With all signs pointing to a Clinton-Trump presidential election in 2016 there are two competing views of American government that deserve closer inspection: Clintonism and Trumpism.
Liberal centrism, viewing government as a vehicle to find pragmatic solutions to systemic issues, while attempting to reconcile economic growth policies with social liberalism
The Third Way
In 1992 Bill Clinton also symbolised a revival for the Democratic Party, after having lost 5 of the past 6 presidential elections. Clinton unashamedly fought over the middle ground of the political debate, courting big business as much as union workers, while pushing for a socially liberal menu of policy proposals.
After 8 years in office, the Clinton years were associated with economic prosperity, job growth, increased access to higher education, welfare reform, fallen crime figures, a reduction in American intervention overseas, and, of course, scandal.
Clintonism was part of broader movement among western left wing parties towards ‘Third Way’ politics. Eschewing traditional forms of addressing inequality, Clinton’s Democrats advocated for a vision of government that would unify both business interests and those of everyday Americans. Critics argue, however, that the embrace of international trade agreements hurt Americans by exposing traditional industrial jobs to global competition, which, for a variety of reasons, exacerbated America’s decline in manufacturing.
Barack Obama’s administration has worked within a Clintonian framework, and so would Hillary Clinton’s. Hillary’s pitch is for pragmatic political solutions on issues like healthcare, immigration and women’s rights, while at the same time supporting continued economic recovery on the grounds that without a strong economy, it is impossible to enact progressive agenda items.
Bernie Sanders is a clear departure from Third Way politics, and Clintonism. When Senator Sanders argues ‘break up the banks,’ Hillary undoubtedly itches to argue that taking an axe to one of the largest economic sectors without a coherent follow-through could be very dangerous.
Indeed, Clintonism is a political doctrine couched in the ‘art of the possible’. Unfortunately for Hillary, the clarity and simplicity of Bernie’s message has won over many supporters, for whom Clintonism appears to provide a cover for the status quo.
Where Hilllary’s Neo-Clintonism differs from Bill’s 90’s version is primarily in foreign policy: Hillary is slightly more hawkish than her husband, and on the campaign trail has distanced herself from international trade deals. So why the change?
There is the possibility that Hillary simply believes more in America’s capacity to affect positive change in the world, though this seems unlikely after the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems more likely that the demands of contemporary geopolitics and threat assessment have compelled Clintonism to shift on foreign affairs: Bill came into power at the end of the Cold War, when America imagined it could enjoy a ‘peace dividend’, whereas today international terrorism, as well as creeping Russian and Chinese expansion, undermine notions of splendid isolationism.
In addition, while Bill Clinton’s administration appeared largely peaceful at home, America was the bystander of terrible humanitarian crises during his years. In Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and the remnants of Yugoslavia the United States took little action or was slow to prevent the deaths of civilians in genocidal conflicts. It is possible that under the scrutiny of history, the Clinton’s may have changed their view on the moral imperatives of intervention.
There is also the fact that Hillary has been pulled to the left on international free trade deals. Previously a supporter of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Hillary has distanced herself from the package of trade agreements after popular calls to disavow such neoliberal economics that are perceived to hurt American industry. This may be simply borne out of political necessity, as the primaries of 2016 have exposed public opposition to these deals.
A Progressive Agenda
Amidst all the controversy and mud slinging of the primaries, it is easy to forget that Hillary Clinton is also promising liberal social and economic policies. While Senator Sanders certainly outflanks her on the left when it comes to the fervour of his anti-Wall Street position, the neo-Clintonism of 2016 involves a range of issues on which the former Secretary of State can show her left wing credentials.
Central to Hillary’s domestic proposition are a wealth of progressive positions, ranging from reforming laws on criminal justice reform and immigration that have become embroiled in race debates, to family focused propositions to improve access to education, both at an early and college level, and guarantee paid family leave.
Neo-Clintonism involves protecting the environment and tackling climate change too, as well as investing in domestic infrastructure, and reforming campaign finances by overturning the controversial Citizens United decision of 2010.
Within the framework of ‘the art of the possible’ neo-Clintonism involves a diverse range of policy positions that sit within Democratic orthodoxy.
Anchored in personality and an appearance of strength, viewing government as fundamentally broken, and focused on reversing the effects of globalism
Donald Trump’s view of government is far dimmer than that of the Clinton’s. From the outset of his campaign he has derided American political leaders as being stupid, and made a concerted effort to appear critical of any parts of the D.C. system and establishment.
Trump offers an intriguing melange of nativist, xenophobic positions combined with socially liberal, welfare-friendly views. He supports universal healthcare and the protection of social security, yet in the same breath offers plans to deport millions of undocumented workers and ban Muslims from entering the United States.
It is not a coincidence that Trump’s policy platforms are often contradictory or nonsensical: in a very real way he has been making it up as he goes along. Occasionally this has led him into trouble – for example, with his gaffe of suggesting women who have abortions should be punished – yet for the most part his supporters have not held the reality TV star accountable for his policy statements.
That is because Trumpism is far less concerning with the actual content of what government would do, but instead the practice and tone of its execution. Trump’s pitch is simple: “place your confidence in me, I’ll be strong, and for any problem I’m sure I can find a deal to fix it.” The closest presidential example would probably be Andrew Jackson, who used his the strength of his personality to great effect in the 1829, and also appealed to relatively a relatively nativist form of patriotism.
Yet it is not hyperbole to argue that, in this regard, Donald Trump also resembles an American version of Vladimir Putin. Both are intensely reliant on personality politics validating their mandate to lead, recognise their need to project strength above all else, and are otherwise politically malleable.
Reversing The Tide of Globalism
Domestically, Trump imagines himself as a King Cnut-like figure, rolling back the waves of globalism.
Economically, he focuses on regaining lost American jobs, not supporting new industries. He promises that through tough negotiations with China he can roll back unfair international competition, and rediscover swathes of American manufacturing and industry. He offers virtually no details on how this will work in practice, and rarely discusses supporting new industries.
He calls for resisting ethnographic change, shifting away from the racial diversification caused by migration. America has taken in waves of immigrants throughout its history, each of which has usually resulted in a kneejerk reaction against new ethnic groups. To a degree, Donald Trump is a modern incarnation of this reaction; invoking a nostalgic image of white America, while simultaneously spreading panic over ‘the other’ outsider, the immigrant, who he labels as murderers, rapists, and terrorists.
Trump’s anti globalism also extends to foreign policy. Trumpism touts the need for American strength, beefing up the American military, yet eschewing commitments as to where this force would be deployed. Given Trump’s determination to exude a personality of strength, an enlarged military is almost a fundamental requirement of his brand of nationalism.
Trump promises to keep America safe, but sets forth a foreign policy, patchy as it is, that could be a stark departure from the norm. Islamic State would be destroyed, Trump argues, but beyond that he would retrench from decades-old alliances. In this sense Trumpism mirrors the ‘American First’ movement prior to World War 2, calling for isolation from the world’s troubles. He recoils from American responsibilities overseas, suggesting Japan and South Korea should seek nuclear weapons instead of America helping to foot the bill for Pax Americana.
International law, humanitarianism, and nuclear non-profileration would all be subsumed by an American-interest led strategy that encouraged torture and the murdering of terrorists’ wives and children. In the same way that the original America First movement believed the Atlantic and Pacific oceanic barriers would keep them safe from the outside world, Trump believes raw, tough rhetoric will protect America. Or, to put it more bluntly, ‘talk softly; carry a big stick and tell the world to fuck off’.
Yet, as in all matters, Trump’s international policies are as malleable as the electorate allows the billionaire to be, and in that sense, Trumpism’s patchy foreign policy is simply a functional response to his political needs.