoliberal platform (cuts to government spending to reduce national debt; tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations; deregulation of the banking industry) over someone who promised government spending to stimulate growth, increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and Wall Street regulation? To say that the white working class rejected Clinton as an embodiment of an ideology that Trump in fact epitomises makes little sense. Klein’s assertion that “a good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table” is very wishful thinking.
Those arguing that if Bernie Sanders had run in the place of Clinton he would have won the white working class vote and thus the presidency ignore the fact that Sanders did not attract working class voters during the primaries. He won those with low incomes in their 30s or younger, a demographic otherwise known as students. Democrats with low incomes in their 40s and older – the population of rust-belters who have lost their factory jobs to trade – voted Clinton in the primaries.
Like Corbyn in the UK, Sanders’ socialism appeals to young progressives, not disenfranchised working class people.
The working class in the US is suffering, that suffering is tied to support for Trump, and we should work towards economic justice. But there is far more than the economic to analyse here. A redistributive agenda is not going to bring Trump voters to the table, because Trump is selling something sweeter than economic equality. He’s offering whites racial superiority; he’s offering men masculine domination. Neoliberalism intersects with these systems but it does not precede them.
Like Klein, I believe it is vital to work towards unity on the left and to stem this terrifying tide of extremism. But explaining away fascism as economic discontent alienates feminists and race activists. Race and gender discrimination are not of secondary importance.
This article has been edited to remove a reference to a note passed to a college professor by a Trump voter.