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Thoughts before Trump’s presidency

By KAUSHIK SUNDER RAJAN

January 20 2017

 

If – and this is a big if – Democrats continue mobilizing immigrant voters of color, this election will be a reactionary blip in a longer-term pluralization and democratization of America.

In spite of all the assertions to the contrary, neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party has won a mandate in this election. In no other civilized democracy does the person who loses the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes get to declare himself the winner. Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory was larger than that by which JFK beat Nixon. The only reason Trump won was because of the convention of the electoral college: a convention that, in today’s demographic scenario, is racist, disproportionately privileging the electoral influence of white-majority states. This is very different from the Indian scenario in 2014, where Narendra Modi did win a mandate with large swathes of young, upwardly mobile voters supporting his reactionary agenda.

The youth in the United States don’t support Trump; people of color in in the US don’t support Trump; the majority of women don’t support Trump. Those, like Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof, who now hail Trump as “their” President whom they do not want to see fail, are normalizing a stolen election. They are abdicating their responsibility as stewards of representative democracy.

Similarly, those on the left who have spent their energies these past weeks blaming Hillary Clinton instead of venting their anger on the thieves who stole this election should be ashamed of themselves. Six months after the end of the primaries, there are those who still vent that Clinton stole the primary from Bernie Sanders – a primary that Clinton won by 3 million votes. Six weeks after the general election, many of those same people don’t seem similarly angry that Trump stole the election from Clinton – an election that Clinton won by 3 million votes. Perhaps in America, one has to lose an election by 3 million votes to be recognized as a representative of the people? (In my country, India, it’s the other way around).

This is not a mandate: a tale of two swings

Every day, in every way, if democracy in the United States is to be saved, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency has to be denied, questioned, and contested. The world cannot afford the normalization of another stolen election, 16 years after the last one.

If one looks beyond numbers to the actual patterns of this election, one sees a complex picture. Most “swing” elections see the electorate moving en masse towards one candidate or another. But in this election, one saw two swings, and they were in opposite directions. The one that is being spoken of ad nauseumof course is the rust belt swing towards Trump, including especially among voters who had voted for Obama. But the second, which no one seems to be talking about, was the swing in the Southwest towards Clinton, which was a function of large-scale, organized mobilization of Latino/a voters that the Democratic Party and grassroots organizations have been engaged with for over a decade. In 2004, the entire Southwest was won by Bush, even as John Kerry won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. 12 years later, Colorado and New Mexico are safely blue states; Nevada swung Clinton’s way in historically strong ways; Trump won Arizona by a mere 3.5% of the vote (less than the 4% that Gary Johnson polled – compare that to the 10.4% by which Bush beat Kerry, or even the 9% margin by which Romney beat Obama in 2012); even in Texas, Trump’s margin of victory was in the single digits, which would have unthinkable four years ago in a state that has long been a Republican bastion.

There is a lesson in this: the emergent demographics of this country continue to favor Democrats, the results of this election notwithstanding (a very different scenario, again, from the case in India today). If – and this is a big if – Democrats continue attending to and mobilizing immigrant voters of color, especially in regions that have been turning purple and blue in the South and Southwest over the past decade, then this election will be a reactionary blip in a longer-term pluralization and democratization of America. Yet the clarion call among many pundits, and also among many white Leftist intellectuals is to “abandon identity politics” and refocus energies on the white working class. The clarion call among many pundits, and also among many white Leftist intellectuals is to “abandon identity politics” and refocus energies on the white working class. This is fundamentally misplaced as electoral strategy. It sees politics as a zero-sum game between “identity” and “economics”, as if only the economic hardships of white voters are “economic issues”, and issues of racial justice and enfranchisement – which have to do with fundamental economic issues such as the consequence of incarceration of large sections of the African-American male population, or the exploitative conditions of sub-minimal wage informal labor that many undocumented immigrants experience – are not.

If this zero-sum logic is internalized, it will lead to a consolidation of a Trumpist sensibility well beyond the term(s) of his presidency.

The specific dangers of Trump 

It is worth teasing out the specific dangers of a Trump presidency from more general exploitative trends that might have happened with other presidents. Even a Clinton presidency would have been a neoliberal one, continuing the broad (and now in some ways untenable) structural consensus that has unfolded across partisan lines since Reagan. And a Republican presidency with someone other than Trump at the helm would have been neoliberal without the kind face that Democrats offer to the middle class, while also being structurally racist, sexist and anti-government in fundamental ways. What a Trump presidency offers are five additional attributes – (1) bad governance and indecency; (2) crony capitalism; (3) nihilism; (4) white xenophobic nationalism; and (5) a culture of masculinist bullying.

Whatever one thinks of the policies of the Obama Administration – and there were good and bad ones – he embodied personal decency and ran an administration that governed well. Hillary Clinton would have continued that. The dignity and poise she showed in her campaign, while dealing with a level of hate and vitriol that would never have been directed at a man, was simply extraordinary. And her investment in and experience with actual, thoughtful policymaking would have been good for the country and the world, even if the content of specific policies would undoubtedly have required opposition. But regardless of the specific policies that might be implemented or not, the Trump administration will very quickly show itself to be incapable of governing. Whatever one thinks of the policies of the Obama Administration – and there were good and bad ones – he embodied personal decency and ran an administration that governed well.

The cabinet of billionaires and deplorables that Trump has put together, each less qualified to man their post than the next, is an encyclopedia of anti-intellectualism and cronyism. And that alone will have disastrous consequences for normal people in their everyday lives, especially in situations of economic, environmental, public health or geopolitical crisis.

This leads to the second attribute this Administration will embody: crony capitalism. Beyond more generalized diagnoses of “neoliberalism” that circulate in Left intellectual circles, I think it is particularly important to understand the power of corporate capitalism in the history of American capitalism. (No one is a more astute analyst of the corporate form in American capitalism than Thorstein Veblen, and his writings are a must-read for anyone who wants to get a handle on certain longue-duree aspects of power and capitalism that are unfolding today). Veblen described the corporation as a “formal coalition of ownership”, one that puts its own interests above those of a broader public or citizenry. This is why a government that is based on corporate interests is always going to be structurally antithetical to one that is based on public interest, even if under certain market situations certain corporations might adopt progressive positions. Furthermore, Veblen demonstrated – a century ago – the tight structural interrelations between corporate capitalism, financial capital and monopoly capital, showing how each feeds upon the other to create a structure of vested interests. This structure, Veblen argued in The Vested Interests and the Common Man, is one that fundamentally threatens American liberal democracy, even as it necessarily leads to imperialist ambitions.

The particular ways in which financialized, monopolized corporate capitalism manifest today are not singular. First and structurally, Trumpism represents a virulent outgrowth or consequence of the kinds of economic policies that have been pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations alike for the past three decades. For instance, if there has been one constant in American economic policy through and since the 1990s, it has been the presence of Goldman Sachs in the Treasury Department. This would have continued in a Clinton Administration, and was precisely what the Sanders campaign was calling out.

Second, there has for decades been a strong corporate lobby in the corridors of American power, in ways that are perhaps structurally more consolidated than in any other advanced liberal democracy. Some of this is normalized and naturalized (various corporate lobbies in Washington, for example); some is more militant (the Koch Brothers’ attempt to literally buy the government, facilitated in great measure by Citizens United). But Trump represents a third variant, an oligarchic, kin-based crony capitalism that relies upon feudal patronage networks. The flavor of Trumpism is one that shares kinship with various kinds of mafia capitalism (earlier Italian and more recent Russian varietals); despots that operate personal fiefdoms under formally liberal democratic conditions, to degrees allowed by their respective national institutions (Mugabe, Zuma); economies that operate as much or more through informalized circuits as formal one (India’s black market); more generally, one in which vested corporate interests don’t feel the need to operate with a veneer of institutional propriety. It signifies a return to the robber-baron capitalism of late nineteenth century America. Trump’s own short-term interests are always more important than longer-term class horizons, which makes him a less predictable steward of capitalist class interests than Hillary Clinton would have been.

Such capitalism extends its tentacles in ways that are felt by everyday citizens and consumers as corruption, through a removal of consumer protections and a proliferation of brokerage networks, again a different flavor from the more rarefied and invisible (if no less powerful) forms of corporate corruption that already operate in the corridors of American power. But it is a form of capitalism that is unpredictable for capitalist interests themselves, because it puts kin ahead of class. One of the fundamental tensions of corporate capitalism is the balance that has to be struck between the market interests of individual, competing corporate entities, and the interests of the corporate class as a whole. The American corporate class has been particularly good at acting out its class interests (the power of corporate lobbies and monopolistic tendencies aiding in this); for Trump however, his own short-term interests are always more important than longer-term class horizons, which makes him a less predictable steward of capitalist class interests than Hillary Clinton would have been, even as he is a corporatist through and through. This unpredictability is not good for anybody – it will lead to market volatility, consolidations of oligarchic market interests and the like – but it brings an element of instability into the core trajectory of corporatization in this country over coming years.

This feature of instability is at the core of another feature of Trumpism, its nihilism. This is especially marked in the sentiments of the white nationalist core of Trumpism and of the powerful Steve Bannon constituency; but it is an attribute of Trump himself. Nihilists like to break things; they tend to be less specific about what they break. A lot of things will be broken that ordinary, decent people care about. But more powerful apparatuses can also be broken in unpredictable ways. Trump’s disdain for the expertise of the intelligence agency, for instance, potentially punctures an unquestioned institutional authority that the American security state has wielded without question through and since the Cold War. It should not be a progressive priority at this moment to rush to the defense of the CIA.

This does not make Trump less dangerous: the idea that somehow his presidency will be more globally disengaged and therefore less imperial than Obama’s was or Clinton’s would have been is fundamentally misplaced. It is good when bad things break; but they leave dangerous shards that scatter. (The post-Soviet defense establishment in Russia is a case in point). Trump’s disregard for expertise can be dangerous, not just to imperialist American security interests but to ordinary people, and is a part of a consistent disregard for thoughtful policy engagement across multiple domains, ranging from public health to climate change. And the so-called “disengagement” that he professes, combined with his own geopolitical philosophy that is founded on extortion and bullying, will likely embolden other regional autocrats to play violent and adventurous games that increase the likelihood of multiple conflagrations around the world. I can certainly see Putin and Netanyahu (emboldened by support), Modi (emboldened by a desire to show bravado and masculinity) and Xi (emboldened by antagonism and a desire to flex muscles) all engaging in dangerous regional adventurisms of various kinds during a Trump presidency, especially if (as is already the case) each finds himself in domestically vulnerable situations.

White nationalism

The fourth aspect of Trumpism is the white nationalism. The idea that this will dissipate now that Trump has won the election is absurd, because white nationalists are Trump’s only core constituency and they will demand their pound of flesh. The one intelligent member of Trump’s cabinet is also his most powerful, Steve Bannon. And the white nationalist desire of the campaign has at no point been subtle. The idea that somehow the very same people who have gobbled up fake news and conspiracy theories will suddenly see the light when Trump fails to deliver on his economic promises is foolhardy. On the contrary.

But the heart of the matter is that white nationalism speaks to the core of Trump’s own narcissistic desires. He is not interested in governance or policy; he is interested in the constant, megalomaniacal reinforcement of his own self-importance. This will only happen through the mass rally, the quintessential political form of fascism. Anyone who thinks the campaign is over is mistaken – the one thing that we can be assured of are more campaign-style rallies, repeatedly, over the course of the coming years. This will especially be the case if the economy starts stumbling, as it most certainly will due to bad governance, bad economic policy and market instability. The idea that somehow the very same people who have gobbled up fake news and conspiracy theories will suddenly see the light when Trump fails to deliver on his economic promises is foolhardy. On the contrary, it is precisely when Trump fails to deliver economically that the virulence of his xenophobic rhetoric will reach a crescendo, as he identifies scapegoats to target and attack for the failures of his Administration.

What this will mean for immigrants and Muslims in this country is still an open question. While something as radical as a Muslim registry is not unthinkable – and this country has a horrendously checkered history when it comes to protecting the rights of its vulnerable populations when fear is stoked – I think it is institutionally one of the more difficult things to contemplate, not only because it will garner enormous political opposition, but also because the infrastructure for it doesn’t as readily exist. Mass deportation of undocumented immigrants is another matter, because the Obama Administration has actually built the infrastructure – infrastructure that did not exist under Bush – to facilitate this. Mass surveillance, on a scale matching and exceeding that of the Hoover era, is also a given, and also facilitated by security state infrastructure that the Obama Administration has nurtured. Most certainly, what will increase, as is always the case under far-right authoritarianism, is vigilantist violence of various kinds, ranging from various forms of hate speech and hate crimes (my campus has already been plastered with posters of Hitler bearing swastikas), to more egregious forms of sexist “locker-room” bravado (the justification and intensification of rape cultures in various institutional settings), to lone-ranger acts of terrorism like Pizzagate. Everyday life, in other words, will be subject to far more bodily vulnerability for those who are not white men, even as the subjectivity of white male anger/ fear/ hurt/ insecurity/ vulnerability will be endlessly pontificated upon by many shades of punditry (including leftist). In other words, the physical brutality of white nationalism will be thickened by institutions of white patriarchy that render violated bodies and subjects further invisible.

This leads to the final attribute of Trumpism, which was at the heart of his election victory: patriarchy and masculinity. Some of this manifested as explicit sexism towards a woman who was aspiring above the glass ceiling. (In my country, a woman was Prime Minister at a time when voting rights were still being extended to people of color here; it is true American exceptionalism that this country still cannot bring itself to elect a woman as its leader). The way in which this election was an assertion of male privilege as much as it was of white privilege cannot be overstated.

But there is a much broader tapestry to this which extends far beyond Trump to American institutional and corporate culture itself, which is one of masculinist bullying. (Roddey Reid has been writing relentlessly about this for years, and he is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand some of the cultural contours of this kind of verdict and its aftermath). The way in which this election was an assertion of male privilege as much as it was of white privilege cannot be overstated. While sexism and patriarchy exist across the world, the particular forms it takes here in the US – and the kinds of bullying entitlement it manifests as – still strikes me, as an outsider, as particularly perverse. It is important to recognize that there is sexism and racism to this election that cannot be reduced to economics or seen as simply an epiphenomenal or cultural manifestation of the economic. Fanon, Baldwin and feminist theory are as essential to a decoding of this election as Marx, Weber or Veblen.

Openings in spaces not on fire

In sum, we are in for an awful time. Many of us are not among the most vulnerable people who will be targeted, though a lot of us are in institutions – such as the university – that will come under enormous structural attack.

All of us however will be touched in some way by the awfulness to come, at the very least because the forms of life and of flourishing that we try to build and nurture – based on some level of care, nurturing, human decency, and civic responsibility – will be relentlessly attacked and vigorously dismantled. But we will still have to get up in the morning and believe that some kind of better future is possible. As one of my friends put it to me, we have to find the spaces where the fire is not burning and seek to expand them. Part of the reason for my writing this is that I am still trying to figure out how.

One thing that social scientists and humanists are good at is structural diagnosis, so that is the level at which I want to think aloud. At least three structural elements I can think of are (1) the importance of thinking about economic dynamics alongside subjective, affective and psychodynamic issues concerning race and gender in ways that do not posit a zero-sum equation between the two; (2) the importance of channeling progressive energies through the Democratic Party and not abandoning it; and (3) the importance of thinking about what transnational solidarity would look like. Let me begin with (1).

At the very same historical moment that Veblen was critiquing financialized, monopolized, American corporate capital in The Vested Interests, Vladimir Lenin was arguing the very same thing in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. If Lenin was invested in an overthrow of capitalism and in making the world safe for a communist alternative, then Veblen was invested in making the world safe for liberal democracy. Regardless of one’s position on the spectrum of liberal/progressive/left sentiment, there is a case to be made for rethinking Veblen’s diagnosis alongside Lenin’s and considering the dangers presented by financialized, monopolized corporate capital to democracy today. For, just as in the 1920s and 1930s, the crisis of liberal representative democracy has opened it to the possibility of structural alternatives oriented towards distributive justice (whether of more communist or more liberal welfare state varieties) on the one hand, and to fascism on the other.

It is vital to recognize the rise of xenophobic nationalisms in this country and globally as consequent to a structure of financialized, monopolized (and extractive) corporate capital that is far more intensified than a century ago. The potential for a descent into the cycle of violence that Trumpism represents is real and immediate, and there are no guarantees that existing institutional checks and balances can save us. But equally, the potential for scripting progressive economic alternatives exists, and indeed has been seen in this country in the trajectory from Occupy Wall Street through the Bernie Sanders campaign, and also in many movements for economic justice that have not been recognized as such because they have been driven by people of color and marginalized groups. (How can Standing Rock, for instance, not have been seen as a world-historical stand for economic justice, among many other things?). Realizing this potential requires building coalitions – not necessarily or yet across the aisles to Trump voters, but certainly between those who have different shades of liberal/progressive opinion. Looking for ideological purity at this point is certain to consolidate the very forces on the Right who yearn for such purity themselves. Thinking about a praxis that is both radical and coalitional is vital. Looking for ideological purity at this point is certain to consolidate the very forces on the Right who yearn for such purity themselves.

However, at the risk of sounding crass, I insist that such a coalitional politics cannot be progressive if it is built with white men at the centre; if heteronormative white male patriarchy constantly remains the unmarked category in relation to which all other categories of race, gender and sexuality come to be marked only as peripheral “identity” interests.

Consider some of the most important nodes of emergent progressive praxis leading up to and beyond the election, for example: (1) Culinary Union Local 226, an example of the kind of organization that was behind Democrats sweeping Nevada in one of their strongest and most stunning successes of this election. This is a union of service workers, with strong Hispanic composition and leadership, which was at the forefront of door-to-door mobilizing in the election, building dialogues with the kinds of white working class voters who ended up supporting Trump in the mid-West. The union’s success was not merely electoral; they have brought Trump International to the negotiating table, and Trump Hotel Las Vegas workers now have a union contract, showing that at a time when unions are being eviscerated across the mid-West, new formations of organized labor with more cosmopolitan demographics are emerging in the Southwest. (2) Rev. William Barber’s “Moral Monday” civil rights protests in Raleigh, North Carolina, a movement of racial and economic justice that has built coalitions with white workers and developed an ethical discourse that rises above partisan considerations to think about what an inclusive civic polity might aspire for and look toward.

Such coalition building was central to Democrats defeating the vile, disgusting Pat McCrory in the Governor’s race, in spite of North Carolina being the state that saw perhaps the most systematic forms of voter suppression anywhere in the country (disenfranchisement that almost certainly was the largest factor in costing Clinton the state).

(3) Standing Rock itself, which brought together a battle for Native American dignity and sovereignty with national and global environmental concerns – crucially in ways that refused an appropriation of the issue by an unmarked environmentalism and that refused a silencing of indigenous voices and demands.

Or (4) the Women’s March on Washington in DC to come, which I am convinced will be a historic event, and signify the beginning of a sustained emergence of new forms of feminist praxis, including among women who have previously not politically organized, fueled both by a disgust of the kinds of masculinity that Trumpism represents but also by the attack of women’s health and reproductive freedom that is bound to come from Republicans in the months to come.

In other words, there is not just opposition to Trump; there are all manner of consolidated and emergent social movements and templates for it. But not a single significant one is driven by white male constituencies, interests or framing. If leftists are looking for a labor movement to take back the white working class from Trump, then the white male is not going to be the driving agent of this historical alternative. If leftists are looking for a labor movement to take back the white working class from Trump, then the white male is not going to be the driving agent of this historical alternative.

The Democratic Party

But in the United States, it is important to imagine the Democratic Party as an ally, and it requires seizing the Party as one avenue through which progressive change can be instantiated. Even as the Democratic Party remains at its core a corporatist, neoliberal party, the capacity to make distinctions is vital to any genuinely progressive politics. And the Democratic Party has, especially over the past decade and consequent to enormous grassroots effort, been a vehicle that has not merely been responsive to progressive demands, but has welcomed progressive constituencies into its fold.

A decade ago, a conversation that had economic inequality as the centerpiece of national politics was inconceivable; in this campaign, it was central to the Democratic primary, and even if its candidate lost to his more corporatist opponent, the resulting party platform was arguably the most progressive in history. The potential new head of the DNC, Keith Ellison, represents precisely the kind of class-race coalitional leader that one could most hope for: African-American, with strong ties to the NAACP, but also a Wellstonian Democrat, coming out of a history of mid-Western labor politics whose ethos is still essential to any progressive imaginary today. (The fact that even friends of mine have said that he is disqualified on account of being a Muslim speaks to the deep ways in which particular kinds of xenophobia operate such that they are internalized across the political spectrum, exceeding economic structure and rationality). To simply parrot on that the Democratic Party is the “lesser of two evils” – as many on the Left do – is to be empirically blind to the genuine, and rare, potential that the opposition party in the US affords.

This is entirely unlike the Congress Party in India today, which is a vacuous, evacuated, dynastic non-alternative to Modi’s BJP, with no kernel of progressive sentiment or resonance, and no potential grassroots base that can be the basis of a more progressive representative alternative. To simply parrot on that the Democratic Party is the “lesser of two evils” – as many on the Left do – is to be empirically blind to the genuine, and rare, potential that the opposition party in the US affords to actually channel popular opposition through existing institutional channels. It would be a folly of world-historic proportions for progressives to engage in such ideological (and ultimately theological) purity that they fail to recognize this.

Transnational solidarity

And finally, this leads to one of the ways in which one can most starkly see the potential of the Democratic Party (and the still real potential of a state that can be seized towards more progressive ends). This is by comparing it to other situations (such as India) where such opposition does not exist within the representative political spectrum. This requires a sensibility that is both comparative and non-parochial. Two of the most useful analyses I have read since the November election, by Sandro Mezzadra and Michael Hardt, and by Etienne Balibar, have argued for the importance of building transnational solidarity in an era of transnational right-wing mobilization. This is something that I feel is most essential, and something I feel most pessimistic about, situated in the US. Because the parochialism of this country – which in many ways is more backward than many other representative democracies in the world, but still constantly prides itself on its vanguard exceptionalism – is staggering. The parochialism of this country – which in many ways is more backward than many other representative democracies in the world, but still constantly prides itself on its vanguard exceptionalism – is staggering.

With notable exceptions, this parochialism extends its tentacles deep into progressive echelons. America’s universities are rich in the voices, perspectives and democratic expertise of international students – many of whom have been involved in activist and knowledgeable ways in student movements ranging from India to South Africa to Korea – but I wonder how much these are heard? Now more than ever, what Jean and John Comaroff have called a “theory from the South” is necessary: modes of building political sensibility and civic solidarity that draw lessons from other parts of the world, especially the global South, which allow for a certain situated understanding of the contours of contemporary American politics, even if the specifics are necessarily different.

It is by thinking and learning across these domains – of thinking structural political economy from subject positions of marked bodily vulnerability, while attending to the global dimensions and dynamics of right-wing political transformations today, all the while channeling them through representative political institutions and parties even as they are made more radical and accountable to progressive popular sentiment – that we can nurture and grow the bits of our worlds that are not already on fire.

Originally Published Open Democracy 

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