by Ali Minai
It is the worst of times. Period! The presidential election of 2016 possibly represents a hinge-point in American like no other since the beginning of the Cold War, though perhaps an argument can be made for 9-11. Indeed, September 11, 2001 and November 8, 2016 may be seen as two ends of the same massive hinge that has turned that entire course of American — and, therefore, world — history in a different direction.
Within the domestic context of the United States, it is hard to see the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency as anything other than the ignition of a new civil conflict along ideological lines. It is not a “civil war”, but the weapons involved will be no less destructive to the fabric of society.
The arrival of this conflict is not a surprise since there have been hints of it for years, but its current modality is a huge shock. Tensions have been building up in the United States for decades as it turns inexorably towards becoming a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. Power has been siphoning away from the mainly white elite defined by tradition and becoming distributed over a more diverse elite defined by education and technical competence. The largest group “left behind” in this process is the non-elite largely white population that, long conditioned to accept the supremacy of the traditional elite, suddenly finds itself facing competition from unskilled Latin American labor and the ascendancy of a new diverse and global elite. Saying “I want my country back” is a natural response in this situation. It is impossible for this sentiment not to have an ethnic subtext — though it is an oversimplification to see the conflict as primarily racial, ethnic or religious. These factors are important signifiers, but the core issue is a fundamental difference in worldviews.
Add in the devastation of rural America by poverty and drugs, the stoking of religious tensions by 9-11, endless wars fought by soldiers from the lower economic strata, the disdainful attitude of the new liberal elites, and one has a toxic brew of resentment bubbling in the white working class (WWC) throughout the country. The only question was whether this boiling hot mess would subside as the cold water of demographic reality drizzled on it, or if it would come to a boil. Obama’s election in 2008 and 2012 seemed to suggest that it might be cooling down. Unfortunately, not so!
On November 8, 2016, the pot boiled over. Old America announced that it will not submit to New America without a brutal fight, and now that fight has begun. It is not clear whether this is the last, futile gasp of a dying reality, or a true turning point that leads in an unexpected new direction, but this is unlikely to be settled in a few months or years. Given that the turn toward right-wing populism in the US echoes similar movements in Europe and the rise of strongmen all over the world, there is good reason to think that we may be seeing the beginning of a new phase in world history. If so, the lives of several generations will be consumed by it, and it will probably transform the very nature of American society. It is impossible to say exactly what this change will be – or even if all of it will be bad, or bad for whom – but we are entering what the Chinese call “interesting times”. Unfortunately, the young will have to bear the brunt of this change, but the good news is that with great turmoil comes great opportunity. As these young people begin to make their way in troubled times, they will have the chance to reshape the world fundamentally in ways that their elders never did.
Any analysis of the future must begin with an understanding of what happened on Election Day, 2016. Since then, the media and the blogosphere have been full of explanations for Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat, though these have now begun to resemble a “blind men and the elephant” situation. Broadly speaking, there were four factors that cost Hillary Clinton the election. The most important was a surge in the number of (mainly white) working class voters in rural and small-town America who came out to vote for Trump after sitting out the last several elections. Completely missed by the “likely voter” models of most pollsters, these voters were decisive to Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio. Derided as ignorant, racist rubes, they heard a voice – Trump’s voice – telling them that they too mattered, and so they voted for him in droves. He is their revenge on the bicoastal globalized elite. The second big factor was the failure of the Clinton campaign to engage directly with all the voters who had propelled Barack Obama to two victories. By all accounts, the Clinton campaign took some groups – such as African-Americans and Latinos – for granted, and simply wrote off others, such as WWC union voters in the Rust Belt. Crucially, Trump proclaimed a harsh but clear cultural, economic and social message, telling his voters, “I am your voice!” In contrast, the Clinton campaign obscured all its positive messages, and led almost exclusively with a negative one: Don’t vote for evil, terrible, bigoted, no-good Donald Trump! In a perverse way, Clinton’s message almost served to reinforce Trump’s, making his voters even more committed to him, while giving Clinton’s own voters no positive reason to vote for her. The third important factor was the patently unfair demonization of Hillary Clinton by the Republicans, the media and – most painfully – a progressive Left drunk on its own self-righteousness. All of them collaborated to establish the “crooked Hillary” meme that turned Hillary Clinton – who had devoted most of her life to public service on behalf of children and others – into a caricature of corruption, and drove her trust numbers below those of her opponent who has just settled an actual fraud lawsuit for $25 million! By harping on the email controversy, by giving Trump surrogates endless exposure, and by implying a false equivalence between the flaws of the two candidates, the media kept the election competitive and their ratings high. A remarkable amount of latent misogyny also fed into the media characterizations of Clinton. Wikileaks, Russian hackers, and James Comey did the rest. However, in addition to these concrete factors, there was also a fourth, more transcendental one: This turned out to be a change election, and Hillary Clinton did not represent change. In this sense, Election 2016 was of a piece with the populist wave sweeping Western democracies, exemplified most recently in Brexit. Together, these problems – some of them beyond Clinton’s control – doomed her, though this is only apparent in hindsight, as is the case with all transformative events.
The question now is how the liberal, humanist forces in the West – and especially young people – should respond to the cataclysm. The simple answer is that they must respond with thoughtfulness and humility. The forces of history are larger than individuals, and do not take kindly to being stage-managed. That lesson, at least, should have been learned now!
In the short term, Democrats in Congress and liberals in the land have limited options. They can protest – perhaps to the point of civil disobedience. Within Congress, the Democrats can expose the extremism of Trump nominees during confirmation hearings, and do the same with any bills he or the Republican leadership propose. In the media, liberal pundits can highlight the inherent conflicts-of-interest and outright corruption of a Trump administration (as will surely be the case), and talk persuasively about catastrophic policies on civil rights, human rights, geopolitics, climate change, etc. This election will, no doubt, produce a vigorous growth industry in liberal outrage, as was the case during the Bush years. That is by no means a bad thing. The justifiable outrage felt today has to be kept alive for the next four years if anything is to change.
One big question – already being raised in the public discourse – is whether the Democrats should actively obstruct Trump, as the Republicans did with Obama in 2008, or cooperate on mutually agreeable issues and wait for Trump to fail on his own. They used the latter strategy against George W. Bush – under some political duress due to 9-11 – and it took six years, two catastrophic wars, and a major hurricane to sink Bush to the point where Democrats could win control of Congress again. It was an expensive strategy. However, Trump will start his presidency with far lower approval ratings than Bush (currently around 42%), and, with his divisive policies, might become even less popular rather quickly. Precluding another major event triggering national consensus, Trump could well be a political liability for Republicans by 2018. He has been elected by the votes of about 26% of the total electorate, and it is quite likely that a majority of voters do not agree with his policies. Pushed hard enough, more of them will eventually show up to vote. But structurally, they hold all the advantages in the 2018 mid-term elections. A lot of Democratic senators are up for re-election in Republican states, and will probably be in a submissive mood to preserve their own seats. In the House, Republican gerrymandering has already entrenched a majority that will be hard to overturn without another “wave” election. In principle, strategic cooperation with Trump might allow Democrats to drive a wedge between him and Congressional Republicans on issues such as infrastructure spending, but Republicans control the agenda and are unlikely to give the Democrats this opportunity. The approach will probably get the Democrats no political credit with voters, and will demoralize their own base further. Nor is it clear that the Republicans will be blamed for a failure by Trump, because they have all the resources of the right-wing propaganda machine at their disposal. On the other hand, while determined obstruction worked for Republicans against Obama in 2010, 2014 and 2016, it still could not prevent his re-election in 2012. Given these factors, probably the best option for Democrats is to adopt a pose of “fierce but principled” opposition, with the goal of making Trump as unpopular as possible as quickly as possible. Ironically, in this quest, their best ally is Donald Trump himself. With his erratic temperament, he is the person most likely to sink his own presidency, though, given the recent election, that is a risky thing to count on!
Most importantly, while an uncertain Democratic strategy is unfolding, Trump and his lieutenants will be busy implementing their highly illiberal vision. Trump’s early moves indicate that this will happen quickly, and could well alter the playing field so much that no Democratic strategy can succeed. The entire ethos of American society is at stake, and, as 9-11 has already shown, a single event can alter the public’s mood on civil liberties and human rights almost overnight. The installation of Steve Bannon, master propagandist, as his closest advisor will give Trump the ability to shape alternate realities in ways that even Cheney and Rove might envy. Given all this, it is an inescapable fact that the fate of the United States as a constitutional democracy will rest on Republicans with principles. Only conscientious members of the Republican Party can truly stand up to stop Trump's excesses in a timely way, reverse the perversion of basic rights, and ask the Joseph Welch question: “Have you no sense of decency, Mr. Trump?” Based on recent experience, this is very unlikely to happen from within Congress, given the abject devotion Republican politicians must show to their base in order to maintain their political careers.
Most of the pushback against Trump’s excesses will have to come from civil society and the press. For the first time in history, the United States will be run like a banana republic, with a leader potentially exploiting the government’s machinery for personal profit, handing over hallowed institutions to cronies, and subverting the very foundation of the state. The ascendancy of Trump is a calamity for American democracy. In the short term, there will be virtually no institutional mechanisms for the state to resist. The independent Department of Justice will be handed over to those least protective of peoples’ rights. The Department of Homeland Security will become an instrument of oppression. Most of the progress made in the area of civil rights and human rights will probably be wiped away in a matter of months. The Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, laws on equal opportunity, banking regulation, legal protections, workplace safety rules – all will be challenged from within the government. Climate change deniers will run environmental policy. The only bulwark against all this will be men and women of conscience within the government and outside – especially in the press. This nation will fall or stand based on whether the press can fearlessly report on reality, rather than becoming a sycophantic propaganda arm of the government – as it did during the Bush years. The early signs are not hopeful. The media – especially CNN – played a pivotal role in normalizing Trump’s excesses during the campaign and amplifying Clinton’s – all in the name of “fairness” and “balance”. Until the press at large learns that the truth cannot be balanced with lies, the unraveling of American democracy will continue.
For liberal activists, a key to reversing the debacle must be to re-engage with their lost voters. The worst possible response to Trump’s victory would be to write off all those who voted for him. They may not be a majority – or even a plurality – of voters, but they are fellow human beings, and many of them are in distress. As Abbas Raza writes in an eloquent piece, if liberals believe in their own values, “…. the highest priority must be to help the working class out of its miserable state and reach a more equitable distribution of resources overall.” Hate may be a strong emotion, but nothing dissolves it like empathy. Responding to hate with compassion without compromising one’s principles is a well-tested method for changing hearts and minds, as reformers down to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mandela in our own times have demonstrated. Finding the balance between resisting Trump while empathizing with many of his voters will be an interesting but important challenge for liberals in the next four years.
In the longer run, the main issue is whether the current eruption of right-wing populism is to be a temporary glitch in an otherwise steady move towards a progressive future, or a decisive change that alters the course of history in America and elsewhere. There is a broad sense – driven by the mounting unease in the aftermath of recent European elections and Brexit – that it may be the latter. However, it is important to remember that, as recently as a few weeks ago, the dominant idea about America’s political future was that demography is destiny. There is no reason to abandon those arguments now. Regardless of Trump’s policies, the United States will become inexorably more diverse. The only question is whether that increasingly diverse polity will also be more progressive, as has seemed likely, or if it will turn rightward. The choice in this lies with young American millennials: The most important part of the liberal response to the Age of Trump must come from them.
For the millennial generation, the first priority must be to preserve their ideals. Over the last century, American society has moved inexorably, if clumsily, towards a more progressive attitude, with women’s suffrage, the welfare safety net, civil rights and liberties, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, all becoming part of the country’s institutional fabric. The millennials of today are, as a group, far more progressive than their parents and grandparents – even in areas of the country that vote conservative. Hillary Clinton won them by 18 points. As they grow older, the hope is that their progressive attitudes will become dominant among older age groups, and those who follow them will only add to this liberal ethos. Whether this still comes to pass depends critically on how the millennials relate to Trump. Do they reinforce their liberalism in opposition to him, or are they sucked into a conservative vortex, much as happened with many young people in the Reagan era who are the Republican-leaning middle-agers of today? Young people committed to progressive values must work to ensure that the latter situation is not repeated. They can do this by fearlessly and frequently asserting their values among their peers, by participating vigorously in the political process, by supporting institutions such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, etc., and, above all, by moving the current manifestation of progressivism towards a more mature attitude that can engage with a diversity of ideas – including conservative ones – with intellectual honesty and openness. In its righteous zeal, progressivism has sometimes taken on the trappings of a secular religion, valuing purity above open-mindedness. To some degree, this was even a factor in the Left’s reviling of Hillary Clinton, who was seen as something of a sellout for consorting with “enemies” such as Wall Street. The intellectual and political leaders of the new Left must reverse this attitude or risk alienating even more moderates and persuadable conservatives.
The second critical mission for young liberal Americans must be to reclaim reality in this time of ascendant delusion. The resentment and ignorance that drove millions of working class voters to support a megalomaniacal billionaire against their own best interests is not some genetic affliction. These voters are fully capable of making informed decisions, but are kept in a state of delusion by a vast network of misinformation and propaganda that drowns them in lies. This network, comprising Fox News, right-wing talk radio, Drudge, Breitbart, etc., is being supercharged by the Internet and social media. Analysis by Buzzfeed shows that, in the last three months of the election campaign, fake news – most of it oriented towards Trump – significantly outperformed actual news on Facebook. There is no reason why such 1984-style propaganda will not continue into the Trump presidency and thrive. In the short term, it will demonize his opponents and buoy his popularity. In the long run, it could take down democracy itself unless liberals and small-d democrats can find a way to combat this. And this demise of democracy will happen not only because the populist right will subvert it, but also because liberal thinkers will increasingly come to doubt its value.
(Image source: BuzzFeed)
Five years ago, Eli Pariser published a prescient book called “The Filter Bubble”, pointing out how the Internet was allowing everyone to essentially select their own reality, communicating only with like-minded people and engaging only with a partial – possibly incorrect – set of “facts”. Of course, such epistemic closure is nothing new: Tribes and groups have always had their own worldviews, origin stories, beliefs, etc. However, modern technology allows the process to be scaled up and weaponized to a degree unthinkable in the past. What makes this especially tragic is that the Internet and its democratization of expression had been expected to promote open-mindedness; instead, it has made closed-mindedness more sustainable. The “fault” for this, if any, lies with two major factors: Human nature, and the desire of corporations to maximize their profits. By focusing on clicks and eyeballs to generate profits, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are catering to the worst instincts of individuals – amplifying biases, increasing conflict, and subverting the consensus on facts. It may be argued justifiably that corporations policing individuals for good behavior would be far worse, but there is a vast, unexplored middle ground where society will eventually have to find a home if it is not to be torn apart by conflicting pseudo-realities. If there is a mission that young liberals of today should be adopting, it is to save the ideals of democracy from the ravages of a post-truth age. An informed polity will always be the best bulwark against tyranny. How to create that informed polity in the context of the modern world and human nature is one of the great challenges of our time. Propaganda and myth-making are as old as human history, but their modalities change. In the post-Enlightenment world, freedom of speech and a free press were seen as the best way to oppose propaganda. In our times, it must be asked whether this model is sufficient or if it needs significant change. The young technological elite will have a central role in answering this question.
Looking out farther, there is a strong case for pessimism. As the global effects of climate change intensify and interact with an increasing economic divide and the rise of religious extremism, the world will become a far more disturbed place. Mass migrations have already begun, but will grow exponentially. Water shortages will drive millions from ancestral lands. New diseases will emerge and old ones will expand their area of influence in a warming world. New technologies such as AI, robotics, social media and genetic engineering will lead to such rapid socioeconomic transformation that whole societies will be disrupted catastrophically. In this context, Trump and Brexit seem like the first, faint intimations of an approaching tsunami. Such conditions of societal stress lead invariably to the emergence of tyrants. In the modern context, they may be right-wing or left-wing, elitist or populist, religious or secular – but that will hardly matter. A new, illiberal age will descend upon the world. Is this dystopian reality inevitable? Who knows? But we do know it is still within our grasp to reduce its likelihood.
The biggest lesson of Election 2016 is that Trump and his movement cannot be discounted. Trump himself works in highly unconventional ways, which convinced the convention-driven media and punditry that he could not win. To understand things better, it is instructive to read Michael Wolff’s recent piece on Steve Bannon:
Bannon represents, he not unreasonably believes, the fall of the establishment. The self-satisfied, in-bred and homogenous views of the establishment are both what he is against and what has provided the opening for the Trump revolution. “The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what's wrong with this country,” he continues. “It's just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f—ing idea what's going on. If The New York Times didn't exist, CNN and MSNBC would be a test pattern. The Huffington Post and everything else is predicated on The New York Times. It's a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information — and her confidence. That was our opening.”
“Darkness is good,” says Bannon, “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power.” For the next four years – if not longer – this man’s dream of Darkness will be our national nightmare. It needs to be taken seriously. Perhaps all this will turn out to be a mirage, and there will be no changing of the paradigm after all. Indeed, that is a strong possibility, given the institutional inertia built into America by the genius of its founding fathers. And it is not just the media that lives in its own bubble,; so do right-wing ideologues, and that bubble too can burst unceremoniously. However, we also know that complex systems can transition rapidly to wholly new phases, and it is this possibility that must be taken seriously in the context of American society. The entire process through which Trump has found electoral success indicates that our normal metrics and frameworks of analysis are inadequate for the present moment. It may not be time to panic, but it is past time to think beyond the received paradigm. Maintaining a liberal future will require active effort and creative new strategies, not just passive waiting for a demographic deliverance.