The freedom movements in the U.S., and indeed around the world, have been dealt a serious blow with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. This is one moment when “staring the negative in the face” without succumbing to either despair or superficial explanations of the reason for his election becomes especially important.
It is worth keeping in mind that Trump’s victory,
serious as it is, hardly constitutes a
mandate, given that Clinton obtained almost two million more popular votes than Trump. And this was despite widespread voter suppression in many states, where tens of thousands—especially African Americans and poor whites—were denied their right to vote (we can hardly consider it a “democracy” when some need to travel 50 miles to find a voting booth—which only seems to happen in areas that don’t vote Republican). Nevertheless, Trump will continue to proceed as though he has a mandate, and that is very serious business. One reason he can get away with this is that the Republican establishment that earlier denounced him over fear that he would wreck the party are now embracing him for delivering every branch of government into their hands.
Nothing would be more shortsighted than to think that Trump will prove to be the Syriza of the Right—that is, that he will disappoint his followers by accommodating to the neoliberal status quo and carrying out business as usual. He means what he says, and his cabinet appointees—which place outright neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the most powerful institutions in the land—provide ample proof of that. Given the magnitude of the events, it is worthwhile to underline the following…
First, we must not underestimate the fact that the rabid racists, sexists, and anti-leftists who felt emboldened and unleashed by Trump’s campaign now feel free to directly move against everyone and anyone they disagree with—from anti-racist activists to feminists and from defenders of LGBTQ rights to those who challenge a pro-capitalist agenda. We already see many signs of this in the many Trump supporters and sympathizers—some of whom may not have openly revealed their political biases before the election—who are now harassing Latinos, Muslims, and others by saying “looks like it is time for you to start packing your bags.” Such verbal harassment will no doubt take on a more virulent expression, especially when it comes to African Americans, immigration activists, and others who have made (and will continue to make) their voices heard against all that Trump and his followers stand for.
Second, while we have seen many such nefarious figures comes to power in the past—just recall Nixon’s 1968 election with his policy of “benign neglect” of African Americans or Reagan’s election of 1980 which ushered in an entire generation of political retrogression—Trump will have many tools at his disposal that they lacked, such as complete Republican control of both houses of Congress and an army of dedicated followers (in the literal sense of the word, given the level of their gun possession). Trump will quickly move to dismantle every progressive enactment or piece of legislation that remains on the books—from ending DACA (the executive ruling that allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth to be protected from deportation) and Obamacare (which despite its many defects provided access to medical insurance for 20 million people). But even this is but the beginning, since he will have the opportunity to stack the Supreme Court with the most reactionary figures imaginable while promoting “tax reform” that will make the economic inequality generated over the past several decades (largely thanks to the perfidity of the Democrats) look like child’s play by comparison. Do not be surprised if one of his first acts in office is to push for a nationwide “right to work” statue.
Trump’s impact on international developments has to be watched just as closely. It would not be hard for him to openly ally with Putin’s effort to keep Assad in power—after all, that is the direction U.S. policy-makers under Obama were headed anyway and he has no concern with how many Syrians are murdered by Assad’s regime. There is no evidence that Trump will be any more understanding of the plight of the Palestinians than any of his predecessors in the White House, and a lot of evidence that he would be a lot worse—especially given the venom he spills against Muslims as a whole. And his proclamation that he will pull the plug on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal (an action that will certainly be warmly greeted by Netanayahu) threatens a renewal of hostilities that could well lead to a new war on the U.S.’s part in the Middle East.
The most nefarious impact of Trump on the world scene will be his effort to dismantle any and all agreements to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. The Paris Accords (weak as they were) are now almost certainly dead. Humanity is being moved all the closer to an irreversible tipping point when it comes to global warming. All of this adds up to a massive shift not only in U.S. politics but globally (since his election will embolden the National Front in France, the UKIP in Britain, the BJP in India, and the many other rightwing racist nationalist parties in Europe and elsewhere).
Third, today we are being inundated with an array of analyses by Monday-morning quarterbacks arguing that it was easy to see why Trump won, given the emphasis on “identity politics” and the supposed ignoring of the white working class by liberals and leftists (why none of those making these claims predicted his victory before the election is not explained). Surely, there are plenty of reasons to take issue with those who ignore or dismiss the white working class, just as it is evident that not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist (though a great many surely are). A sizeable number of white workers who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 went for Trump, and their votes may have been enough for several swing states to go Trump’s way. But this is hardly reassuring, since Trump is clearly a racist and sexist and everyone who voted for him had to know that he is a racist and sexist. Are we therefore supposed to conclude that anger over a deteriorating economy and lack of recognition by “coastal elites” provides a logical explanation for why so many voted for a xenophobe? Or does racism have much deeper roots, in the nature of a social system that so hollows out human relations that many who fail to question it seek solace and compensation by demonizing the “Other”? Many seem to have forgotten one of the most important insights of Frantz Fanon (which he largely drew from his reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew): namely, that the reasons for racism are not to be found in the characteristic or actions of the victims of racism but rather in the psychosis of its perpetrators.
It also deserves mentioning that few commentators seem to mention that there is no group in the U.S. that has suffered more from deindustrialization, neoliberalism, and the denial of recognition of their worth and dignity than African Americans. Yet somehow they overwhelmingly voted against Trump. On what grounds, therefore, is it possible to argue that economic distress is the sole or even the main factor driving support for Trump?
Benji Hart, a young Black queer femme activist with Radical Faggot, put it well when he stated: “We’ve pushed against the very walls of empire, demanded they be pulled up at their foundation, and empire is pushing back. We expected this. We’ve prepared for this, and now it is happening on a larger scale. This is a mark of our success, not our defeat. This is a testament to the force of our organizing, an indicator of our political strength. This is proof that our movements are working. Let’s not, when faced with what we always knew was coming, abandon movement. When fighting militarization, expect a militarized response. When confronting racism, expect bigotry. When demanding abolition, expect material consequences for those demands. Expect the systems you fight to fight back with every tool that makes them poisonous. Now is not the time to retreat. To reflect? Absolutely. To process our fear and hurt together? Let’s be sure we do that. To reevaluate our tactics and reach out to new communities that can help us deepen them? Yes. But it’s not time to be intimidated. It is a moment to recognize our conviction, look with clarity at our collective potential and keep moving” (See Love Notes from the Margins: How We’ll Survive These Times,” by Kelly Hayes, Truthout, Nov. 17, 2016).
Surely, the last thing we need at this juncture is to plunge into utter despair, just as we must not brush off the seriousness of the situation. Simply responding with one more claim that these events disclose “the backwardness of the masses” will get us nowhere.
To be sure, the ability of Trump to win so convincingly has much to do with the pathetic failure of Clinton to mount an effective opposition. It was not only that she ran a incoherent campaign that failed to produce a single significant idea that could clearly explain why anyone should vote for her (she apparently thought she could win simply by emphasizing her “experience” and “temperament” as compared to Trump). More damning was that she ran as the defender of the status quo and neoliberal policies that have produced such damage over the past several decades—despite her effort to mildly distance herself from aspects of it by adopting Sanders’s positions on TPP and college tuition. That she didn’t think it important to devote considerable time to states like Michigan and Wisconsin and bypassed opportunities to directly address the concerns of working class voters sort of tells the tale. Nevertheless, those who place the entire blame on Clinton for Trump’s victory are missing a critical point. Male chauvinism clearly was pivotal in the electoral outcome. That Trump could manage to grow his support even after the evidence of his history of sexual abuse became widely known is a very disturbing sign of the sexism that is endemic to this society.
There is another lesson of this election that is no less significant. Clinton’s defeat may show that neoliberalism is in crisis, but that does not in any way mean that it points to a weakening of the hegemony of capitalism. In fact, it is now clear how wrong it was for many leftists to focus their politics for the past two decades on attacking “neoliberalism”—without ever getting to explicitly oppose the logic of capital as a whole and articulate an alternative to it. Trump is part of a worldwide rejection of neoliberalism on the part of reactionary forces that feel it has failed to live up to its promise. But today’s collapse of neoliberalism does not represent a step forward, but a reactionary move to atavistic nationalism, racism, and misogyny. Capitalism may be turning away from its neoliberal phase as convincingly as it earlier dropped Keynesianism. But this time the situation is far more serious, since this statist rejection of free trade and global integration—based as it is on a racist and misogynist agenda—clearly has mass support. In this sense, those on the Left who are celebrating these latest developments as signaling the death of neoliberalism seem not to notice that what we are getting in its place is corporate capitalism with neo-fascist overtones. They have fixated on neoliberalism for so long that they seem unable to even recognize what a challenge to capitalism entails.
Trump’s victory clearly shows that rightwing opponents of neoliberalism have found a way to speak to disaffected segments of the working class by draping their critique of neoliberalism in racist and misogynist terms —all as part of ensuring, at one and the same time, that capitalism itself remains unquestioned. This issues a serious challenge to revolutionaries, since it signals that Trump’s populist appeal cannot be combatted on economic or class terms alone. Since racist animus is clearly the stratagem being used by such reactionary forces to appeal to those who have that have grown disenchanted with aspects of neoliberalism, we must begin and end our opposition to it with a firm and uncompromising rejection of any program, tendency, or initiative that in any way, shape or form dovetails—no matter how indirectly—with racist and/or anti-immigrant sentiment. Any other approach will simply lead to a failure to distinguish a genuine critique of class inequality, trade deals, and globalization from reactionary ones.
Peter Hudis is author of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Brill, 2012). He edited The Rosa Luxemburg Reader(MRP, 2004) and The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2013). He is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton Community College.
Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades by Peter Hudis is available from Pluto Press.