Letter from America

Hillary’s trump card

Print edition : November 11, 2016

Supporters of Hillary Clinton gather before the presidential debate between her and Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on September 26. Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP

A vehicle belonging to Trump supporters beside the house where Hillary Clinton was holding a fundraiser in Beverly Hills, California, on October 13. Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP

Enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is low. If she faced any other candidate, her victory would not be assumed. But it is Trump’s disgrace that may have swung the election.

Boarding an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, we are told by the captain that there is a mechanical problem with the plane. He suggests that the passengers remain on board for the hour that it will take to fix it. Talking to the flight attendants at the rear of the plane, I ask them if they are paid overtime when there are delays. There are only two of them for the Economy section of the plane, even though the plane is equipped to carry four attendants. One of them, Maya, laughs and says that the situation is quite the opposite. She says that attendants and pilots start getting paid only from the point when the pilot lifts the handbrake on the plane and begins to leave the gate. “Everything before that,” she says, “is our gift to the company.” Maya and Ray, the two attendants, hurry back and forth down the aisles for the hour when they are off the clock to hand out water to frustrated passengers. When the clock starts, the attendants make between $20 and $30 an hour—poverty wages for the United States labour market.

“Trump is just crazy,” says Maya. News had come that day of a tape that showed the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump making sexually predatory comments about women. “I don’t like either of them,” says Ray, referring to the two main presidential candidates. Both Maya and Ray struggle to get the ground staff to deliver more bottles of water for the flight. Cost-cutting is the name of the game. If they run out of water, there will be a riot on the flight. Belligerence has become a problem on aircraft. This is called “air rage” and it has increased—quite dramatically—since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Our conversation on air rage morphs back to Trump. The anger he has released scares them. “I don’t want Trump to be the President,” Maya says, but “whoever wins will do little for us.”

Mention the name “Trump” and there are two reactions—one is revulsion and the other is quarrelsome defensiveness. Those who are repelled by Trump want to talk about his personal behaviour as well as the forces he has unleashed into the political domain. Hillary Clinton called some of his supporters a “basket of deplorables”. What she referred to were the white supremacists, including former leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the alt-Right movement. The contours of their movement are hatred of immigration, of cultural diversity and of Islam. Defenders of Trump, on the other hand, feel that the mainstream media have maligned him. At a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump described the attacks on him and said: “Nevertheless, I take all these slings and arrows gladly for you.” Trump and his supporters have tried to make the criticisms less about him personally than as part of a conspiracy against his movement. The Trump supporters are fierce in their defence of him.

Michelle Obama, wife of President Barack Obama, took to the campaign trail in New Hampshire on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Her speech was a blisteringly personal attack on Trump. “This is not normal,” she said. “This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable.” Hers was a powerful speech that laid down a simple proposition—sexually predatory behaviour should have no place in society. “No woman deserves to be treated this way,” Michelle Obama said. She referred to the 2005 tape, where Trump spoke in a grotesque manner, egged on by Billy Bush, the cousin of former President George W. Bush. She also referred to the allegations by many women that Trump had, over the years, violated their bodies in different ways. “Now is the time for us to stand up and say enough is enough,” Michelle Obama said soberly.

Women make up more than half the U.S. population (51 per cent) and vote at higher rates than men. The Republican Party has, however, not been able to appeal to college-educated women, who voted in greater numbers for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in 2012 than for Obama. Trump’s machismo and sexism do not appeal to these women, who seem—as far as the polling data suggest—to have wandered away from the Republican Party. Many leading women in the Republican Party have openly come out against Trump. Republican Senators Shelly Moore Capito (West Virginia), Mia Love (Utah), Ann Wagner (Montana) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have asked him to withdraw his candidacy. Senior Bush administration official Condoleezza Rice said: “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President. He should withdraw.” The attrition of support for Trump amongst women has certainly doomed his candidacy. It is what turns off Maya—but also Ray. The vulgarity is what embarrasses them.

Two students in Pennsylvania who might otherwise have voted for the Republican Party, given their strong commitment to guns, tell me that Trump has been a disaster. “America is a laughing stock in front of the world,” says Meaghan, who is studying politics. Her friend, Evan, smiles. They come from rural backgrounds, with families steeped in rural traditions but also in debt. Evan tells me that his entire family will vote for Trump. Their motivation is simple: decline in their well-being has been steady for the past 30 years and no politician has cared about this slide. For them, Trump, at least, has spoken up for the victims of globalisation—the industrial workers, the farmers, and the people who either cannot find a job or who must work more than one job to survive. In Monessen, Pennsylvania, Trump said: “Globalisation has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very, very wealthy, but it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.” It is this message that echoes in the homes of former steel workers and former farmers.

‘I’m kind of far removed’

In February 2014, Hillary Clinton gave a speech to the members of Goldman-BlackRock. The audience was the creme de la creme of the financial elite. “I’m kind of far removed because of the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy.” This was a statement of fact—after all, Hillary Clinton has neither the roots nor the experiences of people such as Evan’s family. Nor does Trump, who brags about being a billionaire. Nonetheless, it is not so much Hillary Clinton’s place in society as her political sensibility that alienates people such as Evan and Meaghan. Hillary Clinton told the financiers: “I am not taking a position on any policy, but I do think there is a growing sense of anxiety and even anger in the country over the feeling that the game is rigged.”

The “game” is finance and Hillary Clinton is correct. A June 2016 poll by Marketplace and Madison Research found that 71 per cent of Americans think that the economic system is “rigged in favour of certain groups”. Middle-class earnings have been stagnant since 1996, with a rise in inequality and a sense that the future will provide what is now called the world of “dead-end crap jobs with crap wages”. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Trump all speak about the economic frustrations of large sections of the population.

Sanders pointed the finger at the structures of finance and the power of the big business lobby to suffocate any opportunity for workers. Trump points his finger firmly at banks, certainly, but also at migrants. His is an economic nationalism saturated with racism. It is easier to understand than the more complex critique made by Sanders. Abstract forces of finance are much less easy to understand than the migrants that live down the road. Racism always makes for more effective politics, even if it does not make for effective public policy. Hillary Clinton —as she told Goldman-BlackRock—dithers. “I am not taking a position on any policy,” she said in 2014, and has since then been unclear about her own agenda.

Suspicion of Hillary Clinton heightened when another excerpt from a speech sees her more inclined to the expertise of bankers than of democratic institutions. “How do you get to the golden key, how do we figure out what works?” she asked towards a solution to inequality. “The people who know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry,” she said of financiers. If Hillary Clinton takes her policy cues from the financial class, would they not themselves seek to benefit against the rest of the population? That is the question that rattles young people like Evan and Meaghan.

Eligible voters in the U.S. have already begun to send in their mail-in ballots for the elections that will be held on November 8. Anger at Trump will draw people to vote for her.

Enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is low. If she faced any other candidate, her victory would not be so assured. But it is Trump’s disgrace that has swung the election. George H.W. Bush has indicated that he will vote for Hillary Clinton. His son’s Defence Minister, Donald Rumsfeld, has also said that he will vote for Hillary Clinton. The establishment, both Democratic and Republican, has turned to her. She is a reliable candidate. There is no need for Trump’s populism. The system will be in safe hands with Hillary Clinton.

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