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The Trump presidency: are there reasons to be cheerful?

The Democratic party is shattered, its carcass thrown to the four corners of the nation. But with such destruction comes an opportunity to rebuild.

James Michael Warren
12 November 2016
Francisco Seco AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The bust of President-elect Donald Trump is displayed at the wax museum in Madrid. Francisco Seco AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. That is the situation the American people and the world have to contend with for the next four years, and nothing can change that.

Control of the White House, a large majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate and the likelihood of a conservative election to fill the vacant Supreme Court position gives the Republican party and Donald Trump an enormous amount of power over the course of his term.

This likely spells a grand rollback of the environmental, healthcare, civil (gay) rights, foreign affairs and gun control policies the Obama administration has painfully inched towards fruition in a presidency defined by Republican obstruction. What it will entail to policies on immigration and women’s reproductive rights cannot yet be known, only that it is unlikely to be favourable for the chief demographics involved.

This is a disaster for the vision of a world continuing along a path of liberal and global enlightenment. But much will be said about that, so perhaps some more should be said on what good may come of such foul time for the left in American politics. 

The mistakes

Like a textbook M. Night Shyamalan flick we all sat watching the Republican primaries believing we were watching the collapse of the GOP, but what we actually ended up with was a twist — a collapse of the Democratic party. But, if we look back through the glass of a future perspective, perhaps this should not come as a shock at all.

The circus of Bush, Rubio, Cruz and Trump distracted many from a Democratic primary that was in some ways just as sinister, and with more than a touch of irony, profusely undemocratic.

The Democratic National Committee did not elect their candidate entirely through the vote of the people, the means by which Donald Trump skipped merrily to the nomination — against the will of many in his chosen party’s establishment. Instead, the DNC delegated a certain portion of votes for granted to Clinton, the candidate most favoured by the corridors of power.

This is a system that can have tremendous benefit. Obama’s capturing of key super delegates was vital to his nomination over Clinton in 2008, when her immediate recognisability might have carried her through in a purely public forum. But this time, it cast a deep divide between democratic voters and the party, with Clinton a boring and vastly unpopular choice. Bernie Sanders was a fresh breath of air and a true anti-establishment candidate to rival Trump — and also a liberal with some truly progressive ideas about how to reshape America.

The circus of Bush, Rubio, Cruz and Trump distracted many from a Democratic primary that was in some ways just as sinister.

In the aftermath of the nomination, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the DNC, and who’s job, actual job – I repeat, ‘JOB’ — was making sure the primaries were fair, was found to have cheated and tilted the primaries against Sanders in a Wikileaks publication that revealed collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. If the dirtiness of the Democrat primaries leaves a foul taste in your mouth, then you can wash it out with the news that Wasserman Schultz joined the Clinton campaign one week later.

A great number of Trump supporters attached themselves to the blond bandwagon on the back of a deep, racist and ignorant belief that he could wrest the country back from imagined control by foreign forces. But many also supported his campaign in an effort to curb the corruption rooted at the heart of Washington politics. Whilst a good number of their claims were over-exaggerations and fabrications, you only need to look at the Wasserman Schultz scandal to tell you that there was fire within the smoke, and that a large part of the Democratic party’s structure was, and is, corrupt.

Instead of backing Sanders, Clinton assumed the nomination as a result of years of backroom deals and promises that one day, she would be given the chance to hold the Oval Office herself. For many voters, this did not seem like due democratic process, and the image of a Clinton dynasty was not helped by what in effect became a coronation rather than a stock-take of the kind of America the people actually wanted. 

It’s easy to say in retrospect that Clinton was the wrong candidate and Sanders was the right one. But we can see now that the rust belt states won by Sanders over Clinton in the primaries — although we didn’t know it at the time — were a forewarning and exactly the kind of ‘solid-blue’ states that Trump won to wreck her path to office. 

In the aftermath of the nomination, Democrat arrogance that those who voted Sanders would fall in line behind Clinton would be a further undoing of the energy behind Clinton’s campaign, and would eventually lead to a shocking and humiliating slap in the face for the Democratic establishment as the impossible became a reality and Trump assumed the presidency.

The future

So what good can come of this mess for the left you might ask? Well firstly, it’s worth thinking about whether you actually wanted a Clinton presidency or, more likely, you simply did not want Trump in the White House.

Let’s assume Clinton defeated Trump. Would you really expect anything to be any different from the frustrating Obama years? The Republicans would still control the House and the Senate, and although Clinton would have had the prerogative to appoint a ninth liberal justice, she may still have been blocked from doing so for her entire term, as many members of congress threatened to do so. To put it simply, Washington would still be a political gridlock, and the frustration of the people would still broil beneath the surface, papered over with the uneasy proclamation that America made the ‘right’ choice, and that it had ‘gotten-over’ it’s brief flirtation with the tenements of fascism.

As it is, the country has exhaled, and although the results are ugly and frightening, it is perhaps not such a bad thing that the beast has been allowed to breathe. The protest vote was cast, and the protest vote won. If Trump proves to be a magnificent president, then the country benefits. If he proves to be at best incompetent, and at worst a sociopathic demagogue intent on dragging the country back through decades of social and economic progress, then he will have his moment in the driving seat and the results of such a ‘rule’ will be clear for all to see.

Although the results are ugly and frightening, it is perhaps not such a bad thing that the beast has been allowed to breathe.

The people of Michigan will remember his promise to make the state the ‘manufacturing hub of the country,’ as will the rest of the nation with all the other legions of promises he has made. With all four cornerstones of American political power, he will have no excuse.

In plain terms, it is unlikely that Trump will do better than he did this time round if he goes up for a second term, and likely that he will do worse. If he fails to make America ‘great’ again, he will not be able to rely on his chief source of appeal — being an outsider. Three years from now, he will instead have to answer and be held accountable for his term as an inexperienced and volatile leader with a penchant for gaffes.

It is also important to remember that this was a tight race, and that more Americans actually voted for the ‘wildly unpopular’ Hillary Clinton than for the ‘populist’ Donald Trump.

During this time, it is vital that the Democrats rediscover who they are as a party. Decades of drifting towards the right on economic issues have lost the trust of their blue-colour base, as evidenced by their poor performance in the midwest.

The future of the Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

The future of the Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.One bright light is that the energy seems to be in the left-wing of the party, with Sanders as a lightning rod who is only likely to grow in popularity after this election. If he inspires younger leaders to take up his mantle, and the Democrats learn their lesson and disband their establishment base, then there is the potential for a bright future.

Energy is the key word to take away. Trump used it against Bush to monumental effect, and it is perhaps surprising in retrospect that he did not use it against Clinton, too. For all the celebrity endorsements and hollow displays of relevance, Clinton struggled to build any sense of excitement, choosing instead to build her message on the dread of Trump.

This energy does not just come exclusively from politicians, it must be forged in a political climate and stoked using the embers of the people themselves.

The wild crowds of Trump’s rallies were compared to Nazi gatherings by some, with a kind of collective amnesia stopping anybody from pointing out that at least that fervour, if not the message, was a central theme of the Obama run in 2008. People are excited when other people are excited, and Democrats have had very little to get excited about during the past eight years. Obama was a good president, or at least a competent one, working at a very difficult time. The Republican gerrymandering of congress — which we should really re-label as plain cheating — left Democrats underrepresented in the House, and subsequently Obama’s every move was subject to the whim of a Republican party simply uninterested in progression.

Democrats finally have a new reason to be angry.

Democrats should be angry, and they were, but you can only stay angry for so long at such passive-aggressive behaviour before your attitude turns into one of abjection and, eventually, the acceptance of a status quo that seems impossible to change. This despondence is easily traceable in poor mid-term voter turnout for Democrats, only cementing their problems in Congress further.

With a Republican quartet, Democrats finally have a new reason to be angry, angry at their own party for putting them in this situation in the first place, and angry at what are likely to be four bad years for America both socially and economically. Republican economics don’t work, but now the left will actually get to prove that if they can muster an effective opposition. The fight begins next week, after the ample allowance of mourning. And in two years they must mobilise and turn up at the mid-terms. A year after that they must have found a candidate able and willing to represent the views of the American people, and to inspire confidence and hope amongst the disenfranchised.

The Democratic party is shattered, it’s carcass thrown to the four corners of the nation. But with such destruction comes an opportunity to rebuild. Rebuild themselves as a real party for the people, and rebuild America with its core values intact. 

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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