Most explanations concerning the reasons that led Trump to victory in the US presidential election are unconvincing for two simple reasons: they brush off the issue of class and the rise of China in the global political economy. In fact, these two factors were key to his success.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. It is often assumed that it was white men who won Trump the White House. But his support was, in fact, relatively broad – and was far more bolstered by class than race or gender.
Some 53% of white women opted for Trump and more black and Hispanic female voters voted for him than for Mitt Romney in 2012. As a percentage of votes cast, all racial groups swung more towards Trump in 2016 than Romney in 2012 – but white voters atually showed the lowest swing to Trump (1%), compared to Latinos (8%), Asian-Americans (11%) and African-Americans (7%).
Crucially, however, Trump registered support in the so-called “Rust Belt”, the de-industrialised and depressed zones of Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He flipped a third of the counties there that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and this is what gave him the presidency.
The rich and the affluent voted for Clinton by a much broader margin than they had voted for Obama in 2012. Some 3.46m with an income above $250,000 voted for Clinton, compared with 2.16m for Obama in 2012, a jump of 60%. But is was the working-class votes in the “Rust Belt” that made the difference.
This annoyed some feminists, such as Monica Potts in The Nation, who went as far as to insinuate that the (white) working class in the “Rust Belt” is a reactionary force. There is nothing more wrong than that.
If “identity politics” (politics that put an emphasis on gender or racial issues, for example) is on the wane in terms of electoral-political significance, it is because class inequality is on the rise. Since the late 1970s, the US – and, for that matter, the UK – has embarked on a programme of de-industrialisation and outsourcing, decimating the workforce, slashing real wages, augmenting a rather unproductive service sector, trading “fictitious” (financial products such as derivatives and insurance) rather than real commodities, and promoting precarious and part-time work across all economic sectors.
At the same time, and in order to solve the economy’s “demand problem” (low purchasing power of the consumer, inadequate health and pension provision, housing shortage) the neo-liberal ruling elites in Washington and London financialised everyday life – that is, they encouraged heavy borrowing of people from banks and various lending institutions.
The great collapse
When financialisation collapsed in 2007-08, the very same elites embarked on harsh austerity programmes, increasing class inequalities across society. “Between 1980 and the most recent period”, Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times, “the top 1% in pre-tax income jumped from 10% to 18%.” He continued:
The rise in compensation of chief executives, relative to that of workers, has been huge. The US has the highest inequality of any high-income country and has seen the fastest rise in inequality among the seven leading high-income countries.
Trump promised nothing more and nothing less than jobs for the unemployed and the deprived – an easy task since the Democrats took care to sideline Bernie Sanders in the primaries. But there is also another issue strictly linked to this.
It has to do with China’s rise in the international economy of globalisation that the US has pioneered. De-industrialisation and outsourcing gave a massive advantage to China and other emerging economies, which are now competing on an equal footing with the US.
China is now the world’s largest economy on a purchasing power parity basis. She is also the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves and her investments in Africa and Latin America have outstripped those of the US. China is also America’s second-largest trading partner and holds more than $1.3 trillion in US debt, enabling the US to finance its deficits.
In April 2016, Australia blocked a vast land sale to a Chinese-led consortium and in October 2016 Germany withdrew approval for the $1 billion takeover of chip equipment maker Aixtron by a group of Chinese investors. China is increasingly seen as an economic threat by some countries.
The rise of China
The value of Chinese overseas acquisitions announced in the first nine months of 2016 totalled $191 billion, almost double the inflows of foreign investment into China over the same period. Participation in the World Trade Organisation benefited China more than the US.
The paramount aim of the notorious TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) with the EU, which is not forthcoming, and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is not just to pulverise nation state power but also to consolidate a Western trade bloc to fight Chinese competition. Pointedly, China is excluded from the faltering US-led TPP.
Trump’s campaign grasped this shift in the global political economy. He promised “America first” – that is protection from the Chinese competition which destroys American jobs. The Clinton camp cultivated the old mantras of globalisation and “identity politics”, backed by aggressive financial interests that have brought the country to its knees.
Class inequality became even more pronounced in this light, trumping in significance and visibility any other form of inequality based on gender or race. Thus, while Clinton’s campaign was producing a narrative on “identity politics” creating, as Francis Fukuyama put it: “a coalition of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, environmentalists and the LGBT community”, Trump focused on the real issue of job creation and won the vote of the working class. Class politics and the power-shift to China won Trump the White House.