So Much Trouble in the World
Much ink has spilled over the “shock” of Donald Trump’s election victory. How could it be that a country undergoing a demographic transformation, full of “enlightened” professionals, a country that had just elected and then re-elected its first black president, would now be sending a racist and misogynistic demagogue to the highest office in the land? Hillary Clinton, who was advertised as a sure thing by the liberal press, had a disappointing showing in the crucial states on the Electoral College map. Clinton had all but locked it up and then the inexplicable happened.
But in fact it wasn’t too hard to see coming. Doubts persisted about Clinton’s lock on the Presidency all through the primary and general election campaigns. Clinton and her advisors never foresaw the strong primary fight nor the general election challenge and wound up politically bleeding from these and other problems of her own making for many months. Neither her paid speeches nor her email server use would ever go away. Often enough she struggled to draw an organic crowd. Working class voter abstention in key areas (a product of the enthusiasm gap) ultimately contributed to her Electoral College defeat.
While it is painfully obvious that Trump is selling a lie, much like his various con-artist business ventures and bankruptcies, just enough people were fed up with a status quo represented by Clinton. Victorious in the popular vote, she still lost by narrow margins in some key states. Trump’s right-wing nationalist agenda, with Reagan-style open bigotry now back in combination with huge tax cuts, will work like a poisonous toxin on some large segments of the body public. But resistance is also in the air again (as it has been for the far left during the Obama era), with some liberals ready to criticize Trump policies that seemed to get a pass when they were products of the current administration: these include Obama’s record deportations, imperial wars, failures to protect the environment, his misguided policies on public education, and his epic giveaways to the banking system and corporate elites in tech, real estate, and beyond.
As a many-times-bailed-out “businessman,” Trump benefitted from the legal stranglehold the capitalist class has over the legislature and the courts. Now he will be overseeing court appointments and signing laws. It’s a shame but it’s also time to fight. Our union must get onto a social movement footing and become more engaged in politics. It is now clear that lesser-evil electoral politics just won’t cut it anymore.
It was Clinton’s election to lose. Bruce A. Dixon argues astutely that the Clinton campaign played just three cards against Trump. The first in the thin deck was the fear of Trump, a card played every election cycle against the Republicans; next was the story of Hillary the human rights defender, concerned about black lives and undocumented immigrants, the criminal “injustice” system, unionized workers and opportunity for all, despite the former Wal-Mart board member’s career dedicated to the banks, the wars, border “security,” and self-enrichment; the third and strongest card in the hand was the endorsement of Obama and much of the political class, stretching from foreign policy Republicans to civil rights-icon Congressmen.
But enthusiasm didn’t materialize in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Her ground game, according to Christian Parenti, was “under-resourced and poorly executed.” They assumed the coming Democratic majority of voters (a diverse coalition crucial to Obama’s victories) was behind them and what remained was to pick off some Republicans. Traditional Democrats, both working class whites and African Americans, were neglected until the final weeks and Clinton badly underperformed in both demographic groups. Depressed turnout in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit would prove costly, as it would in Tallahassee and Tampa. Republican voter suppression efforts further weakened the vote, the first without protection of the Voting Rights Act.
Rather than an election about the shift of working class white voters to Trump, it appears, according to Mike Davis, that Trump was able to retain the support of Romney voters, who were key to his tiny margins in the important states. He even outperformed Romney with some Republicans, marginally increasing his share of the evangelical vote. Armed with the fanatical Mike Pence as VP, Trump captured the entire social conservative agenda. Many white workers went Republican years ago and where the white working class did shift to Trump, it was decisive, as Davis points out in his analysis of early county returns; the lakeside areas of the upper Midwest, hard hit in recent years by a wave of plant closures and plant relocations to Mexico, went for Trump. White workers in these areas polled strongly for Obama in the past two election cycles, but with Clinton running toward a rightward drifting center, she largely abandoned the momentum that Sanders could have passed along on trade. The defeated Clinton Democrats now lack the necessary quotient of self-criticism; Charles Schumer (D-Wall Street) is the new Senate minority leader. This current manifestation of the national party is captured by big money power.
We owe the rise of Trump in part to the legacy of Wall Street Democrats. Jürgen Habermas attributes the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the US to the rightward drift of center-left and other assorted onetime social democratic political parties. The Democrats are a case in point, as was New Labour under Tony Blair. One-time center-left parties, they have abandoned their constituencies in neoliberal, “pro-market” policy decisions for many years now. As Habermas rather aptly puts it: “in the 'battle for the middle ground' these political parties thought they could win majorities only by adopting the neoliberal course of action. This meant taking on board toleration of long-standing and growing social inequalities. Meantime, this price – the economic and socio-cultural 'hanging out to dry' of ever-greater parts of the populace – has clearly risen so high that the reaction to it has gone over to the right. And where else? If there is no credible and pro-active perspective, then protest simply retreats into expressivist, irrational forms."
Hard Right in Trumpland
The contradictions of a waning American Imperium, that security guarantor of a stagnant, crisis-prone global capitalism, have brought us to the cliff’s edge where Trump’s capture of power became possible. First he marched through a phalanx of well-funded and diverse Republicans in the primary, dispatching both insiders and Tea-Partiers alike. In defeating Clinton, he has damaged a generation of Democratic politics beholden to the corporate elite. This entire march has been emanating from the hard right-wing of American politics, the dark mirror of exclusionist racism and classism in our land of “dreams.” The openness of Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican bigotry, clear-cut racism, and wild-eyed misogyny has frightened many decent Americans.
And next comes a right-wing nationalist program, both xenophobic and anti-globalist. On the stump during the election, Trump was neither a doctrinaire neoliberal on economic issues nor a neoconservative with respect to foreign policy. In fact, he was extremely contradictory (or just hollow) and thus created some space for the most profound zigzags on campaign promises. His early cabinet picks seem to portend a very right-wing government, whose agenda includes huge tax cuts, climate denialism, the domestic repression of social movements, and a last ditch effort to prolong The War on Drugs.
The Republicans return to near total power in Washington, something they last had in the early years of George W. Bush’s second term. On foreign policy, Trump has at times sounded neo-isolationist notes in the campaign, even criticizing Clinton on the wars, but he is settling in with a militarist-dominated group of advisors. (There is a resemblance with the Bush Administration campaign and transition here.) In the Middle East, he confronts many immediate crises. Indeed, his predicament is not enviable. The Syrian Civil War continues to rage on; Obama’s attempts at limiting the territory of ISIS, while also seeking to undermine Assad who is ISIS’s main enemy, continue to have many unintended consequences.
The latest developments in the Middle East include US air-support for the Iraqi Army’s attempts to retake Tal Afar and Mosul from ISIS, along with a last minute Obama administration ask for $11 billion from Congress. With Shia and Kurdish militias as the only reinforcements for the Iraqis, the Turkish government under Erdogan has mobilized mechanized divisions along the border with Iraq and threatened to invade if either ethnic militias enter the predominately Sunni Muslim cities. What will the Trump administration do? His principle advisors are Islamophobic war hawks and even if a nice guy like Bernie Sanders were President there are no easy answers. Any “success” will come at a steep price: further destabilization, with possible state collapse, and many more refugees.
On trade Trump also sounded notes out of tune with neoliberal doctrine, but will he actually implement protectionist policies? This seems like another possible zigzag on campaign promises. After an initial dip, markets have rallied to record highs. Investors expect both huge corporate and modest middle-class tax cuts, with the latter stimulating demand. Fed interest rate hikes are nigh. Cuts to social protections and domestic spending will be the consequence here. His much-heralded infrastructure plan contains some new spending proposals; but it too is a package of tax cuts for construction industry firms. The job gains some of his voters might have been hoping for will be very limited. Stocks and real estate assets may get a nominal price bounce, but the economy will remain weak for ordinary working people.
For the Teachers’ Unions, Trump’s domestic agenda will mean a renewed push for school vouchers, charter schools, and other schemes for the wholesale privatization of public education. In addition to giveaways, Federal cuts to education spending will be the budgetary rule. When he appoints a Justice to the Supreme Court, we may see the immediate return of Friedrichs v. CTA to the court docket. A decision that throws out or chips away “agency fee” as precedent (in place since the Abood decision) would dramatically weaken public sector unions. Our union and others must now gird themselves for profoundly defensive struggles as the public sector is truly last bastion of organized labor in the country. This form of defense may require us to go on the offensive.
Ballot Propositions, Silver Linings, and Building Resistance
Though Trump has something of a self-perceived mandate, he also arrives in office on his back foot, the loser of the popular vote who lacks basic credibility with a large portion of society. Meanwhile, California unions still have the political power to raise wages and taxes. Employers, big businesses, and investors fear this power, so we know the renewed Supreme Court threat is very real for our union. Indeed, the silver lining of the election is not just a thoroughly discredited imperial Presidency; for CFT, the real upshot is the passage of both initiatives we were backing. Proposition 55 passed in a landslide win with 62.8% of the vote, and there was no organized opposition to speak of. Prop 55 will keep in place the taxes 2012’s Prop 30 first raised, with higher income taxes on individuals making over $250,000 and couples making over $500,000 extended until 2030. The roaring success of the tax measure has even made the repeal of Prop 13 thinkable and there may also be public appetite for oil and gas extraction taxes. The list of positives goes on: CFT-backed Proposition 58, which will restore bilingual education funding, passed handily. Prop 64 legalized cannabis and sent yet another signal that the country is tired of the business-as-usual War on Drugs. Two of the four “brand new council” candidates are now on the Santa Cruz City Council; the Monterey Bay Labor Council backed Chris Krohn and Sandy Brown in their successful electoral bids. Local bonds A & B, both for the city schools, passed. In the wider Bay Area, rent control passed in Richmond and several other cities.
At the national level, there is also a silver lining. The party of the President nearly always loses seats in the midterm elections. This has been particularly true of center-right Democrats like Bill Clinton and Obama, who have seen massive, historic wipeouts of Democrats in Congress and state legislatures while they themselves went on to win reelection. Certainly Hillary Clinton would have been in a weak position as President, with Republicans in charge of both House and Senate. We can only speculate, but Clinton herself may well have seen another major loss of seats to Republicans in 2018. Now Trump faces this situation. Democrats will need to defend many seats in 2018 but in doing so they should be able to rally opposition against Trump in the midterms. Much will depend on a well-organized push from below.
Indeed, another light in this dark situation has been spontaneous upsurge in popular protest in the streets, principally led by young people, whether on campus (from colleges and universities to high schools) or in the streets of major cities. Many of these protestors do not appear to be motivated by putting Clinton into the White House so much as total outrage that a right-wing Republican has won. The practice of resistance has flourished with walkouts, freeway blockades, occupations, demos and rallies—all crucial tactics of contemporary networked social movements. There is a new spirit in the air, something much needed in the sleepwalking end of the Obama era, where almost nothing provokes liberal outrage: trillions to the banks and weak Wall St. reforms; chaos in the Middle East and North Africa, with revolutionary youth defeated in Egypt, and the Saudis recently given carte blanche for the bombardment of Yemen; #NoDAPL water protectors attacked brutally for months while oil and gas exploration have run wild during the Obama years. Let’s hope folks have been shocked awake.
As Angela Davis recently remarked: “Community is the answer.” The protests, if they are to be significant, must spread beyond the usual activists into layers of people uninterested in politics. This is the test of a social movement. And defenses must be firmed up, particularly as public sector unions face new legal onslaughts in the courts. As we know well in the union, there are no shortcuts. We also know that the power to challenge the 1% is the product of our defenses. By engaging the community broadly, with the goals of protecting the vulnerable and forming progressive coalitions that stand for something other than the "show politics" of pandering (Rodolfo F. Acuña), we can be part of a movement that hoists Trump on his own right-wing nationalist petard. A strong opposition, one that puts some backbone into the filibuster of invertebrate Senate Democrats, can perhaps doom Trump’s early years in government. Oppositional forms of social organization with real endurance are what we need now, the things out of which we construct a different future.
[Originally published in November 2016 Faculty Voice, the newsletter of Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers]