Clinton or Trump? The US election and the Dangerous Politics of Lesser Evilism
Now that the selection of the presidential candidates for both the Republicans and the Democrats in the U.S is done and the first formal debates have taken place, people are beginning to take sides. In less than one month from now voters will be asked to decide who they want to be the country’s commander in chief for the next four years. A sentiment shared by many people on the left is that it is necessary to vote pragmatically for Hillary Clinton, purely in order to stop Trump from setting foot inside the White House. Indeed, the Working Families Party have become the latest group on the US left to throw its support behind the Democrats presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. An earlier supporter of Bernie Sanders campaign, the WFP justified its endorsement of his rival out of fear of a republican victory, which that argued ‘would emperor the most malignant tendencies in America Society’. They are not irrational in this fear: Trumps outlandishly racist and misogynistic rhetoric has alienated a massive number of voters. Indeed, as a result of this, Clinton now seems to be ignoring her growing list of scandals, basing her campaign on the assumption that Trumps unpopularity will deliver her to victory. While polling predicts that a Trump victory is unlikely, it would be extremely misguided to simply assume that Clinton will easily win the election. Trumps political strength lies in his ability to exploit anti-political sentiment for his own ends. Also, his independence from the donor class and ability to fund his own campaign, gives him the flexibility to pivot quickly when needed. Still, accepting that Trumps chances of winning the forthcoming election are more likely than predicted, a strategy of voting for the lesser of two evils by itself will do little to prepare the left for the struggle ahead.
The idea of voting for the lesser of two evils rests on the notion that, given the limited choices on offer in a two party system, the left should work to elect the less destructive of these two options. That is opposed to the idea that it is more in line with the lefts principles to abstain, to spoil your ballot, or to vote for a third party. Critics of the ‘Lesser evilism’ strategy argue that the lesser evil is still an evil and that failing to recognise this compromises the lefts demands of honesty in politics. The dismantling of the anti-war movement in the run up to Obamas victory in the 2008 elections stands as an example of the flaws of ‘lesser evilism’. This could not be truer with this election. Clintons close ties with big capital, the defence industry and the neoconservative establishment in Washington cast doubt on the idea that we really stand much to gain by voting for Clinton. This blog post will look at why, even if some figures on the left do decide to adopt a strategy of voting for the lesser of two evils, it is more important to retain our principles and to prepare for the challenges we will face from either a Clinton or a Trump presidency.
It would be incredibly naïve, in risk assessing a victory for Clinton or Trump, to limit ourselves to each candidates stated policies or rhetoric. Remember, policies in this instance do not reflect anything but the candidates desire to gain power. The Democratic Party for instance has many laudable qualities thanks in part to the efforts of left wing people within the party itself. However, this does not reflect how Clinton would act in office. Neither would Trumps supposed opposition to Nafta and foreign intervention hold up in the context of a government filled with pro-war and pro-free trade Democrats and Republicans. As such, it is much more informative to examining the social forces propelling the two candidates. By social forces, I do not just mean the electorate, but organised institutions or movements that aim to pursue set goals. They operate during and in the time between elections and are therefore a much more reliable measure of how a candidate will act once in power.
One of the most astounding aspects of Trumps candidacy has been the limited amount of social forces he has attracted. While a handful of republican supporting groups such as the National Rifle Association, the Wall Street Journal editorial and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani are backing Trump, he has alienated my of the groups that Republican candidates typically rely on for funding and voter mobilization. Not only have former Republican nominee Mitt Romney and former present George W. Bush both shunned Trump, but he has been described a ‘National Security Risk’ by fifty GOP officials. Even The network of neoconservative Think tanks and donors that were previously supporting Ted Cruz in the Republican leadership context have abandoned ship, instead throwing their support behind Hillary Clinton. Likewise, the fact that both The Chamber of Commerce and numerous other financial leaders have condemned Trumps support of the Glass Steagall act — a move that would force the break-up of large financial institutions — strongly suggests that Wall Street is backing Clinton.
Overall, the vast majority of Social forces lie behind Clinton’s campaign. Trumps attacks on big finance and free trade, his negative comments about the Iraq war, and his lack of willingness to endorse traditional conservative values has alienated the vast majority of America’s right wing. Although Trump has garnered support from anti-immigration groups and endorsements from the KKK and the American Nazi Party, these forces have played little role in Trumps rise, except to deliberately help rake in the racist vote. Rather, Trumps rise has grown out of a deep-rooted anti-politics sentiment in American society. Trumps campaign has used a mixture of blatant Xenophobia and disgust at the elite to tap into this sentiment. While this approach has paid off amongst white, middle class males, this electoral pool does not seem organised into a coherent movement. The lack of social force behind the republican nominee is significant: undermined by Republicans and Democrats alike, it would force Trump to make concessions to the establishment that he has pitted himself against.
A Trump Presidency
While it is clear that a Trump led government would be limited in its ability to enforce many of the policies that the candidate espouses on the campaign trail, it would also not be without its dangers. There are a number of threats that a Donald Trump victory might pose, ones for which the Left needs to be prepared.
Firstly, a victory for Trump in November could embolden the far right factions in American Society, giving them greater confidence to pursue their agendas. This is not to suggest that broad support for such factions is the main factor in Trumps success. Xenophobic rhetoric acknowledged, Trumps image as an alternative to the status quo means that his campaign reaches far beyond the narrow appeals of the KKK or Neo- Nazi groups. However, as can be seen with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in the UK, victories for campaigns based on Xenophobia can give the far right a false sense of social legitimacy. In other words, a Trump win will not necessarily lead to increased membership or electoral turnouts for far right groups, but may lead them to undertake more audacious acts of violence on immigrant communities, overestimating their level of public support. A Trump presidency could fan the flames of this racist discontent, by introducing harsh immigration measures, in order to distract from his weak authority. It is important that the left be prepared for any further instances of racist violence. For every anti-immigrant march or protest, it is the lefts duty to organise a counter demonstration. Furthermore, we must broaden our attempts to show support with al groups badly affected by a Trump presidency.
Secondly, there is the possibility that once in power, Trump might retreat from his anti-establishment rhetoric and seek to mend the divide in the Republican Party by seizing on the idea of unity. This could involve Trump strengthening his position on more traditional republican including the second amendment, abortion and same sex marriage. Perhaps more likely however is that Trump will try to reproach dissident republicans on the bases of introducing greater ‘law and order’ measures — A theme which has come up in the presidential debates and one which dominated the republican convention. If this does turn out to be the case, we can expect an administration that is more proactive in its support for the police and its repression of groups like Black Lives Matter. Again, it goes without saying that such groups should not retreat from their activism in the face of such repressive measures and should instead seek to raise awareness of the dangers posed by surveillance and police brutality. In spite of this, the amount of hostility Trumps campaign has attracted from both democrats and fellow republicans, makes it more than likely that traditional Republicans will seek to preserve their ties with the political establishment by distancing themselves from trumps agenda.
A Clinton Presidency
The situation is quite different in the Democratic Party. After briefly veering to the left to defeat her rival, Hillary Clinton has moved further to the right, eager to win over republican voters and donors alienated by Trump. Many have obliged. Clinton’s campaign now finds itself with the baking of an astoundingly large set of social forces, from the finance sector, the Pharmaceutical industry and Google to trade unions and the Working Families Party. With the support of some of the most powerful and financial forces in the US establishment, a Clinton Presidency would operate with far greater coherency than anything her rival would be able to achieve. Her administration would be much better positioned to project its power onto society, preserve a consensus around Clintons preferred policies.
Given her track record, there would be little doubt about how Clinton would use her authority. Besides, Hedge funds and big pharmaceutical companies don’t dump millions of dollars into a campaign without expecting something in return. Her Time as secretary of state also gived us some idea of what a Clinton Presidency would look like. Despite her progressive language (compared to her rival at least) at debates, Clinton is essentially a war hawk. She successfully lobbied for NATO air strikes in Libya and has actively pursued a similar response in Syria and Iraq,proposing expanded airstrikes and more ground troops in the war against ISIS. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Clinton would limit this hawkish approach in the White House. The pressures and powers that force candidates to have to do something about each new conflict will not be immune to Clinton. More to the point, she will not want to be immune to them. Within Clintons first term, we would likely see deeper US involvement in Syria and Iraq, a more aggressive posture towards Russia and a quick detrition of US Iranian relations. That some on the left seem willing to shrug their shoulders and simply vote for Clinton as the ‘lesser evil’ seems remarkably short-sighted. A Clinton presidency would make the world a more dangerous place, further destabilise the Middle East, create a breeding ground for ISIS and other terrorist organisations and increase the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Another threat from a Clinton presidency relates to the Israel Palestine conflict. Given Clintons longstanding support for Israel’s occupation, as well as her ties to pro-Israel lobbyists like Haim Saban, we should expect her to forcefully back the occupation against its growing number of critics. Primarily, this will mean an attack on the most effective wing of the Solidarity with Palestine movement: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS). Already Clinton has made here opposition to such groups an important aspect of her campaign. In May, in response to requests from Israel advocacy groups, she publicly called on the United Methodists to reject a further boycott from of companies. In addition, in her speech to AIPIC earlier this year she threatened to take action against BDS. Over the past several years, activist groups of a range of different causes including BDS have experienced a wave of repressions from restrictions on campus student groups, to campaigns persecuting professors to efforts to silence or punish activists. Under a Clinton administration, these efforts to repress and silence those who dare to speak out would likely broaden in intensity.
To take the view that by voting for either of the candidates in this election, we are voting for the lesser of two evils, is to ignore the reality that people in America are faced with two different threats. A Trump administration would be weak, but also prone to attacks on already vulnerable communities. A Clinton presidency would be a confident and powerful alignment of establishment forces, capable of using its authority to expand the surveillance state and US foreign policy.
The Left needs to be prepared for either scenario. In the case of a Trump presidency, we will have to put out efforts into building anti-racist struggles around immigration, Islamophobia and police violence. In the case of a Clinton victory, we will desperately need a real anti — war struggle — one informed by but also surpassing the Iraq war. Assuring ourselves that either of these candidates is a ‘lesser evil’ leaves us ill prepared to organise an effective opposition to such policies. We need to start preparing for the dangers on the horizon.