US Presidential Elections 2016: The Revolt of the Masses

by James Petras


The presidential elections of 2016 have several unique characteristics that defy common wisdom about political practices in 21st century America.
Clearly the established political machinery – party elites and their corporate backers -have (in part) lost control of the nomination process and confront ‘unwanted’ candidates who are campaigning with programs and pronouncements that polarize the electorate.
But there are other more specific factors, which have energized the electorate and speak to recent US history.  These portend and reflect a realignment of US politics.
In this essay, we will outline these changes and their larger consequences for the future of American politics.
We will examine how these factors affect each of the two major parties.

Democratic Party Politics: The Context of Realignment

The ‘rise and decline’ of President Obama has seriously dented the appeal of ‘identity politics’ – the idea that ethnic, race and gender-rooted ‘identities’ can modify the power of finance capital (Wall Street), the militarists, the Zionists and ‘police-state’ officials. Clearly manifest voter disenchantment with ‘identity politics’ has opened the door for class politics, of a specific kind.
Candidate Bernie Sanders appeals directly to the class interests of workers and salaried employees. But the ‘class issue’ arises within the context of an electoral polarization and, as such, it does not reflect a true ‘class polarization’, or rising class struggle in the streets, factories or offices.
In fact, the electoral ‘class’ polarization is a reflection of the recent major trade union defeats in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. The trade union confederation (AFL-CIO) has almost disappeared as a social and political factor, representing only 7% of private sector workers. Working class voters are well aware that top trade union leaders, who receive an average of $500,000-a-year in salaries and benefits, are deeply ensconced in the Democratic Party elite. While individual workers and local unions are active supporters of the Sanders campaign, they do so as members of an amorphous multi-class electoral movement and not as a unified ‘workers bloc’.
The Sanders electoral movement has not grown out of a national social movement: The peace movement is virtually moribund; the civil rights movements are weak, fragmented and localized; the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has peaked and declined while the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’ is a distant memory.
In other words, these recent movements, at best, provide some activists and some impetus for the Sanders electoral campaign. Their presence highlights a few of the issues that the Sanders electoral movement promotes in its campaign.
In fact, the Sanders electoral movement does not ‘grow out’ of existing, ongoing mass movements as much as it fills the political vacuum resulting from their demise. The electoral insurgency reflects the defeats of trade union officials allied with incumbent Democratic politicians as well as the limitation of the ‘direct action’ tactics of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Occupy’ movements.
Since the Sanders electoral movement does not directly and immediately challenge capitalist profits and public budget allocations it has not been subject to state repression. Repressive authorities calculate that this ‘buzz’ of electoral activity will last only a few months and then recede into the Democratic Party or voter apathy. Moreover, they are constrained by the fact that tens of millions of Sanders supporters are involved in all the states and not concentrated in any region.
The Sanders electoral movement aggregates hundreds of thousands of micro-local struggles and allows expression of the disaffection of millions with class grievances, at no risk or cost (as in loss of job or police repression) to the participants. This is in stark contrast to repression at the workplace or in the urban streets.
The electoral polarization reflects horizontal (class) and vertical (intra-capitalist) social polarizations.
Below the elite 10% and especially among the young middle class, political polarization favors the Sanders electoral movement. Trade union bosses, the Black Congressional Caucus members and the Latino establishment all embrace the anointed choice of the political elite of the Democratic Party: Hilary Clinton. Whereas, young Latinos, working women and rank and file trade unionists support the insurgent electoral movement. Significant sectors of the African American population, who have failed to advance (and have actually regressed) under Democratic President Obama or have seen police repression expand under the ‘First Black President’, are turning to the insurgent Sanders campaign. Millions of Latinos, disenchanted with their leaders who are tied to the Democratic elite and have done nothing to prevent the massive deportations under Obama, are a potential base of support for ‘Bernie’.
However, the most dynamic social sector in the Sanders electoral movement are students, who are excited by his program of free higher education and the end of post-graduation debt peonage.
The malaise of these sectors finds its expression in the ‘respectable revolt of the middle class’: a voters’ rebellion, which has temporarily shifted the axis of political debate within the Democratic Party to the left.
The Sanders electoral movement raises fundamental issues of class inequality and racial injustice in the legal, police and economic system. It highlights the oligarchical nature of the political system – even as the Sanders-led movement attempts to use the rules of the system against its owners. These attempts have not been very successful within the Democratic Party apparatus, where the Party bosses have already allocated hundreds of ‘non-elected’ so-called ‘mega-delegates’ to Clinton – despite Sander’s successes in the early primaries.
The very strength of the electoral movement has a strategic weakness: it is in the nature of electoral movements to coalesce for elections and to dissolve after the vote.
The Sanders leadership has made no effort to build a mass national social movement that can continue the class and social struggles during and after the elections. In fact, Sanders’ pledge to support the established leadership of the Democratic Party if he losses the nomination to Clinton will lead to a profound disillusionment of his supporters and break-up of the electoral movement. The post-convention scenario, especially in the event of ‘super-delegates’ crowning Clinton despite a Sanders popular victory at the individual primaries, will be very disruptive.

Trump and ‘Revolt on the Right’

The Trump electoral campaign has many of the features of a Latin American nationalist-populist movement. Like the Argentine Peronist movement, it combines protectionist, nationalist economic measures that appeal to small and medium size manufacturers and displaced industrial workers with populist right-wing ‘great nation chauvinism’.
This is reflected in Trumps’ attacks on ‘globalization’ – a proxy for Peronist ‘anti-imperialism’.
Trump’s attack on the Muslim minority in the US is a thinly veiled embrace of rightwing clerical fascism.
Where Peron campaigned against ‘financial oligarchies’ and the invasion of ‘foreign ideologies’, Trump scorns the ‘elites’ and denounces the ‘invasion’ of Mexican immigrants.
Trump’s appeal is rooted in the deep amorphous anger of the downwardly mobile middle class, which has no ideology . . . but plenty of resentment at its declining status, crumbling stability and drug-afflicted families (Witness the overtly expressed concerns of white voters in the recent New Hampshire primary).
Trump projects personal power to workers who bridle under impotent trade unions, disorganized civic groups, and marginalized local business associations, all unable to counter the pillage, power and large-scale corruption of the financial swindlers who rotate between Washington and Wall Street with total impunity.
These ‘populist’ classes get vicarious thrills from the spectacle of Trump snapping and slapping career politicians and economic elites alike, even as he parades his capitalist success.
They prize his symbolic defiance of the political elite as he flaunts his own capitalist elite credentials.
For many of his suburban backers he is the ‘Great Moralizer’, who in his excess zeal, occasionally, commits ‘pardonable’ gaffes out of zealous exuberance – a crude ‘Oliver Cromwell’ for the 21st Century.
Indeed, there also may be a less overt ethno-religious appeal to Trump’s campaign: His white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity appeals to these same voters in the face of their apparent marginalization. These ‘Trumpistas’ are not blind to the fact that not a single WASP judge sits on the Supreme Court and there are few, if any, WASPs among the top economic officials in Treasury, Commerce, or the Fed  (Lew, Fischer, Yellen, Greenspan, Bernacke, Cohen, Pritzker etc.). While Trump is not up-front about his identity – it eases his voter appeal.
Among WASP voters, who quietly resent the ‘Wall Street’ bailouts and the perceived privileged position of Catholics, Jews and African-Americans in the Obama Administration, Trump’s direct, public condemnation of President Bush for deliberately misleading the nation into invading Iraq (and the implication of treason), has been a big plus.
Trump’s national-populist appeal is matched by his bellicose militarism and thuggish authoritarianism. His public embrace of torture and police state controls (to ‘fight terrorism’) appeals to the pro- military right. On the other hand, his friendly overtures to Russian President Putin (‘one tough guy willing to face another’) and his support to end the Cuban embargo appeals to trade-minded business elites. His calls to withdraw US troops from Europe and Asia appeals to ‘fortress America’ voters, while his calls to ‘carpet bomb’ ISIS appeals to the nuclear extremists. Interestingly, Trump’s support for Social Security and Medicare, as well as his call for medical coverage for the indigent and his open acknowledgement of Planned Parenthood’s vital services to poor women, appeals to older citizens, compassionate conservatives and independents.
Trump’s left-right amalgam: Protectionist and pro-business appeals, his anti-Wall Street and pro-industrial capitalism proposals, his defense of US workers and attacks on Latino workers and Muslim immigrants have broken the traditional boundaries between popular and rightwing politics of the Republican Party.
‘Trumpism’ is not a coherent ideology, but a volatile mix of ‘improvised positions’, adapted to appeal to marginalized workers, resentful middle classes (marginalized WASPs) and, above all, to those who feel unrepresented by Wall Street Republicans and liberal Democratic politicians based on identity politics (black, Hispanic, women and Jews).
Trump’s movement is based on a cult of the personality: it has enormous capacity to convoke mass meetings without mass organization or a coherent social ideology.
Its fundamental strength is its spontaneity, novelty and hostile focus on strategic elites.
Its strategic weakness is the lack of an organization that can be sustained after the electoral process. There are few ‘Trumpista’ cadres and militants among his adoring fans. If Trump loses (or is cheated out of the nomination by a ‘unity’ candidate’ trotted out by the Party elite) his organization will dissipate and fragment. If Trump wins the Republican nomination he will draw support from Wall Street, especially if faced with a Sanders Democratic candidacy. If he wins the general election and becomes President, he will seek to strengthen executive power and move toward a ‘Bonapartist’ presidency.


The rise of a social democratic movement within the Democratic Party and the rise of a sui generis national-populist rightist movement in the Republican Party reflect the fragmented electorate and deep vertical and horizontal fissures characterizing the US ethno-class structure.  Commentators grossly oversimplify when they reduce the revolt to incoherent expressions of ‘anger’.
The shattering of the established elite’s control is a product of deeply experienced class and ethnic resentments, of former privileged groups experiencing declining mobility, of local businesspeople experiencing  bankruptcy  due to ‘globalization’ (imperialism) and of citizens resentment at the power of finance capital (the banks) and its overwhelming control of Washington.
The electoral revolts on the left and right may dissipate but they will have planted the seeds of a democratic transformation or of a nationalist-reactionary revival.


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tezla valve
tezla valve
Mar 8, 2016 7:41 PM

Trump has to be controlled opposition. Search for ‘Who towers behind Trump?’ Sorry, having bother with hyperlinks. We’re talking Rockefellers, Roschilds, CIA, Mossad etc. Also, his name was one of those circled in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book.

Gil Anav
Gil Anav
Mar 6, 2016 10:08 PM

As distasteful and, frankly, embarrassing as he is, Donald Trump isn’t the cause of anything. Rather, he, as well as Cruz and Sanders, is the consequence of America’s elite failing a significant part of its own people.  ● Failing to maintain their standard of living. (Fact: The real incomes of average Americans have fallen in recent years, even while the incomes of the wealthy have skyrocketed.)  ● Failing to protect their jobs and incomes from foreign competition. (Fact: Free trade costs American jobs, and neither the government nor the private sector does diddly-squat to help train or employ Americans.)  ● Failing to provide them with a political system in which candidates aren’t owned by billionaire donors. (Fact: The donations made to the presidential candidates’ Super PACS would be considered crimes in other established democracies.)  ● Failing to provide them with an equitable tax system in which… Read more »

Mar 12, 2016 8:53 AM
Reply to  Gil Anav

I agree with your points. I think that, looking at history, it’s fair to say that people look for something completely different when the mainstream politicians of the day have failed them, and that’s definitely the case in the US today. Here in Toronto Rob Ford (the crack-smoking mayor you might have seen in the news a couple years ago), the closest thing to a Trump I’ve seen so far, managed to ride a similar wave of discontent into the mayor’s office. It was an absolute disaster, of course, like I believe a Trump presidency would be, but he was the only candidate who, as you said, wasn’t promising to just uphold the status quo.

Feb 27, 2016 1:56 PM

Reblogged this on manfromatlan and commented:
I hope this election does inspire people to bring about change, whoever wins or not.

Feb 26, 2016 5:21 PM

One criticism though: identity politics are still very popular among young people. Very few people my age and younger I encounter actually have any idea what Obama has and hasn’t been doing during his two terms. One of the problems I have with my generation is that too many of us don’t bother to obtain any kind of in-depth understanding of a given subject or issue. Some 50 word piece of “news” comes across your tumblr dashboard, facebook or twitter feed, you don’t have the time or inclination to find out more, so you just believe it like a cute wide-eyed 5 year-old even though it comes from a random teenager on the internet and has no source, and hit reblog/share/retweet. Move on to the next one. Keep smashing the patriarchy, one click at a time. Someone who questions any one thing you say obviously disagrees with your entire set… Read more »

Feb 26, 2016 6:29 PM
Reply to  Davide

Spot on.

tezla valve
tezla valve
Mar 8, 2016 8:42 PM
Reply to  Davide

“even if rich people don’t know” I suspect they do, otherwise the Guardian wouldn’t be promoting such a divisive and militant form of feminism to it’s predominantly male readership. Even many female readers seem sceptical. Feminism gets women into the workplace, and gets them paying National Insurance. Traditionally, feminism is supposed to promote choice for women, which would include rearing children, but there are very few feminist articles in the Guardian sympathetic to motherhood. Being a normal heterosexual, has become tainted. “Heteronormative” is used as an insult, just one of many Orwellian assaults on the language, by the identity politics crowd. Children are repeatedly described as a burden, rather than a joy. “Abortion made me happy” was one article. Jus-CIA Valenti has, somewhat creepily, written two articles on the theme “It’s okay to leave your kids alone.” So what are they up to? A while back, a young black feminist… Read more »

Mar 12, 2016 8:31 AM
Reply to  tezla valve

I don’t doubt that academics of a right-wing bent are aware that the theoretical underpinnings of a lot of current left-wing thought can easily be appropriated to further their own aims. There’s a famous quote attributed to Karl Rove about how the Bush administration would create its own reality, while the rest of us in the “reality-based community” could only study the world that history’s actors (Dubya ‘n’ Co.) were creating and re-creating. And when he said it he was probably right, given the way they were in the process of duping the public into believing Iraq had nukes and funded Al-Qaeda and so on, all without a single shred of evidence. Then they made an about-face and told everyone it was about “freeing the Iraqi people,” and people ate it all up without batting an eyelid. Now there’s a guy living above a shop in the UK who is… Read more »

Feb 26, 2016 4:48 PM

Although it’s a Marxist no-no (in theory reformers of capitalism like FDR or Sanders is worse than idiots like Trump who are so terrible they could drive the masses to revolt, because they placate the workers without giving them any real power and preserve the system), I want Sanders to win this election. What dogmatic Marxists (Louis Proyect must be poking his head around here somewhere) don’t seem to realize is that we’re living in the era of neoliberal triumphalism. The Soviet Union is gone, China is only nominally socialist and now the US has its sights set on Cuba. In people’s minds this is evidence that communism itself is dead and gone. The prevailing logic throughout my lifetime (I’m 27) has been free-market fundamentalism, and even when people acknowledge its problems, they’re quick to assert that it’s the only choice available, that there’s no viable alternative. As correctly stated… Read more »

Feb 26, 2016 9:35 AM

I was amused when the Guardian’s liberal propagandist in residence, Freedland, criticised Trump for being both a populist, crude, rude, and discourteous. Freedland must have led a very sheltered life if he imagined that US election campaigns were characterised by courteousy. What the Guardian does, repeatedly, is concentrate on Trump the surfer rather than on the wave he’s riding so cleverly. Given the nature of the US political culture it was probably inevitable that if a ‘revolutionary’ populist candidate with ability and charisma emerged, that person would come from the right of the political spectrum. Trump is the right man for the ‘wrong’ times, and the times are very, very, ‘wrong’ in the United States. Trump reminds me of Mussolini. Mussolini’s politics, like Trump’s, were populist, contradictory and complex. We live in times that reek of fascism, so the rise of Trump should come as no surprise. Only it does… Read more »

Feb 26, 2016 6:40 AM

Coming from an Engellian/Marxist social political and economic view, Trump will be good for geopolitical world sanity. The other point I might add eventhough the article alluded to it he is a traditional Republican isolationist. Isolationist were ever present in the US political spheres only to be replaced with the neo-cons and the liberal interventionist. He would get along with Putin and has also said he admires him for his principled stances and rates him to be strong . Hence much needed in these times detente with him as a president is true possibility . He states all the wasted spending on un endless wars states all that money should be spent on the national infrastructure which has been left at 1970’s standard. I see him the right wing version of Rosevelt. Now the question we should be asking ourselves will the american oligarchs allow him to do these things… Read more »

John Smith
John Smith
Feb 26, 2016 3:29 AM

Trump is 100% right on keeping the Moslems out. Not all of them are bad news, but most are at a cultural level. As Huntington pointed out, America’s success was built by WASPs.
Trump is a right wing candidate because he is nationalist. Nationlists organizing principle is country, not ideology. Therefore this talk about ‘incoherency’ misses the point. The neocons have suppressed this force for a long time; Trump did not create it, he tapped into it. It will survive his demise. (Ironically you claim it won’t while comparing Trump to Peron, who’s legacy still plays a role in Argentina. ) The Middle Class consciousness that began to emerge with Pat Buchanan’s campaign has begun to solidify itself. That cat is now firmly out the bag

Brad Benson
Brad Benson
Feb 26, 2016 12:43 AM

What many analysts miss in regard to the US Election Campaign becomes more evident with each passing day and is observable in the comment sections on many US Websites. This is the fact that there are a substantial number of anti-war progressives that will not vote for Hillary under any circumstances and will opt for Trump if Bernie is pushed out of the race. At the same time, a number of hardcore right wing neo-con war hawks from the Republican Party are now beginning to secretly murmur that Hillary might be preferable to Trump if they are unable to stop him in the polls or at the convention. The result will be some considerable crossover on both sides, with the larger balance still going against Hillary and giving the election to Trump. This is why. Let’s begin with Bernie Sanders, the “Democratic Socialist”. Sadly, all too often he has voiced… Read more »

James Carless
James Carless
Feb 26, 2016 12:21 AM

There is little to choose between all the awful presidential candidates bar Sanders. Like Corbyn and Tony Benn before him,men of principle who refuse to personalise the arguements and keep to policies,the right do the opposite to obscure through demonisation . The axiom of the Philadelphia lawyers : ‘if you have a bad case,abuse the opposition attorney’. Sanders through misplaced political loyalty has said if HRC wins the democratic party nomination,he will support her. From what I read on the US progressive website the majority of those animated by the ‘feel the Bern’ campaign,are not prepared to hold their noses and vote for the corrupt corporate shill Clinton,it is more than her not being trusted because of her lies,her inglorious warmongering past and current policy flip flops………she is deeply hated as a person. If that is how the most active rank and file of her own party view her,then what… Read more »

Feb 26, 2016 12:11 AM

Reblogged this on Siem Reap Mirror.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig
Feb 25, 2016 10:24 PM

Petras’ analysis is much better than the facile analysis on offer at The Grauniad. I was especially tickled by his comparison of Trump to Juan Perón. I myself made such a comment to a friend not long ago in a conversation! There are days where I think my country is turning into Argentina. Look–we even have presidential ‘dynasties’ now! Bush, Clinton, etc. How sad.