By Michael Albert
Lots of people wonder why Trump is president. But why ask why? Is it morbid curiosity? Do we want someone to blame? Do we want to escape blame ourselves? Or do we hope to find a workable path for the future? Here are nine controversial election outcome claims, plus their implications for future program.
Mainstream media mendacity
The mainstream media coddled Donald throughout the primaries and well into the national campaign. It sold eyes to advertisers, but it did not provide truth for the public. When media moguls finally saw a disaster brewing, they continued to prioritize profits. As a result, even their end game castigations of Trump were too shallow to matter. Their late revelations were unsuited to correcting real confusions and did not seriously diminish Trump’s support.
Does this suggest useful steps for the future? Truth and commitment require alternative media and also pressure to force better results from mainstream media. Pressing the press and building alternative media should be paramount activist concerns for print, radio, and video, but also for social media.
If all the largest megaphones are owned and operated by unhindered elites and if our smaller megaphones operate as a discordant cacophony rather than in concert, we will have a very hard time. To mimic the mainstream is suicidal. To carve our own entirely new communicative and organizational paths is essential.
Democratic Party stupidity
If Sanders had run, he may have won. Fearing that, the DNC torpedoed Sanders’ campaign. Likewise, if the Democrats had not squandered grassroots white working class support in prior decades, Trump would not be president no matter who he ran against. And bizarrely, in the last ten days of the campaign Clinton spent more on advertising in Nebraska than in Wisconsin and Michigan combined. Apparently her team thought they had clinched victory and wanted a landslide. Their hubris sealed the loss.
People blaming the Democratic Party are quite right about its culpability but anyone surprised by Democratic Party behavior hasn’t been watching up until now. But save for the act of hubris at the end, it wasn’t stupidity. Instead the Democratic Party is part and parcel of power and wealth. It did what it does which is to preserve what it exists to protect, which is power and privilege. What does that tell us about our future choices?
For electoral politics, it suggests that a progressive agenda could benefit from a reconstructed Democratic Party and that a radical agenda could benefit from one or more effective new parties, plus major election reform. Acting on these insights while not allowing maniacs into office could generate new parties and win Democratic Party overhaul and electoral procedural changes. Will we pursue these aims?
Republican obdurate tenacity
Yes, if the Republican base had decided to forego their party to block Trump on grounds of his special debits, then Clinton would be President. But other than pointing to the obvious need to “organize, organize,” does it lead anywhere new?
Suppose Clinton had won in a landslide, or even that Sanders had won and we were now dancing in the streets. Should winning Sanders or Clinton voters then dismiss and ignore Trump voters? Should winning Sanders or Clinton voters write off Trump voters as irredeemably opposed to progressive much less radical change?
If those who voted successfully for Clinton or Sanders wanted to not only win an election but also fundamentally change society, they would have to ask, could that happen without winning over those we now disagree with? The answer would be no. And since Trump won, the question should become even more germane than in the hypothetical case above, not less.
So a main lesson one might draw from finding this cause of Trump winning is that whether you win or you lose, and whether it is an election campaign or a programmatic battle for some policy change, when the dust clears the next task is to reach out energetically and congenially to those who disagreed with you but who you think ought to have agreed given their situations.
You shouldn’t ignore allies, but you also shouldn’t spend all your energy listening, talking, and organizing among allies.
The general lesson that we ought to solidify but also grow is obvious, but nonetheless we routinely avoid reaching out to those we disagree with. Indeed, do we ever collectively make that a priority? Will we ever?
As a sad but instructive international example, Bolivarian revolutionaries in Venezuela spent over a decade largely ignoring the need to organize among their opponents. It was a difficult and uncomfortable task that they simply avoided. They preferred to operate among those who showered pleasant and even enjoyable praise upon them. Despite incredible other accomplishments that choice spelled disaster.
First, it is undeniably correct that had fewer white male and female workers voted for Trump, he would have handily lost. Even just voting for Clinton instead of Trump at the same level that white voters supported Obama instead of Romney would have sunk Trump’s boat. Unquestionably, therefore, the choice of a great many white workers to vote Trump abetted Trump’s victory. But deciding why they voted for him is where heated controversy rears up.
Some argue if you voted for Trump it means you didn’t care about his misogyny and racism or you even welcomed it. Therefore racism and sexism are what you desire. You are a little Trump. Some go even further and not only demonstrate against Trump but deem anyone who doesn’t immediately join the resistance part of the problem.
Most who say this sort of thing totally dismiss Trump voters as beyond communication. A subset add that while Trump’s voters’ views are horrible, still, we must change them. However this seems to mean we should shame people, “call out” people, confront people, label people as backward, ignorant, and worse, and demand they repent. There is no room for discussion, debate, and organizing. Just repent, and we like you, or don’t repent, and we hate you.
Others say, hold on, do you really believe the Latinos who voted for Trump are racist little Trumps? Do you really believe the women who voted for Trump, which is most white women who voted, are misogynist little Trumps? If you don’t think that, then presumably you agree that these groups saw reasons to vote for Trump that were not only not racist and sexist but that they thought overrode even their self interested experiential personal distaste for Trump’s wild racism and sexism. If you do see that, for Latinos and women Trump voters, then why should we assume that all white male working class Trump voters, or even most of them, didn’t see and weren’t moved by the same non racist and non sexist feelings as many Latino voters and the majority of white women voters?
If whites who voted for Obama had voted for Clinton, Trump loses. Did those white voters vote for Obama but not for Clinton because they are racist? Did they vote for Obama but not for Clinton because they – and remember, this includes more than half of white women – are sexist?
Why isn’t it possible, and even highly likely, that white working class Trump voters from devastated communities suffering drug invaded and unemployment saddled neighborhoods, and bombarded with horribly faulty media mediated information, were mainly voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny? Isn’t their status quo that bad?
And if we take a modest step up in income, why isn’t it possible, in fact even highly likely, that better off white working class Trump voters fearing job loss, suffering indignity, hating not so much the really rich as the doctors, lawyers, managers, and coordinator class elites they daily encountered, and again inundated with confusing and contradictory information, were also in large numbers voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny? Isn’t their fear of continued working class decline that great?
Across the white working class, why assume the worst was predominant? Why not assume other less vile albeit very confused motives dominated? Virtually all the interviews done with Trump voters by non name calling interviewers point toward better albeit confused motives. Vote tallies point toward better motives. So why reject what is highly probable?
Perhaps one reason some conclude only racist and sexist desires could yield a Trump vote is they lack knowledge of the pain, suffering, and daily fear of contemporary working class life. If that suffering doesn’t register in your perception, clearly you will not deem avoiding it an important motive. That is an ugly picture of the reason for blaming white workers but I think it applies to many in the mainstream and to many Democratic Party regulars, as well. However distasteful, it is far more plausible than that half the country are little Trumps. However, I don’t think ignorance of or even dispassion for working class suffering is a major reason why many progressives and radicals are castigating white workers as irretrievably racist and sexist. At least I hope not. But what else might lead to some progressives and radicals aggressively disparaging and dismissing white workers?
Imagine you think that believing rampant racism and misogyny motivated most or all Trump voters will lead to effective follow up activity to reduce racism and misogyny. At the same time, imagine you also think that believing that most Trump voters were attracted to his claim that he will aid the “working class” by challenging trade agreements and rebuilding infrastructure will reduce effective follow up activity. Feeling that way, you might assert racism and sexism are the key factor not because there is some compelling case that it is so, but because you feel asserting that will yield the best outcome.
But will it? What responses follow from believing the worst, or from instead believing the situation is more complex?
Here is what I have been able to glean, despite the levels of anger, fear, and general confusion obscuring clarity on nearly all sides.
Those who say racist and sexist motivations were paramount seem to feel that to deal seriously with racism and misogyny these phenomena must become absolutely forefront. They must be very aggressively “called out,” shamed, and even punished person by person. In this view, asserting that factors other than racism and sexism played a preponderant role would lead to less or no calling out and shaming of Trump voters. It would cater to them, coddle them, and reduce prospects for improvement.
In contrast, those who say that a great many or most Trump voters were not mainly motivated by racism or sexism but by anti establishment anger funneled into a candidate who at least acknowledged them, heard their grievances, and said relevant things (albeit, lying and manipulating), see a very different approach for dealing with the situation. They feel activists fighting against reaction and for positive change need to avoid adding to Trump voters feelings that liberals, progressives, and radicals reflexively dismiss white working class concerns as stupid
and/or vile which feelings would only further alienate those constituencies.
We need to reach out, in this view, by making clear what real action on behalf of worker gains would include. We need to explain, without denigration and dismissal, why Trump isn’t an avatar of desirable change. We need to point out the incredible injustice and harm of racist and sexist policies, but without pointing our fingers at the people we are talking with. We need to admit the faults of Clinton and the Democrats, and battle those as well.
We need to address, I would add, that economic and social victories for workers run up against not only owners, but also managers, doctors, lawyers, many top level union bureaucrats, and others who the Democratic Party caters to, who I call the coordinator class, and who actively defend their massive advantages, and we need to challenge those relations too. We need to not talk at Trump voters but with Trump voters. We need to hear valid insights and debate important differences.
We need to prioritize two simple insights. 1. Opposing generalized economic domination of workers while ignoring or even minimizing and dismissing the non economic pain and suffering of women and non white communities as well as the special economic woes of those groups is morally deficient and strategically disastrous. But, 2. at the same time, addressing the social suffering of women and non white communities while ignoring or even minimizing and dismissing the economic and non economic suffering of workers is also morally deficient and strategically disastrous.
So will we try to shame Trump’s voters, to call them out, and to label them racist and sexist, somehow thinking that doing that will cause them – unlike anyone else ever before accosted that way – to welcome and side with us? Or will we try to reach out, listen, hear, and when need be forthrightly argue, not yielding an inch regarding racist or sexist policies and beliefs, but also and very strongly addressing the class issues that both white and non white, and both male and female Trump supporters powerfully feel? Will organizers working with white workers and activists in general assess our own efforts to see if anything we have been doing may have contributed to white workers willingly voting for Trump?
You are likely wondering, what? Blacks at fault? Blacks voted a little less for Clinton than for Obama, but still overwhelmingly for her. So how can they be even partly at fault for Trump’s victory?
Looking a few months further into the past we see that Southern blacks voting for Clinton against Sanders in the primaries ended Sanders’ chances of winning the nomination.
While few writers address this, it too is true. There were various reasons such as Sanders starting out little known, initially emphasizing economics to the near exclusion of race, and fear that Sanders might do worse against a Republican, as well as less compellingly, the Clinton’s undeserved reputation as allies of the Black community. Still, if black communities across the country, and particularly in the south, had voted even modestly more for Sanders, much less if they had voted mainly or overwhelmingly for him, he would have won the nomination with an avalanche of delegates.
A lesson to heed in future work is that identity politics often breeds confusion as well as hostilities. Just as organizers of white workers should assess if aspects of their past work were in part responsible for some white workers holding views that allowed voting for Trump over Clinton, so too organizers in Black communities need to assess if aspects of their past work were partly responsible for some Blacks holding views that allowed them to vote for Clinton over Sanders. But beyond that, I don’t think the historically anomalous one time error of some black voters bears much on what to do now.
Women and especially white working class women
Women are at fault in this view for voting less for Clinton than she needed if she was to win. Women who voted for Trump are in some cases even branded misogynist. The formulation comes not only from antifeminists trying to parlay it into feminist division, but from some feminists, too.
It seems to me it is almost exactly parallel in most relevant lessons and issues to point three above, and is dealt with in the text there. The one thing to add, is that in this case too, organizers of women need to assess if aspects of their past work were in part responsible for many women holding views that allowed voting for Trump against Clinton (or for Clinton against Sanders in the primaries).
Latinos are at fault in this reading of the election, for giving perhaps as much as a third of their votes (the count is contested) to Trump, which may have been enough to turn the tide had all those votes gone to Clinton. This too seems to me to have no useful lessons beyond those already addressed. Latinos who voted for Trump were often confused about his promises, but that only points to the need for more and better alternative media, better organizing, and more attention to their other concerns. And, as with the other cases, so too organizers in Latino communities need to assess whether anything about their approach contributed to some Latinos failing to see the need to beat Trump.
Young Sanders supporters
This view claims that by abstaining young Sanders supporters helped Trump over the bar. Looking at Clinton’s relatively anemic youth support compared to Sanders, or to Obama, suggests this claim may have legs. I haven’t seen enough to know. But whether the scale of youth abstention was sufficient to have alone turned the tide, we can agree it certainly played a role. And now we have the very strange situation that there are in the streets, rightly protesting Trump, a not insignificant number of people who did not vote Clinton in contested states. Is there any
useful lesson in this?
Well, first, is there any logic in it?
Suppose you think Trump is terrible, Clinton is terrible, you didn’t see all that much difference before, and you don’t see all that much difference now. Or maybe you even thought Trump winning was good due to the reaction it would generate. With those thoughts the choice to abstain would have followed quite naturally. You don’t vote, but once the election is over, it is time to protest and organize as best you can, and since Trump won, that means going into the streets. So you do that. And you feel no need to apologize for having not voted for Clinton even in contested states.
Okay, so the lesson is that it is possible for wonderful, caring, courageous people to have very distorted perceptions. Then again, we all know that, of course, from all of history, including moments in our own personal pasts.
What is troubling, however, is that Sanders had no such confusion. Nor did many people writing tireless warnings of Trump’s evil and his potential to win, and urging strategic voting throughout the campaigning. And because such clarity did exist, including coming from Sanders, it took some effort, I think, for Sanders supporters to abstain in contested states.
I think that however painful, this is worth understanding and that some lessons lurk in the experience. Simplifying a bit, I think the pattern of discounting evils for Trump voters and for Sanders abstainers may be two sides of one coin. Trump voters discounted Trump’s racism, sexism, climate denial, and fascistic leanings. Sanders supporters who abstained discounted the same evils (all of which Sanders supporters had every reason to be fully aware of). Both working class Trump supporters and Sanders supporters who abstained seem to have acted based on short term feelings of anger and fear, in the Trump voters’ case, at their life situation, and in the Sanders abstainers’ case, at their electoral mistreatment. Both groups allowed their anger and fears to overcome compelling evidence and logic. If that is true, anger or fear can overcome reasoned argument. The lesson is that organizing has to be compassionate, subtle, persistent, and informed enough to overcome this tendency.
Jill Stein and some of her advocates
Jill Stein’s voters and Stein herself as well as various left pundits disseminated endless messages claiming there was no difference between Trump and Clinton, claiming that Clinton was absolutely going to win, and claiming that votes for Stein mattered because she could win or at any rate could do quite well. This took votes from Clinton in contested states. More, beyond that, by relentlessly adding to a super inflated anti Clinton mood while simultaneously, like the mainstream, leveling far less fire on Trump, it made credible a decision to abstain by others more widely, and particularly by Sanders supporters.
Of all nine issues this ninth one is, at least for me, most difficult to navigate because this is the one where my own emotional anger surges.
First, let’s not put our heads in the sand. This eighth claim, like the other seven, is true. It isn’t just that Stein’s voters, had they all voted for Clinton in contested states, could have won Clinton a few of those states and by that alone made it close or tipped the tide. It is also that the abstentions generated by the anti Clinton emphasis and by disparaging voting for Clinton as evidence of selling out the left would, had they been Clinton votes in contested states, certainly have turned the tide.
It is one thing for a constituency that is quite reasonably fearful, suffering, and subject to very poor information, to make a desperation motivated electoral mistake. It is another thing for people with lots of political experience and who enjoy relative safety to not only make a mistake, but to adamantly and hostilely urge it on others, and to even slander those who were rightly trying to correct the error.
I don’t want to belabor this but one lesson it conveys is that strategic lesser evil voting obviously makes sense whenever the gap between evils is large enough, and/or no other use of the votes offers any great benefit. Of course, both assessing the size of the gap and the merits of other choices can and should be debated – but in this case there was no real debate but baiting, disparagement, and dismissal. And in this case the gap was so wide, and the benefits of the alternative choice so minor that it is hard not to wonder whether prominent prominent celebrators of Trump, advocates of abstention, and defamers of strategic lesser evil voters will have the integrity to acknowledge their error, or will, instead, now double down by offering incredibly callous formulations that we should all celebrate Trump winning.
Another lesson is that having an astute analysis of the ills of elections but applying it only to mainstream participants is incredibly arrogant. Stein horribly deluded if not herself, we don’t know, certainly her supporters, simply in pursuit of votes. Stein allowed desires to enlarge her tally to dominate trying to achieve good or ward off bad. And this was done by many radical writers too, who became caught up in Stein’s campaign or who accepted the ridiculous formulation that people saying we should vote Clinton in contested states were, on that account, despite decades of evidence otherwise, mere shills for Clinton, a convenient label that eliminated need for real debate and that caused many to want to avoid that false stigma.
Progressives and radicals need a far more nuanced approach to elections and, when we manage to win, also to holding office, than has been formulated to date. We need to attend not only to maintaining good programmatic aims but also to not getting sucked into the vote-emphasizing and audience-manipulating ills we ourselves decry.
So that presents nine possible reasons why Trump won and their implications. What matters is what kinds of activity will now have a high probability of warding off or minimizing reactionary trends and even laying groundwork for winning positive gains. Here are a few options to consider.
In response to Trump trying to hugely escalate or even just maintain current rates of deportation, perhaps we should organize sanctuaries at the city or state level, in places such as Los Angeles and California. Or we could seek sanctuaries more locally at churches and perhaps universities and even have private homeowners offering to harbor deportees to protect them. A slogan might be some clever variant of “if you take them, you have to take us, and none of us are going without a fight.”
Venues like churches or campus centers providing housing and protection could be constantly guarded by masses of supporters outside to block entry. During the days and nights of the sanctuaries, we could hold teach ins and cultural events, and otherwise use the experiences to build support, develop trust, and even enjoy the experience. Optimistically, imagine groups of major athletes doing this too, for example, once lots of grassroots people are doing it. Let your mind fly a bit. Imagine the San Francisco Warriors welcoming immigrants into their arena in the same way the New Orleans Saints arena was used to house Hurricane Katrina victims, only providing more cultural and educational events accompanying the activity.
In response to white supremacist Cabinet and West Wing appointees, such as Bannon, 1) make their views incredibly visible, propose progressives who would be better in their post, and say clearly why they would be better. 2) Use creative tactics including demonstrating where the appointees work, live, and come from to demand they go home and we get better appointments. 3) Mainly, for this and many other aspects too, create a shadow government. This would probably require Sanders to become its President, but, following that, it could populate itself throughout, and it could then take stands on every major issue as they arise, contrasting clearly to Trump and also organizing and fighting for better positions.
In response to enlarged spending proposals for military and police – positively point out better ways to spend the funds, and also aggressively demand positive changes in police budgeting, structure, policy, and community oversight and control. and in the use of military bases including using them to build low income housing funded by military budgets, rather than to eat up their budgeted funds in useless or deadly pursuits. Earmark the first houses built to go to soldiers who worked on them and want them. Invite and welcome police into neighborhood and even household meetings to discuss how to create safer communities and avoid racist policing. Go to military bases and yes, to police stations too, and organize.
The point is to find worthy things to demand, and effective ways to fight to win demands that appeal to every crucial constituency, and polarize none away from progressive participation, even as we also steadfastly and specifically oppose Trump’s every racist, sexist, and classist move.
Beyond the above, once momentum grows and a degree of coherence and clarity emerges, we could begin to try to build grassroots neighborhood and workplace assemblies, though first steps have to come first.
And then on top of program – our demands and actions – there is organization. Is it desirable that for the next four years we only have disparate, sometimes linked sometimes disconnected, movements about all manner of separate issues but overwhelmingly aimed only at preventing reaction? Or would it be more desirable to have at least one overarching, multi issue, multi tactic organization emphasizing not only fighting against reaction but also proposing, organizing for, and trying to win elements of positive program and vision?
And would it be better for a new visionary organization that we create to look like those we have had in the past, or to conceive and implement powerful new means to welcome and enhance diversity, to celebrate and practice collective self management, and to chastise and structurally guard against sectarian, apocalyptic, and too narrow organizing?