The following participants offered their opinions to a series of questions: Jack Werner, Destiney Linker, Joseph MacPhee, Jordan Daniel, Vincent Aldazabal, Austin Clark, Rebecca Binns, Mike Portlock, Katie Burke (first session).
Thank you to our participants, and I hope you enjoy reading.
Image from Flikr
JW: Hi everyone, I want to start by thinking about Austin’s question because it forces us to historicize this election cycle. Here it is: There is a lot about this election that is being labeled as “unprecedented,” but are there some historical precedents? What have we seen before and how does it inform our understanding of what is happening?
I believe there are firm precedents, that, to quote Sherlock Holmes (who was quoting Ecclesiastes) “there is nothing new under the sun.” No matter how dirty and how strange it might get, chances are we’ve been here before, at least tangentially. And tangents count for something.
KB: I see some historical precedents coming from the wave of Populist sentiment. Trump is riding on the coattails of frustration at the federal government, much like the Populists of the past. People have always been angry when things become stagnated and there is political infighting between “x party” Congress vs “y party” President. I compare him a lot to Jackson, but would love to hear any other opinions.
DL: To give the chicken answer: it’s both. This election is certainly unprecedented in the amount of voter engagement. The nation has been captured by the spectacle, but the spectacle has had little substance. But it also has historic origins and callbacks to earlier trends. I point folks to the McCarthy Era for an example of a similarly deep polarization in society along the Right-Left political spectrum. Both politicians have used classic tools to appeal to their base: Ivy League snobbery (deplorables—Clinton), demagoguery (Trump), distraction (both), scandals (both), and exploiting fears that are already at a boiling point in society (both).
JM: Also, another important un-precedent/precedent is that political outsiders have been elected before (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower). Certainly not unprecedented to say that Trump would be the first “political outsider.” However, these were all military veterans who were able to court a huge portion of the vote based on war victories. Trump would certainly be the first non-military outsider.
- KB: He’s the first non-military and non-politically experienced possible president (I believe).
RB: First of all I want to say thank you to Jack for putting together a discussion like this in such an accessible format for lots of neuro-divergent folks. I think the comparison between Trump and Jackson makes some sense, but Jack also made some great points to the contrary which I really agree with.
I’d like to center my question around the use of the word “fascist” to describe Trump. Many leftists have argued that he shouldn’t be called one, and one of the reasons I read was that he doesn’t have anything equivalent to “brownshirts.” Recent developments have veered very close to brownshirt-like activity. Notably, Trump supporters burned down a historically black church and wrote “Vote Trump” on the wall. At a recent rally where Trump was speaking, a Trump supporter pointed at a protester and shouted “gun!”; Trump ordered the crowd to “get him,” and it turns out all the protester had was a sign. These acts of political violence are clearly racist, anti-free speech, and share many features with infamous actions of the SS – though they lack the organization of the SS on any level, of course – but the practical difference seems like just a matter of time, in my estimation. If Trump is allowed to fester politically, that will become a HUGE problem down the line. How should this question affect how leftists respond to Trumpistas?
- KB: One part of Trump’s legacy that – to me – can fit within this idea of 2016 fascism is his constant re-writing of his own personal history…or tweets/public statements. You can see that a lot in world history, where fascist leaders will constantly re-write history in order to fit their needs and whip up fervor in their followers. But I definitely agree that there are fascist elements within this campaign.
- DL: I haven’t read a lot on fascism as political ideology and practice, but if a budding fascist movement is what Trump and his supporters represent – then they have only been polarized by the farce that is this election. If fascism is a system in which the state acts as the capitalist, I can see why some folks would see a billionaire running for president as a potential fascistic threat.
- JM: There is also a subsection of the FBI self-declared as “Trumplandia,” which is very worrisome for a department that should be looking out for the good of all the people. This is why many people are predicting some kind of “Republican coup” if Trump wins.
- KB: That’s honestly one of the most terrifying things I’ve heard all night, Joe. I know there are a lot of angry Trump supporters who have threatened violence if the election is “rigged” towards Clinton.
- RB: Wow, that’s the first I’m hearing of Trumplandia over here. I just read this article about it, and that IS horrifying. Not that I’d put much stock in the FBI ever having the best intentions for the working class to begin with, but that is just… not okay. That’s so dangerous. That veers a lot closer to a secret police force. I’d love to hear comrades’ views on that comparison.
- AC: 1860 anyone? Not to be alarmist, but a group threatening to not abide by the result of a national election sounds decidedly familiar to my ears.
- JW: That seems hyperbolic to me, Austin. We don’t have the same political, economic, and ideological forces at work here, nor the same propertied, racial and class interests at stake. The issue of slavery, or anything even close to as galvanizing for the American electorate, does not exist, either.
- AC: You’re absolutely correct. It is hyperbolic. I’m not saying civil war will break out, I agree too much with your above points, but I just wanted to throw it into the mix as an interesting precedent. Because it is something we have heard before, n’est pas?
JW: Is Trump’s populism similar to William Jennings Bryan? The best precedent I think of for Trump is George Wallace. I disagree about validity of the comparison to Jackson, for a number of reasons. Primarily because Jackson was a working-class war hero following the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. He hated the “monied interests” that Alexander Hamilton represented, and in some ways, his election signified that the U.S. would not be run by the elites. We should all condemn him for his treatment of the Cherokee, and Choctaws, and Creeks, but I don’t see the parallel to Jackson.
KB: Jackson ran on the party of the elites of the time – the Democrats. Martin Van Buren was the original “Boss Tweed.” Except slightly more nuanced in his positions.
- JW: Andrew Jackson was working-class. All presidents prior to him were part of the coterie of the Founding Fathers – the elite of the country, and thought wealthy men should govern the country. Jackson changed that.
- KB: Jefferson was an elite, yes. But he was also an Anti-Federalist. I don’t think Jackson can be our first “working class hero” of American presidents. Jackson may have also started as working class, but he definitely ended his life as a wealthy man.
- DL: What is this working class hero trope we speak of? Is it that they are perceived as working class heroes, or they actually are? Are we calling Trump, the billionaire, a working class hero? What does it mean if segments of the working class see a billionaire as their hero?
- KB: I definitely don’t think that Trump himself is a “working class hero,” but he is attempting to be a hero for the working class. I think he’s trying to pick up voters who consider the Clintons to be part of the political elite. Most of his commercials have dealt with Hillary “not knowing what REAL Americans need.” Which raises the question – what is a real American in 2016?
- AC: Trump may not be a “working class hero,” but he is certainly a hero to the working class, in many ways because of his billionaire status. That’s the pinnacle of upward mobility, right? Being rich and because you are rich you can say whatever you darn well please?
AC: I think you might be onto something with Bryan. He rallied a lot of anger around economic issues (think Cross of Gold), which seems to be at the heart of the more racially charged rhetoric Trump is using. I think a more recent example might be Barry Goldwater though – the off the wall righty who won the primaries because of his skills in intra-party knife fighting.
- JW: I’m glad you brought up Goldwater. 1964 is starting to look a lot like 2016. But then, is the conservative consensus that Goldwater pioneered (actualized under Reagan) reaching its apex? Or, is the consensus unraveling? What I mean is Reagan never lambasted minority groups directly – he had to use racial codes. That’s changed and it’s significant for how we engage in politics.
- AC: For now, I’m going to go with apex. We can agree that Trump’s success is due not only to his base, but also the ideal environment in which he swept the primaries. Goldwater didn’t have a dirty dozen opponents to split the field for him. Trump has great precedent, but and even better moment. And part of that is certainly this, um, “liberated” use of racial terminology.
- DL: The Alt-Right (or those speaking for a supposed alt-right) has focused largely on “PC culture,” which is often code for anti-racism, feminism, and multiculturalism. I think what we’re seeing here is the bitter fruit of neoliberalism, which was part and parcel a political, ideological, and economic response to the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
- JW: Austin is right to say Goldwater had no support in 1964. He was running on a platform that was anti-Civil Rights and pro-free market. In fact, old Milton Friedman supported him that year, as did Reagan, who switched from being a Democrat to Republican in his famous 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech. No one took these guys seriously though. So what changed? This brings me to Destiney’s point – is this really the bitter fruit of neoliberalism? Or the backlash against the first black president? Both?
OK, I want to switch gears and think about what this election means for minority groups and the visual oppression we’re seeing. Let’s talk about Vincent’s question, who couldn’t be here with us tonight.
VA: I do believe that the greatest concern I have is regarding the psychological and physical safety of my friends and loved ones on the queer, racial, and class margins of our society. While the differences between the Democratic platform and the Republican one are most notable in personal characteristics and policy records and plans – I ask if we can fixate on the cultural and social implications of both a Clinton administration and Trump one.
Neo-nazis, Klansmen, and their vicious yet equally impactful spinoffs have promised and displayed arms at political rallies, outside mosques, and at early voting polls. I, and many others, fear that the reach of their popularity and visibility will soon expand beyond political theaters and be reasserted in daily American life. In essence, the battles that white supremacists have taken up historically will galvanize again, and this time will roar back with not only anti-semitic and of course anti-Black terror campaigns but will fixate on more coordinated attacks on Muslim Americans, queer Americans, the disabled, and others.
Here is my question: How can we effectively organize to protect those targeted by the plans and ambitions of armed militias and bullies that not only occupy Washington but those who occupy territory around the globe? How can we make these plans accessible beyond technological barriers? How can we transcend the language barrier in disseminating this information? How can we learn from the victories and failures of our heroes? How can we open up to self-evaluation and critical introspection in decolonizing and decentering the privileges that permeate our interpersonal interactions?
JM: I think the issue here, as I mentioned above, is that you have an increasingly militarized police force, combined with a subsection of the FBI self-described as “Trumplandia.” This is putting many minority groups at serious risk of violent oppression. We must elect a liberal candidate that is bold enough to enforce strict gun law restrictions that at the same time don’t seriously affect individuals’ Second Amendment rights, like the restriction of gun purchases to strictly handguns and shotguns. No one needs full-automatic assault weapons.
- DL: With cop unions vocally protesting against any visible support or even tolerance of Black Lives Matter, I fear the rise of a paramilitary Right in collusion with police forces. This is already a troubling possibility given the close ties police forces in many Southern states (what up North Carolina!) have to the KKK.
- MP: A lot of those paramilitary “Patriot” groups have a significant number of ex-police officers as members. Militarization is definitely an overlapping problem when it comes to the federal government’s relationship with the public. Access to firearms definitely plays a part in the militarization of the police, insofar as carrying firearms anticipating the need for armed mobilization on any scale has been so normalized within these groups.
DL: Historically, far right and paramilitary organizations have been organized and dangerous in North Carolina (see: the struggle to integrate the Monroe, NC community pool with Robert and Mabel Williams leading the Monroe chapter of the NAACP with armed guards to protect against racist violence, the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, and the growth of the KKK in Faith/Salisbury). The McCrory administration and the Republicans in the North Carolina State Congress have undeniably contributed to the polarization of the political climate and fascist legal and extralegal methods to push people of color and LGBTQIA folks further into the shadows. The Charlotte uprising, along with a growing movement for grassroots change across the state, is a clear sign of resistance to those policies and rituals of division. As grassroots movements for social justice continue to grow, the Right will only be galvanized in North Carolina. I don’t want to make too many predictions, but I can say this with near certainty: my home state of North Carolina is the state to watch – tonight and over the next decade. Pundits seem to agree with me. They are saying this election might come down to NC, specifically to Charlotte.
AC: Response to JM – That’s a discussion for another time, but I take your point. I think a more worrying issue might be the increased/continued flow of federal money to buy arms for local and state police forces. That’s a lot of money supporting a lot of, er, less than nuanced policing. Individuals owning guns is one thing and, if it comes to it, should be dealt with by the federal authority. Tacit federal endorsement and funding of a troubling and possibly downright broken system is a whole new level.
- DL: I agree, Austin. I worry about the abundance of police violence in this country as much as the next person, but the implications of stricter gun laws and how they would disproportionately affect people of color and poor people are a real problem as well. We often think of gun owners as being the stereotypical white country dweller. But what about historical traditions like the Deacons for Self Defense and the Negro Rifle Club started by Robert Williams of the Monroe chapter of the NAACP? These grassroots efforts began as an effort to protect Black communities from police and paramilitary violence.
- JM: Fair point. Individual ownership of firearms is quite a separate issue from federal money flowing towards a more militarized police force. However, school shootings, I would argue, are just as disturbing an issue as racially charged policing, and both issues deserve equal attention. The less violent shootings were using handguns with low ammunition, or knives, and were able to be quelled rather quickly. The larger-scale attacks were using automatic weapons.
- AC: @DL Thanks for bringing that up, as it complicates gun regulation and makes more of distinct issue from police militarization. JM, we might have to agree to disagree for the time being. As tragic and disrupting as individual instances of violence are, the larger concern is systematization. The federal government has the power to change systems. Individual cases, without exception, are condemned and prosecuted as the crimes they are.
JW: I think Vince’s question gets at the heart of white privilege, which I don’t think means we have to vote for Hillary or any of that other nonsense emanating from Facebook. But I do think it means we have to rethink space and our positionality within it. We have to think about what it means for white allies. There’s been a lot of amazing critical engagement with these issues in POC circles, but I think the white electorate, at least those of us terrified by the racialized violence emerging from the Trump camp, have to think beyond tonight. It didn’t start with Trump and it won’t end with him. In some ways, he is only the token head for a virulent reemergence of white supremacy.
- MP: The United States has been primed for decades for a party leader like Trump. Since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, conservatives have galvanized into the Republican Party; this is fact. Democratic Party leaders like LBJ were in on it, as well; they deliberately sought American liberals and minorities in the late ‘60s. And in 1968, we wound up with Richard Nixon. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s there were attempts at rollbacks, the War on Drugs, the Third Way economic politics of the ‘90s that united the global rich under a banner of indifferent tolerance that never addressed the seething hatred behind it.
- JD: OK, coming right in the middle of things as a BLACK QUEER WOMAN who teaches in one of the most dangerous minority communities in the country, these candidates are shit (excuse my French in such a formal forum). But neither of them have the best interests of the actual people in our communities, both separate and intersectional, at heart. Let’s stop calling any of our efforts grassroots. They are not. They are and have always been right in your face. The young liberal white electorate has decided to stop ignoring it, which is great. They’ve even begun to think critically about it. Exceptional. But it’s not about challenging racism, it’s about dismantling the literal principles on which this country was founded. People want to ally with us? Stop calling yourself an ally and get the hell in the fight. Do what you can from your space. Don’t stand quietly next to us in ours.
- JW: But what does that look that? “Doing what you can from your space” – haven’t the most effective anti-racist groups, from SNCC, SCLC, the Black Panthers, always been multiracial?
- JD: Oh, that’s easy. Hire us. Stand up in your space and make the changes we need. Because when you stand in our space, what happens is the white guy gets lauded for how progressive he is. And change doesn’t come to us. The white guy just gets popular. See: Bill Clinton, who can play a goddamn saxophone, whoop de doo. And is generally called the first black president (which is just wrong and rude), who got a platform, and a place to stand up for the people who got him into office, and he somehow ended up signing into law something that has set mass incarceration on a whole new path. Hire us. Stop fetishizing us. Stop co-opting our neighborhoods and our culture in the name of solidarity. Use your white privilege to help us. Because historically, what has worked better than multicultural/multiracial anything, is a group of white guys getting together and saying, “Hey guys, we’ve been mean to the brown people. New trend alert! Let’s be nicer.”
- JW: I agree that white people can and should hire more POC in the workplace. But I think it’s more complicated than simply maintaining separate spaces — there is the question of gentrification, and colonizing safe spaces for POC, don’t get me wrong, but multiracial coalitions have historically succeeded. They are a model to emanate, not dismiss. Ending racism requires the participation of two parties, not one. White people have to be part of the solution, largely because they created the problem. We can’t let our identities become the sole reason we can speak about these issues — our birth into this world is accidental, it’s where we stand that matters.
- JD: Ending racism is setting the constitution on fire and letting everyone in this country have the option of working on it. Ending racism is dismantling the concepts of beauty and worthiness and what makes a family legitimate and not having shitty white boys think that living in the hood makes them understand the struggle. Ending racism is not white people recognizing their privilege and singing kumbaya and asking how to end racism from the people that are hurting, and then saying their approach was wrong. That’s just more silencing the people who deal everyday, which is a huge tenant of racism in the first place.
- JW: I disagree with your emphasis on white men deciding and creating change. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act were consequences of people power — multiracial politics. White men hiring POC was not the decisive change; it was people interrogating cultural assumptions after watching the nightly news and seeing black and brown (and white) bodies being destroyed by local Southern police forces. That cultural moment is what mattered. The law was the consequence, not cause, of systemic changes in the construction of racism.
- JD: As far as I know, from all my studies in history, the first black president we ever had was elected in 2008. With that being said, influencing an office doesn’t mean that white men didn’t sanction the transformation. White men hiring POC didn’t change everything. Of course not. Clearly not. But changes like not trivializing our appearances based on contrived and racist notions so we can get hired. That, in this day and age, would be a huge help. Not discriminating against someone because their name isn’t Eurocentric, that would be a huge help. Not hiring black women or seeing their perceived anger as burdens, that would be helpful. And it doesn’t require black people, or POC in general, stepping across the aisle, waiting for Caucasian time or Caucasian comfort or Caucasian awareness anymore. We, the people who are living this, are saying to you that are holding onto the history that got us to this point: this is unhelpful because we are here now. And MLK Jr. isn’t here with a speech because a white dude shot him. Malcolm X, also shot. Stokely Carmichael, also shot. Black Panthers, systematically dismantled and shot. Assata Shakur, sitting in Cuba probably wondering why all us black millennials haven’t flocked there for her to teach us her ways. What worked in 1964 clearly isn’t working now, or else I wouldn’t be sitting here terrified that my next president’s last name will be Trump.
JW: Let’s turn to Destiney’s question: What explains the strength and organization of the Right since the 2010 midterm elections, which were preceded by the birth of the Tea Party “movement”? Upon the Tea Party’s appearance and initial successes at injecting populism, constitutionalism, and the revival of conservative libertarian discourse into the Republican Party, the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets pointed to the deep wallets funding the “plumber Joe” facade. We sit in the shadow cast by massive campaigns by a billionaire who appeals to working class evangelical conservatives and a Wall Street-approved politician who appropriates Left politics (intersectionality and Bernie brand populism when it suited the campaign) to mask a track record firmly in line with the neoconservative legacy the United States is (ostensibly) attempting to escape. Is the damage of this polarizing election already done? Would a Clinton or Trump presidency be equipped to heal the divide? In essence, has the far Right already won?
Whether you arrive at the conclusion yes or no, the question will remain: what can the Left do?
JM: Logistically, the only thing the Left can do is win a majority in Congress.
- DL: Is voting in congressional and presidential elections the only way to achieve widespread and lasting change?
- RB: I definitely think there are more ways to achieve such change than voting, and honestly I think it’s one of the least significant actions I can realistically take. Though this also depends on who’s owning this majority–a revolutionary party organized by the working class, or a capitalist party which threatens to harm us less than the other capitalist party? When I hear the term “harm reduction,” I simultaneously see its benefits and doubt its ability as a strategy in reducing harm to all marginalized and oppressed people.
- JW: In one sense, I think winning a majority in Congress is irrelevant. It should be the last place we focus our energies on. Let’s go back to Howard Zinn’s people’s power if we care about organizing. Or is that a Leftist fantasy that old union workers tell their kids at night?
- JM: Well certainly, you want to be on the side of organizers whose progressive laws are actually able to get passed. The whole purpose of organizing is to protest unfair practices, or congressional gridlocks. On the flipside of that coin, we shouldn’t reduce our ability to organize and protest effectively just because the Left is able to win a majority in Congress. But what’s the difference if we elect another Democrat with a Republican congress, with no meaningful legislation passed in support of literally moving progressive ideas forward?
- AC: @JW – Probably, yes. Or if it isn’t, it might be what the “Right” is doing right now.
AC: That depends on who the “Left” is. Who is the “Right,” in this case? Is it the people voting for Trump, or is the billionaires funding both campaigns? There is a danger here in defining the Left against the Right and vice-versa, as so much grey area actually exists.
- JW: I think Corey Robin was right to say that the Right can always be thought of as those who defend status quo power systems and privilege hierarchies. In other words, you can, and do have, a centrist conservative running as the Democratic nominee. But the differences are immense — not just because of social politics, either. We can say Trump really is the embodiment of capital and that class difference, despite Clinton’s enormous wealth, matters.
- DL: Are you saying Clinton or Trump is an embodiment of capital? Because I think they both are. FDR is seen as the “father” of US “social democracy,” but he proclaimed that he was the greatest friend the capitalists had. What do we make of that?
- AC: I am going to quibble with you and Robin on that. Embodiment of capital and stuff is great rhetoric, but how do you categorize voters who are choosing between economic and social issues? One can choose to maintain the economic status quo while being socially radical (hypothetically), not to mention any other number of issues. Power isn’t centralized, so multiple discourses, and thus multiple interpretations, can exist, which in turn lead to very different patterns of political thought in individuals. Which is to say – grey areas in terms of defining “Right” and “Left.”
- MP: Both are an embodiment of capital. The issue here is rooted in capital, specifically the lack of access the working class has to it. Both Trump and Clinton represent a vaguely similar form of capitalistic power, though both to a very different degree. Neither candidate appeals to the working class, but only one appeals even remotely to anyone who isn’t white, and the other appeals to a deep racial resentment embedded in American culture.
- JW: Can you really be socially radical and want to maintain the economic system? That is to ask, is Gary Johnson actually a radical because he proclaims himself to be a libertarian and favors the Left on social issues? What about those anarcho-capitalists? I’d venture to say no. Their social liberalism is justified under capitalist conditions — they don’t actually want the subaltern to speak, they just want to continue making profit so that they don’t have. Now historically, at least as far as I can see, capitalism and women’s rights have emerged hand-in-hand. You don’t have Susan B. Anthony without the market revolution of the 1820s. Not only because women were able to publish their own words, cheaply, in the press, but more importantly, because capitalism made consumer goods — specifically condoms, syringes, and abortifacients available to the working-class. That doesn’t mean capitalism works now — if anything it’s been broken since 1920, when, according to James Livingston, we were able to produce goods without any measurable new investment. Since then, the instability of capitalism has been saved only by consumerism. But I suppose, what I mean by all of this, is that the Left and any of its measurable outlets cannot embrace capitalism and remain part of the left. We have to think anew.
- AC: @JW. First, note the hypothetically in parentheses. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying (especially that last bit about consumerism), but shorten the perspective a bit and consider how people view themselves and their priorities. Maybe we can shoehorn them into trends 100 years down the line, but for now what’s motivating their political thought is how they feel and perceive individual issues – which in turn influences their vote and their political actions. Second, the second half of my response gets more to the point of what I am trying to say, namely, power isn’t centralized and people can relate to those many different discourses (so to speak) in different ways, which in turn produces grey areas between rigid definitions of Left and Right.