Trump and the Present Crisis
Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency produced shock and disbelief for liberals, progressives, and leftists around the world. Here, in the US, it has been accompanied by a collective nausea that refuses to pass. Even many who recognize the impoverished mythos of America’s democratic perfectibility and exceptionalism mourn the passing of something they never believed. That said, there is a tendency to over-read what an election means in a backward looking way. But elections do not provide us with a diagnostic of a country; they are voter mobilization projects (conducted, in the main, by elites). The interpretation of the results, their meaning and mandate, retains a character of political positioning, even score settling, after the fact. The desire to parse and explain what enabled the disastrous outcome of a Trump Presidency with Republican Party control of the US government is understandable. Most of the early analysis, however, neglects longer term accounting for how we got here, and thus contributes to our collective disorientation.
Some assessments have an unseemly character of piling on. The most egregious examples come from the gangland triumphalism of some Trump supporters, for whom victory licenses intimidation and humiliation directed towards those his campaign targeted in its naked appeals to white and male dominance. Some centrist liberals, worried about a loss of proximity to power are also gaslighting, warning that solicitude for so-called identity politics among sectional groups that Trump openly traduced caused Clinton’s electoral defeat. In the aftermath, the New York Times simply presented, in the guise of description, a depiction of terminal racial conflict, calling the result an “electric” response by white voters to “long term demographic decay.”
We would do well to look past such efforts to reduce complexity, or to presume demography is destiny, especially when it betrays a will-to-fear-induced submission to Trumpism itself, naturalizing (and trolling with) some idea of ineluctable, or spontaneous racial animus. The fact of the matter is we did not suddenly awake in a different country the day after Trump ascended. Imagine what a different conversation we would be having if fewer than one hundred thousand voters had swung the other way in the upper Midwest, the epicentre of an economic catastrophe whose roots go back to the 1970s and early 1980s? Winning the majority, Hillary Clinton garnered almost the exact number of votes as did Obama in 2012 (although, with a larger electorate). How would we be interpreting her 2.5 million popular vote victory if she had mastered the baroque math of the electoral college?
There will be no suggestion here that we should not be alarmed. In retrospect Trump's capture of the Republican Party should have worried us most. Long before Trump emerged, the GOP was the most politically entrenched, racially homogeneous, far right political party in the western world, one that mobilized and welded together social conservatism, near fanatical commitment to upward wealth redistribution, climate-change denial, rejection of socially useful public spending, racially coded appeals to law and order and anti-immigrant animus. Opposition to gains in formal equality, particularly the embodied rights of women, racial and sexual minorities, along with the ongoing ethno-racial diversification of US public institutions and public culture, including schools and universities, spurred its ascent. Moral panics around crime, drugs, and welfare, and legal resistance to moderate reforms such as affirmative action, anti-discrimination remedies, and voting rights protection forged its stamp on public policy. The last time it controlled all three branches of government was 2001; we know what ensued. The previous occurrence of this special alignment: 1928.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton redefined the Democratic Party, by quietly taking over the right’s dogwhistle racism and policy preferences: dressing down rapper Sister Souljah, presiding over the execution of cognitively impaired black prisoner Ricky Ray Rector, sidelining his nominee for Attorney General, Lani Guinier (whom Republicans derided as a “quota queen,”) “ending welfare as we know it,” and passing the largest, most punitive crime bill in US history behind slogans of racial nemesis: “super-predators” and street terrorists. The first Clinton strategy (in this as in other things) was triangulation: neutralize white identity politics with the domestically focused, lift-all-boats slogan, “it’s the economy, stupid,” go hard on crime and welfare, and confine amelioration of racial inequality to a repertoire of symbolic, theatrical, and empathetic nods to diversity.
The initial windfalls of so-called free trade, financial deregulation, and accelerated globalization of manufacturing that pumped up US financial asset and real-estate markets during these years appeared to vindicate this approach, with Toni Morrison even conferring upon Clinton the honorary title of first black President. Meanwhile, the old Middle Western industrial belt, and the social safety belts that stayed catastrophe for the urban and rural poor were fraying and fatally weakened, even as US prisons and jails, many newly built, were swelling to capacity. The culture wars, tawdry scandals, and military misadventures that brought this period to a close with the impeachment trial of a sitting President were indicators of a social and political system hurtling toward crisis.
Writing in these years, philosopher Richard Rorty offered a prediction that many have recently returned to as if stumbling upon a lost prophecy. With many others, Rorty recognized that an economic consequence of the globalization of trade and industry was substantial loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs for American workers with no more than a high school education. He warned that inattention to the declining fortunes of this group, particularly among professional, college-educated, suburbanites would lead to a reactionary working-class revolt and the election of a divisive and dictatorial “strong man” to America’s highest office.
Rorty might have emphasized the salience of a long period of right-wing anti-tax revolts, the NIMBY politics of small property-holders, military and carceral spending, and punitive social budgeting for their contributions to undermining support for redistributive public investments in infrastructure, job training and higher education to address this generational crisis. Instead, he framed the key antagonism as unfolding between the politics of identity and difference advanced by university-trained liberals, and the resurgence of a vengeful white working class. “One thing that is very likely to happen,” he wrote, “is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
The last point is the one that jars with its rediscovery; it appears a superficially apt description of Trumpism. At the same time, the diagnosis actually redoubles a type of elite contempt by failing to mark the fact that the contempt of elites, rather than the spontaneous and disorganized social feeling of those at the lower end of the social order, is the more significant causal element. From Kevin Phillips, to Lee Atwater, and now Steve Bannon, there has been a consistent strategic limning of an inner societal war, via the cultivation of narratives of racial constituency: silent majorities, Reagan Democrats, and forgotten Americans. In short, this strategy nourished a potent imagery of whiteness dispossessed by (choose one or more): Asian capital, Mexican migrants, or black criminals; it has long been the dark art of US partisan and electoral politics.
Ironically, it was George W. Bush who initially softened this approach, promoting a racially and ethnically inclusive, “compassionate conservatism,” including supporting broad-based immigration reform. Upon winning the inconclusive, contentious election of the year 2000, the Bush Administration, however, was politically adrift until the terrorist attack on 9/11/2001 licensed a different organizing project and principle, one long planned by a group of Administration insiders: large-scale, outer war in the world’s energy heartlands. What the war promised, but failed to deliver, was a “New American Century” in which continued US arrogation of “global leadership” and preeminence via military supremacy would also extend the promise of enduring material advantages for the great majority within the North American redoubt.
Of course, it was a grand illusion. First on the Bush agenda was withdrawal from the Kyoto climate change accords, followed by tax cuts for the very wealthy, including an extension of sunset provisions protecting vast family estates. It was capped by an expansion of prescription drug benefits that failed to curb exorbitant profit-making by big pharmaceutical concerns. The war consumed everything else, with runaway, off-the books spending available, but only for death-dealing and its growing legions of private contract support staff. It is easy to forget that at the height of its war powers, Bush Administration insiders claimed to possess a hold on a new post-truth world that feels eerily familiar — one in which access to superior violence and force projection is how you “make history," creating the facts on the ground which those of us in the “reality-based community” will be compelled to passively witness and “write about.”
A joke circulated in those days that the US public was to the Bush Administration as a spouse to her cheating, abusive husband, who when confronted with evidence of his misdeeds asks, “so who are you going to believe, me, or your own lying eyes?” Integral to this bad relationship, was the Administration’s open sanctioning of torture, rendition, and special detention off shore, trafficking in an imagery of brown bodies that could be taken and broken outside of any norm and law, including international norms and laws of war. Despite its multicultural personnel, quickly forgotten humility about nation-building, and vacillation on the language of a civilizational crusade against Islam, the Bush Administration quite clearly embraced what Hannah Arendt once termed the expansionist tradition of thought that "equates power with violence," and that more centrally conceives of power in the most stripped down, biological terms.
Soon after the events of 9/11, Bush did his best Gary Cooper, warning “we’re steady, clear-eyed and patient, but pretty soon we are going to have to start displaying scalps.” Like military conflicts that unfolded on the Great Plains, in the Philippines, and in Vietnam, the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions showed that savage war and race war along with the proliferation of right-less subjects comprise the demotic idiom of American capitalism on its "disordered frontiers." No less an authority than historian John Lewis Gaddis (and he was not alone) affirmed these transitive properties, casually remarking that arrogation of a preemptive violence against “non-state actors” in the name of global security, drew on the usable past that North American settlers claimed in their twilight battles against “Native Americans… and other marauders.”
The calamity of unending war, crises of legitimation related to the exposure of false pretexts about weapons of mass destruction, the scandal of torture, and fiscal policies that drove the country to near economic collapse, delivered a seemingly fatal blow to long-held illusions about the virtuous circle linking US imperial power and domestic prosperity. At the same time, the fin de siècle claims about a left victory in the culture wars, including Rorty’s argument that diminishing “socially accepted sadism” represented a thin reed of civility in the face of the political and economic disasters to come, overstated the case: in truth the disaster would be presaged by efforts to socially sanction sadism at the pinnacle of US policy-making and legal thought.
That we would have spent the following decade arguing about whether torture was efficacious and desirable policy, (which we seem poised to resume), or that we would continue to lead the world in arresting and incarcerating citizens and deporting non-citizens, that we would be continuously at war and poised for more war, that we would have done so little to reduce or mitigate our toxic contribution to our ecological commons was, to put it kindly, unanticipated then, even as it tends to be forgotten now by those who view Trump as something unprecedented, or as an exceptional departure from our political tradition.
To understand this lacuna in our collective political imagination, we must consider something as unpredictable in the cycle of political events: the success of someone named Barack Hussein Obama as a harbinger of political stability, a return to normative conceptions of political communication and truth-telling, multilateralism and a sense of sobriety about the limits of American military power. A little known, first term Senator, whose claims to lead rested on slender anti-war credentials and surplus charisma, it is also worth recalling that Obama’s path was blocked by none other than a hawkish Hillary Clinton, anointed by Democratic party insiders as the heir apparent in the wake of the Bush disaster. Significantly, Clinton offered a reprise of Rortyian wisdom, touting her support among “hard-working Americans, white Americans…. who had not completed college” as a necessary bulwark of any successful electoral calculus in the face of Obama’s (racially) outsider challenge. Needless to say it didn’t work; Obama it appeared, had broken the mold, marrying multiculturalism to an ersatz populism.
As the collapse of the housing market and the crisis of big financial institutions fully revealed itself, Obama’s opponent, John McCain in a sotto voce reference to the racial narrative, announced that real Americans were “the makers and not the victims of history.” Yet, despite the circulation of Obama’s association with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, one a 1960s counter-culture bomb thrower and the other a stridently, anti-imperialist, black nationalist, McCain pulled back from emphasizing the theme of Obama’s racial alterity and alienage (the approach favoured by his chosen running mate, Sarah Palin, who had otherwise warned of “Second Amendment remedies”). McCain even publicly upbraided a would-be voter who wondered darkly whether Obama was the Manchurian candidate of Muslim terror ready to finish the business that was started on 9/11.
In retrospect McCain’s belated act of restraint and civility foretold the resumption of the inner war and the waning of the relative racial truce that liberals and conservatives had quietly organized around the poles of colorblind jurisprudence and neoliberal multiculturalism, including a growing acceptance of diversification for upwardly mobile, college educated elites, corporate friendly trade and finance policies, mass incarceration and outwardly directed war. But it was the housing crisis and threat of systemic financial collapse in 2008 that augured the potentially far bigger upset of this neoliberal/neoconservative order. Behind the mantle of “hope and change,” Obama sounded populist notes in more adversarial tones (in 2008, and especially in 2012 running against the venture capitalist and corporate raider, Mitt Romney). It was mostly political theatre, barely pink meat for the base.
Still, Obama’s talk of financial “fat cats” outraged Wall Street’s lords; they served notice, even though they did not defect. Along with Obama’s more strident, Tea Party accusers they deployed an inflammatory language of totalitarian terror and the spectre of alien domination by out of control, big government. This too was mostly theatre, and today the ironies abound as the very banksters, targeted by Trump with a veiled anti-Semitic attack on “globalist finance,” seem assured that his will be, in the words of Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman of Goldman Sachs, a “market and asset friendly” government. The partisan war, however, was very real. Led by the fire-breathing, right-wing southern senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina, now head of the Heritage Foundation, Obama’s opponents vowed to “break him.” Although they failed to cut off the head in 2012, they started landing huge blows to the body. The massive Democratic political losses at the state and Congressional level, beginning in 2009 should have been the first warning signal that all was not well.
The truth of Obama’s policy approach was of course far short of the socialist revolutionary demiurge it was laughably made out to be. In fact, his tenure might now be properly seen for the vast laundering operation that it was. Even when he had the most political leverage and authority, Obama conceded early to budget-balancing monetarists and tribunes of moral hazard, coming out against calls for a larger fiscal stimulus, and a forceful settlement with the banks that would have stopped the foreclosure juggernaut. Hope and change was rapidly transformed into incremental reformism, including a degree of restoration of regulatory control over runaway finance, labor friendly board appointments that mildly redressed wildly imbalanced power relations between capital and labour, prohibition of sex-based wage discrimination, and the signature effort on health care, a Democratic policy priority since 1948, but whose successful iteration fatally succumbed to the logic of market dependency, including punitive financial sanctions as the bulwark of social benefit whose costs remained high for those most in need.
More insidiously, although Obama lowered the volume on tough terror talk, he strengthened the larger framework and security architecture of the long-war, including renewing Bush’s open-ended executive war powers, expanding mass surveillance and government data mining operations, and adding a lethal new element, targeted assassination by drone anywhere in the world, at the behest of the US President. Obama successfully tied the hands of lingering Iran hawks with a slender thread of an agreement, that will now potentially be undone; ditto with US re-entry into global climate accords. Despite the opening to Cuba, the American gulag in Guantanamo Bay (secured over a century ago via gunboat diplomacy) that Obama promised to dismantle, is intact and ready for new action. Waterboarding is back on the agenda.
It must be said, Obama was a steady hand in a moment of crisis and turmoil; he did less harm than his predecessor, but his administration settled nothing of consequence in political terms. Perhaps his greatest strategic failure was his decision to continue operating within the terms of the neoliberal market-state consensus, one fashioned since Reagan/Thatcher, on the right’s political terrain. A progressive neoliberal, Obama’s approach was to try to reduce social and political volatility and to moderately advance public commitment to collective risk sharing. In matters of public finance, public health, race relations, political partisanship, diplomacy, nuclear proliferation, environmental decay, immigration, even thresholds to the use of military force (the expansion of drones notwithstanding), the formula of volatility suppression and incremental risk redistribution prevailed.
Eschewing politics, partisanship, and party building, Obama seemed to believe that restoration of transparent, efficient, competent, and responsive government within strict neoliberal policy parameters was commensurate with the epochal demands of social renovation that his own unlikely emergence was supposed to signify. In retrospect, it should not be surprising that this brand of repressive tolerance and progressive tinkering would not hold back the forces of repressive desublimation and social decay that Trump represents. Risk and volatility are on again, bigly; the wrecking crew is back in the saddle.
In an uncanny way, Trump constituted himself early as Obama’s negative mirror image. From the moment he burst on the scene as a public figure with calls to execute the (wrongly convicted) black youths known as the Central Park Five in the late 1980s, Trump proved to be a skilful reader and leader of what is in the US an ever excitable layer of racist fear and contempt, as well as more conscious forms of white supremacist commitment. His insistent, conspiratorial stoking of the “birther” issue two decades later, melded attention to Obama’s blackness with assumptions about his foreignness, allegations of his Muslim fealty and antipathy to dominant idioms of American civic religiosity. This was the proving ground for developing his brand of “alt-right,” post-truth politicking, one that cleverly inverted an attack on various iterations of minoritarian identity politics and political correctness into an idea that American greatness depends upon reviving the vigour of an aggrieved and demographically besieged white majority.
Obama’s cool rise through elite educational institutions and community organizing to a post-racial Presidency offered us the alternative, assuring, and ameliorative story of post-civil rights progress. Our mistake was to believe it was true, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Built upon the idea that elite diversification is the main index of legitimate government, and that sensitivity to various kinds of narrowly and subjectively defined “privilege” is an adequate standard of social justice, it suggested that despite ongoing wars, mass deportation, economic stagnation and inequality, all was for the best in the best of all possible republics. Obama was its living embodiment. As he put it in a soaring idealistic speech celebrating his victory in 2008, “If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where anything is possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Rhetorically and intellectually, Obama affirmed the best of the American liberal reform tradition, from abolition to the New Deal to the civil rights movement. If he could be elected, then it must be ascendant. For those inside this bubble, the presumption was that Trump's buffoonery, and still more overt racism and crude sexism would render him easy to defeat, if not unelectable. In a context in which the Republican party already commanded Congress, and a super majority of state legislatures, however, the idea that Trump was a weak candidate beggars belief. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and many others, were as per usual, the canaries in the coalmine.
How Trump captured the Republican party deserves more scrutiny, but he did not need to invent the playbook. An unorthodox politician with great understanding of intra-male dogging rituals — he out manned his opponents at every turn.
More substantively, he dared to exit the neoliberal and imperial terrain, welding producerist populism on the economy, to a starkly Jacksonian foreign policy emphasis — hit hard and unilaterally, but only against clearly marked enemies. Perhaps most importantly, he enjoined a brutal, sadistic inversion of inclusionary niceties of neoliberal diversity talk with a return to a casual banter of racial, gender, and sexual punishment (arrest for abortion, criminal prosecution for Black Lives Matter, registration and surveillance for Muslims, torture for terrorists). Nothing could be more shocking to the creative classes grown accustomed to tinkering with micro-aggressions and safe spaces within shrinking kingdoms of high cultural and educational attainment.
Nevertheless, in light of the history sketched here, it is wrong to see Trump as exception. The sense of collective disorientation in the face of his rise comes from the fact that the election results broadly discredited the many experts who now see fit to pronounce on its meaning. More significantly, Trump’s campaign was a determined exercise in norm erosion. With every shock, from humiliation of his opponents, incitement to violence against protesters, calumny against migrants, belittling of disabled people, "pussy-grabbing" impunity, outright lying, promises to tear up international agreements, up to and including a threat to reject the result of a “rigged election” in the case that he lost, seemed to render him, as many said, unfit for office, and yet the many, (if not the majority) disagreed.
As we learn more about Trump’s domination of the mediascape including the role of fake news farms, the investments in micro-targeting, psychological profiling and social media news filtering under the auspices of right-wing data firm, Cambridge Analytics, his embrace of Twitter as a vehicle of constant bullying and disinformation, we can see how Trump is both a symptom and an accelerator of our broadly degraded information ecology, (much of which, not incidentally has been advanced by decades of corporate sponsored lying about our degraded ecology). In response to his popular vote loss, Trump is already forwarding the idea that millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton, perhaps in preparation for advancing voter suppression at a federal scale. The fight to hold onto the vote and against the abuse of fact will be among the many important lines in the battle to reclaim a degree of honest public communication and democratic procedure going forward. It is not favorable terrain.
A more tangible question is how will Trump govern. There is no reason to think that he will not attempt to triangulate, for example, exchanging funding for his pet infrastructure projects for a new round of tax cuts for the wealthy along with radical deregulation of finance and industry. He has already bullied, cajoled and payed off one firm, Carrier, to partially forego a planned closure of its US manufacturing operation in his Vice President’s home state, Indiana. Undoubtedly Trump’s populism, which promises the subjugation rather than activation of organized labour, and especially public employee unions, will gain a few more concessions from capital than would any left populist. What is less clear is whether he will go for extreme right wing demands, including gutting Medicare, accelerating the looting of public education, and bringing the Fed to heel with tight monetary policy. Where the last would be anathema to his spending promises, his appointments in key arenas of domestic policy — charter school champion, Betsy ‘bring back child labour’ DeVos, as Education Secretary, and Mike Price, the leader of the anti-Obamacare forces at Health and Human Services — suggest that we are facing an extreme right-wing devolution.
Two things that seem even more certain: Trump will make good on his promise to ratchet up the inner war. He has already done so with his signature appointment of Steve Bannon of Breitbart News as his chief strategist. He is likely to lean heavily on the hard, racially motivated right, when he ultimately fails to actually bring back manufacturing jobs (as he promised), let alone to get the coal fires burning again in Cambria county. Attorney General, aptly titled since this is the general for the inner war, has long been the appointment watched most closely by the far right. With Jeff Sessions, Trump has chosen someone who would like to reverse-engineer the twentieth-century, returning us to a time when “the blacks” (as Trump calls them) knew their place, women were captive to home, and immigrants had none.
In a recent book, Dardot and Laval describe neoliberalism as “the rationality of contemporary capitalism, a capitalism freed from its archaic references.” During the campaign it appeared that corporate America would reject Trump, due to his unpredictability, his bigotry, and the likelihood that he will use his position for naked self-enrichment, or in a word, kleptocracy. Blankfein’s prediction of a “market and asset friendly” environment indicates that tax cuts and financial deregulation may be enough to buy them off for the medium term. The loyalties of the military-industrial complex are less certain. Elements of the FBI (the main agents of the inner war), supported Trump, as FBI director James Comey’s late hour intervention signalled. Those charged with the outer war, however, including the CIA, and the bulk of the national security bureaucracy categorically rejected him, in favour of Clinton. Outgoing CIA Director, John Brennan, has termed Trump’s calls to undo the Iran-deal “the height of folly.” It remains to be seen whether the big boss-man, someone intolerant of plural centres of power, someone who kept Hitler’s speeches at his bedside, and who admires a wide range of authoritarian rulers abroad, will effectively tame these elements within the deep state. This will be one of the most consequential dimensions of the coming period of struggle.
It might be helpful to extrapolate a bit further. Emerging from the global wreckage of WWII, the post-WWII US imperium was a massive, sustained and unprecedented effort to organize a consensual, rule-bound world-order on the basis of capitalism and democracy, with multilateral free trade and respect for national sovereignty as its bulwarks. Arguably one of the moral and systemic requirements of its conception of liberal-internationalist order was removal of the “archaic” residues of slavery, colonialism, and conquest, and with them the spectre of violent revolution. With the US as its guarantor, anti-communism, inflected by partisan competition between liberal containment and right-wing visions of rollback, provided a grammar and strategy for policing world order. Covert and overt US military interventionism and a series of big ‘small wars’ gave the lie to its post-imperial pretensions in the non-European world. But the vision of a long peace and the constitution of a democratic “security-community” in the European and East Asian core was successful.
Just when the millennial narratives of benign globalization and the "end of history" under the aegis of free trade and unfettered capital mobility announced the successful extension of this project at a global scale, it was already unravelling. In truth it was always a controlling fiction. Announcing Trump’s victory, his clever consigliere Bannon offers a different story from the one we have typically been told about American global power, foretelling of a future restoration of what Bannon calls native, “American capitalism” and its place in the sun. For Bannon and Trump, the bill has come due for the global protection racket that the US has run lo these seventy years. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia,” Bannon has declared. “Like Andrew Jackson’s populism, we are going to build an entirely new political movement… it’s going to be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
Here, the language of economy in Trumpism is also quite definitively a language of racial and national enemies and competitors, both within the nation and at the international scale. It is also a language generously sprinkled with social Darwinism, as reminiscent of late-nineteenth century Anglo-Saxonism as it is of the era before WWII, Bannon’s "exciting 1930s," and Trump’s preferred night-time reading notwithstanding. In a manner that is consonant and increasingly coordinated with the emergent far right across the Atlantic world, what Trump and Bannon seem to envision and want to hasten is a revivification and sanctification of a far more exclusionary capitalist order across Europe and North America, one defined by a civic-religious distinctiveness that they imagine to have been fettered by globalism, and the rise of China in particular. In turn, the wars and predation that will be central to the realization of this vision will be both cultural and economic, internecine and externalized. Somewhere in the tenth circle, Carl Schmitt and Samuel Huntington are smiling.
The cultivation of US vernacular racism and deep norm erosion that has been a hallmark of Trump’s campaign is not incidental but instrumental to this vision. Specifically, it signals a conscious understanding of interrelationships that flow between and reinforce various dimensions of progressive, regulatory power that need to be overturned: the belief in a shared and vulnerable ecology at a global scale, the value of egalitarian and inclusive national, racial and sexual norms, the need to place limits upon the power and dispensations of capital and private property, and of course the rules binding the use of military force and police power.
In the face of such an adversary, nothing would be more mistaken than to narrow our sights or reduce our political ambitions. As suggested, there has long been a tendency among US and western leftists to believe that an emphasis upon identity politics within liberalism — that is, more precisely, sectional attention to “social justice,” and to the range of macro and micro, public and private forms of discrimination that continue to tacitly support and actively enforce racial, gender, sexual, and able bodied hierarchies — has reduced concern for economic inequality and thus eroded the necessary basis for broader solidarities on the left.
This debate was reignited by the Clinton-Sanders contest, when Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters charged that personal “sexism” (of the “Bernie Bros”) and inadequate attention to “racial justice,” (and “intersectionality”) were constitutive features of Sanders program, his broad focus upon realizing egalitarian aspirations for economic fairness and shared wealth, as well as his criticisms of Clinton’s cosiness with financial elites. The weaponisation of social justice against economic justice was a depressing new low in the annals of Clintonite triangulation politics. It once again brought to the fore how attention to extreme social domination and limitation of policy concern to advanced marginalization, are defining features of progressive neoliberalism, which has abandoned a defense of universal goods for austere means testing, and acceded to ongoing attrition of the strongest and most popular aspects of the welfare state over the past three decades.
Unfortunately, in the face of this, those identified with US left, already a weak organizational force, tend to take the bait, and in a flat-footed way, to imagine that the language of economy can somehow be disembedded from social relations and narrative lines that are already saturated with race and gender meanings and associations. The rise of Trump, let alone a cursory reading of US history, should caution against any exclusive emphasis upon an economic populism that is inattentive to its racist and sexist coordination and packaging. Any flickering hopes that Trump will not govern according to hard-edged racist and sexist presumptions, including ramping up the deportation regime, lifting justice department scrutiny from a violent state and local policing apparatus, reigniting the drug war, and ending women’s reproductive rights, should be doused by his initial flurry of cabinet appointments.
The tremendous vulnerability of people to racially divisive, frighteningly socially eliminationist narratives to make sense of their suffering is real. A left that believes that this can be simply short-circuited via some kind of neutral call to common economic interests makes a major error — particularly in this moment when the attacks along these lines are afoot, including continued assaults on voting rights, more impunity for the agents of organized state violence, and when rising abuse from every garden variety racist troll is now emboldened. A left that cannot fight on multiple fronts at once, protecting those who remain most vulnerable to state-sanctioned and extra-judicial violence, while also defending principles of economic fairness, including universal basic income, affordable housing, the right to healthcare and education, is likely to remain fragmented, isolated and ineffective.
Languages of race and languages of class intermingle and recombine in the US, and throughout all the old imperial and settler polities. Obama was actually quite good, at the level of electoral mobilization and rhetoric, in pegging egalitarian recognition of divided class interests to a defense of multicultural democracy. The opposite formula in which class division is only avowed when its animus can be directed towards vulnerable and appropriable scapegoats and threats is more common, and it is unsurprising that it regained ascendancy in the absence of a countervailing discourse. We should not mourn the demise of the progressive neoliberalism that characterized the Obama years (and that Clinton promised to continue). It was never more than a holding pattern against a fuller apprehension of the crisis, an effort to buy some time. We were always likely to reap the consequence of its failures, even if the crisis has come sooner than many of us thought it would.
Still, rather than a new departure, Trump’s rise may represent the last gasp of boomer conservatives (and boomer liberals) who have stripped the country down over several decades by upwardly distributing its income, shredding its already weak webs of social protection, prosecuting unnecessary wars overseas, punishing and jailing the poor at home, and neglecting the ecology that sustains our common life. The white working-class, it should be underlined, did not elect Trump, even if many who once voted for Obama constituted his margin of victory in three states. Those who primarily elected Trump were the legions of older, wealthier, suburban white voters who stably vote in Republicans in every election (including mid-terms), whom they view as the true guardians of their private, economic self-interest and accumulated insider advantages. The younger and substantially poorer voters that Obama galvanized in 2008 largely stayed home. He galvanized them by promising new directions: a fairer economy, a less punitive, more racially just society, and a less bellicose relationship to the world. Due to his own limitations and to entrenched opposition from political forces he could neither tame nor defeat, he did not succeed. But these are still things that the majority of people want.
In the coming period, we are likely to need to strengthen natural bases of support in liberal civic institutions, including progressive churches, and to strengthen and scale up labour and community organizing networks at the municipal level to defend increasingly vulnerable populations. Every effort should be made to coordinate this work towards the development of national-popular political organizations on the left, both within and outside of the Democratic Party. We should not pay too much attention to tactical noise about finding common ground with Trump on particular issues (if only to exploit internal contradictions and to split some of them off from each other). The longer range vision needs to be about how do we plan to derail Trump’s project, and where do we want to go. That will require strongly partisan politics and more coherent vision and planning than we have as yet been able to advance. I am not sanguine about the Democratic party as a vehicle that can be taken over for these purposes, certainly not in the short term. But in light of Bernie's success that still seems like the best way forward in the electoral arena. Developing woefully thin linkages at the international scale will also be crucial. The wreckage is going to be terrible, and we better have built something that can help us outlast it and move forward.
Finally, we must learn to recognize that racist commitment is not a fixed character of an already defined group of people, but an ever active layer within our common political life that needs to be articulated and given a form and constituency. So-called white people and white workers in particular can be won for a non-racist, economic justice centred politics; but we must actively build the constituency for that politics. In this effort the composite, imaginary known as the “white working class” will fail us analytically and politically every single time it is used. It should be retired.
More Americans now identify as working-class than at perhaps any time since the 1930s and 1940s. Within this group there are enormous numbers for an inclusive, anti-racist politics, and for radical defense of our increasingly fragile commons. The term "white working class" reifies, by fusing the link between the material interests of working and unemployed people with whiteness. It makes less and less sense in the context of the most hopeful, vibrant movements of today, the multi-racial struggle for the $15 an hour minimum wage, the organization of home workers and domestic caregivers, the battles to prevent the poisoning of vital resources for living across Indian Country and beyond, the right to be protected from arbitrary force and premature death at the hands of police, and the now rising efforts to safeguard against untimely deportation in the sanctuary city.
We clearly face an uncertain period in which the forces most responsible for a dire array of contemporary social, economic and ecological predicaments will hold big levers of power, at least for the short term. But now they are also the ones who will be tasked with solving problems of an intractable nature. Their inevitable failure will be our opportunity; we cannot afford to let another serious crisis go to waste.
Nikhil Pal Singh is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. His next book, Exceptional Empire: Race and War in US Globalism, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.