It’s been a year since hell froze over. This should be a moment of sober reflection, but it’s still so damn hard to concentrate with this deranged clown occupying the White House, monopolizing Twitter and crowding into our every conversation.
Donald Trump is just as brilliant as he thinks he is at one thing and one thing alone: being a world-class troll — a master at shooting another spitball at the back of your head at just the moment when you thought he’s finally given up, at making the exact Twitter comment to get you to break your three-day pledge to stop getting into internet debates.
Twelve months after his election we’re still in a state of shock and agitation because he keeps finding ways to hit new lows while he raises the stakes to new highs. A year ago it was, “Can you believe he’s feuding with Alec Baldwin and hanging up on the Australian Prime Minister!” Now it’s, “Dear God, he’s praising neo-Nazis and threatening the Korean peninsula with nuclear annihilation.”
The other reason why many people continue to be baffled by Trump’s presidency is that he seems to be defying political gravity. He somehow won the election with only a 38 percent approval rating from the people leaving voting booths and has only become less popular since, but he keeps doubling down on the pettiness and hate.
The president is “playing to his base” as the pundits say disapprovingly. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with an elected official doing the very things that got them elected by voters — except in a dysfunctional democracy where those voters represent nowhere near a majority of the populace.
If we avert our eyes from blinding beam of orange garbage and look at what’s been happening to the rest of the political establishment since last November, the structures that are propping Trump up start to come into view.
Trump’s base is a minority rump, a basket of truly deplorable forces — alt-Nazis, union busting billionaires, power-grabbing generals, Christian crusaders and “Black Lives Don’t Matter” cops — surrounded by millions so consumed by despair that they’ve embraced the nihilism of the Trump wrecking ball the way many of us cheer on the destruction of major cities when we’re watching movies about alien invasions.
But if we avert our eyes from blinding beam of orange garbage and look at what’s been happening to the rest of the political establishment since last November, the structures that are propping Trump up start to come into view. In an era of profound political polarization, when millions are gravitating towards both socialism and fascism, the two-party system has shown itself to be far more responsive to pressure from the right than from the left.
The wave of premature retirements from supposedly “moderate” (as in corporate) Republicans has made it clear that Trump’s victory last year was two-fold: he defeated the Republican Party before he beat the Democrats. The traditional first party of American capitalism is more dominated by its insular far-right “populist” than its been in at least 80 years.
In the Democratic Party, the battle appears more unresolved. On the one hand, Bernie Sanders is the country’s most popular politician and the recent elections saw victories by a number of local Democrats associated with the Democratic Socialists of America. Socialism at least in some form is becoming mainstream in a country whose leading political export has long been anti-communism. But with the important exception of Sanders’ campaign for single-payer health care, party leaders have no proposals — other than being less of a disaster than Trump — for Puerto Rico, rising rents, police murders, climate change or any other pressing issue.
An objective look at the Democratic Party as a whole — including the candidates who won the top of the ballot races in the last election — makes it clear that the party continues to be dominated by centrists determined to follow the failed Hillary Clinton strategy of courting all those enlightened wealthy Republicans in the suburbs supposedly alienated by Trump’s bigotry. Not only that, but while Steve Bannon plans a wave of primary challenges in 2018 against Republican congressional incumbents who are insufficiently loyal to Trump, the left inside the Democratic Party isn’t challenging moderate incumbents for fear that it could undermine the party’s chances at retaking Congress.
The question facing us as we enter Year Two is whether the stirrings of a potentially powerful new left can cohere into organizations and social movements that provide a productive outlet to the rage against injustice so many people are feeling.
The right is more confident and radical than the left. This is the central political dynamic of our time and it hasn’t changed over the past year, despite many encouraging signs of a socialist revival. Trump, Bannon and Steven Miller are unafraid to throw the existing ruling-class order into chaos by ripping up trade deals and treaties, while many leftists who are a million miles from holding power worry that it’s not feasible to take a principled stand against the border controls and bombing runs that are cornerstones of American empire.
This is to be expected. With vast sums of money at its disposal from corporate America as well as reactionary billionaires like the Koch Brothers, the Mercer Family and Sheldon Adelson, the right has had a 40-year head start in developing itself through think tanks, media like Fox News and Breitbart, and thousands of elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.
The good news is that the left can quickly make up ground because we don’t need decades of propaganda and shadowy networks to galvanize millions of people into action, which is the other side of what we’ve seen in 2017. The year of Trump has also been the year of anti-Trump. From the people who marched on election night and inauguration weekend to the airport occupations that helped stop the first travel ban, to the unlikely vanguard role being played by professional football players taking a knee and Hollywood actresses calling out rapists, this president has made America protest again.
This spirit of resistance found its way into the voting booths last month, as immigrants, trans people and socialists won local races in a powerful rejection of Trump’s reactionary bigotry. On the whole, however, there is an enormous gap between the official politics of the two-party system and the widespread desire for thoroughgoing and systematic change. It’s notable that almost every significant protest this year has arisen more from social media and spontaneity than from the many unions and well-funded advocacy groups with central offices in Washington, D.C. That’s impressive, but also limiting.
The question facing us as we enter Year Two is whether the stirrings of a potentially powerful new left can cohere into organizations and social movements that can provide a productive outlet to the rage against injustice and inequality that so many people are feeling. If not, our resistance will be steered back into following the message of right-wing Democrats to get in line behind “anybody but Trump.” Nothing would make the Troll King happier.
Danny Katch is the author of Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People (2017) and Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation (2015), both from Haymarket Books.
Photo: President Trump addresses service members at Yokota Air Base in Japan on Nov. 5. Credit: Andrea Hanks/White House.