Zach Horton

The Grade Fire and the Redwood Valley Fire


Glowing and exhausted from our summer successes, we cleaned up the site and prepared to depart in late July. Zach flew home to Pittsburgh and Jess stayed behind for an extra week, heading north with Ann for a quick road trip to visit family in Oregon. Around mid afternoon on a Sunday, a neighbor called Ann on the road with orders to evacuate the mountain immediately. A trailer had exploded on Highway 101 in the valley below. Fueled by hot dry winds and an unusual density of brittle undergrowth from an el niño winter, the fire swept up the mountain from the west and roared toward the domes and main house. Robert, who was home alone, ran out in his slippers and set to work preparing hoses and positioning a gas-powered pump at the pond below the main house. Ann called various friends to hurry up the hill and “help Robert evacuate.” Three of these friends from my parents’ church, Rolf, Jason, and Ted (an ex-firefighter), bravely stayed and helped him fight the fire. By the time it reached the house, Cal Fire was sending helicopters and engines to bomb the area with pink fire retardant chemicals and giant loads of water sourced from our pond. We are grateful to Ted as well as Peter Armstrong, an independent photographer who shoots for Cal Fire, for sharing their documentation.

Ann and Jess were shocked when googling the fire from the road to see a dramatic photo of our place featured in the Los Angeles Times. It reveals the fire sweeping across the swale toward the domes and main house . Photos  by Peter Armstrong.


Robert by the woodpile, working to hold the fire at the fence behind the main house; firefighters parked by the freestanding shed on the way to the domes.  Photos by Ted Enberg.

As the Cal Fire aerial view of the burned area above reveals, their collective efforts succeeded in stopping the fire at the dirt access road just behind the main house, preventing it from sweeping down the east side of the mountain and into the town of Redwood Valley below. The domes are not quite visible in this image; they are located just down the ridge from the solar array on the right side, in the fire zone. The fire burned 900 acres; approximately 150 of them were ours. We are extremely grateful to Robert, Rolf, Ted, and Jason, as well as the hundreds of firefighters who camped for several days on the mountain putting out flames. Cal Fire resounding credited Robert as a model of “fire preparedness” and ran a series of posts on social media, documenting the extent of the fire and the measures that limited the scope of the damage. We have copied over some of the text and images below, followed by Jess’s documentation of the domes upon her return from Oregon.


By Doug Pitman, Public Information Officer, Sheriff’s Lieutenant, Marin County- while assigned to the Grade Fire Public Information Team: 

Mr. Horton, a longtime Baker’s Creek resident, said, “I have been waiting for this fire for 24 years.” He has lived in his beautiful hilltop home, overlooking the picturesque Redwood Valley, for more than two decades. 

Mr. Horton said he was in his home unaware of the fast approaching wildfire until a neighbor alerted him. Soon he was surrounded by friends as well as CAL FIRE and local firefighters who fought and kept the blaze from destroying his home. Firefighters saved his home because of the defensible space he had provided and his pond that helped supply firefighting water.

Mr. Horton could not fully express his heartfelt appreciation for the hard work and efforts that helped he and his neighbors save their homes. As a proud Vietnam Veteran, he showed his thanks by flying the United States flag in honor of his country and the public safety personnel who valiantly fought the Grade Fire.

As firefighters continued their mop-up of the 900 acre Grade Fire, just North of Ukiah, CA, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Robert Horton, who was assessing the damages to his and his neighboring homes. 

Mr. Horton’s home had been spared from destruction and that had a lot to due with his obvious efforts in establishing and maintaining a wide perimeter of defensible space.The only damages were; a melted pipe, a burnt corner on one of his gates, and his split rail fence will require some repair.

Mr. Horton keeps his annual grasses cut low, loose litter to a minimum, his rain gutters covered, and he has his trees trimmed up, away from the ground. 

Defensible Space: 
-Cut annual grass down to a maximum height of 4 inches. 
-Loose surface litter consisting of leaves, pine needles, and twigs shall be permitted to a maximum depth of 3 inches
-Trim tree limbs up 6 to 15 feet so they are unable to act as a ladder for fire from the ground up into the trees 
-Remove all leaves, pine needles and debris from rain gutters

Mr. Horton goes above and beyond by:
-Having hoses that reach the 4 corners of his property
-Having a additional water pond with a pump  
-Maintaining bare mineral soil under his deck


As the above panorama reveals, the fire burned a perimeter around the domes, wherever tall dry grasses were not mowed. The domes themselves were unscathed. The space was defended by Cal Fire and became the main encampment for firefighters who held watch for days after the fire was contained. They were all curious and impressed by the architecture, deeming it intelligent building in a region that, due to the long-term effects climate change, is increasingly prone to wildfire.

The grove of oak trees that lies between the main house and domes, providing a wonderful privacy screen, was hit hard, but we are hopeful that most of the trees are hearty and healthy enough to survive.

Robert and Jess took a ride in maxi (a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that we use to access challenging areas) to turkey gulch, the beautiful wooded area below the domes, to assess the damage. It was the first time we could see the exposed terrain, given that many decades of thick undergrowth was suddenly cleared.

Although we mourned the hurt beings- plants, trees, and animals- with whom we share this beautiful place, we accepted the Grade Fire with a sense of inevitability and deep gratitude that ourselves and our homes emerged unscathed. From one perspective, human-caused fires take their place in a  continuum of “natural” wildfires that have always been a part of the land. Sometime in the 1960s, these same oak knolls burned, and many hundreds-of-years-old trees bore witness and thrived. Yet we knowingly designed the domes for an uncertain future, recognizing that California, like the rest of the world, is already reeling from the effects of climate change. The impact of wildfires is compounded by land development patterns that prevent controlled burning.


Nothing quite prepared us, however, for the enormity of the fires that ravaged our community in October 2017. This time, fires sprang up in eight different locations throughout N. California, driven by a sudden, massive drop in humidity combined with soaring temperatures and 50 + mph winds. It was the hottest summer on record, and the land was brittle from the long and rainless summer. The Redwood Valley Fire (also called the Mendocino Complex Fire) was started by sparking Pacific Gas & Electric poles swaying from the winds during the night. It swept with terrifying speed through the rural community of Redwood Valley and rushed up the mountain from the east, covering the areas left unburned by the Grade Fire.

Our parents were again on the front lines, receiving an evacuation order that roused them from sleep in the middle of the night. Shortly after, our neighbors, the Pardinis, arrived at the gate to the house. Their home was already on fire and they headed down the mountain. However, friends of theirs who came up to help them evacuate, an ex-fire-fighter named Ken and his son Carson, assessed the situation at our place and determined that there was a good chance of saving it yet again, in part because the Grade Fire created a “safe zone” around three sides of the main house. In an extraordinary act of solidarity, they stayed to help Ann and Robert. This time, the wall of flames was much higher and embers were shooting horizontally and lodging in every available nook. Cal Fire was nowhere to be seen; the speed and ferocity and confusion of the fire in the middle of the night prevented any organized fight. The four of them battled all night, putting out embers on the roof and at one point, flames on the deck. Ann paused only once to snap a few terrifying photos, above. Robert became lost in the smoke down by the pond and barely found his way back up to the shed, eyebrows and hair singed; it took weeks for his eyesight to return to normal. Somehow, they and the house were still standing come morning.

The sight in daylight was grim. Fences and trees were charred and broken. Whole forests of manzanita lining the road and protecting the domes from view were simply gone.  The shiny new solar array was singed from the intensity of the heat, wires melted and several panels blistered. Small fires continued to burn nearby. Jute erosion mats and seed were freshly laid over the dome mounds just the day before, an essential step to stabilize the soil in preparation for heavy winter rains. This flammable material sent the fire soaring over top of the building. Happily, the windows did not blow from the heat, and the structures survived largely undamaged–although a true assessment would take additional time. The heavy smell of smoke and a thick layer of ash permeated everything, inside and out. The aerial photo from Cal Fire below shows how much more intense the Redwood Valley Fire burned as it overlapped the areas devastated by the summer Grade Fire.

The well house further up the road burned down completely and the tanks that store water for the main house and domes were damaged beyond use.

For about a week, the fires continued to burn elsewhere and my parents were trapped on the mountain without electricity or water. They learned that in addition to the Pardinins, the Gibsons, Knapps, and several other neighbors lost their homes. Our nearby friends, Bill and Jay, survived both fires and were the only people on the mountain besides our parents during this period. Jess was able to communicate with Ann thanks to a generator that powered her cell phone in short bursts throughout the week. Since Jess was on a semester-long research leave from her university, she bought a plane ticket to help with the fire recovery the following week, anticipating that the region would by then stabilize. She was also able to arrange for a delivery of gas and groceries through a friend’s son who worked for AT&T, who was busy repairing fiber optics networks in the valley and bluffed his way through the barricades. The Friday following the fire, Pacific Gas & Electric arrived to repair several damaged poles on our road. Electricity was restored, but water would remain elusive for several more weeks. The roads reopened on Monday.


The full extent of the fire–although just one of many that devastated the region- was staggering for our close-knit rural community. It burned 36,523 acres, destroyed 545 structures, damaged 43 more, and killed 8 people. Many of our friends and neighbors lost homes. We are humbled by the extraordinary generosity of all who shared time and resources with us during this period.

When Jess arrived the following week, 10 days after the fire hit our homes, the air was cleared as the first storm of the season rolled in. As she began the 2.5 mile drive up the winding dirt road from the base of the mountain, the damage became worse at each turn. When she rounded the corner for the last stretch before the domes, the sight of the scorched manzanita forests was temporarily overwhelming. Soon, however, shock turned into peaceful awareness and commitment to the work at hand. Ann and Robert, swamped with damage to the property, had not yet been able to attend to the domes. The first step was to quickly replant the singed dirt mound before heavy rains caused irreversible erosion.  Jess, Ann and Robert, along with family friends Laura and Roy, joined in the collective labor. Another friend, Robert, helped finish the job the following day. Spirits were high.

Damage to the domes slowly revealed itself: Melted ventilation pipes. Dangerous trees that needed removing.  A warped window sash. Burn holes in screens. Bubbling areas of stucco that would need to be replaced. By far the worst damage, however, was the result of a freak accident. Brack left his scaffolding in place along the front wall after the stucco was finished as a favor to us because we were waiting for another contractor to install a copper cap to seal the top edge. The contractor backed out and hence, the scaffolding remained in place much longer than anticipated. One of the boards went up in flames and in turn, a cleanout drain attached to the buried french drain around the bottom perimeter of the domes also caught fire. The damage reached surprisingly far back, through the front wall and under 150 tons of dirt bearing down on the pipe. Barely had we moved a mountain, before we were confronted with the prospect of digging it back up. Zach made a very short trip out to install a temporary fix, which will hopefully see us through the rainy season. He also assessed and set in motion needed repairs to the new solar array. We are hopeful that an insurance claim to the main house may extend to the domes, which would ease the financial burden of redoing our hard won steps. On the whole, we feel incredibly proud that the domes stood tall through two fires. This gift compels our sense of responsibility to the project, the land, and the people associated with it. Paraphrasing our mother, why wouldn’t we love a place when it is hurting, just as we would love a person?

On one of her last days on site, Jess spotted a rainbow, a sign of the changes- driven by fire and water- that will continue to reshape the land. As we write in late November, the rains have brought the first wave of vivid green and grazing deer. 





Mountains and Mole Holes: Summer 2017

Our goal for the second summer was no less than to build a mountain, burying the domes under 150 tons of dirt. With the completion of this step, our aim was to realize a waterproof, temperature-regulated, fire-proof, and aesthetically unobtrusive structure. In addition, we set out to install a gleaming new solar array to energize the domes and my parents’ nearby home, finish the front walls with synthetic stucco, and carry on with the interior plumbing and electrical work necessary to prepare the domes for an eventual plaster finish.

First, we had to cover the domes with a thick layer of waterproofing: long strips of plastic with an underside of bentonite clay that expands upon contact with moisture. Every seam was super-sealed with heavy tape. As usual, the trick was to fit rectangular strips onto the sloped concrete surfaces by cutting, tucking, and fitting them, a bit like sewing a garment for a curvy body. Each layer was held in place with gun-driven concrete nails. Beforehand, we patched rough portions of the concrete with a disgusting oily mastic to make sure there were no large crevices for water to trickle in, destroying a few pairs of work clothes along the way.



Zach drove a boom in order to peg the waterproofing to the upper reaches. Troy and Todd, strong, apparently immortal teenagers with monkey climbing skills, helped us with the heavy lifting. Jess’s job was to lift, fit, pin, tape and repeat (including several days of work in the dreaded pit between the domes, where giant spiders were nesting).

All those wrinkles (above) had to be addressed, until the waterproof shell was smooth and reflective (below):

A layer of insulating blue foam was screwed into the concrete and waterproofing at the base of the domes, following by a giant snake of 4″ perforated French drain leading through the concrete retaining walls to exit in front of the house. Then a thick layer of drain rock was shoveled into place. Given that this water channeling device would be buried for the ages, getting the design right was essential.


When building domes, everything is repurposed; even our favorite childhood red wagon, in which Jess pulled her slave-driving older brother…


Remember all that foam that Dan and Jess painstakingly fitted into beautiful curves last summer? Now it all had to be removed, revealing a ragged and sinuous concrete wall dotted with small foam “cheese” squares that we had wired into place in order to space the foam off the rebar grid. Now we piled the removed foam layers in the middle of Dome 1, awaiting use as an exterior layer of insulation and protection beneath the dirt backfill.

Through the fall and spring, while we were mostly busy with our east coast teaching jobs, Curtis, our talented and steadfast carpenter, framed the interior walls to separate the attic, bathroom, bedroom, office, utility room, and hallway in Dome 2. The challenge was to frame up straight walls against curved ceilings, and to anchor them into a concrete floor without puncturing the fragile system of radiant heating pipes coursing just below the surface. Curtis has loyally returned to our job site to do this work, often alone on off-season weekends, after putting in an intense week laboring in his normal construction job and caring for his grandmother. These photographs reveal much of our own handiwork, too: the complicated ventilation system that we put in during the winter visit home, as well as the beginnings of the electrical and plumbing systems that will eventually be hidden behind plaster. Curtis and our neighbor, Danny, helped to guide us through the challenging electrical work. Tom, our part-time plumber who has so far eluded our camera, was also on site whenever a pipe-related job flummoxed us.

Here you can see the apex of Dome 2 buried in the attic, with a retractable ladder leading up to one of the few storage spaces in the house.

Here is a glimpse of our greatest interior challenge: Pulling hundreds of feet of wire through small conduits permanently buried in concrete. Unlike Dome 2, Dome 1 has no interior walls, so all the tubes had to be laid last summer, prior to the shotcrete, and directed into the main electrical boxes in the attic and utility room in Dome 2. This image shows the crammed juncture box in the kitchen, where ten different conduits converge.

We are grateful to Ahmed, a family friend who drove down from the Bay Area on two different weekends to lend a hand with wire pulling, hole digging, and a few hundred other tasks. Ahmed’s generosity, loud cheerful curses, and Micky Mouse shirt uplifted us during one of the toughest, hottest periods of the summer, when the relentless pace of work had began to wear on all of us.


Jess’s closest brush with her professional discipline, art history, was a glue brand called Gorilla O’Keeffe’s.

Then the dirt movers arrived: father and son team Jerry and Wyatt, family friends who have long graded the main dirt road up the mountain. They also excavated our site and laid the sewer system the previous year.  In preparation for 150 dump truck loads of dirt transported from a hillside from our property across the main road, we were careful to weed-whack the dry grasses on all sides. This was fast becoming  the hottest northern California summer on record, and fire preparedness around heavy machinery was constantly on our minds.

Jess joined the dirt moving team to fit and lay sheets of protective foam against the waterproofing, as the dusty mound slowly grew upwards. This often entailed waving and shouting wildly at the operators as heavy machinery swung inches from her camouflaged face.

The domes are now fully buried in a 17-foot-high mound. We raked the new mountain smooth and sprinkled straw to keep the Mendocino County officials happy. Planting native seed and laying erosion mats to spur new growth had to wait until just before the first fall rains.

We could not have accomplished so much in less than two months without behind-the-scenes support from Ann and Robert, our parents. Among other tasks, they made dozens of supply runs to Ukiah, about a 25-minute drive from the build site. On one such trip, Jess stepped out of the passenger seat, arms piled high with bags and boxes, and nearly stepped on a beautiful gopher snake. Hissing furiously, he was chased off by Bo, a sweet new pup with a great sense of humor who arrived in the winter to help our hearts heal from the loss of Kaiyo.


Another job loomed: building a solar rack to house 20 gleaming new panels to feed energy to the domes and the main house where my parents live. We chose a site in an open field just north of the domes, next to an old array that sustained the household back when we were kids living off the grid, but was now outdated and decrepit. We rented an auger to dig 4-foot holes for the concrete footings.

As the smallest member of the build team, Jess had to  clean out the footings. She was becoming more mole than human.

Curtis arrived to help us frame up the posts and hopefully keep the rack from toppling over.

The last great task of the summer was to stucco the front walls of the domes. For once, we decided to give our dusty, exhausted, and mistake-prone selves a break and hire the brilliant stucco wizard, Brack Zollo, and his team. They did the job in two layers, first placing netting over the wall to hold a thick base coat of synthetic stucco.

Brack was the boss, but half the time he and his son suited up and joined the team. The thing we loved most about him, beyond his solid work ethic, great treatment of his workers, and beautiful results: No matter what crazy request we threw at him, he grinned and replied, “no problem.” After grappling with the careless work, no shows, and negative replies of many other contractors who approached our highly unusual project with a mix of fear and skepticism, this easy attitude toward challenges was a relief and a delight.

The final textured coat blended the warm tones of dry grasses and earth that- despite resembling a sand dune- was chosen to blend subtly into the surroundings through the changing seasons. A lot of sculptural framing work took place around the door and windows using stucco-sealed foam forms. Together with the earth sheltered backside, the domes now began to ease back into the land, waiting for rain-awakened grasses and spring wildflowers to reclaim the scarred construction site. Our summer work was coming to a close.

Snow and Goldfields

As we write, it is November 2017 and we are breathless from all that has happened on site in the past year. We will be adding several posts, beginning with December 2016, to tell the story in the correct order, from rain and snow to wildflowers and wildfires.

Our holiday 2016 work trip was short- just a few days indoors to finish the complex ventilation system so that our carpenter could continue framing the interior walls of Dome 2. Still, it gave us a chance to experience the domes in a winter storm.  At this stage, prior to waterproofing and earth berming the exterior, water was leaking in everywhere. We were damp, chilled, and awed by the beauty of the mist and rain.

Ian and Susan visited us for an indispensable couple of hours when the sun returned to help with the ventilation and warm us up with their good cheer!


Kiyo, our sweet dog who lived a joyful life roaming the mountain, passed away after Christmas. His final excursions were to the domes.

January 2017: A snow storm hit while we were on the east coast. Our mother, Ann, sent these lovely photos of the domes under a blanket of snow:

And then glorious spring and goldfields arrived, also without us:

Summer 2017 Dome Building Plan

It’s that time of year again: time to get outside and build something!  And that something is, for my sister Jess and I, The Domes.  Yes, the same as last year.  This June, new friends and old are invited to join us in our little utopian project to construct a dwelling and community that preserves our core values for and in an increasingly dark future.  Energy self-sufficiency, space for creative thought and practice, communal work and gathering, re-integration with larger ecosystems, thinking and building for larger timescales… the project continues!  Join us during the month of June to help waterproof the domes and cover them with earth.  We’ll also be working on the electrical system, installing an array of solar panels, and stuccoing the front wall.  It will be exciting to finish the exterior!

For more information about the Domes, see our updated project page.

Why Trump’s Electoral Victory is an Opportunity for the Left

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…

2. Smugness.

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?

3. Neoliberalism

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.

Moving Forward

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.

Creative Politics

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.

« Older posts

© 2018 Convergence

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑