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The American working class — or, at least, the part of it that is white — has had its revenge.

Disaffected workers in the deindustrialized U.S. mid-west have given Donald Trump his pundit-defying margin of victory.

But those voters may wake up very soon to find their chosen form of revenge biting them in the backside.

Donald Trump ranted about unfair trade deals, but his party is overwhelmingly pro-trade.

There is little chance he and a Republican majority Congress will be able to forge any understanding as to how to go about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance.

The result will not be an orderly redefining of priorities in international commerce. It will not be an effort to humanize and tame globalization so that millions of working people are not abandoned and forgotten.

Trump’s truculent, hostile, nationalistic posture on economic relations with other countries, including Canada, will most likely breed chaos, which will only engender further economic disruption and dislocation.

We have already seen stock markets tank in anticipation of a Trump presidency.

The main victims of Trump’s economic bravado will not be well-cushioned, big investors or Wall Street bankers.

They will be precisely those forgotten people, the little guys, to whom Trump appealed so effectively, especially at the end of his campaign.

Help workers by cutting taxes for the rich … ?

Aside from his nationalistic trade posture, Trump’s chief economic policy proposal is to radically slash taxes for corporations and for the wealthy.

Congressional Republicans will love that idea and happily oblige.

The result will do no good for unemployed or under-employed workers in Wisconsin.

What it will do is exacerbate the already wide gulf between the über-wealthy elite against whom Trump disingenuously inveighed and the working class Americans who voted for him.

Slashing taxes will also starve the U.S. government of funds, making it easier for Congressional Republicans to attack the U.S.’s already frayed social safety net, including what was once a political sacred cow, social security, the U.S.’s contributory pension plan.

Working class Americans can expect to see serious efforts to privatize social security, which will lead to reduced benefits.

Trump has also promised to do away with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

That landmark piece of legislation has made it possible for millions of previously uninsured, working Americans to buy insurance, while banning such odious practice as denying insurance to people because of pre-existing conditions.

Many of those who have benefitted from Obamacare, and who now stand to lose their coverage, voted for Trump.

And how will Trump’s working class supporters feel when he starts rounding up immigrants, some of whom might turn out to be their neighbours or co-workers?

Rhetoric about putting a halt to illegal immigration might seem attractive, as long as it is just that, rhetoric. The fact, however, of mass round-ups and raids and deportations of families with children born in the U.S. might be much less appealing to working class Americans, who have a basic sense of decency.

As for his foreign policy, well, to mention only one example, Trump wants to tear up the laboriously negotiated nuclear deal with Iran.

If he does that it will mean Iran will simply fire up its nuclear program, once again, at which point a dangerous and unstable world will become even more so.

Sanders put the plight of the working class and globalization on the agenda

When Bernie Sanders succeeded in inspiring both workers who had been victimized by globalization and young people worried about their own uncertain prospects, he did it with a message that married anger to hope.

Sanders railed against a rigged economy, in which the manipulators of finance get fabulously rich, while those who make real goods and provide real services are left by the wayside.

And he pointed his finger at unfair trade deals, many of which are not, at heart, as much treaties between and among countries as charters of rights for corporations, which are loyal to no country.

But Sanders’ solutions did not include making scapegoats of minority groups.

The Senator from Vermont proposed classic social democratic measures: vastly enhanced access to higher education, expanded Canadian-style health care, tougher regulation of anarchic and self-centred financial institutions, and increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

The Democratic Party establishment and its media acolytes in places such as the editorial offices of the Washington Post dismissed Sanders as, at best, a romantic relic, still taken with socialist ideas that went out of fashion decades ago, and, at worst, an annoying irritant, who had the temerity to challenge the natural heir to the U.S. presidency.

The establishment did its best to not merely defeat Sanders, fair and square; it sought to destroy him.

It even tried to use his religious faith, or lack thereof, against him.

Sanders took it like a good soldier, and went on to support Clinton.

She was, after all, a sane, reasonable and at least somewhat progressive person. And her narcissistic, hateful and vulgar opponent seemed truly scary.

Trump borrowed Sanders’ rhetoric, and twisted it to his own ends

Trump and his advisors saw an opening for themselves in the way the Clintonites had squelched Sanders’ progressive, inspiring campaign, and they exploited it in Machiavellian fashion.

Trump surrogates on media panels frequently and deliberately yoked the names of their candidate together with that of Vermont’s socialist senator. They argued that both were outsiders, not part of the amorphous malevolence they call, simply, “Washington.”

The Republican candidate himself would evoke Sanders’ name from time to time.

The fact that the Senator from Vermont was actively and enthusiastically campaigning for Hillary did not faze Trump and his team.

They were determined to cast themselves as tribunes of the working class, as somehow the legitimate inheritors of Sanders’ mantle.

They even quite consciously used the term working class, at a time when politicians, of all stripes, prefer the innocuous euphemism “middle class.”

This writer has pointed out how, in this way, the Trump campaign was employing a classic stratagem of Fascism, or, if you prefer a gentler term, right-wing populism.

There is a superficial similarity in the complaints of right-wing populists and democratic socialists such as Sanders.

But their solutions are polar opposites.

Right-wing populists do not propose expansion of the welfare state, strong environmental legislation, a taxation system that fosters greater equality, or other interventionist measures.

To the contrary, like Trump, and like all good conservatives, they propose eliminating most government regulations and, more generally, reducing the size and role of government.

They play on the fact that because so many have come to see government as irreparably dysfunctional they will buy into the notion that the only solution is to blow it up.

The populist right has historically tried to turn workers’ dissatisfaction away from what Sanders called a rigged economic system and direct it toward minority groups, foreigners and a vague conspiracy of elites.

But the fact that a clever demagogue, intent on nothing more noble than self-aggrandizement, has managed to exploit widespread pain and disaffection and use it propel him into power, does not negate the hard fact of that pain and disaffection.

Hillary Clinton and her establishment Democratic Party allies simply did not get it; or, if they did, were unable to speak to those unhappy and forgotten people effectively, the way Bernie Sanders could, and, sickeningly, the way Donald Trump did.

But Clinton did, at one point, articulate what was driving so many working class voters into Trump’s arms.

After her notorious “deplorables” remark, Clinton provided a powerful analysis of what angers and ails so many Americans.

“They feel that the government has let them down,” she said. “The economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.”

She then reflected that these are Americans who “hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with, as well.”

Too bad she didn’t try harder to do that.  

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Keep Karl on Parl

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...