A cruel irony lurks beneath the debacle of the 2016 election: Donald Trump may have won the roughly 80,000 voters he needed in the Rust Belt at least in part because he vowed to fix a massive problem of twenty-first-century capitalism that the left had propelled into national prominence: economic inequality. The insurgents of Occupy, the fighters for $15, and Bernie Sanders and his young apostles had all drawn the media’s attention to the nagging wage gap, bad trade deals, and lousy, non-union jobs. Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 partly because he stoked this discontent when he ran against a businessman who wrote off nearly half the population of his own country. But last fall, it was Trump, not the uninspiring Democratic nominee, who made an effective, albeit classically demagogic, appeal to white working people to change a system “rigged” against them. “He stoked his base’s fears,” observed Gary Younge in the Guardian; “she failed to give her base hope.”
So how should radicals and liberals resist and help defeat an administration hostile to every principle and policy that makes a decent society possible? Several contributors to this issue offer sharp, sensible views about those burning questions. Click over to read other, equally incisive ones on our website.
But no strategy can succeed that does not, at the same time, build both democratic movements and a party that would live up to that glorious adjective. Some elements of the grassroots left thrived during the Obama years: activists for racial justice, against climate change, and for marriage equality raised public consciousness and mobilized millions. To endure and prosper during the next four years and beyond, those movements and others—labor, most critically—will have to grow in numbers and political sophistication. They should stress the enormous damage Trump’s policies will do to the lives of ordinary Americans of all races and refrain from obsessing about his wretched character.
As the new president and his fellow Republicans will make brutally clear, when your opponents wield the power of the state, no victory is safe and every advance can be reversed. The only way to take back that power is with an institution that has the potential to do so. There is just one national institution that fits that description: the Democratic Party.
Of course, the Democrats are hardly the paragon of progressive ideas and policies that leftists desire. But, as the Sanders campaign showed, the party is as open to left activists and their ideas as it has been in decades. Large and widespread demonstrations and grassroots organizing can throw loads of sand in the gears of the Republican juggernaut that now controls the entire federal government and a majority of the states. But to dismantle it, we have to defeat it on Election Day. Those who dogmatically write off the Democrats as a corrupt bastion of neoliberalism and flirt with the Greens or some new third party will accomplish nothing but keeping Trump’s party in power. What they are proposing is electoral suicide.
Leftists, in and out of social movements, should instead seize the opportunity that Hillary Clinton’s defeat has given them. Join local chapters of the Democratic Party. Start Democratic clubs where liberals, moderates, and radicals can debate how to challenge Trump and his allies at every level. Consider running for the city council or the state legislature or Congress—and seek out advice about how to set up a campaign and, yes, raise money to finance it. Come up with a strategy to convince registered Democrats to vote in midterm elections. President Obama woefully neglected party-building during his eight years in office. The result, in part, is that Democrats hold power securely only in big cities and a few states.
To beat back the man who might become the most destructive president in U.S. history, we will also need a bit of empathy for those white folks who voted for Obama twice, warmed up to Sanders, and then switched to Trump. Some were certainly motivated by fear or hatred of Latino immigrants, Muslims, women, or all of the above. But many also have anxieties about their own lives that we should be able to understand. We are not going to convince them to spurn the man they elected if we call them names and mock their worries. Don’t curse, organize.
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.