The political task for everyone on the left (and a lot of other people) is to defeat Trump. But how? Not “how” as in “which tactics will beat him”—though that’s important!—but “how” as in: what kind of country will we have if we defeat him? How will we, the people who won, find a way to live with his supporters in the aftermath? How can we beat Trump and also defeat Trumpism, rather than reinforce it?
This will be a long conversation on the left. Here are a few opening thoughts.
1. Don’t conflate his supporters with him.
Trump—Trump the candidate; who knows or cares about the man, if he’s in there?—is a liar, bigot, xenophobe, strong man, and bully who plays on anti-elitist resentment, economic abandonment, and wounded white privilege like a maestro. He is putting a white-nationalist, populist identity politics at the heart of the presidential election.
Opponents of Trump should struggle to avoid calling his supporters racists, xenophobes, and the like by default—to avoid addressing them as members of a white identity movement. No doubt some of his core supporters already are these things, and need to be fought as such; but many are not, really, or only a little bit and usually in private. Yet in politics people tend to become what they are addressed as being. That is what makes Trump’s brand of populism so dangerous: it starts from the multifarious stew of political sentiment and brews up something specific and especially toxic. The hope has to be that, when he is gone, most of his supporters will become something else—not double down on this season’s Trumpist themes. Otherwise, we’ll have to accept, and find a way to live with, a generation of open white identity movements in American politics. That’s not a problem any of us wants. It would mean choosing between normalizing that politics and anathematizing a large swath of citizens—two bad alternatives.
Attacks that assume Trump supporters share in his ugliest qualities only ratify his claim that he is their voice, as he put it in his RNC speech. If we take this as our starting point, we face a long and nasty fight against Trumpism, even if he loses in November. The more we question whether Trump actually is their voice, the sooner we can clear the air and begin working towards something different.
2. Don’t blame democracy.
Some elite commentators have argued that Trump’s success shows the problems inherent in democracy: self-indulgent voters susceptible to flattery, irrational passions and prejudices sweeping the public square. There are many reasons not to accept this diagnosis of Trump, but here’s the simplest. Trump himself palpably has no regard for democracy. He sees it as just another marketing medium, a chance to collect votes and applause as he collects cash and publicity in his other enterprises. Trump regards voters as customers, not citizens, and his business record gives plenty of evidence that he regards customers as suckers.
Trump is not democracy’s harvest. He is the rotten fruit of oligarchy. Our hyper-capitalist and celebrity-happy culture cultivates the fantasy that rich people are our betters, natural rulers, brilliant and inherently interesting. Trump is the extreme version of that money-culture deformation of democracy. His version animates the populist wing of the Republicans, while the big-donor Citizens United version animates the Jeb Bush wing.
If we beat Trump, there’s going to be plenty of temptation to recoil from the democracy that gave him his votes. Pundits will say that populism as such is a threat to political decency, and that democracy is a problem for wise elites to manage, not a source of legitimacy and an ethical imperative. We need to resist this. Trump is fundamentally an anti-democratic figure, with no respect for ideas of civic equality or responsible self-rule. His “I am your voice” is a self-branding, self-marketing narcissist’s version of strongman politics. If we defeat him but allow him to define what democracy means for the rest of us, democratic principles will be the losers.
3. Hold the left.
Trump name-checked Bernie Sanders during his RNC speech. Of course he did: Trump has a water-cooler bully’s version of the political reflex for dividing opponents. He would love to collect some Sanders supporters in November; but even more, he would love to turn Sanders’s principled social-democratic campaign, which was opposed to every part of the oligarchic and exclusionary America Trump celebrates, into a caricature of itself, a bunch of angry people, like the ones at his rallies, but with less beer and more weed. Hillary Clinton’s pick of moderate Tim Kaine as her running mate confirms that she and the rest of the Democratic establishment have no interest in keeping alive Sanders’s drive for economic security, stronger democracy, and a society where solidarity has a fighting chance against anxious self-interest. They would like his voters, but, as was abundantly clear all along, his politics is not theirs, and will not be. They will run as responsible managers of the economy, stewards of a familiar liberal-hawk American foreign policy, and people who believe in government, but not in ways that would threaten their donors.
It’s important to remember what the Sanders campaign was for: an economy that is less divided and frightening to navigate, a government more responsive and accountable—in short, a country that is more democratic and less alienating. Defeating Trump shouldn’t turn into defending the system he is attacking. His attacks are opportunistic, and a Trump victory would make things worse, especially for the most vulnerable. But he is succeeding, in part, because there is so much that should be better. The left should emerge from this fight with a program that speaks to the young people who went overwhelmingly for Sanders, the older and non-white voters who tended to Clinton, and those of Trump’s supporters who are not essentially bigots and misogynists, but who feel the need for radical change and really do hope to see a better country. Better or worse, we will all be sharing it. No political victory can change the difficult fact of being stuck here together, which is why we have politics in the first place.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a contributing editor at Dissent.