Guest post by JAMES ROBERTSON
The general elections on 8 November 2016 were a massive vote of “no confidence” in the US political establishment. Whether measured in the active support for Trump’s populist campaign or in the passive refusal of millions of voters to turn out for Clinton, the message was clear: millions of Americans have no faith in the current political set up and are unwilling to go along with “business as usual.”
While Trump’s support certainly rallied a racist base, his vote cannot be reduced to appeals to a white, masculine nationalism. Although the bulk of his vote was certainly with white men, Trump also did surprisingly well among white women and even took between 19-29% of the Latino vote. Many people responded to Trump’s campaign despite and not because of his bigotry.
It is equally simplistic to read Trump’s victory as a direct result of economic hardship. Although his message on trade and jobs certainly resonated with some working class voters (leading many to break with their union leaders and vote GOP), exit polls strongly suggest that those voters concerned with “the economy” tended to favor Clinton. It is also clear that Clinton won among poorer voters, while Trump dominated the over $50,000 bracket.
Rather than the result of white nationalism or working class revolt, it is more likely that Trump’s victory is directly linked to his attacks on the political establishment. As Chris Cillizza has acknowledged in his assessment of the exit polls: “The desire for change appears to be at the root of the choice lots and lots of voters made. And Trump was change while Clinton was more of the same.” That is, Trump’s victory came about because he successfully tapped into a deep reservoir of anti-political sentiment that both rallied people to him and, more significantly, drove the Democratic base away from Clinton.
Appreciating the primacy of this anti-political sentiment in shaping Trump’s victory is important as the Left looks ahead to a future Trump administration and the emerging struggles against it.
In the immediate aftermath of election night we have seen tens of thousands of people take to the streets in protest at Trump’s victory. Marches in several cities in California, New York City, Philadelphia and even riots in Portland have expressed outrage at the result, declared their solidarity with those targeted by Trump’s bigoted rhetoric and effectively rejected the election results with the slogan “Not My President.”
The anger and fear expressed in these demonstrations is unsurprising. Since June the Democratic Party and mainstream media have launched a campaign of fear-mongering, which presented Trump as a fascist who would set his Alt-Right supporters and their lynch-party rabble loose on the population. Clinton, in an interview with the New York Times, even went so far as to describe Trump’s victory as “the apocalypse.“
This narrative, it should be noted, has failed to appreciate the complexity of Trump’s campaign. His recent announcement that his administration will not threaten marriage equality and will likely maintain several parts of Obamacare have already undermined some of the liberal histrionics whipped up during the election. It is likely that some of Trump’s relatively liberal positions (in comparison with the rest of the Republican Party) will inspire serious cognitive dissonance among liberals and the left in the months ahead.
Of course, none of this is to underestimate those of Trump’s policies that do pose a real threat to already vulnerable communities. This is especially true with regards to his recent promise to deport three million illegal immigrants with criminal records. However, even here we should be careful not to fall back into a tired partisan narrative. The reprehensible immigration policies that Trump is now hinting at will not be qualitatively worse than those pursued under Obama – merely delivered with more offensive rhetoric and more likely to provoke public outcry.
Perhaps the bigger threat posed by a Trump administration is less the danger of Trump himself, than the fact that there is a real chance, as Glenn Greenwald has noted, that he will simply defer to the extremist wing of the party that currently surround him. His recent decision to replace Chris Christie with Michael Pence as head of his transition team could be a sign of greater concessions to the conservative right, which would, among other things, put abortion rights in the crosshairs.
Whether or not Trump is the apocalyptic threat that the entire political establishment and much of the US left have presented him as, the fear and anger that we have seen over the past week are understandable and offer a starting point for social change.
However, the lack of strategic thinking to come from the anti-Trump protests thus far is concerning. If our goal is to build a movement that can seriously challenge the agenda of the Trump administration, we will need to build an action plan that answers to the complexity of the Trump phenomenon, avoids the mistakes of the past year, and looks to build support beyond our traditional audiences.
The current wave of protests against Trump are sadly ironic. For months now Democrats, journalists, establishment pundits and even some on the left have warned of the social dislocation that would follow if Trump and his supporters refused to recognize the election results and took matters into their own hands. That the roles have been reversed – and thousands of liberal and left voters have taken to the streets and refused to recognize Trump’s election – cannot but appear as hypocrisy to much of the wider electorate.
Indeed, to many people not privy to their political composition, these protests are being, and will continue to be, interpreted as the outrage of Clintonistas. As protests swept across University of California campuses on November 9, television hosts and radio DJs were describing activists as “angry Clinton supporters.” One UC Irvine student reported that protesters were chanting “We want Clinton!” And a UC Santa Barbara student was quoted as saying: “I was supposed to be crying tears of joy over electing the first female president. Instead, I’m crying tears of anger, sadness and fear.” Even the present slogan “Not My President” suggests the complementary: “I’m With Her!”
Of course, actual Clinton voters seem to be quite marginal participants in the demonstrations, which have tended to be organized by the far left and supporters of Sanders or Stein. For the most part, they have not expressed support for Clinton, and have instead sought to rally people’s outrage into powerful symbolic spectacles declaring solidarity with those targeted by Trump’s rhetoric
But as immediate responses to the election, the protests have been framed within the partisan logic of US politics – that is, as Democrats angry that they lost. While the radical political direction of the demonstrations might be clear to their participants, for the millions outside of the leftist ghetto they will appear as gestures of support for the liberal wing of the political class.
As demonstrations of outrage or expressions of solidarity, the protests have undoubtedly been inspiring for many; but to go beyond this purely symbolic dimension, the anti-Trump movement will need to develop a clear set of demands and a strategy for relating to the wider population.
One of the plausible demands that has emerged among some sections of anti-Trump demonstrators has come in the form of an online petition, calling on the Electoral College to go rogue and vote for Hillary Clinton on the basis that she won the popular vote. At the time of writing, this petition has collected just over 4 million signatures.
Although it would offer a clear demand around which the movement could begin to be organized, this petition fails to take measure of the depth of the current anti-political climate. In the aftermath of an election that was in many ways a plebiscite on the population’s trust in the political establishment, calling for professional politicians to reject the vote and to instead elect Clinton (the establishment candidate par excellence) places these protests at odds with the prevailing sentiment in US society.
There is no doubt that the Electoral College is fundamentally un-democratic. But it is unthinkable that we would be demanding a recognition of the popular vote if the positions were reversed – i.e. if Clinton had been elected but Trump won the popular vote. That kind of hypocrisy does not enamor the Left to a wider population fed up with the partisan wheeling and dealing of the political class.
Trump cannot be defeated by relying on professional politicians to undermine a democratic election through bureaucratic fiat.
A second danger is that the current protests have failed to recognize the genuine populist demands that rallied many voters to Trump. Only days after the election it was clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was dead in the water. Whether we want to admit it or not, Trump’s victory has already accomplished something that would almost certainly not have happened under a Clinton administration and this will influence the experience of millions of working people.
Of course, it is possible that Trump will jettison most of his more ambitious populist goals – and given his recent selection of key representatives of Wall Street and big business to serve in his administration this is looking quite likely. But recently leaked memos from Trump’s transition team already suggest that he means to follow through on several of his promises around trade and jobs. In the short term, Trump’s victory will appear to many as a small gain for working people.
Responding to this will require a strategy far more nuanced than the current slogans of “Fuck Trump!” or “Love Trumps Hate” allow. If the apocalyptic narrative of Trump as right wing anti-Christ failed to put a well-staffed and well-resourced Clinton in the White House, it is extremely doubtful it will be sufficient to build a mass grassroots movement of millions of people across the country.
Such a movement will need to take advantage of the deep and pervasive anti-political sentiment in US society and to relate to people for whom Trump’s promises of jobs and a better life carried some message of hope.
One way forward for the anti-Trump movement has been announced by the left of the Democratic Party. The position of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders is captured in the latter’s recent op-ed in the New York Times: “If the president-elect is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families, I’m going to present some very real opportunities for him to earn my support.”
While some on the far left have seen this as a form of collaboration worthy of Vichy, Warren and Sanders’ strategy appeals to the base of Trump’s populist campaign, while insisting that they will make “no compromise on racism, bigotry, xenophobia and sexism.” Holding Trump to his promises of tearing up NAFTA and TPP, of bringing jobs back to marginalized communities and raising the standard of living for working people, is an important display of political pragmatism designed to appeal to working people that supported Trump or have defected from the Democratic Party’s camp.
There are, however, real limitations to this strategy. The most significant is that the resistance to Trump that Warren and Sanders envision will take place within existing political institutions. Given that the Democrats have now lost both the house and the senate, it is unlikely that they will be able to play a particularly effective role in restricting the movements of a Trump administration.
More significantly, Sanders has linked the struggle against Trump to his efforts to reform the Democratic Party, which, he argues, “must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor.”
Putting aside the fact that the Democratic Party has not ever been a “grass-roots party of working people,” this attempt to direct the anti-Trump opposition into its ranks is a particularly dangerous move. As Paul Heideman has expertly demonstrated, earlier efforts to effect a re-alignment within the Democratic Party came to naught and in the process undermined serious efforts at building an independent progressive politics. There is no reason to believe that a similar attempt today would lead to different results.
If there are two lessons that we have learned from the past year it is that, first, the level of anti-political sentiment in US society is greater than any of us thought and, second, the Democratic Party is rank with the corruption, patrimonialism and special interests that have fueled this sentiment. As Wikileaks has evidenced, Sanders’ defeat at the hands of the DNC is only one instance of this corruption.
Far from turning into the Democratic Party, those fearful of a Trump administration would do well to adopt the erstwhile slogan of the Trump campaign itself (once an early socialist slogan); we must build a movement that can “drain the swamp” of the self-serving political elites, lobbyist and special interests that will likely thrive under Trump’s administration (just as they would have under Clinton’s).
A party that draws its sustenance from the rot and decay of this same swamp cannot be the vehicle for the kind of movement we need. Pursuing Sanders’ agenda of reform will draw much needed energy and resources away from the workplaces, campuses and neighborhoods that will need to be the bases of a mass movement against the implementation of Trump’s agenda.
As the anti-Trump protests look beyond symbolic expressions of outrage and towards consolidation as a mass movement, one way of going forward would be to move away from fetishizing the figure of Trump and focus attention on his specific policies and the immediate consequences of his election.
First, we must be careful that Trump’s election does not offer space for the growth of the far right. Although his victory should not be read as a clear sign that US society has shifted to the right, it seems clear that there has been a disturbing rise in racist violence in the immediate aftermath of November 8 (although perhaps not quite to the extent suggested by many liberal commentators). We should be preparing ourselves to oppose this in our everyday lives.
In addition, the far right will certainly see it as an opportunity to mobilize. We should be ruthless in disabusing them of this belief. The KKK have already called for a rally on 3 December in North Carolina (place and time unspecified) and while this is likely to be small, it should nonetheless be met with a strong counter-protest. Across the country we should be on the look-out for similar attempts and to mobilize speedily in response.
But in the medium-term, in looking beyond the figure of Trump to address his specific policies, a two-fold strategy may be appropriate. On the one hand, we will need to echo Sanders and Warren’s call to hold Trump to account in delivering on his promises to improve working lives by tearing up NAFTA and TPP and by investing in infrastructure, and we should be sure to call on him to make good his promises for decreased US involvement in the Middle East. On the other, we will need to oppose his administration tooth and nail on issues of abortion and immigration, which will almost certainly come under threat.
In all of this, however, it will be crucial that the movement clearly mark its independence from both factions of a justly despised political establishment and to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of people that responded (actively and passively) to Trump’s anti-political message.
James Robertson lives in Los Angeles and has previously written on Trump and anti-politics for US Socialist Worker.