By Jim Miller
I spent the days after the election, one that I too had hoped and predicted that Clinton would win, mourning and comforting despairing friends, colleagues, and students afraid of what the future will bring. Where I teach at San Diego City College, the majority of the students are part of the America that Trump hates. There is terror at the thought of family members being deported, unease at the prospect of discriminatory policies based on religion, race, gender, and sexuality, and fear of a cynical climate-denying opportunist bent on sealing the fate of the endangered natural world.
Most of all, there is grief and rage over the murder of hope.
Somehow it was fitting that Leonard Cohen died this week after penning one last shout: “You Want It Darker”:
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
I’m ready, my lord
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker
Trump lost the popular vote, but here we are again, the second time in 16 years, suffering the dire consequences of minority rule, this time under a man who demagogued his way into office with a litany of hate.
And then there are the questions. How in the world did we get here?
One of the best early political analyses of why Trump won was by Thomas Frank in the Guardian where he outlines the problems not just with Trump, but with Clinton:
She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch. Whether or not she would win was always a secondary matter, something that was taken for granted. Had winning been the party’s number one concern, several more suitable candidates were ready to go. There was Joe Biden, with his powerful plainspoken style, and there was Bernie Sanders, an inspiring and largely scandal-free figure. Each of them would probably have beaten Trump, but neither of them would really have served the interests of the party insiders.
And so Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest. They chose Hillary even though they knew about her private email server. They chose her even though some of those who studied the Clinton Foundation suspected it was a sketchy proposition.
To try to put over such a nominee while screaming that the Republican is a rightwing monster is to court disbelief. If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they’d chosen because it was her turn. Choosing her indicated either that Democrats didn’t mean what they said about Trump’s riskiness, that their opportunism took precedence over the country’s well-being, or maybe both . . .
Put this question in slightly more general terms and you are confronting the single great mystery of 2016. The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment. And then they lost. Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.
The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. The rest of us are treated as though we have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the “last thing standing” between us and the end of the world. It is a liberalism of the rich, it has failed the middle class, and now it has failed on its own terms of electability. Enough with these comfortable Democrats and their cozy Washington system. Enough with Clintonism and its prideful air of professional-class virtue. Enough!
If Frank is correct, then perhaps Sanders may have been the more “electable” candidate all along despite the Clinton “electability” mantra coming from the Democratic establishment and most media pundits. In any event, there is certainly ample evidence that a more full-throated progressivism that targets inequality more clearly and forcefully in a way that unites people rather than divides them is the best way forward.
The debate about this will surely shape the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement from here on. That discussion and the need to honestly recognize the resurgent racism, sexism, and xenophobia that has become, in many cases, married to the class anger of a lot of whites is key to understanding where we are at this moment in history.
It’s not economic anxiety or cultural backlash, it’s both, and offering people a clearer analysis of economic displacement and inequality and directing their anger at the right things is a crucial part of building a better future rather than unleashing the war of all against all. As Cornell West convincingly argued during a BBC interview in the wake of Trump’s victory, it is not just about the politics of identity or just about class, but both.
The sad truth of the matter is that, as Nate Cohn’s post-election analysis of the election clearly illustrated, working class whites in the north provided the key votes needed for Trump as Clinton radically underperformed Obama in places like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And as a New York Times piece on those Midwestern Trump voters pointed out over the weekend:
For Mr. Trump, now comes the hard part. In interviews in recent days and in March, Trump voters here made it clear that if he does not follow through on his promises, they are prepared to turn on him, just as they are seemingly punishing Democrats today for not delivering the hope and change voters sought from President Obama after he won as an outsider in 2008.
So, as hard as it is for some of us on the Left Coast to grok, there is solid evidence that Trump won the electoral vote by stealing this key sliver of the Obama coalition from Clinton.
Thus Trump’s victory was both the wages of neoliberalism as Naomi Klein forcefully argued and, in another key segment of the electorate, evidence of the enduring power of white supremacy as a defining narrative both for working class whites who have slipped and for fearful and resentful middle class whites pushing back against their perceived loss of status.
Days before the election, Barbara Ehrenreich summed it up pithily:
[G]enerally portrayed as laid-off blue-collar workers who, in the absence of unions, have devoted themselves to the cause of whiteness – cheer on each of his macro-aggressions. To them, he is a giant middle finger in the face of the bipartisan political elite, and the crazier he acts, the more resounding this fuck-you gets. It doesn’t matter that most of Trump’s assertions can’t stand up to fact-checking; ignorance has been enshrined by an entire alternative media, stretching from Fox News to Stormfront on the Nazi-leaning right.
All is permitted, whether it be sexual assaults or racist hate crimes, in the service of giving the bird to the hated “Others” who are, in the fearful imagination of Trump nation, angling to get their piece of the pie. Mike Davis, adding his voice to the post-election chorus, smartly noted that such thinking is rooted in the recent history of the American right and fertile ground for more ill to come:
Trump . . . lied, dog-whistled, and thugged his way to the nomination and now to the presidency. “Why?” asks an alarmed establishment. Why, in spite of all this, did Trump’s support endure? Why did the American people not react as they once would have? … Answer. We are another country, an us-or-them country . . . “Us-or-them” countries, of course, are traditionally the potting soil for fascism.
Indeed, they are, and there are more dark days on their way.
The civil rights of immigrants, women, the LGBT community, and people of color are at stake, the very existence of the labor movement is at stake, the health care coverage of millions and the health of our democracy is at stake as is the future survival of the planet, as a climate-denying extremist who has pledged to race us down the suicide path takes power. It’s all on the line and we are destined to lose a lot in the short term.
Where do we go from here?
In the months and years to come there will be plenty of time for more detailed discussions of strategy, but in the midst of the immediate wreckage we know that we must critically analyze what went wrong, continue to fight for social justice, refuse to normalize a President who rode in on a wave of bigotry despite losing the popular vote by over a million, stand with our brothers and sisters who are most at risk from an emboldened right, and be kind to one another.
As a group of California legislators put it in an eloquent response to the Trump victory, here on the Left Coast we are “keepers of the future.” And as such, we have to do what we can to push back in the other direction by creating open, diverse, and beloved communities where we live and work.
If we create these spaces where love and a sense of interconnectedness are the driving forces of our actions, we will foster the kind of culture of solidarity that fuels and sustains a resistance movement necessary to turn the tide.
By doing so, we become lights in the darkness.