by Robert W McChesney, in the United States • For the past eight weeks, almost everyone on the American left—or to use the vernacular, the progressive community—has been addressing the Trump election, the impending Republican total control over the federal government, and how best to resist it.
The fascist currents running in Trump’s agenda and program are not difficult to locate: full throttle jingoism and militarism; nods to white supremacists and bigots; minimal interest in civil liberties or the rule of law; contempt for science when it interferes with political and economic ambitions; routine dismissal of all criticism from the news media or otherwise as “lies” combined with routine outrageous lying; contempt for the dispossessed and blind worship at the alter of wealth and privilege.
As with all right-wing “populists,” those seemingly anti-establishment progressive planks crucial to drumming up votes before the election—e.g. anger at Wall Street and corporate power; criticism of mindless imperial wars; concern about attacks on the working class standard of living; plaintive wails about the corruption of politics in Washington and its domination by moneyed interests—are immediately thrown overboard once the election is won.
Indeed, even before his inauguration, Trump has launched an administration committed to dismantling the generally quite popular social welfare state and rolling the nation back to the Gilded Age, as well as becoming the most singularly corrupt and ethically challenged administration in American history.
All this is aggravated by Trump himself, and his rather frightening personality. He appears to be a classic narcissist, with sociopathic traits. He has no apparent ability to make fun of himself or laugh at himself.
He is exceptionally thin-skinned and deals with criticism like a three year old child. He has no apparent capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, and elicits no concern about being able to do so.
It is not clear if he actually has any friends, as his only true loves appear to be amassing personal wealth and power and receiving praise for his infinite talents and greatness.
He emits virtually no sense of doubt and little recognition of the need to learn from others. In other words he is the polar opposite of what a democratic leader should be. He is entirely lacking in wisdom.
For many on the left all of the above contributes to a morbid fear of how a Trump administration will respond to the next domestic terrorist attack.
Trump’s call for ending Muslim travel to the United States and having a registry for all Muslims residing in the United States after the Paris attacks in November 2015 fuelled his campaign success and scared the hell out of everyone else.
The prospect of martial law is a legitimate concern, which suggests just what a radical departure the Trump administration is even from earlier Republican governments. Nothing in Trump’s brief history in politics suggest civil liberties are much of a concern.
For those on the American left, like our sisters and brothers battling similar currents worldwide, it is all hands on deck time.
What is already being forgotten is how entirely unexpected a Trump victory was as recently as October 2016. When Trump announced his campaign in the summer of 2015 it was roundly if not universally regarded as a publicity stunt for a grand egotist, seeking to jack up the value of his brand as he negotiated subsequent reality TV shows and book deals.
Much of the lavish free publicity he received from the news media was due to his outrageous entertaining style and was driven by commercial concerns; no one in the news media or anywhere else in the world of politics took him seriously.
There is little doubt that Trump’s dominance of airtime and blanket coverage in the news media was central to his rise.
Had he been ignored like other celebrity “candidates” in the past—Pat Paulsen , anyone?—Trump almost certainly would have washed up to shore before the first primary, as he did in 2012.
But that alone is an insufficient explanation for his success. Trump was also able to capitalise upon the anti-establishment, anti-status quo sentiment that exploded in 2016 after many years of percolating across the nation.
His criticism was often of Republicans almost as much as the hated Obama, and this was extremely attractive to a significant chunk of the electorate, including downwardly mobile working-class whites.
(This criticism of the GOP was disliked by many mainstream Republicans who regarded Trump as an evil foreign virus who had somehow entered the grand old party. But almost all these Republicans ended up voting for Trump, their loud grousing notwithstanding. Their keen desire to grab power and use it to advance their agenda overwhelmed their putative “principles.”)
But it would be 100 per cent incorrect to say that the political mood in the nation in 2015-16 is captured by saying a neo-fascist wave swept the country. To the contrary, this is a period of general turmoil, which accords to a faltering economic system that is dealing a bad hand to tens of millions of working class and middle class Americans, and the vast majority of young people, all the while the political system has been captured in toto by the billionaire class.
The anti-establishment politics of this period was best represented by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign as a democratic socialist for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
It would be difficult to convey exactly what a breakthrough Sanders made and the stunning success he enjoyed to people who only knew of Sanders and his campaign from mainstream news media.
He routinely drew crowds of 7,000-15,000 people on only 72 hours notice. Most politicians, and this was the case for Hillary Clinton, generally play to crowds of just a few hundred people.
His support among Americans under 30, arguably even 40, was overwhelming. The Sanders stump speech was a 70 minute elaboration on social democratic policy issues.
In poll after poll young Americans have been looking favourably upon the term socialism as the capitalist economy grows more stagnant and decrepit. Sanders’ stunning popularity would have been unimaginable a generation, even a decade, earlier. Much of the left was pinching itself in disbelief at its good fortune less than a year ago.
That Sanders did lose the nomination to Hillary Clinton was due more to how well Clinton rigged the process behind-the-scenes with the Democratic National Committee, big money donors, and the establishment, and how she used her contacts to dominate mainstream news media coverage as the inevitable and appropriate candidate for the Democrats.
It was obvious in the primary season that she was an unusually weak candidate—and regarded as the candidate of the failed establishment—but that point was rarely discussed in the mainstream news until the votes were being counted on election night and “journalists” were scrambling to determine how they could have been so wrong.
The difference in enthusiasm and activism between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters was like the difference between a living person and a corpse. And among young people, Trump, too, had little support. Indeed, in the 2016 party primary elections, Sanders received many more votes from people under 30 than Clinton and Trump combined.
Yet as weak a candidate as Hillary Clinton was, she still won the popular vote by three million votes. That is not a typo.
Because of the obscene winner-take-all-in-each-state electoral college system—put in the constitution in part by Virginia slaveholders so they could get credit for their massive slave populations without having to let slaves have the right to vote—Trump won entirely by winning razor thin majorities in a few states and getting all of those states “electoral votes,” while getting demolished by landslide proportions in many other states.
The United States has not become a more right-wing country among the people, not at all. Yet here we are.
And this is where the severe contempt for democracy of Trump and the Republicans becomes painfully clear. They are acting as if they won a world historical landslide in November 2016 and using that as a mandate to overturn virtually everything progressive enacted in the past century.
They care not that on most if not all of their extreme moves, the vast majority of Americans oppose what they plan to do.
Instead, they are content that they can spin what remains of the “free press” to good effect and that through voter suppression, the elimination of ethics rules, the flood of money into politics, and packing the courts with their crony operatives they can lock in their vision for the United States, the people be damned.
So this is where we are at on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. It is the worst outcome for the United States and the world and leaves us in a perilous situation. It is impossible to predict what is to come, which means what the left does and does not do can make all the difference in the world.
• Robert W. McChesney writes books on media and politics and teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His latest book, with John Nichols, is ‘People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy’ (Nation Books, 2016). McChesney was co-editor of the socialist magazine ‘Monthly Review’ from 2000-2004.