Exclusive: While the mainstream U.S. media has focused on personal scandals, the presidential race has revealed a deep and sometimes ugly resentment among many Americans who blame the haughty elites for declining living standards, says Andrew Spannaus.
By Andrew Spannaus
This year’s presidential election has been surprising on many fronts, with the success of a number of outsider candidates and the fact that the most unorthodox of them all, Donald Trump, is within striking distance of victory in the last days of the campaign.
As shocking as Trump’s candidacy has been to the national media and political establishment, it has provoked even more astonishment outside of the United States, where people often have a superficial view of the U.S. political and economic situation. This is driven by a reliance on only a few major news outlets that tend to give an elitist view of what happens in the country, ignoring the type of undercurrents that have driven the outsider campaigns this year.
In Europe, a common question asked of Americans this year has been: “Has everyone gone crazy?”
There is shock that much of the country would be willing to vote for someone as unprepared and offensive as Donald Trump. It is heightened by the fact that the current President is the first African-American to hold the office, confusing people who thought that Barack Obama’s election had put racial considerations on the backburner, but now see the Republican candidate drawing on racist stereotypes to increase enthusiasm among his base.
This has led to the common view that white, male America is “fighting back,” and not willing to accept a woman president, after having to suffer the indignity of the first black president for the past eight years.
While sexism and racism can’t be ignored, the problem is that just as much of the U.S. media has done for so long, Europeans concentrate mostly on the person of Trump himself, with his countless faults, while almost entirely ignoring the discontent among the population that has made this kind of revolt possible.
There is in fact very little recognition of the difficulties of the U.S. middle class over the past 35 years, caused principally by the pro-finance, anti-industrial policies that have contributed to the loss of millions of well-paying jobs across the country. The media touts the low unemployment numbers and the return to economic growth, and thus Europeans don’t understand how the American population could be so upset, and what the source of the anger could be.
Yet it doesn’t take much to go beneath the surface and explain the economic anxiety that has driven the realignment of U.S. politics this year. Indeed the stagnation of wages and lack of financial security that much of the American middle- and lower-class suffers from is quite similar to that in Europe; and in Europe the drop in living standards is leading to a continent-wide revolt against the institutions of the European Union. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Europe’s Battle: Nationalists vs. Elites.”]
A Left-Right Resistance
In Europe as in the U.S., there are right-wing and left-wing manifestations of the protest, combining anger against the bank bailouts, opposition to economic austerity, and fear of immigrants seen as threatening traditions and security.
In addition, international “free trade” agreements are the target of significant public and political opposition around the Continent, even more so than in the U.S., where much of the establishment remains committed to the current neoliberal economic policies.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the self-described “democratic socialist,” and real-estate mogul Donald Trump both target NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, denouncing the pacts as negative for American workers and favorable mostly to multinational corporations. In Europe the target is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the agreement still being negotiated with the U.S. that is seen as negative for smaller companies and traditional markets, and favorable mostly to multinational corporations.
The similarities between the protest movements are so strong that failure to recognize them means that someone obviously deserves a prize for misinformation.
When it comes to foreign policy, the issues become even more urgent for Europe. While Donald Trump promises to crush ISIS and increase spending on the U.S. military, his position regarding the key strategic question for Europe – relations with Russia – is the opposite of what most people expect.
Hillary Clinton’s hawkish stance towards Russia and her stated disgust for Vladimir Putin appear to be perfectly in tune with the reversion towards an adversarial relationship that is currently taking shape after the apparent failure of attempts at greater cooperation through diplomacy made by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.The superficial view is that Clinton will represent continuity with the foreign policy of the Obama administration, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that on numerous important questions, from the nuclear agreement with Iran to relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, from the establishment of a “no-fly zone” in Syria to intervening more directly in Ukraine, there is significant daylight between the President and his former Secretary of State, and Clinton has barely attempted to hide it.
Trump, on the other hand, is more in line with the preferred foreign policy of most major European nations, in particular as regards Russia. After years of sanctions and increased military activities closer to Russia’s borders, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy all hope for a reduction of tensions, allowing them to resume economic relations and avoid being caught in the middle of a new East-West conflict.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been particularly vocal in opposing the anti-Russia sanctions, including – curiously – immediately after his return from a state dinner at the White House. In fact, it’s not the first time he has been critical of current policy towards Russia right after a meeting in Washington, and as anyone in Italy knows, it’s highly unlikely he would make such statements without tacit approval, or at least acceptance, from the U.S. government, in this case most likely President Obama.
If Hillary Clinton wins the election, it will be interesting to see if nations such as Italy will continue to be afforded such leeway.
Over the course of the campaign, the recognition of the deeper issues at play in the U.S. election has grown, although such discussion still tends to be overshadowed by superficial coverage of the personal battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the various scandals of the moment.
Europeans would do better to pay close attention to the fundamental questions that have been raised during the campaign, that will have a major impact on the entire Western world in the coming years: the fate of the middle class and the decline of the productive economy, and the decision as to whether to seek cooperation, or conflict, with Russia.
Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.