In the end, Van Jones and not Slavoj Zizek is right. The Trump tide, Jones argued, was a “whitelash,” not just against eight years of Obama, but more deeply against the idea of what 59 million mostly rural and small city whites regard as America. Given the intensity of the race and immigrant baiting in Trump’s campaign and given his total lack of appeal to Latino and Black voters, racism has to emerge as the dominant explanation of his victory.
What that means for the future is not- as the lamentable and politically stupid Zizek thinks- a final provocation which will push Americans towards communist revolution– but the emboldening of the most politically backward and vicious elements of American society. When Trump fails to deliver on his promises towards them they are not going to become Communists, they will double down on their hatred and xenophobia.
On what basis do I make this assertion? The media relentlessly tracked Trump’s lies, they obsessively repeated his violent sexist comments about women, they interviewed the women whom he allegedly assaulted, they made fun of his gaffs and mannerisms, they mocked his qualifications, they catalogued his business failures, and it made no difference. He deflected every criticism in the same way: “The establishment” is thwarting me. Stand by me. I am with you.” Who can say now that this strategy was not stunningly successful? When the steel mills of Pennsylvania and the auto factories of Michigan fail to re-open, he will deflect blame again, and, absent any coherent and credible response form the left (and there might be a coherent response but it will not be credible, at least not in the short term) he will survive, cocooned in the racial anger underlying his success.
If there is going to be a coherent and credible response, where will it come from? The radical left? They (we) will have the appropriate (and defensible) arguments, but insignificant numbers of people will read them. The respectable left-liberals of academia, the quality press, and the intelligentsia of Democratic Party? Last night’s results answer this question. They will make arguments that appeal to the 58 million people who voted for Clinton, but there is no evidence they can move the 59 million who voted for Trump to their camp.
In the early nineteenth century Hegel wrote that a historical period in which the contradictions of social life had become polarized needs philosophy to help resolve those contradictions. Philosophy would resolve the contradictions by revealing the point of overlap of the opposed positions on which a synthesis can be constructed. Marx, eschewing synthesis for revolution, nevertheless still stood in Hegel’s shadow when he argued that radical social transformation occurs only when the conditions are right, only when classes cannot cooperate in any way any longer, and the subordinate rise up to reconstruct society on the basis a more comprehensive set of values that ensure the satisfaction of their life-interests. He also noted another possibility: the mutual ruin of the contending classes. The depth of opposition in the United States right now feels more like a situation that threatens mutual ruin than one which will lead to resolution on the basis of a more comprehensively inclusive value system.
The analogy with Marx here is imprecise, because the class struggle going on right now in the United States is not between the working class and the ruling class, but between at least three segments of the working class. On the one hand, the traditional white working class, the working class of industry and industrial unionism, is, through the desperate rear-guard action of electing Trump, trying to re-establish a secure place in the contemporary capitalist economy. Their lives and life-conditions have been ravaged by the last forty years of capitalist globalization, of freeing capital and keeping people (except the rich) pinned in place. Their jobs have disappeared, their pensions have been stolen, the future of their children jeopardized. They are angry, and they should be angry, and their needs must be satisfied.
However, in the absence of a trade union movement and radical left with: a) a coherent policy response to these changes, and b) the numbers and credibility to put theory into practice, the rage of the white industrial working class is being directed to two other segments with whom they ultimately need to build alliances. On the one hand is the Black and Latino working class, working in the same or worse precarious service jobs, under the table employment, or unemployed. On the other hand is the newly emergent working class of educated urban professionals and their support staffs (workers, in Marx’s sense, because they do not own the means of production, but ‘middle class’ in the popular imagination). This section has acquired the education and skills to find or build niches in new techno-culture industries. They live in large cities, typically on the east or west coast, far from the “fly over states” where some of their parents and families might still live. Just as young Britons were shocked and angered by the Brexit vote, so too will these young professionals be appalled by Trump. They should be, but they need to spend a weekend at home and listening to and arguing with their families. Dismissive epithets are understandable, but the problems that America is facing right now are going to require understanding the anger of the abandoned America. And once that understanding has been achieved, then everyone can sit down and figure out politically a new way forward.
One condition of ultimate success in this project is that all hope for short-term recovery must be abandoned. A few days before the election left-liberal pundits were speculating that the Republican party’s future was in question. Really? They have the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. It is the Democrats who are in crisis. They have alienated completely their most politically energetic and progressive constituency: the young voters who mobilized in their millions for Sanders, (who taught, at the very least, that the word socialism can be a mobilising tool in the United States). This whole new layer of activists were taught two nasty lessons. The first, in party real politk, that entrenched leaderships will conspire against heterodox candidates. The second, in political dynamics, that in times of crisis (or perceived crisis) the safe option does not win.
Now is the time for those young people to have the courage of their convictions and get out of the Democratic Party once for all.
There needs to be some new national political force built, one that does not see the old as sacrificial victims of the new but prioritizes transitional programs for people displaced by new technological developments, so that they can move from manufacturing to other forms of meaningful work rather than brutalized and degrading precarious employment. This new movement needs to continue to push for living wages and revitalized, democratic, multi-racial unions, but it also needs to draw conservative white workers into a conversation about why gay and lesbian and trans culture is not a threat to them, why the traditional is the way things were done but not the way they have to be done, that new horizons of possibility open up with technological and cultural change, and that diversity can be an exciting cultural strength, not a threat.
It needs to draw on the history of American Freedom that Eric Foner traced, a history in which individual freedom was understood socially and not as a gift from God, as the result of collective struggles (against the British colonialists, against white slave owners, as in the brief period of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War, of the sit down strikes and struggles to legitimize trade unions, the civil rights struggle, and the myriad of radical struggles through the 1960’s.
But history does not work according to a logic of abstract demands. People do not do what theories predict they will do. (As a case in point, consider that the polls were, once again, off, as they were in Brexit. This fact should give pause to everyone who thinks human life and struggle can be mapped and comprehended by machine algorithms). I expect that the broad left in the United States (liberals, in their idiosyncratic use of that term) will be in for many dark nights. But they will not emerge from this crisis unless they turn to the spirit of American inventiveness to start to build some new political vehicle for their values and goals. And they will not be able to build that vehicle unless they listen to what “the other America” of the twenty-first century said last night. The important lessons in politics are taught by voices progressives would rather not hear.