The US election was a contest between obvious vulgarity and devious vulgarity.
by Ed Smith
New Statesman (November 16 2016)
Donald Trump did not win this election. Hillary Clinton lost it. Not enough of “her voters” turned out; not enough Democrats could find it in themselves to choose her. I can see why. I’d have voted for Clinton (given the alternative), but with unease. For others – the others who mattered – that unease turned into apathy. Whom do you know who is really “for” Clinton? Me neither.
Stay close to the feelings rather than their rationalisations. As the results came in, one emotion, gathering in strength and clarity, did surprise me. Besides the fear of Trump’s tone and unpredictability, I felt something else. The Clintons were gone. I didn’t like the wider circumstances, but I wasn’t sad about that part.
Financially dubious and politically cynical, pedlars of liberal values that they do not apply to themselves, the Clintons have done whatever it takes to obtain and retain power. It would be unfair to blame them for all of the causes of Trumpism (celebrity culture, social media, globalisation, the financial crisis, and so on) but the Clintons stand four-square behind one of the central drivers of their own demise. Self-interest prettied up with the rhetoric of social justice: people have had enough of it.
Clinton deserved to lose. Some argue that Trump’s campaign was “devoid of policy”. Yet he said three things loudly: less immigration, a new protectionism and more infrastructure spending. I think that he’s wrong about the first two and I can’t see how he will pay for the third.
And Clinton? There’s a case for having nothing memorable to say, as she did during the campaign, but preserving the status quo relies on personal propriety. “I’m not going to change much but I’m public-spirited and decent” has some merits as a political position. Yet that space cannot be occupied by a Clinton. Idealistic chatter about values accompanied by realism about money – Clintonism in one phrase – may have felt fresh in 1992. In 2016, the evidence has come in: you certainly are realists about money.
A widely held objection to Trump (one that I share) is his gleeful ungentlemanliness. Yet this was not an election that pitted vulgarity against decency. It was a contest between obvious vulgarity and devious vulgarity. Clinton was Trump’s dream opponent. In April, I was among the many commentators chastising the Republicans for coughing up Trump. Perhaps more stupid was the Democrats putting up Clinton.
If it sounds unfair to lump both Clintons together, think again. They are an alliance. Her victory would have left Bill – jobless but entangled in everything – ghosting around the state rooms where he once received sexual favours from an intern.
Hillary Clinton’s defenders said that she had visited a record number of countries as secretary of state. Was that the best case they could come up with? In contrast, the electorate felt two things deeply about Clinton. First, she was the ultimate insider, having wriggled through every political scenario. Second, she was rich thanks to her relentless leeching of Wall Street cash. Whose money was this, post-financial crisis?
The scale of the corporate largesse that the Clintons have pocketed is significant. Many successful lives lead to some interaction with big finance. But the Clintons didn’t just take some money along the way. Theirs has been self-enrichment on a vast scale. Trump uses high buildings to fleece people, while the Clintons used high office.
Morality is not only about legality (there are questions there, too). It is also about proportion. The Clintons do not seem to understand proportion. Luxuriating in their corporate excess, they dished out smug political cliches. That Hillary Clinton titled her platitudinous book It Takes a Village (2006) is more revealing than the focus group that doubtless devised it can ever have imagined. What could be more inauthentic than the idea of Clinton as a village lover? Which village, exactly” The village of Wall Street” The village of Washington lobbyists on K Street? There are no real people in Clinton’s village. It’s a nodal cluster of liberal abstract nouns.
It is ironic, many have pointed out, that Trump – a child of privilege – should have led an “anti-establishment” movement. Many preferred the vulgarian in his gaudy skyscraper to the posers on a private plane fantasising about snuggling up around the campfire in “the village”. Clinton’s agenda, the vacuous piety, the weary ideals stapled together like Ikea furniture, felt exhausted and flat. Seen it all and cashed in big: those truths, by contrast, definitely came across.
Then there is tone. I hated Trump’s tone during the campaign. Many recoil in horror at the way Trump trashes people. Yet the Clintons are also expert at trashing people: they do it through expensive lawyers. (Consider the handling of the women, in particular, who brought accusations against Bill.)
Above all, the establishment needs to reconsider the changing nature of personality in politics. At the dawn of mass media, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: “The medium is the message”. It needs updating. Social media and digital narcissism have pushed the process a step further. People have become media. So the person is the medium is the message. What was the Democratic message? The Clintons. That lost the election.
Instead of the “end of democracy”, this election can be interpreted as the logical conclusion of Clinton-style tactics, given a guerilla makeover. Trump is accused of saying any old nonsense to get elected, without any intention of following through in office. Sound familiar? In an appropriate twist, some in the Clinton camp are now blaming the electoral data analysts, among others. The problem is closer to home. Trump is a phoney. But the Democrats put up a practised phoney to beat a reckless one. That’s not going to work any more.
Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck (2012). He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.