The American Yeltsin

The 2016 presidential election is over. It ended with a real shock for all kinds of American elites. But along the way, the scandalous nature of the 45th U.S. president, Donald Trump, eclipsed, for both the wider public and for experts, that the causes for the appearance of such a candidate is due to a profound crisis, caused by the exhaustion of the potential of political and socio-economic system that was built in the 1960s. In that sense, what is happening today in the United States is reminiscent of the processes that were going on in the USSR at the end of Perestroika.

During the election campaign, the American electorate turned out to be split along racial and, to a certain extent, along gender lines (including the issue of the treatment of sexual minorities): They turned out to be much more important than socio-economic factors. According to exit poll data, among whites (69 percent of the electorate), 56 percent voted for Trump and 37 percent for Clinton. On the other hand, among representatives of racial and ethnic minorities (31 percent of the electorate), 74 percent supported Clinton and only 21 percent supported Trump. In addition, 63 percent of white males and 53 percent of white women voted for the Republican, while Hillary got 31 percent and 43 percent, respectively. Thus, the electoral split by gender turned out to be far less than predicted by the experts, who expected that Hillary would beat Trump by 20 points in popularity among women. It is also curious that Trump, regardless of his aggressive rhetoric, still got support from 8 percent of African-American voters and 29 percent of Hispanic voters, which turned out to be even better than the results of Mitt Romney, the last Republican presidential candidate, in 2012.

The danger of such an electoral divide is that the victory of either candidate could be seen by the losing side as a threat to their main interests. Specifically, Clinton’s victory, taking into account the makeup of her electoral support and the peculiarities of her personality (dogmatic, lack of strategic vision, greed, reliance on a narrow circle of old favorites and advisers, no sense of humor and readiness to do anything for power), would have meant a rejection of any internal political change, which could have only increased systemic pressure. No wonder Bernie Sanders snarkily said during the primaries, “Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and the intelligence to be a president? Of course she does. But I do question her judgment.” During the election, there was always the sense that Hillary was stuck sometime in the 1950s and continued to think in the concepts of that time, living in a world that hasn’t existed for a long time.

From the very beginning, almost the entire establishment was working for Hillary’s election campaign. Both the leadership of the two parties and the majority of the mainstream press tried to discredit Trump, present him as a threat to the system, which had been working since the mid-1960s. All pretenses of neutrality were tossed aside.

In this regard, the 2016 campaign showed how much the interests of the top figures among minorities (the main base of the Democrats) and the Republican elites aligned. For both Wall Street and the elites of various special interest groups (racial, gender, etc.) which received monetary or other status privileges, and, more importantly, an advantage in getting jobs, getting into college, access to all sorts of benefits, it was essential to maintain the status quo, even though they benefited from it to different degrees.

It is shocking, but certain aspects of what is happening right now in the U.S. are reminiscent of phenomena that were observed in the USSR in the last phase of Perestroika (1987-1991).

During the election, the American elites acted in a manner that is reminiscent of the actions of the communist “nomencklatura”* in 1987-1991. This led to what could be called the “Yeltsin effect”: The campaign against Trump was so aggressive and shameless that it riled up a significant portion of the electorate. In the USSR, too, a big percentage of the population voted not so much for Yeltsin and his concrete proposals, as against the unscrupulous game of the communist nomenklatura, its control over various aspects of life, including media, and, also as an act of protest against the corruption of the elites, both material and moral.

Hillary Clinton and her circle of political elites, the media and the intellectual elites became the personification of these sins. Another interesting parallel is that both Yeltsin and Trump came from the very heart of the elite but effectively positioned themselves, and were perceived by both the elites themselves, and the populace, as anti-establishment candidates.

Just as in the case of Yeltsin, there was a lot of significance in Trump emphasizing the topic of privileged groups and going out of the paradigm of political correctness. At the same time, precisely because of political correctness in the past 50 years, the majority of Americans are afraid of saying what they think about a few “dangerous” topics: racial and gender problems, the treatment of sexual minorities, benefits and preferences for certain groups and the policy of “reverse discrimination.” As a result, many people lied even on anonymous surveys, worried that admitting their sympathies for Trump could lead to them being persecuted and cost them their career. Besides all that, this created a skewed picture of the electoral situation: The degree of support for Trump was underestimated, both as a whole and among educated and wealthy segments of the population.

The irony of the current situation is that during the elections of 1989-1991, both in the Soviet Union and in Russia, the press was actually already free. This last election in the U.S., however, showed quite clearly that one could not say that about the American press. A unified front against Trump was formed, including an information blockade. The press, elite observers and analysts, even organizations that polled public opinion, all of them worked toward a single goal: to preserve the status quo and discredit the outsider candidate. In trying to please the establishment, many polling and information agencies worked with clearly unrepresentative selective data, where the proportion of Democrats and opponents of Trump was significantly exaggerated.

In this sense, the current situation could be compared to the Russian election in 1996, when the entire political elite, the oligarchs, and the West teamed up against Zyuganov,** not letting anything make them think twice; including the wholesale information blockade of Yeltsin’s opponents and obvious falsifications on the day of the election.

As it was noted previously, the causes of the current situation are eclipsed by the vitriol of the election, the polarization of voters, the exotic nature of one of the candidates, and the fear and complete demonization of him by the elite. Among those causes is a rapidly growing irritation among the white middle class about their loss of status and group privileges (not reflected by the reality of the socio-economic status of those who receive them). There is a sharp split among voters on this issue, and a complete unwillingness of the elite, and the elite among minorities as well, to recognize that there is a problem and to go for concessions that could be critical for their survival. As a result, there is a growing potential for a societal crisis.

Such situations have occurred in the U.S. twice in the 20th century: in the 1930s and in the 1960s. In both cases, they were solved by reforming systems from the top, that is, by the conscious decision of political and business elites. In the first instance, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saving the country from societal collapse in the years of the Great Depression and overcoming the desperate resistance of the establishment, cardinally expanded the socio-economic functions of government, including creating systems of social welfare and healthcare for poor and elderly Americans, and introducing a mandatory retirement insurance for all employed people. In the second instance, Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, in the process of a global campaign for human rights, created government programs that existed to compensate certain minorities for discrimination, and that guaranteed equality among all segments of the population.

Both times, systemic reforms effectively delayed a societal crisis, but did not eliminate its causes. Currently there are several threats, like the collapse of the social security system, created in the 1930s, and programs of “positive action” (“reverse discrimination”), a series of group privileges, and a system of harsh self-censorship, the creation of which began in the mid-1960s.

The reforms of the 1930s, and especially of the 1960s, were undoubtedly motivated not only by the fear of the system being destabilized but by moral and ideological considerations. In the mid-1960s, there was a consensus among the white majority, that it was imperative to compensate black people for slavery and the preceding century of political and socio-economic discrimination. Passing serious reforms in this area was accelerated by the spread of protest movements, which increased the fear of systemic destabilization. On the whole, however, the white majority voluntarily agreed to share: making concessions to provide African-Americans with voting and other political rights, such as receiving benefits in order to get into university or attain employment, which included a quota system, and the creation of various financial and other privileges. Implementing these programs was accompanied by severe self-censorship, where voicing doubt about even the secondary components of this system became dangerous.

Serious changes followed the creation of this system.

Following this same logic (compensation for ongoing or past discrimination), other minorities started to demand similar benefits. As a result of this, the interpretation of the term “minority” increasingly widened. Besides other ethnic and racial groups (Native Americans, Asians, Latinos), disabled people, and then homosexuals and other sexual minorities were included in the groups getting the privileges. Many benefits were given to women as well. As a result, the only group that didn’t have the status of a minority and didn’t get the special benefits were white men.

The expansion of the legal term “minority” occurred parallel to rapid changes to the ethnic and racial makeup of the population, which happened as a result of the quickening of the natural growth in the number of minorities and a change in immigration policy. If before 1965 the priority was given to immigrants from Western Europe (foremost, on the basis of discriminatory regional quotas, created at the beginning of the 20th century), then with the approval of the Immigration Reform Act, the United States radically re-evaluated their immigration policy, opening the borders to immigrants from third-world countries and to qualified specialists. As a result, the ratio of European immigrants to the U.S., previously comprising about 90 percent, today does not exceed 10 percent.

The growth in the total number and proportion of the population of legally recognized minorities demanded an expansion of the budget which financed the programs providing them with special benefits. This process had three important consequences: increasing the budget deficit, friction in Congress between Democrats and Republicans about how to reduce this deficit and the fate of such benefits programs and competition between representatives of protected groups for these benefits.

These processes occurred parallel to the subsequent reduction in the proportion of the white population and the decrease in their quality of life. Furthermore, the demographic trends are such that by the middle of this century, white people will no longer be the largest population group in the U.S. This only increases their insecurity regarding the future.

In this sense, the appearance of Trump has become a symbol of the growth of tensions in society and the readiness of a number of groups in the population (first and foremost, the shrinking white majority) for the beginning of radical reforms, the main goal of which has to be a re-evaluation of the programs of quotas and group privileges, and a transition to the socio-economic benefits of distribution criteria. Hillary’s victory could have had catastrophic consequences: her reliance on minorities and inability to be politically flexible would have prevented her from realizing the magnitude of the problems facing the country, and to take steps which might weaken her support among certain political groups.

Nevertheless, very serious questions still remain today. By articulating the problems of the white middle class, Trump consolidated support from this group of voters and the population as a whole. However, he simultaneously pushed away a significant portion of minorities, which in the last couple of decades had become more favorable towards the Republican party, especially among African Americans, Latinos and Muslims, making the formation of a broad political coalition more difficult. There are other serious questions which don’t yet have an answer.

Here are a few of them: Is Trump himself prepared to take the necessary radical steps? Has the political leadership, including the elites among minorities, recognized their necessity, and are they ready to make reforms, even if they weaken their own electoral support? Will Trump be able to overcome the resistance of the party bosses in Congress? Will the wave of violence that followed Trump’s election, inspired by his opponents, increase, and how effectively will the new president be able to fight it?

Time will tell. For now, only one thing can be said: The appearance of a candidate like Trump and his victory in the 2016 elections speak to the fact that the United States has met with a deep systemic crisis, which it will only be possible to overcome with radical reforms. We will not have long to wait and see if Trump will be the leader that will be able to pass those reforms and give the country a new model of development.

*Translator’s Note: A term for the highest elite of Soviet government and industry

**Translator’s Note: Gennady Zyuganov was the Russian Communist party’s candidate for president, who was polling very close to Yeltsin

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