It is much too early to say to what extent President Trump will enact his campaign promises as government policy and, indeed, how much he will actually be able to do in office. But every day since his election demonstrations have sprung up throughout the United States to express outrage, apprehension and dismay.
Moreover, there is no doubt that once in office Trump and his administration will continually do and say things that will inspire protest. For at least the next four years people in the US will rally and march against his government, regularly and in large numbers. Protesting against threats to the environment will undoubtedly be urgent, as will be the generalized atmosphere of violence against people of color, women, LGBTQ populations, migrants, Muslims, workers of various sorts, the poor — and the list goes on.
One of the potential pitfalls for social movements, however, is that activism goes no further than protest. Protest, of course, can bring a city to a halt, can block temporarily the action of the government, and can even play the crucial role of opening up spaces for political alternatives. But on its own, protest is never enough to create lasting social transformation.
The significance of the Trump presidency and, moreover, the keys to developing protest against it become clearer, we think, when posed in a global context. Before coming back to the questions for social movements, then, let us frame some of the basic aspects of the global context into which Trump’s government will enter.
The Many Faces of the Global Right
Although Trump is certainly an idiosyncratic figure, he is really one of many “populist” right-wing leaders that have emerged on the global stage against the backdrop of the economic crisis, including Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India, General Al Sisi in Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Michel Temer in Brazil, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and perhaps soon Norbert Hofer in Austria and Marine Le Pen in France.
This is a heterogeneous group, obviously — and even the label “populism” we use as shorthand here deserves greater critical scrutiny. But these right-wing figures do share several characteristics. All of them promise a combination of neoliberalism and nationalism as the solution to economic and social malaise. Most of them also manage to mobilize for the right a widespread hatred for the entire political class and contempt for the political establishment — a sentiment that at other times has been mobilized effectively by the left, for instance in 2001 in Argentina and 2011 in Spain.
Many of these right-wing leaders and political forces also add some traditional characteristics of fascism, such as the threat of the mass expulsion of migrants, racial purity as a condition of legitimate belonging to the nation, the suspension of normal legal procedures to imprison and repress political opponents, attacks on the independent press, and creating an atmosphere of terror for LGBTQ populations, people of color, women and others.
Note too that the rise of these right-wing “populisms” has exacerbated in all of these countries a profound institutional crisis, often blocking, for instance, the basic traditional functions of government (passing budgets, approving nominations) as well as undermining the standard political rationalities of administration. And the economic crisis that began in 2007 has functioned as a hothouse to facilitate and accelerate all of these phenomena.
Studies will emerge in the coming months (and years) that explain in detail the success of Trump’s campaign strategies and the motives of his supporters — how much was driven by racial resentment, how much by the economic fears of “the losers of globalization” and an industrial working class in decline, how much by a fabricated social panic, and so forth. These are undeniably important questions, but we simply want to signal that Trump’s election, seen from a global perspective, is not the exception but squarely in line with a significant (and terrifying) trend.
Trump’s Version of US Global Hegemony
The fact that Trump’s election fits so clearly in this emerging aspect of the current global order is obscured by his own rhetoric of separation and countering the forces of globalization — but this too is part of the same right-wing global trend. Trump’s declared strategy for addressing the epochal crisis of US hegemony in the world seems to indicate a withdrawal, and his version of “making America great again” seems to stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from George W. Bush’s strategy of military unilateralism, which sought and failed to maintain or recreate a hegemonic role. (Even when Trump has shown spasms of militarist bluster, declaring he would bomb this or that enemy, it is not with the aim of recreating a hegemonic position.)
Trump’s election might thus be read as a concession by the right to the loss of US global hegemony, declaring itself satisfied instead with an “America first” ideology. But really the US protectionism and isolationism of today bears little resemblance to that of the beginning of the twentieth century, in the period when the US aspired toward an ascendant position in international hierarchies. We suspect, in fact, that despite Trump’s campaign proclamations, US foreign policy will not withdraw but continue to deploy some combination of soft power and militarism.
The comparison to Brexit might be helpful in this regard — not because Britain will really retreat from Europe but, to the contrary, insofar as it will seek new, more favorable terms for maintaining a foot in the European market, managing the flow of migrants, and continuing to underwrite the dominant financial role of the City — objectives, of course, that will subject to difficult negotiations, especially with Germany. (And it remains to be seen how Trump’s election will change this scenario.)
We can say simply that in both the UK and the US, when nationalism and neoliberalism are combined at the core of a right-wing populism, there is inevitably a kind of horse trading between the two, and we suspect that neoliberalism will always eventually get the upper hand — such that nationalist isolationism will have to bend to its interests. The question of how and with what success the Trump government will seek to “make American great again” while navigating a new or different hegemonic role in the globe is another question that will only become clear in the years to come.
By emphasizing how much Trump fits within a dominant global pattern we do not intend to minimize the tragedy, as if to say to those in the US: look, it’s not so bad, others have suffered this too. No, if anything these correspondences make the disaster worse. And Trump’s election has greatly emboldened similar developments elsewhere. Rather, we are primarily interested in reading the Trump election in the global context, for what it means for social movements in the coming years. Two axes of articulation that must be developed by social movements already seem clear, and neither of them is new.
First, wide coalitional ties among diverse movements are necessary. This is not to say that movements should unite under some central leadership or even subscribe to the same agenda. No, return to centralized party structures that dictate a unitary line of struggle is today neither desirable nor feasible — and, indeed, the party-form itself has to be profoundly transformed and renewed if left parties are to play a positive role in such coalitional politics. (The extent to which the Bernie Sanders campaign was an attempt in that direction and what that experience means going forward is an important topic for investigation.)
Instead of unity and centralization, what is realistic, instead, is a process of knitting together horizontal relationships and alliances made visible by intersectional analysis. A multitude begins to emerge and gain the capacity to act together with the accumulation and re-enforcement of these horizontal, coalitional ties. One can find numerous hints in the culture of today’s US movements of the kinds of composition that develop from intersectional consciousness and coalitional practice: at the Standing Rock pipeline, acting against climate change and defending indigenous rights have become inextricably linked; campaigns to raise the minimum wage have crossed the boundaries of migrant communities and intersected with struggles against racism; powerful segments of the Black Lives Matter protests and, even more clearly, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives pose gender, sexuality and economic justice as essential for racial justice; and many elements of the 2011 Occupy movement attempted to make race a central component of the protests over social inequality — with some success, most notably at Oakland.
These existing instances are admittedly embryonic — but potent — examples of the kind of coalitional connections that must be composed from the various protest movements. Essential will be, once again in US history, to build and consolidate bridges between class politics and struggles along the color line. And, in the face of Trump’s threats of mass deportation, the legacy of the great migrants’ movement of May 2006 will have to be reactivated, linking the daily “living politics” that shape Latina/o and other “minority” communities. Eventually, to transform protest into proposition, elements of a shared agenda or framework will have to be forwarded, but the coalitional process of articulation is a step in that direction.
A second axis requires movements to compose relations at an even larger scale. It has been clear for several years in Europe that the dynamics of neoliberalism along with racist right-wing forces cannot be contested effectively within the bounds of the nation-state, but only by building connections beyond the national frame. Even though the ruling order of Europe is undoubtedly neoliberal to the core, efforts to contest this by affirming national boundaries and national sovereignty are not only dangerous but also doomed to failure. Placing hopes in a renewed French sovereignty as an anti-neoliberal strategy while opposing the 2005 French referendum on the European Constitution was one example of such illusions, and those few who supported Brexit in the name of anti-neoliberalism a more extreme instance. The only progressive means to challenge the ruling order of Europe and to discover possible democratic alternatives looks beyond the national level. The Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM) is one such attempt, and there are numerous instances of transnational coalition politics at the grassroots level.
The political context of the United States, of course, is very different from that of the European Union, and the scale is much larger than individual European nation-states, but it seems to us that the same principle applies, especially when confronting a Trump presidency. This is not to say, of course, that in order to contest Trump’s anti-globalization stance one must, in specular fashion, support corporate trade pacts and the like. Not too long ago the alterglobalization movements developed extraordinarily clear and well-articulated notions of globalization from below, challenging the numerous institutions that rule over the neoliberal global order and beginning to construct alternative networks of experimentation and exchange. The memories of Chiapas, Seattle and Genoa as well as Porto Alegre and Mumbai live as a kind of secret history of our present, which has to be taken up again and renewed.
When we raise up the lessons of the alterglobalization movements, of course, we are not proposing merely another round of summit protests, from G8 meetings to those of the World Bank and the IMF. Instead today we have to filter the memories of those earlier times through the prism of the cycle of encampments and occupations that began in 2011, the movement of squares. In contrast to the nomadism of the alterglobalization movements, the encampments were sedentary and developed deep and often intensely-local engagements with the urgent issues of the metropolis. Today we need both: perspectives and practices that combine the most local concerns with broad connections and consciousness that extend well beyond the national frame.
There is nothing contradictory about these two levels. Our contention, in fact, is that today the one cannot proceed effectively without the other. Struggles against the violence and imprisonment that people of color and migrants suffer in the US are to be enriched and empowered by an expanded political consciousness that is able to see connections and form alliances with analogous processes in Brazil, Europe and elsewhere. Composing relationships with movements confronting violence against women and the erosion of abortion rights in Argentina and Poland would invigorate feminist movements in North America and Western Europe. And movements of the poor in New York and Paris would have a lot to learn from the daily practices of resistance and self-organization in Kolkata and Durban. Does this seem like too much to ask when activists in the US and each country have so much on their plates already? Global and international connections have to be regarded as an essential basis not merely an add-on when there is extra time and energy.
So, yes, every time the Trump government does or says something outrageous, go out in the streets in protest — and take your friends, and your parents, and anyone else you can find. There will be plenty of occasions. But behind the protests there must be a complex web of relations that extend both horizontally — that is, intersectionally, and in coalition across the various movements — and vertically, beyond the local and even the national to form relations and alliances with movements elsewhere. That is the only sound foundation for eventually transforming the many discrete protests into an effective and lasting project for social transformation.
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