I write this article with burning passion. I am scared, less by the potential of the world to go to shit, than the calls of some people I know and love who seem to be – for whatever reason – welcoming it. I strongly, viscerally disagree with this perspective. Whether it’s from my own personality and the following is just my attempt to justify it, I’m not yet sure. Still, these are my thoughts.
I feel like some people do not properly appreciate the details that inform the election as a political struggle, those which determine whether a certain result is a victory or a defeat, regardless of the actual result. It’s for these reasons we regard the disastrous Goldwater 1964 candidacy as a critical moment for the New Right in US – a victory in their mere successful coalescence – and why some victories such as Bill Clinton’s in 1992 resembled a long-term defeat for the institutional left – they became increasingly marginalised in the presidentialised and professionalised Democratic party.
These terms have fluctuated a lot this election. After the Conventions, it seemed that Hillary abandoned all pretense to running as centre-left candidate, and instead repositioned the Democratic Party as a neoliberal, neoconservative (therefore fiscally conservative and expansionist foreign policy) party par excellence. This would’ve been a defeat in her victory: she claims all the mantles and delivers on none of the substance. Trump’s resurgence in September – after speculation about Hillary’s health – forced her to reposition herself as the natural champion of the Sanders wing, upon where she developed such a crushing lead that it appeared the left would have significant leverage over her Presidency. Trump seemed to be all-but-defeated, and the Left would have enough power to prevent Hillary from accommodating the so-called ‘moderate’ wing of the Republican Party. This would have been the ideal victory for the Left – with significant leverage and no excuse of opposition, they would made the bourgeois Democratic party reliant upon activist support. A victory in a victory.
Now however, some weeks later, the old guard is barely managing to hold on. Hillary Clinton’s election – while not implausible – is now firmly contested in such a way that Democrats will be lucky to scrape through, and will likely forget about any dreams of taking the House or Senate. There’s no victory anymore. The left and bourgeois alliance, insofar as it coalesces every four years, has been so muddled and wrongfooted (largely by the class-conscious bourgeois elements of the Democratic party) that we will be extraordinarily lucky for there not to be a fascist takeover. If Hillary Clinton barely manages to win, Americans will have to fight from day one to shore up her legitimacy as the democratically elected President, as opposed to the pure white fascist entitlement of Trump and his gun-toting milita-men.
Why should the left spend its time securing the legitimacy of somebody they despise? Because it is easier to fight fascism with the tacit support of the state and law than then you have to fight fascism with the state on its side. That later state is generally called ‘civil war’.
There will be no revolution if Trump takes the Whitehouse. There may be a counter-revolution however, which utilises the most violent apparatuses of the state to clamp down upon any liberal or democratic institutions which it contingently fosters. In the ‘Democratic’ US, under President Obama, white men can still threaten federal agents and get off scot-free, whereas black children like Tamir Rice can be shot in two seconds for handling toy guns. If American democracy is so weak as to not be able to challenge this white insurgency with the full force of the law behind it, then how will it be when these outlaws will be in charge? If they want a race war, their only chance of winning is if they have the military behind them.
The problem is that America has lost the opportunity to repudiate fascism at the ballot box. Trumpism will continue long after the result of November the 8th, as a viable and active political coalition. Far from ‘destroying’ the Republican Party, or awakening ‘reasonable responses’, as argued by various people but recently Slavoj Zizek, Trump’s political coalition has actually been a tremendous success, a passive revolution which completed the Tea Party takeover from the ‘mainstream moderates’. I have no clue where Zizek thinks this sudden ‘about face’ will come from – it flies in the face of everything the psychoanalyst seems to think, and represents his complete slide into absurdity, if not atrocity. Trump’s victory will quickly make the unreasonable reasonable: the liberal safeguards, if they have ever existed, simply are not sufficiently equipped to disarm the political reach of this post-modern fascist.
It could be argued that, as awful as this all is, the plight of the world goes beyond that of its American victims, who are massively over-represented when it comes to global consciousness and political theorisation. If Trump bombs less countries than Clinton, then isn’t this actually a win for the world? Can’t America suffer what it has created while the rest of the world recuperates?
This is a reasonable argument, a fair injunction to white liberal wisdom which argues the minutia of domestic policy (when most of us are not Americans) when the successful run of either candidates represents a long-term disaster for Americans, humanity and our environment. This has in fact been used by some leftists inside the US to argue for a third party candidacy, that they themselves owe it to the rest of the world to make sure neither a Clinton nor a Trump gets elected in the future. Against great atrocity, voting for a third party isn’t simply a ‘moral duty’, it’s politically tactical, with a proven history, as argued by this author:
Abolitionists decided to force their issue onto the agenda by running for office. They lost repeatedly, but over nearly two decades they weakened the Whigs and divided the Democrats. Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig, won a four-way race in 1860 for the Republicans with less than 40% of the vote.
The abolitionist spoilers were hated because they were blamed for the Mexican war by giving the greater-evil Democrats the presidency. But, we should be eternally grateful to those who voted in those losing elections to end slavery. They were democracy heroes, using the tools available to force an end to slavery.
The problem for me is less the facts of this argument and more its tenor. Certainly we should be grateful for third parties for opposing the great atrocities of their era (I’m sure they were also against the Mexican war). The problem with the argument is that it tries to argue the third-party-gets-results argument as a tendency rather than as a result of extreme political contingency. We should not so easily break the eggs of a Mexican war to make the omelette of abolition – or their modern political equivalents – unless we are confident that this is a successful political strategy.
Understandably this may put too high of a burden on political activists as opposed to the power establishment, but this is precisely the role of the radical left as an historical agent, to understand itself reflexively as an actor in history. If we don’t wish for hubris to become our operating motive, we do require political strategies to be thought through. Even this is not always good enough: well-meaning, detailed cases such as the 1960s mobilisation to purge the Southern Democrats out of the Democratic Party, in order to turn it into a more European-style social democracy, created results wildly out of line with the original predictions. Arguably, their failure to understand the political contradictions of social democratic parties created the present political situation which electorally privileges the conservative Republican above all else.
From a Global South perspective, I think Trump is arguably the result of certain trends rather than their present cause. The strong-man right-wing executive has been on the rise in Asia for many years, resulting in the unnerving situation in which Russia, Korea, India, Japan, the Philippines and China are all ruled by hawkish leaders whose militarism is a key part of their legitimacy. Trump will entrench their legitimacy on a global scale, normalising the notion of autarky, supreme state control and chauvinistic nationalism, and will sponsor the erection of borders as far as the eye can see. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, with the unspoken subtext of internal racial purging and economic subjugation: after all, they will need those strong borders when climate refugees start clawing at their walls. The election of Clinton won’t change much of this, and will continue to sponsor her form of liberal, elitist, ‘free trade’ imperialism, but it will at least stop one domino from colliding into another.
We already have many Trumps in the world. How will one more really change things for the better? By all means, make certain predictions, float certain theories, and generally engage in ‘what if’ discussions. These are important for figuring out what trajectories in our current political order are the dominant ones – what will work, what will fizzle out, what will unexpectedly combine together?
As opposed to this argument outlined above, the reality is that most political change occurs outside of the electoral realm. These party transformations can be hugely important, but they are generally the result of political mobilisation, which itself creates the sets of choices that voters have, rather than voters individualistically asserting their political preferences at the ballot box, as if they’re picking which flavour of donut they like. These ‘realignments’ explain FDR’s support for the New Deal, LBJ’s for the Great Society (and incidentally, for the Vietnam War as well), and the success of Reagan’s anti-labour coalition as well.
I think most people understand these arguments, but it feels odd to put these deeply personal, contentious and desperate political conditions into an historical context. The fact remains that this is precisely what we have to do. Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of much that is wrong with American politics, but I would struggle to articulate a single President of the United States who was not this, almost by definition. Having four years of some semblance of liberal democracy within the US is not the ‘natural’ state of America, but the result of many peoples’ lives put on the line to defend basic privileges. These basic privileges do in fact have flow-on effects, and do help to limit the extraordinary violence of American foreign policy. If voting every four years for the lesser of two evils feels like a hostage situation, that’s because it is, and it’s the world, particularly the most downtrodden within it, who are the hostages. Let’s pay the ransom so they get out alive.
I have been at great pains in recent articles (one forthcoming as well) that our sense of impending apocalypse is hardly unique to the present – it’s in fact something which has motivated pretty much all historical actors in revolutionary moments. There is something deeply disturbing to me in the notion that one should, if not vote for Trump, then welcome his ascendancy, as bringing the apocalyptic moment where all the cards are dealt and the ‘real’ political struggle can take place.
Unfortunately, this is just a struggle which the left will always lose. We do not win by pitting against each other, but by uniting them in their common interest. This means that there is never a moment in which politics ends, and conflict begins. Politics is inherent to this form of struggle, against the notion that there will ever be a moment in which pure, human conflict can take place. The ‘us vs. them’ is the defining quality of fascist politics. If left resistance prevents mankind from slaughtering itself, then cynical abuses of state authority need to occur to create this. Fascists are a whole lot more dangerous when they have this authority of the state.
If Trump seems like a clown to you, and similar historical allusions to Hitler’s rise aren’t persuasive, then consider the following. If Trump is elected, his main base of legitimacy will be the racists and fascists he encouraged and directly spoke to throughout the election. Trump knows that his basis of support relies upon the marginalisation of others in honour of the white race. Even if he did not intend to act on it (let’s pretend he’s a poorly-spoken moderate), he would either be forced to by his own political base (lest he be replaced by an usurper), or he would reach out to them in a moment of political crisis. We live in a world in which centrists have been aping the far-right: Malcolm Turnbull is taking his cues from One Nation and Nicholas Sarkozy and Francoise Hollande from Marine Le Pen. How would Donald Trump act any differently?
There is so much more to argue, from the fact that Trump is hardly less likely than Clinton to engage in a foreign war (again, even if he was arguably less likely, who would have the hubris to gamble the world’s fate on this?), to the fact that as dire as this situation is, it represents an opportunity for the left, as long it doesn’t pre-emptively end in disaster. A loss for Trump is a small victory against the Modis, Putins and Dutertes of the world.
In this US election, there is no way to vote against Wall Street, against the military industrial complex, against global imperialism. There was a partial way in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, but despite his successes it did not yield immediate fruit this election. That’s fine. Voting on election day is only the smallest part of the political process. The Left lost one struggle in June, but the coalition built is likely the sign of a delayed, yet more comprehensive victory. The American Left is more powerful than it knows, but its current position, at least for the next month, is necessarily defensive, and it needs to not freak out. The forces Trump has awoken will take years to properly counter, both in America and around the world: don’t give them victory on a damn platter.