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Bad Narratives Going Forward in the Age of Trump

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0


The Twitter-addicted right-wing uber-asshole and authoritarian megalomaniac Donald Trump and his team of racist, arch-plutocratic, and eco-cidal vultures are about to set up shop alongside a right-wing Congress and a soon-to-be right-wing majority Supreme Court in Washington D.C. So what if the Republican Party is a widely hated institution, viewed with disapproval by nearly two-thirds of the U.S. populace?

Fourteen Narratives to Reject

As we struggle to build and expand popular resistance in this new era, here are fourteen narratives for left progressives (and others) to avoid about how this happened and what we must now do:

1 “The Green Party spoiled things for Hillary and elected Trump.” This story line is false. The numbers don’t remotely support it. If one makes the very bad assumption that all the voters who selected Jill Stein would have gone for Hillary if Stein had not been on the ballot, then Stein made the difference in Michigan and Wisconsin.  But that flawed calculation doesn’t explain Trump’s triumph in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Florida, all bigger battleground states Mrs. Clinton lost.   Stein came in at one percent, nationally.

2 “Hillary was defeated by a big ugly racist, sexist, and nativist white working class ‘rustbelt rebellion’ that catapulted Trump into power.” Nope. The purported great white-Trumpenproletatian uprising has been badly oversold. Trump got pretty much the Republican presidential candidate’s usual voting share of non-college educated whites and whites making less than 50K a year while the Democratic candidate lost working class voters both white and non-white. As the left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio recently noted on Counterpunch, “The real story of the 2016 election is not that Trump won over working class America, so much as Clinton and the Democrats lost it…’Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them.’ Per data pulled from various exit polls, Slate reports that the decline of Democratic voters among the working class in 2016 (compared to 2012) was far larger than the increase in Republican voters during those two elections. Of those earning less than $50,000 a year, the decline in Democratic voting from 2012 to 2016 was 3.5 times greater than the rise in Republican voting.”

3 “Vladimir Putin’s Russian hackers did it.” There’s no real smoking-gun proof on Putin’s involvement. The notion that possibly Russia-initiated document dumps to WikiLeaks illustrating the Democratic National Committee(DNC)’s rigging of the primaries against Bernie Sanders cost Hillary the general election is a big reach, to say the least. The Russian hacking charge seems designed in part to help the DNC and the neoliberal Democratic Party elite more broadly avoid responsibility for blowing the election.  The Democrats went with a wooden, Wall Street-captive, and corruption-tainted candidate and campaign that couldn’t mobilize enough working- and lower-class voters defeat the noxious and highly unpopular Trump. The “Moscow Stole It” narrative is a fancy version of “My Dog Ate My Homework” for a dismal dollar-drenched Democratic Party that abandoned the working class and the causes of peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability a long time ago.

4 “The Electoral College screwed Hillary.” Yes, Hillary won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. The Electoral College (EC) is an absurd violation of the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” It is a purposefully undemocratic institutional overhang from the aristo-republican Founding Fathers and their holy Constitution, which was explicitly designed to keep the Founders’ ultimate nightmare – democracy – at bay. It works to Republicans’ advantage because it over-represents disproportionately white and rural states with small populations. But the Clintons and the DNC knew all about the EC, of course, going into the campaign. It’s nothing new, after all.  The 2016 presidential election is the fifth one in American history given by the EC to a candidate who lost the popular vote. The Democrats made no efforts – Constitutional or otherwise – to challenge the Monty Python-esque EC after it (with some help from Florida Governor Jeb Bush, viciously racist and systematic voter suppression, and a Republican Supreme Court) handed the presidency to the open moron George W. Bush in 2000-2001. And Hillary still had no business losing key Electoral College states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania to Trump, who is heading into the White House with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president.

5 “Comey did it.” Of all the excuses the Democrats advance for why Trump’s victory wasn’t their fault, the chilling James Comey fiasco and the problem of Republican-led racist voter suppression (Greg Palast’s recurrent topic) in contested states are the most credible ones. But there’s no precise way to measure the impact of FBI Director Comey’s creepy political intervention ten days out from the election. The Comey card should not be seen as grounds to pardon Hillary and the Democrats for the dismally uninspiring and centrist campaign they ran.

6 “The Democrats’ 2016 humiliation will show them that they have no choice but to make themselves over as a progressive champion of all working people against the wealthy Few.” Don’t hold your breath. The Democratic Party’s recently installed new U.S. Senate Minority Leader isn’t a liberal or progressive Democrat like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), or even Sherrod Brown (D-OH). It’s the neoliberal Wall Street Democrat Charles Schumer (D-NY). The House Minority Leader continues to be the big money San Francisco pro-war corporate Democrat Nancy Pelosi, idiotically endorsed by the supine AFL-CIO over the pro-union heartland progressive Democrat Tim Ryan (D-OH).

Yes, the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Congressman Keith Ellison [D-MN] is considered a top contender for the chairmanship of the DNC.  But don’t be surprised if that falls through. He’s getting bashed for past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and for making some “anti-Israel” comments as a law student in the 1980s. Ellison’s ascendancy to the job of party chairman could cost the Democrats big money.  CNN recently quoted one of party’s biggest donors, Haim Saban, as saying that Ellison is “clearly an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel person.”

It gets worse. Last Monday morning on CNN, Daily Beast columnist Patricia Murphy reported on interviews she’d recently conducted with Democrats around the country.  She found “no soul-searching” or critical self-reflection among the Hillary voters with whom she spoke. To the contrary, some Democrats even told her that “we won” because Mrs. Clinton did better than Trump in the popular vote – as if the EC is an irrelevant technicality.  Murphy also reported that the Democrats she spoke with seem ridiculously content to simply write off a huge part of the U.S. electorate – the white working class – as a mass of appallingly racist and sexist brutes (“deplorables”):

“What I am astounded by talking to Democrats about what happened in the election, there is no consensus among Democrats about why they lost, or even whether they really lost. So it’s going to be very difficult for them to come up with a cohesive plan about how to move forward. I talked to Democrats and some of them will go back to saying, hey, we won the popular vote, we really did win. You know, it’s just a technicality that we didn’t win the White House. So when you have that kind of an attitude going forward, there are not — there’s very little soul searching, very little effort to look inside and say, what do we need to say and do differently in order to get more people to win? In particular, I mean, they’re writing off a large portion of the electorate as a group of people they don’t even want.”

Soul-searching? Nah, it’s more fun to blame others – the Greens, Comey, Russia, and the big mythical racist-sexist-nativist “rebellion” of the “deplorable” white working class – than it is to take an honest look at one’s own failings.

7 “Trump’s election is an antiwar victory.” Come on. Yes, the Russia-hating NATO-expansionist warmonger Hillary “Queen of Chaos” Clinton seemed recklessly Hell-bent on a dangerous confrontation with Moscow – a confrontation that candidate Trump clearly wanted not to have. And yes, we do have some breathing space on the score for the next few months. Still, Trump’s campaign reeked with hyper-masculinist white-nationalist and anti-Muslim militarism. The coming “militarization of the West Wing” is quite pronounced. Trump has said profoundly dangerous things about the use and spread of nuclear weapons. His “defense” appointments and his rhetoric and Tweets (seriously?) point to coming dangerous conflicts with China and Iran, both key Russia allies. Don’t rule out conflict with Russia and the cooling of Trump’s hot bro-mance with Putin down the road.  Anyone who thinks Trump’s ascendancy heralds a new American era of pacifist isolationism – a retreat from imperial war as a central tool of U.S. “statecraft” – is engaged in some very seriously delusional thinking.

8 “The corporate and financial establishment hates Trump and will undermine him.” There may be some truth in this assertion but it should be treated with extreme skepticism. Hillary was their first choice, but Wall Street is playing make-up with Trump. Top financial services trade groups like the American Bankers Association have run to help Trump fill top financial regulatory positions in the next White House.  The Financial Services Roundtable is raising $4 million to help Trump “pay for the transition process.”  After Trump defeated Mrs. Clinton, the former harsh Trump critic and current Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein praised the victor as “market friendly and asset friendly.”  A Wall Street Journal three weeks ago was titled “Wall Street and Trump Make Up Quickly.” It matter-of-factly noted that “After largely opposing his 2016 presidential campaign, financial service executives are making fast friends with President-elect Trump… Wall Street,” the newspaper reports, “could wind up being a big winner under Mr. Trump, despite his broadsides against big banks during the campaign.”

The accommodation makes perfect sense. Janus-faced finance capital runs like water to the powers that be at the end of the day. The elite financial sector is looking forward to significant regressive corporate and personal tax cuts and financial deregulation with Republicans in charge of both the White House and Congress in coming years.   The stocks of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have been on a great run ever since the election. And Trump has given current and former Goldman Sachs elites and other top finance-capitalists (including coming Commerce Secretary and noted billionaire Wilbur Ross) numerous key economic policy positions in his coming administration. Every month, CNN reports, President Trump will consult with a group of top U.S. business executives convened by Steven Schwartzman, CEO of the infamous “alternative investment” firm the Blackstone Group. The group includes a “who’s who” of current and former Fortune 25 CEOs, featuring (so far) GM’s Mary Barra, JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, GE’s former CEO Jack Welch, Disney’s Bob Iger, and Walmart’s Doug McMillon. The “populist” Trump is certainly doing his best to seduce the financial chieftains he sometimes railed against on the campaign trail.

It isn’t just the financial elite he’s making up with. A New York Times report nine days ago related how Trump reached out to Silicon Valley captains:

“The meeting between President-elect Donald Trump and the nations tech elite was hyped as something out ‘The Apprentice’: The new boss tells his minions to shape up. It turned out to be a charm offensive, a kind of ‘Dancing with the Silicon Valley Stars.’”

‘This is a truly amazing group of people,’ the president-elect said on Wednesday in a 25th-floor conference room at Trump Tower in Manhattan.  The gathering included Jeff Bezos of amazon; Elon Musk of Telsa; Timothy D. Cook of Apple; Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook; and Satray Nadella of Microsof, among others. ‘I’m here to help you folks do well,’ Mr. Trump said.”

“He kept going in that vein. ‘There’s nobody like you in the world,’ he enthused.  ‘In the world!’ There’s nobody like the people in this room.’ Anything that government ‘can do to help this along,’ he made clear, ‘we’re going to be here for you.’”

“And that was just in the first few minutes.  The candidate who warned during the presidential campaign that Amazon was going to have antitrust problems, that Apple needed to build its iPhones in the United States instead of China, was nowhere to be seen…on the way out, Safra Catz, the co-chief of Oracle who attended the meeting, gave a thumbs-up.” (NYT, 12/14/2016).

Smart move by Trump. Silicon Valley stands alongside Wall Street and the military-industrial complex (MIC) as the three most powerful Big Business components of the state-capitalist Deep State that runs the nation beneath and beyond the marionette theater of electoral politics. As Mike Lofgren notes in his indispensable new book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (Penguin, 2016), “the Valley has far outstripped traditional smokestack industries as a generator or wealth and has generated individual fortunes that easily rival those of Wall Street. Its research and development operations are vital to the operation of the Deep State – not only for its globe-spanning surveillance technology, but for the avionics, sensors, and guidance systems of every plane, ship, tank, missile, and drone that the military buys.”

Could Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and/or the MIC end up undermining Trump before it’s all over? Certainly. But there’s a honeymoon of sorts of underway right now and it would be foolish now to invest one’s hopes for the destruction of the Trump nightmare in the corporate and financial elite.

9 “Trump doesn’t really mean all the nasty stuff he said to get elected. He will govern differently than how he ran for office.” Well, candidate Trump certainly didn’t really mean it when he claimed to be a populist champion of the American working class in its struggle with Wall Street and other corporate-globalist evil-doers. Just look at his arch-plutocratic transition team and cabinet-in-formation.   Trump’s populism was fake, of course.  But Trump’s quasi-fascism probably isn’t and it would be foolish indeed to normalize what’s happened. Expect the administration’s racist and nativist scapegoating to accelerate in rough proportion to Trump’s service to the wealthy Few. The more he makes policy in the interest of his super-opulent upper-class comrades, after all, the more Trump is going to have to try to distract and divide the working-class majority with ugly racist and nationalist finger-pointing.

10 “All the people and others who have protested the Trump victory and ascendancy are silly sore losers manipulated by George Soros and MoveOn.” Yes, the left needs to watch out for elite liberal/neoliberal and Democratic Party-affiliated agents (for me that includes Sanders’ “Our Revolution”) working to control and manipulate anti-Trump resistance. Absolutely. But the reflexive denunciation of all anti-Trump protesters as childish agents of the Democratic establishment takes pseudo-radical cynicism to a new low. Folks don’t need to be prodded by slimy actors like Soros and MoveOn to find some very good and obvious reasons to march against incoming Trump administration.

11 “Resistance to Trump is illegitimate on the part of people who failed to adequately protest the neoliberal and imperialist Barack Obama presidency.” Yes, it is depressing that many U.S. citizens can’t seem to get it together to fight back when the White House is held by a smooth-talking teleprompter-ized Democrat like Bill Clinton, Obama, or (as I and most left analysts expected) Hillary Clinton. It’s sad and irritating that it seems to take a brutish white male Republican in the White House for a lot of Americans to protest and resist Deep State policies that are in fact richly bipartisan. But, okay, it’s a fact. Work with the opportunity afforded by the new public enemy number one – the coming appalling Trump administration – to build a new popular resistance movement that cannot be hijacked by movement-killing Democratic Party electoralists and opportunists and the deadly election cycle. Connect with people on issues and do your best to show them why such a movement is worthwhile

12 “Noam Chomsky and other left intellectuals and activists who called (again) for Lesser Evil Voting [LEV] were shills for Hillary Clinton.” There is a recurrent debate on the U.S. left about whether progressives should vote for Democratic Party candidates as the “lesser evil.” I’m on the anti-LEV side of that debate for reasons I won’t rehearse here. But it’s a difference about strategy and tactics, not underlying world-view. It’s unfair to call fellow leftists “shills” for Hillary when they referred to Mrs. Clinton as a “lying neoliberal warmonger” (Adolph Reed, Jr.), a “right-wing fanatic” (Arun Gupta), and, well, evil. (I used to make the left-LEV argument myself and was no less of a radical when I did than I am now. My position changed on tactical and strategic grounds.)  Demonizing folks who come (often for some defensible if ultimately flawed reasons) to the LEV position (I know some very smart and radical folks who do)  is also dysfunctional going forward. As Chomsky himself has long argued, the question of how to vote (or not) for five minutes in the one-every-four-years candidate circus is a secondary matter compared to much more important and urgent politics of movement-building beneath and beyond the nation’s populace-marginalizing and mass-marketed quadrennial electoral extravaganzas. Do we really want sniping over the question of what was the best lane to be in on the bourgeois-electoral highway to get in the way of acknowledging the many things you agree with, say, Chomsky or Reed or Gupta about? In the way of forming an anti-Trump resistance?  In the way of building great people’s movements beyond the election cycle – movements that should include in their list of demands a call for radical electoral reforms what would allow progressives to back candidates aligned with their values without fear that doing so might help the rightmost of the major capitalist parties prevail?  I think not. At the same time, many on the other side of the quadrennial intra-leftist voting debate also need to stand down from snotty sniping over what was the best way to respond to the terrible “choices” on offer in the U.S. presidential voting booth.  Both sides might want to think of this endless and ugly debate as yet another form of top-down divide-and-conquer.

13 “The 2016 Election Shows the Futility of Any and All Identity Politics. Serious Progressives Must Reject Any and All Such Politics in Favor of Class Politics.” Nonsense. Yes, the Left is committed to the bottom-up political struggle of the (multiracial-multiethnic-multi-religious [partly irreligious] and multi-gendered) working class against the capitalist wealthy Few. But we cannot and must not simply abandon the particular realities of: female experience and oppression: Black experience and oppression; Latino experience and oppression; Muslim experience and oppression; gay experience and oppression, and so on. Such class-reductionist denialism leads nowhere morally or politically.

What needs to be rejected is the sickening kind of bourgeois identitarianism that candidate Hillary advanced. As Conor Lynch noted on Salon last month, “The Clinton campaign tried to make this election all about Trump’s hatefulness (‘Love Trumps Hate’) and his ‘basket of deplorables,’ while offering no real vision of progressive and populist change. And when those on the left raised legitimate concerns about Clinton’s uninspiring message or her political baggage during and after the primaries, they were ridiculously labeled sexist or racist ‘bros’ by establishment figures (even though some of Clinton’s harshest progressive critics were in fact women and people of color ).”

Earlier in the year, Daniel Denvir insightfully described the Clinton’s strategy as “peak neoliberalism, where a distorted version of identity politics is used to defend an oligarchy and a national security state, celebrating diversity in the management of exploitation and warfare.”

The left at its best has always understood identity differently – in ways that are opposed to both ruling class divide-and-conquer (ala Hillary Clinton and Herr Trump) and to class reductionism (ala some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters). As the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect recently reflected on Counterpunch:

“While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole…My own experience goes back to the 1960s when the Trotskyist movement was still rooted in American realities. Party leaders conceived of the coming American revolution as a kind of united front of different struggles that would come together on a basis of shared class interests. If that is a concession to ‘identity politics,’ I plead guilty…A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.” (emphasis added)

That strikes me as brilliantly stated – and emblematic of the sort of intelligent, reality- and history-based Marxism for which no repentance is due.  Working class left “identity politics” is very different from what Denvir calls “neoliberal identity politics.”

14 “Trump’s election shows that U.S. politics and society is completely hopeless and pathetic. It’s time to retreat into personal concerns.” That’s your option, of course, but it will only make things worse. The Chicago-based anti-racist writer and activist Jamie Kalven rightly worries about the “danger…that people will become demoralized and retreat into denial, that they will seek refuge amid the pleasures and fulfillments of private life.  That would give carte blanche to power…That is certainly tempting at a time like this,” Kalven adds: “to live one’s life in the wholly private realm, enjoying the company of friends, good food and drink, the pleasures of music and literature, and so on.  Privileged sectors of our society are already heavily skewed that way.  It’s a real danger at a time like this.  If we withdraw from public engagement now, we aid and abet that which we deplore.” (The Chicago Reader, December 8, 2016,emphasis added). The threat to become an “expatriate” (which I am hearing again and again online) is a particularly pouty and privileged version of the same dysfunctional syndrome.  Becoming an émigré – either internal (retreating into private life) or external and literal (leaving the county if you can) – will fix nothing. (And, by the way, you can’t really escape the American Empire on this planet.)

Two Narratives to Handle with Extreme Care

Here are two narratives not to be rejected so much as to be handled with extreme care.

1 “There are great popular movement-building and system-challenging silver linings – from a dialectical and radical perspective – in Trump’s victory.” I do not simply reject this “accelerationist” storyline. To the contrary, I recently specified what some of those “silver linings” might be. Kalven is right, I think, when he says that “this is a moment of great opportunity – and also peril. The election of Trump certainly increases peril, but it may also increase the clarity we need to be effective…one door closes, another door opens.” But the “silver lining” trope should come with two key qualifications.  Caveat number one is that none of the movement opportunities afforded by Trump’s coming presidency (and by the discrediting of a dismal dollar-drenched Democratic Party that proved itself too corrupt, unimaginative, corporatized, dull and conservative to defeat Trump) are going to show themselves in real history without dedicated and difficult day-to-day rank and file activism connected to radical-reformist and revolutionary vision – real progressive policy ideas and societal alternatives.  The second caveat is that Trump’s election is a grave threat to vast swaths of humanity at home and abroad and indeed to life itself. It is indeed a great black cloud. If you are or seem happy that a vicious racist and sexist bastard like Donald Trump is moving in the White House, then God help you, comrade. “It’s important now.” Kalven adds, “to take time to absorb what’s happened and to grieve…I’m looking for a word besides catastrophe.” The word fits.

2 “The left must overcome single-issue obsessions.” I agree with that statement to a very significant degree. How could I not after decades of witnessing progressives fighting on numerous separate causes that cry out for consolidation and common struggle in a many-sided anti-capitalist movement? The left is way too scattered, issue- and other-wise. But it’s not true that none of the left’s issues stand out above all others.  We need to be candid and forthright about the primacy of the environmental question. The capitalogenic climate change-driven threat of ecosystem collapse by the end of the current century is now “the biggest issue of our or any time” (John Sanbonmatsu). As Noam Chomsky has argued, nothing that we care about on the left is going to matter all that much if environmental catastrophe isn’t averted soon by serious efforts to – among other things but first and foremost – keep fossil fuels in the ground and shift to renewable energy. Who wants to more equitably share out the pieces of a poisoned pie? What good is it to turn the world upside down and “inherit” (take) it from the ruling classes if the planet has been poisoned beyond safe habitation?

Of all the dreadful things about the coming Trump administration, the one that strikes me as most horrific and most urgently in need of dedicated popular opposition is Trump’s arch-petro-capitalist commitment to the Greenhouse Gassing-to-death of life on Earth. The opposition already has a North America movement vanguard, so to speak: the remarkable multi-tribal struggle of Native Americans and others who came together beneath and beyond the election cycle to confront Energy Transfer Partners’ planet-cooking Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in Standing Rock.  Expect Trump to target the North Dakota pipeline fighters and water-/climate-protectors as “economic terrorists.” Prepare to defend those environmental heroes as the leading symbols and agents of the Resistance we need to build and expand if humanity is going any shot at a decent future.

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