Liberal commentary has excessively focused on Trump himself. He is indeed as vile a creature as can be found but defeating what he represents requires moving beyond that fact to a consideration of what got us here and what can be done to prevent his government and subsequent ones from fully realizing their catastrophic potential.
Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Paul Krugman have written columns so replete with (accurate) denunciations of Trump the person that they suggest exploitation, poverty, racism, homophobia, and misogyny exist are caused by having bad people in power rather than a bad system.
The message being conveyed is that these inequalities are caused by unpleasant individuals and that they will most disappear if a kinder flank of the bourgeoisie is in power. These writers create the impression he is more or less the sole problem rather than one of its more grotesque symptoms.
This approach encourages a politics wherein defeating his presidency is the endgame rather than one key prong of an effort to build a political system in which governance by someone like him is impossible. Thus it is more useful to think not in terms of Trump but of Trump-ism. Zeroing in on Trump the person fosters a politics of individualism when what’s needed is a mass politics of the exploited and oppressed of every race and gender.
A fixation on Trump’s personal characteristics obfuscates the role of the larger forces that brought him to power, including the liberals who oversaw de-industrialization and wage suppression and offered their victims nothing so that they were for Trump-ists to grab.
The analysis liberals are writing, however, exonerates Democrats or downplays their role in creating the conditions that made possible an electoral victory for the Trump-ists.
This is true of the articles by Chait, Klein, and Krugman and in the sub-genre devoted to whitewashing Hillary Clinton’s role in the building of the American carceral state, her support for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, her central role in engineering the destruction of Libya, or her ties to the poverty-inducers of Wall Street. Worse still are Helen Lovejoy liberals like Timothy Garton Ash and the editors of the New York Times crying, “Won’t somebody please think of NATO.”
Democratic governments have administered regimes of inequality, unemployment, de-unionization, worldwide imperialism and warmongering, rampant police violence, mass incarceration and deportation, all of which are perfectly compatible with widespread violence against women, bigotry against LGBT people, and system racism.
This record helps explain why roughly 42 percent of the electorate didn’t vote and why Republicans were able to win over enough people to take the Electoral College. The Republicans will make the lives of most Americans worse, especially the poor and working class, and are enabling incredibly dangerous racism and misogyny.
Yet that doesn’t mean that the aspects of Republican messaging that portray Democrats as elitists who pursue policies harmful to the poor aren’t true. But you wouldn’t know it from the liberal commentariat that the Democrats have governed in ways that are incredibly harmful to the American and world population.
In the liberal imagination, resisting Trump-ism in the present means hoping Democrats, “serious, experienced Americans” in the new administration, anti-Trump Republicans and the diffuse nature of the American political system curtail the incoming president’s most ghastly propositions.
This approach is wildly inadequate because it underestimates the severity and urgency of the danger of having an administration of the Alt-Right. Street thugs of the KKK sort are emboldened and aren’t going to be reined in by procedural obstructions erected in Washington.
Analysts concerned about the menace of Trump-ism should be calling for full, active solidarity with those in the crosshairs of Trump-ism and the forces it has unleashed. The ties that grow from the imminent threat can be part of the basis for the longer-term building of the new, socialist political formations that are necessary to defeat Trump-ism.
Intellectuals ought to be arguing that a vital step to stopping Trump-ism is to stop empowering the liberals who create the climate in which Trumps are inevitable. Instead, liberal pundits like Chait are giving their attention to how to get Democrats back in power.
Moralizing appeals to abstractions layered over patriotic nostalgia recur in the liberal analysis. “I thought better of my countrymen,” finger-wags Klein, who laments the absence of a “you-must-this- decent-to-serve” bar for elected officials. Appeals to the standards of decency held to by liberal opinion merchants are precisely the sort of tract that turns off people who sense — probably correctly — that they would never live up Klein’s decency test.
Chait blusters about how he explained to his children that they won’t be moving to Canada despite Trump’s win and that “the America I have raised them to believe in will one day prevail.” In Chait’s view U.S history is characterized by “fitful progress punctuated by frequent reversals, some of which appeared at the time like they would last forever. None of them did.”
Tens of millions of people in America in jails, on reserves, or barely surviving on welfare or super-exploitative jobs, bereaved by the U.S. global death squad, might not be convinced.
Krugman encourages his readers to stand up for “fundamental American values.” Set aside that those “values” mean wildly different things to different people. The problem isn’t that American “values” are threatened. It’s that America’s political-economic system, as concrete an expression of those “values” as there is, produced Trump-ism.
Trump-ism isn’t anathema to American values, it’s their outcome. The way to stop Trump-ism is to change the system that brought it to power. “The road back to what America should be,” Krugman writes, “is going to be longer and harder than any of us expected, and we might not make it.” His use of the word “back to” implies a rosy past that must be recovered but what’s needed to build a much better future from the wretched past and present.
But we cannot think piece our way out of this. The task is for the left — not liberals but socialists, communists, anarchists and anyone we can win to our side — to organize economically exploited people of every gender and ethnocultural group. That job will at times be uncomfortable because it will involve engaging with individuals who, on some questions, will have views we find repugnant. But those attitudes are not fixed.
They can change and do change all the time. Accomplishing that is the whole point of being politically active. The point of political writing in the age of Trump should be to lay the ideological groundwork this political organizing. Liberal analysis is a barrier to that goal.
Greg Shupak teaches media studies at the University of Guelph in Canada.