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On Tuesday, May 9, Haymarket Books hosted a conversation between Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein, moderated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,000 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. The authors of The New Jim Crow, The Shock Doctrine and From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation respectively have contributed greatly to our understanding of the intersecting historical forces that led to this current political moment. In this, the first part of the transcript of that conversation (lightly edited for length and clarity), the three women discuss the limitations of the framework of “resistance,” the causes of the 2016 election result and the legacy of the Clinton administration.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: In the immediate aftermath of the election, resistance was the first thing that most people were thinking about. I think it was last week, Hillary Clinton spoke publicly for the first time and proclaimed herself part of the resistance, but also that she was going to begin a “resistance” Political Action Committee. In light of that, what does resistance mean right now, 110 days since the inauguration and six months since the November election?
”Resistance is inherently defensive. We are part of a bold and beautiful revolutionary movement that aims to rebirth this country.” — Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander: I have been having some trouble with the frame of “resistance” for some time. I understand completely why the term, the phrase, the rallying cry emerged following Trump’s election — it makes complete sense to me. But I think we’ve got to think beyond resistance. Resistance is inherently defensive.
As I see it, we are part of a bold and beautiful revolutionary movement that aims to rebirth this country. This movement isn’t new — we can trace this movement in some ways to the nation’s founding, the first runaway slaves and the Native people who fought for their land and their territory. There has been a yearning for freedom for all people since this nation’s founding, and there have been great revolutionaries — Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Braden and Cesar Chavez — and we could go on and on, naming the incredible revolutionaries who have helped to remake America. As I see it, Trump is the resistance. There is a revolutionary spirit alive and well that is trying to birth a new America, and Trump and his cronies are resisting, wanting to take America back.
If we are going to do the work that is required to build truly transformational movements in which there is any hope of us building a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, multi-gender democracy, in which every voice and every life truly matters, we are going to have to connect and tap into, embrace that revolutionary spirit and the spirits of the ancestors, the freedom fighters who came before us, and say: “We’re not about resistance. We’re about building a revolutionary movement for the collective liberation of us all.”
Naomi Klein: I really do deeply believe in the vision that Michelle has laid out. Yes, we need to resist the attacks — that’s not an option, they are coming, they’re going to continue to come. One of the things we’ve been talking about is, as bad as things have been in these early months of the administration, what we are seeing is Trump without a crisis to exploit.
”We have to protect space to dream together, to come together and be bold about the world that we want beyond Trump.” — Naomi Klein
It’s been tremendously important that people have flooded into the streets to say no to the travel ban, to say no to attacks as they come, and we’re going to have many more opportunities to do so. But we absolutely have to protect space to dream together, to come together and be bold about the world that we want beyond Trump.
”We should see [the Trump administration] as a fearful response to rising social movements.” — Naomi Klein
Because people were resisting before Trump. I do think we should see these guys as a response, in many ways, a fearful response, to rising social movements: Black Lives Matter, the DREAMers, the climate justice movement, the Fight For $15. When you look at who Trump appointed, you see very clearly a constellation of characters protecting these interests and protecting their profits. Rex Tillerson stepping up as secretary of state, coming from a company that was itself under investigation by the attorneys general of California, Massachusetts and New York, for systematically misleading the public — Exxon did its own climate research, back in the ’70s and ’80s, then, like the tobacco companies, spread misinformation and doubt. The idea that this could be the secretary of state is just unfathomable. It is worth remembering that Trump’s first choice for labor secretary was Andrew Puzder, the guy who fought Fight For $15, basically one of the worst employers in this country, engaged in wage theft of his workers, did not pay them for overtime, faced many lawsuits from his workers. One of the reasons why he didn’t get the job was because of organizing by restaurant workers, that’s another victory. But this is — I’ve called it a corporate coup, I really do believe it is a corporate coup we’re seeing, and they are reacting to rising movements that were rising up because pre-Trump reality was a crisis on so many different levels.
So, we have to remember that even if we were to win every one of the resistance attacks, every one of the defensive attacks, the best-case scenario — and we won’t win every defensive attack — is that we end up where we were before Trump, and that was what produced Trump, so we can’t end up there! We need to end up somewhere else.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: How did we get to this point? Because in some ways there’s a contradiction when Obama is leaving office, his approval ratings are tremendously high, which makes it in some sense difficult to understand how Trump replaces him. It’s not as if this was a president that was leaving in scandal like George W. Bush with an approval rating in the 20s, who brought the country into an illegal war, who sat around while New Orleans drowned and who almost took the entire global economy into complete turmoil. Barack Obama has been seen as very popular and as having a scandal-free presidency, the first time that there’s been a scandal-free presidency in recent memory. How do we understand both of those realities and end up with Trump as president?
Alexander: Well, that’s a long story!
I think that in many respects it was a perfect storm of things. There’s a temptation to want to identify just one or two factors, but there were many. Trump was running against a candidate who was not well-loved among the Democratic base for good reason. We’re also at a moment in time when an enormous amount of racial resentment had been generated by just the symbolism, the mere fact of Obama’s presidency, resentment that Trump encouraged with his Birtherism claims and that Fox News fanned the flames of day after day.
But we are also at a particular moment in history where there was a perception among many whites that they were losing ground, and the demographic changes that were happening in the United States — at the same time that there was a real sense of people losing ground economically and feeling economically insecure and fearful of their future because of globalization, global capitalism, work disappearing, technological innovation rendering thousands of jobs unnecessary — created fear, and the racial resentment was ginned up by Trump everywhere he went.
”Throughout history, every time there has been even the appearance of racial progress, there has been a severe backlash.” — Michelle Alexander
It’s also the case that throughout history, every time there has been even the appearance of racial progress, there has been a severe backlash — as Van Jones termed it, a “whitelash.” This happened over and over again throughout our history. After the Civil War, we saw that backlash that helped to birth convict leasing. After Reconstruction, we saw white “Redemption” and the backlash that undid Reconstruction, and we saw the birth of Jim Crow laws. And following the formal dismantling of the old Jim Crow by a courageous civil rights, human rights, Black freedom struggle movement, we saw a backlash yet again that manifested itself as a “get tough” and “law and order” movement that helped to birth mass incarceration in the United States. And so, in many respects, Trump’s election was yet another backlash against the perception of racial progress.
But, of course, there were also the gender dynamics, and there was the scapegoating of immigrants, and the fear, the baiting of Muslims. All of this was happening at once, and Trump was able to play upon all of those fears, all of those racial resentments, at the same time, using his reality show persona to the delight of the media. A large segment of the population, disgusted by establishment politics as usual, and receptive to all of the forms of bigotry that Trump displayed — or at least willing to [ignore] it — were willing to go along, as a way of giving the finger to the establishment without much care for the consequences for poor people, for people of color, for immigrants, for women and all those who will be and have already been greatly harmed by this election.
Klein: I think we should also see it in an international context. I think there’s a temptation, because Trump is such an absurd figure, to treat him out of this context in which we’re seeing white nationalist forces all over Europe gaining power. And also [we should see Trump] in a context of long years of economic austerity that creates fertile ground for exactly the kind of scapegoating that Michelle’s talking about. These forces are always there, they’re not created by economic inequality, they’re not created by austerity but there are moments in history that are more fertile than others for demagogues to step in and say, “blame the immigrant, blame Black Lives Matter!” When are the moments when that message sells particularly well?
Yes, Trump is a very good salesman, but it isn’t just that. It is this constellation of forces. We need to identify them and we need to identify the systems that they’re serving. This desire for this election to mean just one thing, to find that one thing that we just say, “this is what produced it” — we could debate it all day, there are so many forces. There’s no doubt that a big piece of it was precisely that “whitelash.” A big piece of it was misogyny. A big piece of it was protecting some bygone manufacturing era that we don’t know how to bring back. If we’re going to build a movement in this moment, we have to understand how all these forces prop each other up and whose interests they serve — and also how we build something different.
It does sadden me that six months after the election we’re still in that tape loop of looking for that one thing instead of trying to understand how these systems intersect. Because they’re not choosing: If you look at what they’re doing, they’re going after everyone and everything all at once. They all see it as part of this grand project called “making America great again”: reasserting white male power, this sense of divine entitlement, right to rule, right to grab whoever you want, right to grab whatever you want, and this nostalgic dream that Trump is selling and that there are a lot of customers for. But as Michelle points out, we can’t pry that apart from who he was running against and what else was being offered. Trump said, “all is hell,” and Hillary said, “all is well, we just need a little daycare and a few solar panels.” That did not resonate.
”The lesson of this election [is not] don’t let the Russians hack your emails…. The lesson is you have to have something to offer.” — Naomi Klein
If we look at what just happened in France — I’m very happy that Le Pen did not win. But she got 33 percent of the vote. There’s been this equivalency of Le Pen equals Trump; that’s not true: This is pretty much a Nazi party, with its roots in the Vichy regime, with many Holocaust deniers in the party, including the former head of the party. It is much more like David Duke getting 33 percent of the vote. That just happened in France. So, we need to get at these root causes or this is going to keep repeating. And the scary thing is that there are Democrats out there who think that the lesson of this election is, don’t let the Russians hack your emails. That is not the lesson. The lesson is you have to have something to offer.
Taylor: I think the ability for Trump to tap into this kind of vile racism and sexism is obviously real, but I’m also wondering what it would have been like with an actual alternative?
There seemed to be an enormous disconnect. I live in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania was a contested swing state, and the commercials for Trump and Clinton were insane. Trump had these dystopic commercials about corporations, “Corporate America is stealing your job, is ruining your life” — all of it that we can look back on retrospectively as a load of crap, but at the time, in the midst of the campaign, that was contrasted to Clinton’s ads, which were all about “Would you want Trump as a role model?” No, but would you want Bill Clinton in the White House as a role model either? To what extent might they cancel each other out? It spoke to a larger issue about the lack of a real alternative.
”What is it about an alternative that the Democratic party does not seem to offer, that leaves a political void in terms of where people are supposed to go?” — Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Michelle, you wrote an article for The Nation last year, in the midst of the primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, where you essentially argued that Clinton didn’t deserve the Black vote because of the Clinton legacy with “law and order” politics. I’m wondering if you could say something about that in the context of, yes there are these extreme issues with Trump and what he was able to tap into, but what is it about an alternative that the Democratic party does not seem to offer, that leaves a political void in terms of where it is that people are supposed to go.
Alexander: I wrote that article right after the New Hampshire primary. It was very, very early in the primaries as Hillary Clinton was preparing to go south, to South Carolina, to get the Black vote. I was deeply troubled by the media coverage around how the Clintons basically had the Black vote in their back pocket. It was her “firewall.”
As someone who had spent more than a decade working on issues related to mass incarceration, and had also spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and who had worked with people who were directly victimized by the policies of the Clinton era — people who were evicted from their homes as a result of Clinton’s “one strike and you’re out” policy — people who could not return home to their families because of the Clinton administration’s rule barring people with criminal records from public housing, making it possible for people returning home from prison to have nowhere to go, and the Clinton administration’s support for the ban on even food stamps for people who were convicted of drug felonies. It was difficult for me to watch Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton going into Black churches and being welcomed, all of the fanfare surrounding them in the Black community, knowing that Black incarceration rates soared during his administration, that he embraced the war on drugs and escalated it beyond what his Republican predecessors had even dreamed possible, and that millions of people were now trapped in a cycle of criminalization, unable to find work or housing or even to feed their families during the Clinton administration. I was a mentor to a young girl whose family was rendered homeless as a result of the “one strike and you’re out” policy, and I could hardly stand to watch it.
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It wasn’t just my frustration with the uncritical embrace of the Clintons. It was my frustration with the Black community’s uncritical embrace of the Democratic Party.
I would often be told: “Well, during the 1990s, there were so many Black people who wanted ‘get tough,’ they were also calling for harsh mandatory minimum sentences or more police and so you cannot blame the Clintons for getting on the ‘get tough’ bandwagon because there were so many Black activists and people in those communities who wanted more police and more prisons.” If the Clinton administration and if the Democratic Party as a whole had only gotten on board with the “get tough” movement while also investing heavily in our schools, if they had also invested in child welfare and economic investment in our neighborhoods and job training programs for those who had been left behind as a result of deindustrialization…. If any of that had actually happened along with the “get tough, lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality, then maybe I might have understood.
But no, what we saw during the Clinton era was investment of tens of millions of dollars flowing into police and prisons while the Clinton administration ended welfare as we know it, dismantled aid to families with dependent children, slashed funding for public housing while putting billions into building new prisons. It was the Democratic Party’s willingness to embrace wholeheartedly the right-wing agenda on race, crime, taxes and the end of big government that I found deeply troubling. If every time a Democratic politician who is willing to sing in Black churches or play the saxophone … if that’s all it takes to get our vote, we’ll never be free.