In the United States we give our presidents a lot of credit. They bask in the aura of the Oval Office and command the world’s largest military. We call them the “leaders of the free world,” as if freedom is something we all enjoy in equal measure. We watch their campaigns for election and reelection like horseraces that the entire country is betting on.
This was not lost on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during their first debate on Monday night. Both candidates sought to assure a fretful public that we would be safe and secure in their benevolent hands. Each candidate promised sweeping plans to address all sorts of problems — ISIS, racism, economic inequality, cyber wars with Russia — in an attempt to convince the public that they alone can fix the nation’s problems, to hell with Congress and all the gritty details.
Clinton’s vision was one of a nation emerging from a recession stronger, but with more work to do: a sign that she intends to stick with the status quo inherited from President Obama. Trump’s view of the nation was much more sinister, and his racist caricatures of urban life and vague promises to restore “law and order” spelled trouble for dissidents and marginalized people, especially people of color.
However, despite Clinton and Trump’s respective visions of the future, politics are not constrained to presidential podiums and primetime TV slots. People far beyond the beltway have ideas for improving the world as well, and we work toward these goals with only the resources available in our daily lives. Let’s take a look at how Trump and Clinton’s political agendas for three big issues stack up against the work our movements are already doing, whether it’s at home, at work or out in the streets.
1. Jobs and Economic Inequality
At the start of Monday’s debate, Trump proposed to create jobs by slashing corporate tax rates by 20 percent and “renegotiating” international trade deals. “Well, the first thing you do is don’t let the jobs leave,” he said before attacking Clinton for her husband’s support of NAFTA, ad nauseam. The good jobs have been moved to cheaper labor markets in China and Mexico, he argued, so clearly multinational CEOs deserve some tax break as an incentive to bring them back.
Clinton called Trump’s plan “Trumped-up trickle down,” a Reagan-inspired jab that may not be as catchy as she thinks it is. Clinton largely towed the Democratic Party line, railing against corporate tax loopholes and calling for wider investment in domestic infrastructure and sustainable energy development and, laudably, raising the minimum wage to $15. Trump accused Clinton of supporting the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, but she explained that she decided to come out against the TPP after reading the fine print.
It’s important to recognize that none of these steps toward progress started inside the beltway. For years, grassroots activists have been protesting the TPP, not to mention every other multinational pact going back to NAFTA. Over the past two decades, the anti-globalization movement has brought people from across the world together to protest global financial summits and build international solidarity. Anti-TPP activism is alive and well in the US, and it’s hard to look at Clinton’s current position without thinking of the young Bernie Sanders fans she is coaxing to the polls with bits of her former rival’s platform.
A $15 minimum wage is not Clinton’s idea either. It’s a demand made by the thousands of fast food and other low-wage workers who staged strikes and protests at their workplaces in cities across the country as part of a broader movement that is changing the face of organized labor.
2. Racial Justice and Healing
We knew this was going to be rough.
Throughout the debate, Trump peppered his thoughts on race with depictions of Black and Brown communities based in prejudice, comparing life in Black and Latino neighborhoods to “living in hell,” where one can get shot for walking down the street. But rest assured, Trump says he does have Black friends, and has forged “very, very good relationships” with the African American community “over the last little while.” He was probably referring to his last-ditch attempt to make amends with people of color by visiting a Black church in Detroit, because he certainly could not be referring to his poll numbers. Here’s a standout snippet from the back and forth on Trump’s proposal to institute a stop-and-frisk policy in Chicago:
Lester Holt (Moderator): Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York because it largely singled out Black and Hispanic young men.
Trump: No, you’re wrong. It went before a judge, who was a very against-police judge. The city appealed, and after a change of mayor, the case was settled before the appeal. It was taken away from her and our mayor, our new mayor, refused to go forward with the case. They would have won an appeal. If you look at it throughout the country, there are many places where…
Holt: The argument is that it’s a form of racial profiling.
Trump: No, the argument is that we had to take the guns away from these people that have them and that are bad people that shouldn’t have them…. You need more police. You need a better community, you know relation, you don’t have a good community-relations in Chicago. It’s terrible. I have property there.
Clinton missed a chance to nail Trump in the debate on stop-and-frisk — which is statistically proven to promote intense racial profiling — opting to save the R-word for the discussion of Trump’s longstanding doubts over President Obama’s citizenship. Clinton did acknowledge that racism is systemic in the criminal legal system and touted modest reforms that are gaining support in Washington, such as reducing mandatory minimum sentencing, expanding diversion programs and offering more training for cops.
Clinton also came out against private state prisons — the Obama administration recently announced it would end its federal prison contracts — but failed to mention the individuals and families warehoused in privately-run immigration jails under federal control. On Wednesday, immigrant rights groups delivered a petition with 200,000 signatures to the Justice Department demanding the federal government end those contracts as well, according to press releases. Clinton also failed to mention that the vast majority of incarcerated people are locked up in public, not private, jails and prisons, so ending privatization will not end mass incarceration.
Trump, whose plan to “build the wall” has been steeped in racism since its inception, lied point blank about receiving an endorsement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Federal agencies can’t make political endorsements; it was officers’ unions that endorsed Trump, in hopes that his policies would be lucrative for their members.)
Meanwhile, in the real world, a massive movement for civil rights and Black liberation is underway, making space for activists to push the conversation beyond “law and order” or “reform.” Many activists in the movement for Black lives and other visionary struggles are not just demanding an end to private immigration jails — they are demanding an end to jails and borders all together.
Uprisings led by people of color in cities across the country are proving to be fertile grounds for organizing, and have forced the nation to look into the mirror and confront its longstanding and violent disregard for Black and Brown lives. Prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color, are striking nationwide to protest slave-labor conditions and the entire idea that putting people in cages and depriving them of rights can solve social problems. Prison bosses used to use race to divide and conquer their captives, but now Black, Brown and white prisoners are finding unity in solidarity. Across the country, activists are also taking direct action to stop deportations, and hunger strikes in immigrant jails have brought national attention to the government’s profit-laden immigration policies that tear apart families.
Armed with art, activism, camera phones and social media, young people of color are changing the way we think and talk about race. From Freedom Square in Chicago to front line protests in Standing Rock, North Dakota, activists have been honing the skills and sharpening the tools we need to keep our communities safe and hold each other accountable without “law and order” imposed from above.
These movements for real racial justice are challenging everything about how power works in our country, so it’s no surprise that neither Trump nor Clinton bothered to mention them.
3. War and the Surveillance State
Monday’s foreign policy debate launched a discussion on cyber security, which provided little information on cyber wars besides that fact that they are happening and the US is somehow involved. Still, Clinton and Trump talked at length about their ideas for fighting the cyber war, despite their well-publicized troubles with basic technologies like Twitter and email.
Both candidates also vowed to defeat ISIS and argued over who could be blamed for the quagmires in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and other areas of the Middle East. In Trump’s version of history, which seemed to be more important than his plans for the future, he was always firmly opposed to the war in Iraq, which is a mess that Clinton and Obama failed to clean up. Clinton blamed the Bush administration for botching the original exit strategy and outlined a foreign policy that is largely a continuation of the status quo.
Both Clinton and Trump must defend themselves against being associated with the decision to invade Iraq because the war was a complete disaster, and anyone involved in the anti-war movement can say, “We told you so.” During the Bush administration, activists of all stripes, including many veterans, organized a massive movement to oppose the war in the face of rampant nationalism and government infiltration. Sorry, Trump: We were against the war long before it was hip among the elite.
The entire conversation revolved around fear. Clinton raised the specter of terrorist attacks at home and called for an “intelligence surge where we look at every scrap of information,” as if our endless military interventions and the expanding surveillance state have not been massive sources of public controversy. In the world of the debate, Edward Snowden apparently never happened and Chelsea Manning hasn’t been held in solitary confinement for attempting to take her own life. These whistleblowers are heroes to those who value accountability and transparency. Perhaps that’s why the Obama administration treats them like enemies.
A growing choir of trans, queer and feminist voices are refusing to support Clinton unless she pledges to pardon Manning. Trans women face brutal violence and discrimination in prisons and the criminal legal system, and Manning’s visibility has strengthened the movement to liberate trans prisoners, some of whom, with the help of dedicated activists in the free world, are starting to win basic rights, such as access to adequate healthcare.
Across the country, communities are resisting the surveillance state that Clinton promised during the debate. Just last week, a coalition of civil rights groups launched a campaign to challenge the use of military-grade surveillance technology by police forces in major cities. As unarmed Black men and women continue to be gunned down by police, media justice organizers like Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice are calling out surveillance and high-tech policing for “super-sizing discrimination against communities of color.”
“Surveillance in the 21st century is primarily targeting local communities, primarily targeting communities of color, and yet this surveillance against Blacks, migrants, Muslims and the social movements that represent them has yet to see significant action by policymakers or federal regulators,” Cyril said. “And that’s why [we’re] committed … to build the legislative power of local communities to prevent high-tech racial profiling and policing from turning our neighborhoods into open-air prisons.”
So much of Monday’s debate centered around fear and danger. It is important to ask ourselves exactly what it is that Clinton and Trump think we are so afraid of. These candidates may not realize that the view is much different from below, where activists and workers and dreamers are creating justice and building a better world without waiting for the approval of presidents and leaders. The dominant media can make us feel like a presidential race is the most consequential event of the time, but the billionaires and political scions who run for the nation’s highest office only have as much power and credibility as we give them. Luckily, the same goes for all of us.