There’s plenty of blame to go around for Donald Trump’s dangerous ascent to the world’s most powerful political office. The Republican Party’s long-term strategy of dog-whistle racism provided Trump with a ready-made base, primed to resonate with a demagogue whose story wove together racial animus, economic anxiety, and popular anger at the establishment. At the same time, Trump was able to successfully navigate the populist landscape partly because the Democratic Party leadership effectively ceded this terrain, by shying away from picking progressive populist fights. For example: with Wall Street and the ‘one per cent’ in the wake of the financial crisis, when they had a compelling mandate to do so. Then, by pushing to nominate the candidate who epitomized the out-of-touch political establishment in the popular mind. These weren’t just poor political moves by the Democratic Party, but part and parcel of its decades-long embrace of neoliberal policies.
The neoliberal project had a long run. But today its eulogy is read aloud across the globe, in the speeches of populist insurgents from both the Left and the Right. Governing parties have failed to mitigate the pain caused by neoliberalism’s prescriptions. The resultant crisis of legitimacy – when a society’s confidence in political authority drops below a critical threshold – has caught the political elite off guard. They missed or underestimated the signs of discontent swelling up in pockets of society from which they themselves were insulated. Maybe they told themselves stories about a ‘strong recovery’, glossing over how growth has concentrated at the tippy-top.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties missed the writing on the wall. They assumed that voters would line up along the old liberal/conservative spectrum, determined mostly by the social issues that have reliably framed mainstream political debate for decades. Increasingly, however, Americans have been feeling out their positions on a populist/establishment spectrum. In a prolonged crisis of legitimacy, political challengers will inevitably emerge from the poles – Left and Right – to mount a challenge to the status quo. They do this by articulating new premises for political alignment and a new vision for society – and by seizing every available opportunity to blast the establishment. As populism ascends, those who are dubbed ‘establishment’ can do no right; their every action is framed as a violation of the sovereign will of the people.
Trump understood this intuitively. One by one he knocked out his Republican primary opponents, building up an energetic base who enjoyed watching favoured insiders lose to an impertinent outsider. Locking the nomination, Trump then turned his vitriol on the candidate who, for millions of Americans, epitomized the haughty political class.
Stopping Trump’s consolidation
Since the inauguration, many have debated whether Trump, Bannon and company are masterminds with an authoritarian playbook or bumbling idiots without a clue. Both options are true, in different ways. This dangerous clown car of an administration is way out of its league when it comes to running something as complex as the executive branch of the United States government. They are making countless avoidable missteps. Yet they are ‘masterminds’ to the extent that they understand how to navigate the populist landscape better than the leadership of the Democratic Party – and in a populist era, this understanding makes up for an enormous amount of incompetence.
With the superficial trappings of outsiderdom, Trump’s junk populism inspired a large enough base to win him the electoral college. On the one hand, it is a mistake to argue that white working- and middle-class people voted for Trump only because they have been screwed by neoliberalism and they are resentful of educated liberal elites. Xenophobia was at the centre of Trump’s campaign, and we should count racism as a major motivating factor for voters, even when subconscious. On the other hand, it is also a mistake to argue that white people voted for Trump only because they are racists. It is both things at once, and that’s precisely why it works. This is the classic formula of rightwing populism, and why it is so dangerous. Many white people are legitimately experiencing economic, social and psychological strain and they may harbour understandable resentment toward educated elites. Trump, like other rightwing demagogues before, appeals to this anxiety and resentment, while simultaneously appealing to – and stoking – racial prejudice and a racialized national identity.
It will be tempting for liberals to keep talking only to themselves, cathartically bonding over the backwardness of half the country; if that’s our story, we lose
As president, Trump now has a viable path to determining the composition, character and agenda of the next major political alignment in the US. By ‘major’, think New Deal Coalition or Reagan Coalition – broad alignments that maintained hegemony for decades. If he passes an infrastructure bill that delivers even a little relief, Trump could potentially win over the long-term loyalty of a large enough section of working-class voters, including a significant – or at least sufficient – percentage of union members and people of colour.
If you don’t think that’s possible, ask yourself if you thought Trump winning the presidency was possible. It’s way past time to stop dismissing him and to start taking him seriously as a formidable opponent.
To stop Trump we have to snatch the populist mantle from his grip. Despite occupying the highest office in the land and enjoying a Republican trifecta (dominance in the House, Senate and Executive Branch), Trump will continue to spin a story about how he is an outsider crashing the elite party in Washington. He will paint Democrats, the mainstream media, and anyone who gets in his way as the ‘crooked establishment’. So we have to pick fights that frame an alternative populism – fights that show that Trump’s populism is a lemon. Demanding that Wall Street pay for the infrastructure bill, for example, would be a popular demand that Trump can neither fulfil nor look good refusing.
An ill-equipped opposition
Unfortunately, the leadership of the Democratic Party is ill-equipped – structurally and by disposition – to make such double-binding demands or lead such a fight. After devastating losses in November, the Party leadership now mistakenly sees populism itself as the threat. What Bernie Sanders – and the fledgling insurgent wing of the Democratic Party he represents – understood last year is that the status quo absolutely has to be shaken up. Establishment Democrats warned us that Bernie would have lost them the centre by spouting an ‘unrealistic’ progressive vision that goes too far. Democratic socialism?! That’s a non-starter when it comes to electability, they argued. Remember that they also argued that Trump was unelectable. Democratic politicians and operatives were following the same recipe they have followed their entire political careers, failing to grasp that the ingredients have changed. In a populist era, playing to the centre proved a losing prospect.
The Democratic Party’s epic failure in 2016 should have resulted in a dramatic overhaul of its leadership and change in its direction. Yet no such progressive overhaul seems to be imminent, even if the Party’s future – as well as the nation’s – depends upon making such a change.
Why is it that there is an insufficient organized outsider force pushing change in the Democratic Party? Here we grasp at another thread of the story of neoliberalism’s advance. It is not just the dog-whistle racism of the Republican Party providing political cover for unfettered finance capitalism; it is not just the Democratic Party’s embrace of free-market ideology; it is also the steady weakening of the social and civic fabric that any developed society depends on to hold itself together. We need more people power.
Compared to half a century ago, we are a weakened and fragmented civil society, unaccustomed to large-scale organized collective action. What remains of the US Left is paralysed by an unprecedented class-based insularity. In both liberal professional and edgy radical subcultural circles, this insularity typically manifests as a kind of ‘enlightened elitism’ that tends to repel the uninitiated. Over the past few decades a new category called activism has emerged in place of civics and politics. Civics and politics imply a public sphere, a common terrain, and a shared responsibility. Activism, on the other hand, may concern itself with public issues, but it organizes itself along the contours of neoliberalism’s designs – as a private space for self-selecting individuals, typically from middle-class backgrounds. As such, activism often becomes more concerned with maintaining itself as an enclave than with actually mounting a political challenge to contest the direction of society and the state. Labour unions remain an important exception to this pattern, and their decline has added profoundly to the weakening of progressive political power in the US over the past half-century.
In broad strokes, Democrats are not well positioned to lead the populist charge, but neither are existing grassroots progressive institutions or radical subcultures.
Massive and unwieldy
The good news is that Trump’s election is suddenly shocking America out of this decades-long slumber. On 9 November 2016, millions of Americans woke up to an unbelievable nightmare. But they also woke up.
From the perspective of this lifelong grassroots political organizer, the current mobilizing opportunity is unlike anything I’ve seen. In the weeks that followed the election, I could hardly leave my house without running into friends and acquaintances who would stop me and ask, ‘What can I do? How can I get involved?’ My phone rang constantly. One person even offered: ‘I will work half-time at my job and make do on less if there’s a way for me to help. Give me something to do.’ Here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – hardly a bastion of progressive organization – we have held four mass meetings since Election Day, packed and overflowing. We have used these meetings to plug the previously uninvolved into working groups focused on things like fighting controversial appointments and building sanctuary campuses and congregations to protect immigrants.
In the weeks following the election, friends would stop me and ask, ‘What can I do? How can I get involved?’
After Trump’s executive order barring refugees, we turned out 2,000 people in Lancaster’s square – the largest public demonstration here in five decades. I’ve heard similar reports from across the country: the progressive Rhode Island state rep who called for an emergency meeting, supposing that 100 or so folks would turn out – and over 1,000 came; the Showing Up for Racial Justice meeting in Hudson, New York, usually attended by one or two dozen, swelling with hundreds of people. The Indivisible guide to resisting Trump’s agenda was downloaded by over 500,000 people in its first month, with thousands of local groups springing up across the country. The Women’s March held the day after the inauguration may have been the largest public demonstration in the history of the US. A week later we saw a spontaneous flooding of airports, from sea to shining sea, to interfere with Trump’s executive order.
These first tastes of popular mobilization under a Trump presidency are promising. There is good reason to be terrified right now, but these substantial efforts provide us with warranted reason for hope as well. If we can turn popular outrage into a massive organized force, we will gain the leverage to push the Democrats to fight for us. It’s working already – Democrats finally decided to show up for the fight the weekend of the airport protests. However, if we do not seize this moment to take on the underlying failures of trickle-down policies and the profound inequality these prescriptions have produced, then rightwing populism will keep popping up like a whack-a-mole – and we may not even be able to defeat Trump in 2020.
Our best hope for mitigating the damage of a Trump presidency is to embrace the political project of building a progressive populism – one that has both economic and racial justice at its core. We have to study and orient ourselves to the current populist landscape. It will be tempting for liberals to keep talking only to themselves, spending the next four or eight years cathartically bonding over the backwardness of half the country; if that’s our story, we lose. It will be tempting for professionally staffed progressive organizations – as well as more radical lefty groups – to try to fight Trump only with the relatively small numbers they have mustered in the past; those forces were too feeble to stop him from getting into office in the first place, and they will likely be too feeble to stop him now. Everything we do in the coming months and years should aim to connect with, inspire and activate larger social forces into aligned political action. We will need to provide training, coaching, resources and support at a national scale: how to organize and facilitate a meeting, how to do effective outreach, how to plug volunteers into tasks and ongoing roles, and so on. We will need to relearn the ‘skills of democracy’ (whose atrophy sociologist Theda Skocpol has lamented). Ultimately, we will need to unleash a massive populist force that involves the active ongoing participation of millions of Americans. It will be messy and unwieldy. But that is the scale of mobilization that the dangerous present situation calls for.
It is under way. And that is a very good thing.