Letter from America

Toxic race to the top

Print edition : December 25, 2015

(From left) Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Dr Ben Carson at the debate held by Fox Business Network for the top Republican presidential candidates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on November 10. Photo: Jim Young/REUTERS

Ralph Nader at NBC studio for a "Meet the Press" function on November 5, 2000, when he was the Green Party presidential candidate. Photo: ALEX WONG/AP

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders after the second Democratic presidential debate, in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 14. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Between the demands of Wall Street and an electorate whose allegiance is divided between the two main parties, the U.S. presidential election leaves no room for third party challengers to make their mark in a process that is “spoiled to the core”.

RALPH NADER ran for the United States presidency on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000. Both times, he galvanised the U.S. Left to enter the electoral arena, which has been suffocated by the two main parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. Just before the 2000 election, Nader described the nature of American electoral politics: “It’s a Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum vote. Both parties are selling our government to big business paymasters.” Nader won close to 100,000 votes. Republican George W. Bush won the election. Or, rather, the U.S. Supreme Court waded into the murky world of American politics and delivered the election to Bush.

Democratic apparatchiks accused Nader of being the “spoiler” who helped defeat their candidate, Al Gore. This theme had come up during the election itself, with Nader being told that he would take votes away from the Democrats and deliver the election to Bush. Did Nader “spoil” the election for Gore? As he put it, “you can’t spoil a system that’s spoiled to the core”. Vast amounts of private money flood the electoral system and corrupt the ability of any but the establishment candidates from making their mark. Tight rules, negotiated by the two parties, keep third party challengers away from the debates. Tunnel vision in the media drives them to ignore the presence of any independent party, including the Greens and the Libertarians. There is no discussion of their views, little care for their right to a say in the public square. It is this that Nader meant when he spoke of a system “spoiled to the core”. That was in 2000. Fifteen years later, matters are graver. The U.S. Supreme Court has removed most of the limits on campaign contributions, allowing billionaires to drown the process with their petty cash. The candidates for the 2016 presidential election have already raised $500 million, half of which is in the hands of outside groups (which number over a hundred).

White nationalism

Donald Trump, whose net worth is $4 billion, leads the Republican pack. He does not need outside money. He has enough of his own to spend. It gives him a certain freedom from the constraints of suit-and-tie Wall Street. Trump, who comes from the well-heeled world of money, has decided to run as a populist. Most of his sentences are short and crisp. When he offends people, he looks to his crowded arenas to validate him: “Am I not right?” he asks. Nader tells me that the world of Wall Street is worried about Trump and about Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who is also making his mark with his outlandish sentiments (for instance, Carson says that the pyramids are not tombs but were built for grain storage). Wall Street’s conservatives do not like Trump and Carson’s populism. Trump recently went after hedge fund managers, saying that they are “getting away with murder”.

Anathema to Wall Street

Most of the positions taken by Trump and Carson are anathema to Wall Street. Both want to deport immigrants, a section of the workforce essential to American business, particularly in Silicon Valley. Trump is particularly against trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This troubles the Club for Growth, an influential lobby for Big Business. The Club for Growth’s David McIntosh said: “Donald Trump is the worst Republican candidate on economic issues.” His Club has spent millions of dollars trying to paint Trump as a liberal. Nader reports that Wall Street is spending large sums of money on opposition research so as to knock out both Trump and Carson from the race. Their brand of straight-talk populism is seen as a threat. What Wall Street wants is for the Republican vote to gather behind Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—both anodyne politicians with safe hands for the people who finance the Club for Growth.

But neither Bush nor Rubio has been able to electrify the Republican base. Primary politics in the U.S. goes on for a year. Nothing like it takes place anywhere else. Politics is akin to two of the most popular streams of entertainment in the U.S.: sports and celebrity gossip. A Trump rally has the feel of a sports arena and a music concert. The electorate is the audience, excited to be there to support their team and to see their celebrity. Trump’s diction is limited and his delivery is brusque. He snarls and growls. But what he says resonates with the people who come to his events. They are mainly white working-class and lower-middle-class people who resent the loss of their racial privileges and who are angry about the collapsed U.S. economy. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, is not original. Ronald Reagan first used it in 1979-80 for his triumphant electoral campaign. Reagan also appealed to this same demographic, frustrated by the slump in the economy and by the loss of white privilege. Trump, being a businessman, trademarked the slogan. He made it his own.

The atmosphere at a Trump rally is disconcerting. There is an undercurrent of racism that runs throughout the crowd, a frisson of delight when Trump gives permission to denigrate immigrants or people of colour. Two black men came to protest a small Trump rally in Alabama. When the crowd began to assault them, Trump said from the stage: “Get them out of here.” Racist insults and violent attacks on them did not get discouraged from the stage. Indeed, the crowd was egged on. This demographic is not likely to switch to Bush or Rubio, who are too much like head boys at a fancy boarding school. But even they, or at least Bush, feel the need to enter Trump territory. When confronted with the Syrian refugee crisis, Bush said only Syrians who are Christians should be allowed into the U.S. The elite sees such gaucheness in public as an embarrassment. It is a sign of Trump’s effectiveness. He has moved the needle of conservative politics deeply into fascist territory.

Safest bet

Nader says that the barons of Wall Street are increasingly of the view that the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is the safest bet for their money. What they want is a clear-headed manager of their interests. Trump and Carson are too erratic, and Bush and Rubio would be unable to drive up the energy required for a celebrity campaign. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has already put herself forward as the inheritor of history, the first woman to be elected as U.S. president. This will earn her sufficient support despite what she promises to do once she is elected. She has the celebrity cache.

To Hillary Clinton’s left runs her challenger in the Democratic primary, the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Sanders has made his entire race about the problem of inequality in the U.S. and reform of economic power. He has galvanised large numbers of young people to his campaign, drawing rock concert numbers for his rallies. At a rally in Washington, D.C., a young Muslim woman wearing a hijab asked Sanders about racial profiling and anti-Muslim sentiment. He embraced her and validated what she had been saying. In this sense, Sanders is more than merely an economic populist. He is against the kind of toxicity emanating from Trump and Carson. “People should not be using the political process to inject racism into the debate,” Sanders said at Georgetown University. “Too many people have suffered and too many people have died for us to continue to hear racist words coming from major political leaders.” That Sanders is identified as a socialist makes his candidacy impossible in the general election. There is simply too much animosity against socialism for him to be able to win.

What Sanders has done is to force Hillary Clinton to adopt some of his economic populist rhetoric. This is also borrowed from the most popular Democratic politician, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Hillary Clinton’s campaign would not get going if she avoided such language. The Democratic base would like income inequality to be the main plank for the election, with racial justice not far behind. Hillary Clinton is able to pivot to this language when it suits her. The words are familiar. She has been around them for most of her adult life. It is also not unfamiliar for Hillary Clinton to sit with bankers in their private boardrooms. The bankers know that the bulk of the U.S. electorate wants to see Wall Street put in its place. Hillary Clinton, they know, is not the candidate for that job. She would be ideal for them. She will speak like Sanders and Warren but “reform” the financial system to the taste of the bankers.

Nader warns that Sanders will likely surrender to Hillary Clinton when the time comes. “But will he make any demands on her?” Nader asks. “There needs to be a charter for reform that Sanders should ask Clinton to sign. If she does not sign, then he should refuse to support it.” If the system is spoilt, Nader says, it cannot be fixed merely by mild reforms. It will need something more.

That desire for something else draws people to the economic populist rhetoric of both the Right (Trump) and the Left (Sanders). What divides them is the toxic language of race from Trump. In 2014, Nader published a book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, that called for those dissatisfied with the “spoilt” system to unite against it. Economic populist rhetoric from Sanders and Trump is not a bellwether of an alliance. Too much, particularly racism, divides these camps. That is perhaps why Nader says: “Convergence is not for the timid.” It will require courage. Such courage is not on the horizon. It was what pushed Nader to run in 1996 and 2000. He is not running for President now. It will take far more than courage to defeat the racism that the Right unleashed during the Barack Obama years.

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