Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter who died just two days after Donald Trump seized the White House, seemed to predict this moment.
In his dystopian song “The Future”, from the 1992 album of the same name, Cohen sang: “I've seen the future, brother: it is murder.”
“Things are gonna slide,” the famously dark singer suggested, “slide in all directions ... the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold.”
But if, as a few perhaps over-the-top obituaries suggest, Cohen was a “visionary”, then consider another track on the same album with a different, far more optimistic vision. In “Democracy”, Cohen declared: “From the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay, democracy is coming to the USA.”
The tense is crucial — if “democracy is coming”, it does not yet exist. And the rise of Donald Trump reveals the extreme limits to democracy in the self-declared “Land of the Free”. Far from signalling democracy’s failure, it shows the urgent need for more.
Much media handwringing notwithstanding, there was no “surge” for Trump on November 8. On the contrary, the strangely orange demagogue won less votes than Mitt Romney in 2012.
Trump won with 25.7% of registered voters casting their vote in his favour. Far from Americans all becoming Trumpites, almost 75% did not support him.
Trump was delivered the White House by a dramatic collapse in Democrat votes — which overall did not shift to Trump. Instead, millions who had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 did not vote. Almost 9 million fewer people voted for the Democratic candidate in 2016 compared with 2008.
It seems large numbers of people who do not support Trump had no desire to vote for a figure who represents a neoliberal status quo destroying their lives.
And yet even then, Clinton still beat Trump in the popular vote. She was beaten by the undemocratic electoral college system that denies US citizens the right to “one person, one vote”, usually considered a minimum requirement of democracy.
On top of this, there are many examples of voter suppression targeting Black people, who voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers, as detailed by In These Times. In key areas, early voting was restricted, voter IDs arrived late or not at all, and there were hundreds fewer polling booths — disproportionately affecting Black people, as well as Latinos.
On top of this were Republican efforts to deregister Black voters and the rolling back of the Voters Rights Act brought in 50 years ago to protect Black voters. Then there are the millions of disproportionately Black people who, as prisoners or ex-prisoners, denied the vote entirely — as well undocumented migrants.
But the lack of democracy is not limited to just the formal system. The very rich also exercise control via large-scale donations and unaccountable “super PACs”.
Clinton is the personification of this corporate domination. The content of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, revealed by WikiLeaks, showed that behind closed doors, Clinton was open about whose interests she served.
Backed by corporate donations and with a pliant media on her side, Clinton entered the race for the Democrat nomination with huge advantages and the widespread assumption her victory was a mere formality. Yet it wasn’t enough.
Fuelled by widespread anger at inequality and huge economic pain suffered by working people, the self-declared socialist Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign threatened to steal the nomination.
Crucially, poll after poll showed Sanders polling far better head-to-head against Trump than Clinton. If the polls held up, Sanders would have crushed Trump.
As WikiLeaks showed, the Democrat machine worked in multiple ways to sabotage Sanders’ campaign and hand the win to its candidate. It is quite possible a fair campaign would have been won by Sanders — and if so, November 8 would have been a clear contest between competing visions: socialist-oriented solidarity versus selfish greed and hate.
It is not possible to state with certainty that Sanders would have won such a contest, but it is probably safe to say that a candidate who makes pushing working people’s interests against the “billionaire class” was unlikely to have done worse than Clinton.
Democracy, undermined both by formal laws and corporate domination, could have prevented Trump’s win. A system based on the actual voices and wishes of “the people” would not have delivered power to a billionaire reality TV star and self-confessed sexual abuser.
[Stuart Munckton is Green Left Weekly’s international editor and a member of Socialist Alliance.]