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An unerring rule of journalism is, “If you can’t trust someone’s facts, you can’t trust the analysis that follows.” This is the case with Shamus Cooke’s article, “Can the Left survive a Trump presidency,” responding to my piece on the threat posed by Trump. Shamus is a smart organizer and a fine companion for tilting back pints, but his headline is a warning of the carelessness that follows.
I will cite Shamus’s article, but my critique is aimed more at his positions that are common on the Left as well as ossified theory, deterministic history, and a belief in an all-powerful monolithic ruling class. Despite the fact Trump’s campaign is all but finished, there is a crucial debate to be had about the dynamics Trump has set in motion, the risks of Trumpism, the relation of the two parties to differing ruling-class interests, and organizing opportunities going forward.
Just as important, this debate reveals how the Left has isolated itself. Shamus argues, “A Trump presidency does pose a direct threat to ethnic and religious minorities, to women, immigrants, labor, and basic democratic rights.” But then he spends the entire article downplaying the threat and even claims Trump would benefit the Left. As I explain in detail, this view is based on wildly inaccurate readings of history and disregards the entirety of Trump’s candidacy that was launched on the single issue of ethnic cleansing. Shrugging Trump off as capable only of “a smattering of racist policies plus the usual Republican program,” ignores the systemic threats Trump clearly poses to all immigrants, all Muslims, all women, all African-Americans.
Those who equate Trump to Clinton and believe his presidency would benefit the Left are in effect saying, “Well, your community may be deported, forced to register with the government, be threatened by armed white nationalists, and reproductive rights may be outlawed, but think of the fightback!” Arguing, as Shamus does, the “bold actions” a President Trump could undertake “is possibly just what the Left needs,” explains why so much of the Left is trapped in a tiny echo chamber. It’s certainly possible to have principled disagreements on how the Left should respond to the threat of Trump and Trumpism, but it’s hiding one’s head in the sand to deny there is a unique danger.
Now, my position that Clinton is preferable to Trump, which Shamus and others criticize, is nothing new. Since the election cycle began in 2015, I’ve argued that recent history shows the Left makes greater gains when a Democrat sits in the White House than a Republican. Ironically, by overemphasizing the significance of one’s vote, many leftists legitimize voting as of the utmost significance. It’s a one-second gesture that in no way compels one to endorse the Democratic Party’s heinous policies or silence criticism of Clinton. Voting is political only as a collective act to shape the terrain, otherwise it’s moralism such as “vote your conscience.” It’s unlike movement building, which entails democratic participation and education, self-determination, campaigning, and organizing to transform society. That’s why I argued it made sense to vote for Sanders in the primaries and Clinton in November, while sticking with movement building and not investing any time, money, or labor into either campaign because the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. Voting for Jill Stein might define a “left pole,” but it will not spawn a viable third party. After Nov. 8, the Greens will disappear until the next election as they lack a movement-building strategy, and four elections later won’t come close to Ralph Nader’s tally of 2.74% in 2000.
I will also point out a few straw men and false claims in Shamus’s article as it reveals a sloppiness from believing theory outweighs facts. For example, Shamus says I compare “a Donald Trump presidency to past fascist governments.” There is simply no discussion in my article. Shamus also claims I say, “Black Lives Matter will be declared a domestic terrorist outfit.” Nowhere do I say this. Frankly, how hard is it to cut and paste what someone wrote?
What I state is just as the Bush administration designated the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front as a “serious terrorist threat,” the same would likely happen to Black Lives Matter because the right is demanding it, and Fox News and Rudy Giuliani, who is angling to be Trump’s attorney general, are leading the charge to smash BLM. Shamus appears to conflate my analysis with the State Department category of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” Being labeled an FTO carries legal sanctions, but there is no domestic equivalent. If the FBI accuses BLM of engaging in terrorism that would not outlaw the movement, but it would scare off all but the radicals. As a result, BLM would no longer shape the national debate over structural racism and police violence as it does now.
Such errors are not surprising as the headline is a straw man. I never claim the Left would not survive Trump. Building on his errant lead-in, Shamus writes, “Gupta envisions President Trump using the full powers of the federal government — including the National Guard — to stop protests, attack reproductive rights, attack unions and immigrants, and outlaw Black Lives Matter.”
Shamus mistakenly draws sweeping conclusions from specific claims. I argue, “Movements that have emerged or gained strength during the Obama years, such as Black Lives Matter, immigrant-rights ‘Dreamers,’ the climate justice movement, and low-wage worker and reinvigorated labor campaigns would be devastated [as] activists desperately try to defend the millions in Trump’s crosshairs.”
The Left would survive, but in a defensive posture like the Bush years. New movements would not vanish; they would no longer sway public opinion and policy as they do now.
These are a few of the errors, but there are more blatant mistakes, particularly around movement history. Shamus writes: “electing Republicans is bad for social movements and the Left in general. This was definitely true under President Reagan, but sometimes the opposite is true.” As examples he points to the antiwar and immigrant-rights movement that were “powerful movements against Bush” but “decapitated” during the Obama years.
In reality both movements fell apart two years before Obama took office. The last major antiwar demonstration was January 27, 2007, in Washington D.C., after the Democrats took control of Congress (smaller protests occurred in March and September). While there isn’t space to describe the strategic mistakes or splits in the antiwar movement, the fatal error was United For Peace and Justice’s subservience to pro-war Democrats. Leaders of the immigrants-rights movement fell into a similar trap after the 2006 May Day general strike. The energy was channeled into a deeply flawed congressional bill that went belly up in June 2007. UFPJ leaders explicitly tried to appeal to Democrats and as such consistently discouraged militant protest, while influential forces in the immigrant-rights movement, including Democratic Party friendly unions and Latino groups, demobilized the street protests. So far from being purely a populist upsurge, these movements were the product of complex relations between the grassroots, radical activists, clientelist groups, the Democratic Party, and the capitalist state.
Shamus’s also incorrectly claims there was “nearly a general strike” in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on organized labor in 2011. That’s news to anyone who was there. While there was talk of a general strike, not one labor leader or union with capacity endorsed a mass walkout of workers. There were many obstacles to a general strike whether union politics, infrastructure, support for childcare and living expenses, and lack of popular political organization and consciousness. Matt Rothschild, then-editor of Madison-based The Progressive magazine, said a general strike was never feasible, but organized labor could have taken steps such as rolling sick-outs or work to rule that might have forced Walker to back down. Instead, the grassroots anger and energy was diverted into a series of failed recalls and elections that only entrenched Walker and launched him to national prominence.
Here’s the kicker. These cases—immigrant-rights, anti-war, and Wisconsin—are not evidence of how Republicans open organizing space. They reveal how when the GOP is in charge, movements are prone to being co-opted by the Democrats into elections. It’s not inevitable these movements were co-opted. But there is a historical pattern back to the 1960s: When a Democrat is president, movements tend to be anti-systemic. When it’s a Republican, movements tend to be partisan, organizing to replace the right-wing figure in office. Think of it this way: under a Republican, the Left is sucked into a center-versus-far-right battle. Under a Democrat the fault line is the Left versus liberals.
Shamus’s account of the Bush era is also tendentious as he fails to mention the collapse of the global justice movement, repression of radical environmentalism, explosion of Islamophobia, setbacks to Palestinian solidarity, and attacks on LGBT and reproductive rights. The movements against the Iraq War and the draconian Sensenbrenner bill that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants were rare glimmers of hope in a dark age of organizing under Bush.
Then there is the Left tendency to believe the ruling class is omnipotent. Shamus writes, “Under Obama, protests were discouraged. Challenging politicians with bold demands was prohibited …. Politics was stifled.” Does anyone seriously believe protests have been discouraged or politics stifled under Obama given the last five years? Interestingly, Shamus contradicts himself, noting how the coziness between unions and Obama created “a political void on the Left soon filled by the Chicago Teachers, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Climate Justice, Native organizing, 15now.”
But this is just a warmup: “The establishment, however, doesn’t arbitrarily dabble with fascism; they use it only when necessary.” And, “If Trump becomes president, the various social movements — labor, peace, immigration, women, LGBT, Black Lives — will be given free reign to fight back by the Democrat-affiliated media and politicians.”
In his mind there is no agency. Nothing happens unless the ruling class says so. If that’s true, why organize? These aren’t movements; they’re puppets. Moreover, this is bad history. Anyone in the Iraq antiwar movement remembers the indifference and hostility from the corporate media and Democrats to antiwar activists, particularly when they might have forestalled a war during the buildup to the March 2003 invasion.
Another mistake is to believe Trump is a paper tiger. Shamus asserts a victorious Trump would disappoint white nationalists as he “quickly gets incorporated into the Republican establishment.” That’s believable only if you just woke from a coma. Remember “Never Trump,” National Review leading “Conservatives against Trump,” and the threat of a contested convention to block Trump? This led to the stampede of Republicans disavowing Trump after the sexual assault scandal. It’s now a civil war where two-thirds of the GOP base backs Trump while he tries to incinerate the party in his dumpster-fire campaign. If anything, Trump has forced the Republican Party to contradict its modern orthodoxy by adopting positions such as anti-free trade, isolationism, and not cutting retirement programs. Shamus also contradicts himself by stating, “Republicans are deeply split” and Trump has “weakened the Republicans.”
As for how racists “would be let down,” a flood of reporting since last year has detailed how the Klan, neo-Confederates, Neo-Nazis, racist militias, and white nationalists are ecstatic at Trump’s candidacy, using it to recruit and spread their message, and, before Trump imploded, were hoping to use a victory as the first step in establishing a “white ethnostate.” Trump gave white nationalists winks and nods before installing Steve Bannon, architect of the Alt-Right megaphone, Breitbart.com, as his campaign chief.
Shamus, however, believes because Trump isn’t a “new Hitler,” nothing unusual is happening. He then goes full-metal accelerationist, fantasizing if Trump ran rampant as president, “The backlash this could create is possibly just what the Left needs.” Because, you know, that worked out so well for the Left under Thatcher, Reagan, Pinochet, Bush, Franco, Mobutu, the Shah, Saddam, Marcos, Suharto, Musharraf, Stroessner…
This is another false dichotomy. One does not have to be Hitler to be a unique threat. Trump has crossed so many red lines it’s staggering. This includes violence at rallies encouraged by him, his “deportation force” to round up, imprison, and deport the untermensch, undermining the legitimacy of the election, and encouraging supporters to intimidate Black voters on election day. The logical conclusion is a Trump administration would welcome avowed racists to operate the levers of government.
More significant, thinking Trump is a buffoon fails to grasp he has run on a single issue: ethnic cleansing. His candidacy gestated on birtherism, was born as a call to ethnically cleanse Mexicans–that’s who his supporters rant about, not “illegals”–and feasts on the poison of “law and order,” “All Lives Matter,” stop-and-frisk against African-Americans, and the banning, registering, and “extreme vetting” of Muslims. When Trump says “make America great again,” his followers know it means “make America white again.” He has clung to this agenda, only downplaying individual policies when the media heat becomes too much to bear.
In contrast to the assertion Trump is “good friends with the establishment”—how can one be “friends” with a single, monolithic establishment?—elites overwhelmingly oppose Trump. In June, I wrote in CounterPunch, “The corporate media, intelligentsia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street will hammer Trump relentlessly as he threatens the American-led project of globalization, which includes the liberal multiculturalism he trashes with glee.” Hollywood and celebrities almost universally reject Trump. In 2012, nearly one-third of Fortune 100 CEOs donated to Mitt Romney (and only five to Obama). Trump, however, has not garnered a single donation or endorsement from these CEOs. Trump even has a measurable effect on financial markets. Stocks swooned in September as Trump surged and then futures rebounded precisely as he flamed out during the first debate on September 29 at a time when there was little else to move the markets.
Reporters who cover the presidency demolish the idea Congress would handcuff Trump. James Hohmann of the Washington Post argues this notion “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how politics works and the immense powers of the modern presidency. A President Trump would face few … institutional constraints.”
It is dangerous and ahistorical to dismiss Trump as “a buffoon,” as many leftists do. Reagan was derided as a harmless B-movie washup. Same with “village idiot” George W. Bush, as well as the Tea Party that many leftists and liberals erroneously depict as Astroturf. The world is still suffering the effects of Reagan and Bush, and if Trump were elected, the Tea Party’s granny-starving, cop-loving, global-fracking, immigrant-criminalizing agenda would sail through Congress.
Shamus’s polemic is valuable for inadvertently revealing why the Left is so weak. There is a long list of heinous acts and policies Democrats support and that the Left should obviously oppose, but that does not make a Clinton presidency worse or even equal to Trump. Leftists who believe this disregard the danger of Trump’s racist hordes getting access to state power, resources, and approval. They must brush off the unique dangers Trump poses to most Americans and various rights, the existence of many Muslim and immigrant communities here, and threats to government benefits, people’s health and lives.
One final note. Some leftists argue Trumpism is a danger that will continue after the election, but there is no increased risk if Trump wins control of the single most-powerful apparatus in human history. Really?
Rather than isolate itself with ill-conceived ideas such as “it will get worse before it gets better” or spouting cliches about “lesser-evilism,” the Left should realize the debate about this election is over and shift to developing strategies to counter Trumpism and proto-fascism at the local level and Clinton’s broader pro-war neoliberal policies.