The Obama years lulled the broad American left into a false sense of security, even a false sense of history. Obama, by his measured demeanor, by his political program, and by his very identity as our first black president, seemed to assure us that while the march of history was undoubtedly slow, it still moved in only one direction: in the direction of progress. His programs may have been limited, technical, difficult to capture in a slogan and hard to mobilize around, but their results (somewhat expanded access to healthcare, somewhat more limited dependence on fossil fuels, a slightly more friendly policy to America’s millions of undocumented immigrants, etc.) seemed to promise more progress down the line, even a gradual, technocratic advance towards social democracy; his blackness, meanwhile, reminded us of how far we’d come since the bad old days. Even leftists like me who pointed to the limits and compromises of this program, its inadequacy in the face of rising inequality and rising seas, felt at some level that we’d have time to work it out – that the rate of advance might be lamentable, but its direction was not in question.
This often unarticulated faith tinted the lens through which we saw the increasing radicalization of the Republican Party over the course of the Obama years: it was frightful but not really frightening. Its steadily increasing vehemence seemed to index its growing irrelevance to a younger, more racially diverse, more liberal electorate. The hardball parliamentary tactics, the increasingly extreme calls for austerity (cuts to healthcare, to pensions, to poverty programs), the emergence of what had once been a racist and nativist subtext into harshly explicit terms – all this seemed more like the flailing of a party increasingly unmoored to the will of the national electorate than a sign of things to come. When Trump beat out a bevy of established Republican politicians to win the party’s presidential nomination, despite increasingly desperate attempts by the party’s mainstream to stop him, this diagnosis only seemed more certain: the inability of mainstream Republicans to capture voters’ enthusiasm even within their own party spoke to how little they had to offer ordinary Americans beyond fiscal-conservative bromides, while the success of a candidate so deeply flawed and widely disliked demonstrated the intellectual and even moral bankruptcy of the Republican electorate itself. The whole business seemed not only farcical but atavistic, the death throes of a political project that would be forced slowly but surely either to adapt to modern American norms or fade away into history. This sublime confidence, more than Clinton’s (in retrospect quite narrow) lead in the polls and perhaps even more than Trump’s personal failings as a candidate, explains the American media’s virtually unanimous confidence in the months preceding the election that Trump would lose.
The shock among Democrats when he won was indescribable. The only thing I can think to compare it to in my lifetime was the aftermath of 9/11, but while the public public reaction to that even quickly found voice in the rhetoric of public mourning and collective vengeance, after Trump won no one knew quite what to say. Reactions ranged from denial (liberals donated thousands of dollars to a recount effort that had not the least chance of changing the result, and otherwise reasonable people believed or affected to believe that the American electoral college would break with more than a century of established procedure and hand the presidency to Clinton) to utter despair: if such things could happen, what was the point of it all? In the months after the election half the people I know experienced something like the symptoms of clinical depression; The Onion, the leading US humor magazine, published an article called “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: How Hillary Clinton Made It Okay for Women to Cry at Work.”
One of the consequences of the universal shock at Trump’s victory has been a sort of analytical overreaction among the commentariat: a tendency to understand Trump as an ideological trailblazer, forging a new political position which represented a break with traditional Republican politics and using it to create a new electoral majority. In its most intelligent form, this analysis read Trump together with Brexit as a voice of protest against the neoliberal global order, and that analysis is not without foundation. Trump broke with Republican tradition to decry free-trade deals and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt that has attended them, decried his primary opponents’ plans to cut pensions and healthcare for the elderly, and took the traditional Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric to new and unprecedently harsh levels. He also promised a major program of infrastructure investment and even at times seemed to suggest that he would push for a healthcare bill providing every American with coverage, something that has certainly never been on the Republican agenda and that even many Democrats see as impractical. Finally, his willingness to break with his party and criticize the Iraq War and his America First rhetoric seemed to promise a break with the longstanding bipartisan consensus in the US in favor of foreign adventurism. Some analysts saw Trump as attempting to remake the Republican Party, breaking with its libertarian, anti-tax, anti-worker agenda in favor of something closer to the European nationalist right’s acceptance of the welfare state. This Trump-exceptionalism has led to endless media fascination with the white working-class voters who supported Trump; literally hundreds of news stories have been published interviewing them and analyzing their views and motives.
The idea that Trump represents an ideological break with the past mistakes rhetoric for reality, however, while the notion that he has discovered a new electoral majority misses the forest for the trees. It’s true that some voters who went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 broke for Trump this time, but they’re a tiny minority; the overwhelming majority of those who supported Mitt Romney in 2012 voted for Trump this year, while those who voted for Obama last time mostly backed Clinton. And Clinton won more votes than Obama did, and far more than Trump – she wound up with a 2.9 million vote margin. The truth is that a fairly small number of swing votes plus a significant falloff in turnout among African-Americans (from unprecedented highs in the Obama years) produced Trump’s slim majority in a few key states.
Likewise, if Trump’s rhetoric really did represent a break with the Republican mainstream, it was clear before the election and has become much clearer since the inauguration that his policies would be far more conventional – and far less popular – than his words implied. Right from the beginning, Trump promised trillions of dollars in tax cuts going overwhelmingly to the very wealthy. His infrastructure plan, too, was not a public investment proposal but simply another tax cut, for private investors in privatized infrastructure programs. He refused to embrace any particular healthcare plan during the campaign, merely promising wonderful coverage, and as it turned out he had good reason to be evasive: the healthcare plan the Republicans introduced in March would have eliminated insurance for 24 million Americans, and proved so deeply unpopular that it failed to pass the fully Republican-controlled legislature despite the fact that repealing and replacing Obama’s signature healthcare legislation has been the central Republican campaign promise since 2008. Trump’s main break from previous Republican candidates, it turned out, was his willingness to lie more expansively and shamelessly than they had – unless, as has always seemed quite plausible, he simply does not know enough about public affairs to understand the consequences of the policies he advocates.
It is Trump’s very conventionality that has proved his most important weakness so far. One of the consequences of the Republican Party’s steady drift rightward since 2008 is that the party’s policy agenda has become increasingly unpopular – and after sounding like a maverick during the campaign, Trump appears to be hewing rather closely to this agenda. His healthcare bill had a poll approval rating of 17 per cent when it went down in flames, and the next big legislative agenda item, massive tax cuts aimed largely at the very wealthy, is equally unpopular. The administration’s proposed budget, which paired enormous cuts in domestic spending with a 10 per cent increase in the military’s budget, was met with near universal shock and horror – but his party’s triple commitment to major tax cuts, fiscal probity and militarism leaves little alternative. Nearly three months into office, with his own party in control of the legislature, he has yet to pass a major law.
This is the major paradox of American politics right now, and one that precedes Trump: Republican policies are profoundly unpopular, yet Republicans have been consistently winning an ever-growing number of elections. Democratic success at the top of the ticket during the Obama years masked electoral carnage at lower levels: Republicans have taken not only the House and Senate but more than a thousand state legislative seats since 2008. The new reality American liberals woke up to in November was not only the fact of Trump but a delayed recognition that the Democratic Party at the state level was in a state of disarray if not crisis. And it’s a self-reenforcing problem, since Republican state legislatures have not shrunk from using their power over the drawing of districts and the rules governing voting to make their majorities permanent. Twenty-five states are now under unified Republican control while Democrats control only six states. The possibility that Republicans might use their down-ticket dominance and America’s archaic electoral rules to build a semi-permanent governing majority seems very real.
How have Democrats responded? The left-liberal end of the US political spectrum entered the Trump era deeply divided after a bruising primary campaign between Clinton, the near-universal choice of Democratic elected officials, and Bernie Sanders, a left-wing candidate who describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” While Clinton won the primary decisively, Sanders carried an extraordinary 43 per cent of the vote and attracted the loyalty of a young, vocal and highly mobilized constituency committed to using the Democratic Party to turn the United States towards something resembling a European social democracy.
For Sanders supporters, 2016 was a very strange year – they learned, first, that a political orientation previously seen as so far outside the US mainstream as to be largely irrelevant had a constituency of millions and commanded something very close to a majority within the Democratic Party. Second, that the candidate of the Democratic Party establishment could lose against someone like Trump. Their reaction to Trump’s victory was near unanimous and well summarized by what has become their catchphrase, something between an inside joke and a slogan: “Bernie would have won.” In other words, only a left-populist political movement (of a kind not seen in the US since the 1960s) can defeat Trump and the Republican Party, and it is largely the corruption, fecklessness and compromise of the Clinton-affiliated Democratic Party that has brought us to this pass.
For Clinton supporters the diagnosis and the remedy alike are much less clear. They’re certainly acutely aware that the Democratic Party’s politics as usual has failed, catastrophically so, but they’re not sure yet how they want it to change, or even whether they want it to change. While Sanders supporters tend to see Trump as evidence that the governing elite has failed the people, Clinton supporters sometimes sound as though they think the people have failed the elites: the racism, nativism and ignorance of the ungrateful masses caused them to reject an incremental progressive program that would have helped them and was designed for their own good. It’s hard to see how one can construct a positive program out of this sense that the Democratic Party should, in Brecht’s words, “dissolve the people and elect another,” and so far none has emerged.
Despite their bitter mutual recriminations and internecine warfare, the Clinton and Sanders crowds do agree on one thing: a wholesale and vociferous rejection of Trump’s agenda. When various Democratic elected officials made noises in the aftermath of the election about the need for compromise, they met with wholesale rejection from both wings of the party’s base and quickly backed off; the Democratic base has now succeeded in largely enforcing party discipline against its politicians’ better judgment. At the federal level the clunky, archaic US political system now confronts a situation it has never encountered before: in a system built to encourage and require compromise, both parties are committed to scorched earth.
Another thing both wings of the resistance to Trump share is an enormous impulse to join political organizations. Left and liberal organizations of all kinds, from immigrants’ rights to environmental to socialist to labor solidarity, have seen attendance at their meetings increase between two- and tenfold. I personally joined the Democratic Socialists of America on November 9th, and that organization’s dues-paying membership has since increased to 20,000, making it the largest socialist organization in the United States since the Communist Party in the 1930s. Perhaps the most remarkable result of Trump’s win has been the hyperpoliticization of everyday life for his opponents; in a society where political engagement had been overwhelmingly limited to the expression of opinions, hundreds of thousands of people have felt the need to get directly involved. Most of these people will surely get bored and drop out in a few months, as Trump becomes the new normal and the situation loses its urgency, but some won’t.
What will those who stick around do? It’s an open question. The immediate aftermath of Trump’s inauguration saw the largest protests in US history, and his ban on travel from Muslim countries met with vociferous demonstrations, but such protests were soon faced with the fact of their own impotence: at the moment our opponents hold all the cards. With his travel ban blocked by court order, the healthcare law dead, and his approval rating low and getting lower, Trump looks vulnerable right now, but until the midterm elections in 2018 his power will be largely unchecked. Can the opposition convert collective outrate into electoral victory? Those elections will be the moment of truth.