In my social and professional circles, the election of Donald Trump, perhaps the most hateful candidate ever to grace a major party ticket in the U.S. for the office of President, has occasioned mostly shock, despair, and depression. I would like to briefly share some reasons to view Donald Trump’s victory as a significant opportunity for radical politics.
There is no question that Trump’s presidency itself is a horrible step backwards, an already-extant disaster for people of color, women, Muslims, and the environment, and a potential disaster for world peace, prosperity, and safety. I am not arguing that Trump’s presidency is a good thing, but I am arguing that Trump’s electoral victory has and will produce many new opportunities for an invigorated politics of the left. Not the same opportunities that always exist in the form of opposition to right wing rule, but something entirely new, something to which we must become freshly and uniquely attuned lest it slip away. This opportunity takes the form of invaluable lessons that will help us re-assess America’s political situation with eyes wide open, the removal of powerfully conservative forces that have hitherto prevented any radical change from percolating through mainstream politics, and a political and social landscape that will be ripe for the creative application of unconventional political leadership.
In the liberal and left-leaning group that generally make up my social networks, the most oft-expressed opinion on social media feeds the day of the election was some variant of “thank god the election is here, so we can finally make Trump go away.” The sentiment here was that an electoral defeat would finally give Trump his comeuppance for his raciest, xenophobic, misogynistic campaign rhetoric and hateful fear mongering. The conventional wisdom, shared by liberals, leftists, and media commentators, was that no one as deeply bigoted as Donald Trump could ever be elected President. I shared this view, and it ensured that I was completely blindsided and unprepared for Tuesday night’s result.
However, the naïve view that Trump’s hate-filled discourse could be defeated with the victory of Hillary Clinton was the first sign, for me, that something was terribly wrong. This was smug, wishful thinking that not only ignored the strength, breadth, and tenacity of Trump’s populist movement, but also framed the magical solution as a return to establishment politics. How had the left painted itself into this corner?
All we could really see of Trump was his bigotry, and that made a democratic victory literally unthinkable and ultimately inevitable (whether in this election or the next). Our complacent reliance on the Democratic Party was already doomed. Here are some of the things that, in my view, we got so wrong, and why it’s better that they came to light sooner rather than later:
1. Our analytic categories were too narrow.
Racism, sexism, misogyny, and Islamophobia are categories that progressives, and especially academics, are well-trained to spot, analyze, and combat at the discursive level. Trump and his most egregious followers (the “basket of deplorables”) lit up this radar with such overwhelming regularity and intensity that the analytic machinery behind it was saturated and failed to function properly. Not much else got through. Here we were our own victims of an essentialist and inflexible analytic framework. We have become perhaps too good (and too reflexive) at recognizing certain patterns at a certain scale, and could no recognize larger ones and larger scales, let alone entirely new shapes emerging in our cultural-social-medial assemblages. When it turned out that Trump’s support on election day stretched far beyond the basket of deplorables, that just didn’t compute for most of us. But the issues (speech and representation) that are most salient to us are not necessarily the most salient or important to the voting public at large. This should have been obvious, but we were blinded by our own proficiency, by habit and by…
Liberals have been winning in U.S. politics for awhile, and tend to view themselves as far more enlightened on social issues than their political adversaries. This contributed to the narrowing of our analytic categories and policy concerns (see below) and convinced us that Hillary Clinton couldn’t really lose, because the Trump camp was so in the wrong. But it is clear now that however despicable Trump is, many of his followers had good reasons to vote for him other than expressing their hatred of women, people of color, etc. More white women voted for Trump than Clinton, and Trump garnered almost 30% of the Latino/a vote, which seems inconceivable if race was the primary issue for voters. Most significantly, the voters that handed Trump the election were rust belt working class whites that had voted for Obama in the past, and had now switched to Trump (without the Democratic party even noticing). This is what turned the map red and handed Trump the election.
To sum up: bigotry seemed to liberals, radicals, and mainstream pundits to be the most salient issue of the election, and it turned out not to matter to at least half of the voting public. This is in and of itself deeply troubling from a social justice perspective, but the important point here is that the biggest drivers of voter behavior in this election trumped bigoted speech acts (no pun intended). A lot of this is just about priority. As Connor Kilpatrick argues persuasively in this article, racism is fungible: some voting communities in the U.S. have historically flopped multiple times from racist to progressive and back. This suggests that it is a subsidiary issue for many independent voters: when racial anxiety can be made to align with their biggest concerns, racism flares up; when liberalism can be made to align with their biggest concerns, they become progressive. On the left, we have tended to essentialize racism, which makes it far more difficult for us to understand this phenomenon and identify the most important issues to these voters. (Note: race is the most important issue for some voters, and they unquestioningly constitute Trump’s most rabid base, but those aren’t the voters who handed him this election.) This is not to downplay the significance of racism or suggest that it wasn’t an important aspect of Trump’s campaign, but only to note that the issue has been approached by liberals and radicals in a manner that is simplistic, essentialist, and self serving (when discourse places you in the position of the morally righteous and makes you feel superior to your opponent, this should send up a huge red flag). Liberal moralizing on this issue not only failed to sway half of the electorate, but actually made the problem far worse: it signaled a deep misunderstanding and disconnect between liberals and the concerns of the working class, and heaped insult upon injury by morally condemning voters for voting in their own economic interests. What could have been a stronger message to the effect that liberalism had abandoned the working class? That message was heard loud and clear, as was Trump’s message of radical change.
What, then, was the issue that turned the rust belt voters from Obama to Trump?
The left has had neoliberalism in its crosshairs ever since it appeared on the scene, but liberals—who have been in the driver’s seat of mainstream politics for the past quarter century—have embraced it so thoroughly that it has become orthodoxy in the Democratic Party. Neoliberalism, implemented as a set of policy objectives by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, was a right-wing platform until Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council mainstreamed it in the 1990s. The core philosophy of neoliberal economics is that all dynamics are best rationalized and optimized if they can be driven by and as markets. Those markets should therefore be “free” in the sense of self-governing; any external force that constrains markets prevents them from fully optimizing the underlying dynamics into which they have been unleashed. This means that public property (such as water, land, infrastructure, utilities, universities, etc.) should be privatized, government regulation should be scaled back or eliminated, and every possible market should be opened up for exploitation.
In other words, capitalism should be spread to every aspect of life on this planet and any impediment to free markets should be eliminated. In policy, this is done through free trade agreements, international lending (through the IMF and World Bank) to countries in trouble in exchange for drastic changes to their laws and the privatization of their resources. Trade agreements preempt other laws such as those ensuring social and environmental protection, weakening signatory governments vis-a-vis global corporations, which can actually sue a government for doing anything (such as protecting some part of the population or element of the natural environment) that would hamper business. Neoliberalism is essentially a grand tuning of the world to transform it into a capital (monetary surplus) producing machine. The benefactors are the corporations, companies, investors, and their political allies who reap the profits. The losers are just about everyone else. However, in particularly wealthy countries, the biggest (human) losers are the working class, because neoliberal policy ensures that labor will be outsourced to the regions of the world where it is cheapest, and labor is always cheapest in regions in which laborers can be most exploited. So while the upper classes in all countries benefit from this arrangement, the working classes get the short end of the stick. The resulting disparity of wealth and lack of employment in formerly productive regions of the U.S. (e.g. the rust belt) has disenfranchised a lot of people. Trump spoke to those people. Partly he blamed Latinos for stealing what jobs remain, but mostly he blamed free trade agreements that moved those jobs out of the U.S. in the first place. That message resonated with those disenfranchised by neoliberal policy. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party didn’t even put up a fight.
4. A Compromised Democratic Party
To prevail electorally against Reaganism, the Democratic Party sold its soul. The Clintons lead that pivot, and three decades of rabid neoliberalism created, as Naomi Klein argues here, the very conditions that swept Trump into power. The Democratic Party became so rich and complacent through this platform, so corrupt, and so complacent, that it not only couldn’t see this coming, not only abandoned the very class that had at one time made up its core constituency (the working class), but actively quashed all attempts within the party to re-connect with its roots. Its leadership conspired to thwart democracy and ensure that Hillary Clinton received the nomination, despite her many flaws and vulnerabilities as a candidate. As perhaps the most neoliberal candidate available in the Democratic party, she was the worst possible one to field against Trump. Even though this was obvious, the overwhelming neoliberal power bloc within the party, along with corruption from the top, conspired to quash a candidate who could actually pull the rug out from under Trump: Bernie Sanders. This is particularly tragic because as I noted above, the left has long attacked neoliberalism; it simply hasn’t been able to breach the firewall within the Democratic party to mainstream the issue. Bernie Sanders attempted to do just that, and he was crushed by the Democratic Party machine. If he, or another non-neoliberal candidate (possibly Elizabeth Warren) had been fielded by the Democratic Party, the left could have claimed the very ground that Trump took to the ballot box.
For those who feel, as I did, shocked, dismayed, and depressed (or worse, for many: targeted and scared) by the results of this election, I think the first step is to learn these four lessons. The left has failed America, and we need to understand why and how. On the day after the election one of my students noted, “we did everything we could, and it didn’t make any difference.” Yes, we worked hard to combat the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and ignorance that Trump exuded, but I think we can take heart, perhaps paradoxically, in the fact that we could have done better. We are not helpless. In fact, we can and must not only continue to do all we have in the past… we need to step up our game. We need to widen our understanding and analytic categories for grappling with this election. If you’ve found yourself coping with the election results by concluding that half of the electorate is composed of hopelessly racist, xenophobic, misogynistic people hell bent on recovering a position of white supremacy, then you’re still living inside what Michael Moore called, even before the election, “the bubble.” This conclusion is not only wrong in important ways (see my colleague Iza Ding’s post here on the limitation of generalization and the importance of nuance when identifying voting blocs in electoral politics), but also hopelessly self serving. Instead of choosing the narrative that makes us feel superior to the white working class, lumping all of their concerns into a single category, we need to consider the strategic as well as ideological role of racism, acknowledge its contingency, and effectively analyze its relationships with other ideologies and practices. To do so is not to back down on the fight against bigotry, but to deepen and nuance it.
It is time to take some responsibility. Hope starts with knowledge and wisdom, and this election has provided that for those who are wiling to accept that they were shortsighted and smug. I’m guilty as charged, but I soon realized that my own attitude and analytic categories were contributing to my blindness and depressed affect. Regaining political agency means grappling with these hard truths, but the affective payoff is great: instead of despair at an imagined onslaught of bigots that we cannot defeat politically, realizing that we face (among other things) a populist movement against neoliberalism opens up a path forward. This is a battle we can win, if we take off the blinders. This certainly does not mean backing down from social justice struggles—on the contrary, we must continue to fight against hatred and prejudice in every possible way. What this does mean, however, is an accurate characterization of our enemy, and in this case, it turns out that one of our biggest enemies was in our own midst in the form of neoliberal policy and philosophy. The Trump voters who turned the election in his favor, the portion of the working class that supported Obama but got little from the Democratic Party in return, aren’t really our enemies at all, and can be turned into our allies.
Having Donald Trump as our president is unquestionably a disaster in the short term. But the forces that he unleashed were already there, had to explode at some point, and weren’t going to go away even if Clinton won the election. Now, instead of deluding ourselves, or patting ourselves on the back for being so morally superior, we can have a conversation about neoliberalism. Trump’s opposition to free trade started a movement that should have been lead by the left. The good news here is that Trump’s anti-NAFTA stance is hopelessly compromised by his own interests (his wealth was the result of neoliberalism) and other pro-neoliberal policies (deregulation, tax cuts to the wealthy, exploitation of U. S. coal and oil reserves, etc.) That means that the fight against neoliberalism can still be taken back by the left, and will in fact become far more potent when coupled with a broad-based platform of social and environmental justice. The forces that prevented this from happening in the past—the bipartisan consensus of the political class that neoliberalism was axiomatic and the influence of the Clinton dynasty within the Democratic Party in particular—have now been dealt a fatal blow by Trump. The coalition that I’m imagining here, should it materialize (and we can certainly make it materialize) now has more space to breathe than any other time in the past thirty years.
On a more general level, Trump has shaken up the establishment, making a return to business/politics as usual in either of the two parties a lot less likely (even if his administration morphs into a traditional Republican one). The political possibilities are, for the first time in my lifetime, completely open ended. This is not, then, a time for depression or helpless anger, but rather a time for creative imaginings. The worst thing we can now do is to double down on our old assumptions and habits. Our affect should be positive, not negative; active, not reactive. We should be building—not rebuilding, but building… something new, something better. A lot of women and girls (and men) saw their dream of a female president heartbreakingly deferred this past Tuesday. But this dream will have its time soon enough, and that time will be so much more. Facing a Trump presidency, we should not be downsizing our goals, losing the gleam in our eyes, but dreaming bigger, working together toward something that, like Trump’s presidency, was unthinkable so very recently. We lost an election, but gained something far larger, less defined, more dangerous, and more challenging. I’m willing to wager, however, that in our current cultural context, any opportunity to write the rules of a new game is far more valuable than an advantageous move in the old one.