I’m going to assume for the purposes of this essay that Clinton will win the election tomorrow. If Trump wins, a very different kind of political future stretches ahead, both for his supporters and his opponents.
So, if Clinton wins, what then? Many progressives promise to pressure her relentlessly, and they should do so. President Obama demonstrated in his last two years in office that there are many useful initiatives possible with executive authority alone. He also demonstrated in his first six years that there are many ways to squander executive power, as he did at Treasury and Education. Pressure on Clinton from the faction of her party that wants to see many things changed in our national policies can encourage creative use of executive power and discourage simply handing it to the usual suspects to craft the sort of rudderless, bloodless wonkery that only Ezra Klein could love.
It is nearly impossible to guess what kind of legislature she will be grappling with. That’s not merely about the distribution of seats to parties, but also about whether the Republican leadership will see Congressional leadership as an important part of climbing out of the abyss that Trump led them into. If they decide to stubbornly stay in the pit and wait for the next monster to escort them around its darkness, then Clinton will need a strategy that presumes nothing will come from Congress. If Paul Ryan and others recognize that to climb out takes delivering something more than endless, purposeless obstruction, then she may be able to rely on some form of legislative cooperation on big, likely rather formless, legislation to shift economic policy.
I don’t have much hope about a Clinton Administration, by and large. It’s not a Trump Administration, and that’s important enough. But 2020 and 2024 may deliver something like a Trump Administration if things don’t change. I still read far too many progressives in my social media feeds who see Trump’s coalition as a demographic cul-de-sac, as something which can get no larger. Trump is not teleology; Trump is contingency. He is an episode that did not have to happen, and he is an event that has changed the shape of the future. That alone is cause for the deepest fury with the Republican leadership of the last twenty years: they gleefully cast matches onto dry underbrush and then were surprised when they set the entire neighborhood ablaze.
Trump’s voters are a renewable resource, and it might only take someone other than Trump to grow them into something far more. Imagine Trump without grab-them-by-the-pussy, without unhinged tweeting, without dubious financial scumbuggery. Imagine a fire-breather without the liabilities who stayed laser-focused on a kind of populist nihilism, a tear-it-all-down attitude, coupled with a smarter, more circumspect nativism that kept away from indiscriminate racism. General disaffection with the system is real and widespread; against a career member of the political class, that revised Trump could win. Would have won this time, very likely.
So if nothing else for reasons of self-interest, the political class, of all parties, would be well-advised to build some reformist firebreaks urgently. They likely won’t. So let’s leave that for a moment and ask what the rest of us might do in their stead. Perhaps tearing down much of the existing system would or could be beneficial depending on who is doing the demolition and the reconstruction, and with what aims. We’re not getting to the good version, a new birth of American freedom, without a very different kind of social support for that transformation than is presently available.
I have been persistently frustrated with progressives who misunderstand, with varying degrees of egregiousness, two key issues. First with persistent attempts to use one fragmentary bit of data, namely 538’s claim that exit polls of Trump voters in the primaries showed that they had a higher median income than Democratic primary voters and higher than their state as a whole, to argue that Trump’s support is not “working-class”. First because at least some of the people who have seized on that point should know just how weak that data is for making any assertion about the social identities of a group of voters. Second because just about everyone should know better than to see income and social class as equivalent, and to reductively assume there’s a working-class, a middle-class, and the wealthy, end of story. Two households with an income of $72,000 can be massively different in class terms. The household where the income is $72,000 in a small city in Ohio with one 55-year old earner who has a B.A., works as a sales manager in an auto dealership and does part-time weekend work at Wal-Mart and is in a house with no resale value is almost incomparable with the household of a 35-year old biology Ph.D who has just been hired at a California liberal arts college on the tenure-track and is renting an apartment from his employer. They’re both “middle-class” in some broad sense, but the relationship of the two people to the political economy is hugely different, and their pathways into the future are equally divergent. The first person has a ton of reasons to worry–or feel anger–about the direction of the economy in comparison to the second person. (Not that anyone except the 1% can afford to regard the future as a sure thing.)
This is what we the people, at least the coalition of people voting for Clinton, will have to understand even if our political class, including probable-President Clinton, cannot. We will have to understand it through evidence and social connection. Progressives should not ever engage in sorting people into the deserving and undeserving, to decide whose precarity is authentic enough. Left politics depends on at least the appearance of an interest in fighting for workers, hence to desperation of some to cleanse the category of Trump voters so that it’s safe to disparage them as nothing but racists.
Mind you, many of them are just that. But never “nothing but”: to be precarious members of a lower middle-class that has genuinely suffered relative decline in the structural transformations of the global and national economy in the last thirty years is not in any sense incompatible with being racists, with sexism, and so on. Which is where the second issue that frustrates me comes up. There have been a number of essays published in the last month by progressive authors who say, “Don’t ask me to have empathy for Trump voters”. This misunderstands what it means to understand. The reason to think about and engage Trump voters is not saintly altruism. It is pure, desperate pragmatism.
The social and cultural distance between me and most Trump voters is vast. I don’t even have a member of my extended family that I know might vote for Trump. I only come across clusters of Trump voters in my social media feeds on occasion. I am frightened by most vocal Trump voters, and I’m repelled by a lot of what they support. The racism and sexism are only the first part of it. I’m disgusted with their indifference to truth and evidence. I’m dizzy with rage at their mockery of qualifications. I can’t believe they care so little about the consequences of a Trump Administration for the world or the country.
I have no sainthood to uphold, just a lot of bleak feelings of despair, anger and alienation about the entirety of where we find ourselves. I do have a religion that is just as sacred to me as anyone’s might be to them: I believe in evidence, I believe in knowledge, I believe in the elegance and beauty of words, I believe in fairness and equality, I believe in the possibilities of social justice. Trump is the Piss Christ of my religion: a sacrilege that enrages and sickens me.
And yet that is why I know pragmatically that this cannot go on. It doesn’t matter if the Trump coalition loses every four years by 10 or 15 electoral votes, by 45-55 in the popular vote. Especially not if they continue to hold many state legislatures and the House of Representatives. That’s enough to hold the future hostage, to drag us all down, and to make the neoliberal trend lines of the economy even worse for more and more people, potentially accelerating the move of other voters into a Trump-like space of nihilism and rejection. Something has got to change, and we cannot change it just with a basket of admirables.
We have to have justice even for people we dislike, even for people who threaten others. That’s the price of peace. Every society that’s gone through something like a civil war learns this in the end. Progressives like to point out that you cannot kill all the terrorists, because trying to do so makes more terrorists. This is what happens with all strategies of infinite enmity, of holding power as a shield and weapon against enemies, in the end. This ensures the social reproduction of enmity itself.
So the first thing that we can do with our civic lives, even if the President and Congress drag their feet making the really big changes in their management of the economy, is to try and poke holes in the coffee can, to let some air in, to change the circulation of meritocratic privilege and economic access even more than it has been changed so far. To figure out who is with Trump only because of one issue or one experience, who could move.
Where we can build a bridge to that someone, we should. Where we can stand to be in conversation, we should. Trying to understand people never depends on whether they’re assholes or not. It’s not empathy because you’re a good person. As a historian and ethnographer, I’ve often had to understand people that I personally or politically dislike very much, without any implications for my own likeability or goodsness. I shouldn’t undertake that effort just when it’s a Shona-speaking rural patriarch that I’m speaking to. Not because I’m a saint, not because I have to have “empathy” for some fuzzy reason, but because I have the skill to do it and because if I use that skill I gain productive knowledge about the world, how it came to be, and what it might mean to change it.
Equally, we have to start figuring out what we might offer as a new social contract between communities with very different visions of the future. If I were in a conversation today where I thought there was a fair, genuine offer on the table to allow a rural school in a region where 95% of the students identified as evangelicals to have a school prayer in the morning in return for acceptance without complaint of non-gender-specific bathrooms in schools throughout that state, I might advise acceptance of the deal. Maybe we need strategic arms limitation talks in the culture wars, maybe we need to refocus the conversation on what kinds of essential baseline universal rights need strong defense by the federal government and which kinds of rights-talk can be allowed some form of local devolution. I’d settle for a strong federal intervention in the rules of engagement by police all across this country to stop the deaths of African-Americans if that meant a studied indifference among coastal elites about people flying the Confederate flag over a state legislature. Now, none of this is worth talking about until it’s a real negotiation, with real concessions being made. Again, though, safety and peace don’t come just through holding power long enough to win forever. There is no end to history. We won’t know what’s possible unless we spend the time figuring out what at least some of our enemies really want.
Not all of Trump’s voters need to be brought back into some larger possible coalition. But we need a bigger tent, a bigger alliance, a broader consensus on the absolute fundamentals of American and global life. We need something less fragile, less perpetually imperiled, and we will not get it just by endless war. We will not get it through some magic demography that we believe has anointed us the majority of the future. We will not get it by holding fast to every single thing we are, we want, we do.