There’s been a lot of speculation about what will happen if Trump is elected. Less discussed, but no less consequential is what will happen if Clinton is elected. This past summer, a group of progressive activists were gathered from across the country at White Salmon, Washington by ChangeLab, a national racial justice thought laboratory, to discuss the implications of the Trump and Clinton candidacies. This article is based on that discussion and subsequent observation and analysis of the odd, frankly frightening, events that have unfolded in this election season since then:
One popular thread suggests that if Trump is elected he will either moderate in order to govern, or his will be a Rose Garden presidency during which we will be ruled by committee, with Trump sidelined by the GOP, perhaps by his own volition. The result is that public policy during his administration will not be nearly as extreme as has been assumed.
Digging deeper, this scenario has some serious implications –
- Trump’s white nationalist base may react to a more moderate Trump by rebelling and coalescing into an independent movement much as the evangelical right did in response to Reagan who they played a decisive role in electing only to find later that they were to be included as only one part of a larger GOP coalition opposed to key parts of their agenda.
- In any scenario in which Trump is elected, the right wing, and especially the paramilitary arm of the right, will be emboldened, reading Trump’s victory as a sign that it is time to more aggressively compete for power, especially at the local and state level, and most especially in largely rural states.
- Trump’s election, combined with upticks in right wing organizing and violence, may have a chilling effect on those perceived to be enemies of Trump, some of whom will either go underground or greatly moderate their demands, much as did many groups during the years of the “Reagan revolution.”
- Even a more moderate Trump is likely to move a highly repressive law and order agenda at all levels, including through ICE and local law enforcement, NSA spying, etc., especially targeting American Muslims, dissident factions on the Left, and communities of color generally.
- The election of Trump will very likely have the effect of pulling the political center to the right, causing the Democratic Party to move in a more conservative direction in order to capture moderate Republicans alienated by the alt right/Trump, and exacerbating preexisting divisions between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and more moderate factions. Or, in the unlikely event that the Democratic Party leans to the left as the center of gravity moves to the right, even more extreme polarization will result, with predictable, largely negative, consequences.
Others suggest that if Trump wins, he will deliver what he’s promised, dialing up state repression, using federal law enforcement and the IRS to go after his enemies, including social movements on the Left, forcing extreme austerity measures on the bottom 90%, instituting immigration quotas and bans or simply foreclosing on any possibility of humane reform and expanding the current deportation regime. And, what is more difficult to oppose through popular protest, many predict that he will open the door to extreme crony capitalism.
Some political dynamics that could result include –
- The GOP will not be able to tolerate the pressure of a Trump presidency and split into factions. The Democratic Party may respond to this in a number of ways, including by moving to the right, as described above, in order to include a rebel conservative faction and marginalize the Republican right wing, a move that might, in turn, cause the Democratic Party to also split, with the progressive wing of the party rebelling.
- While the prospect of the major parties splitting is sometimes described as an opportunity, there are historical precedents that indicate this possibility is also rife with danger. When major institutions of power are weak, popular movements generally rise to compete for power. The problem of this time for progressives is that the Left is not nearly as well organized as the right, putting them in a better position to capitalize on the opportunity.
- The justification for tough on crime will be more explicitly racist, resulting in an increase in violence on the part of rogue police officers, lone wolf white supremacist vigilantes, and right wing paramilitaries, and invigorating the “Blue Lives Matter” backlash against the Movement for Black Lives.
- The Trump campaign has already forced some GOP leaders to legitimate Trump’s record of threats of sexual assault and, what may resonate more strongly after the election, Trump’s defense against actual claims of sexual assault and harassment through victim shaming and intimidation of survivors (the lawsuits he’s threatening seem to be directly aimed at women who haven’t yet come forward and not just the ones who have). Trump is challenging normative standards of discourse concerning the citizenship rights and personal security of women and seriously lowering the bar, creating political space for overt and even violent expressions misogyny in the political mainstream. If elected, the accusations and revelations should be expected to continue and to resonate even more strongly.
- Trump’s clumsy attempts at political manipulation through adopting meaningless “favorable” positions on family leave and childcare as labor rights (which also appears to be a branding move for Ivanka Trump whose label is marketed directly at “working women”) should be expected to continue, with the effect of trivializing these issues.
- The plethora of possibilities suggested in the header paragraph: that Trump will be to the U.S. what Berlusconi was to the Italians in the 1980s, i.e., the ultimate crony capitalist; FBI/NSA/IRS repression of activist non-profits on the Left; immigration quotas, bans, spying, and deportations; a further, dramatic hollowing out of the American economy; the U.S. viewed as a rogue state on the international stage as we were under Bush, but with the implications of this magnified by Trump’s lack of discretion, professionalism, and political experience.
- The combination of ills cited in the bullets above may inspire nihilism on the Left. Paralysis is one danger; reacting by protesting more aggressively in ways that draw the fire of the right and the state, with the potential of vigilante violence rising and/or creating a chilling effect that may polarize the base for progressive protest, is another.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other possibilities. In either scenario, we need to consider the impact of Trump’s appointments, not just to the Supreme Court, but also to key positions throughout the federal court system, and in key federal agencies and Departments.
If Trump is elected, what will happen to the Environmental Protection Agency? Who will he appoint to head the State Department, Defense, Homeland Security? The Department of the Interior, as one demonstration of potential impact, manages hundreds of thousands of Native American trusts, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. The issue of federal management of public lands is an organizing lever on the right (think Cliven Bundy and the Bundy militia), especially West of the Rockies where the Bureau of Land Management is the steward of most of the undeveloped land and natural resources in states where rural communities are facing a seemingly intractable economic crisis.
The right’s agenda in in the rural West includes privatization of public land. Public lands management and natural resource use and extraction issues directly intersect with the interests of tribal communities. If Trump is elected, will he put the potential of privatization on the table to appease those factions on the right for whom this is a bottom line issue?
If Hillary Clinton is elected, many have speculated that she will continue to lead as she has historically. Here are some highlights:
- Clinton will continue to stand for militarism, continuing the “war on terror,” and acting on foreign policy as she did as Secretary of State under President Obama. In other words, she will bring more of the same, an agenda that is contributing greatly to instability and destruction abroad, and a permanent state of war, with obvious implications internationally and domestic political and economic consequences including the normalization of a warrior culture, militarization of police, and austerity.
- Clinton has an established track record as a neoliberal. The neoliberal agenda of privatization (resulting in increasingly unresponsive government), financial and labor market deregulation, and “free” trade policies (that are driving mass migration globally, economic instability, and actual and anticipated austerity imposed on the bottom 90%), is contributing to rage on the right, and the association between neoliberal elites and social liberalism is helping rightists make the case for Nativism and white nationalism. A Clinton victory may drive up anti-neoliberal rage (which is articulated as anti-liberal rage) on the right even further, making targeted groups more vulnerable and building momentum on their side.
- Clinton is likely to emphasize domestic investment, including in safety net programs, but while she appears to be less of a law and order leader by contrast to Trump, Clinton has been a “tough love” policy maker with implications for social programs (AFDC v. TANF or, in other words, from poverty management to punishing the poor, for example), policing, border enforcement, and domestic security.
If Clinton wins, there are also larger political dynamics that may be triggered. Here again, some highlights:
- There is considerable rage on the left and the right toward Clinton. The right is already ginning up anti-Clinton conspiracy theories of the past, and manufacturing new ones. She is, in many respects, the perfect foil for the right because she’s also unpopular on the left. We also should not underestimate the role misogyny, both from the right and the left, is likely to play in feeding right wing movements if she’s
- Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates warns, “if Clinton wins, we must expect an ongoing tsunami of misogyny that will not only leave feminists (of all genders) embattled but…will serve to constrain the meaning of feminism in ways defined not only by the Right but also by the White House, which is say a very white, middle/upper class discourse [creating what] may be a difficult, often stifling, atmosphere to navigate…” I would add that this “white, middle/upper class discourse” is likely to fuel rage on the part of rightist factions already radicalized against the discursive effects of neoliberal multiculturalism as “political correctness” in a highly polarized political climate.
- Right wing movement activists may respond to a Clinton presidency by turning to local organizing and state politics, with different emphases in different regions and likely with the greatest success in rural and small town communities if current trends reported on by right wing watch dog organizations continue to hold. Rural communities should be considered especially vulnerable in any scenario.
- The paramilitary arm of the right may react with rage to a Clinton victory, and choose a bullets over ballots strategy of outright intimidation and violence, further fueled by the perception that Trump’s success in the primary election is a sign that the time is ripe to step up their efforts to foment a second civil war. This stepping up of right wing paramilitary activity may serve as a justification for further repression on the part of federal and local police agencies while also having more immediate, potentially tragic, consequences.
- Under Clinton’s leadership the Democratic Party may reach for moderate Republicans from a position of power, attempting to build a coalition broad enough to marginalize the right. If they are successful, this could, as suggested earlier, exacerbate divisions within the Democratic Party by alienating progressives. Or, it could just mean a much more conservative Democratic Party with Trump serving as the monster under the bed keeping progressives tucked in.
And this, again, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to theorize and speculate about.
I believe that progressives, especially anti-racist progressives, should direct some energy at long-term planning, education, and organizing. What this election and these scenarios reveal is that both parties are in disarray. The extreme polarization of the electorate, and a widespread rejection of establishment politics (basically, all sides attacking the middle) are placing extraordinary pressure on both major parties, creating an opening for alternative movements, as cited earlier. Progressives should position our selves to be able to compete for power in this context, an effort that will require broad based coalition building across gender, race, and class. Broad based coalition building will require us to rethink how we frame issues of race, gender, and class, with a focus on thinking about the relations held in place by these power structures, in fact, relationally.
In thinking about how to prepare our selves for this fight, consideration of a bit of history may be helpful.
The Republican Party has obviously made significant investments in mobilizing racial resentment and misogyny, in part through promoting “traditional values” (read, breeding fear of change which is blamed on feminists, queers, immigrants, and Blacks) as a moral issue in elections. They cast these groups, and especially Blacks and immigrants, as “takers” in a makers versus takers narrative of social decay and economic decline that blames takers who are, by turn, described as moochers, welfare queens, “illegals,” super-predators, and entitlement junkies, for the demise the work ethic, mettle, gumption, and pluck (read white American or Western-European cultural values) that made the U.S. the dominant global political and economic power after WWII (and may make it “great again” if takers are sufficiently marginalized).
This strategy was deployed over the course of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s as the economy stagnated for most workers in the U.S., worker productivity nonetheless rose, and wealth inequality increased dramatically, all effects of the neoliberal takeover that began with the Reagan revolution. That neoliberal takeover is one orchestrated by the right wing, with rightist leaders clearing the way for this agenda by exploiting cultural movements like the evangelical movement, and taking moral issues of those movements and politicizing them. By doing so, they split the Democratic coalition over issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion, first peeling off Catholics and other social conservatives and dividing labor and the traditional Left. This in turn created a permanent donor base for right wing think tanks and political organizations among donors who are extremely reliable because they are religiously motivated.
Additionally, by popularizing the makers versus takers narrative, the right was able to broaden their base further. The right simultaneously credited the post-WWII political and economic bubble to American ingenuity and work ethic, and deflected blame for the natural decline that followed in subsequent decades onto Blacks, immigrants, feminists, queers, economic competition from Asia, etc. By riding this wave, the GOP was able to rebrand itself as the party of real (read white male) Americans and shuck its former image as the party of Northern elites. Through playing this blame game, the right gave specific political meaning to an array of ordinary bigotries – they politicized homophobia, conjured up thought police enforcing “political correctness,” and equated abortion with murder and civil rights with “special rights” causing extreme political polarization.
These moves helped the GOP move the center of gravity in our political culture to the right. But this also created a practical problem resulting from the significant presence at every level of leadership within the party and in government of uncompromising, ideologically right wing, anti-government activists. One result is that today a significant percentage of GOP voters believe that Hillary Clinton is a “demon.” This kind of sentiment is dividing the party, contributing to political gridlock, and making the problem of government lack of responsiveness at the local level (resulting in no small part from a lack of adequate tax revenue resulting from the neoliberal anti-government agenda of the right) into what appears to many to be a purely partisan national drama playing out daily on cable news.
Post-9/11, the right wing also politicized and given a racial meaning to Muslim identity, and popularized the idea among evangelical conservatives that Islam is a genocidal anti-Christian political belief system, further radicalizing the GOP base. This sets the stage for further bloating of national security agencies and more wars, all of which are contributing as well to the conditions described above while also turning Americans against civil liberties and civil rights that should matter to all of us.
This is an Us versus Them problem. By conjuring up enemies next door and around the block, the right has turned us against ourselves because, as should be the mantra of progressive politics, there is no real Us and Them. Public policy affects the whole of the public. Now, however, elements of the right wing are moving a more explicitly racial and gendered agenda into the mainstream in an attempt to redefine who makes up the “public.” This is a fight over who gets to be an American and what being an American means, both in terms of domestic entitlements and our relationship to the world.
But the rise of the right wing and the ascendancy of a more right leaning GOP post-1960s wasn’t just based on the Southern Strategy or any other GOP or independent right wing strategy. The dominant wing of the Democratic Party has reacted to the rise of right wing extremists within the GOP by reaching for socially moderate conservatives and splitting the difference between social and economic issues in order to ride the neoliberal wave. Democrats have made a case for equity, not as a class issue but as a social issue (for instance, marriage equality, “gays in the military”), as a base building political strategy, contributing to a mainstream political culture in which racial equity is equivalent to expansion of the social safety net and superficial multiculturalism, and not of economic justice and political democratization, essentially forcing us to trade the possibility of correcting unjust racial power relations for empowerment in order to play with the party, making racial and gender justice advocates appear complicit in Democratic pandering to business elites to those on the right.
This mash up of incompatible forces has caused a collapse of low-income Black communities and made an unacceptable compromise federal immigration reform proposal seem the only option. And this in turn feeds anti-feminist rage and the well-documented impression among a growing percentage of whites that racism against them is equal to or worse than racism against people of color because it reduces racism to interpersonal prejudice. It is in this context that tropes like “political correctness” and “welfare queen” are weaponized.
In this same context, many liberal leaders also actively discouraged strategies based on root cause analyses of social problems, turning instead to a purely pragmatic agenda that prioritized reaching for a shrinking “middle American” sector of the electorate. Basically, we went from a bipolar political arrangement to a unipolar one, both internationally and domestically, with predictable results, including that the right is better organized around a more legible and compelling radical agenda in what appears to be increasingly radical times.
In this election cycle, Hillary Clinton is the default establishment candidate because the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has yet to substantively address race and people of color. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has given us cause for some optimism, but we should note that Sanders is an Independent, not a Democrat, and that he lost the race for the nomination because he failed to build a an adequate base of support in communities of color. Sanders’ inexperience in reaching out to communities of color should be viewed as an example of white progressives’ failure to address issues of race in microcosm.
Independent progressives have failed to hold the Democrats accountable on race because we are also racially divided. The result is that the Democrats are failing to fully embrace the potential “new American majority” coalition of voters of color and progressive white voters that now constitute, by some estimates, more than 50% of the electorate nationally.
Now Trump has emerged, an effect of this condition, and also potentially an agent of something new.
We should keep in mind that the case for the GOP Southern Strategy was made via the presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, both of which ultimately failed. Goldwater lost the 1964 general election by a record-breaking margin. Nonetheless, these campaigns made the case that racial resentment, always a staple of American politics, can pay off as they always have throughout U.S. history. Moreover, the contributor lists of those campaigns were a major source of early funding for the right wing think tanks and political organizations that would play a critical role in the success of the GOP Southern Strategy and the neoliberal Reagan revolution.
Now, Donald Trump may be making the case that a European-style Nativist and racist (read, potentially fascistic) third party may be viable in the U.S. This prospect is dangerous even if it proves untrue.
To present a real alternative to the right, progressives are going to have to marry universalist class politics (really a default to whiteness, both politically and culturally) with a real race analysis, requiring us to get right with race as a materially significant matter of concern to all people, and not just as a problem of individual prejudice or a divider of the working class. Race is a form of class in the U.S., and all class politics is also race politics. This election has made that abundantly clear.
Meanwhile, social justice leaders, and those in communities of color in particular, will need to more aggressively address race and gender equity as forms of class struggle. We need to overcome identity tribalism in order to build broad based coalitions able to reach for real power.
Democrats will need to be pushed to make significant financial investments in building the infrastructure, leadership, and knowledge necessary to reach communities of color, and with an agenda for change that is legible and compelling to us. This is not something they will accomplish without assistance and pressure from the social justice sector, especially in light of abundant historical evidence that simply cobbling together a coalition on the basis of shared issues is not enough (as cited here regarding the Democratically coalition’s failure to stand united against right wing wedge issues such as abortion and LGBTQ “special rights.”). We need to build a coalition based on an inclusive shared vision of a just society, and that Democrats cannot realistically be expected to conjure such a vision.
Whether or not we can do that in time to get ahead of the right will be the difference between winning the day as the demography of the U.S. changes, or losing out to an increasingly reactionary white plurality.
One final note:
I know this is a rough take on the future, but my final note is that we ought not be pessimistic about what lies ahead. We have struggled long and hard to arrive at a moment when old norms can fall to new ones. This moment may not be what we’ve imagined, and the fight before us will likely not be waged entirely on our terms, but the opportunity to act and make a meaningful, definitive difference for the better is nonetheless before us.
Rough as the road ahead is likely to be, we need to lead with joy and optimism. The first job of activists is to inspire people. Winning or losing is not all that’s at stake. The key to victory lies in how we answer the question of who we will become in the process of struggle. The discussion needs to begin there.