Politics comprises, or ought to comprise, serious human attempts to answer Chernyshevsky’s famous question, political because Chernyshevsky was political but also because Lenin used the question as the title of a 1901 book. I raise it now because my country has chosen a vicious demagogue as its next president. All of us who opposed him will need a time of venting or of grief—indeed I take the determined efforts I am reading here and there to find solace in the putative strength of American institutions as manifestations of denial, one of the stages of the same. But after the venting and the depression, the question demands an answer.
When I wrote about Trump last summer I had not yet taken seriously the possibility that he might actually be elected, but as the campaign wore on (and particularly after observing the apparent strength of his support in rural Missouri on a recent trip to the Ozarks) I began to take seriously the fear that continued to gnaw around the edges of my consciousness. I remain afraid. Next year I will be eighty, and I have to say that I had not thought to spend my old age engaged in political activism. But we don’t choose our choices.
As I look back through my observations about Trump in my last post I’m surprised at my own prescience; not that I claim any special gift of or for it. But I left my remarks with a question about why large numbers of Americans were supporting Trump when that support meant “harm to those who differ from us, hatred and destructive public policies that promulgate hatred of the most vulnerable among us, reversal of the access to public life achieved by women and minorities over the past fifty to sixty years, restoration of white supremacy and patriarchy.” “Perhaps,” I speculated, “these are the means to making America great again envisioned by Trump and his followers.” And “[if] so,” my question was, “how did a substantial number of Americans come to think these things, to wish these things?”
I now have more insight into the complexity of my question than I did last May, but I neither have nor wish a definitive answer, particularly not an answer that that might incline me to blame some demographic or other group for the debacle. Racism, xenophobia, white nationalism, and misogyny are all part of the mix, but Trump’s election does not represent a triumph of these things either as actions or as moral sentiments. Yes, they remain part of the complex intentionality that characterizes the American right and the alt-right the world over, but it’s too easy simply to blame these bugbears for my political party’s losses in this week’s election.
That those losses were substantially our own fault is now obvious. Clinton, much as I admire her, was the wrong candidate. Democrats nominated her for the wrong reason. It was her turn, we thought—surely the country would agree. And the naïveté of our early euphoria carried us through the election season as we continued to believe in our own invincibility, denying disconfirming polls and the convictions of our most progressive colleagues, until the trend began to establish itself in the early election returns and we discovered the enormity of our error. Still, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and unless we Democrats wish to confirm the image the right has of us standing in a circle and shooting at each other, we’ll get over ourselves and get busy thinking our way out of the box we have put ourselves in.
I’m attracted to Bernie Sanders’ call for those of us on the left to find ways of working with the right where we have commonalities of interest but to oppose the odious proposals and policies that are bound to come with all the vigor we can muster. We fucking fight! as Aaron Sorkin said in a letter to his daughters, adding “there’s a time for this kind of language and it’s now.” But beyond the need to resist, we liberals need to recognize that we have lost the friendship of many in the working class because we are elitists. It does no good for us to claim that those others have been turned against us by a rightist elite committed to a vile and exploitative economic ideology, just as it will do us no good to gloat as Trump fails to bring back the coal and steel and auto industries with their well paying jobs.
What we need to realize, I believe, is that all of us Americans who occupy present positions in our country’s declining middle class have a common interest in finding and supporting some form of restorative politics, some way to restore what we have lost to globalization for the future’s sake, and some humane ways of dealing with the present precarity of Americans who, through no fault of their own, find themselves part of a burgeoning congeries of economic and social waste, consigned to the fringes of society as unproductive and useless. Folks on the right need to realize that displaced working class folk, of whatever ethnicity, are an important reason why they will now be called on to govern the country.
Perhaps the rightist elite will try to fulfill its economic promises to the working class. But I think it more likely that Trump and his followers will engage in large scale public scapegoating that will entail stepping up and publicizing the program of deportation of undocumented immigrants the Obama administration has more or less tried to hide and instituting a new program of repression targeting Muslims and shutting down the refugee program. These actions can be undertaken quickly and offered up by way of saying to the Trump base, ‘See, what I’m doing for you.’ I’m sure that Mexico will not pay for Trump’s wall, but I’m almost equally sure the Republican congress will find the money to build it.
If these things materialize the left will be drawn into more and more forceful resistance. What is beginning now in the streets will continue. The Dakota pipeline protest will continue and intensify. Protest politics will loom large in Trump’s America. Perhaps a new occupy movement will emerge, perhaps new leaders. The Black Lives Matter movement will enlarge, and these efforts will trigger retaliation in the name of law and order from our new president who apparently has never met a slight he didn’t hate. And of course if Trump pursues the foreign policy agenda he has threatened we could easily be drawn into larger and more costly military adventures abroad that in turn could engender more protests here at home.
To reiterate, I believe Trump will seek to implement policy changes he can achieve quickly and on his own, or with quick and dirty legislation, at first—since the economic changes he is promising will for the most part require the long term. Before that will come the cabinet appointments. The judicial appointments will likely come later, but all Trump’s appointments are likely to engender protests from the left unless Trump learns some moderation he has not so far exhibited. I think protest is necessary, especially in the short term, but I think the long term calls for a number of kinds and levels of organizing and reaching out to the working class folks with whom we Democrats have lost touch in the attempt to build a new progressive coalition.
I think this necessity requires cleaning the Democratic house. The present hierarchy needs to step aside. Its day is over, and the time has come for new leadership. Robert Reich has called for this, and I think he is right. I think new leadership will come from the progressive wing of the party, perhaps led by somebody we don’t yet see; but we need to be looking for that new leader. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will be harbingers of new leadership, and for a while will function as leaders of the progressive movement within the party. But the new leadership we need will come from a younger generation, I believe: if not from millennials, at least from their parents. In the interim we all have work to do. Part of that necessary work is reaching out to disaffected working class voters, seeking an alliance based on our shared interest in social justice (perhaps without using the term).
For myself, I’m going to do some specific things. For the past several years I’ve been active in union organizing. The destruction of the trade union movement, a process in which both political parties have been complicit, has done more to shred the fabric of our society than any other single thing, I believe, because it destroyed political connections between disparate social groups and pitted public and private sector union members against one another. This year I’m not working for the union because I was left out of the bargaining unit at Saint Louis University when we won the union election and because I retired at the end of last academic year. But I’m going to find a way to be active in the union movement again, perhaps in the fight for fifteen along with my friends at McDonald’s and my colleagues in the home health care industry and my former colleagues among contingent faculty or perhaps in some other way. I’m also going to continue to support my beloved’s role in the League of Women Voters and write this blog and work on behalf of my church’s social justice mission and support the Saint Louis Urban Debate League that seeks to enhance the public school experience of our inner city youth, etc., etc.
These things are good works that need doing. I can do them, will do them: and whatever else I find I can turn my hand to that pits community against demagoguery and division.