After the Demagogue

For all those who hope for a world defined by compassion rather than narcissistic domination recent polls should provide comfort: Donald Trump is down in a big way. It seems as if Winston Churchill’s famous dictum regarding Americans may indeed be true: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing- after they’ve tried everything else.” Of course, as we saw with Brexit, polls can be fickle indicators. The improbable can sometimes occur. Still, the trend lines are all heading in the right direction, with the electoral map indicating a resounding Clinton victory.

While political scientists and historians will debate for many years to come the factors behind the rise of Donald Trump, one question will haunt all of these discussions: why didn’t his demise come sooner? How could someone who so openly denigrated Mexicans, women, Muslims, and the disabled have ever gained such popularity within the Republican Party, to say nothing of the larger social fabric? Millions of Americans have, after all, voted for Trump, and millions more will do so on election day.

Up until ten days ago Trump’s supporters could defend his xenophobic rhetoric as nothing more than the rough and tumble talk of the campaign season. Yet when the 2005 tape came to light his fundamental ugliness as a human being could not be denied. Nobody could listen to Trump’s unabashed celebration of sexual assault- the looping pride in his voice as he spoke about grabbing women’s genitalia against their will- and claim that this man had the ethical credibility to lead the most powerful nation in the world. If one were to create a composite character who embodied all of the worst traits in American culture- the casual racism, the entrenched sexism, the boastful xenophobia, the celebration of class disparity- it would be Donald Trump.

It is thus fitting, as John Oliver has recently pointed out, that the first female to become president of the United States would have to, in the final round of her quest, defeat an end-game villain who is the archetype of all the violence that progressives have been fighting against for generations. There is no doubt that Donald Trump is the absolute worst of us, a frothing narcissist whose singular ability as a politician is to tap into deeply rooted tribal impulses within the voting public. If in two weeks America roundly rejects him- and it seems as if even traditionally red states such as Utah and North Carolina are preparing to do so- then it will be a victory of compassion over hatred of tremendous significance.

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The Demagogue as Video Game Boss

Trump’s loss will stand as the sign that multicultural, multilingual, cosmopolitan America will not be compromised by a white, angry, xenophobic minority. The America of Oscar Zeta Acosta, Juno Diaz, Langston Hughes, Louise Erdrich, and Jesmyn Ward will not be silenced. The United States cannot and will not go back to being defined by white Protestant domination.

Even after Trump has gone, there will be much work to be done to challenge the racism, xenophobia, and anger that fueled his rise in the first place. Instead of demonizing all of his supporters, we should instead reach out to them- to try to understand their very real frustrations over what neo-liberal globalization has done to their communities. The energy they have put into campaigning for their great white hope can be unleashed in far more productive directions- grass-roots entrepreneurship, community education, etc. President Clinton should make it a priority to reach out to the so-called “deplorables,” finding ways to make them feel included in the multicultural America progressives are trying to build.

The irony of this election is that, after all the vitriol and anger has been expelled, we will be back to a place very close to where we began: with a moderately left of center democrat president handcuffed by a Republican controlled congress. For progressives, this will be the new challenge that will emerge in the wake of Clinton’s victory- not to get complacent after the great xenophobe has been defeated. As a politician Hillary has been far from ideal, and only through vigilant pressure from the left-wing of her party can she be pushed to pursue the social democratic policies that Bernie Sanders spoke so eloquently for. Such policies will only be met with greater resistance from a wounded and bewildered  Republican opposition.

One can see the next four years playing out very much like the last four did. We will have a president unable to get progressive legislation through an obstructionist Congress, turning to executive order to do what she can while scoring victories through Supreme Court nominations. For those of us who remain committed to universal health care, affordable college education, rational campaign finance laws, and empathetic immigration policies, nothing but pressure from the ground up will keep Hillary from backsliding on her promises in these domains.

Clinton’s most glaring blindspot- her support for continued military interventions abroad- must be vigilantly critiqued. Clinton’s at time enthusiastic embrace of militarism risks igniting conflicts in regional hotspots around the globe, from the Ukrainian border to the Syrian desert to the South China Seas. Clinton must be pushed to reject her own worst impulses when it comes to these areas, lest America’s war machine become even more deadly and intractable.

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Members of the 1st Special Forces Group in Syria, courtesy military.com

One fears that, amid all the celebratory glee engendered by Trump’s demise, the progressive desire to hold Clinton in check will be muted at best. Defeating Trump should not be a cause for excessive celebration among progressives. It’s one thing to denounce an open xenophobe and racist, it’s another thing entirely to push a centrist politician toward a genuinely progressive platform. The battle to make America into a social democracy is far from over- indeed it has barely even begun. The corporate lobbying, the political inertia, the Koch Brothers’ pernicious policy meddling…all of these remain as strong as ever.

We will almost certainly come to realize that it was Trump’s bombast that was the far easier target to critique. The true forces of neo-liberal domination- Wall Street, Big Energy, Big Pharma, Defense Contractors, Big Retail Outsources, Silicon Valley- are as strong as ever, ensuring that they pay fewer taxes, abide by fewer labor regulations, and create as flexible a laboring population as possible. One need only watch Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary The 13th to understand the way corporate interests seize upon the legislative process through organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which literally writes laws on behalf of corporations and submits them to state and federal lawmakers connected to the organization.

Every time we accept non-unionized positions, every time we are forced into short-term work that pays less than the cost of living, every time we experience on-the-job exploitation without any structural recourse, we are living in a world designed by ALEC. The fight for a dignified life for all people will be made more difficult, not less, by having a cautious centrist in the White House. Progressives may feel that, having defeated Trump, the battle for social justice is closed for the next four years. But one cannot let our collective guards down. Only through relentless pressure on the new administration can genuine social change come about.

I thus say to progressives- do not pretend that defeating Trump is the balm to all of our problems. Defeating a force like him represents the bare minimum for bringing social progress to America, not its last full measure.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

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