Can We Defeat the Trump Culture?

The 2016 contest for the US presidency put forward as its principal choices – in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – the two most unpopular candidates in the history of public-opinion surveys. Not coincidentally, this came in a period of unending war, acute environmental breakdown, and ever-increasing inequality and poverty – a period one might think favourable for building up a left-wing opposition force. 

 

But such an opposition force, if it is ever to break the stranglehold exercised by the two dominant parties, is still only in its earliest stages of development. While massive popular discontent was evident throughout the campaign, the usual methods of deception were successful in neutralizing its impact.

 

Trump proposed to “make America great again” by targeting Muslims and vulnerable immigrants (for exclusion or deportation) and by embracing on the one hand an all-out drive for economic expansion in defiance of natural limits and, on the other, an agenda of repression that would come to be marked by (1) the suppression of scientific knowledge (“climate change” not to be mentioned in the Environmental Protection Agency), (2) surgically imposed constraints on voting rights (laws and regulations targeting poor people of color), and, most generally, (3) a law-and-order regime to be placed in the hands of open racists.

 

Hillary Clinton, for her part, insisted that “America” had never ceased to be great, which implied that the country could do no better than to continue its current policies. Pressed in the Democrats’ primary contests by an insurgent challenge from social-democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, she sought to present herself as “a progressive who can get things done”; but her record – including her militarism, her support in the 1990s for welfare “reform” and for lengthy prison sentences, and her high-priced secret speeches at Wall Street gatherings – revealed the emptiness of her “progressive” posture.

The vacuum, in terms of a Left presence, persists. Sanders tapped into some of the potential support for such a presence during his Primary campaign, but the corporate media, in collaboration with the Democratic party leadership, did all they could to limit his access to the public (see ). After conceding to Clinton, Sanders, rather than consider allying with the Green party to launch a “third-party” challenge, founded an organization called “Our Revolution” to continue his project. “Our Revolution,” however, supports only Democrats, and remains committed to the view that the Democratic Party, despite its long-standing ties to the financial sector, could become a genuine voice for the interests of the majority.

Any possible left-wing opposition now faces the traditional dilemma that arises during a period of Republican domination. The Democrats, being out of office, are no longer held responsible for the adverse conditions affecting the population, and they can then present themselves as critics of the very status quo that their own policies helped put in place.

Trump combines a political stance of extreme bigotry and contempt for popular needs with a practice of unabashed self-promotion, including policies that directly benefit his own profit-making enterprises. His erratic behavior and his conflicts of interest have made him an embarrassment to much of the ruling class. If he is removed from office (which would require impeachment by a majority of the House of Representatives and then conviction by two-thirds of the Senate), it would be more for these reasons than because of the anti-popular nature of his economic and social agenda.

           

What does all this mean for the Left?

 

On the one hand, in the person of Trump, capital has brought forward its most disgraceful and yet paradigmatic face. His incarnation of greed, aggressiveness, and contempt for the truth obviously casts the whole system in a negative light. To that extent, his presence in the top office – including the entire process by which he was put there –provides a “teaching moment” on which the Left should be able to build.

On the other hand, the single-minded focus on Trump raises the possibility that he would be, in effect, surgically removed – through impeachment or otherwise – but that the apparatus which he momentarily captured for his own aggrandizement would keep its well-entrenched neoliberal and socially conservative priorities in place without him.

The challenge for the Left, then, is to turn the repudiation of Trump into a systemic critique. An important part of this process will be to convey a full understanding of all the factors that contributed to his rise. These include 1) the harm done to the US working class by globalization and financialization, 2) the complicity of Democrats as well as Republicans in imposing anti-popular measures, and 3) the whole cultural tradition of unapologetic aggressiveness, in its many manifestations (see ).

 

The first two of these factors are linked, in the sense that the shift of industrial jobs to other countries weakened the labour movement, which was the main basis for whatever progressive stances the Democratic Party had taken prior to the 1980s. As a result of labour’s decline, the Democrats’ core policies became indistinguishable from those of the Republicans. Thus, it was the Democrat Bill Clinton – president from 1993 to 2001 – who took the decisive steps of (a) pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement, (b) deregulating the financial sector, (c) gutting the social welfare program, and (d) expanding criminalization and mass incarceration.

But behind all such measures, and behind the responsiveness to a Trump-type appeal (which resonates positively with approximately one-third of the population), lies the deeper culture which has marked US life from the country’s beginnings. This deeper culture is the one evoked by typical patriotic affirmations. It is the culture of a colonial settler population that has evolved into one supporting a ruling-class agenda of global domination. It is capitalism in its most unadulterated expression, where aggressiveness is explicitly glorified and where the Other – those who have failed to assimilate into the dominant (initially “race”-based) paradigm – is treated as fully expendable. Only in such a culture could the utter contempt for truth that marks the official disdain for the eco-sphere – for the natural order on which our lives depend – gain wide acceptance.

This is the dominant “America,” but it is not the only one. Those who do not embrace it are actually more numerous than those who do. But it’s the latter who sustain the configurations of power. Those who are appalled, offended, or simply harmed by the prevailing ideology and its application are more numerous but less organized and less unified than those who uphold it. Ironically, there are overlaps between these two groups, in the sense that even some of those who are harmed support the forces that rule against their interests. Such is the power of the in-bred culture.

The extremes, however, propel more and more of us to search for ways out. The aggressive agenda is pursued in every sphere of social activity. Every sphere can thus become a stage for protest. But protest must lead directly to engagement with alternative visions (see ). Socialism has indeed come increasingly to be seen – especially by young people – as a necessary framework, but the level of organizing does not match the level of general awareness.

There are many contending approaches to repair this shortcoming. One must hope that they come to treat each other not as rivals to be put down, but rather as allies that set out initially on different paths – corresponding to the diversity of needs and abilities – but who must eventually work in concert, i.e., within a unified organizational framework, if they are to reach a common goal.

           

Victor Wallis is managing editor of the journal Socialism and Democracy.