Is Trump Inevitable?

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY 2.0

“Kamala Harris was one of the main reasons that I voted for Trump. I could have never voted for someone that kept innocent people in prison just to pad their record.” —YouTube commenter on video “Vice President Kamala Harris on the potential of running against Trump again.”

“Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon”—Kanye West, “Gorgeous”

My Trump Derangement Syndrome is worse than it ever has been. I don’t necessarily think of that as a good or a bad thing but I will admit it leaves me open to changing my mind and admitting I am wrong. I want to note a shift in what it means to be anti-Trump in 2024.

I remember the hopeful times of 2016. Infected with the idealism of youth and education, politics appeared to have a clear obstacle and a clear path forward. The answer was to have socialism. Basic economic rights for all people.

As the hatred embodied by Trump rose to power it was the left who taught me that socialism was the goal and the distinctions of neoliberalism and fascism were a distraction. But as the horrors of Trumpism spread most on the left shifted their thinking, to some decree. The left underwent a split and I found myself on one side and many on the other.

The left, facing the existential threat of fascism, largely abandoned socialism as its unifying call and went into two distinct camps. One tailed the Democrats, the other the Republicans. But this was not all this split was about. One side of the left stood for the marginalized, even if that consisted of resisting a negative rather than actualizing a positive. The other side of the left seemed to want a shortcut, siding with the populists, which resulted in opportunism.

This jaded part of the left made sense in many ways to me too. At every turn supporting socialism was framed as supporting bigotry. Some of these criticisms were in bad faith, but it also seemed to me that they must be hitting us where we were weak.

I applauded Bernie Sanders when he expanded from his clearer message in 2016 into intersectional woke politics in 2020. This seemed to lose him some voters, and gain him others. For me both were convincing campaigns, relative to our current pessimism. I saw 2020 as expanding upon 2016 and meeting the moment.

We are entering a more dangerous moment than 2016 or 2020. Trumpism has never been more of a threat. But what is Trumpism? It is a disease that supercharges extremists but I am going to argue that Trumpism is a nihilism that has infected a large swath of the population.

My confidence in Trump winning is fairly low, in comparison to many commentators who view his victory as inevitable. Nor do I agree with those who say that his persecution by the deep state is inevitable. I happen to believe that Trump is less popular than he appears amongst ordinary people and more popular than he appears amongst powerful ones.

Trump is a high floor, low ceiling candidate, the radical centrist Andrew Deziel noted to me. It’s undeniable. What Trump represents is something that even in the worst of times is not psychologically sustainable. His extreme level of hatred, anger and resentment is exhausting.

But nonetheless what Americans have embraced is nihilism. The belief that there is no point in American democracy is dispiriting. Trump promises to take out the work for people. He promises to unite the country around his fascist vision and bring peace to the world around his strength. He promises to resolve contradictions he cannot comprehend, let alone solve independently.

What is happening now is people are resigning themselves to the inevitability of Donald Trump. People are taking themselves out of the game. People cannot stand to be disappointed again. But there are worse things than disappointment. There is such a thing as giving up hope entirely.

The dark cloud of Donald Trump now appears to be free of what people saw as the number one factor that brought him down in 2020: the coronavirus pandemic. I was always skeptical of this. It clearly provided an obstacle to any incumbent simply because of how miserable life became. But the isolation of individuals, the massive fear of the Other during this dreadful time, was conducive to Trump’s message. During the coronavirus everyone became scared of their neighbors. Trump primed us for this moment and he negatively impacted my embrace of restrictions I now regret.

Trump stands not for freedom and all the struggle and obligations it entails. Trump is here to take away your agency. Trump is here to tell you it is okay to give up. He mirrors the parenting style of his older voters who at times sheltered their children and now blame young people for all problems in the world.

Ultimately Trump is betting on the fact that people are tired of the struggle. Suppose we assume all modern wars come from contradictions in capitalist production, as I do. In that case, his mentality of resolving conflicts preemptively by being tough before a war begins merely kindles the fire. If we are to believe, as Trump correctly claims, that the Israeli assault on Palestine is in part about Iran, then we have Trump to blame for it, as he broke peace with Iran. He also enabled Israel’s rightward shift.

Trump was tougher on Russia, as Robert Gates noted. Including, sanctioning Russia for election interference. This is a contradiction few can acknowledge and can only be met with a laugh. Trump had sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and he had sanctions for Russia’s dissidence in developing countries. His assault on the Open Skies Treaty made for a more isolated Russia and if Putin strikes when there is less chance for a nuclear war, then our peace President is pretty flimsy.

Now this is not to put a distinction on foreign policy of the deep state but rather to point out that peace under capitalism is a contradiction. The game of all politicians to kick the can down the road. So we should not look at what happened in their years in power but rather at what they cynically do to rev up capitalist cycles temporarily in order to make their opponents look bad.

If the genocide in Israel is what brings down Joe Biden, then this is a sign of hope. But the ironies of the leftists raging against identity politics now suddenly using colonialism to explain this genocide is not lost on me. It is not to say that we shouldn’t return to a colonialist critique. I have been banging the drum for anti-racist politics and getting accused of hating the working class because of it. But are we only going to use anti-racism when it comes to critiquing technocratic liberals or can we also use it to explain authoritarian populists as well? Because during the Trump era, you were scolded as authoritarian, an agent of the deep state or politically correct for bringing up racism.

The scale of the genocide is not comparable to these politics I am talking about but I have nothing to say on that subject and a lot more to say about electoral politics. So take this as frivolous, at least in part. But one of my main points is that Palestinians can only be viewed as colonialist victims, much like George Floyd could only be viewed as a victim of racism. We tend not to grant them the right to be a victim of capitalism, and this is just as racist as the racist oppression is.

Indeed the left critical of Israel is able to see racist intentions in Israel but unable to see it in the Trump movement. Much of this has to do with time as the Israeli-Palestine discourse goes back past the division in the left that started with Trump. It seems that one side of the left can identify with Palestine because of their anti-racist struggle and the other side can identify with Palestine because they see identity politics in Zionism. Both sides of this equation tend to obscure the brutality of capitalism and risks understanding the genocide in terms of the United States unique social alienation.

But I frame it this way in part to demonstrate that the Trump phenomenon has shaped my thinking on everything, even when it shouldn’t. I shouldn’t be trivializing a genocide in terms of the “culture war” but I also am not sure if I have had a real conversation with anyone about this stuff because we are afraid to acknowledge how trivial we are and how unfit we are to understand war and the totality of capitalism. We instead look to Trump as our liberator, not our way out of capitalism, but the way out of making choices under it.

However we must make choices. Under capitalism we must be the problem. We must bear the cross. I’ve been skeptical of a buzzword I saw in a Washington Post headline: multiracial whiteness. In many ways this does describe the Trump movement. The promise of nationalism for all is there but not without its own hierarchy.

The idea that we can all have white privilege is a negative promise. It simply means we have something to defend. The continued effort to assure white identity is itself more work than it is worth. But here is the paradox of Trumpism coming again. He promises us peace in the most exhausting way possible. We are all enlisted in this war to rat out our neighbors and this is our presumed harmony.

Take the numerous polls cited recently in Jeffrey St. Clair’s weekend column as a snapshot of the Trump movement. 40% of the Trump base in Iowa puts immigration as their top issue, with 81% agreeing that immigrants are poisoning the blood of this country and only 7% bothered to vote for Trump in a supposed historic victory. So we have a high level of hatred and a low level of engagement. It goes against the narrative that Trump is very popular and not very hateful.

I am glad people have come around on Biden. I am glad he is no longer being framed as the anti-racist candidate who will support immigration and democracy. But the cost of getting us to this point clearly wasn’t worth it. The cost of the Biden administration’s commitment to the most racist policies is more damning to our democratic process than anything Trump could do.

In Biden’s place I have to ask what the positive vision of society is. It is not good enough to simply throw up our hands. We need that positive vision.

There is a difference to me between the attitudes of idealistic people in 2016 and the indifference in 2024. To me the attitude that socialism, or class-based politics, is the answer, while neoliberalism and fascism are not, is a positive assertion. Defeat should not change this attitude, even if it is understandable why it would.

In 2024 the attitude in my eyes is far more dreary. The attitude is more or less: what is the point? It is one thing to dismiss Biden, it is another thing entirely to link Biden with the left. It is the wrong move to see Biden as a stand-in for anti-racist politics. It would be incorrect to assert that Biden’s institutional racism is made possible by some monolithic authoritarian woke state.

But this is the sort of social alienation we are witnessing without irony. This is the danger of our times. When all attempts to assert equal rights for all people are seen as authoritarian we have already lost.

What is lacking in this anti-authoritarian critique is the very class politics the populists claim to represent. When we become indifferent to fascism it will come for us. It is not good enough to simply cite neoliberalism, corruption, capitalism, etc. as the reason not to oppose Trumpism. One of our critiques of capitalism has to be that this sort of politics is on the menu when the modes of production fail to reproduce prosperity and environmental stability.

Not only is such a threat on the menu, it is arguable that such politics is inevitable under capitalism. But our acceptance of it doesn’t have to be.

Biden’s genocide should bring him down. But we don’t have to go down with him. We don’t have to abandon liberalism and solidarity. We don’t have to pretend Biden ever represented the leftist vision.

Furthermore, embracing the right’s free market politics will bring in far more wars than an authoritarian ever could. We cannot return to the clarity of socialism, nor should we desire to. What appeared as clarity masked a failure of socialism to reach the masses. We failed to address the alienation of class-based politics to much of the population. More importantly we failed to address the ways in which materially speaking class-based politics did not reach the most marginalized.

So has Biden’s white supremacy finally convinced the left of the real threat it poses? Or is opposition to his white supremacy merely a trojan horse to minimize the threat of Trump’s; who speaks to social alienation in a way Biden doesn’t? It becomes possible to oppose Biden’s racism and support Trump’s because Trump is inviting us to be racist too. The enjoyment of downplaying Trump comes from this inclusivity in his exclusiveness.

The chorus of ‘Why Not Trump’ clearly has even more rational meaning than it once did. This is all the more reason to oppose him. This marks a more dangerous moment precisely because the population is more dispirited. We are more primed to accept Trump’s takeover than ever before. There is good reason to have empathy for anyone who has given up. There are no good reasons to accept this attitude.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at