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A MOOD IS NOT A MOVEMENT: FIVE IDEAS FOR THE ANTI-TRUMP FORCES
By Richard Rubenstein
Comrades and friends, I am not writing to advise you how to resist the Trump regime. There are as many action proposals in circulation as there are anti-Trump groups, with “resistance” the buzzword of the moment. But resistance against what, exactly, and for what purposes? Most of the tactical proposals I have seen are strangely devoid of political content. It seems that anti-Trump is more a mood than a movement with shared aims. It is a negative sentiment shared by most of the identity and interest groups that formed part of the Democratic Party coalition (or, as the President himself would put it, by the losers) during the 2016 election.
The spread of public protests against the new regime’s immigration ban and other initiatives is heartening to those who oppose these measures. Yet, protest by itself doesn’t create a movement. Spending one’s days reacting to Donald Trump’s misstatements, prejudices, and cruelties risks repeating the mistakes of the presidential campaign, when the country split 50-50, more or less, and a right-wing populist appeal aimed primarily at working class Americans generated an electoral vote majority for the Tweeter-in-Chief. Outrage provoked by Trump’s character, rhetoric, and behavior is inevitable. Even so, this is a time for hard thinking and conversation, not just outraged action. (This is the point of Slavoj Zizek’s 2015 video, “Don’t act, just think.” Take a look at it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLOTi2498xg.)
We dearly need to spend more time talking with each other about what the underlying problems are and what kinds of organization and action are needed to start solving them. I have a few preliminary ideas about how to frame the issues requiring discussion. If you find any of them interesting, let’s talk further about what a credible program for real change would look like, and how to organize a coherent movement to realize it.
Idea #1: Trumpism is a symptom, not the disease.
Once upon a time, the American system started to fail. On the economic front, vast areas of the country de-industrialized, wages stagnated, inequality soared, and poverty or near-poverty became endemic. So did criminal activity, police violence, substance abuse, mental illness, community decay, and other ills associated with socioeconomic stagnation and decline. Family and communal bonds frayed under the pressure. Public schools became increasingly dysfunctional. In politics, the two-party system produced little more than partisanship, gridlock, endless foreign wars, and a bureaucracy dedicated to serving favored interest groups. Americans insecure about their declining status felt threatened by the slippage of their influence abroad and the challenges of changing mores and multiculturalism at home. Discontent finally reached the point that workers and middle class folk long associated with the Democratic Party in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida abandoned the Democrats in sufficient numbers to hand a new type of Republican – the nationalist/populist Donald Trump – a presidential victory.
A system in trouble – a sociopolitical structure that regularly produces shattered hopes and civil violence – is the problem. Trumpism is a symptom of our failure to solve it. Worse yet, by offering a set of generically false solutions, it almost inevitably ensures that systemic failures will continue. What I mean by “generically false” can be illustrated by a syllogism:
(1) The American social system remains basically healthy;
(2) But all sorts of social ills and dangers to Americans are multiplying.
(3) Ergo, the sources of these ills and dangers must lie mostly outside the system. The troublemakers are foreign governments, terrorists, and immigrants, abetted by local groups that put their own interests ahead of those of the Nation and domestic leaders who lack the determination, courage, and toughness needed to deal with these threats. In other words, these sources of decline are not only “un-American” for the most part, but also un-structural; they are produced by personal characteristics like malice, greed, laziness, and – above all – failures of willpower. (A propaganda movie commissioned by the new administration might well be called “The Triumph of the Will.”)
But isn’t this also the way many of the President’s opponents also think? I have heard anti-Trump activists blame the loss of the election on foreigners (Vladimir Putin, in particular), domestic racists and other misguided “deplorables,” Hillary Clinton’s lack of charisma, and the arrogance and dogmatism of the anti-Clinton Left. I have also heard them dwell obsessively on Trump’s personal failings and peculiarities, his and his followers’ racial and religious prejudices, the anti-scientific known-nothing-ism of the climate change deniers, and the Far Right’s maleficent intentions to enrich the rich and persecute the poor. No doubt, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and belligerent behavior invite a counter-attack in kind. Yet playing the personalist game leaves the country very close to where it was in November 2016 – divided roughly 50/50, with at least half the nation aggrieved and alienated by the results of system failure. This suggests a second notion:
Idea #2: The problem isn’t Donald Trump’s or Steve Bannon’s ‘radicalism.’ Oppositionists need to be moreradical than they are, not less.
Consider the President’s inaugural speech, an angry tirade that described closed factories scattered “like tombstones” across the land, “carnage” in city streets, and America as a global power in decline. This rhetoric the New York Times and Washington Post found shocking – just shocking! Things aren’t nearly so bad as the upstart realtor alleged, they replied. Business is recovering, the crime rate is falling, and we really are “great,” just as Hillary said.
Have liberals learned so little from the naqba of 2016? Anti-Trumps flaunting their own rectitude and high-culture credentials continue to talk about Trump like a Henry James heroine appraising a fortune-hunting adventurer. What a vulgar upstart the fellow is! How rude and obnoxious! Whatever one thinks of Trump’s breeding and motives, however, things are not ok for working people in America. The new president’s references to industrial tombstones and urban carnage seemed perfectly accurate to a great many of them. That (plus racial and religious ressentiment) is why so many either voted for him last November or stayed home.
We need to be more radical than Trump, not less. This means understanding that America’s social problems are systemic, and that solving them will probably mean changing the system in some basic ways. I argue in a recent book (Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed) that the alternative to systemic criticism and change is “partisan moralism” – a type of thinking that blames all one’s social and political problems on the other side’s personal defects. This is what happens when liberal critics characterize the President and his cronies as bad boys and girls out to challenge the rules of respectability, conventional diplomacy, world order, and free trade.
I do not mean to oversimplify this issue. There can be a spillover from behavior that is simply rude and boorish to behavior that endangers democratic norms. Trump’s angry attacks on judges, journalists, and political opponents are troubling. Even so, there is something inherently conservative, isn’t there, about this constant criticism of the man’s “uncivilized” behavior? Such attacks are aimed at rallying all the forces of Order, from Wall Street bankers to well brought-up Bernie-ites, to resist changes threatened by the new regime. Take a look at Thomas Friedman’s or David Brooks’s op-ed pieces for the New York Times and you will see how upset neoliberal critics are by the President’s defiance of traditional norms and the elites that support them. Such critics slide easily from disapproving of Trump’s vulgar tweets to condemning his heretical views on NATO and Russia.
Most important, focusing on Trump’s personal failings keeps us from confronting the more serious challenges of his and Bannon’s proposed New Order.. In a brilliant article in Dissent magazine, the philosopher Nancy Fraser describes and analyzes the Clintonite alliance between identity groups seeking emancipation and corporate elites that fell apart in November 2016. “Progressive liberalism,” she declares, is over (https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser). The need to develop an alternative “progressive populist” program raises at least three crucial questions for anti-Trump forces and, ultimately, for pro-Trump groups as well. These topics are (a) economic restructuring, (b) ethical globalism, and (c) democratic (small “d”) renewal. Each topic, I suggest, requires a different type of public discussion. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Idea #3: We need to talk together NOW about alternatives to “economic nationalism” and the capitalist system.
At a time like this, it may seem counterintuitive to put radical economic reform on the political agenda. Faced with Trumpism and its dangers, there is an understandable tendency for people to shun debates that might threaten to disunite the opposition. But an opposition consisting primarily of racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious identity groups is already disunited. An opposition that seeks to join anti-Trump progressives with anti-Trump conservatives is even more so – it constitutes what old-time leftists used to call a “rotten bloc.” Subordinating the issue of social class to a mélange of other causes seems to me a potentially fatal error.
Here’s why. If the capitalist system, as it operates today in America and elsewhere, is basically healthy – if all that is needed to put people to work, satisfy their basic needs, and restore their faith in economic progress are moderate reforms such as liberal proposals to tax the rich or conservative proposals to “untax” and deregulate them, there is no need to think about more radical changes. But if the system is basically in crisis – if, without major changes, another generation of working and middle class people will likely be condemned to poverty, precarity, and social demoralization – we need to talk now about how to reconstruct the economy. In fact, if the system is not fundamentally healthy, the choice will not be between liberalism and conservatism at all, but between some form of fascism and some form of socialism.
We can already see this choice hovering on the horizon. In winning the 2016 election, Donald Trump appealed to the half-hidden racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of white people fearful of losing social status and political clout. But these appeals would have gotten nowhere without a socioeconomic program designed to capitalize on working class misery – a goulash that can be summed up in two words: economic nationalism. Noting – correctly – that American working people have been exploited or neglected for decades by powerful globalizing interests (interests absurdly labeled “Washington” by right wing ideologues), Trump and Bannon promise to restore domestic industries and the workers dependent upon them to health by adopting an “America First” economic program. More specifically, they propose to compel big companies to keep their production facilities in the U.S., jawbone Big Pharma into lowering drug prices, tax or place tariffs on manufactured imports, slash taxes on the rich and super-rich, relieve Wall Street investors and companies of “burdensome” government regulations, cancel or renegotiate trade agreements, modernize and expand U.S. military forces, and – the piece de resistance – initiate a huge new public works program to rebuild roads, bridges, dams, the electrical grid, and other elements of the national infrastructure.
We have not yet seen these proposals put in the form of legislation or executive orders, but that will surely happen. Robert Reich and other Democratic liberals have criticized them as “trickle down economics dressed in populist garb,” opining that they will further enrich the wealthy without creating jobs, raising wages, reducing poverty, or mitigating inequality. Interestingly, many conservatives agree that Trump’s populism will remain a matter of symbolic gestures, while market forces ultimately decide which companies move abroad or stay put, how drugs are priced, how high tariff levels go, whether or not to replace live workers with machines, and so forth. What these middle-of-the-road opinions ignore, however, is that, if the economy continues to stagnate and to generate inequality, Trump/Bannon’s economic nationalism could turn out to be a lot more like Benito Mussolini’s New Order than Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America.
Suppose that the proposed program to rebuild the infrastructure (already endorsed by two national unions of construction workers) does not create that many jobs or raise incomes substantially. Even so, it may give the impression that the regime is trying to put the working class back on its feet. More important, if a limited program of government intervention doesn’t work, America First economics, already tending toward corporatism, “fortress America” autarky, and forcing business executives to behave, could move in a consciously authoritarian (i.e., fascist) direction. For example, the regime could sponsor a larger public works program under regulations dictating the terms of employment, limiting automation, sponsoring “friendly” trade unions, and interfering with the labor market in other ways. (That’s what Mussolini did.) Worse yet, if economic growth proves too slow to offset the budgetary deficits produced by tax cuts and public works spending, Trump & Co. could attempt to solve that problem by involving the nation in a major war. (That’s what Hitler did.)
People worried about what Richard Falk calls the current regime’s “pre-fascist” leanings need to talk now about alternative forms of economic restructuring that could restore the American and global economies to health. A discussion of socialist measures, among others, seems overdue. Clearly, since many Americans have been taught to identify “the S word” with totalitarianism, one immediate task will be to show in practical terms how activist governments, local as well as national, can operate under the effective control of working people rather than some bureaucratic elite. At the same time, discussants should look with a critical eye at European versions of social democracy that have tried to give capitalism a human face, but without solving economic problems at a fundamental structural level. (Bernie Sanders’ proposals, interesting though they were, never reached this level either.)
The discussions we need – and which a number of us hope to organize soon – should include a wide range of social visions ranging from Bernie’s reform proposals to more radical approaches being advanced by Marxists, cooperativists, Greens, feminists, and others. Economic libertarians should not be turned away either, if they have something to contribute to the discussion. These ideas may not be able to be implemented immediately, but that’s ok. The point is to be ready for the crucial moments when working people understand that economic nationalism doesn’t work, and when they begin searching in earnest for more thoroughgoing and effective answers.
Idea #4: ‘America First’ is a moral abomination. We need to discuss the possibility of developing Ethical Globalism as a realistic, morally satisfying alternative to nation-worship.
Watching people who consider themselves progressive responding to the new government’s “America First” proposals is a bit like viewing a professional wrestling match. The wrestlers try to outsmart and outperform each other, but it doesn’t matter in the end, since the game is phony by definition. What difference does it make who “wins,” when the only real winner is the World Wrestling Federation?
So, when Donald Trump preaches that American workers are underemployed because their jobs have been outsourced, some progressives agree, while others mutter about jobs being lost to automation. Few or none challenge the assumption that putting Americans to work is far more important than finding jobs for Greek, Egyptian, or Chinese workers. Similarly, when Trump proposes to close our borders to immigrants, his opponents answer that immigrants don’t take American jobs or commit many crimes, and that immigration is good for America. They hardly ever argue that people living in impoverished, violence-ridden nations have a right to emigrate and to make better lives for themselves elsewhere. Ditto where the question concerns America’s world “leadership” (a euphemism for military hegemony). The liberals think that soft power is better than the harder sort, but they have very little to say about the fundamental concept of hegemonic leadership. In fact, they blame Donald Trump for weakening U.S. power by cozying up to the Russians and challenging “traditional” concepts of a world order policed by American diplomats and troops.
The game is fixed when the assertion that America should be First is answered, as it almost always is, “Yes, but not by doing violent or repressive things to vulnerable people.” Anti-Trumps hardly ever answer, “No, America shouldn’t be First. Nobody should be First.”
Why don’t most liberals they call out the America Firsters? One possibility is that they share the same faith, although their expressions of it are more civilized than those of crude fundamentalists. (High Church Firsters, one might call them!) Another possibility is that many are actually ethical globalists – people who believe in the essential equality of all humans and in the need to construct a global commonwealth dedicated to peace and social justice. The problem, in their view, is that realizing this vision is not feasible in the current sociopolitical environment, and that expressing it will isolate its advocates and strengthen the most reactionary and fascistic elements of the nationalist movement.
Very well. Let’s distinguish what is morally and politically right from what is immediately feasible. Clearly, underemployed workers and struggling middle class folks want jobs, opportunities, and assistance, not lectures on the rights of underemployed foreigners and refugees. At the same time, though, if our countrymen and women don’t understand that the interdependence of American society with all other societies is a fact, not “fake news,” they will be doomed to live in an increasingly dangerous fantasy world. We can’t let them continue, unchallenged, to equate globalism with the globalization of capital! We need to discuss how to help them understand that the welfare and security of American working people depend on empowering and enriching workers around the globe. And the same thing is true when the topic is America’s alleged cultural superiority to other peoples. Those opposed to the current wave of nation-worship need to talk with religious and ethical leaders about how to spread the word (actually, the Good News) that there are no Chosen nations, and that we are no more or less deserving of wealth and security than the other people inhabiting this planet.
Ditto with regard to the assumption that world society is a jungle (or a “clash of civilizations”) in which we Americans must either kill or be killed. We need to discuss how best to explain that the natural (and obtainable) condition of humankind is not a war of each against all, but a cooperative global commonwealth. Rabbi Michael Lerner and Frida Berrigan put the matter nicely when they call for a new type of patriotism “that embraces all peoples and all national traditions and cultures even while celebrating one's own cultures and traditions” (http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2017/02/16/loving-america-and-resisting-trump-the-new-patriotism). Religious and ethical leaders can recognize and help others recognize that America First thinking, which makes the Nation the supreme value, is not patriotism. It is simply the latest form of Baal-worship.
Idea #5: We need to come together in local and national assemblies to rethink and renovate American democracy.
There seems little reason to doubt that recent political events in the United States are the result of systemic problems, not just anomalous circumstances. Yes, Russians hackers may have meddled in the 2016 election. Yes, F.B.I. Director Comey made prejudicial comments when he should have kept his mouth shut. Still, when one considers the structural factors that contributed to a chaotic, vituperative, money-ridden electoral contest, the matter speaks for itself.
By 2016, the two major political parties, increasingly partisan and ineffective, had lost the nation’s confidence, and people’s distrust of government had reached an all-time high. Both parties suffered significant internal splits during their nominating campaigns and nominated presidential candidates with sky high disapproval ratings. In the election itself, the winning candidate ran as much against his own party’s leaders as on their behalf. On Election Day more than 90 million eligible voters stayed home. The percentage that voted was 57.9%, the lowest turnout since the year 2000, and the new president’s initial approval ratings were the lowest ever recorded.
Meanwhile, the divisions among Americans exposed and exacerbated by the campaign continue to intensify. This is not, it seems clear, merely the product of President Trump’s pugnacity. Five months before the election, the Pew Research Center reported that, “For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger” (http://www.people-press.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/). Following Mr. Trump’s victory, not only were increases reported in acts of politically motivated violence, but also popular dating websites revealed that their clients were insisting that potential dates announce themselves as pro- or anti-Trump. When political differences invade the eroti-sphere, you know that domestic conflicts are escalating!
This situation points to two more questions urgently requiring discussion. First, we know that intergroup struggles in modern America are rooted in both socioeconomic inequalities and a clash of cultures. A glance at the red and blue areas demarcated on the electoral map of 2016, as well as a look at Trump’s recent executive orders, suggests that the “culture wars” analyzed by James Davison Hunter in his famous 1992 study are, if anything, more hotly contested now than they were then, although their foci and dynamics have changed. These divisions, fusing economic, cultural, and religious differences, are intensifying. The question is what can be done to understand them more fully and to mitigate their causes.
The good news is that conflict resolvers have developed several forms of conversation particularly well suited to help parties deal with this sort of conflict. One such form, the interactive or “problem solving” workshop is a confidential, facilitated dialogue, repeated at intervals, that permits participants to explore the deep sources of their mutual alienation and to imagine creative new ways of working things out. Participants can be community or group leaders, people in mid-level roles, or grass roots folks. This process, like certain forms of public dialogue, does not aim at ending the conflict immediately so much as at helping the parties to speak directly to each other, analyze their situation, humanize their adversaries, and discover how to prevent their differences from destroying lives, communities, and people’s peace of mind. In some cases (Northern Ireland was one, Mozambique another), it can even lead the parties to decide to act cooperatively to alter a conflict-generating situation.
A second, related inquiry is this: why is the U.S. political system, which is supposed to manage or resolve these conflicts, failing to do so? What are the structural deficiencies of this system and how can they be remedied? We can start by recognizing that people generally want their government to be both effective and participatory. Effective means that an administration works actively to solve the problems that interfere with achieving public order, freedom, and social justice. Participatory means that the government responds to forces operating from the bottom or middle up, rather than just taking orders from an economic elite or giving orders as a political elite. We need to talk together in local, regional, and national gatherings about how to reconstruct a system that lacks both effectiveness and participation.
The problem is that political institutions designed to manage conflicts and make policies in times of relative domestic peace, when there are few serious divisions of opinion, may break down when confronted by intense and long-lasting differences of the sort that now divide so many Americans. The two-party system, for example, seems to work best when there is considerable overlap between the political coalitions that constitute each party, since this permits relative “moderates” on each side to negotiate and reach compromise agreements. When the coalitions do not overlap and the parties separate ideologically, what stabilized the system in more peaceful times can turn out to be a source of instability, like an ocean liner’s stabilizers capsizing the ship in a heavy storm. In heavy political storms, some people believe that a multi-party system provides a better basis for governing effectively than a two-party system, since it may help satisfy people’s needs for effective government and meaningful participation.
Let’s talk about the two party system, but also about institutions like the American system of campaign financing, widely considered to be a thinly disguised form of officially sanctioned bribery. People interested in renovating democracy could also reconsider our winner-take-all voting systems, which prevent political minorities from sharing power (or, in the case of the electoral vote system, which disempower electoral majorities!). Would more participatory systems, like the cumulative voting used in some states and nations, be an improvement?
Finally, such discussions could be expanded well beyond electoral issues. For example, we know there are non-adversarial methods of problem solving, open to public participation, which may work better in some situations than the traditional methods of power politics. How might we move from a win-lose political culture towards cooperative problem solving?
I don’t have convincing answers to such questions. The only thing I’m certain of, in the words of the late Joan Rivers, is that “We need to talk” – and not just about Donald Trump’s foibles! The controversial presidential campaign and Mr. Trump’s activities in office have generated a great wave of political anxiety and interest in the country, but unless his opponents find ways to focus their thinking on a discrete number of vital issues – and unless they begin to discover creative, practical solutions to underlying systemic problems – the wave could leave them beached. (Remember the Occupy movement.)
Resist what needs to be resisted? Certainly! But, whatever else happens, let’s start talking now about what we are for, not just what we are against – that is about transformative solutions to real social problems.