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Trump and the Decline of American Liberalism

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According to Hillary Clinton, her defeat was caused by two interventions by James Comey, Director of the FBI. The first, eleven days before the election, announced the discovery of a new trove of emails. The second, two days before it, stated that they did not change his original view that Clinton should not be indicted. This explanation is reminiscent of historians who say that World War One would not have occurred if the Serbian carriage driver had continued past the pub in which the Archduke’s assassin was sitting. It erects a minor factoid into an explanation, at the cost of thinking historically and structurally about an epochal event.

Clinton’s shallow, instrumental, and non-reflective response exemplifies the thinking of American elites and intellectuals at the present time. It is not only that every columnist or so-called expert predicted the election incorrectly. More importantly, they had no idea of what was going on in the country. Paul Krugman described the Obama Presidency as a smashing success that had eliminated poverty and saved the economy. Charles Blow and Frank Bruni described the country as moving toward a multicultural, multiracial democracy, white people as an out-of-fashion retrograde minority. In general, all the commentators on the so-called progressive side seconded Obama and Clinton’s theory of “baby steps,” constantly repeating that the President can’t do much. Now just wait and see how much the President can do.

The fact that a fairly ignorant amateur like Donald Trump had a better sense of where the country was at than columnists and reporters reflects the dramatic weakness of the public sphere. Most striking is the absence of any critical or historical perspective — any understanding of where the US is at in terms of the history of the twentieth century and the dynamics of world capitalism. The New York Times — supposedly the national paper — has done many terrible things before, such as legitimating the war in Iraq, but they set a new low in their coverage of this election. They simply functioned as a mouthpiece for Clinton; nearly every headline for a year was a putdown of Trump’s personality or business record, in terms quite similar to those of her campaign, based on the idea that Trump had a bad temperament. This tactic, which proved dramatically ineffective, replicated the news coverage provided by MSNBC — supposedly the progressive answer to right wing talk radio and FOX news — which invariably spun its coverage of any news into a moral lesson of how stupid the right was.

The ignorance of the supposedly progressive elites reflected the transformation of American intellectuals in the 1970s. Earlier organic intellectuals, to use Gramsci’s phrase for intellectuals who performed a function within the capitalist system, had been critics of capitalism from within the system. But the rise of identity politics was associated with a rejection of the tradition of the left and an embrace of an essentially moralistic emphasis on language and behavior to the neglect of impersonal, structural forces. The leading force in the new emphasis on identity was the women’s movement. To be sure, the emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation has been a signal advance of our time, but these movements are no substitute for a left. Naomi Klein has observed brilliantly that the defeat of Hillary Clinton should not be taken as a defeat of feminism, since Clinton was a Davos-centered neoliberal to whom most women could not relate. Yet the marriage of 70s feminism to neoliberalism was no accident and is only now beginning to be effectively undone by socialist-feminist women.

Just as feminism failed to provide the new world view that the Democrats need to counter Trump, so the election of Obama and the multiculturalism that motivated it, was an inadequate outlook for the Clinton campaign. If, in the case of a certain class fraction of women, the feminist embrace of capitalism was deliberate, this was not entirely the case for African-Americans. The American government — specifically the FBI — cracked down violently on Black leftists and radicals in the 1960s and 70s, murdering figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Fred Hampton and promoting conservative “pragmatists” like Charles Rangel, laying the groundwork for the generation of black neoliberals that would include Barack Obama and Corey Booker. This generation did produce the first African-American President in US history, but his supporters of all races failed to see that he needed to be criticized from the left. Booker, Obama, and many of their admirers went on to support Clinton, undoubtedly the least inspiring candidate the Democrats had. In doing so, the Black political class opted for meritocracy at the cost of equality. Left behind was the heritage of the Civil Rights Movement, during which racial justice (civil rights), economic justice (the war on poverty) and international justice (opposition to the war in Vietnam) were inextricably intermixed.

Against the failure of most progressive intellectuals to mount a serious alternative to Trump, one has to consider the outstanding and unforeseen success of Bernie Sanders. Sanders represents the untapped potential of the New Left, a period of time in which classical Marxist thinking was being expanded and reformulated in light of race and gender, and before the focus on identity and recognition swept the left. To understand how powerful Sanders’ presence in this election has been consider, first, the position Hillary Clinton would be in today if she had chosen Sanders as her vice-presidential candidate. She would have swept millennials (who she described as “the most entrepreneurial generation in history” but who are passionately devoted to Sanders) and would have begun the process of winning back the white working class. In addition, it was Sanders who gave Trump his powerful populist analysis, and even the keyword, “rigged” — as in “the economy is rigged” and “politics are rigged.” So powerful are the forces of forgetting and obliteration of meaning in our internet-driven society that it is now Trump who is being given credit for these ideas, which he learned from Sanders. Thus, in last Wednesday's New York Times, we find the following: “Some Democrats are even co-opting Mr. Trump’s language from the campaign. ‘Every single person in our caucus agrees the system is rigged,’ said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan.”

Every presidential election in America is a referendum on the sitting president, and this one certainly was too. Barack Obama may be personally popular but the electorate has decisively repudiated his toxic mix of high-minded moralism, drones, and an apolitical insistence that most problems are “technical,” i.e., to be determined by economists. In spite of his more or less idiotic fights with a Mexican American judge, Muslim Gold Star parents, and a supposedly overweight beauty queen, Trump won because he went back to the Golden Rule of American politics, quintessentially captured in Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency though it has earlier roots, and completely neglected by the Democrats in the neoliberal era: The president needs to have a personal relationship with the American people. He or she has to convey to them that she has their back. They know that the system is rigged; every American knows this from their hard experience in making a living and making a life. Everybody knows that the educational system, the criminal justice system, the housing markets, the arts, and every other aspect of American life is slanted and distorted to give an advantage to the rich. No American expects this to change very much, but they do want a President who can affirm their perception that the system works against them. They don’t need advice about what language to use or attitude to adopt.

But it is also clear that while Trump understood this basic point, he will not be able to advance the cause of the working class very much. This is because of his failure to respect individual rights, his ultimate commitment to the monied classes, and his ultra-nationalism. Liberalism triumphs only when it has a vigorous if conflictual relationship to an independent Left. Only the Left brings the issue of equality in its profoundest form — not as meritocracy but rather solidarity — into politics. When liberals sideline the Left, as American liberals did in the 1970s, they make themselves vulnerable to the Right. Ultimately the Trump presidency will be a tragedy for America, but it is also the case that a continuation of the Obama/Clinton policies, even refurbished by the lip service paid to Sanders, would have been a tragedy too. As Sanders argued, it is unbelievable crime that a country as rich as the US doesn’t have health care as a right, universal education, and a race-blind criminal justice system. The Democratic Party is a power vacuum. The Clintons have any destroyed politicians but their own followers. This is the time for a new generation to enter the Democratic Party and take it back from the rich, Ivy League sycophants. This is the time for a new generation of Sanders’ Democrats. 

Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left and Political Freud.