This election has been something that the American left had never dreamed of: The rise of a demagogue spouting fascist rhetoric against the roaring cheers of white America.
An authoritarian right will now rule over a Republican-held Congress, with the choosing of new Supreme Court justices on the agenda.
The anger fueling Trump’s rise was palpable because it wasn’t new. Economic stagnation has been happening for decades as deindustrialization, neoliberalism and union busting took its toll. The Rust Belt rusted over and small farms were forced into foreclosure. That anger had a narrative thrusted upon it, and it didn’t come from the left.
Instead, the Democratic Party hedged its bets on corporate centrism, a candidate whose background and rhetoric spoke nothing to the iconoclastic surge that has been happening in the United States for the past few years. After internal destruction decimated the possible “progressive” option for Democratic voters, the central committee and corporate donors provided us with neoliberal faux feminism served up with bland branding. In this way, we had no options, the right had all the fire and we were burnt out.
In a fire demanding change and threatening revolution, the Democrats offered voters a promise of establishment consistency, this time with placid identity politics and rich elitism.
When it came to opposition, Democrats spoke in university drawl, snickering at what the conspiracy theorists at Infowars and the rural stadiums full of cheering fans already knew. Instead, we knew nothing.
We are on a new playing field, one showing us that our predictions about the status quo have amounted to nothing. The GOP will now see the rhetoric of Trump, the language of racial arson and religious scapegoating, as the politics of victory. It will entrench every race, up- and down-ballot, as well as in the street level organizing against labor, immigration and LGBT rights. The alt-right will establish itself as a legitimate voice in the discussion, where “race realism,” eugenics, anti-Semitism and violent authoritarianism will all be available options.
Instead, it’s the Democrats who will be banished to search for a soul, but not the left. The left has ideas that are rooted and adapting, even if tactics have been disparate. This means a move further leftward, towards a strategy to define itself by the politics that were abandoned this time around. It may end up meaning the complete rejection of the Democratic Party by the left, just as it possibly meant the destruction of the GOP before it beat the odds.
We know nothing. We do not know what is going to happen in the political system. An upset like this, which was historically unprecedented, can happen. Trump could institute wars, force mass deportations and build a “great wall” on the border. We don’t know.
But we know who we are. The left has an identity to be reclaim, one that wasn’t found in the Democratic Party. We know how to build movements on the ground – movements that bring us together, movements that put up a fight.
We know how to win. We did it when the labor movement built unions. When the civil rights movement undid formal Jim Crow. As the LGBT movement continues. We know what success looks like because we have been there. And we know it takes sticking to ideas, to material realities and to each other. No movement has begun with the compromises of party bosses or test-audience approved aesthetics. The same drive toward revolution that pushed Trump over the edge was in the left as well; now it is time to let it out.
The left is neither monolithic nor completely fragmented, but instead comprises a whole collection of forces that agree on a few key things. Even if those ideas are just democracy and equality, they are worth fighting for, and were not represented in the options provided by the establishment forces that so often align themselves with rhetoric of the left.
This is the opportunity for a left refusal of expanded neoliberalism, to begin to fight for a vision that confronts the perpetual crisis of capitalism. Racism became the decisive force in this election because it was stoked in the absence of a true narrative. Instead of discussing who is responsible for international interventions, the refugee crisis, the increasing income inequality and the devastation of the American Midwest, many voters went with simple answers, since they were the only answers that were made available to them. That needs to end, and the left needs to take note. It is the crisis of everyday survival that is driving people and they need a narrative and a plan that is going to hit at that fundamental class conflict. This shift puts working people, marginalized communities and the tentative coalitions of the left in a worse place than before, but that is historically where these ideas have gotten their culture of opposition and persistence.
Today, we take a deep breath and accept where we are, which is in a place of resistance to an increasing culture of bigotry and economic attack. We’re fighting an uphill battle against interests that are not our own, but that’s a battle we know how to fight.