Trumpism — not the man himself — is the real threat to democracy

By Deepak Bhargava and Dorian Warren

Now that Donald J. Trump is officially the Republican Party nominee for President, progressives must coalesce around a sober strategy to defeat him and all for which he stands. The 2016 presidential election has given rise to a curious ideology that threatens the American experiment of democracy. Trumpism, as it has come to be known, centers around a celebrity and authoritarian figure who provokes white anxiety to chum for votes at the expense of real solutions that help all American families thrive. Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change Action, and Dorian Warren, political commentator and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, debate the dangerous implications of the rise of Trumpism as a political strategy and how the Progressive left can seize this moment, not just to win in November, but to chart a new course that builds a positive agenda for change for all Americans.

Credit: Donald Trump 2016 Presidential Campaign Photo

Dorian Warren: Well it’s official. Trump might be our next president. I know you’ve been feeling quite anxious and distressed about this upcoming election, oh wise one. You said something to me I found curious: that we must “focus on defeating ‘Trumpism’, not just Trump”. What does that mean exactly? Isn’t the man himself the biggest threat to our democracy?

Deepak Bhargava: You can call me “wise one” as long as you don’t call me “old”, young lad. But seriously. There is an ideology under Trump — “Trumpism” — that is rooted in a white populist nationalism. Too many pundits and commentators like yourself regard Trump as a buffoon, a man with no principles, a maverick at war with his own party. In fact, he has taken the racial resentment strategy at the center of modern Republicanism and put it together with new elements to craft a vision that is consistent and has ideological content. It is white, populist nationalism of a kind we see in Europe that is seriously contesting for state power (France, Greece, UK, Austria) or actually seizing it (Hungary, Poland, Russia). So this is a global phenomenon. You’ve been traveling the country co-chairing the AFL-CIO’s racial justice task force — how do YOU understand Trumpism in the context of American history?

DW: The unique American inflection is that Trump is building on a long legacy of the use of strategic racism by conservatives in an attempt to win power. Think George Wallace. Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush. Pat Buchanan. And now Donald Trump. And that’s just the 20th century!

He is not just dog whistling to racially anxious white Americans. He is dog barking, and there are millions listening. SO — O.K., white populist nationalism seems clear. But to me, the ideological content of Trumpism is not as consistent as you make it out to be. I see a hodgepodge of different ideological strands he’s “remixed,” so to speak, to create something slightly new. His brand of populism, for instance, with his railing against bad trade policies, seems quite at war with establishment conservative neoliberalism of the past 40 years. Or his position against the Iraq War. Or his defense of Planned Parenthood and Social Security (before of course, he reversed course).

DB: You are right that there’s nothing especially novel in the mobilization of racism for political purposes — the emphasis on Mexican immigrants and Muslims at this moment in his rhetoric are just variants of a familiar song. Here’s the novel element he’s introduced into this toxic stew: A generous welfare state for those who “belong” (i.e., white, native born people) is compatible in his vision with vicious racism. This is a familiar formula for the European far-right parties. So, his positions on trade, support for a higher minimum wage, defense of social security, and support for big government intervention in the private market to create jobs — all of this is anathema to traditional Paul Ryan conservatism and to neoliberal ideology generally. The Danish People’s Party, the National Front in France, the conservative forces behind the “Brexit” vote in the UK and others have grown to be driving forces in their country’s politics precisely by aggressively policing a narrow “us” v. “them” boundary and by affirming social solidarity through government for the (white) “us.” This stew is also given an even more threatening aspect by the recourse to “strong man” authoritarianism and implied and real violence. And this ideology and strategy, much more than the man himself, represents an existential threat to our democracy. If it prevails, it will actually set back emergent social movements and social progress in the US for at least 20 years — an entire generation.
“This ideology and strategy, much more than the man himself, represents an existential threat to our democracy.”

DW: Okay, but now aren’t you fear-mongering just a bit to be dramatic? I get how horrific what Trump is peddling really is, but when you do the hard electoral math, he really has no chance to win the presidency. Can’t we still oppose him without the hysteria?

DB: See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Like you, too many people on the left and in the Democratic Party are not taking him seriously enough — partly because they live in bubbles where no one they know admits to supporting him. So his broad influence isn’t felt and thus the threat of Trump doesn’t feel as urgent. But as we know, the whole history of America suggests that mobilizing white resentment is a winning strategy. Over 40% of the country, according to recent polls, supports Trump’s outrageous proposed ban on Muslim immigration. There is a sizable, potentially durable constituency for Trumpism. And as much as I look forward to the coming demographic changes where people of color will one day be the majority, right now, it turns out there are a lot of white people still in America.

DW: O.K., yes, it’s good not to be seduced by the “demography is political destiny” argument. But what I’m saying is for those of us who might indeed live in our liberal/progressive/left bubbles, we can burst those bubbles with a cold, hard, dispassionate look at the facts. And when I look at the electoral math, I honestly don’t see a path to victory for Trump.

DB: And here is where, yet again, you’re wrong for at least three reasons. I thought you were a political “scientist”? I’m giving you a hard time but follow me for a minute. First, the evidence I see is that Trump could actually win. If you look at the early polls in several swing states, or the enthusiasm gap of Republicans compared to Democrats, or Hillary’s weakness as a messenger to the New American Majority, or Trump’s uncanny ability as demonstrated in the primaries to throw formidable opponents off their game and defy expectations … for all of these reasons, the general election race for president might be closer than many pundits are predicting. Yes, structurally, the electoral map seems to be in Democrats’ favor, and this will be the most diverse electorate in American history. And yes, he’s had a horrendous month. But considering that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has already upended the usual rules of the electoral game in the GOP primary, now is not the time for exuberance or over-optimism about the electoral math. Too much is at stake. Second, if you examine the material conditions for authoritarianism, I think you’d find they actually do exist. Think about an atomized populace, weak institutions, a white working class experiencing falling living standards and a social crisis of substance abuse, early deaths and rising morbidity rates, and this group (the white working class) being increasingly despised by the Republican elite who counted on its support — and all of this adds up to support for authoritarian politics, as we’ve seen before in history. So let’s turn this inquisition — er, interview around, shall we? As a student of American history how do you understand the real and implied violence of Trumpism?

“I’m actually worried we are in the midst of a long, hot and violent summer.”

DW: Well, I’m a natural optimist BUT — All of these pieces of evidence lead me to view Trumpism as a grave danger to our democracy. If it is not eviscerated and destroyed by large popular majorities this fall, Trumpism as an ideology, will only continue to be deployed as a viable political strategy– in the form not of dog whistles but of barking — and actual violence. I’m actually worried we are in the midst of a long, hot and violent summer. Democratic practice in this country has always been contested and fragile even in the best of times — we forget the lesson of the 20th century for the left — it can get a lot worse than you think possible faster than you think possible- and at our peril. It’s worth remembering that at every turn in American history when black Americans achieved or were on the brink of achieving real power — from Reconstruction to civil rights — violence has always been a key tool deployed strategically and quite effectively to reverse the progress. We should not underestimate the potential for violence to be used by the right — in conjunction with restrictions on voting rights or limiting access to citizenship — as an element of massive resistance to demographic change. Add in there the fears around “terrorism” and it’s not a pretty picture.

DB: Maybe I have brought you over to the dark side! But — why your optimism?

DW: Trump himself, is the embodiment of “Trumpism” and therefore a good target and villain. I’d say that we need to play defense around the imminent threat Trump presents to our democracy, and we should also be on the offensive, focusing on how to put the final nails in the coffin of modern conservatism. As I look around I see the embers of the Bernie Sanders political revolution, I see the social movements on the ground that are already challenging Trump, which are a good thing and cause for optimism.

DB: Yes, the social movement energy on the left IS exciting. But even you have to acknowledge that these movements are still fragile and young. Sobriety is a necessary condition for political punditry!

DW: OK, here’s the truth. Honestly, I’m one of those voters who wasn’t moved by any of the Democratic candidates. For me, all of them fell short on the issue of racial justice and the plight of Black communities. And the “Bernie or Bust” nonsense failed to distinguish between the very different levels of threat involved in corporate centrism v. authoritarianism. Similarly, well-intentioned disruptions of Trump are actually backfiring — we need a strategy based not in emotion but grounded in a sober assessment of what’s going on. The disruptions of Trump only reify and strengthen his base’s attachment to him.

DB: I’m going to need you to elaborate on what you describe as the “Bernie or Bust nonsense.” To his credit, he has energized the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party, especially because Elizabeth Warren decided not to run this cycle. For those who supported Bernie (including ¾ of the Bhargava household that nearly exiled the last quarter — can you guess which side I was on?!), why would you call it “nonsense”?

DW: Fair point — I was a bit harsh so let me explain. Some will argue, particularly those aligned with the Sanders’ insurgent campaign, that a return to Clintonism in any form is anathema to progressive politics. The incredibly popular social media hashtags #neverhillary and #bernieorbust symbolize this sentiment. But a resignation to what Clinton may represent saps us of our very agency to determine electoral outcomes, and more importantly, as the era of Obama has taught us, progressive policy outcomes as a result of governing power. As the Republican Party is facing a moment of potential transformation, destruction and sorting, the Democratic Party itself is being forced by movement forces to face up to its own recent history. This is a history that has, since the 1980s, taken a color-blind and race-neutral approach to racial justice, taking black voters for granted and at times, advancing policies (particularly around criminal justice and so-called “welfare reform”) producing racial harm. It is also a history that adopted the core tenets of neoliberal economic ideology, particularly in its bipartisan promotion of trade policies that we now know have harmed working and middle class communities around the country. The Sanders’ campaign has put the final nails in the coffin of the 1980s-born centrist Democratic Leadership Council (even though the organization is defunct, its demons continue to haunt us) with its policies that advanced corporate power and retreated from racial justice.

Credit: Hillary Clinton 2016 Presidential Campaign Photo

DB: That’s very optimistic of you! The “final nails in the coffin” of the DLC? Sorry, but it doesn’t feel like we are “winning” in this moment.

DW: Yep. I do believe our side is actually winning in ways we’ve underestimated, even though it doesn’t feel like it. We have shifted the discourse around inequality writ large — racial, economic, gender inequality. LGBTQ rights. So it’s not a moment too soon to put the final nails in the coffin of the DLC (and hopefully, the 40 years of conservative discourse and politics that culminates in Trumpism).

“I do believe our side is actually winning in ways we’ve underestimated, even though it doesn’t feel like it. We have shifted the discourse around inequality writ large — racial, economic, gender inequality.”

But you’re saying the different forces on the left — from Bernie supporters to emergent social movements around racial and economic justice — have our analysis wrong as well as our strategy? I’m starting to think you’re just a bit cranky.

DB: Oh I’m definitely cranky. I’m cranky because instead of responding with a “popular front” mobilization that strategically submerges differences in the face of emergency — centrists, liberals, and leftists of various stripes sometimes seem lost in their own worlds. I’m cranky because centrists and liberals living in cosmopolitan elite worlds sometimes revel in the rise of Trump — believing the country will never accept such a demagogue and that he is a gift to Democrats — ignoring the hate he has normalized and the future politics he has defined even if he loses. I’m cranky because some on the left are focused inward, preoccupied by sectarian battles, or in a few cases opting out of electoral politics out of a lack of enthusiasm for a weak Democratic candidate who admittedly participated in creating many of the problems she is now promising to solve (see: welfare reform, NAFTA, crime bill, immigration bill, DOMA — it’s a long list). So yeah, I’m cranky! Especially because this stance is actually dangerous. In a period where the Democratic candidate is unlikely to stir passion, it is all the more important that leaders of movements with influence use this periodic moment of electoral mobilization to defeat Trumpism while also building governing power at the state and local levels.

DW: Wow. Well, that was quite the rant. I look forward to being old enough to be so cranky one day. But I’m still relatively young and therefore optimistic. And I see a different landscape out there from what you see. There’s the bright energy of the Movement for Black Lives, of the mobilizations and movement-building around immigrant rights, LGBT equality, the Fight for 15 among fast food workers, and yes, even Bernie supporters, demanding something different for this staid Democratic Party that takes its core voters for granted: Blacks, labor, LGBT, Latinos, etc. It’s this movement energy that is our biggest hope in this moment, especially when paired with demographic shifts that will no doubt change the game over the next 10 years.

DB: Sigh. I appreciate your enthusiasm. Really I do. But I think your Kool-Aid is spiked. It’s worth remembering that none of these movements — with the partial and so far singular exception of the LGBT movement — has actually yet achieved big chunks of its agenda. These are still young movements who have yet to realize their full potential. And Trumpism, if not defeated, could seriously set them back or destroy them. And let’s not forget the fact that unions, mainstream churches, community organizations — with limited exceptions the institutional bulwarks of progressive change- are on the decline, facing funding and membership crises.

DW: There you go sobering me up with your cold water of brute facts. Fine Mr. Genius. So what’s your analysis of movement infrastructure and what is to be done?

DB: Well, in this kind of condition, progressives must buy ourselves some time. The disastrous 2000 Gore v. Bush election and then the 9/11 backlash set progressive movement-building back a decade. And while there is the likely ripening of new forms of labor organization and mass community organizations of working class people of color, it will most likely take at least a decade for them to realize power. Add the confluence of demographic change producing an opening for massive progressive change of the kind Obama foreshadowed but could not fulfill, all of this is not likely to come until a few years after redistricting based on the 2020 Census. And in the meantime, a victory of Trump or even ascendant Trumpism would be disastrous for movement building — and could snuff out these promising but still nascent movements on the left before they can realize their potential. Our task at hand is to make sure they have the oxygen and light necessary to grow so that a new set of institutions and the mass empowerment of millions of people can take root.

DW: I am old enough to have lived through the nightmare of the 2000 election, so you’ve succeeded in scaring me. I hope we aren’t witnessing a repeat of Gore v. Nader in the guise of Clinton v. Sanders, because I’m not really in the mood for re-runs. I’ve seen this show before, and know how it ends, and it ain’t good. But can you be a tad more specific on the “task at hand”. What, specifically, do you suggest we do in this moment, Dear Obi-Wan?

DB: I thought you’d never ask! In the short term — progressives should be focusing on how we build an American “popular front” to hold the White House, increase progressive gains in Congress and defeat Trumpism. If you read history, especially of scary authoritarian and fascist moments of the early 20th century, you’ll know that the impact of sectarian battles within the left, and conflict between liberals and leftists in similar conditions in Spain and Germany, created the opening for authoritarianism to prevail.

DW: You have my full attention, yet again!

DB: Good. Because the crux of what I’m saying is that a mature left won’t act out of emotion alone — but will soberly survey the forces arrayed against us, take a deep breath, acknowledge our weaknesses and do the hard work of actively and temporarily submerging differences with the center in the interest of a future. You, almost better than anyone, because you get to see so many parts of left infrastructure get to see the real weaknesses — right?

DW: Yes, unfortunately. The labor movement has been in crisis for more than two decades now. Luckily it dodged a bullet with Justice Scalia’s death and the stalemate on the Court in terms of permanently weakening the strongest part of the labor movement — public sector unions. But unions, especially in the private sector, are the weakest they have been in 100 years. Then if you look at infrastructure in communities of color — if we’re being honest, it’s very weak. We aren’t developing strong progressive grassroots leaders of color fast enough, our “bench” for running true progressives of color for political office at all levels is nil, and honestly, there are way too many tokens of color in corporate America who only care about joining the 1% as opposed to advancing social justice. So you’re right, let’s not romanticize the situation! Now more than ever, we have to be careful not to be seduced by our own press releases! So I admit — we have some work to do to build serious infrastructure BUT does your notion of a new “popular front” mean stop the movement-building and attempt to win over the so-called center? Independent voters? This sounds like “3rd way” Clinton Centrism to me again. Now I’m cranky!

DB: Nope, that’s not what I’m saying. There is nothing about this popular front approach that implies anything about slowing down movement building — in fact, recruiting people to unions and building new forms of labor power, building organization in Black communities, Latino, Asian and Muslim communities that are in the cross-hairs of Trumpism are more important, not less — precisely because its only that kind of robust recruitment to a political vision that will get people energized. And let me be very clear: candidates wont do that.

Credit: We Belong Together

DW: So now I’m confused. So we should keep doing the vital movement-building work that is necessary at this moment, yet build a popular front that temporarily “submerges differences” in terms of analysis and tactics? I was almost with you until you went there.

DB: Look the inconvenient truth is that not all activism in this fraught moment is equally good. To be clear, I’m not suggesting a uniformity of analysis or action. The mainstreaming of black feminist intersectional analysis, on display most prominently in the Movement for Black Lives, is a welcome and beautiful development. There should be no going back to single-issue analyses or campaigns. But what I am suggesting is a clarity and sequencing of our political demands in terms of strategy for the left in this historical moment.

DW: I think I’m catching on to your line of strategic thinking here. So you would agree then that the popular front ethos with centrists and liberals should absolutely not continue after the election. Because in my view, only massive pressure from energized social movements that delivers the election for Clinton could possibly force her to deliver on her commitments to those same constituencies. The quieting of left movements under Obama did neither him nor progressive causes any favors — and in fact cleared the field for the Tea Party to emerge.

DB: Exactly! We seem to be agreeing here. That is scaring me.

So let me try to sum up here. The American left is divided into three efforts none of which are what this moment requires. First is the effort to stop one guy: Donald Trump. The second is defeating one establishment centrist: Hillary Clinton. And the third is business as usual: win a national election by stoking fear in the base and pandering to the middle. All three of these efforts are wrong and not strategic. Instead, we need a new and positive vision/agenda married to a unified organizing strategy that brings together the multiple progressive forces that are on the move. We must simultaneously rise to the moment that confronts us while also thinking about what we are building to sustain our momentum over the next 10 years. Let’s stop playing checkers and play chess. How do you see the work by the progressive left to build movement among people of color as being tied to that analysis? Marrying the short term and the long term?

DW: Oh I see what you just did there! I’ll bite, because I’m excited about the efforts to build movement and it’s what keeps me optimistic, truth be told. I fundamentally believe we CAN mobilize 700,000 immigrant voters in a way that builds lasting infrastructure in communities of color and permanently reshapes the political landscape in our favor.

I believe we CAN make a serious lasting commitment to strengthening Black infrastructure while helping force bold demands around reinvestment and racial justice into the national dialogue in a way that motivates people to participate in 2016 and beyond.

I strongly believe we CAN build a visionary gender and race conscious economic agenda — including a focus on caregiving and a green economy that delivers for women and people of color and foregrounds racial and gender justice inside economic populism — what Bernie never quite figured out how to do but we can!

That’s how we make the rubber of our analysis hit the road of our action.

DB: Well said, I’m sorry to admit. I am inspired. Now is not the time to overestimate our strength and let darkness descend over the land. Now is the time to build power and fatally weaken modern conservatism’s new Frankenstein aka Trumpism. Now is the time to transform our country into the just and equitable democracy we know it can be. I will embrace your youthful optimism, as you prepare to turn 40 “young” one — and agree with you that we can make some lemonade out of these lemons!

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