Donald Trump and the US elections

Issue: 153

Josh Hollands

The election of Donald J Trump as President of the United States of America has rightly been greeted with disgust by many around the world. After a lengthy election season in which the two main parties were led by two of the most unpopular candidates in recent memory the victor was a man who threatens minorities and brags about sexually assaulting women. Wall Street’s choice for president, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote but failed to gain traction in the swing states of Florida, Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio, and lost the Democratic strongholds of Michigan and Wisconsin, therefore falling short of votes in the United States’ archaic electoral college. It was in the Northern “rustbelt” states, the area of former industrial strength where car manufacturing, steel production and coal mining have been replaced with low-wage service jobs and crumbling infrastructure, that Trump won by razor-thin margins.

Following the election several narratives have come to dominate among liberals trying to explain why Clinton lost. These range from the idea that white workers were mobilised by misogyny and racism, to there being an “enthusiasm gap” due to the FBI’s intervention into Clinton, to arguments that Clinton was the victim of a conspiracy by big business. Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, puts forward a concoction of these arguments. To Solnit, Clinton was the victim of decades of scheming by everyone from TV show executives at Fox News and The Apprentice, Republican lawmakers and the FBI director James Comey. Of course, there are truths within this: The Apprentice did provide Trump with a platform to become a household name, and Fox News has long been a champion of far-right views. Indeed Comey’s investigation did remind voters of Clinton’s messy past with FBI investigations. Yet Solnit seems to blame everyone except Clinton herself, her policies or what she represented. Instead she attacks the left for what she calls “a shortsighted campaign of hatred…an almost hysterical rage like nothing I have ever seen before about any public figure”. For Solnit, as well as others, Clinton being pipped to the post in rustbelt states was the fault of almost everyone except the candidate herself.1

This belies the fact that Clinton was a remarkably unsuitable candidate to inspire working class voters in the US. Earlier in the year the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders stunned the liberal establishment by winning 22 states and 13 million votes in the Democratic primaries on a platform that included demands for the creation of decent-paying jobs, and the expansion of Medicare and social security among other policies which spoke to their material concerns. Workers in former industrial heartland states such as Michigan and Wisconsin were not going to be pulled towards Clinton, a millionaire seemingly oblivious to the loss of jobs and stagnant wages in Democratic strongholds. Responding to Trump’s slogan “make America great again”, she told people who have have suffered decades of wage stagnation, job losses, and a decline in union organisation that “America is already great”. In fact many workers saw a direct link between the neoliberal trade deals championed by Clinton and the decline of their own fortunes, something Trump preyed upon. The election can therefore be seen as a repudiation of the neoliberal consensus that has shaped US capitalism for decades.

Even some on the corporate wing of the Democrats acknowledge that the election result was driven, not by Clinton’s claim that the FBI was to blame, but by much more fundamental factors: “Anyone blaming Comey is kidding themselves,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way (which advocates for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal). “It wasn’t Comey. It was anger at government and anger at the party of government that she represented and this desire to express this anger as aggressively as possible”.2 Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s one time labor secretary, went even further by arguing: “What happened in America on Election Day should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure, including the old Democratic Party”.3

Much has been made of Trump’s increased share of votes from the “white working class”. For years socialists have been told by the mass media that the working class does not exist and yet now we are told that it held the key to the election. The mainstream media have been filled with stories of how impoverished white voters led the charge against the “liberal elite”, yet this is overly simplistic. It is worth going through the numbers of who did and did not vote to understand the truth behind this election.

Trump’s share of the white vote was actually down slightly on Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s in 2012, though Trump’s most notable success seems to have been the extent to which he was able to hold traditional voters even with his anti-establishment and hardcore racist stances. Most interesting in Trump’s share of the vote is that he performed as well as Republican John McCain did with Latino voters in 2008 despite his well publicised racist slurs that Mexican migrants are criminals and rapists. Similarly surprising was Trump’s performance among black voters. Although Clinton took a massive 88 percent of black voters, Trump still claimed a higher share than McCain did in 2008.4

It is also not true that Trump’s overall base was working class. As Megan Trudell pointed out in this journal in April, his supporters in the primaries were from a higher income bracket than the median.5 This was true in the presidential election as well. Generally those with lower incomes voted for Clinton while those with higher incomes voted for Trump, though both with narrower margins than in 2012. Voters in the income brackets under $30,000 and from $30,000 to $49,999 preferred Clinton. Those in higher income brackets, earning between $50,000 and $250,000 or more preferred Trump. However, these margins were very slim, between a few percent for each.6

The bigger story of this election is that Clinton’s share of the vote dropped significantly from Obama’s two elections. She failed to pull as large a proportion of the black, Latino or Asian voters as Obama did four years ago. Crucial was the drop in support among women, the constituency for which Clinton pinned most of her expectations for a victory. According to The New York Times exit polls, 54 percent of women voted for Clinton, and 42 percent voted for Trump. At the same time a majority of men voted for Trump, yet Clinton’s share of women voters was also down slightly from Obama while Trump increased the share of men voting Republican.7 As R W Johnson notes in the London Review of Books, most telling about Clinton’s vote is the loss in support among Latinas: “Clinton had placed great hopes on Latino women; as it turned out only 68 percent of Latinas favoured Clinton compared to 76 percent for Obama”.8

The Democratic vote stagnated while Trump managed not only to retain the Republicans’ main voting blocks but also to appeal to a minority of voters in former industrial Midwestern states, who had previously pulled the lever for Obama.9 To simply put this result down to a reactionary working class is too simplistic; the reality is far more complicated. The story is as much about those who did not or could not vote as it is about those who did vote. Some 50 percent of eligible voters did not turn out in the presidential election, a majority of them working class people who felt uninspired by or alienated from the political system.10

Michael Moore points out that in some cities, such as Detroit, the turnout to vote on local ballot initiatives was higher than that for the presidential race—some people did go out to vote but could not bring themselves to fill in a box for the presidency for either Trump or Clinton, or a third-party.11 However, low voter turnout was particularly high in the counties that are poorest and have higher numbers of black voters. New voter identification laws designed to make voting more difficult were introduced this year requiring voters to produce a state-approved ID card before voting, which was particularly difficult for poor voters who are forced to move often.12 In a June 2013 decision, Shelby County vs Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that “states with a long history of racial discrimination no longer needed to approve any proposed changes to their voting procedures with the federal government, as had long been required under the Voting Rights Act”.13 In practical terms this meant stricter ID laws, limits on opportunities to vote and a reduction in the number of polling stations. As The New York Times illustrates: “Milwaukee’s lowest-income neighborhoods offer one explanation for the turnout figures. Of the city’s 15 council districts, the decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016 in the five poorest was consistently much greater than the drop seen in more prosperous areas—accounting for half of the overall decline in turnout citywide”. In one area, which is 84 percent black, voter turnout declined by a fifth from four years ago. This area also leads in having one of the nation’s highest per-capita incarceration rates.14 As the US Socialist Worker points out: “Almost 6 million people can’t vote because of state felony disenfranchisement laws. In Florida, almost one in four black adults is disenfranchised”.15 Added to this were those who simply could not bring themselves to vote at all in a year which has seen continued police killings of unarmed civilians and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests. This view was given voice by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has supported Black Lives Matter by holding his own protest of kneeling during the pre-game national anthem. He stated that he would not vote because whoever won would be “another face that’s going to be the face of that system of oppression”.16

Why did voters turn to Trump?

What is clear is that while Democratic turnout stagnated in the Midwest, Republican support grew. The New York Times writes: “Across the industrial Midwest, white voters who had supported Obama and previous Democrats abandoned the party for Trump”.17 This is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows that white voters did not simply turn to Trump because they were attracted to his racist rhetoric. While racism exists at all levels of society, and part of Trump’s position is racist, voters were attracted for predominantly other reasons. Exit polls found that the single most important issue for voters was the state of the US economy, with 52 percent of those asked saying they were most concerned about this. This was far in front of other issues, including terrorism and immigration. As Marxist economist Michael Roberts notes:

Trump won because he claimed he could improve the conditions of those “who have been left behind” by globalisation, failing domestic industries and crushed small businesses. Of course, Trump is a billionaire and has no real interest or idea about improving the lot of the majority. But anger at the establishment was sufficient (just) for this egoistic, misogynist, sexual predator, rich man’s son to win.18

Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination highlighted this anger towards the party and for those outside of it. Sanders’ success in the Midwestern rustbelt states should have acted as a canary in the coal mine for the Democratic leadership, yet the cabal around the Clintons took these working class votes for granted. Throughout the primary campaign Sanders tapped into the anger of many against the neoliberal elite. He called for the break-up of the largest banks and financial institutions, the creation of decent-paying jobs, equal pay for women, an end to crippling college tuition fees, the expansion of Medicare and social security, for racial justice and action on climate change. Sanders based his campaign on a grassroots approach, soliciting donations of $27 on average. In contrast, Clinton spent her time soliciting donations from entrepreneurs and celebrities. Sanders won the state of Wisconsin by a 13.5 percent margin over Clinton. Yet while Clinton made dozens of trips to California to fundraise among billionaires, she did not set foot in that state after she won the Democratic nomination. It was the crass elitism she represented that made her so uniquely unsuitable to tap into the anger that many felt at the lack of employment opportunities throughout the rustbelt.

That Trump made inroads into these states should not have been that much of a surprise. Trudell noted almost a year ago that: “it is his merging of hysteria over immigration with trade protectionism that is giving him traction”.19 The key point here is trade protectionism. The right in the US has long attacked migrants and sought to scapegoat them for economic crises. What is new is Trump’s direct attacks on trade deals such as the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that workers have come to blame for low wages, lack of jobs and infrastructure. Trump tapped into a mood that Sanders also spoke to from the left. Robert Reich points out how this has led to a crisis of the Democrats’ own making, suggesting that “the Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class—failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them.” One might disagree with Reich that the Democrats ever really represented workers but his argument that they have been the ones to damage their own constituents is valid. He notes that union membership fell from 22 percent of all workers in 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected president, to a pitiful 12 percent today. He also notes: “the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains” while inequality continued to widen.20

Concerns about jobs, wages and healthcare are not abstract. There have been monumental falls in US living standards with wages stagnating over the past 45 years. Johnson points out that “between 1948 and 1973, productivity rose by 96.7 percent and real wages by 91.3 percent, almost exactly in step… But from 1973 to 2015—the era of globalisation, when many of those jobs vanished abroad—productivity rose 73.4 percent while wages rose by only 11.1 percent.” Trump has tapped into the anger around stagnant wages and job losses by playing the age-old tactics of divide and rule arguing that these drops in living standards are caused by migration and globalisation.21

Trump’s protectionist calls to leave trade deals such as NAFTA and TPP resonated with many. When he appeared in Flint, Michigan, the site of a public health emergency where the city’s water supply has been poisoned with lead, Trump linked his protectionist economics with an analogy that spoke to the material concerns of local residents: “It used to be the cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico,” he said, “Now the cars are built in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint”,22 In contrast, Clinton represented the very establishment that introduced NAFTA and threatened to push through the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Whether Trump actually intends to make good on his promises is unclear. What currently matters for understanding how he came to win is that his campaign focused on the economy, voters’ chief concern.

In a thought-provoking piece reprinted in Jacobin, Christian Parenti notes that while most of the liberal media focused on Trump’s racist rhetoric they failed to understand how the rest of his speeches played to what people actually wanted to hear. He notes: “A typical Trump speech would tee-up with reference to ‘the wall’ but then quickly pivot to economic questions: trade, jobs, descriptions of economic suffering, critiques of deindustrialisation.” Something else lost upon almost all liberal media outlets was Trump’s anti-war message. Trump would praise veterans before moving on to condemning US foreign policy, “he would slide into anti-war, anti-NATO, maybe even anti-imperialist riffs, delivered not in a ‘woke’ fashion, but rather in the ‘let them fight their own wars’ vein of American isolationism.” Parenti argues this reached out to those horrified by Clinton’s belligerency and hawkish attitude to war, as well as veterans across the US let down by the government after serving in wars for the past decade and a half. Trump linked war to economic shortfalls in the US highlighting that: “We spent $2 trillion in Iraq. China is taking a lot of the oil, just so you understand. ISIS may have it and Iran may have it, but China is taking out a lot of the oil”.23

The announcement that Ford was to move small car production from Michigan to Mexico gave further credence to Trump’s argument that globalisation was to blame for the lack of work in the Midwest.24 In a separate episode in Indianapolis Trump specifically called out other firms announcing offshoring. He demanded that the air-conditioning manufacturer Carrier halt its plans to move a factory from the city to Mexico, at a loss of 1,400 jobs. This rhetoric played well into the hands of angry voters who also witnessed jobs in their communities disappearing:

He cited Carrier again and again on the campaign trail, threatening to phone executives at the company and its parent, United Technologies, and to hit them with 35 percent tariffs on any furnaces and air-conditioners they imported from Mexico. To the cheers of his supporters, he predicted at rallies that Carrier would call him up as president and say, “Sir, we’ve decided to stay in the United States”.25

This may be a Trump fantasy but Clinton could never have seriously tapped into this mood. The depth of Wall Street’s entanglement with the Democrats was put on view for the world to see thanks to the Wikileaks release of Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta’s emails shortly before the election. Clinton’s speeches to banks such as Goldman Sachs were released in which she suggested that Wall Street should regulate itself, and that politicians could have both a “public and a private position” on their fundamental beliefs.26 Thomas Frank writes of the Democratic Party, “smiling financiers now seem to stand on every corner, constantly proffering advice about this and that.” Illustrative of the way in which the party became beholden to capital was one email chain in which “the reader can watch current US trade representative Michael Froman, writing from a Citibank email address in 2008, appear to name President Obama’s cabinet even before the great hope and change election was decided (incidentally, an important clue to understanding why that greatest of zombie banks was never put out of its misery)”.27 This offers an understanding of why some voters, who previously turned out for Obama in the rustbelt, thought twice about a party that offered four more years of the same corporate back-scratching and empty promises to reform Wall Street.

Can Trump deliver?

The terrible possibilities of what Trump might achieve in his first one hundred days in office are endless. He has stated publicly only a few of his intentions but these include cancelling restrictions on energy production including coal and shale gas, introducing limits on new business regulations and directing the Department of Labor to investigate abuses of visa programmes to attack undocumented workers. Other promises include withdrawal from TPP and to “drain the swamp” in Washington. These measures are supposed to be “putting America first”, but in reality they will put the richest first while attempting to appease those working class voters who turned to him. Although the Republicans now have a majority in both houses of congress and control the presidency, Trump is not all-powerful. The party came up short on the Senate majority that would have allowed it to pass through legislation without much resistance. As it stands the Democrats who trail with 48 to 51 seats are able to filibuster and put opposition to whatever it does not agree with. Trump can pass executive orders but these can also be challenged.

In early interviews after the elections Trump played down some of his most extreme proposals, such as building a wall along the Mexican border. He also suggested that rather than the 11 million undocumented migrants he previously promised to deport the figure would actually be between 2 and 3 million. In actuality this is a continuation of the policies of the Obama administration, which deported more migrants than any other presidency. As Ben Casselman writes for FiveThirtyEight:

Beyond the specific numbers, the policy that Trump outlined Sunday is similar to the one President Obama pursued in his first term. When Obama first took office, he prioritised deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions, in some cases even for comparatively minor violations such as traffic offenses or shoplifting… Partly as a result, deportations soared under Obama, topping 400,000 [per year] in 2012.28

Trump’s intention is therefore not a significant break from what the Democrats are already doing. However, Trump’s racist rhetoric is a massive sea change from the Obama administration, which at least pretended that it wanted a fairer immigration system. Trump’s openly racist rhetoric against migrants and Muslims has emboldened fascists. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, announced its intention to hold a “victory parade” in North Carolina following the election, and a neo-Nazi sect, the National Policy Institute (NPI), held a conference on 19 November in Washington DC in which its members gave Nazi salutes.29

Trump’s racist rhetoric throughout the presidential campaign not only emboldened fascists but also led to an uptick in hate crimes. On the Monday after the election the FBI reported its figures for hate crimes in 2015—the year Trump launched his campaign. They show a 6 percent increase in hate crimes against all groups but this was fuelled mostly by a sharp increase in attacks against Muslims. The New York Times reports: “There were 257 reports of assaults, attacks on mosques and other hate crimes against Muslims last year, a jump of about 67 percent over 2014. It was the highest total since 2001, when more than 480 attacks occurred in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks”.30 Attacks also rose against black, Jewish and transgender people. Monitors of hate crimes, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, reported over 700 complaints in the week after Trump’s election.31 These are not simply isolated incidents but part of an organised campaign of hate by far-right Trump supporters. For instance, Andrew Anglin, a leader of the so-called “alt-right” movement “called explicitly for intimidation of ‘brown people’ on his neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer”. He said: “We want them to feel that everything around them is against them. And we want them to be afraid”.32

In Europe as well as in the US fascists emboldened by Trump’s victory offered their congratulations. Marine Le Pen, who posed herself as the next in line to benefit from a perceived wave of rightward populism, was among the first to congratulate Trump. Her senior strategist, Florian Philippot, tweeted: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built”.33 In Greece, Golden Dawn stated: “This was a victory for the forces which oppose globalisation, are fighting illegal migration and are in favour of clean ethnic states”.34 At the same time President Obama’s welcoming of Trump to the White House has gone some lengths to help normalise his most racist, sexist and xenophobic views.

But the reasons for Trump’s success can also be his downfall. The anti-establishment feeling will rapidly fade as he accepts and appoints Washington insiders, the very people he promised to rid by “draining the swamp”. Days after his election in November he was already signing insiders up to new roles. Voters who turned on the Democrats for eight years of broken promises on the economy will just as quickly turn on Trump if he fails to deliver on his promises to bring jobs back to the rustbelt: “‘If he doesn’t pass that tariff, I will vote the other way next time’, warned Nicole Hargrove, who has worked at Carrier for a decade and a half and is not certain what she will do if and when her job goes to Mexico”.35

Throughout the election most of capital ploughed its money in behind the staunchly neoliberal status-quo candidate, Clinton. This was noticeable in campaign donations but also in market swings. For instance, every time a poll showed Trump closing the gap on Clinton the markets would dip. But these wobbles that occurred in the weeks running up to the election quickly abated after Trump’s victory. Liberal economists had gone as far as to suggest a crash could happen should the supposedly unimaginable Trump victory occur. Yet as The Economist noted, “market reaction to Donald Trump’s win has been something between sanguine and elated”.36 Indeed, Wall Street figures who had backed Clinton rapidly swung behind Trump after the election, as he began interviewing possible treasury secretaries, each of whom were banking insiders. This is an indication that elites are confident Trump will deliver more on the economy for them than the section of the working class that put him there. As one columnist writes: “the reaction of the financial markets to Trump’s win is a hint that it isn’t the elites who have the most to fear in a Trump presidency. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 5.4 percent last week, its best week since 2011; other major stock indexes were up nearly as much”.37 Capital was reassured that Trump would not be as much of a loose cannon as he had been in the election, while promises for increased infrastructure (probably through privatisation), spending and tax cuts also buoyed the markets which continued to climb in the weeks following his election. There are plenty of reasons for the wealthy to be optimistic. Trump’s policies are full of exciting prospects for investors as he removes bank and corporate regulations and lowers taxes.38

Even The Economist signals trouble ahead though: “If you set out to design policies to do long-term harm to the economy, you might end up with something resembling Mr Trump’s agenda.” The magazine fears his protectionist trade policies will disrupt productivity growth. It also notes that his anti-migrant plans will harm business. If he was to deport the 11 million undocumented workers he once threatened, this “could reduce the size of the labour force by up to 5 percent”. But it is his planned tax cuts that come under harshest fire. The Economist notes that his plan is “ruinously expensive, costing almost $7 trillion over a decade, or around half of America’s outstanding national debt”.39 It will be very surprising if established Republicans, let alone liberal Democrats, allow him get away with such a massive deficit. As Roberts points out, Trump is a gift to the rich but can fail:

The main beneficiaries of his tax cuts would be the very rich. Under Trump, most people would see their income tax bill reduced by about 7 percent, but savings for the top 1 percent would be 19 percent of their income. To balance the federal budget, government spending would have to be cut by about 20 percent, hitting welfare, education and health. Raising tariffs on foreign goods and imposing punitive sanctions on China and Mexico, America’s two largest trading partners, would drive up prices and provoke retaliation.40

If it was the economy that swayed the balance for Trump it will also be his biggest challenge, and possibly his downfall. He now needs to make the economy grow and create jobs in the US while also attacking migrants and unions. Though the US economy’s recovery has been better than other large economies since the 2008 financial crash “its economic performance has still been dismal”, notes Roberts: “Real GDP growth per person has been only 1.4 percent a year, well below levels before the global financial crash in 2008. It’s a story of the weakest economic recovery after a slump since the 1930s”.41 While economists in the US have been confident that a recession is unlikely because housing markets have been strengthening, interest rates have remained low and therefore the cost of borrowing has been at near zero, they have failed to account for the crisis in profitability. As Roberts argues:

What is important for the health of a modern capitalist economy is not the ease or cost of borrowing, it is the level and direction of the profitability of capital, total business profits and the impact on business investment. When profitability falls, eventually total corporate profits fall and then some time later, business investment will contract. When that happens, an economic recession soon follows…

And US corporate profits are falling. According to economists at investment bank JP Morgan, US corporate profits declined 7 percent over year-ago levels. On that basis, they reckon, “the probability of a recession starting within three years at a startling 92 percent, and the probability within two years at 67 percent”.42

If such a recession does take place Trump will almost certainly blame it on undocumented workers but these arguments of divide and rule will become harder for him to sell as the fallout from his policies worsens and if resistance is built. The prospects for industrial action in this moment is also strong. Throughout the election year there were bursts of successful strikes suggesting that workers will not take a bosses’ offensive lying down. Workers at the communications giant Verizon won major concessions against one of the biggest corporate employers in the US following an all-out strike “in a fight against outsourcing, job losses, pension and healthcare cuts, and wage reductions”.43 Teachers in Chicago have won many of their demands with the threat of a repeat of the all-out industrial action that gripped the city in 2012.44 Meanwhile, pilots at Amazon’s new flight transportation service also threatened a work slow-down over Thanksgiving and Christmas if the company did not provide a better contract for the increased hours they now work.45 At the same time 1,200 air maintenance workers at the parcel service UPS voted overwhelmingly to strike over pay and healthcare costs.46 Hundreds of workers at Trump’s own properties felt buoyed throughout the campaign to challenge their anti-union, racist boss. On one occasion the Culinary Union organised a wall of taco trucks to surround Trump’s Las Vegas hotel in protest at his racist rhetoric and refusal to allow workers to unionise officially.47 These politicised workers hold the key to pulling down the Trump Presidency and unveiling its true face as an anti-working class charade.


The left in the US and around the world cannot wait another four years for a change in the White House. Regardless of what Trump is and is not able to achieve in delivering on his numerous and often contradictory campaign promises, the left needs to build a mass opposition to his administration and the fascists who feel emboldened by him. We should be clear that the only people who stand to benefit from Trump’s policies in the long-run will be the billionaires and the bosses. We need a mass grassroots movement that will challenge every piece of racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-working class policy that the Republicans now implement. At the heart of this must be unions and working class organisation that can put up effective opposition as Trump’s facade slips and he drives further inequality in the United States.

If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic Party candidate his “democratic socialist” platform could have won out against Trump in the presidential election. Throughout the primary campaigns he polled considerably better against Trump than Clinton; as demonstrated above, his platform spoke more to those voters who turned their backs on the Democrats as well as independents long put off by both major parties. Those who say he would have lost due to the long aversion to socialism in the US fail to take on board Sanders’s success in making socialism no longer a dirty word.48 If he had broken from the Democrats after the primaries he certainly would have been blamed for Trump’s victory but we may also have witnessed the birth of a serious new organisation. Jill Stein’s Green Party campaign, supported by many on the socialist left, failed to inspire in the way that Sanders’s popular insurgency within the Democrats did. At the same time the liberal narrative of the need to vote for the “lesser-evil” of Clinton clearly did not win among voters who were pulled by both Sanders’ and Trump’s economic messages in states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana.

Michael Moore has correctly called for a “massive resistance” to challenge Trump’s presidency. Trump’s weakness is that he threatens so many different groups that making connections between them should be easy. The protests that have appeared on the streets since the election, from school students to retirees chanting “We Reject the President-Elect”, and plans to march against his inauguration, prove there is already a movement emerging. Rather than considering ways in which the Democratic Party, an organisation still wedded to the corporations and Wall Street, can be reformed, the left must continue its focus on building grassroots organisations that can challenge Trump’s racist rhetoric as it becomes policy and reach out to those left behind by neoliberalism. Writing in the mid-1980s at the height of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Mike Davis argued that the left:

will need to develop new links and alliances, from the bottom up, between trade-union groups and community/political organisations in the inner cities. Only radical protest—on a scale comparable to and utililising the direct-action tactics of the 1960s civil rights movement—has any realistic chance of winning battles over plant closures or abating the rampant deindustrialisation that has devastated areas like Eastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia… The crucial question will be whether struggles of unionised industrial workers to save their jobs can be united with the struggles by the young jobless, and whether local unions can become broader campaigning organisations.49

This call perhaps has more resonance now than it did in the 1980s. We cannot afford to repeat the failures of the past. Projects including the Fight for $15 campaign offer an example of the kind of organisation Davis called for. Through mobilising workers in fast-food and other service industries, the grassroots campaign Fight for $15 holds a key to how workers can challenge Trump’s presidency. Many of those who Trump relied upon in the rustbelt witnessed the power of unions shrinking and well-paying jobs evaporating in the past few decades. In its place, low-paying, poorly-organised service industry work has come to the fore. Over the past few years Fight for $15 has fought to win union recognition and increased wages for workers predominantly in—but not limited to—the fast-food industry. Mixing demands for workers’ rights with support for Black Lives Matter and LGBT+ movements, the campaign has been successful in mobilising previously unorganised sections of workers, and has won wage increases in a growing number of cities and states. In response to Trump’s election it called for a nationwide day of action, arguing: “Newly-elected politicians and newly-empowered corporate special interests are pushing an extremist agenda to move the country to the right…our four-year-old Fight for $15 will not back down! Any efforts to block wage increases, gut workers’ rights or healthcare, deport immigrants, or support racism or racist policies, will be met with unrelenting opposition”.50

This is exactly the response that the left must get behind to challenge Trump as well as his racist cronies and big business. A lot remains uncertain but what is clear is that we cannot spend the next four years attempting to breath life back into the Democratic Party. Sanders’ campaign offered the best opportunity in generations to break the two-party system but was co-opted behind Wall Street’s candidate. What we need immediately is mass resistance to bring down Trump, and those on the far-right around the world emboldened by him, through protests and strikes. What the United States needs in the long term is for this resistance to be channelled into independent socialist organisation that can challenge the two-party system.

Josh Hollands is a PhD candidate at UCL. His research explores the history of workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians in the southern United States.


1 Solnit, 2016.

2 Weaver and Jopson, 2016.

3 Reich, 2016.

4 Ramakrishnan, 2016.

5 Trudell, 2016.

6 Puglise, 2016.

7 Puglise, 2016.

8 Johnson, 2016.

9 Leonhardt, 2016.

10 Winter, 2016.

11 Moore, 2016.

12 Tavernise, 2016.

13 Berman, 2016.

14 Tavernise, 2016.

15 Winter, 2016.

16 Zirin, 2016.

17 Leonhardt, 2016.

18 Roberts, 2016.

19 Trudell, 2016.

20 Reich, 2016.

21 Johnson, 2016.

22 Kiley, 2016.

23 Parenti, 2016.

24 Kiley, 2016.

25 Schwartz, 2016.

26 Levitz, 2016.

27 Frank, 2016.

28 Casselman, 2016a.

29 Lombroso and Appelbaum, 2016.

30 Lichtblau, 2016.

31 Yan, Sgueglia and Walker, 2016.

32 Dickerson, 2016.

33 Weaver and others, 2016.

34 Weaver and others, 2016.

35 Schwartz, 2016.

36 Economist, 2016.

37 Casselman, 2016b.

38 Casselman, 2016b.

39 Economist, 2016.

40 Roberts, 2016.

41 Roberts, 2016.

42 Roberts, 2016.

43 Kimber, 2016a; and Kimber, 2016b.

44 Sustar and Maass, 2016.

45 Stevens and Cameron, 2016.

46 Isidore, 2016.

47 Foley and Shapiro, 2016; See also Barry, 2016.

48 See Buncombe, 2016; deBoer, 2016; and Trudell, 2016.

49 Davis, 1991, p312.

50 Fight for $15, 2016.


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Buncombe, Andrew, 2016, “Donald Trump Would have Lost US Election if Bernie Sanders had been the Candidate”, Independent (9 November),

Berman, Ari, 2016, “Voting Rights in the Age of Trump”, New York Times (19 November),

Casselman, Ben, 2016a, “There Aren’t 2 To 3 Million Undocumented Immigrants With Criminal Records For Trump To Deport”, FiveThirtyEight (14 November),

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