Kazin: Even history was against the Democrats [Interview]

The historian Michael Kazin talks about the contradictory nature of this year's American Presidential race.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer were visibly stunned: “If Hillary Clinton has conceded, that is dramatic,” they said live on air. Francois Hollande later said the election of Donald Trump “opens a period of uncertainty”. Angela Merkel watched the results “with trepidation”. Now, how easy is it to shock you, Mr Kazin?

Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin is a Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University. He is an expert in U.S. politics and social movements, 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent book is “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation”, which was named a Best Book of 2011 by The New Republic, Newsweek/Daily Beast, and The Progressive. He is editor of “Dissent,” a leading magazine of the American left since 1954.

Michael Kazin: Well, Donald Trump led a rampant and nasty populist campaign that might have shocked many. The next President of the United States was proudly advocating ignorance, misogyny, and racism. And much to the dismay of liberal elites and the media, many people, especially white Americans, accepted him despite all these disgusting statements. But perhaps it was not so different than the other campaigns run by the existing government in Poland, the one in Hungary, or the National Front in France. We could observe many aspects similar to Brexit. Trump’s victory is a transnational, transatlantic phenomenon, not limited to the United States.

So once again, we are observing a victory that is a rejection of an economic system that isn’t working and a political establishment that embraced it?

I am not sure whether the Democratic party is as neoliberal as critics want to paint it now. They are still very much pro-union, in favour of a higher minimum wage, and stand for some regulation of corporations. They are still a New Deal liberal party in that sense…

I am sorry, but nobody believes that anymore. To many people, mainstream Republicans and Democrats today are just like the Cola Wars between Pepsi and Coke.

I think you are quite wrong here; the parties have different positions on many issues. But in this campaign the Democratic Party were not seen as providing any kind of economic uplift to those who have not done well in the new economy, especially in the cyber, metropolitan, and global economy. Nearly every major city on both coasts voted heavily for the Democrats, but pretty much everyone else voted for Trump. That is unusual, because American elections usually don’t see that extreme division between the metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. That reflects a sense that the metropolitan areas are cosmopolitan and they are doing better than the rest of the country. People who live in those other areas feel put down, condescended to by the other parts of the country. And they are right about that.

Were the main parties’ officials blind? How else can we explain that we ended up with two unelectable candidates running against each other in one of the nastiest campaigns in political history, where the main topics were: a beautiful wall, mishandled emails, and grabbing women’s genitalia without permission?

If there is a vacuum in public discourse and general disenfranchisement with politics, other issues come to the fore. Hillary Clinton failed to present any credible economic platform similar to the one Bernie Sanders put forward. She did not talk convincingly about her economic ideas despite the fact that many of her ideas were popular, like a higher women’s wage.

Clinton never really countered the anti-establishment rhetoric of Trump with ideas about what she would actually do for the people who were backing Trump.

If she had done that in an authentic and convincing way, instead of just telling people to vote against Trump, then the result could have been different.

Let’s try to trace the anti-establishment trope a bit further. Slavoj Zizek controversially said he would rather opt for Donald Trump as the apparently less dangerous choice than Hillary Clinton struggling to shake off her establishment heritage.

Żiżek’s foolish point reminded many people of the German Communist Party in 1933 believing that it would be good for Hitler to take power because he would fail and then the communists would take over. It didn’t work out very well.

It is obvious that Hillary Clinton has had a difficult time during her campaign trying to divert the focus from her ties with Wall Street and Washington elites. But especially on the left we should not forget that for the possibility of a progressive change to happen, it’s always better for the radical left to have a reformist or liberal party in power, because when there is a sense of openness and possibility in public discourse, we can pursue a more courageous rhetoric. This opportunity doesn’t exist when a conservative party is in power, because then the left is just fighting on the defensive to preserve what has been gained. I guess you know something about that in Poland.

It seems that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were first and foremost their own worst enemies and were not able to convince people that the lesser evil is good enough.

The Democratic Party have undoubtedly overidentified with neoliberal and cosmopolitan elites, since it is now clear that fewer regular democratic voters felt motivated enough to cast a ballot in this election. It looks like several million fewer people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. That explains why Clinton lost states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

On CNN’s show before the election, filmmaker Michael Moore warned: “I don’t trust these polls, especially in the Rust Belt. I think people tell the pollsters one thing and they’re thinking another.”

One of the things Michael Moore understood, which a lot of pollsters who are liberals and live in big cities cannot understand, is that there’s a lot of unhappiness and rage among the working class-people where he comes from.

Moore comes from Flint, Michigan, formerly one of the centres of the car industry.

Where one of the major trade union movements in America operated in the 30’s and 40’s. They held one of the most triumphant strikes there, the Flint sit-down strike in 1936-37. It used to be a mostly stable town, fairly secure jobs, middle-class lifestyle, paid vacations. But the automobile industry barely exists there today and Flint is now a mostly African-American, poor city. In other words, Moore can see that the people he grew up with no longer live there, and the ones who stayed feel they have been left behind by the more successful classes and more successful regions of the country.

So they turned to a billionaire sociopath in a baseball cap.

Trump managed to strike a nerve of resentment among just enough of white working class people who had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

12% of them switched over to vote for Trump and that made the difference. His campaign provided a political form for expressing anger. But he also succeeded in convincing people that being a billionaire means being successful. He simplified his message so much it sometimes came down to bragging about having beautiful wives, which impressed working-class men, displaying an empty cockiness, a fun lifestyle, and hatred towards the establishment. And the media broadcasted it 24/7.

Reporters who went to his rallies often asked his followers: “Don’t you resent the fact  that he is so rich and didn’t pay his taxes when you pay taxes?”.

And their answer was: “It makes him someone who can work the system. I wish I could work the system that well and not pay taxes”.

Certainly, Americans do not seem to have the class consciousness that Marxists might like them to have.

Even more importantly, the idea that a billionaire cannot rhetorically claim to be a man of the people was brutally disproved by this election. But it has also been disproved a few times before. Historians saw many precedents for his run. Just take the example of Henry Ford – the great automobile magnate who was urged to run for president by both parties in the 1920’s. Ford ultimately bowed out, but he would have run a conservative, populist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant campaign much like Trump did. Like Trump, he was anti-union, he tapped into economic anger, and resentment toward mainstream political elites.

Same with Ross Perot, a billionaire from Texas who ran an independent party campaign in 1992. He also said a lot of things that Trump only repeated in 2016, especially about foreign trade. He won a lot of working-class votes too. So there is a history here.

I know that “right-wing” and “left-wing” are conceptual flashcards these days, but do you think there is a need for a radical left-wing populism?

I argue that nationalist, right-wing populists like Donald Trump try to unite the middle of society, an almost entirely white Americans with a European background, against both the economic elite and its enablers in politics and the media, but also against those at the bottom: immigrants, low-paid workers, workers who are not white. They argue that there is some kind of conspiracy between those at the top to let in more immigrants for cheap labour purposes, to dilute the culture of the middle classes.

In other words, Trump’s populism is about the middle against both the top and the bottom of society.

Trump put heavy emphasis on nationalism. In his rhetoric, the notion of “the people” became narrower and more ethnically restrictive. Is this what historian Gary Gerstle called “racial nationalism”?

Yes, rallying the broad white “middle” – sometimes called “producers,” or “middle Americans” or “the silent majority – against both the economic and cosmopolitan elite and the dark-skinned poor is a tradition that goes back to at least the anti-Chinese movement in the 1870s and 1880s. Trump won over some white working-class voters in the Midwest by alleging that both elitist liberals and some “global” capitalists wanted open borders to benefit immigrants from Latin America over American citizens.

Trump has also become a president who argued that his opponent belongs in jail, and by suggesting that the election could be “rigged”, Trump attempted to delegitimize American democracy. Historians say that might be unprecedented.

That rhetoric was useful in putting Clinton on the defensive and she had no good strategy for countering it. But this week, Trump quickly gave up the idea of trying to prosecute her (it would not be his prerogative to do so anyway). And he is going to work with his party’s majorities in Congress and, soon, the Supreme Court. When you control the entire federal government, you don’t need to “delegitimize democracy.”

Like Trump, but unlike Clinton, Bernie Sanders also made use of the tradition of populist rhetoric.

Sanders’s populism is different and focuses on the enemy at the top: the economic elite, but also those in government, those in the media who express the same views as those in the corporate elite. His brand of populism tries to unite all the people regardless of ethnic group or race against the privileged elites. Therefore Sanders’ populism is represented by the broad majority of the population against the “One percent”, as Occupy! put it.

Despite being one of the most popular politicians in the US, he was deemed “unelectable” by the elites. Would he have defeated Donald Trump?

I was a supporter of Sanders ideologically, and I would have liked him to be president. He did have an economic program, and seemed much more authentic than Clinton. Plus, he didn’t have emails to worry about. But at times I also think that an acknowledged socialist, an independent candidate who did not have a party behind him, would have had a very hard time being elected. He was also quite radical in his youth, it would be easy for the Republicans to attack him. And he vowed to raise taxes on most Americans to set up a single-payer health plan, but most people already get health insurance through their employer and would not have wanted to pay more to help others. Also, keep the historical perspective in mind .

What does it tell us?

That in American political history it is very rare for a two-term president of one party to be succeeded by a president coming from the same party. It only happened twice before in the 20th century, when Franklin Roosevelt was succeeded by Harry Truman and then Reagan by George H.W. Bush. So even history was against the Democrats.


Digital editor, journalist and webmaster at Krytyka Polityczna/Political Critique.