When my cat died suddenly on the night before Election Day, I knew Donald Trump would be elected president, and I began to mourn both events at once. It was one of those moments of superstitious premonition — amplified by the fact that she was a black cat and I’d long referred to her as my familiar — that seem spooky only when they then turn out to be true. Before she died, I’d assumed, along with nearly everyone else in New York City, that Hillary Clinton would win.
After all, how could a competent, experienced politician lose to a crudely bigoted caveman? Why would working people — many of them struggling in Midwestern towns whose economies no longer thrive — vote for a man made famous by yelling “You’re Fired” on television? Even more curiously, why would an accused serial rapist receive more white female votes than a qualified woman?
Blame the elite feminism that Clinton represents.
In False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, I and many other writers argued that the bourgeois feminism Clinton represents works against the interests of the vast majority of women. This has turned out to be even more true than we anticipated. That branding of feminism has delivered to us the most sexist and racist president in recent history: Donald Trump.
Conservative political savant Karl Rove said this week on Fox News that focus groups conducted with working-class women showed that they didn’t care that Clinton would be the first woman president. And compared to Obama in 2008, Clinton won fewer votes from women, whether they were black, Latina or white.
It would be a mistake to attribute wokeness to Trump voters, many of whom were people who always vote Republican. Nor should we attribute working-classness to them, either, since they were higher-income than Clinton voters. I doubt many of them knew that Clinton had served on the board of Walmart, a company famous for building its vast profits on the labor of poorly-paid women, and the target of the largest sex discrimination suit in history. But many Americans — whether they voted for Trump, or more likely, stayed home — knew Clinton had long been an integral part of the system that had failed them. Working-class women knew perfectly well that for all Clinton’s “listening tours,” the only listening that mattered took place in conversations with her high-end funders, in the living rooms of the Hamptons and Beverly Hills– or in the Q&A sessions after her $250,000 speeches to Goldman Sachs. In the fall of 2016, she was spending most of her time with the super-rich.
Her tone-deaf campaign didn’t even pretend to transcend such class divisions. Once she had secured the nomination, Clinton offered few ideas about how to make ordinary women’s lives better. That’s probably because what helps the average woman most is redistribution, and Clinton’s banker friends wouldn’t have liked that very much. #ImWithHer was a painfully uninspiring campaign slogan, appropriately highlighting that the entire campaign’s message centered on the individual candidate and her gender, rather than on a vision for society, or even women, as a whole. She wrote off huge swaths of the population as “deplorables” and didn’t even bother to campaign in Wisconsin. Among union members, her support was weak compared to other recent Democratic candidates, and, according to most exit polls, significantly lower than Obama’s was in 2008.
The campaign endlessly touted endorsements from the ranks of the celebrity one-percenters, especially women. In the end, Clinton enjoyed a gender advantage only among the college-educated. Among white women without college degrees, Clinton lost to Trump by 28 points. It was almost as if waitresses in Ohio didn’t care that Anna Wintour was #WithHer.
The elite feminism Clinton represents is also a white feminism. There was a lot of talk during the primary about black voters’ loyalty to her, but that turned out to be a misleading narrative, applying mainly to those engaged enough to vote in a primary, which is never a representative sample of the electorate. Clinton had contributed significantly to policies that led to mass incarceration in the nineties, run a racist campaign against Obama in 2008, and treated women from #BlackLivesMatter with painful condescension in 2016. Yet she took black voters for granted. She was more interested in trying to attract white suburban, Republican women. In the end, African American turnout was lower than in 2012.
The response of most establishment feminists to this national horror has been to blame the voters. Commentators like Amanda Marcotte are sure that Trump could only have won because men — and some women — hate women: “We cannot, it turns out, square the notion that a woman can be both ambitious and good.” The only other reason he could have won, she allowed, might be racism. Feminist writer Jill Filipovic went much further in her disgust for the masses, tweeting about Clinton, “Sorry, America, you didn’t deserve her.”
Trump is a racist — and his election is already emboldening the worst elements of American society, including racist cops, organized white supremacists and anti-immigrant vigilantes. Indeed, this was a disastrous own goal on the American public’s part. And it demonstrates, at best, that many voters are shockingly indifference to racism and xenophobia. But it might be a mistake to exaggerate this as a primary reason for Clinton’s loss. After all, Trump carried many of the election districts that went for a black man with an African name in 2012. Similarly, while it’s also grotesque that Trump’s misogyny wasn’t a deal-breaker for voters, we should also be skeptical about the narrative that the sexism drove the results. Nor is this election is a mandate for misogyny: after all, a woman won the popular vote. As well, if white male solidarity with a misogynist and racist – or, for that matter, any special feelings about Trump – was a huge factor, he should have invigorated the base. Yet there was no surge in Republican voters –Trump got fewer votes than Romney in 2012. Clinton simply didn’t inspire enough people – especially women and African-Americans — to come out and vote for her.
Obama inspired Americans by talking about change and hope. Clinton couldn’t do talk about change because that’s not what she believes in, and she couldn’t talk about hope because hope is dangerous. Indeed, when Bernie Sanders, her Democratic primary opponent, suggested major changes in policy, Clinton responded with the class rage of a committed one-percenter. During the primary, she passionately declaimed that we would “never ever” have single payer health care, a system that benefits everyone, but especially women, since our health care costs are higher and we are more likely to declare bankruptcy because of medical debt. (When I recently explained this to a Canadian reporter, she said, “Wow, I never think about the possibility of ‘medical debt.” Exactly). At a private fundraiser in February Clinton derided as a “false promise” Sanders’ advocacy of “free healthcare, free college,” patronizingly noting that his supporters don’t “know what that means but it’s something they deeply feel.”A man who may go on trial for child rape, and who chose as his vice president one of the most anti-choice politicians in the hemisphere, is now in charge of the world’s most powerful country. You can’t put a happy face on that. It was dumb of America to elect him. But the failure of the Clinton and the ruling class Democrats to defeat him is an opportunity for socialist feminism. Many women want profound change, and want their lives to get better. They just didn’t think the elite feminism of Hillary Clinton was going to deliver that change – and they were right.
Feminism now has an opportunity to move beyond the go-girlism of the Sheryl Sandberg set. Left feminists must organize to protect women’s rights under Trump/Pence. We should work together to protect immigrants’ rights and religious freedoms, and prevent a likely assault on abortion rights. We also need to work on environmental issues at the state and local level, recognizing that nothing good can be achieved at the federal level under a regime of climate denialism. We need to strengthen institutions of the left: organize unions in our workplaces, join independent left parties, run progressive candidates for local and state offices, make and disseminate left media. We should work especially to help existing feminist efforts that are squarely focused on women’s material realities, whether that means joining local and state campaigns demanding paid sick days and family leave, single-payer health care or – especially right now – the Fight for $15.
I thought the ruling class would ensure victory for their candidate, but this turned out to be more than even they could arrange in a democratic system, given the widespread dissatisfaction with everything she represents. I have argued that Clintonism would not defeat Trumpism in the long run, because (as the UK found with Brexit) aloof, corrupt elites and cruel neoliberal regimes nourish right-wing populism. But it turns out that even in the short run, Clinton and the politics she represents are finished.
Feminists have to fight Trump, and his violent sexism, racism and, perhaps most urgently, xenophobia and religious intolerance. But we can’t do it with leaders who would rather hobnob with billionaires than fight for ordinary women. A feminism that revels in its identification with people like Clinton – forming groups with names like Pantsuit Nation – is not a feminism that values the lives of most women.
Tonight at the Verso office in Brooklyn, we host the False Choices: Election Debrief event, from 5:30-8:00pm. The event will be livestreamed on our Facebook page and archived on our YouTube channel.