Help! Being #AgainstTrump is Not Easy
Charting the future of democratic politics in light of Tuesday’s elections
Even by the frenetic standards of our extremely high speed society, the past week has been an eventful one in U.S. politics.
On Tuesday a historic election broke records for voter turnout in a midterm election, returned the Democrats to control of the House and to the governorships of seven important states, and yet left key races — Senate seats in Florida and Arizona, Governorships in Florida and Georgia — still undecided. On Wednesday Trump held a “press conference” in which he mocked “losers” in his own party, viciously disparaged and attacked journalists, and decompensated on national TV for almost 90 minutes. Within hours of that display of civic virtù, it was announced that Attorney General Jeff Sessions submitted his resignation at Trump’s request, and that he was being replaced by newly-installed Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker, an undistinguished Justice Department chief of staff and political hack who never received Senate confirmation (and whose chief attributes, as far as it can be determined, are his public attacks on the Mueller inquiry, his dogged celebrations of Trump, his belief in “Biblical jurisprudence,” and his predilection for fraudulent business activity). Whitaker’s blatant conflicts of interest aside, journalists from a range of respected outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, quickly reported on his numerous unsavory features, generating controversy about the wisdom, the process, and even the constitutionality of his appointment (and, for the second time in a week, Kellyanne Conway’s poor husband George weighed in to challenge the constitutionality of Trump’s maneuvers).
Meanwhile controversy continued to rage in Florida and Georgia, with Rick Scott, taking a page from Trump, declaring that he “would not stand idly by” while his state was descended upon (besieged?) by “unethical liberals” seeking to “steal” the election from the true-blooded citizens of Florida. On Friday Trump boarded Air Force One to attend ceremonies in Paris commemorating the end of WWI. Before boarding, he made sure to throw gasoline on the flames of angry conspiracy thinking about “dangerous liberals” and “the lying press” supposedly intent on disrupting The Will of The People. Then, delivering one of his trademark lies — “I don’t know him,” he said of Whitaker, the man who he chose to head the Justice Department and with whom he is reported to have met over ten times — he headed for France, where he proceeded to dis Emmanuel Macron, unceremoniously avoid the ceremony that supposedly required his Paris trip, and make a mockery of the European alliance.
Is your head yet reeling?
It is difficult to keep up with all of this. And while some of the disorientation is surely the result of Trump’s deliberate efforts to confuse us, some of it is the very real consequence of the fact that in the past week we seem to be heading ever closer and more rapidly to a full-blown constitutional crisis.
I’ve done my best to keep up, in my teaching and in my writing.
In the past week I taught two undergraduate lessons on the 14th Amendment, the Justice Department, and the legacies of George Wallace, and a graduate seminar on immigration and populism. I published a piece in the Guardian on why the Democrats shouldn’t move right in order to attract hard core Trump voters, and a second piece in Public Seminar on why “all votes must be counted.” I also announced the publication of my new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, published collaboratively by Public Seminar and OR Books. And then wrote the piece you are now reading.
As I think about all of this, the theme of “help” seems apt.
With regard to the book: it is the product of my amazingly gratifying collaboration with Public Seminar over the past two years, first as a writer and now as a Senior Editor and regular columnist.
In the acknowledgments of the book I thank a great many people. I can’t list them all here (buy the book and see!). But I must thank my parents, Hy and Sylvia Isaac, and my dear friend Mihaela Miroiu, to whom the book is dedicated. More important here, I must thank my incredible colleagues at Public Seminar: Jeff Goldfarb, the creator and Founding Editor; Claire Potter, the organizational and editorial genius who with Jeff makes everything run (both of these people are also terrific writers!); and an amazing staff, which includes Maryam Omidi, Dara Levendosky, Zeyno Uston, Lucas Ballestin, and Deren Ertas. Public Seminar is an extraordinary effort to use the publishing resources at the disposal of the New School for Social Research to promote a vigorous public sphere. I believe that it is playing an important role at the margins of our political discourse, and that in the coming months and years it will play a more important and hopefully more central role, as it continues to attract terrific writers far and wide. Public Seminar is a platform for political discussion, a way of connecting, and sharing ideas, and helping us all to be in the world and to act in the world. It is a form of help for our public discourse, and for those of us who want to read and listen and speak and be heard, at a time when we need all the help we can get.
“Help” is also a theme that has been on my mind as I’ve thought about Election Day. As readers of my column will know, over the past year I have had the privilege of being able to work with Liz Watson’s campaign to flip Indiana’s 9th Congressional District. Liz is an extraordinary woman who ran an inspirational and an aspirational campaign. She ran in a gerrymandered district, in the heart of a red state, against a very rich Republican incumbent. She campaigned vigorously, holding town hall meetings in every county in the district, spread out widely across Southern Indiana, while her opponent did nothing and refused to debate her even once. He won with around 56% of the vote. But Liz electrified her volunteers and supporters, performed strongly in parts of the district, and ran a progressive campaign with integrity. In these dark times, it has been elevating for me to have been associated with her campaign. The campaign was all about help. It was about using public policy to help working families and those most vulnerable. It was about inspiring and mobilizing campaign volunteers to help each other to help a fine candidate win an election. I take heart from the Liz Watson campaign. Sometimes losing an election is not really losing at all. The 9th was a hard district to win under the best of circumstances. But democratic politics is a long game. NBA fans will know what I mean when I say that the Detroit Pistons had to lose to the Boston Celtics before becoming champions; and the Chicago Bulls has to lose to the Pistons before they could be champions. “Losing” campaigns often result in winning. And when they are fought hard, and well, and with integrity, then they can only be sources of pride and inspiration.
I believe it is very important to say this after an election in which some terrific candidates ran exemplary campaigns and yet lost elections. And that was the primary point of my Guardian piece. For I think it would be a tremendous mistake for the wrong “lessons” to be drawn from such “losing.” And indeed, while my home state of Indiana remains a steeply uphill climb, in other states — Florida, Georgia, and especially Texas, where Beto O’Rourke lost an election but succeeded in something much bigger—progressive campaigns may point the way to real future successes. But my point in the Guardian was never to suggest that in any simple sense losing campaigns represent winning strategies that ought to be emulated in the future. That would be delusional. What are the best “winning strategies” for 2020? There is no simple and no single answer to this question, whether we are talking about the huge number of diverse races across the country, or even about the Presidential election. There are lessons to be drawn from Max Rose’s successful House race in New York City; Gretchen Whitmer’s successful gubernatorial race in Michigan; and Sherrod Brown’s successful Senate race in Ohio. There are lessons to be drawn from the exciting “Deep South” strategy adopted by Abrams, Gillum, and O’Rourke, and also lessons from the limits of this strategy. The lessons do not all point in the same direction, and in the coming weeks and months the best course forward will be heatedly debated. What is essential, in my opinion, is to keep the debate open.
And this is the third sense of “Help” on my mind, and it is indeed one way to think about a core political message of my book. For the danger that Trumpism poses to liberal democracy can be averted, and defeated, only if we are able to discover ways of reaching across some of our differences so that we can work together. This will often involve complex and challenging questions of political judgment. There is no simple formula for distinguishing a political “friend” or potential friend from an ally or a potential ally from an adversary from an enemy. But it is very important that we be mindful of such distinctions, and that we not rush to judgment, or spring to action, when a more deliberate course of action is possible. There are lines to be drawn, and each person must draw them for themselves. This is why in August I argued for “holding my nose” and voting for Joe Donnelly, but a few weeks ago I decided I could no longer even do that — because he had crossed a line, forcing me to judge that I could no longer support him. At the same time, I believe it is important to work hard to build bridges that make sense, and sometimes — not always — to hold one’s nose or suck it up or support a lesser evil in order to move forward. And it is particularly important that liberals and those to their left, who together constitute the democratic left, are able to argue and ally, and ally and argue, in a spirit of agonistic respect.
This is why in the Spring I offered “Two Hearty Cheers for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” and yet noted:
It is possible that there will be a “Blue Wave” in November. But this is much more likely to happen if we all work very hard to make it happen. And this is why it is important both that Ocasio-Cortez won and that Crowley so quickly and so graciously endorsed her. Because if the Democratic party is to flip the House and really reinvigorate itself, then its leadership must welcome this kind of political competition and embrace its results. This means strongly supporting Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District. But in other states, with very different demographics, other kinds of Democrats will be on the ballot. If more mainstream Democrats want Our Revolution activists to support them and their candidates when they win primaries, then they need to do the same in those places where Our Revolution or DSA candidates win primaries. But the reverse is also true: if Our Revolution activists and DSA militants want the mainstream Democratic party to support their candidates, then they must be willing to work to support, and to vote for, more mainstream Democrats in those places where the primary victor is more likely to be a Doug Jones or a Conor Lamb than an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This kind of agonistic respect among Democrats is essential if the Democrats are to be able to work together to defeat Trumpism and to move forward a new politics.
And why I followed up soon after with a piece urging “Both Directions at Once”:
Let the contest proceed, vigorously. Over time. Let the party evolve, over time, as its agenda is contested. So long as the contest proceeds with a sense of proportion, in a spirit of “self-limitation” and “agonistic respect,” then it can only be a good thing. A recent CNN report on a growing divide between centrists and leftists announces: “Democrats are feeling down. Now they have to decide which way is up.” I think this is wrong. It is true that Democrats need to approach the November 2018 elections with some sense of “unity” based on an appreciation of the need to coalesce around Democratic candidates and to defeat Republican candidates. And it is also true that by 2020 the Democratic party needs to settle on a Presidential candidate capable of defeating Trump. But these two “imperatives” leave a lot of leeway for ongoing debate and contestation about the future of the party. And these things do not need to be “decided now.” Indeed, it would be premature, counterproductive, and simply wrong to try to resolve the debate now, just at a point when it is picking up some real steam.
Now is not the time for the Democratic party to decide whether to move to the center or to the left, and it surely is not the time for the forces of the center to seek to marginalize those of the left. Now is the time, I would submit, to go in both directions at once. It is a time to move toward the center in some ways and in some places, and toward the left in other places.
Last Tuesday represented a real Blue Wave, and this is something to be happy about. But the political situation remains bleak, and there are many real challenges ahead. We need all the help we can get.
And this too:
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books.