[A Note on My Notes: This piece has quite a few footnotes, for both sources and additional commentary. You can click on the superscript to skip down to the footnotes, and the back button to return. If you have a WordPress account, the black header bar will block the first line, but you can probably figure it out. I tried to make notes run down the side of the page instead, but turns out I don’t get WordPress.]
I’ve been doing a lot more thinking than doing these past few weeks. I try to tell myself that this is because now is the time for reflection, to really get right what went wrong, but the honest truth is that I have felt utterly paralyzed. Even if I knew what could and should be done, I have been in no position to do anything. The feeling is fading, though; I may not have moved much, but paralysis is giving way to resolve.
I have waited to write down my thoughts on the election until I had allowed myself both sufficient time to ruminate and for reliable election data to come in. Many have leapt to “hot take” conclusions on shaky grounds which later gave way, treating exit polls as equal to county-by-county data or simply deciding what this election was “about” without reference to more than their own arrogantly inflated experience. I have no aspirations to punditry, and it seems to me that a significant feature of that job description is making premature declarations based on limited and shifting evidence. So I have waited. As in any close election, there are many factors that “caused” the outcome. And perhaps now more than ever, people are looking for something or someone to blame. I’m going to do what I can to avoid such oversimplifications, but I do think there are several broad conclusions that can be drawn from this nuance-ridden clusterfuck and the many factors that “caused” it—to really get right what went wrong.
Blame is always a weird and sorely tempting moral construct.1 I am with everyone grasping for it now—the rage and desperation and powerlessness of that night had many of us looking for something to hit, and all the better if it were the face of someone we could hold responsible. Even so, it would be useful for us to grapple with, even internalize and embrace, how the blame is shared. This is a political tragedy, a political failure, and politics is the duty of all of us.
This is on the Republican Party, which spent the last 60 years pushing a strategy of race-baiting, developing a voting base convinced that social democracy was their enemy because it might help non-whites. Donald Trump is the logical outgrowth of the Southern Strategy, a re-channeling of white resentment, so carefully cultivated by Republican strategists, towards something other than neoliberalism. Suited conmen had spent the previous two generations convincing middle class white voters that “individualism” means handing authority to economic elites. It is quite incredible that they could be taken so off guard by another half-baked conman redirecting that resentment towards something less ridiculously contrary to those voters’ economic interest—nativism and economic nationalism—and leave them impotently bleating about “real conservatism.” The Never Trumpers who worship Reagan, the greatest race-baiter American politics has ever seen, but spit on Trump for his remarks about minority groups are either self-deluding idiots who know nothing of the history of their own politics or cynical bastards who see Trump as a threat to their economic interests. Join the anti-fascist resistance, sure; I even respect those of them sacrificing their political careers to oppose his regime. But know in your hearts: ye have reaped what ye have sown.2 And they are a tiny minority within the party (a minority that notably includes both living Republican presidents, plus Romney, except for his SecState flirtation, probably because they no longer have to worry about their electability). I was hopeful in the early summer that Trump’s victory would split the party, either by neoliberals jumping ship or by them robbing him of his nomination, leading to a likely Trumpist third party. But instead the careerist slugs sucked it up, putting their individual political futures and the party’s viability above all else. I’ve never spoken to an influential Republican, but it seems that they adopted the attitude of “try again in four/eight years,” swinging some Supreme Court seats and an Obamacare repeal in the bargain. His cabinet, which I hope to write about in more detail later, is furthermore shaping up to be a motley collection of extremists all hoping to get a chance at unleashing their vicious pet projects (the end of public education, nationwide right-to-work, ensuring global ecological catastrophe, etc.) upon the public so long as they pledge fealty to Emperor Trump’s ego. The Grand Old Party is in lockstep with their new leader, their qualms stifled to sessions with their therapists. For all that the spineless Paul Ryan speaks of Republicans as a party of ideals and ideas, they have proven themselves to be opportunistic toadies to power [flagged as weird] even beneath my own dismal expectations for them.
This is on the Democratic Party, which helped to usher in this tragicomic conclusion with its total abandonment of the labor movement and the poor (working and unemployed) in the 1990s, wedded to the corporate donor class as surely as the Republicans. Neoliberalism, austerity, and state brutality against those left behind by capitalism became bipartisan with Bill Clinton’s Third Way. Democrats intensified the US’s participation in the race to the bottom with NAFTA, decimating high-wage employment across the country while destroying the livelihoods of millions of Mexican campesinos. They escalated the drug war, embraced draconian punishment as a replacement for social uplift at every level of government, and redirected billions of dollars from public assistance programs to killing and caging human beings. They cast off key financial regulations as New Deal period pieces, doing more to cause the 2008 financial collapse than any bill George Bush ever signed. They shifted to a new partisan common sense that support of ruling class elites was essential and that the votes of the people those elites exploited, fucked, and sucked dry could be counted on so long as Democrats wore the vestiges of liberalism and remained marginally less bad than the Republicans.3 The plutocratic structure of the party—no mass membership base, with all major internal decision-making restricted by fundraising thresholds—and its influence’s center of gravity in a small class of neoliberally inclined, urban cultural elites ensured the nomination of the most right-wing4 and unpopular Democratic candidate in the last century. The constant refrain of Clinton’s inevitability (ouch) and electability (double ouch) from the liberal punditry despite the evidence to the contrary did as much damage to the Sanders insurgency as the active conspiring between the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Would Bernie have lost if the Party’s wealthiest talking heads had spewed less nonsense and the DNC had actually acted as a neutral officiator of the primary process? Possibly. But the data is quite clear that Sanders’s popularity soared with increasing public exposure, even into the summer, despite continual Republican and Clintonite red-baiting. The most illustrative dynamic of the primary election is that almost every single union whose leadership endorsed a candidate without membership consultation chose Clinton, while almost every single union that instead held a membership vote chose Sanders.5 The fact that union leadership by and large endorsed an ex-Walmart board member and free trade cheerleader over the most pro-labor candidate in the Party’s history is indicative of other problems in today’s labor movement, but that is a discussion for another time.6 And this year, record numbers of organized labor’s membership base voted for the Republican.
Unions, the working poor, immigrants, sexual minorities, environmental organizations, and people of color form the “big tent” of those who would somehow have it even worse when Democrats lose. The Party is utterly dependent on exploiting this structural flaw of our insane first-past-the-post election system, and with that they’ve bred elite complacency.7 The words of Emmett Rensin—“the wages of smug is Trump”—should haunt the sleep of every liberal claiming to be “shocked” by the election.8 To my quiet fury, I mostly saw this piece shared (smugly) by right-wing Never Trumpers thinking they can wipe their hands of Trump and place culpability at the feet of liberals alone as they slip into political hiding, leaving the stink of racism and misogyny behind them like a heavy perfume. But here’s the thing. This is the American Right. Of course they’re part of the problem. They’re supposed to be big and bad and horrible: that’s why they exist, like Smaug or Cruella DeVil. Even the allegedly “principled” anti-Trump rightists have “deprive poor people of the basic means of survival” among their core political principles. I’m not writing this for them. The moral of the story is never “the antagonist should have been less bad,” but “this is what the moment demands of the protagonist to defeat them.” If there are right-wingers genuinely aghast at the monster they have created and wish to join the struggle against our growing fascism, by all means. But it is the center and the left which has failed, and which must seize the day.
By extension, this is on a cultural left which has never lost an opportunity to prioritize identitarian and symbolic fracturing politics over a sweeping social vision to uplift us all. Comfortable in their middle class insularity, as self-proclaimed spokespeople and wokespeople, they convinced themselves that it is only cis straight white men who want to have food and housing and healthcare—what blacks and queers and fat women want are “representative” fashion lines they can’t afford, ironic TV shows starring their commercially lucrative identities, and “movements” more focused on policing a shifting and arcane terminological discourse than on changing people’s lives—and congratulated themselves for it.9 After all, how are we going to achieve corporate diversity if we insist on fighting corporations?
This is on the media, which spent the first half of 2016 treating Trump as a ratings machine, skyrocketing his political prospects from clown to frontrunner, and the second half drizzling on half-concealed moralizing about personal reprehensibility, out of the utterly baseless and self-aggrandizing assumptions that the public had any remaining respect for the dithering talking heads claiming the mantle of “journalism” and that they could craft the narrative of the nation.
This is on Clinton’s primary supporters, tone deaf to the angst of the nation (70% of which has no affiliation with the Democratic Party) that what we’ve endured isn’t working. I won’t paint this bloc with a single brush, as I recognize that this coalition has diverse motivations. Nevertheless, the mix of shortsightedness, complacency, inertia, lack of political vision, blind trust in figures who turned out to be wrong about almost everything, conservatism, especially idiotic abuses of identity politics/cultural leftism, and groundless assumptions about the wider public blinded Clinton’s supporters to what the present moment made possible and demanded of us. The consequences of this widespread failing among older American liberals will be devastating and enormous.
This is on the Clinton campaign, awash in arrogant complacency and wedded to an “everything is fine” democratic centralism strategy despite all evidence that this was a change election, to the point of disbelief. They banked on flipping centrist and neoliberal Republicans when every strategist knows that wealthier voters are more partisan than the underclass. Drunk on data modeling from their base in Brooklyn, they disdainfully ignored the cries of alarm from on-the-ground organizers across key swing states.10 They treated the “blue wall” as gospel, under the belief that Obama’s sweeping victories across the Rust Belt were the new normal instead of an anomaly. It is unclear to what extent Trump—the most widely hated major party candidate in the history of polling—“won” this election. But there can be no doubt that the Clinton team lost, in what should have been the easiest general election for Democrats since 1964.
This is on white voters, especially working class white voters, who were so willing (in some cases eager) to offer up the vulnerable to the altar of privation and state violence for a half-assed fuck-you to the political class. They traded the future of their children and grandchildren for a Cheeto-hued foam middle finger.
This is on older voters, who overwhelmingly voted to destroy the planet for future generations well after their own anticipated deaths, over the terrified protestations of youth of all races and classes. This is especially on those older voters who experienced all the benefits of social democracy in their youth who have the nerve to sneer at millennials’ alleged narcissism and “participation trophy” ethic because we dared to demand a living wage and a stable biosphere, which they’ve been able to take for granted their entire lives.
This is on much of the Left, so convinced of Clinton’s inevitability (which I suspect was as much an intellectual crutch as anything, because shifting gears from “neoliberal warhawks are the enemy” to “proto-fascists are the enemy” is hard) that they felt comfortable spending general election season making the case against her. Many of us downplayed the very real risk of a Trump victory as a way to self-justify trading our political power for vain political purity.
This is on the 46% of the public who didn’t bother to vote at all, especially younger voters, with the most to lose. One hundred thousand votes decided this election across three states, between which 6,778,103 eligible voters did not show up.11
This is on those of us who did vote for Clinton who inadequately made the case that Trump 1) was a real threat and 2) had to be stopped at all costs.
This is on all of us.
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The esteemed “commentators” of Vox and CNN are talking themselves in circles about something called the “white working class.”12 What we’re calling the white working class is 42% of the country, and they broke for Trump by a 39 point margin, most importantly in Rust Belt swing states where they had been a core constituency of the Obama coalition that elected him in 2008 and 2012. Clinton lost the electoral college because of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania: a cumulative loss by 107,330 votes (0.08% of the electorate).
Before going any deeper into the weeds, we have to clarify and problematize our terms. The analysts are mostly defining ”white working class” in terms of education: white voters over 25 without a four-year-degree, a metric with serious problems. Yes, white people with less formal education voted most stridently for Trump, but education is not the full class story. I am pretty fucking poor, have to sell my labor to survive, and am not a career-track professional, but I have a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both billionaire college dropouts, fall under this “white working class” designation. Older generations earn significantly more than millennials, despite being far less likely to have college degrees. Many of those traditionally labeled the petite-bourgeoisie (is 19th and early 20th century Marxism “traditional”?)—basically small business-owners—would be classified as “white working class.” Millions of downwardly mobile millennials are low-wage laborers with degrees (and the mountains of debt that come with them). Especially when it comes to rigorous statistical analysis, using Marxist categories in a post-1945 world of class fragmentation becomes messy, even distortionist. We have to recognize that education is at best a clumsy proxy measurement for our complicated and varying relationships to the means of production.
Another of the other problems associated with using the phrase “working class” to refer to people without college degrees is that it summons up visions of blue collar workers in industrial manufacturing, a rapidly shrinking subset of America’s proletariat. The American working class today looks a lot more like food service workers, Walmart greeters, cashiers, sales reps, and Uber drivers than it does longshoremen and the assembly line. Even working class militancy, long nurtured by industrial unions and activated on the shop floor, now has its center in the Fight for Fifteen and service industry organizers like SEIU than, say, the UAW or the Teamsters. This phantom of industrial proletarianism played a major role in the electoral mythology of 2016: disgruntled autoworkers (or ex-autoworkers) turning towards Trumpism or democratic socialism for an alternative to deindustrialization and outsourcing. The problem is the disconnect between this occupational group’s small size and the extent to which it is considered representative of American white working people.
This is further unhelpful because most of those unionized workers still voted for Clinton (which is not the impression a casual media observer would have gotten from the wave of “what the hell just happened” election analysis in November). The problem was not that most blue collar union voters went for Trump, but that enough of them who had been staunch Obama supporters were so fed up with Democrats on labor issues (the Clintonite wing especially) that they switched sides, and that was enough to swing a handful of the Rust Belt states that brought Trump his victory. Clinton won the union vote nationally by only 8 points, the smallest margin of Democratic victory since 1984.13 This fall in union support was especially bad in the Rust Belt. In Michigan, Obama had won by 33 points. Clinton won by only 13 points. Obama had won Ohio union voters by a full 23 points in 2012. Four years later, Clinton lost the Ohio union vote by 9 points.14 It’s also worth investigating why certain union blocs not directly affected by outsourcing voted more for the Republican than before. For instance, over a third of teachers with the National Education Association (the largest union in the country, with over three million members) voted for Trump.15 The International Association of Fire Fighters didn’t endorse at all, being evenly divided.
There have been two conflicting narratives on why working class white voters overwhelming cast ballots for Trump. The first is that they, many of whom voted for Barack Hussein Obama in 2008 and 2012, were so racist that this time around they wouldn’t vote for a white woman (“it’s racism, stupid”). The second is that they were willing to look past Trump’s hateful rhetoric because their communities have been devastated by outsourcing, and it’s understandable for them to prefer him to Clinton on those grounds (“it’s the economy, stupid”). The most nuance I have seen on this question from anyone who gets paid to talk/write is “I’m sure for some people it was because they’re racist and for others because they’re economically hurting.” I hope by the time I finish here, it will be clear why that’s inadequate.
The former is illustrated by T.R. Ramachandran’s (@yottapoint) fallacy- and logic leap-ridden, yet widely shared, tweetstorm, making the case that economic issues were of minimal impact on the white working class’s electoral swing.16 I don’t have the space here to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal (his argument is long, and fairly complex), but there are some broad strokes of inaccuracy and poor reasoning that I can point out briefly. First, he consistently conflates the dynamics of how poor white Southerners became reliable Republican voters (the Southern Strategy) with the political decisions of white working class voters in the Rust Belt, an entirely different context, without evidence, and that informs his “voters have multiple influences ” framing throughout. Second, that framing is selectively applied. He does not acknowledge the possibility that these voters could become drawn to someone like Trump, whom they may agree with on matters of immigration and terrorism, only in the context where the Democrats are not meaningfully working for their economic interests. Instead, he uses this selective framework to argue that they must only be motivated by racism and sexism, and that bringing them back into the progressive fold by an economic platform appealing to non-millionaires is unlikely to succeed. This comes paired with completely ignoring the fact that millions of working class whites didn’t switch to Trump, but stayed home. Third, he takes “Trump winning for economic reasons” to mean that working class whites made policy assessments that he was better on the economy for them. I’ll go into detail later on about why this is sort of insane/a straw man. Lastly, he willfully ignores differences between the 2012 and 2016 elections in a manner of logical acrobatics that can be difficult to follow. For instance, he cites as evidence the fact that these people didn’t vote for Romney in 2012, even though the economy was worse in rural areas and smaller metro areas then.17 This was probably the stupidest point in the entire tweetstorm, for the obvious reasons that Obama is much more adept at appearing to be an economic populist than Clinton and that Romney is not Trump. Romney was not exactly a protectionist attempting to shield American industry from global competition, nor was he condemning mistreatment of working folk by ruling class politicians. (Remember “I like being able to fire people”?) The author then goes on to ignore this key fact that Obama did much better by claiming that data shows the white working class is motivated only by race-baiting rather than economic nationalism. Nothing is mentioned of how Trump did better with both Latino and black voters than Romney did, despite being allegedly fueled only by racism.
A second prominent example of this argument was Derek Thompson’s piece in The Atlantic, “The Dangerous Myth That Hillary Clinton Ignored the White Working Class.”18 He asserts that Clinton is in fact a social democrat (something she has never claimed to be, nor something she comes even close to approximating), as she said the word “jobs” a lot. He denies that she is a neoliberal by putting the word in quotes. His only real piece of evidence, beyond the plethora of Clinton “plans”, is the lone data point that Clinton did better among voters who listed the economy as their primary concern. This tells us absolutely nothing about why millions of working class whites didn’t vote at all or why they carried Obama to victory twice, nor is it strong evidence against the idea that class consciousness crumbles in a political environment lacking any significant class politics. The author fundamentally fails to explain what was different in 2016 from 2008 or 2012, and that failure undercuts the entire narrative. Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley (basically Scranton), once the site of anthracite coal mines and heavy industry, went for Trump. Obama won it by double digits.19 Old industrial counties throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin that Obama had won by ten, fifteen, twenty points went for Trump by similar margins. And let’s again be clear: Obama is a far, far better embodiment of “pluralist social democracy” than Clinton. Nothing about this election suggests a necessary or natural antipathy to its ideals by that demographic.
Many commentators have implied that Trump winning these Obama strongholds was mostly due to white workers switching allegiances. This is deceptive. Across these five states, Trump gained only 334,498 additional votes from those making less than $50,000 over Romney in 2012 (a 10.6% increase). Clinton, on the other hand, received 1,174,362 fewer votes in the same income bracket across these states than Obama got in 2012 (a 21.7% decrease). Third parties gained an additional 259,605 votes from those making less than $50,000. A net of nearly 600,000 lower income voters withdrew from the political process entirely, evidently repulsed by the available options (which the boost in third party votes suggests as well). The point is, Trump made a compelling case to the Rust Belt’s working class and was moderately rewarded for it, but far more significant was the catastrophic collapse of Democratic support in this income bracket.20 And there’s really no way to argue that white working class voters (and around 267,000 people of color in these states) ditched the major parties because they’re racist.
The racism explanation clearly has some major factual shortcomings. But perhaps more importantly, it offers us absolutely nothing about how to proceed. “They’re just racist” is anti-political posturing. It is virtue-signaling through the embrace of collective doom and the denial of our responsibility to win. I hope this attitude is short-lived venting, because it absolutely must be purged from the anti-Trump movement if we are to have any chance of victory.
An example of the second explanation (“it’s the economy, stupid”) is from my friend Luke Allen, a community organizer for whom I have great deal of respect, in “Congratulations Liberals: We Have Only Ourselves to Blame for President Trump”.21 I agree with much of what he says here, but this analysis glosses over a number of details inconvenient to the narrative. Rustbelt working class whites aren’t the only ones suffering, and nor are they the only ones who are angry; the black working class has borne the brunt of the pain from deindustrialization across the country. The only reason we associate blacks with urbanity in the first place is the massive migration towards industrial jobs in (mostly) Northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century. Black independence from serfdom in the South is almost entirely due to industrial development, and the jobs of black workers were the first to go with advances in automation and (later) globalization. The inner city ghetto is as much the product of manufacturing’s shift to suburban production in the ‘60s and ‘70s22 (outsourcing round 1) and globalization (outsourcing round 2) as it is of redlining and federal transportation policy. The movement for black lives has been fueled across the country by black anger against the existing order. If anger at the system is all Trump that had going for him, we would expect to see many more black voters turn a blind eye to his race-baiting and cross party lines. And yet he received only 8% of the black vote.
Luke’s take also has a tendency to obscure distinctions between the rural poor and the urban/suburban white working class. Many poor rural communities have it considerably worse than the downwardly mobile, metropolitan white working class, but the fact that they vote Republican is nothing new. The biggest change from past elections is that they participated more than before.23
Furthermore, the implication of the argument that working class whites were willing to look beyond Trump’s racism is that they made a policy assessment that Trump would be better for them economically. This assumption is weak, which is why so many of the racism-explains-all crowd have seized upon it. The vagueness of Trump’s economic proposals and the broad dissatisfaction with the effects of neoliberal technocracy suggest that the pivot was more of a “fuck this” working class response to the status quo. And “fuck this, we’ll vote for the proto-fascist” suggests the resurgence of ethnonationalism under conditions of economic precarity and downward mobility. This isn’t about whether white people are racists or class warriors: it’s about the necessity of a broad, mainstream class politics in the face of racial nativist revival, of solidarity as an anti-fascist bulwark.
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My diagnosis is somewhat different from that of these opposing camps (and rather more than “a bit of both”). In my opinion, there is a generalized, even near-universal, anxiety in the American public about our democratic crisis: the basic fact that our political system does not translate popular will into public policy, but instead remains captive to the interests of economic elites. Both parties saw a powerful backlash against this arrangement in their primary elections. For Trump’s side, this anxiety forms the backbone to both his racial and economic appeals in a unified narrative grounded in popular discontent.
Political science professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, at Princeton University and Northwestern University respectively, rigorously demonstrated how policy decisions by the US government are in no way independently affected by the policy preferences of the lowest earning 90% of Americans, but instead respond exclusively to the preferences of corporations, the wealthiest 10%, and (to a relatively minimal extent) well-organized and well-funded advocacy organizations.24 In my experience, the vast majority of Americans understand this implicitly, having been screwed by their alleged representatives for decades on end. When tens of millions of people express the view that their vote doesn’t count, they aren’t just saying that their vote has no impact on the election’s outcome (although the electoral college makes this true for the vast majority of voters). They are also relating the fact that “their candidate” (assuming they have one) winning does not translate into policy outcomes they want. With only a handful of exceptions (Obama’s run in 2008 and Sanders’s primary bid), electoral campaigns are completely dependent on the goodwill of a wealthy and well-connected donor class, who are mostly leveraging their power for the interests of capitalists. Corporate lobbyists exert a stranglehold over the legislative process at federal, state, and municipal levels. Our abysmally low turnout is embarrassing, but more importantly it is a legitimacy crisis for American representative governance. The dominant narrative is that this is nothing more than lazy Americans passing up on their potential power, which of course has a measure of truth to it. But the vote is still not sufficient to secure the interests of the public when the ruling class monopolizes access to the halls of power.
Was I excited that a real social democrat was running this year? Absolutely. But I was never deluded into thinking that so many Democrats leapt to support Bernie out of a desire for free college. It was about this democratic crisis, and the fact that he was the one of the very few politicians talking about it. The heart of Bernie’s campaign was his focus on the power of billionaires to buy elections and leverage their position in the political process to protect their interests at the expense of the wider public, and the need for a surge of grassroots popular engagement in politics to seize our democracy back for the people—what he termed the “political revolution.” Even people like my anti-immigration, union- and welfare-hating father could get behind this. This message of the political revolution was of far greater importance for his base than the particular redistributive policies this revolution would enable.
The problem is that anxiety about our collective powerlessness isn’t a political consciousness. The Sanders campaign channeled that anxiety into class consciousness, with real explanatory power for many of the systemic problems we face. The Trump campaign steered that anxiety into false consciousness, with scapegoating, horizontal hostility, and deception. Trump ran on a very simple argument: Americans have gotten the short end of the stick with neoliberal globalization and open borders,25 which can only be rectified by projecting American power for better economic returns for ordinary people, which can only be achieved by throwing out the lot of incompetent, corrupt career politicians who are bought and paid for by special interests. This includes, for Trump and his primary supporters, the GOP establishment, who then controlled all of Congress, most state legislatures, and thirty-one governorships.
This was what Trump was able to beat Clinton over the head with. She is so easily represented as out of touch, careerist, beholden entirely to the interests of donors. His final television ad, entitled on Youtube as “Donald Trump’s Argument for America,” can be watched here. I’ve copied out the text, because I think it’s extremely important to understand the coherence and force of his argument in a year when everything suggested the public was angry and looking for change. It is the audio from a Trump speech at a campaign rally over a variety of video clips spliced together. Italics indicate his emphasis:
Our movement is about replacing the failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people [cuts to clips of Hillary Clinton] who don’t have your good in mind. The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration [cuts deceptively to footage of Syrian refugees in Europe, implying that it depicts events in the United States], and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry. The political establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories, and our jobs, as they flee to Mexico, China, and other countries all around the world. It’s the global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities. The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you the American people. I’m doing this for the people and for the movement, and we will take back this country for you, and we will make America great again. I’m Donald Trump, and I approve this message.
As with the Bernie campaign, Trump skillfully wove this narrative of democratic crisis into his take on widespread economic anxiety. Wage stagnation, deindustrialization, automation, weak job growth, and the casualization of labor have shifted millions of people into conditions of precarity. My generation is the first in a very long time that should expect to have worse economic prospects than our parents. By casting these woes as a matter of foreign encroachment (unlimited immigration, China,26 trade deals) rather than class divisions at home driving outsourcing and the dismemberment of organized labor, the campaign was able to integrate this part of his message with Trumpism’s racial narrative, of white middle America under attack from all sides. This, in my opinion, is why immigration was the central focal point of racial dog-whistling,27 although the traditional racial referent of inner city crime made a comeback during the general election.
The integration of Trump’s economic narrative with his racial narrative (“these Mexicans are taking our jobs”) needs to be understood as scapegoating, along similar patterns of Nazi narratives about Jews treacherously bleeding the economy dry in Germany’s moment of disgrace.28 I also find it particularly fascinating that illegal immigration has been seized upon by neo-Nazis and white nationalists (and many mainstream Republicans) as their core issue. The number of undocumented immigrants in the country is now at the lowest point in thirteen years. We’ve seen a steady negative rate of illegal immigration, with more undocumented people leaving the country than entering, over all of Obama’s time in office.29 Furthermore, we can rigorously demonstrate that the number of undocumented immigrants living in the US has increased dramatically as a result of increased border enforcement. Rather than a seasonal flow of male migrant workers across southwestern states, we have over ten million people in permanent families across all fifty states. Border enforcement makes it much more dangerous to cross back and forth, so those who need to cross the border will only do so once, and settle in the US for good.30 Our militarized border regime fails in its stated goals and wastes a tremendous amount of public resources in order to increase the number of poor people who die in the Sonoran Desert. Legal immigrants commit considerably fewer crimes per capita than native born citizens, and undocumented immigrants commit the fewest crimes of all (obviously—they have to stay out of trouble to not get deported). And virtually every economic study of undocumented immigration has concluded that it has had a positive or neutral effect on American wages and employment for all but the worst paid unskilled workers. The point is, there is actually no good reason to make an enormous deal out of immigration in the last five to ten years. So why is it centerstage for the far right? Because, senseless as it may be, it lays out the whole picture of the white nationalist vision. Whiteness is under threat by waves of non-white criminal elements, turning the country into something we hardly recognize. They are easily blamed for our economic woes, can be hated in public discourse by reference to the “illegality” of their actions, and ground white nationalist goals in a respectable policy framework that funnels their ideas into the mainstream. Undocumented immigrants cleanly facilitate the misdirection of white consciousness. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that a public facing greater economic anxiety is more receptive to scapegoating narratives, which is part of why we cannot and should not attempt to neatly distinguish between Trump’s message winning because it is economic or winning because it is racial. The racial appeal largely has force only because of the economic context and in connection to his macroeconomic argument. More importantly, however, the use of a racial narrative to explain economic conditions is a means of obfuscating America’s internal class structures that are the real drivers of precarity and our collective dispossession. It is what enables the cross-class coalition of Trumpism, what cements the unity between white working people and the white upper middle class under his banner. I cannot emphasize enough that the white nationalist and economic nationalist features of his movement are not divisible or able to be understood in isolation from one another.
Many on the left have been discussing over the past year whether Trump and his movement are legitimately fascist. When trying to be precise, I describe him as proto-fascist. Prevailing definitions of fascism have shifted over the decades, and that’s not a discussion I want to get into here. But it is worth comparing Trump’s coalition to that of Nazism and Italian fascism, as there are some key differences we need to appreciate. The traditional Marxist analysis of fascism was that it is a violent and authoritarian response by economic elites in reaction to the threat of a more powerful industrial working class agitating for its interests. Democracy and the labor movement put forth real challenges to bourgeois interests, and so democracy and the labor movement were attacked. This is what is meant by the quote often falsely attributed to Lenin: “Fascism is capitalism in decay.” For better or for worse, Trumpism is not a response to a radical labor movement’s threats to upper class interests.
Such a comparison between the demographic bases of these far right movements can actually tell us quite a lot about Trump’s weaknesses. The constant focus on the white working class in the Trump coalition creates the false impression that they are his core constituency. As with all fascist movements bigger than skinhead gangs, Trumpism’s base is in the petite-bourgeoisie, the white upper middle class.31 Forty-four percent of them reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher, well above the national average (29%) and the average for white adults (33%).32 The median income of his supporters is well above that of Sanders’s or Clinton’s (though below that of his Republican rivals). But the upper middle class is small—his modest support among the poor and the working class is what pushed him into the realm of electability. This is what sets Trumpism apart from earlier fascist movements: beyond the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat, ours includes, to an extent, the worker. In my opinion, it is important to understand this as stemming from anemic organized labor, the absence of any real socialist movement, and the shuddering contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. Furthermore, transnational capital has also received Trump mostly as a threat and allied themselves with centrist neoliberalism (the Clinton wing), a stark contrast to Italian and German fascism, which retained the support and cooperation of each country’s economic elite. Whether this will continue remains to be seen. I don’t believe anyone—perhaps not even the man himself—can state with confidence how Trump will govern, economically. Prior to the election, I imagined it might move towards corporatist/Peronista lines, where he attempts to integrate and co-opt the labor movement into a centralized authoritarian structure to provide for their interests through state interventions while strengthening a national capitalism and buying the elite’s consent with tax cuts. His cabinet, on the other hand, is shaping up to be such a motley collection of neocon, neoliberal, and alt-right ghouls—less “draining the swamp” than uplifting the most terrifying swamp monsters existing—that I think it is more likely for him to be an April Fools candidate. His “vision for America” may have simply been an extraordinary bait and switch, as he hands off power to the most anti-labor, anti-everything-worth-having rightwing extremists willing to kiss the rings on his tiny, tiny hands. He may be that sort of vanity president, whose only ideology is ego, easily influenced by any fellow billionaire with a penchant for flattery. Or he and his team may end up being so incompetent33 that the ruling class turns against him to protect the economy from disarray. But it seems most likely to me that American economic elites will be mostly focused on adapting to his regime. They will do what they can to move him in the direction of serving their interests (class interests which he personally shares). The essential point is, we cannot count on elites, even the ones who strongly backed Clinton, opposing him as our defense against fascist power in America. The divided ruling class is not his coalition’s weakness. Rather, it is his shaky hold on white working people, many of whom can quickly alienated by his administration given likely policy outcomes, especially if the oppositional center is in a social democratic movement to take our government back for the people.
To return to the matter of Trump’s effective weaving of layered political narratives, I would like to offer up one final example that illustrates how the narratives of democratic crisis, economic woe, and racial threat34 are integrated into an internally consistent (if insane) core message, in the most bizarre of places: Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech. She was his first high-profile endorsement, timed right before the Iowa caucus. It was a moment of great political and comedic significance. From start to finish, her speech was borderline incomprehensible, even coining a never-before-seen word (“squirmishes”). But meandering as it was, this speech also contained a moment of clarity, that brings it all together.35
Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay? Well, Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man, that’s why he’s doing so well. He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system. The way that the system really works, and please hear me on this, I want you guys to understand more and more how the system, the establishment, works, and has gotten us into the troubles that we are in in America. The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere. We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again…36 Yes the status quo has got to go. Otherwise we’re just going to get more of the same, and with their failed agenda, it can’t be salvaged. It must be savaged. And Donald Trump is the right one to do that.
The manner in which the three narratives of the democratic crisis, economic stagnation, and white nationalism lite were interwoven is why “race or economic concerns?” is the wrong question. These are mutually supporting facets of an internally consistent political message, appealing to huge swaths of the public in variable ways. The “race or the economy” axis of disagreement presents these as distinct dynamics while effacing the central role of the demos’s political disempowerment altogether. If we are going to beat Trump, we have to understand how all three work together; minus any of them, and the message and the coalition fall apart or transform completely.
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There was a tendency performed across my newsfeed of outrage at media personalities wondering (presumably for the first time in their lives) about the pain white working people were feeling. After all, black and Hispanic working poor are suffering too (more, for the most part), and they were able to suck it up and vote for a candidate that doesn’t care about them. But by refusing to interrogate the white working class betrayal of all things bright and beautiful, this tendency precludes the possibility of changing that outcome.
Equally troubling, this sort of posturing meshes neatly with ongoing liberal narratives about rural people and other varieties of “white trash,” whose sufferings are not just to be ignored but in fact to be scorned as evidence of their reactionary inferiority. I was flooded with thinkpieces, some of them quite excellent, in the aftermath of the election on how the narrative of “coastal elites” being out of touch with “real America” is bullshit—that it is rural America which is out of touch and isolated from the diversity of the country. Of hick roots myself, I can say that this is without a doubt largely true. The problem is that liberals (and “radicals” who couldn’t give a damn about class, especially not when it comes to those seen as bigots) often blur this into a far more vindictive framing.
The Democratic Party establishment has suffered from classism for a long time, but this has also undergone a qualitative shift since the 1990s. The relationship between the Party and movements of the rural poor to constrain elite power, expand democracy, and secure the material basis for a decent life for most people (by and large limited to whites, of course) is long and historically powerful. Other American rural movements lacked Democratic backing, but were nation-shaking forces nonetheless. These include, but are not limited to: post-revolutionary debtor movements that so terrified elites that they scrapped the Articles of Confederation; the popular movement towards the abolition of property qualifications for white men to vote between 1792 and 1856, mostly during the Jacksonian era; the Populist movement, which is largely responsible for laying the groundwork for the Progressive Era’s achievements; the most powerful (and violent) labor uprisings in American history, climaxing with the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921; the mass movements of urban and rural poor that made the New Deal a reality; and the interracial struggles in the 1960s (of which rural whites played a major role) to transform the United States into a democratic socialist society.
Today, however, the most prominent liberal narratives on the rural poor are unabashedly prejudicial. They are considered electorally useless, of course, now being generally staunch Republicans. They are punch lines,37 or worse. Rural people are widely considered to be slower, stupider, impediments to a modern democratic society, less deserving of respect and fair treatment. The political wing that supposedly concerns itself with poverty is apparently indifferent when that poverty falls outside of metropolitan areas. This is even to the point of sneering down their noses at the rural poor, a group uniquely deserving of its circumstances, even (in a bizarre twist) responsible for the backwardness of the country as a whole. They face some of the highest levels of police killings and brutality in the country.38 Over the course of my lifetime, death rates for white Americans have steadily increased, mostly due to spikes in alcohol abuse, drug overdose, and suicide among lower class whites, especially women.39 The response by middle class liberals (towards a very real public health crisis) has been a mix of apathy, condescension, and spite. Many have framed the problem in terms of the diminishing returns on whiteness: that is, that poor rural whites are putting bullets in their brains more, dying of heroin overdose more, working for starvation wages more, and having children outside of wedlock that they can’t afford to feed more because they’re entitled racists resentful of the steady gains made by minorities.
Am I ok with the fact that the folks I grew up with routinely and adamantly cast ballots against their interests of survival and just turned out in record numbers to make a reality TV fascist Commander-in-Chief? Obviously not—heartbroken, really. But cutting ourselves off from white pain, where children are raised hungrier and unhealthier than they have been in quite some time, because it fits our hip and edgy politics to spit on any attempts to understand the appeals of white nationalism through a compassionate lens is the worst possible response. By pretending lower class white angst has no material basis, all we do is help along the process of translating that pain into the embittered white consciousness that got Trump elected. We have long failed in this regard for rural folk, and we now appear to have failed for the metropolitan white working class as well. In the words of Jacob Bacharach,
“You don’t have to like it or excuse it, but you have to understand it. If, indeed, there can be no hope for Trump voters; if the divide is unbridgeable; if no politics exists that can reach even a few percent of them and turn them toward a project of mutual, shared well-being, justice, and fairness, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever. If the people who stayed home are offered nothing but some vague promise of innovative jobs in an endlessly new economy, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever.”40
But we don’t need to fail forever.
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Another issue that needs to be addressed as a real cause of the election’s outcome is sexism. While accusations of misogyny are frequently invoked to derail any mention of Clinton’s extraordinary rap sheet of flaws as a “progressive” candidate, that doesn’t mean that sexist attitudes aren’t playing a major role in her public perception. She lost by a narrow enough margin that we should be able to state with confidence that an identical male candidate would have beaten Trump. The general hysteria around her as uniquely power-hungry, corrupt, and dishonest reflect common patriarchal narratives about women seeking authority over men. This is made especially apparent by the gleeful shadiness of her opponent, who also appears to be a pathological liar. However, I think we can also state with some confidence that a better candidate who was a woman would have been able to wipe the floor with Trump—speculatively by a greater margin than any male Hillary could have. It is worth keeping in mind that Clinton performed even worse with women than Obama did, against the backdrop of Mitt “Binders Full of Women” Romney being replaced by Donald “Probable Serial Rapist” Trump. Like the claim that Trump won because most white people are irredeemably racist, limiting our explanation of the election’s outcome to the virulent sexism of American society is politically paralyzing. It offers us an opportunity to condemn our opponents for their moral failings, not develop a winning strategic response. Unless the solution you’re offering is “never have women be presidential candidates,” which is clearly not a justifiable reaction, this explanation offers us very little to work with. One would be as politically well-served by pointing out that Trump would never have won if the American public were swapped out for millions of Marxists.
There are some fringe explanations of the outcome which have weak/non-existent evidence. Some have argued that voter suppression in the form of new voter ID laws removed enough people from the rolls to flip close states. The only state where it is mathematically possible for this to have happened is Wisconsin, and even that is fairly improbable. At any rate, Wisconsin going to Clinton would not have been enough to change the overall outcome. Another is that third party campaigns spoiled the election in Trump’s favor.41 That appears to be true in Michigan, where Jill Stein received over 50,000 votes and where Clinton lost by less than 11,000. Gary Johnson received enough of the vote in all key swing states to flip the election the other direction if all of his supporters voted Clinton. The spoiler effect explanation relies on a good deal of pure speculation, however. It’s fair to assume that many of these voters wouldn’t have cast ballots at all if Clinton and Trump were their only options, and many would have voted for Trump. It is true that Johnson’s candidacy net harmed Clinton, but not by much, and (disturbingly) a number of Green Party voters consider Trump to be the lesser of two evils, given Clinton’s Syria platform and the general hysteria about her being uniquely corrupt. It is probably fair to say that third party candidacies increased overall turnout but slightly reduced the number of votes both Trump and Clinton received. A third, idiotic to the point that it shouldn’t be dignified with a response, is that the Sanders primary challenge cost her the election.
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So what, the wayward and uncertain Lenins of today ask, is to be done?
I won’t pretend to have perfect answers. What I believe ought to (even must) be done—libertarian municipalist revolt, grounding anti-fascist resistance in deeply rooted confederations of participatory democracy and communalism—is almost certainly beyond what we are organizationally capable of in the present moment.42 Our window of opportunity is narrow, and I think the conditions will never be riper for the progressive Left to seize control over the leadership of the Democratic Party.
I have been agnostic on the party question for quite some time. This election cycle, however, has cleared most of my uncertainty. I’m absolutely committed to the principles of pluralistic, multi-party democracy and hope to contribute to a movement of electoral reform to open up the field beyond our present political polarity. I remain registered as a member of the Green Party, though I’m increasingly skeptical of their potential as a vehicle for ecosocialist political struggle.
Unless we are first able to implement reforms doing away with first-past-the-post elections, all third party organizing efforts outside of urban centers where Democrats easily win more than two thirds of the vote are doomed to fail and will likely backfire. Furthermore, election law is designed to restrict third party ballot access far beyond any other election system on earth, excepting actual single-party states where opposition parties are illegal.43 Major party control of state legislatures would allow them to easily restrict third party opposition further, with corrupt impunity. It may be important for the organizational structure of embryonic third parties to be in place, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that those parties will ever be positioned to change the rules of the game to make multi-party democracy possible. And the era of Trump is not exactly an ideal time for trailblazing the spoiler effect from the left.
The Democratic Party establishment has never in living memory been more disgraced, nor more vulnerable to ousting by opposition from the Left. This unprecedented failure is an opportunity to marginalize or expel the neoliberal center from the Party altogether, engage the popular base, and fashion it into a real social democratic party committed to returning democratic control of our government to the people. Progressives and leftists of all stripes should engage directly in the Democratic Party itself at all levels, that den of mediocrity and betrayal, brush the cobwebs from the ideals of the Great Society and the New Deal and the Freedom Budget, and infuse our own fresh visions of socialism, racial and sexual equality, and participatory democracy.
As my comrade John Michael Colón is constantly harping on me about, we should also have no illusions about this task being straightforward or likely to succeed. There are serious structural problems within the Democratic Party, most notably the oligarchic relationship between donors and its decision-making apparatuses and the absence of a mass party membership with any authority outside of primary elections. And even that authority is constrained by superdelegates and the power of donors. What I’m suggesting is a sort of left Tea Party rooted in grassroots organizing and popular movements, retaining organizational and financial autonomy within the Party itself. We would pursue the formation of a mass dues-paying membership, to whom the caucus/bloc/party-within-a-party leadership would be accountable. This both gives us a seat at the table (by becoming major fundraisers) so that we can restructure the Party as a whole, as well as an exit option as a potentially viable third party. The exit option serves two related purposes. First, it’s an insurance policy should the neoliberals betray us, which we should operate under the assumption they will attempt to do. Second, it’s a threat, a bargaining chip to ensure that that betrayal is less likely. This bloc could agitate and wrangle to reframe the Party in democratic socialist (or, at the very least, social democratic) terms: a force of populist, principled politics for working class folk. There was a time when the Democrats were something approximating this, but racist and patriarchal. Playing party politics intelligently over the next two years is perhaps our best shot in history to create an engine of progressivism worth fighting for.
There is more about what is to be done than party realpolitik. We can organize coalitions of local movement organizations to fashion a popular front (spanning liberals to the radical left) to resist the federal government at the local level and ousting irresponsive municipal officials. We can upscale this into statewide coalitions and, with the right relationships and gutsy leadership, into a national resistance movement. Over the next four years, we must also craft and disseminate the coherent narrative that only a leftwing populism of this sort can beat Trumpism. If we’re going to win back Congress and some of the states in 2018, and the White House in 2020, this has to become the new commonsense for American liberalism. And it will require the radical left’s engagement with American liberalism to make it a better version of itself, rather than a continuation of our past impotent disgust for its unacceptable failures. I have little faith that any of this will come from the punditry or commentariat of yesteryear. This will take all of us. So will battening down the hatches for a perilous four years and beyond.
These are dark, dark times, and not just on the home front. I am reminded of Tolkien’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring, written during the ascendant power of the Third Reich and the unspeakable destruction of World War II:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So we think carefully, and we fight. Brace yourselves, love yourselves, love your comrades, and godspeed.