We Need More Than a 'Not Trump' Strategy for Real Change
With the news cycle taken over by the latest madness emerging from the mouth or Twitter feed of the childish “orange one” in the White House, could we step back from the circus to reflect like adults on the social and historical forces that produced the clown presidency? Haymarket Books’ new collection of essays by leading left political analysts, “US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty: Essays on a New Reality,” is required reading for anyone interested in such reflections on Donald Trump.
All the contributors rightly place the Democrats at the center of the story of what went wrong. “The horrors and challenges presented by the Trump administration,” writes Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in the book’s seventh essay, “should not obscure the very important discussion of how the administration came into power. You cannot understand the emergence of Trump without taking account of … the failure of the liberal establishment to provide a real alternative to the reactionary populism … of Trump.”
Each contributor to “US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty” brings his or her own distinctive slant to this core thesis. In the volume’s opening and sixth essays, Sharon Smith (“Chickens Coming Home to Roost to the Democratic Party”) and Lance Selfa (“From Hope to Despair: How the Obama Years Gave Us Trump”) show how the Democrats opened the door to Trump’s right-wing pseudo-populism with their dedication to neoliberal orthodoxy and their failure under Obama to meet the needs of working-class Americans.
In the fifth essay, sociologist Neil Davidson sees Trump’s victory as part of a global phenomenon—the unsettling rise of right-wing nationalist populism in the vacuum left by the decline of a serious anti-capitalist left. By Davidson’s account:
The victories of neoliberalism have left the working-class in the West increasingly fragmented and disorganized, and, for some workers, appeals to blood and nation appear as the only viable form of collectivity still available, particularly in a context where any systemic alternative to capitalism [has] collapsed. … The increasing interchangeability of mainstream parties, including those on the social-democratic left, gives the far right an opening to voters by positioning themselves as outside the consensus in relation to social policy.
According to historian Nancy Fraser in the book’s final essay, first published just more than a year ago, Hillary Clinton’s ignominious defeat marked “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism”—the defeat of “an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end ‘symbolic’ and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other.” This “real, if perverse political alignment,” Fraser explains, “developed in the United States over the last three decades and was ratified with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992” (and then reauthorized with Obama’s two terms, she might have added). Under its terms, “progressive forces are effectively joined with” financial capitalism, lending “charisma” and “gloss” to “policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.” While trumpeting outwardly progressive ideals like diversity and empowerment, the Clinton-Obama formation “bears a heavy responsibility for the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the two-earner family in the place of the defunct family wage.”
By Fraser’s account, “progressive neoliberalism” was “rejected in toto” by Trump’s deindustrialized and rural white voters. For these “left behind” Americans, including not just “industrial workers … but also managers, small businessmen, and all who relied on industry in the Rust Belt and the South, as well as rural populations devastated by unemployment and drugs … the injury of deindustrialization was compounded by the insult of progressive moralism, which cast them as culturally backward. Rejecting globalization, Trump voters also repudiated the liberal cosmopolitanism associated with it.”
While acknowledging that “there is much to fear from a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-ecological Trump administration,” Fraser refuses to “shed tears for the defeat of progressive neoliberalism”—for “the implosion of neoliberal hegemony” and the “shattering of Clintonism’s grip on the Democratic Party.” Trump’s victory may have been a dangerous atrocity, but it marked a “welcome defeat for the alliance of emancipation and financialization.”
How true is it that Trump owed his victory to the economically exploited and culturally alienated “white working-class”? In the volume’s second, third and fourth essays, sociologist and activist Charlie Post, Labor Notes founder Kim Moody and author Mike Davis demolish the ubiquitous media storyline that attributed Trump’s election to an uprising of enraged white “heartland” proletarians. None of these writers denies that a vast swath of “the white working-class” (WWC)—loosely and problematically defined as “whites without college degrees”—voted for Trump (as most WWC voters did for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney) or that this reflected the Democrats’ neoliberal flight from working-class issues. Still, as Post, Moody and Davis show, it is lazy and factually incorrect to identify the WWC as Trump’s “base” and to see his election as the reflection of some great wave of white proletarian wrath.
There are four basic problems with what Smith calls the “blame the white working-class narrative.” First, as Davis notes, Trump won the overall white vote by only one percentage point more than did Mitt Romney in 2012—hardly what one would expect if Trump had ridden some great wave of white proletarian rage.
Second, Trump did better than Hillary Clinton with high-income voters. His overall base was relatively affluent. “Trump’s victory,” Moody observes, “was disproportionately a middle-class, upper-income phenomenon.” White workers were not Trump’s electoral engine.
Third, as Post and Moody note, the category of “white without college degree” includes droves of voters who are not proletarians. “There are millions of Americans,” Moody writes, “who don’t have a college degree, who are not working-class, and who are actually more likely to vote than the ‘left behind’ industrial workers.” Moody reminds us that there are 17 million-plus small business managers without “the allegedly class-defining degree,” along with “1.8 million managers, 8.8 million supervisors, and 1.6 million cops whose jobs don’t require a college degree. … The proportion of those without a college degree who are petty bourgeois or genuinely middle-class, who are more likely [than working- and lower-class people] to vote and to vote Republican is quite large,” Moody writes, “and the equation of the missing degree with working-class status [is] misleading.”
Fourth, most Americans without a college degree don’t vote. This is particularly true among the lower- and working-class segment of the majority non-degreed U.S. populace. As a result, “any measure of [political] patterns among those who do vote is a measure of a relatively high-income minority.” Voter turnout, Smith notes, “is strongly correlated to class position—extremely high among the wealthiest Americans and falling steadily as incomes decline.” When we realize that “the many millions of people who did not vote … far outnumbered those who voted for either party in 2016,” it becomes clear that the biggest electoral story about the U.S. working-class in 2016 is that it sat out the contest between the two dismal capitalist candidates and parties, not that it made some (imaginary) wild shift to the white-nationalist right.
Trump didn’t flip white working-class voters. The Democrats continued the long neoliberal loss of those voters.
And it wasn’t just the Caucasian proletariat that the Clinton-Obama Democrats demobilized and lost. As Smith notes, turnout fell dramatically among historically Democratic nonwhite voters nationwide, including “Black residents in swing-state cities, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia.” The Democrats’ abandonment of the “heartland” WWC should not blind us to their related desertion of the more urbanized black and Latino lower and working classes.
What about the “Trump Democrats”—WWC voters who might well have backed the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders had he been the Democrats’ presidential nominee and who followed the European white-nationalist right by shifting their votes from Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016? “The phenomenon is real,” Davis finds:
… but largely limited to a score or so of troubled Rust Belt counties, from Iowa to New York, where a new wave of plant closure[s] or relocation[s] has coincided with growing immigrant or refugee populations. Election punditry has consistently conflated blue-collar votes long captured by Republican presidential candidates with the more modest and localized defections of working-class Democrats to Trump. Several hundred thousand white, blue-collar Obama voters, at most, voted for Trump’s vision of fair trade and reindustrialization, not the millions usually invoked.
What really put Trump in the White House, Davis concludes, was not some novel “wave of white, working-class resentment” but instead Trump’s success in “capturing the entirety of the Romney vote, without any of the major defections (college-educated Republican women, conservative Latinos, Catholics) that the polls had predicted, and Clinton had counted upon.” Trump achieved this, Davis thinks, with “visceral white nationalism” but also with his “genius stroke”: keeping the evangelical right on board by giving it the vice presidency (the Christian proto-fascist Mike Pence) and power over the recomposition of the federal judiciary.
Other key circumstances, by Davis’ analysis, included the many egregious failures of the Hillary Clinton campaign (including “abdicating any serious effort in smaller industrial towns and cities,” “skip[ping] the entire state of Wisconsin,” and “stupefying inattention to voter unrest in long-Democratic nonmetropolitan counties”); the money and direction granted late in the game to Trump by the hard-right Mercer family and its “alt-right” agents (Steve Bannon, primarily); the remarkable free media attention Trump enjoyed; the media’s extraordinary inattention to policy questions and its related obsession with Trump’s antics and Hillary’s emails; the anti-minority voter suppression laws and tactics of Republican state legislatures; and the Democrats’ longstanding and ongoing loss of state legislative power, a reflection of its overfocus on the White House.
Besides the “blame the white working-class narrative,” another suspect take on the 2016 election (the other side of the identity coin, so to speak) attributes the Democrats’ failure to their alleged excessive “identity politics” efforts to win the votes of women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims and LGBTQ folks. “US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty” rejects this storyline as well.
In Professor Taylor’s essay, “Black Politics in the Trump Era,” she details how Barack Obama’s presidency “was not a gift to African Americans” but instead “represented the painful continuity of racism, discrimination, and inequality that has always been at the center of Black life in America.” When the Black Lives Matter movement arose to protest the longstanding problem of racist police brutality, Taylor notes, Obama served the political establishment by trying “to get the movement off the streets by seducing activists with roundtable meetings and seats on commission … cheap flattery and the appearance of reform.”
Hillary Clinton, Taylor observes, added nothing to the anti-racist cause. Clinton ran a campaign that “ignored the everyday conditions experienced by ordinary people” while focusing on Trump’s offensive behavior and advancing the nauseating claim that “America is already great.” That claim was hardly going to rally black votes when, even after eight years of a first black U.S. president, “Black unemployment remain[ed] twice the rate of whites … 38 percent of Black children continue[d] to live below the official poverty line; … a shocking 35 percent of Black workers—mostly Black women—make under fifteen dollars an hour.”
In the book’s eighth essay, Elizabeth Schulte combines a critique of Trump’s revolting sexism with a powerful critique of how “the ultimate insider” Clinton’s neoliberal campaign “refus[ed] to put forward demands that would actually have [a positive] impact on working-class women and, in fact, opposed those demands, including a federal fifteen-dollar minimum wage.” The Clinton campaign’s ugly gender-shaming of Bernie Sanders’ left-leaning progressive backers as ” ‘brocialists’ who didn’t care about sexism” obscured the fact “a growing number of people, including women, were repelled by Trump but also by the Democratic Party status quo that Hillary Clinton exemplified … [f]or millions” of women as well as men.
Schulte notes, Hillary’s tepid, “model establishment” candidacy “rang hollow and was a perfect example of how out of touch” the Democrats “were with working people, even those on whom the party ordinarily depends for votes.” By contrast, the arch-plutocratic billionaire Trump’s “campaign aimed to appeal to people’s anger and frustration over the status quo in Washington and the enormous gap between the people in the halls of power and the majority of people they claim to serve.”
The volume ends with two interviews, with Deepa Kumar and Justin Akers Chacón. These conversations remind us that the Bill Clinton and Barack “Deporter-in-Chief” Obama administrations advanced and continued many of the nativist, “border security,” and Islamophobic policies and narratives that have been taken over and amplified by Trump. Kumar’s reflections on what she calls “the Trump Effect” bear special attention after a year in which the Democrats have kept the lid on serious popular resistance to the Trump presidency:
In [one] respect, Donald Trump represented a political godsend for the Democratic Party establishment, a bogeyman whom they could use to frighten voters into supporting an ‘anybody but Trump option’ in the 2016 general election. This strategy failed, and Clinton lost in … a contest between the two most unpopular candidates in a generation, if not all time. Since then with an eye toward the 2018 congressional elections and the 2020 presidential election, the liberal establishment has denounced Trump as a fascist … [a misapprehension that] plays into the hands of the Democrats, because the whole notion of a united front against fascism gives the Democratic Party greater freedom to carry out its own imperialist agenda, unencumbered by any criticism from its left. … Trump does represent a frightening turn in US politics. However, to see him as an anomaly in US politics is to downplay and misunderstand the no-less-frightening political dynamic that makes Trump possible, a dynamic that is a product of a political system in its entirety. … [W]e need to understand this phenomenon in systemic terms—not as the product of a single individual or a single political party.
Did 2016 really represent “the end of the progressive neoliberalism,” the “implosion of neoliberal hegemony,” and the end of “Clintonism’s iron grip on the Democratic Party,” as Nancy Fraser imagined and indeed welcomed one year ago? That’s far from clear as an epically unpopular Trump and the widely loathed Republican Party head into plausible electoral defeats by a still neoliberal and bourgeois, identity-politicized Democratic Party that has been pushing its progressive, “Sandernista” insurgents to the margins. As Doug Henwood recently noted on The Real News Network, the Democratic Party often behaves as if it would “rather lose to the right than to the left. … The way they have reconfigured themselves, at least at the presidential level,” Henwood says, “is they’re doing everything they can to keep the Sanders-style agenda off, out of the conversation, and to promote all these mainstream liberals whether its [Kirsten] Gillibrand or Kamala Harris, or older ones like Joe Biden. All they can talk about is Russia and how terrible Trump is. … It’s all about how Trump is the puppet of Putin and nonsense like that.”
The dreadfulness of Trump may be helping sustain the neoliberal Democrats’ chances of winning back nominal power simply by being the “Not Trump” party. Nancy Fraser’s “progressive neoliberals” are licking their chops at the prospect of cashing in on the chaotic sociopathy of the Trump “administration” in the 2018 and 2020 elections. The “anybody but Trump” strategy that failed for Democrats in 2016 is alive and well, with a strong overlay of conspiratorial and neo-McCarthyite Russophobia added on.
There are two things egregiously missing in “US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty.” The first is any sustained discussion of the pivotal role that has been played since Trump’s election by Democrats’ “obsession with Russian meddling in the US elections” (Kumar)— rightly described by Kumar as a “reflection of the liberal establishment’s attempt to place blame elsewhere.” That is surely an oversight given the central job the Russia madness has played from the very beginning in the mainstream Democrats’ efforts both to position themselves for success in coming elections and to keep down Sandernista insurgents in their own party’s ranks.
A second thing somewhat surprisingly absent from the volume is an essay on climate change and environmental policy. This deficiency is odd for three reasons. First, capitalist-driven global warming now clearly constitutes the leading issue of our, or any, time and poses the literal threat of near-term human extinction. Second, Trump’s ugly commitment to the accelerated greenhouse gassing of the planet marks his single most dangerous and relevant policy thrust. Third, the less-than-stellar (to say the least) environmental and climate policy record of the Democrats and the Obama administration is suitable for the same critical left analysis (see Stansfield Smith’s interesting reflection on “Obama’s Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change” one year ago) that the collection’s contributors give the Democrats regarding matters of class, race, gender, ethnicity and immigration.
These omissions aside, “US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty” is a must-read for anyone serious about understanding the nation’s political affairs in a deep and historically astute way that goes beneath and beyond the endless soap opera and superficial coverage of the reigning media-politics culture.
Moving from the past to the present and future, the volume’s main lesson is a good one. It is that we need “to build a left, independent of the Democratic Party”—one that deals not only with the immediate threats posed by Trump and the far right but more fundamentally with root systemic causes. This is job number one. Surely, Nancy Fraser’s harsh judgement in early January 2017 is no less brutally accurate today:
What made possible [Trump voters’ willingness to blame their difficult circumstances on immigrants and minorities instead of on capital is] the absence of any genuine left. Despite periodic outbursts such as Occupy Wall Street, which proved short-lived, there ha[s] been no sustained left presence in the United States for several decades now. Nor [is] there in place any comprehensive left narrative that would link the legitimate grievances of the Trump supporters with a fulsome critique of financialization, on the one hand, and with an antiracist, anti-sexist, and anti-hierarchical vision of emancipation, on the other. Equally devastating, potential links between labor and new social [and environmental] movements [have been] left to languish. Split off from one another, those indispensable poles of a viable left [are] miles apart, waiting to be counter-posed as antithetical.
“What,” to ask Lenin’s famous question, “is to be done?” For starters, “militant minorities” (Charlie Post’s term) must come together to construct the inner workings of a viable left. The alternative is endless captivity to what Fraser calls “the Hobson’s choice between reactionary populism and progressive neoliberalism.”