The US’s New Democracy: Radical Possibilities in the Era of Trump

Tremors from the upheaval surrounding the Trump presidency have been felt all over the globe. Citizens from the United Kingdom have pushed for legislation to bar Trump from entering their country. In cities from Sydney to Nairobi, millions marched in solidarity with women against Trump’s discriminatory policies. And scientists, national leaders and citizens from around the world worry about the deleterious potential of Trump’s denial of climate change.

While in the United States, dissent is in the streets to a degree that has not been seen for generations. Opposition follows Trump around the country, protesters serving as a constant reminder that his policies will not slip through unnoticed. Many Americans, inspired to act by the dismantling of years of progress for civil liberties, have been left reeling, struggling with what to do next.

Meanwhile, the “other America” feels emboldened by the rapid sweeping changes that have come in the short weeks following Trump’s election. The “forgotten majority” embrace the change as a part of the shake-up of the status quo promised by Trump in the weeks leading up to his surprise victory.

For those struggling with Trump’s victory, is this a time for feeling hopelessness? To mourn the loss of freedom and American identity? Or have the unprecedented events ofthe Trump presidency opened the possibilities for radical change, not from chief strategist Steve Bannon’s “alt right,” but from the radical left?

Trump’s America

Trump ran on a platform of change, that he would be the voice for all of the country. His populist policies appeal to large swaths of Americans disaffected by the ever-changing economy. Billing himself as the “greatest jobs producing president that God ever created,” Trump tapped into the growing underclass of Americans who have been trampled by global capitalism. Bannon, the second-most powerful man in the world, as Time recently argued, rightly characterized capitalism as rigged against most the population. However, Trump’s policies inconsistently address the problem, as the blocking trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership likely minimizes capital’s imperialist reach to new countries, while tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans strengthens the hold of the 1% over the rest of us.

If Trump’s policies fell short on making the economy work for all Americans, then he completely missed the mark with his political and social policies. In the political sense, dissent has been made a punishable offense under the Trump administration, which could cause you to lose your job if you are the attorney general or jailed as a protester. Socially, Trump has begun to unravel years of progress by undoing anti-discrimination policies for the LGBTQIA community, bar 200 million people from entering the country and fortify the border with long-time American allies, while accusing them of rape and assault.

Searching for the Meaning of Democracy

Trump’s verbal goal of acting in the interest of all Americans stands in stark contrast with his actions, because his policies are devoid of democratic values. Democratic values have varied since the country’s founding with respect to what contexts democracy applies, who gets to participate and how they participate. Democracy has historically been applied to only the political context, often ignoring other aspects of people’s lives, such as in the economic or the social sense. Viewed from the political context, democracy is often thought of in the limited terms of voting. Further, when democracy is examined in the narrow sense of purely voting, it is observed that access to voting has been limited, as evident in the US’s earliest stages, when democracy was only for white, male property owners.

When imagined in its fullest sense, democracy includes everyone and means more than occasional voting because it encompasses all civic life. Where, in addition to the political sense, economic and social spaces are also considered. For instance, how robust is a democracy where, after voting on Tuesday morning, a citizen goes into their job where they have no say in what their work day looks like? Or, in a similar sense, if pay or treatment in the workplace is based on an individual’s gender? Finally, how democratic is a society that condones state executions of its citizens by a “civilian” police force? Therefore, it is essential to imagine democracy broadly, and why it cannot be narrowed to a singular action, such as voting, or a singular consideration, such as politics.

Additionally, Trump’s politics fall short because they destroy relationships and are therefore innately undemocratic. Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher writing in the aftermath of WWI and the lead up to WWII, describes the essence of democracy by emphasizing the deeply ethical relationship between people with the concept “through the thou a person becomes an I” [1]. His conception of the relational being of people implies that there is an inextricable connection between people. Moreover, a person cannot exist without others. The implications of his framework suggest an innate ethical framework that necessitates the consideration of others in society. Moreover, a society that considers an individual or individual group at the cost of the rest of society is not only unsustainable, but unethical.

Radical Possibilities

Trump’s rhetoric has resulted in a historically uncommon opportunity, where millions of Americans and people around the world from the right and left have been mobilized around principles that can produce fundamental democratic change. It is clear that the backlash against Trump’s rhetoric and policies has produced a groundswell of bottom-up activism from the left. The movement has united activists around broad issues of social justice that has resulted in new collaborations between previously distant groups. The activism from all shades of the political left has resulted in a variety of tactics including protest, campaigning and direct action.

However, what may be less apparent is the mobilization of the “forgotten majority.” On the surface, it may seem that Trump supporters have little in common with the left. However, this does not consider some of the things that may have brought them out in droves. Many supporters of Trump have cited job insecurity, unfair labor practices, disconnect from the government — all of which are not unfamiliar issues to the left, particularly the radical left.

The radical left has long grappled with the issues in Trump’s campaign, but are better equipped to address them. In addition to the issues in Trump’s campaign, anarchists, socialists and communists have exposed racism, sexism, xenophobia and other oppressive social conditions [2]. The reason that the radical left is able to address issues that Trump cannot is because they utilize a framework that considers how these inequities are related in a broader system. The best proponents of these movements understand that economic, social or political factors are related to general inequality, and therefore require all forms of inequity to be addressed. Framed in this way, the radical left perspective can be understood as striving toward “true democracy,” or democracy that considers the individual as they relate to others in society in the fullest sense, including their social, political and economic selves [3].

Consequently, when Trump and others from the far-right extol ideas of freedom, they miss the mark because their ideas are decontextualized from the social and economic contexts in which real people live. Chomsky explains that the recognition of the importance of social conditions for the creation of a true democracy is the major factor separating the anarchist in the leftist tradition from the far-right (2).

Trump’s inability to articulate a consistent program of change that works for the majority of Americans is because he is so radically disconnected from democratic ideals. Therefore, the key difference between Trump supporters and movements on the left is not recognition of the issues, but rather understanding of the causes or a larger framework to situate the issues. In fact, the massive turnout of Americans who have risen from apathy, with a recognition of the social ills, has brought the “other America” into a space where they may be prepared to fight for change with a potentially more inclusive, democratic vision of a new US.

Defy, Inform, Unify: The US’s New Democracy

Therefore, this is a call to organizers from the left not to dismay at the Trump win and subsequent stripping of American democratic ideals. Rather, this is an opportunity to defy the alienating rhetoric of Trump, inform those with opposing views the economic, social or political factors related to general inequality, and unite with the “opposition” in a concerted effort to produce a more democratic US.

Endnotes:

1. Buber, M. (1970). I and thou: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

2. Chomsky, N. (2013). On anarchism. New York, NY: The New Press

3. Critchley, P. (2001). Marx, reason, and freedom: Communism, rational freedom and socialised humanity. Manchester Metropolitan University.