It happened. Less than a month ago, the odds of a scandal-wracked Donald Trump winning the election were just north of 8%. The man whose candidacy began as a joke in the summer of 2014 has become the leader of the free world. Faced with a Trump presidency, the urgent task now isn’t to dissect and explain how we lost. It’s to plan how to block his regime every step of the way forward.
It’s important to remember that Trump has never been an aberration. His brand of movement conservatism built on the Tea party’s foundations and those of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy before it, to draw in white voters by kicking out their counterparts of color. But his rise was a bipartisan phenomenon as well, given Americans’ historically low trust in government.
Recounting the collapse of Weimar Germany, historian Hans Mommsen writes that the accommodation and “interpenetration of economic interest organizations and nationalist associations” became “a defining feature of Germany’s political culture in the 1920s and early 1930s”. The German government and its biggest industries had fused, and put faith in the state to make decisions in their interest. Amid deep recession, parliament sided with business against the people as the left remained fractured, having failed to appreciate the meaningful differences between fascism and social democracy. At the risk of overstating things, our own crisis of democratic legitimacy has now given way to an assault on democracy, brought to power by the ballot box itself.
More analogies to Hitler’s rise will feel painfully relevant this morning. But Trump is something new, and deserves to be understood in today’s terms. And the way world powers took on fascism in the second world war is a poor script for learning how to snuff out today’s far-right. Trump’s election is part of a much broader ascendance of dangerous leaders in the Global North. Rather than Hitler or Mussolini, Trump’s most dangerous parallels are Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Frauke Petry. Like Trump, each of them has developed a uniquely 21st century strategy for gaining power, doing away with the old fascist markers that have long been marginal forces in Europe. Those of us looking to challenge Trump and his ilk need to pay attention to these innovations.
Both Trump and Clinton were some of history’s most unpopular candidates, and for the Democrats to double down on her establishment tendencies now would be suicidal. The Third Way politics that Clinton’s husband helped craft have been thoroughly trounced, and it’s up to the left now to propose its own populist and progressive alternative to Trump’s doomsday “law and order” neoliberalism. The popular front that rallied around Clinton could still mount a powerful and unified resistance against her opponent’s disastrous first term. That said, neither Clinton nor her politics can be its defining factor.
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A visionary left at this moment is better suited than routed establishment Democrats to catalyze an uprising against Trump and Trumpism – engaging the protest voters’ pain and fear rather than pathologizing them, as many did (to disastrous effect) during the election.
Together we can propose plans for a democracy and economy that work for the vast majority of people living in them, calling out the system as rigged, showing the ways men like Trump rigged it and charting a tangible way forward. That socialist Bernie Sanders remains one of the country’s most popular politicians should inspire some hope, as should the fact that large majorities of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, reforming the criminal justice system and taking on climate change. Pointing out the gap between that fact and Trump’s rule could embattle his first term, and make a second unthinkable. (Fortunately, Trump will probably be as inept at governing as he was at running his business empire, creating both anger against him and a hunger for reasonable alternatives.)
Over the short term, we have a partial script for what happens next. As with Brexit’s Leave voters, the vast majority of those who backed Trump at the polls are not hardened racists – though many are suffering at the hands of the status quo’s disastrous economic policies. In stark contrast to Clinton’s establishment sheen, Trump simply offered an alternative and a series of scapegoats: chiefly, immigrants and Muslims.
Given that, we may see another disturbing Brexit replay. In the week after the Leave vote, hate crimes in Britain shot up five-fold – a figure the country’s police suspected was vastly lowballed. Inspired by their win at the polls, xenophobic thugs were emboldened. Unlike in Britain, those thugs’ hero – the man who stoked our electoral coup – is now in control of the executive branch. But even as we defend our brothers and sisters from attack, the broader fight against Trump’s rule can’t be a defensive one.
In January, we’ll see what of Trump’s plans – to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, tear up the Paris Agreement, throw Clinton in jail – he’ll carry through on. The upshot is already clear: in short order, the United States could slide from hawkish neoliberalism into authoritarianism. Preventing this will mean mustering more unity and vision than progressives in the United States ever have.