Powerful though they may be, irrational popular tendencies are not irresistible forces. They contain their own contradictions. Clinging to some absolute authority is not necessarily a sign of faith in authority; it may be a desperate attempt to overcome one’s increasing doubts (the convulsive tightening of a slipping grip). People who join gangs or reactionary groups, or who get caught up in religious cults or patriotic hysteria, are also seeking a sense of liberation, connection, purpose, participation, empowerment. As Wilhelm Reich showed, fascism gives a particularly vigorous and dramatic expression to these basic aspirations, which is why it often has a deeper appeal than the vacillations, compromises and hypocrisies of liberalism and leftism. In the long run the only way to defeat reaction is to present more forthright expressions of these aspirations, and more authentic opportunities to fulfill them. When basic issues are forced into the open, irrationalities that flourished under the cover of psychological repression tend to be weakened, like disease germs exposed to sunlight and fresh air.
The Donald Trump campaign has exposed some very ugly aspects of American society. They’re not pretty to look at, but it’s probably better that they’re out there in the open where we can all see them and no one can deny them. It has also revealed some genuine grievances that had been ignored, and it’s good that those too are now out in the open.
The downsides of Trump’s victory are numerous and all too obvious. But I’d like to point out a few possible upsides.
In Beyond Voting I noted that the Trump campaign was accelerating the self-destruction of the Republican Party. I was assuming that he would probably lose and that there would then be a bitter civil war over who was to blame, making it difficult for them to regroup and write it off as a one-time fluke. But I think his victory will be even worse for the Republicans.
This may seem like an odd thing to say, considering that the Republicans now have the Presidency as well as both houses of Congress. But I think it’s going to be like the proverbial dog chasing a car: what happens if the dog actually catches the car?
As long as power was split between a Democratic Presidency and a Republican Congress, each side could blame the other for the lack of positive accomplishments. But now that the Republicans have got a monopoly, there will be no more excuses.
Imagine that you’re a Republican politician. You’ve been reelected — so far, so good. But the people who voted for you and your colleagues and your new Leader did so under the impression that you were going to bring about some dramatic improvements in their lives. What happens when you actually have to deliver some of the things you promised?
During the last six years you’ve staged dozens of meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, saying that you wanted to replace it with some superior Republican plan. Now is the moment of truth. If you don’t repeal it, you’ll have millions of people screaming at your betrayal. If you do repeal it, where is that wonderful plan that you somehow were never able to come up with? That plan is of course nonexistent, nothing but the usual simple-minded rhetoric about free markets leading to lower prices. Do you think that the 22 million newly insured people, many of whom voted for you, will be pleased to be deprived of their Obamacare insurance and to find themselves back in their previous situation? It is very unpopular (as well as very complicated) to undo benefits that people are already used to possessing.
Moreover, note that Obamacare is essentially a Republican plan, slightly tweaked by Obama — a feeble patchwork attempt to respond to America’s severe healthcare crisis. Such a clumsy program is understandably not very popular. But Social Security and Medicare (which Paul Ryan now wants to dismantle) are by far the most popular social programs in America, and have been for decades. As Eisenhower famously noted, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” Apparently their number is no longer negligible in your party. Are you ready to go over the cliff with them?
Some of your base are still vehemently anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage — but most of the country isn’t. Are you going to try to undo reproductive rights or marriage equality nationwide? If not, are you going to go back to the chaos of “leaving it to the states”?
Speaking of logistical nightmares, what about your famous Mexican wall? Are you really going to commit to such a silly project, which would accomplish nothing and cost hundreds of billions of dollars? And incidentally, after you’ve given the rich a lot more tax breaks and funneled much of the rest of the budget into the already bloated Pentagon, where is the funding for such projects going to come from?
The same goes for the major infrastructure improvements Trump has promised. This is one of his few sensible proposals – it would rev up the economy and create millions of jobs, which would in turn generate lots more tax revenue down the line. But getting it kickstarted will require deficit financing, which goes totally against the austerity policies that have been preached as gospel by your party for decades. Revived economy or party orthodoxy — which will it be?
Racism has been one of the key foundations of your party ever since Nixon inaugurated the “Southern strategy” fifty years ago, but it’s usually been discreet and deniable. Now that connection is out in the open. Many of Trump’s most fervent supporters are already celebrating his victory by harassing people of color in his name. How are you going to dissociate yourselves from that?
Your party was already heading toward a civil war between its mutually contradictory components (financial elite, tea party, neocons, libertarians, religious reactionaries, and the few remaining moderates). To those general divisions are now added the antagonisms between the new Leader and those who oppose him. Bush at least had sense enough to know that he was an incompetent figurehead, and gladly let Cheney and Rove run things. Trump thinks he’s a genius, and anyone who doesn’t agree will be added to his already very large enemies list.
He’s also a very loose cannon, which is why the Republican establishment feared him in the first place. He has proposed things like Congressional term limits which Republican politicians emphatically do not want, while on the other hand he is now reportedly considering not repealing Obamacare, perhaps because he has become aware of how complex and risky such as action might be. Who knows what other things he’ll come up with or backtrack on?
And this whole show is so public. Obama’s smooth, genial persona enabled him to get away with war crimes, massive deportations, and all sorts of corporate compromises (not a single criminal banker prosecuted) with few people paying attention and fewer still protesting. This will not be the case with President Ubu and his Clown Car administration. The whole world will be watching, and every detail will be scrutinized and debated. It’s going to look as ugly as it is in reality, and you’re going to be forever tarred by the association. You’re no longer in the Republican Party, you’re in the Trump Party. You bought it, you own it.
If I’m that imagined Republican politician, I don’t think I feel very confident about the future of my party.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is facing its own reckoning.
Democratic apologists are trying to focus the blame on one or another particular factor: the electoral college, voter suppression, third-party campaigns, the Comey announcement, etc. But this election shouldn’t have been close enough for any of those things to matter. The Democrats were running against the most glaringly unqualified candidate in American history. It should have been a landslide.
With Bernie Sanders it probably would have been. (A post-election national poll shows him beating Trump 56-44.) He was by far the most popular candidate in the country, while Hillary Clinton’s approval rating was almost as negative as Trump’s. Polls consistently showed Bernie beating Trump and all the other Republican candidates by wide margins, while Hillary was struggling against them all and even losing to some of them. Moreover, Bernie’s popularity cut across party lines, appealing not just to Democrats but to independents and even large numbers of Republicans. While Hillary was courting Wall Street and celebrity donors, he was attracting crowds that were ten times as large as any she ever managed, including thousands of the kind of enthusiastic young people who would have traveled across the country to work their hearts out for him (as they did to a lesser extent for Obama in 2008). While Hillary was constantly on the defensive, Bernie would have taken the offensive and turned the momentum in a progressive direction all over the country. He would easily have won the three Rust Belt states that cost Hillary the election, he probably would also have won some of the other swing states she lost, and his coattails would have flipped enough additional down-ballot races to regain the Senate and perhaps even put the House into play.
But the Democratic Party establishment preferred to risk losing with a loyal machine candidate rather than to risk winning with an independent radical whose movement might have challenged their cushy positions. Despite the fact that Hillary had a ton of baggage (some actually bad and much that could easily be made to look bad) and that she was a perfect embodiment of the glib, self-satisfied insider-elite and a longtime advocate of the neoliberal policies that had ravaged the country (especially in the Rust Belt), they pulled out all the stops to impose her as “inevitable,” while smugly dismissing Sanders as “unrealistic.”
In reality, the supposedly unrealistic solutions that Sanders called for were supported by large majorities of the population. Under pressure, Hillary belatedly adopted watered-down versions of some of those solutions, but few people believed she was sincere enough to really fight for them like Sanders would have. Her campaign mostly amounted to business as usual: “Defend the status quo! You have to vote for me because my opponent is even worse!”
It didn’t work. Interviews with Trump voters reveal that although many of them were indeed racist, many others were not (a large portion of them had previously voted for Obama). But they were enraged at the national political establishment that had abandoned them and they wanted somebody to “shake it up” and “clean it out.” Bernie spoke to those feelings, Hillary did not. Since Bernie wasn’t on the ballot, they decided to send a big “fuck you” message by voting for the other supposed “outsider,” who had at least claimed that he would do just that. Many others did not go that far, but they sent a similar message by staying home. Many others, of course, did vote for Hillary, including most of the Bernie supporters; but the enthusiasm was not there.
The Democratic Party establishment bears the ultimate blame for this miserable outcome. Millions of people know this and they are now trying to figure out what to do about it: how to break up the party machine, how to wean the party from its corporate dependence and transform it so that it can help address the challenges we face. I wish them well, but it won’t be easy to get rid of such an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy — particularly since many elements of that bureaucracy will now be posing as heroes resisting the Trump administration. It will be difficult for this party to retain any credibility if it does not at least rally to a Sanders-type progressive program. That kind of program is far from a sufficient solution to the global crises we face, but it could at least claim to be a step in the right direction. Anything less will be a farce.
Meanwhile, with the Republicans’ monopoly control over the government, even those who normally focus on electoral politics must realize that for some time to come the main struggle will be outside the parties and outside the government. It will be grassroots participatory actions or nothing.
New movements of protest and resistance will develop during the coming weeks and months, responding to this bizarre and still very unpredictable new situation. At this point it’s hard to say what forms such movements will take, except to note that just about everyone seems to recognize that our number-one priority will be defending blacks, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQs, and others most directly threatened by the new regime.
But we will also need to defend ourselves. The first step in resisting this regime is to avoid getting too caught up with it — obsessively following the latest news about it and impulsively reacting to each new outrage. That kind of compulsive media consumption was part of what led to this situation in the first place. Let’s treat this clown show with the contempt it deserves and not forget the fundamental things that still apply — picking our battles, but also continuing to nourish the personal relations and creative activities that make life worthwhile in the first place. Otherwise, what will we be defending?
Ultimately, as soon as we can recover our bearings, we’ll have to go back on the offensive. We were already going to have to face severe global crises during the coming decades. Maybe this disaster will shock us into coming together and addressing those crises sooner and more wholeheartedly than we would have otherwise, with fewer illusions about the capacity of the existing system to save us.
BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS
November 16, 2016