Now that Hillary Clinton has been confirmed as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate the usual arguments are being mobilised to brigade the left behind her. The most important one stresses not the positive qualities of the Democratic candidate but the negative qualities of their Republican opponent.
The theme that the Republican candidate represents a lurch into uncharted right wing territory is an old one.
I can remember it being played to justify voting Democrat to stop Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W Bush in 2000.
Of course, there’s an obvious riposte—namely that Donald Trump really does represent a lurch into uncharted right wing territory. If one’s being cynical, one might say Trump is a gift to the centre left. A particularly idiotic Guardian newspaper columnist tried to use him (and cult leader Charlie Manson) to smear Jeremy Corbyn the other day.
What is true, however, is that Trump’s success dramatises how the official US political landscape has been moving steadily rightwards since the 1960s.
But this isn’t a reason for voting Clinton. She is a political actor in her own right and so it would be wrong to assimilate her to her husband Bill. Nevertheless, she was an important figure in his presidency between 1993 and 2001.
Bill Clinton played a crucial role in shifting the landscape rightwards by schooling the Democrats to accept the so-called “Reagan revolution”. This meant neoliberalism at home and the more aggressive assertion of US power abroad. His administration promoted free market policies globally, savaged the welfare state and made military coercion a tool of diplomacy.
As secretary of state between 2008 and 2013, Hillary Clinton continued this approach. She was more willing to resort to military action than Barack Obama. And the Clintons have made sure they shared in the wealth their policies have promoted.
A recent Financial Times newspaper story reported, “after leaving the White House in 2001 in self-described penury, Mr and Mrs Clinton made close to a quarter of a billion dollars, largely by giving speeches, publishing books and consulting.”
So Hillary Clinton is a perfect symbol of the establishment against whom both Trump and Bernie Sanders have been leading electoral revolts. Of course Trump, as a billionaire property developer, is very much part of this establishment.
He claims to have used a donation to the Clintons’ foundation to make them attend his last wedding—a transaction that nicely sums up the moral qualities of all concerned.
But Trump’s portrayal of himself as an outsider isn’t pure demagogy. Since the Second World War the US has dominated global capitalism by constructing an open world economy underpinned by a network of alliances and US military power.
Trump has gained support among some poorer people—he has a 39-point lead among white men without college degrees—by questioning this liberal empire.
So he advocates the adoption of protectionist economic policies. He recently said he would only defend the Baltic republics against Russian attack if they had fulfilled their financial “obligations” to Nato. This remark had an apoplectic Economist sputtering that he had “rattled the strongest military alliance the world has ever seen”.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has been a loyal servant of this empire. This makes her the establishment candidate in this election. Hence many mainstream Republican figures are either silent, or are beginning to back her. None of this alters the fact that Trump is a repellent racist and sexist. He’s also an opportunist who, in office, would no doubt fall in line with the interests of US imperialism. His vainglorious promises offer no solution to the problems of US society.
Whoever wins the election, the well of bitterness and disillusion among ordinary Americans will continue to grow.
Clinton and Trump are the representatives of a power structure increasingly at odds with large sections of the population. Clinton isn’t a “lesser evil” than Trump. Each needs the other to justify their candidacy.