by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It’s taken me a long time to be able to write about the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election and how the transition from Barack Obama’s administration to Donald Trump’s is going. The night of November 8 I sat at home alone in front of my TV gob-smacked at the sheer scope of the defeat not only of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats but of every principle I hold dear in my political orientation and have held dear since I had political beliefs at all.
It was the fourth time in my life my fellow Americans have gob-smacked me with the awareness of just how Right-wing a country this is and just how strongly many Americans are motivated to vote against their economic self-interest by the clever manipulation of race and culture. The other times were 1972, when Richard Nixon won re-election with 61 percent of the vote — though his political capital was soon eaten up by Watergate, which essentially was a series of revelations of just how far he had gone to manipulate the election to achieve that result — and 1980 and 1984, when the American people elected Ronald Reagan.
I think the biggest difference this time was how old I was. When Nixon was re-elected I was 19 years old, and in Reagan’s two elections I was 27 and 31, respectively. I could look philosophically and say to myself, “This too shall pass. Someday this country will return to its senses and regain a progressive majority.” When Trump won in 2016 and the Republican Party held on to its majorities in both the House and the Senate — essentially gaining complete control of the federal government and rendering the Democrats basically irrelevant — I was 63, all too conscious of the fact that even if the Trump phenomenon is reversed and America once again has a progressive government, it’s not likely to happen until after I’m dead.
If you’ve been following my previous blog posts about the 2016 election, you’ll know that my head was well aware that Trump could win the election. I knew that the historical odds were against the Democrats because, since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947, which limits the President to two terms, only once has the same major party won the presidency three times in a row: the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. I had seen the polls showing not only that Trump was making major inroads into traditional Democratic constituencies, I’d read the interviews and focus-group reports of how fervently Trump’s supporters believed in him and his message.
Indeed, I not only predicted that Trump would win the election, I even correctly figured out how he would do it: Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by running up big majorities in large blue states like California and New York, but Trump would win the Electoral College, and therefore the Presidency, by eking out narrow wins in “Rust Belt” states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania where huge numbers of people have been put out of work by the de-industrialization and globalization Clinton and her husband have been pushing throughout their career in national politics.
But while my head understood that Trump could win, my heart refused to believe it. Even in the last two weeks — which, according to the post-election polls, were the crucial time (a huge majority of voters who made up their minds in the last two weeks voted for Trump) — I was watching Trump seemingly lose his sanity on national television. I guess I didn’t think Americans were so boorish that they could elect as President a man who was almost pure id, who not only showed no sign of grace or compassion but actually reveled in his lack of grace and compassion and even took pride in that.
I knew that there were people in those parts of America between the two big coasts — those often derided by America’s cosmopolitans as “flyover America” — who admired Trump because they read his boorishness as a refreshing assault on “political correctness.” But I had a hard time believing there were enough people like that to elect him … until they did. Indeed, if you look at the so-called “county map” of the election, which aside from a couple of narrow strips on the East and West Coasts and a few pinpricks of blue elsewhere in the country shows the U.S. as a solid block of Trump red, you’ll get even more depressed and traumatized by the result.
My age when Trump was elected has another effect on how I’ve received the news. I have lived most of my adult life in the expectation that Social Security and Medicare would be there for me when I got old and I needed them. Now, just as I’m knocking on the door of the age at which I’d be eligible for those programs, the federal government is under the complete control of an ideologically driven political party determined to cut them back drastically and ultimately eliminate them altogether.
The Libertarian Ideology
And don’t tell me I’m being too doomy-and-gloomy: I’ve been watching and writing about politics for at least the last 40 years and I’ve seen the Republican party come under the sway of a consistent ideology that regards Social Security, Medicare and all social-welfare programs as not only wrong but downright immoral. That ideology has many names, but is usually known as Libertarianism. It was founded in the mid-20th century as a response to Marxism, and particularly to Karl Marx’s concept of the “labor theory of value.”
According to Marx, a piece of iron ore resting peacefully in the ground, doing nothing, had no real value. It only acquired value when human workers dug it out of the ground, ran giant furnaces to smelt the iron out of the rock, further refined it into steel and manufactured useful products out of it. The biggest thing Marx didn’t like about capitalism was it took money away from the workers and gave it to capitalists who, Marx argued, had done nothing to create the value from which they profited.
Libertarianism grew out of the Austrian school of economics, founded in the 1930’s by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek. Its basic argument was that Marx was wrong when he said workers created value. Instead, it argued, the real creators of value were the visionary entrepreneurs who figured out how to dig iron ore from the ground, smelt it and make useful things out of it. Where Marx criticized capitalism for driving workers’ wages down and reducing their income to the bare minimum to keep them alive and productive, Libertarians thought this was a good thing because it meant the “makers” — the great capitalist entrepreneurs — were getting the full value of their contributions to the economy instead of having to share it with the “takers,” everyone else.
The Libertarian philosophy was popularized by novelist Ayn Rand, who fled the Soviet Union in 1928, established herself as a writer in the U.S. and wrote two major novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which outlined the basics. The heroes of these books are fiercely independent entrepreneurs who triumph at the end against the “little people” who try to take over their innovations and divert some of the capitalists’ income to help others. At the end of each book, Rand’s capitalist superhero delivers a long speech expressing her philosophy. Though Rand said it was morally O.K. for capitalists voluntarily to contribute money to help others, it’s clear from her overall plots that the capitalists she most admired were the ones who kept it all for themselves.
While at least some traditional conservatives join liberals and progressives in expressing concern over the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. and throughout the developed world, Libertarians regard increasing economic inequality as a good thing — because it means the “makers” are protecting more and more of what’s rightfully theirs against the “takers.” One of the most powerful statements of the Libertarian philosophy was given by 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a private fundraiser among fellow super-rich people on May 17, 2012 when he said of his opponent, President Obama, “[T]here are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.… I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
In the Libertarian world, no one is “entitled” to food, housing, health care or anything else. You earn those things in the capitalist marketplace, and if the market is allowed to work without any opposition or regulation from government, the greatest rewards will automatically flow to the worthiest individuals. The statement Republican President Theodore Roosevelt made in 1903 that many of the corporate leaders of his time were “malefactors of great wealth” is anathema to a Libertarian. According to Libertarians, the mere fact that you are rich shows that you are a superior human being — much the way Puritan theologian John Calvin preached that only a handful of people, the “elect,” were going to go to Heaven, and the way God had of showing humanity in general who those people were was through their material success in this world. Indeed, in Rand’s novels she arranges her plots so her capitalist superheroes lose all their money through machinations of less worthy humans — and get it all back again, thereby demonstrating their physical, intellectual and moral superiority over the rest of us.
One other weird quirk of Libertarianism, especially the way Ayn Rand preached it, is it is fanatically anti-environment. Libertarians do not believe in environmental regulation because they regard it — along with minimum-wage laws, social-welfare programs, regulations protecting workers’ health and safety, consumer protections, and laws allowing workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers — as just one more way the “takers” can exploit the “makers” and essentially steal from them. In fact, Rand seemed to believe that capitalist entrepreneurialism was so powerful it could literally change the laws of physics; the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, invents a motor that runs on air.
Republicans Become Ideological; Democrats Don’t
The American political system has generally resolved itself into two major political parties, each so-called “broad tent” coalitions whose members had a wide range of ideologies. Indeed, for years one of the rules of American political science was that a major party that got too ideological — that positioned itself too far either to the Left or the Right — would be punished by losing a major election by a landslide margin and would have to move back to the center to survive, regroup and eventually win. When I majored in political science at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University in the mid- to late-1970’s, that was the standard explanation for why Barry Goldwater lost the presidency in 1964 and George McGovern lost in 1972.
What we didn’t know was that the Right-wing movement within the Republican party that had pushed Goldwater and got him nominated took a very different lesson from his defeat. That Right-wing movement had actually started in the 1930’s in opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it had already survived blows that would have killed less dedicated, committed and perseverant activists. It had survived World War II, during which a lot of its early adherents had been exposed as isolationists and, in some cases, outright Nazi sympathizers. It had survived the fall of its first elected official with a national following, Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in 1954. It survived Goldwater’s defeat largely by coalescing around someone else who could deliver Goldwater’s message but soften it up and thereby make it appealing to enough U.S. voters to win a Presidential election. The someone else was Ronald Reagan, and in 1980 he did just that.
But recruiting Ronald Reagan to put a kinder, gentler face on Libertarian conservatism than Goldwater had was just one aspect of the Right’s winning strategy. They also shrewdly exploited the two great divisive issues, race and culture, that emerged during the 1960’s and gave the Right entrée not only into the formerly solidly Democratic South but also to the working-class white ethnics in the East and Midwest that had once been bulwarks of the Democratic Party’s base. Whites who had applauded the New Deal programs when they were their principal beneficiaries suddenly turned against them when the administrations of John F. Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson started extending them to people of color in general and African-Americans in particular.
Republicans and Right-wing independents like Alabama Governor George Wallace saw an opening: if they could rile up working-class whites by appealing to their racism, they could break up the New Deal coalition and create a working, enduring Right-wing majority. They got a boost from another phenomenon of the 1960’s: the rise of a counter-culture among young people that eventually took the form of sexual liberation and drug use. Older whites who had sacrificed to send their kids to college were horrified to see them drifting into the counterculture, and eagerly voted for Republicans like Reagan who promised to put an end to all this “permissiveness” and re-impose discipline on young people in general and college students in particular.
In the 1960’s, the Republican and Democratic parties reversed their traditional positions on civil rights. Barry Goldwater started that process when he voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act on the basis that, while government should not discriminate on the basis of race, it also should not tell private businesses that they could not discriminate. (More recently, Senator Rand Paul [R-Kentucky] told interviewers that had he been around in 1964, he wouldn’t have voted for the Civil Rights Act for the same reason Goldwater didn’t.)
Though Goldwater lost the presidency in a landslide vote, he carried six states — his own, Arizona, and five in the Deep South: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi (where he won a whopping 87.1 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 12.9 percent) and South Carolina. This set the stage for the next Presidential election in 1968, when the nation was torn apart by racial and cultural chaos and Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, saw his chance to win by coming forward as the candidate of “law and order” and what he called “middle America” — i.e., older white America put off by the ferment of the civil rights movement, the protests against the Viet Nam war and the sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll lifestyle of the young counterculture.
Faced with a major Right-wing independent challenge from openly racist Alabama Governor George Wallace that threatened to split the Right-wing vote and keep the Democrats in the White House, Nixon and Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) concocted what became known as the “Southern Strategy.” This basically flipped the two major parties’ historic stands on civil rights: the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of racial inclusion, civil rights and voting rights for people of color.
Meanwhile, the Republicans — the “Party of Lincoln” — became the home of racism and reaction. It worked like a charm in 1968 — between them Nixon and Wallace got 57 percent of the vote to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. (It helped that Humphrey, like Hillary Clinton in 2016, was the choice of the Democratic party bosses and his nomination, like hers, profoundly alienated young political activists and led many of them either to vote for third-party candidates or just stay home.)
What’s more, the “Southern Strategy” didn’t just win for Republicans in the South; many white working-class voters in the Midwest who’d become Democrats because they’d directly benefited from the New Deal programs in the 1930’s resented the Democrats of the 1960’s for expanding these programs to help people of color. Thanks to their appeals to race and culture, the Republicans broke the New Deal coalition and created the Right-wing majority that, with occasional exceptions, has dominated American politics ever since.
Don’t believe analysts who have prematurely reported the “demise of the Right.” It triumphed when Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 and triumphantly re-elected in a 49-state landslide in 1984. It held on to the Presidency with George H. W. Bush in 1988 — the only time since the passage of the 22nd Amendment limiting the Presidency to two terms that one major party has won the White House three elections in a row — only to lose it partly because many Rightists abandoned Bush Sr. as an apostate because he broke his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge, and partly because the Right-wing vote in 1992 was split between Bush and H. Ross Perot, who between them got 57 percent of the vote to Bill Clinton’s 43 percent.
The Right struck back against Clinton when the nation gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives in 1994, largely as a reaction to an unpopular health-care reform sponsored by Hillary Clinton (sound familiar? Hillary’s constant reminders during the 2016 campaign that “before it was called Obamacare, it was called Hillarycare” were some of the dumbest things she said all campaign), and when they made him only the second U.S. President in history to be impeached and put on trial before the Senate for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (Had Hillary won in 2016 she would quite likely have been the third.)
By the time George W. Bush won the Presidency — largely due to the efforts of the National Rifle Association, which swung Tennessee and West Virginia to the Republicans (had Democrat Al Gore been able to hold on to his home state, Tennessee, he would have been President and Florida wouldn’t have mattered) — people on the Right were once again talking about what Bush adviser Karl Rove called “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics. Partly through the ample coffers of mega-rich donors like Charles and David Koch, Dick and Betsy DeVos, Sheldon Adelson and Art Pope, and partly through the incessant Right-wing propaganda on talk radio and Fox News, the Republicans were able to develop a huge hard-core following of working-class whites and others profoundly disturbed by the racial and cultural changes that had been going on since the 1960’s — and ready to vote accordingly.
The result was that, after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008 (a race he was actually on his way to losing — John McCain and Sarah Palin were creeping up in the polls until the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 tanked the American economy and convinced enough voters it was time for a change), the Democrats suffered one political defeat after another in the Obama years. As Right-wing writer Deroy Murdock chronicled in a New York Post op-ed on December 25, 2016 (http://nypost.com/2016/12/25/obamas-legacy-is-a-devastated-democratic-party/):
- Democrats surrendered the White House to political neophyte Donald J. Trump.
- US Senate seats slipped from 55 to 46, down 16 percent.
- US House seats fell from 256 to 194, down 24 percent.
- Democrats ran the Senate and House in 2009. Next year, they will control neither.
- Governorships slid from 28 to 16, down 43 percent.
- State legislatures (both chambers) plunged from 27 to 14, down 48 percent
- Trifectas (states with Democrat governors and both legislative chambers) cratered from 17 to 6, down 65 percent. …
Obama has supervised the net loss of 959 such Democratic positions, down 23.5 percent, according to Ballotpedia, which generated most of the data cited here. This far outpaces the 843 net seats that Republicans yielded under President Dwight Eisenhower.
The so-called “Obama coalition” is a paper tiger that was able to elect one and only one person: Obama himself. Otherwise, despite Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote majority over Donald Trump (which was politically irrelevant because her support was concentrated in the urban centers on the East and West Coasts, while Trump dominated overwhelmingly everywhere else, in what urban cosmopolites insultingly dismiss as “flyover America”), the U.S. is, was, has been since 1968 and overwhelmingly remains a profoundly Right-wing country. That is the lesson what’s left of the American Left needs to learn from Donald Trump’s victory and the Republicans’ final achievement of the “full-spectrum dominance” of U.S. politics they have sought for so long.
Hitting Bottom and Facing Up
It’s a major part of 12-step programs for addiction recovery that the process starts when you realize you have “hit bottom” and you can either die or get your life back together and work on getting better. The Trump election — indeed, the long string of political triumphs for the Right that began with the Congressional and state legislative elections of 2010 and culminated with Trump’s win — should be the bottom-hitting moment for the American Left. This should be the time when we start shedding the illusions we have surrounded ourselves with and thereby rendered ourselves irrelevant.
First, the Trump victory was largely a Republican coup d’état. Like Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, Trump and the Republicans in 2016 took over America by shrewdly exploiting the anti-democratic features of their country’s constitution. And I don’t just mean the Electoral College, either — though after a run of 26 elections from 1892 to 1996 in which the winner of the popular vote for President also won the Electoral College and therefore the presidency, in two of the five 21st century elections that hasn’t happened. (Also, in the four elections since the end of the Civil War in which the popular and the electoral vote have diverged — 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — it has always been the Democrat who won the popular vote and the Republican who won the presidency, never the other way around.)
The biggest undemocratic feature of the U.S. Constitution the Republicans were able to exploit in 2016 is the huge power it gives to individual states. It is states that set the rules for who may and may not vote in elections. The great Constitutional amendments that extended the franchise — the 15th, which allowed people of color to vote; the 19th, which gave the vote to women; the 24th, which abolished the poll tax; and the 26th, which lowered the voting age to 18 — are all framed as limits on the otherwise absolute power of state governments to decide who is and isn’t qualified to vote.
Through much of the Obama Presidency Democrats sanguinely expressed confidence that they would build a partisan majority in the future because of “demographics” — that is, because the percentages of the population that voted Democratic (young people, poor people, people of color, women) were growing and the segments that voted Republican (white people, old people, men) were shrinking. The Republicans had a solution for that: a concerted effort on the part of Republican governors and state legislators to rewrite election rules so those voters not likely to vote Republican would not be able to vote at all.
These sorts of disenfranchisement — an end to same-day voter registration, eliminating or cutting back on early voting, photo ID requirements for voters, restrictions on who could turn in a ballot for someone else, and selective closings of polling places in poor regions and communities of color — were key factors in swinging several close states Obama won to Trump. And Trump’s appointment of openly racist Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) as his attorney general is an indication that the Republicans are doubling down on disenfranchisement as a long-term strategy to shrink the electorate and make sure so few of their opponents can vote that they can’t threaten Republican dominance at both national and state levels.
Indeed, Trump’s Cabinet choices are the biggest indication that, despite his so-called “populist” rhetoric and appeal, he intends to govern as a hard-core Libertarian ideologue. Despite his pledge during his campaign to preserve Social Security and Medicare, Trump picked as his Secretary of Health and Human Services Representative Tom Price (R-Georgia), a long-term advocate of “reforming” Medicare by privatizing it. As Secretary of Labor Trump picked Carl’s, Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder, who is against raising the federal minimum wage and is a strong advocate of replacing human workers with robots wherever possible.
As Secretary of Education Trump picked Betsy DeVos, a strong advocate of public funding of private schools and of union-busting charter schools, who along with her husband largely funded the campaign to turn her native Michigan from a bastion of union power to a right-to-work state (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/betsy-dick-devos-family-amway-michigan-politics-religion-214631). As Secretary of Energy Trump appointed former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and as Secretary of the Interior he’s picked Representative Ryan Zinke (R-Montana), both strong supporters of fossil-fuel development and opponents of the idea that humans are causing climate change.
The rest of Trump’s Cabinet appointments (http://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a23922/donald-trump-cabinet-appointments/) pretty much fit the same mold. They’re all either corporate CEO’s, long-time Republican officeholders or heroes of the social-conservative Right like Health and Human Services nominee Dr. Ben Carson. They’re united mostly by a deep-seated hostility to the stated missions of the government departments Trump has picked them to run. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he followed a similar strategy, which he called Gleischhaltung — one of those indigestible German words that don’t translate well (it’s usually rendered as “rectification” or “social agreement”).
It meant that if you didn’t like what a particular government department was supposed to do, rather than go through the rigmarole of eliminating it, you simply appointed someone who didn’t believe in its mission and would run it to accomplish the opposite of what its creators wanted. That’s what Richard Nixon did in 1973 when he appointed far-Right Howard Phillips to run the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the anti-poverty agency created under his predecessor Lyndon Johnson, and it’s what Trump has done throughout virtually all his Cabinet choices, especially those dealing with domestic policy.
Also, as political commentator Ronald Brownstein noted (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/trump-is-making-little-attempt-to-reconcile-the-country/511451/), Trump is totally uninterested in reconciling a divided country. In line both with the Republican demand for “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics and Trump’s own personality, which divides the world into “winners” and “losers” and holds that the winners have the right to dominate the losers and force them to submit, “Trump has appointed a Cabinet and White House staff that braid the competing factions of the Republican Party, but offer virtually no outreach to voters beyond them,” Brownstein wrote last December. “His nominations for most Cabinet agencies — as well as for the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency — point toward Trump launching a much more ideological crusade to retrench government than he stressed during the campaign.”
We know from all those state governments Republicans have taken control of in the last decade or so just what Trump and the Congressional Republicans will do with their absolute power. They will move to slash government spending on education and health care. Their replacement for the Affordable Care Act — if they come up with one at all, since their whole objection to it is it promised a major expansion of the social safety net the Republicans have vowed to eliminate altogether — will be a Libertarian concept of “health savings accounts” in which it will be the responsibility of individuals, not either the government or private insurers, to save enough money to cover their own health care, or if they won’t (or can’t) simply to do without.
The Age of Trump and the Republicans will be one in which what’s left of America’s labor movement will be so burdened by regulations and restrictions it will virtually disappear. It will be one in which all controls on greedy corporations and financial institutions to keep them ripping off consumers, poisoning or disabling their workers, or polluting the environment will be abolished. It will be one in which the tax code is rewritten to make America’s distribution of wealth and income even more unequal than it already is. It will be one in which the promise of public education to give all Americans equal opportunity — a promise that has not always been fulfilled — will be explicitly rejected. And it will be one in which corporations will have the power to pollute and destroy the environment as much as they please in the pursuit of short-term profit.
Trump has already targeted all four of President Obama’s signature accomplishments — the Affordable Care Act, the nuclear arms deal with Iran, the Paris agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — for elimination. That’s why Obama said during a rally last fall that he was “really, really into making Hillary Clinton the next President” — because if Clinton had won the election Obama would have had a legacy. With Trump as his successor, it will be like Obama never served as President at all. He will be as thoroughly forgotten as Heinrich Brüning, who served as Chancellor of Germany from 1930 to 1932 and thought he could bring the rival parties together and unify the country politically. Like Obama, Brüning never realized that he wasn’t dealing with a normal opposition, but with a gang of thugs who didn’t care how much damage they did to the country as long as they got their way in the end, and — after a couple of insignificant interim appointments in between — Brüning was ultimately replaced by Adolf Hitler.
America’s progressive community has one weapon against the full-spectrum dominance of Donald Trump and the Republicans which can be quite effective if we know how to use it. The American people like Right-wing policies considerably better in the abstract than they do when they actually have to live under them. Donald Trump’s determination to return to the world of the 1880’s in which corporations and their leaders openly and unashamedly ran the government to their liking is going to be disastrous for all those white working-class people who thought he was going to bring back their jobs, all the senior citizens who thought he was going to protect their Social Security and Medicare, and all the people in his coalition whom he persuaded to blame the nation’s problems on Mexicans and Muslims.
In fact, for all the media references to Trump as a “populist,” what he and the Republicans have in store for the U.S. is a return to the conditions that generated the original Populist movement in the 1890’s. As has been proven time and time again, what happens when you let corporations do whatever they like, including driving down the wages of their workers to subsistence levels and running the political system to enrich themselves, is economic collapse. It happened in 1873, 1893, 1897, 1929 and 2008. The workers who flocked to the polls to make Donald Trump President in 2016 are going to be disillusioned when they start feeling the pain of his actual policies, and they could respond by finding someone even crazier and even farther Right.
Or they could move Left. Bernie Sanders won two of his biggest primary victories in Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the key Rust Belt states that ultimately carried Trump to the presidency. That’s an indication that a lot of voters in the states that deindustrialized from the 1970’s through the 1990’s — and who remembered Hillary Clinton as the wife of the man who pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and thereby shipped their jobs to Mexico — wanted far-reaching social change and were so intent on getting something different from their government they didn’t really care whether that change came from the Left or the Right.
But in order to take advantage of Trump’s and the Republicans’ likely failure, the American Left is going to have to cure itself of a long string of rotten habits that were previously damaging and are now potentially lethal. First, the American Left has to develop an appeal to the entire population, not keep salami-slicing the American people into narrowly constructed “identity politics” categories. One reason the Right has been cleaning our clock for the last 36 years is they address Americans as Americans, not as members of a race or a gender or a sexual orientation. Political satirist Mark Russell’s acid joke during the 1972 campaign that the perfect delegate for Democratic nominee George McGovern was “a disabled Native American Lesbian lettuce picker on welfare” accurately sums up the limitations of “identity politics” and the way they have hobbled the Left.
We also have to end the poisonous rancor and mutual distrust between those on the Left who work through the system — both in electoral politics and in the kind of organizing and lobbying big groups like the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, National Organization for Women and Human Rights Campaign do — and those on the outside of the system who do direct action, stage demonstrations and practice civil disobedience. Social change does not come about exclusively through working within the system. Nor does it come about exclusively through demonstrating and risking arrest. It takes both. The Right understands this — this is why the double-pincer movement of the Republican Congressional campaign and the direct-activist Tea Party was so effective in retaking control of U.S. politics from Obama and the Democrats in 2010 — while the Left used to in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and at least some of the 1960’s, but has long since forgotten it.
Another thing we have to do if we want an effective mass Left to exist in America again (it doesn’t now and hasn’t for nearly 50 years!) is give up all attempts to organize alternative political parties. It’s long past time for the Green Party, Peace and Freedom and all the other pathetic attempts to set up mini-parties to close up shop and go out of business. It made sense to create the Green Party in its birthplace, Germany, because the German electoral system allows alternative parties to compete for real legislative power. The U.S. system does not. The Constitution itself and our practice of single-member winner-take-all electoral districts essentially bakes the two-party system into our political DNA. The kinds of progressive office-holders we want to see will get into office in one and only one way: by running within the ballot access mechanism of the Democratic Party.
Once again, the Right gets this and the Left doesn’t. Every grass-roots movement of the American Right over the last 50 years, from the Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960’s to the Tea Party in the 2010’s, has rejected the idiocy of organizing alternative parties. Instead, they’ve maintained a laser-like focus on capturing the Republican Party and moving it ever farther Right — and they’ve succeeded. As a result, they’ve made ideas like abolishing organized labor and privatizing or eliminating Social Security, totally beyond the pale in the 1960’s, seem acceptable and reasonable today. Here, as in so many other things, we need to study the wins of our adversaries and learn from them.
It is also time to end one of the most pernicious ideas that has hobbled the American Left: the sheer visceral hatred of the Democratic Party among what I call the “alt-Left,” those willfully ignorant idiots who insist that because both the Republican and Democratic parties are committed to maintaining and protecting capitalism (true), they are the same and it doesn’t make any difference which one is in power (emphatically untrue). Indeed, over the next four, eight, 20 years or however long the U.S. government is completely controlled by Republicans, these alt-Left nitwits are going to learn a hard, long and bitter lesson on just how different the two major U.S. parties are and how important it is to confine our electoral work to the Democratic Party, not as the “lesser of two evils” but as the only viable alternative through which we can contest for electoral power against the overwhelmingly dominant Republicans.
And if, as was true in the 2016 Presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate really does appear to be “the lesser of two evils,” we still have an obligation to vote for her. Alt-Leftists are fond of saying, “The lesser evil is still evil.” What we should be saying is, “The lesser evil is still lesser.” As I argued during the campaign with my friends who said they could never vote for Hillary Clinton, sometimes you have to vote for the lesser evil because the greater evil is so evil it can’t be allowed to prevail. There is no question that on all the issues I care about — workers’ rights, the social safety net, the environment, racial and gender equality, Queer rights — this country would be a lot better off under Hillary Clinton than it will be under Donald Trump.
We can’t sit back and hope that the Trumpublican regime will collapse of its own accord. We also can’t afford the mistakes the American Left has been making for the past 50 years. We need to stay organized and active — not wimp out en masse the way all too many Leftists did 36 years ago when Reagan was elected — but we also need to get smart about what we do and how we relate to each other. Donald Trump’s election was a catastrophe for the Left and for any sane notion of social justice. We will only compound the tragedy if we continue to make the same stupid mistakes we’ve been making over and over for the last five decades.