The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.
More than 100 activists gathered outside the office of North Carolina Senator T. Tillis to protest President Trump's right wing picks for his cabinet, January 24,2017.Brian Cahn Zuma/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
Donald Trump is settling into the White House in Washington amidst huge protests from just about every major social group represented in American society. Many of the same people who occupied the central plazas of cities across the United States in 2011 as part of the Occupy movement, went out onto the streets again to object to the plans and the “style of power” of the new President.
The reasons why Trump was elected will probably be a subject of historical and political debate for years to come but anti-immigrant and nationalist ideas were certainly some of the central elements of his appeal to American voters. Trump was successful in capturing that part of the anti-elite sentiments that Occupy didn’t (and couldn’t) capture. But a suggestion that what led to the rise of Trump in American politics was the same anti-establishment narrative that fuelled the Occupy movement is a gross misunderstanding.
Occupy was part of the global wave of anti-austerity protests that challenged the role of finance in politics, objected to social injustice and the hollowing out of democratic representation. It also popularised and practised more direct democratic ways of organising and decision-making, with lasting effects such as Occupy Sandy.
In many places, the movement refused to put forward explicit demands as this could have been seen as legitimising the power of the incumbent elites. But its original location and target was Wall Street rather than Washington and here lies the first major difference between Trump and Occupy.
Trump bashes the political elites for, what are essentially, the consequences of decades of neoliberal policies. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, had a much more complex understanding of who should be held accountable for the economic and political crisis. It would see Trump as part of the problem and not the solution, especially regarding matters pertaining to labour rights and trade policies. The politicians have certainly played their part but they were working hand in glove with the financial elites to the extent that for many in the movement, the system built on that collaboration, although formally still democratic, was an apparatus built by and for the 1% rather than the 99%.
Speaking about Occupy in 2011, Trump said that they should be protesting in Washington, not on Wall Street, because it was Washington that caused the problem. Trump has lived in a world where the state is creating tax breaks for the wealthy, bails out the banks and awards corporations the rights to freedom of speech. In a typical Trumpian move, however, he can exploit these opportunities and still put the blame on the politicians because it was they who have ultimately consented to it all. This attitude seeks to escape accountability for the role of financial elites in causing the economic crisis.
The Occupy movement, on the other hand, started their protest on Wall Street even though it was the state agencies that the encampments had to deal with most often. Through the sometimes violent interventions of the mayors, police and various government agencies, Occupy certainly got a good grasp of how the state defends and reinforces the power of corporate elites.
Although the language damning the greed and arrogance of the establishment was present in Occupy, so was the understanding that the conditions that encouraged such attitudes and allowed them to flourish were created by a convergence of economic and political decisions and power. The movement’s analysis and the way it was set up was suitable for tackling big questions and politicising masses of people. However, it was not meant for bringing the movement’s candidates into power. In contrast, Trump is a symptom of a reactionary response triggered when the problems requiring systemic transformation are blamed solely on the political establishment, i.e. when the change in power is more important than understanding and getting to the roots of the crisis.
Trump’s electoral victory gives a semblance of democratic legitimacy to the “corporate state.” The populist sentiments that he brought to the surface show once again that the formally democratic state as a highly corporatised apparatus of power is not able to respond effectively to popular concerns about equality, social justice and democracy.
Instead, they converge to create an attractive populist narrative that may be demanding of ever more undemocratic solutions. Here is then the second biggest difference between Occupy and Trump in that the movement organised itself around the principles of direct democracy and autonomous self-organising as a positive way to engage with the political and economic crisis. It aimed to create a substantive link between protest and resistance which fights dominant structures, and the work of “beyond,” which develops innovative alternatives.
Conversely, like anything else for Trump, the failure of the state and the crisis that exacerbated it are simply “good business” and corporate elites will certainly soon be gearing up to profit from the building of the “big, big wall” on the border with Mexico or introducing ever more robust surveillance techniques against certain groups in society.
Trump will not make America great again. The exploitation of the populist narrative by Trump serves to meet the demands of corporate forces for new powers while cashing in on the appearance of democratic legitimacy. So no, the forces that spurred Occupy were not the reason why Trump won but they can be why he will lose.
How to cite:
SZOLUCHA, A. (2017) Occupy is not the reason why Trump won, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 25 January. https://opendemocracy.net/anna-szolucha/occupy-is-not-reason-why-trump-won