Beating Trump isn’t a detour from a political revolution — it’s essential to it.
Trump and Bernie’s revolutions do not share the same roots*, and Trump represents something that must be defeated in order to win the next political revolution.
Donald Trump is the sound a political paradigm makes on its death bed. Defeating him, and the political paradigm he represents is not a detour from political revolution, it’s actually essential to it.
When Trump accepted the GOP’s nomination for President, he painted a picture of a country in decline: a dark, chaotic place filled with worsening crime and attacks on police.
Taken in aggregate, his story doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: the crime rate continues to decline, murders are down, attacks on police too. But I think it actually reflects a more specific worldview: that of white men whose cultural supremacy is being undermined, and whose political frameworks of choice are under attack by the most visible sustained black-led organizing since the Civil Rights Movement, which questions the right to kill in the name of defending whiteness, and which is targeted at symbols of ‘law and order.’ This is not just a metaphorical malaise either; white men are in fact dying at higher rates, even as everyone else’s life expediencies go up.
America is also nearing a demographic turning point that will displace white people as the majority of the country, something that puts a finer point on the role of immigration in Trump’s picture of a dark future for the country. All that and we have a black President to boot — one that remains historically popular within his party and the public.
So when he talks about a country in decline, he’s speaking most of all to a past vision of America filled with and represented by white men. And the volume of his bombast is in direct proportion to the tenuousness of this old vision of America. Like the Southern segregationists of the late 60s, he is speaking to people who believe that all it takes to reclaim their rightful power is someone willing to state explicitly the ‘obvious’ unspoken truths of their worldview, because their historic symbolic and demographic preeminence makes it impossible for them to believe that they do not represent a literal majority of the country.
Two populisms — or just two different movements?
Which brings me to Matthew Jonathan Smucker’s recent piece on Trump and the political revolution. I’ve read and benefited greatly from Smucker’s many writings over the years, and his piece is worth reading and taking to heart. On a certain level I don’t care why you want to vote against Trump as long as you do it. But his description of Trump’s appeal is contextualized from recent history, dismissing the racial animus of his campaign as merely ‘strategic’, and something fundamentally offputting to me about his positioning of confronting Trump as a detour or prelude to the political revolution.
I believe that when you place Trump’s campaign in the recent history of race, defeating him is central to a political revolution, and the more decisively he is beaten, the better.
In Smucker’s take, the central task of the political revolution is essentially to fold a wide number of demands into the paradigm already laid out by the class-focused remedies of the past:
“Today our historic task is not merely to repeat the economic populism of the New Deal, but to figure out how to blend it together seamlessly with racial justice, gender justice, sexual liberation, and care for the natural world.”
The idea being that the left would then snatch away Trump’s appeal and begin the revolution in earnest. But there’s very little statistical evidence to suggest that Trump’s appeal is fundamentally about economic grievance on the part of the working class. Most notably, there’s no sign of a turnout spike on behalf of poor Republican voters. Yes, there has been long term erosion of relative wages among many of the people he appeals to, but the demographic and racial-cultural shifts described above are more recent, more visible and more proximate to the worldview Trump espouses, which focuses more on America’s historic greatness (great for who? When?), and political correctness culture — both watch words for white privilege and power.
In other words, to the degree that Trump embraces a ‘populist’ argument, he is rallying against a very particular kind of establishment, and on behalf of a very particular vision of the ‘American people.’ It’s likely that this is fundamentally different than the America many on the left and those who support Sanders think of. His racism may not be a distraction, or ‘strategic’ as Smucker describes it — it’s a grievance connected to concrete changes in American life. Racism with all its attendant benefits to white men is literally crucial to their lives, and those benefits are under pointed assault in the public eye right now.
Lumping Sanders and Trump together in a left-right populist dualism not only takes the elite media’s frame for granted, it stretches the notion of ‘populism’ as a framework of analysis beyond useful limits. Sanders’ appeal to authenticity and economic grievances is very different than Trump’s defense of white America in style, substance and audience. The distance between them is shown not only by their demographic splits (Sanders trending much younger in his support) but also by the relatively low migration of supporters between the two after Sanders was defeated. If blaming people’s problems on someone with power and claiming you’ll fix those problems amounts to ‘populism’ then ‘populism’ merely means ‘good communication strategy.’
There is one point of convergence between them worth noting, and that is on international trade agreements. But their respective concerns with international trade agreements also diverge: Sanders’ being grounded in a longer slide in wages and shifting of power towards corporations, and Trump’s being focused (obsessively) on the threat of a foreign power, China, which feeds his story about an old version of America in decline.
Crushing Trump is a Critical Part of a Political Revolution
Despite what I see as the distance between the Sanders and Trump campaigns, they are not unrelated. Trump’s version of White America stands behind many of the political roadblocks to progressive economic policy which would benefit the poor, often non-white people of America. The ethos of entitlement that comes with decades of race privilege connects to unwillingness to support the ‘unworthy’ through welfare, and forms the backbone of what Ta-Nehsi Coates describes as ‘plunder’ of black bodies. The defense of decent white Americans drives law and order mass incarceration and the connected dispossession of people targeted most by the prison industrial complex. When Trump gets up to say he wants to make America great again, these are the tendencies and institutions he seeks to rehabilitate. When he and his many supporters rail against ‘political correctness’ they are seeking to silence even the discussion of race- and gender-based causes and remedies to the problems of inequality.
Most of all, this is an argument to continue popular organizing to confront white supremacy and build up solutions to the wide variety of problems that it has formed a roadblock against for decades. But defeating Donald Trump — decisively — is an essential part of that ongoing work.
Beating him isn’t a prelude to the political revolution, or some unpleasant chore we do on the way to the real fight. It is revolutionary in the sense that we can make it a death-knell for a political paradigm that has shaped post-civil rights politics in America. Beating fascism in the 40s wasn’t a distraction from civil rights work, it was in many ways a new beginning: defining a new paradigm in which it made sense to fight for equality because racism was a threat to American-ness, that it was our duty to defeat hate.
But making that shift requires absolutely crushing him, not approaching his defeat as a chore and hoping for a narrow enough win in swing states that he falls short. He needs to become an emblem of failure, a symbol of toxicity that then becomes a cudgel with which to batter a raft of policies, practices and politicians with. We should hope to get to a place that even echoes of his ideology are a source of deep shame, so that people set themselves upon the task of undoing the version of America that he represents.
I believe that work will be thrilling to be a part of, and revolutionary. He is uniting a demographic coalition that will lead America into a new political alignment: one that is younger, more diverse, embraces change, and which I believe is very much on its way. I believe working for his resounding, decisive defeat can build many bridges between people that can carry over to the work to come.
I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the political stagecraft of the DNC, but I think there was one crucial moment of the convention that stood out for me. Several, actually: the U-S-A chants that would break out on the floor in defense of non-white faces and the idea that America’s goodness comes from its ability to abandon its racist past, and become something more inclusive. I think those people, whether they knew it or not, were cheering for a different vision of America than the one that the chant represented for many long years under the Bush Administration and before. To borrow a Smuckerism that I love: the flag is being recaptured.
Leaving behind the old version of America will put the political revolution in play. We are voting for the person we want to target for the next 4 years, but Presidential elections are more than platforms and personalities. They are the most prominent chance we have for a sustained national dialog on the values of the entire country, which means you are also voting for the cultural and political terrain in which you wish to operate. In this case, it’s a sense of who matters, who must be listened to, and who really represents the country when we talk about ‘Americans.’
I think that is a choice much more fundamental than a task to be taken care of before we get to the ‘real work’ and I think it’s one worth working very very hard for.
*A previous version of this article mischaracterized Smucker’s point as being that the two versions of populism are ‘interchangeable’ and this intro has been changed to reflect that this is not a fair reading.