by Alex Knight, 1/6/17
Republished on Countercurrents.
In 2000, I was 17 years old. I didn’t know the first thing about politics, history, or social change. My first preference in the U.S. Presidential Election was for George W. Bush.[i] Somehow in my ignorance I had figured out that the Democrats were the more popular party, and I reviled what was popular. The President for the last eight years had been a Democrat. I also knew that the society I lived in sucked. It sucked for teenage me, and it sucked in general. So, without any deeper thought on the subject, my infantile rebellion led me to the only alternative in a two-party system, the Republicans. Once again in 2016, “non-college educated white men” like my teenage self followed similar logic to give Donald Trump just enough votes to sneak into the White House. When asked in exit polls what was the “quality that mattered most” in deciding who to vote for, the number one quality voters sought was a candidate who “can bring change.” Of those change-seeking voters, 83% were captured by Trump.
After the election, it’s tempting to curl up into a state of shock and surrender to fear or apathy. The U.S. voting public just elected someone who is openly racist, sexist, and xenophobic. 30 states were won by a man who brags about sexually assaulting women, led a campaign to delegitimize the nation’s first Black president by questioning his citizenship, and wants to build a giant wall on the Mexican border to keep out poor immigrants who he called “rapists.” The people he’s now appointing to run organs of government are quite literally the very worst people in the country, whose entire careers have been based on undermining social and ecological protections. The future looks bleak. Is neo-fascism already here?
In our deeply cynical society, it is the task of revolutionaries to see the silver lining of hope that has just opened before us. We must appreciate that this moment is a great opportunity for radicalizing the millions of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Donald Trump is the most disliked major-party candidate to ever run for the Presidency. The election of a despised, buffoonish, billionaire capitalist to head the U.S. government provides anti-capitalists with a glaring demonstration that the system does not work.
In this article we will review how a figure as polarizing as Trump was propelled to become a viable candidate through the mass media’s obsession with celebrity and scandal. We will also explore how the failure of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party reflects the collapse of legitimacy for the status quo and its neoliberal capitalist project. Finally, we will face the threat of neo-fascism and explore what progressive radicals can offer now that a uniquely dangerous, yet uniquely unpopular, man is about to become the face of the U.S. government.
In the years after Bush II was elected, I was fortunate enough to encounter anti-capitalists who showed me and invited me into the amazing tradition of grassroots organizing. I was able to discover an alternative path where my teenage frustrations were sharpened into anti-capitalist critique and a lifelong commitment to social justice. It is now my calling to pay forward the gift that was given to me. We have a choice on how to respond to the election. We can either spend the next 4-8 years wallowing in fears of how everything can go wrong, or we can recognize the special opportunity we have to provide a path for people to discover genuine change, community, and meaning that can only come through participation in radical social movements.
A Billionaire Cartoon Villain is About to Become US President
(In the next two sections, we will analyze how the election reveals the dysfunction of the electoral system and mass media. To jump to the repercussions and how to respond moving forward, click here.)
The system has failed and Donald Trump is the personification of that failure. Before the election, only 38% of the American public had a “favorable” opinion of Trump, as compared with 58% “unfavorable.” That -20% margin makes Donald Trump literally the most unfavorable candidate ever to get the endorsement of a major US political party. Significantly, Hillary Clinton was the second-most unfavorable candidate ever, with a -12.6% gap.
The historic unpopularity of the two major candidates drove down turnout for the two major parties:
The US adult population grows by about 10 million people per 4-year election cycle. While the raw vote totals have remained somewhat stable, support for the two major parties proportional to US population has decayed since 2008. Consequently, 8 million people voted for “third party” candidates in 2016, which is more than in any election since 1996. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party combined for nearly 6 million votes. By comparison, Ralph Nader in 2000 was attacked as a spoiler for getting less than half that total. Putting Trump’s victory in perspective: it’s important to remember that 54% of voters, and nearly 75% of American adults, did not vote for Trump.
Another effect of Trump’s historic unpopularity was to skew the polls leading up to the election, contributing to the surprise of the results on election night. Fivethirtyeight’s November 8th projection gave Clinton a 71% chance of winning the election, aggregating from the various polls that she had a 4% lead among likely voters. Instead, she won the popular vote by just over 2%, which was not enough to overcome the anti-democratic Electoral College.
One compelling explanation for why the polls were off can be found in something called “social desirability bias.” It’s a problem that pollsters have long been aware of. In essence, social desirability bias distorts polling results because people who support unpopular or taboo candidates/options are less likely to respond honestly to polls. A certain percentage of them will claim to be undecided, lie about their preferences, or simply hang up the phone, rather than proclaim their allegiance to a racist, sexist, xenophobic, or otherwise antisocial candidate or policy proposal. Even if the percentage of these embarrassed supporters is relatively small (2%), it can have the effect of misleading polls in races as tight as this presidential election or the Brexit vote in the UK.
Social desirability bias was documented by pollsters in this election in at least two ways. First, the polling agency yougov discovered that after the release of the Access Hollywood video, which revealed Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, “Trump supporters were four percent less likely than Clinton supporters to participate in our poll.” This was the moment the stigma of being in favor of Trump reached a peak, so it makes sense the number of non-forthcoming Trump supporters would be so significant.
A second piece of evidence for social desirability bias was the divergence between telephone polling and online polling. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway even admitted, “Donald Trump performs consistently better in online polling where a human being is not talking to another human being about what he or she may do in the election. It’s because it’s become socially desirable, if you’re a college educated person in the United States of America, to say that you’re against Donald Trump.” The LA Times also published that Trump voters were “notably less comfortable” sharing their allegiance with telephone pollsters. When speaking to a real human voice, there is inherent social pressure to indicate a socially acceptable position, or at least it is more difficult to admit holding a socially unacceptable position, such as hatred towards a particular race or other group – especially if the telephone pollster sounds like they might be a member of that group. As we all know, it’s much easier to be a complete asshole on the Internet and feel no shame about it, because there’s no accountability. Anonymity protects anti-social behavior – online just as in the voting booth.
It wasn’t just Trump himself who is unpopular. Even factoring in some social desirability bias, exit polls revealed that Trump’s policy proposals are deeply unpopular as well. In particular, his proposed “border wall” was wide rejected by voters 54% to 40%. And on the question of what do with undocumented immigrants, a whopping 70% said they should be offered a path to legal status, as compared with only 25% in favor of deportation.
The Corporate Media’s Role in Trump’s Victory
The biggest reason this historically unpopular and unqualified man was able to be competitive in this election was the mass media’s unprecedented promotion of the Trump candidacy since its announcement on June 16, 2015. In “How Trump Took Over the Media By Fighting It,” Jack Shafer notes that “Not since 9/11 has a single topic so colonized all of the media territories—print, television, and the Web—as thoroughly as Donald J. Trump did [during the campaign].”
We can go even further by asking: Has any one human being in the entire history of humanity attracted as much sustained media coverage over an extended period of time as Trump has over the last two years? Donald Trump’s fame and superstardom far exceeded what normal humans or even normal presidential candidates can hope to acquire. His face, hair, and most importantly his name became so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that they were branded onto the collective psyche of America. His image loomed in the back of every conversation. If you managed to forget about him for a while, the nearest TV screen, radio, podcast, or social media platform was sure to burst him back into view within short order.[ii]
How can we understand this extreme level of prominence, this consistent invasion of public consciousness by one individual? What do we even call it? Mega-fame? Super-duper- hyper-celebrity? The only examples of individuals I can think of that came close to this level – O.J. Simpson during the trial, Richard Nixon during Watergate, Adolf Hitler during WWII – wouldn’t have won U.S. presidential elections during their periods of notoriousness. Why was it different this time? Does this election simply validate the old, likely apocryphal P.T. Barnum saying, “There is no such thing as negative publicity”?
As Shafer alludes to, the Trump campaign, with all its juicy scandals, insults and braggadocio, outrageous claims, and the ingeniously catchy uber-conservative slogan “Make America Great Again,” tapped into the corporate media’s increasing addiction to a Reality TV format at the expense of actual political substance. The focus on personalities, personal attacks, and personal scandals has been intensifying in media coverage of Presidential campaigns for decades. Meanwhile, discussion of candidates’ proposed policies, which if implemented by the world’s most powerful government, could affect billions of lives and the future of our very planet, has been receding into oblivion. This election took it to a new extreme. Coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s policy proposals combined was dwarfed by the media’s obsession with Hillary’s FBI-manufactured email “scandal.”
The corporate media’s primary objective in campaign coverage is not to educate voters about the important policy differences between candidates, but simply to gain viewers. Celebrity, drama, and scandal drive ratings. Professors Matthew Baum and Phil Gussin defined the extreme focus on Clinton’s emails as “The media’s urgency to maintain drama in an election that was increasingly looking like a blowout… A dramatic horse race in which the outcome is uncertain and continually fluctuating is perpetually novel. Additional stories about the candidates’ long-standing policy positions? Not so much.”
Meanwhile Trump, himself already a Reality TV star from his own show The Apprentice, formed a perfect (if stormy) marriage with this scandal-obsessed media apparatus. Trump fed them a steady stream of bombastic headlines, and the media tailored their coverage to fit pre-existing tropes of trash television. All along, Trump was the star of the show. Every talking point and question was either about him or inevitably came back around to centering on him as if drawn by a magnet. The more divisive Trump’s language and shocking his proposals, the more Trump-focused the media coverage became, which emotionally invested more and more people in the spectacle. As record numbers tuned in to witness the drama, much like rubbernecking to catch sight of a roadside tragedy, the TV networks made a killing. In this interview from March 2016, the President and CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, exuberant with the ratings his channel was enjoying because of Trump’s candidacy, gushed about how even though he personally didn’t agree with Trump’s politics, he loved his campaign for how much money CBS was making from it.
The Failure of the Center and of the Neoliberal Capitalist Project
The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party lost the election, far more than Donald Trump won it. The leadership of the DNC, with the help of the undemocratic Superdelegates system, conspired to prevent a surprisingly popular challenge from the Left in the form of the Bernie Sanders campaign. In his place, they rallied around a candidate who was known to be very unpopular, and who represented all the worst aspects of the Democrats – subservience to Wall St. and big corporate money, allegiance to aggressive U.S. foreign policy, and allegiance to neoliberal economic policies, which as Naomi Klein points out, through “deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade,” have cost millions of jobs, pensions, and the social safety net that had previously facilitated higher living standards across North America (and Europe). On the flip side, the richest 1% have made out like bandits.
Because Hillary represented more-of-the-same, her victory would have reinforced the commitment of the U.S. government to this neoliberal capitalist project. Knowing the unpopularity of these policies, the Democrats decided not to make them the focus of their campaign. Instead, their strategy was to make the election about Donald Trump and his unelectability. But this strategy backfired in two key ways. First, it reinforced the mass media’s Trumpmania and the hyperfocus on Trump’s larger-than-life persona, swaying uneducated voters towards what they perceived as the candidate for change. Second, the lack of a positive vision for how a Hillary Clinton presidency would improve people’s lives deflated turnout among the majority Democratic base. In his book, “Don’t Think of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” George Lakoff explains that focusing solely on the negative results of what you’re trying to avoid often ends up reinforcing those possibilities. The Democrats, failing to posit a progressive alternative to Trump, simply told people not to vote for him and were horrified to discover that while the many Americans who hated him were more than happy to do so, the millions of Americans who saw nothing to vote for simply sat it out.
Can the Democrats afford to remain wedded to the neoliberal capitalist project? Since the financial crisis of 2008, global capitalism has stagnated. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The great majority of Americans are still struggling with precarious jobs, ballooning student debt and medical costs that were only slightly dented by Obamacare. The Obama Presidency was able to maintain its popularity because of Barack Obama’s magnetic personality and charisma. Yet, the actual policies carried forward over the last eight years were largely continuations of what was taking place under Bush II. The surveillance state has sprawled unchecked despite courageous whistleblowers. Drone strikes and U.S. military intervention in destabilized foreign nations are escalating. 2.5 million immigrants were deported under Obama – far more than by any previous President. Global warming looms without any serious attempt to reverse, or even stop the damage. Wall St. faced no real consequences at all for throwing millions out of work and/or out of their homes, all the while rewarding their top executives with record bonuses.
These are all effects of the same neoliberal project that has governed not only the U.S. but the global capitalist system since 1971, and people do in fact want “Change.” They keep voting for it and getting disappointed.
Neoliberalism is on its last legs. The natural resources that would be necessary to sustain economic growth simply do not exist. Conventional oil production still has not surpassed its apparent peak in 2005, as many predicted. In the years since, it has been augmented by the alarming growth of highly destructive non-conventional energy sources like fracking and tar sands. While this glut of climate-destroying energy has allowed global markets to rebound from the 2008-9 financial crisis, it does not change or prevent the inevitable collision between the capitalist economy and the very real social and ecological limits to growth. For example, global coal production may already have peaked as well. Meanwhile, global warming relentlessly increases, as 2016 was the third consecutive warmest year ever. The capitalist economy is predicated on economic growth, and economic growth simply cannot continue indefinitely. Circumstances will soon compel a radical change in economic system.
The Democratic Party is stuck in a bind. To secure its corporate and Wall St. financial backing, it has remained committed to the neoliberal project and maintaining the debt-fueled growth of U.S. consumption. However, a growing base within the Democratic Party has now abandoned this model in favor of pursuing a democratic socialist orientation similar to Canada or Europe. This progressive constituency was revealed quite dramatically through the Bernie Sanders campaign, which shockingly came close to nominating the Independent Socialist senator as the Democrats’ candidate for President. How will the DNC and party leadership respond to this progressive challenge? Will they attempt to embrace it, co-opt and neuter it, or continue to fight against it? If they choose to fight it, the danger, as history shows, is that a divided Center/Left opposition could open the door to Right-wing tyranny.
The Threat of Neo-Fascism
“For many years, I have been writing and speaking about the danger of the rise of an honest and charismatic ideologue in the United States, someone who could exploit the fear and anger that has long been boiling in much of the society, and who could direct it away from the actual agents of malaise to vulnerable targets. That could indeed lead to what sociologist Bertram Gross called “friendly fascism” in a perceptive study 35 years ago. But that requires an honest ideologue, a Hitler type, not someone whose only detectable ideology is Me.” – Noam Chomsky, 2016
Like Chomsky, I have been warning of the threat of a neo-fascist regime change in the U.S. for some time. In my 2006 Master’s Thesis, I included a sectioned titled “The Road to Fascism,” which hypothesized, “As capitalist markets begin to dry up, it seems likely that states which have long depended on capitalist profits funneling through their national economies will become desperate to maintain their affluence. One way in which they may attempt to do this is through competition for the remaining resources of the world, to shield themselves from the worst effects of oil depletion. The likely results will be greater violence and war, along with the loss of freedom for critics of such policies.”
Are we seeing this scenario play out already? I would argue that the creep of fascism is taking place only incrementally, but even Trump’s election does not fundamentally shift the character of U.S. government. Aspects of this dystopian vision have come to pass – as explained in the previous section, the Obama administration has accelerated freedom-eroding policies such as mass incarceration, the deportation of immigrants, and imperialist military adventures. Trump is certain to expand these problems, but is unlikely to cause a real break from the existing neoliberal capitalist regime, which neo-fascism would require. An abandonment of the longstanding corporate-republican-electoral organization of U.S. government is extremely unlikely to occur unless the economy legitimately implodes (though if Trump accelerates a dumping of Chinese investment in the U.S., that could certainly spiral into an economic depression) or there is some kind of severe terrorist attack. Yet it does us no good to dwell on worst-case scenarios. Trump is a dangerous, self-serving demagogue. But he has done nothing to show that he wants to abolish the U.S. constitution or implement an actual dictatorship, and the combination of his severe unpopularity with the sheer momentum of the current hegemonic system would rule out such a scenario in any case.
We must not overreact to Trump’s election and allow ourselves to surrender to fear and paranoia, as they are counter-productive to our ability to imagine and strive for a positive anti-capitalist future. If we believe things are more hopeless than they actually are, we in effect disempower ourselves and make negative outcomes more likely.
One case in which I see this is the overreaction to the fringe phenomenon of the so-called “alt-right” or Neo-Nazi movement in the U.S. While it is important to be alerted to the movements of your political enemies, it is not helpful to fuel their movements by giving publicity to their hateful messages or by frightening ourselves with the idea that these people have actual power. A few hundred Neo-Nazis “sieg heiling” in a meeting room is not something we need to be freaking out about. Is there any political group through history less popular in US society than the Nazis? The trappings of Nazism, like the German language, a reverence for Adolf Hitler, or even overt anti-Semitism, will never catch on with the regular American public. The U.S.’s role in World War II and the defeat of Hitler’s Germany are central to American mythology about its benevolent foreign policy, which undergirds US imperialism. To be clear, however, this is not to say that Neo-Nazis aren’t a threat to public safety or to vulnerable populations. They have shown their commitment to hurting innocent people and spreading hate, and they should be mercilessly mocked, ostracized and confronted in any way to keep their anti-social behavior marginalized.
The real threat of tyranny is taking shape not within the meeting halls of crackpots, but within the halls of power. The growing capacity of the NSA, CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security to monitor virtually every daily action of every U.S. resident is deeply concerning, and will make non-legal means of resistance increasingly difficult in the future. Further, the organs of government are being handed over by Trump to be run by the very worst people in the country. Climate deniers will run the EPA. Anti-abortion activists will be in charge of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development. Corporate shills will dictate policy at the FCC, Department of Labor and State Department. White supremacists will become chief advisors. The foxes will oversee the hen house.
There are very good reasons to be concerned about how the government is changing. But pretending that these changes are of character, rather than merely by degree, obscures the anti-democratic nature of the state and leads us into a reformist trap. These government bureaucracies have always been weapons against social and ecological justice. Their potency or their single-mindedness as anti-social/anti-ecological weaponry may be increasing, but the basic functions of these institutions as bulwarks against democratic empowerment are not changing. We have always needed to organize democratic movement in opposition to the workings of U.S. governmental power, and this has not changed. Progressive social advances like the eight-hour day or the civil rights of African Americans have always been won in spite of government interference, rather than with government support. In short, the foxes have always been overseeing the hen house; we have just gotten used to them wearing rooster suits.
With the election of Trump and the appointment of his cronies, the danger is unmasked – standing right before us and impossible to ignore. The U.S. public’s apathetic acceptance of the status quo and our flight from self-actualizing political movement have taken a serious blow. Anti-capitalists must now embrace this moment as both a challenge and an opportunity to re-invigorate democratic movement for progressive change that the system cannot provide.
From Anti-Trumpism to Anti-Capitalism
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” – Frederick Douglass, 1857
In the aftermath of the Trump victory, Socialist and radical groups across the country have seen their numbers surge. People are rightly motivated to activism by the fear of what a Trump government can do, but also by the re-evaluation of where to find hope for the future. The hopes that were invested in Obama, Bernie, and Hillary were all cruelly dashed in entirely predictable ways. The only hope that remains is the hope in ourselves and our abilities to work outside the system, support one another in communities of care, and build the kind of lives and future that we deserve. In a supremely cynical society, embracing this hope is the most revolutionary thing we can do.
We must study our history. From the abolitionists to the labor, feminist, and LGBTQ movements, real change has always been made by mass movements of regular people organizing in their neighborhoods, workplaces and social circles. Today we see a continuation of this organizing tradition in the courageous protests of the Water Protectors blocking construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Through their direct action, an oppressed group of Native Americans have taken on the U.S. government and achieved a significant victory by impelling the Obama administration to stop construction (temporarily?).
As Frederick Douglass so brilliantly articulated, social movements must force governments to make concessions; they won’t do so out of good will or generosity. What the state wants, more than anything, is an obedient population to rule. Electoral politics are another means of controlling the population by sucking the vital energy of changemakers into a system that deadens everything it touches. This is not to say that it’s irrelevant which candidate or party is in charge. It is simply that what matters most is to focus on what we can control – our own actions and our own movements. Rather than casting our hopes onto the shifting tides of the Republicans and Democrats, we must remain anchored to our autonomous principles and vision for the future.
As ever, the task of an anti-capitalist is to produce more anti-capitalists and organize ourselves into an empowered and empowering force for radical social change. The Trump Presidency offers an opportunity to do both by demonstrating the corrupt and destructive role the U.S. government plays in the world, as well as its inherently undemocratic nature. Trump himself is not the problem and it is not enough to simply remove him from power. In 2007, I had the frustration of attending an anti-war meeting called by World Can’t Wait, a front group for Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party. The meeting was poorly facilitated and revolved around people rising, one after another, out of their seats to give impassioned speeches, mostly about impeaching George W. Bush. One person, who may have been a member of the group, argued, “I want Bush to be impeached to show that the system works!” I thought to myself, “That is the exact opposite of what we need to accomplish.”
The election of Donald Trump to U.S. President has the potential to be a disaster on many levels. But it is also a unique opportunity that we must seize to create a future worth living in. For the next 4-8 years, let’s protest Trump, but let’s also confront and disrupt racism, xenophobia, sexism and transphobia throughout society. Let’s turn chants of “Not My President!” into “No More Presidents!”[iii] Let’s challenge not only the legitimacy of the Electoral College but of corporate-funded electoral politics in general. Let’s practice direct democratic models of decision-making. Let’s ground our protests and activism in political education through reading groups and collective visions for liberation. Let’s learn to accept and embrace our differences, rather than fear them. Let’s develop systems of mutual accountability and conflict resolution rooted in transformative justice, that won’t destroy relationships or one another’s mental health. Let’s find a balance between fighting on the front lines and caring for ourselves and one another, so that we can maintain the struggle over the long haul.
We can, and must, introduce these radical concepts to the masses of disillusioned liberals who are searching for answers. But we also can, and must, demand a better anti-capitalist movement, one that can actually support large numbers of people and allow us to develop into the best versions of ourselves. The system has failed, in spectacular fashion. This is our opportunity to present a viable alternative.
[i] I later changed my preference to Al Gore when somehow it filtered to me that Gore was more environmentally-friendly.
[ii] For more on the role of the corporate media in the election, also see media expert Edward P. Morgan’s article “The Tragedy of the Two Americas”: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/11/15/tragedy-two-americas
[iii] Seattle writer/activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore helped inspire this chant, which is now the title of a radical convergence happening in Oakland this weekend! https://nomorepresidents.com/