As if unwilling to let George W. Bush retain the honor of the worst modern US president, Donald Trump’s final year in office seemed like a sprint to cause as much damage as possible. The conspiracy theorizing, the brazen dishonesty, the manic egomania, the borderline authoritarianism — all collided with a global pandemic and the second breakdown of global capitalism in a little more than ten years to create mass suffering and death.
The consequences of Trump’s tenure go well beyond the United States. As the leader of the world’s dominant superpower, he influenced countless far-right figures in countries from Hungary to India to Brazil. He inspired reactionary movements and antidemocratic rollbacks. His decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement threatens the very health of the planet, nixing even the most minimal minor steps to avert climate catastrophe.
All this to say we are better off seeing the back of him. To the extent that individuals matter in politics, Trump and his apparatchiks managed to do a lot of damage in a remarkably short period of time — limited if at all largely by their own incompetence, greed, and stupidity.
But after the celebrating is done — and make no mistake, we should spend the weekend celebrating — we must recognize that the material and cultural conditions that abetted the rise of Trumpism (a variant of what I’ve called “postmodern conservatism”) haven’t gone away. If anything, Trump ensured that they’ve gotten worse.
Our task over the next four years will be to push a politics that ensures Trumpism is dead and buried.
Neoliberalism and Postmodern Conservatism
Trumpism was both a departure from and a continuation of the neoliberal status quo. On a rhetoric level, Trump broke with the traditional neoliberal outlook by asserting a nationalist project rather than trying to use US power to advance an international legal order that insulates capital from democratic pressures. His protectionist and anti-immigrant policies were often resisted by more conventional right-wingers, many of whom evolved into passionate “Never Trumpers.”
But in practice, Trump did nothing to weaken the aggressive antidemocratic and inegalitarian policies of neoliberal governance. These policies not only left millions in precarity, but alienated them from the allegedly liberal-democratic nation state that was supposed to advance their interests but increasingly seemed beholden to the powers of global capital and elite groups. This was an extremely dangerous development: If the demos could no longer count on the institutions of liberal democracy to represent them, what could possibly be left? Instead of addressing these epochal challenges, Trump channeled the anger generated by anti-democratization and inequalities into a resentment-driven politics.
As Wendy Brown put it in her 2019 book In The Ruins of Neoliberalism, the political emotion of resentment — or ressentiment — has often been used as a right-wing cudgel to condemn the Left as primarily driven by envy and jealousy. Rather than dealing with their problems in a healthy manner, progressive movements are said to project their animosities onto alleged systems of oppression that hold them back.
Brown points out that according to this conservative reading, resentment is always directed from the bottom upward, ignoring that demands to break down systems of oppression may not be about envy but justice. But more importantly, it also ignores how resentment can be directed from the top toward the bottom.
In this case, many of Trump’s supporters occupied positions in between powerful elites and the even more dire situation of immigrants, refugees, people of color, and women. As the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has observed, there was deep anxiety that these groups were trying to cut in front of people whose vision of the American dream had already been long postponed by the inequities of neoliberal capitalism.
Rather than mobilizing just anger to reform the very top, Trump played on these anxieties to generate a sense of resentment directed toward the bottom. He claimed that the real reason for economic decline (particularly in rural America) and growing democratic unaccountability was a combination of foreigners, deviants, and radicals allied with ultra-woke cultural and media elites on the political left. Unless real Americans banded against them, they would swiftly see their country taken away and mutilated until it was barely recognizable.
Trump was thus able to divert attention from the profound structural inequities of our time toward an agonistic politics where “giving the middle finger” to liberals would serve as an ideological substitute for change. Consequently, he was able to insulate the economic power of American capital from serious pressure — even handing them a huge tax cut — while further corroding democratic institutions and the public sphere on which the demos relies to arbitrate claims of truth and falsity. He was also able to invest himself with an aura of personal impunity and power, all while stoking fears that he was the victim of a vast conspiracy of enemies — an ideologically necessary contradiction since stoking his reputation for greatness and strength was utterly dependent on constantly overcoming ever more powerful enemies.
Much of the animosity of the Trump era was defined by these contradictory tensions, with the president simultaneously declaring endless victories over “loser” opponents while appropriating the most vulgar tropes of a victim culture he claimed to oppose in order to posture as an oppressed voice swimming against the progressive tide. Even reality could be rejected as a thin phantom next to the will of the leader, whose voice echoed through Twitter to rewrite the world and its history as needed.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.
–Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader
Now that the Trump administration will soon be past us, we have to wonder: Where to go from here?
We should be under no illusions that the president-elect and his team will attack the inadequacies of a neoliberal status quo that was allowed to fester into the rot of Trumpism. At best we can hope that Biden will reverse some of the damage Trump caused. But while it would be foolish to put much faith in the Biden administration, socialists and progressives can do a lot to shift the political terrain under Biden and ensure the electoral options are better next time around. I’d venture two suggestions.
One, to refocus on rebuilding the labor movement. Since their peak in the 1950s, US unions have faced relentless assault and declined in both political and economic influence. Even if many were inadequately democratic, or overly prone to putting short-term gains for their members over long-term interests, they checked the power of capital in American society, provided a relatively stable bloc of support for progressive policies, and helped democratize the workplace.
To his credit, Biden has called for strengthening unions, and his National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will no doubt be more sympathetic to worker organizing. But it will take union activists and militant workers to truly revive labor’s prospects. Making progress on that monumental task would reverberate into the electoral arena, while at the same time giving workers greater control over their lives.
Secondly, we can continue to push for the policies Bernie Sanders and others have brought to the fore. Support for Medicare for All has climbed to new highs, as has the demand for a Green New Deal. This doesn’t mean the battle of ideas is by any means won, but that a significant bloc of supporters can be mobilized into organizers and activists.
In these efforts, socialists will have to reach out to left-liberals who are sympathetic to the goals of greater equality and democracy, but might remain skeptical of socialists’ most ambitious goal. I’ve taken a few stabs at how this might be conceived theoretically, but the real efforts will have to be carried out on a ground level.
Celebrate — And Then Fight
We have many reasons to be happy Donald Trump is no longer in office. Trump’s ruinous policies exacerbated the worldwide crisis of inequality, deepened climate emergencies, and displayed a stunning lack of humanity toward refugees and migrants. Beyond that, his personal failings — Trump’s radical hollowness as I once put it — made him uniquely threatening.
To invert the Marxist theme, people may only make history under material circumstances already given and transmitted, but make it they still do. Who has power matters. The world is rid of a bad man who embodied much of what has made neoliberal postmodernity a catalyst for anger and radicalism. That should allow us all to breathe a (tempered) sigh of relief.
But politics doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot to elect even an important official. The procedures of electoral democracy may be more powerful than the most cynical assume, but they are hardly the be-all and end-all, especially for leftists who recognize that political power flows from many diffracted sources.
The real work of politics involves building new coalitions for progressive causes while entrenching support for our policies, rebuilding institutions such as labor unions that can serve as permanent power centers for the Left, and above all working to democratize both the broader culture and politics.
This won’t be an easy task under a President Biden, but it will surely be more viable than under the Trump menace. We should use the somewhat brighter conditions to dream bigger — and to make sure someone like Trump never finds fertile ground again.