FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

The Day After

I didn’t sleep much last night. I think it was near 4 am when I was finally able to shut off the lights after watching Trump’s victory speech. Perhaps I slept fitfully for a few hours. I don’t know. My mind raced through so many scenarios, so many questions. And then I awoke.

Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States.

In the days and weeks to come much will be said about how and why this came to pass.

But behind these important inquiries is an elemental fact: Donald Trump won the Presidential election because over 59 million American citizens voted for him.

Yes, it appears that he will have barely lost the popular vote. The electorate is very split, almost right down the middle, about the outcome. It is important to keep this in mind. Even in those solidly red states, there was lots of blue too. The election did not give Trump a “mandate.” But it did give him a victory. He won the states that mattered. He annihilated Clinton’s so-called “firewall.” He carried the day according to the arcane rules of US Presidential elections, which are decided by electoral college votes and not popular votes.

Trump was Trump till the very end. A bully, a liar, a misogynist and xenophobe and ultranationalist. A man who brought the white supremacist so-called “alt-right” into the mainstream of American politics and into the heart of his campaign. A man who stoked resentment and rhetorical violence at the mass rallies that represented the heart of his campaign, that demeaned his opponents, that called for the arrest of his principal opponent (“Lock her up!”), that viciously denounced the press, that lied repeatedly about so many things — Clinton’s e-mails, his business dealings, his personal life — and lied ever more insistently the more obvious it was that he was lying.

His meanness, his lies, his scapegoating, his egomania — these things were plain for all to see. He did not hide them. He exulted in them and made them the centerpiece of his campaign.

Everyone watching and listening saw and heard him.

And almost 60 million Americans voted for him. Sixty million.

If nothing else, the election has made two things perfectly clear.

First: there is a deep and a wide reservoir of alienation and resentment in American society and political culture.

Second: almost 60 million adult American citizens are so alienated and resentful that they will support a man whose entire political persona recapitulates Mussolini and whose “policies,” if we can call them that, center on blaming others, closing borders, and closing ranks to “Make America Great Again”– an empty hyper-nationalist slogan angrily screamed by an angry egomaniac with no political experience.

Trump may have incorporated trade into his rhetoric once he saw that it worked for Bernie Sanders.

But Trump’s populism was only secondarily an economic populism. It has always been primarily a nationalist and a chauvinistic populism with very strong undercurrents of racism and sexism. From the start, Trump was all about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, and building a police force to deport the millions of our neighbors who are here as “undocumented aliens,” and using the border police to keep out Muslims, and denouncing Black Lives Matter, and enacting a proudly aggressive and indeed violent masculinity. The roughly 60 million Americans who voted for these things no doubt had complex motivations. This is always true. But what they voted for was that. They did not vote for a program of economic reconstruction or justice, for there was no such program. They voted for anger and xenophobia and racism and above all for sexism. The mainly white people who voted for Trump voted for a man who stood above all for two things: the repudiation of the country’s first African-American President, and the denunciation and defeat of the country’s possibly first woman President. This is what Trump was and what he is, and by voting for him, our Trump-supporting fellow citizens were supporting that.

These are dark times.

The forces of reaction are now celebrating. They will celebrate for many months to come.

And as they celebrate, “we” — those of us who are shell-shocked, those who are reading this, those who give two shits about what I think — will reckon long and hard with the experience of a dramatic and dispiriting political defeat.

If the last few hours are any indication, it will be very hard to avoid a foolish cycle of recriminations.

Among many demoralized Clinton supporters, one can hear denunciations of those on the left, mainly disaffected “Sanderistas,” who refused to support or to vote for Clinton. “It’s their fault,” I’ve heard it said.

It is not their fault. In a democracy candidates need to earn support. I regret and perhaps even deplore many of the things that have been said and done by people on the left who refused to support Clinton. But they are citizens too, and are not obliged to think as I think or do as I do. What have been the consequences of their conduct? This is no doubt a complicated question, worthy of serious consideration. But to blame them for Trump’s victory is wrong, factually and ethically.

Trump did not win because some people failed to support Clinton.

Trump won because almost 60 million Americans voted to support his right-wing populist message.

If Clinton supporters need reminding of this, so too do many of those anti-Clinton polemicists of the left, who have responded to Trump’s victory with a self-righteous Schadenfreude that is beneath them. I have seen so much of this on my Facebook feed. It is sad and also outrageous. The most emphatic version is perhaps Thomas Frank’s “I told you so” piece in The Guardian, entitled “Donald Trump is Moving to the White House, And Liberals Put Him There.” Years ago Frank appointed himself the official spokesman of the aggrieved Hoi Polloi who have supposedly been victimized by “professional-class virtue” and a “rotting” and “complacent” liberalism. Journalists, and the media in particular, come in for particular blame. They supposedly obsessed about Trump’s racism and xenophobia, and ignored Clinton’s essential corruption, and were clueless about the sufferings of “the working class.” These unnamed journalists — indeed, the entire class of journalists and commentators — supposedly “chose insulting the other side over trying to understand what motivated them. They transformed opinion writing into a vehicle for high moral boasting.”

The result: they handed the election to Trump instead of rallying behind a left populist candidate. “The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment. And then they lost. Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.”

Talk about shrill self-righteousness shouted from a position of high social status.

Those that Frank denounces as “liberals” no more put Trump in the White House than did Frank and his compatriots and followers.

It is easy to blame “liberals” for the Clinton candidacy. But the fact is that Clinton won the Democratic primary, and Sanders didn’t, and Biden didn’t run, and neither did Elizabeth Warren or Eugene V. Debs or Norman Thomas or William Jennings Bryan.

Many on the left are now treating Clinton’s defeat in the general election as proof that a more left candidate could have won. This is worthy of serious discussion and not polemics or hyperbole. But it stretches credulity to imagine that Clinton’s defeat of Sanders in the primary demonstrates the power of the socialist left in the US. It does not.

In any case, Clinton did defeat Sanders, and became the Democratic candidate. And Sanders supported her, as did almost the entire infrastructure of the political “left” in the US. Unions, civil right groups, women’s rights groups, left elected officials. Left periodicals such as the Nation.

And they — we — were just soundly defeated by Trump.

Liberals did not elect Donald Trump.

The roughly 60 million Americans who voted for him elected him.

Might some of them have voted for a different candidate if given a different set of choices? Probably. But they were not given a different set of choices. They were given two choices: a continuation of Obama-Clinton centrist liberalism and neofascism. They chose neofascism.

Trump’s victory is a huge defeat of political liberalism in the United States.

It is also a huge defeat for the American left more generally.

This is partly because the left has always flourished as the radical wing of liberalism, just as liberalism has always flourished with pressure from a strong left (see Robert Kuttner’s classic “Why Liberals Need Radicals.”)

And it is partly because a great many members of the white working class–the group that has always been the gleam in the eye of the socialist left—are apparently animated not by a politics of proletarian empowerment but by a politics of racial, sexual, and national identity.

They supported Trump.

And Trump is now the President-elect.

There is much work to be done, the work of thinking and of acting.

Clearly some of Trump’s supporters may be amenable to a different kind of politics. But the task of actually creating such a politics, and of persuading them to sign onto it, is a long-term process, and if any on the left feel empowered by this bruising Trump victory, I think they are deluding themselves.

Clearly some of Trump’s supporters, and perhaps even most of them, are not very easily “transformed” through persuasion. Like the majority of the citizens of my state, Indiana, they really seem to hate reproductive freedom and LGBT rights and African-Americans protesting for equal protection under the law. Whatever their real economic problems and grievances, a Trump-like politics of resentment strikes a chord with them. It trumps other concerns. It motivates them to support Trump. If you doubt this, I seriously invite you to come to Indiana and try to engage Trump voters in serious conversation about the need for socialism. See how that goes.

It is now clear that what Louis Hartz called “the liberal tradition in America” is politically under siege, and that its enemies — Trump and his Republican party supporters — have a vast reservoir of support among the mass public.

This is a time for hard questioning and serious dialogue among those who will be politically humbled and opposed and often defeated under a Trump administration.

There is hard work ahead.

This is no time for foolish recriminations among people who really have only two choices: to work together or to hang separately.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • You keep going back to the 60 million, over and over. That’s what is really freaking me out too. I somehow never really did the math and somehow thought Trump supporters were just a few crazy people being horrible on youtube. Or something like that. I honestly don’t know what I thought. Sixty. Million. And that’s just the ones who took the trouble to vote…

    • Tamika Durham

      Benjamin – My idealism has been hacked also. Makes me wonder who I am really talking to at times. But be careful to make them out as lessers, they are not. They had their reasons and like Donald did by not releasing his tax returns, they exercised their right. I do believe many of them are acting naive however to think that their decision does not bind them to the same labels he carries. As an individual I may know you are different, maybe, but to say you voted for him in a crowd and expect kindness without anyone knowing you….you are foolish foolish foolish AND that is what I’m seeing that is concerning. The rationale is not at the level it should be for many who made this choice because they are surprised at the backlash. They should not be surprised EXCEPT if they were successfully fooled into believing he should not be taken literally. There is nothing deep about Donald folks.

  • I think that this is a cogent account of where we are now, after the disaster, a prelude to a
    serious discussion we must have on: “What is to be done?”

    • Cormac Ó Mídhe

      I have a radical idea: Let’s delete commentary from those with whom we disagree!

  • Jeremy Safran

    I really appreciate this thoughtful, clear eyed, and sober assessment of our current situation. I watched a small part of a demonstration tonight in union square with people angrily waving placards with “revolution” printed on them. This type of demonstration is no more reassuring to me than Trump supporters waving “lock her up” placards. I have no idea “what’s to be done” next, but it seems to me that this type of careful and frank assessment of the situation is a first step.

    • Tamika Durham

      Jeremy – reassurance is not part of this game. At no point over the next 4 years – if it even lasts that long – will you feel reassured by any aspect of this. Angry mobs are the easiest to lead by the nose and Donald has always known that. His electorate was not new, they were just sitting along the sideline angry at something without a voice – which he gave to them. He’s a master and has been groomed his entire life for this glorious end to his to do/screw list. They wanted him and they made sure they got him – did we do the same? The “angry” mob you saw was a catharsis and hopefully a beginning. If you are scared of that mob, I imagine it will be difficult for you to fight what is surely to come. What you saw was genuine fear of a future…very different from the venom “lock her up”.

  • Thanks for the insightful post. You suggested that:

    “This is a time for hard questioning and serious dialogue among those who
    will be politically humbled and opposed and often defeated under a
    Trump administration.”

    I’ve tried to do some of that in my post on PS that just went up as part of these discussions, but I am wondering if you have more thoughts on where we need to go with our questioning and dialogue?

    From the forum last night @thenewschool it is clear that a lot of people in the dems/indy camp really don’t want–and are not in the space–to be speaking with Trump supporters at the moment. Things are still too raw. So how do you think we can start to move these conversations forward, both on the left and across the country?

    Would love to hear any of your thoughts.

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