In the early hours of November 9th, I was nudged awake by my toddler son, stirring in his sleep in his usual middle of the night routine, asking for a drink. Bleary eyed and half coherent, just before I tried making myself go back to sleep, I flicked on my TV.
It was 2.30am and as results for the US Presidential election began rolling in, the Republican candidate Donald Trump was consistently doing better than anticipated. As the night wore on and states such as Florida and North Caroline turned red, the narrative shifted in tone from how unlikely Trump’s bid for Presidency would be to how increasingly unlikely that Hilary Clinton would now have any route to the White house left. The shock amongst BBC studio pundits like Andrew Neil was palpable and clear to see for anyone tuning in.
This coverage of a stateside drama unfolding in the early hours of the morning, felt strangely reminiscent of the night of June 23rd and Brexit. On that night, the BBC presenters having spent weeks acting as a mouth piece for the establishment Remain camp and presenting us with over optimistic polls, were visibly shocked as one of the first set of the results came in, Sunderland, unveiling that a shock 80% of people had backed the Leave camp.
But back to America. In the run up to the US election, my post Hilary Clinton and the crisis of liberal feminism warned that Clinton was offering a glossy corporate brand of gender based politics that was Neo liberal, corporate and offering no palpable sense of change to the average middle or working class American.
One of the key slogans of the Clinton campaign was “im with Her”. The logic appeared to be that women would vote for Hilary by virtue of their gender, by virtue of wanting to see the highest and hardest glass ceiling smashed and by virtue of Hilary promoting the rights of the individual, eg transgender bathrooms and abortion. This was identity politics at its most bold. In late October an Access Hollywood tape was released in which Mr Trump was heard making lewd and boastful comments about women. This was seen as a further perfect springboard for the Clinton campaign to capture the female vote. Hilary stood against demeaning misogyny and sexism; all the things we were told her opponent Trump embodied. What’s more, Hilary was now endorsed by Beyonce and Jay Z, not to mention Katy Perry who took to the stage in a cape emboldened with “Im with Her”.
Women and particularly young millenial women, would surely flock to the voting booths in force.It felt as though the pundits on the night thought that Clinton had the presidency in the bag . The night would be a breezy victory run, they were not anticipating a rollercoaster ride in the opposite direction.
It became evident that beyond the metropolitan bubbles, many women had cast their votes for Trump. As I watched in the early hours, it was mentioned that 51% of white women in Ohio had voted Trump. His vote was far less amongst minority women, but yet not none existent as we might have expected from the predictions of the Clinton campaign.
Many have speculated that women choosing Trump over Clinton is representative of the “depth of internalised misogyny”.
Yet this is where simplistic liberal narratives and identity politics become completely unstuck and in all honesty, guilty of oppressive assumptions.
My feeling is that the Clinton campaign failed in any meaningful way to address the issue of the “sharp end of capitalism”. By that I mean the increasing numbers of working and middle class women who are struggling to make ends meet after decades of neo liberal economic policy in the United States and indeed across the western world. They are struggling to balance insecure and suppressed wages with housing, child care and health care costs. They are struggling in economically depressed areas where heavy industry has been outsourced and men have lost their jobs. They are struggling to envision a life that offers not so much an American dream, but just a decent standard of living.
In this context, what matters most is not celebrity endorsement or glass ceiling symbolism, but a candidate that communicates to the back to basics core concerns about jobs, the economy and the high cost of living.
Far from automatically representing an “internalisation of misogyny” this instead signals that working and middle class women do not just automatically buy into narratives of gender and simplistic identity politics. What Trump provided was the ability to communicate a set of economic policies that offered hope beyond the status quo to the electorate with his “Make America Great Again” campaign. Now whether or not Trump can actually deliver on these is a separate matter. But the point is, he was able to tap into how much these people felt that they need the system to change.
The reality is that meditating on the nature of misogyny and hashtagging about everyday sexism are a lot easier to do when you have a comfortable standard of living or live in the cosy confines of a university campus. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these “ideals” are not in the forefront of your concerns when being able to pay the bills and putting food on the table are not guaranteed. As great as ideological ideals about challenging everyday sexism are, they offer nothing of any economic or immediate substance to working class women who continue to grapple with acute and glaring poverty. And there in lies the inability of this brand of liberalism to connect to the working classes.
It is likely that many women will have weighed up Trump’s sexist and offensive remarks and made a decision about just how much a deal breaker they were, based on what else he had to offer. For many, his talk about jobs and bringing back prosperity to America, came further up their hierarchy of concerns then the “im with her” on challenging sexism narrative.
The world is now on course for a Trump presidency. As much as the media are enjoying relentlessly scare mongering everybody about this prospect, the focus ought to also be on how and why did Trump resonate with many voters and what does the liberal left need to do differently.
If liberalism is to be a credible political force, it must now move away from the obsessive focus upon identity politics that this campaign has highlighted. Narratives of glass ceilings and celebrities are by and large, indulgences that focus upon the needs and gratification of the individual. It resonates wonderfully amongst the economically well off and the chattering classes, but offers little to those struggling “at the sharp end”.
In the aftermath, we are seeing another post Brexit similarity. A media narrative that tars anyone who has deviated from perceived liberal norms by voting for the other candidate, with the buzzwords of “hate”, “bigot” and “misogyny”. This is not to deny or minimise that multiple layers of discrimination still exist in society. Nor is it to deny that at times during the campaign, Mr Trump used inflammatory and divisive language. But the way that these words are now loosely thrown around to explain why half a nation voted, is grossly simplistic, presumptious and leaves no space for reflection about the more nuanced, economic or policy based rationale that will have driven many to make their choice.
To suggest that everyone and their voting choices can be stereotyped into neat little identity pigeon holes, is a further symtom of “identity politics”.Labelling people as “bigots”, “not understanding misogyny” or ” a basket of deplorables”, simply shuts down discussion and means that attention does not have to be paid to the detrimental macro economic factors that have so severely impacted people’s lives in the last few years.
There must be acknowledgment on the left that ordinary working people want change and transformation, because a model of capitalism that barely even offers them the basics, is simply not working. For good or for ill, economic populism and upheaval to agaisnt the Neo liberal status quo is now becoming a powerful driving force for change across the western world.
My feeling is that if it wasn’t Mr Trump that managed to tap into this, there would have been another Trump, it was only a matter of time.