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What We Learned in the Trump Era

Issue 260

We invited progressive activists, organizers, journalists and scholars to help us make sense of these past four years.

By Indypendent Staff Dec 21, 2020

When Donald Trump’s presidential term ends on January 20th, it will mark the end of one of the most tumultuous eras in American history. One shocking incident (or tweet) followed another. Millions of Americans responded by taking to the streets over and over again. Now that the Trump era is winding down, what have we learned about ourselves and our country that should inform us as we go forward?

NATASHA SANTOS

I was dating a white guy in November 2016 when Trump was elected. It was one of those needlessly tumultuous relationships wherein the people don’t fully understand why it’s so hard and why they’re trying. We’d been dating since August and had known each other since June, when he began subletting a room in the collective house I lived in in Crown Heights. He, like me, was a native Brooklynite. He, like me, had been educated mostly in NYC public schools. He, like me, believed in intentional community and collective living. Unlike me, however, he could go to his parents’ upstate country cottage when Brooklyn became too “overwhelming.”

The morning after Trump was elected I threw up something white and frothy in the sink; some strange mixture of mucus and panic. I called my white boyfriend at his country house that afternoon to tell him how I was feeling and seek comfort he’d never shown the ability or desire to provide.

“It’ll be fine,” he said matter-of-factly.

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a rich, white male!” I exclaimed. “I’m not.”

“Yeah,” he continued, sort of ignoring my outburst. “There’s no way they’re going to let him do all the crazy stuff he talked about.”

The certainty in his voice kind of made me doubt my misgivings. I mean, how different really could his reality be from my own?

We hung up soon after that, then broke up in the early months of Trump’s presidency, then stopped speaking to each other a few months after that.

This June, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands for accountability and acknowledgement, I reached out to him. He said that he’d pretty much vacated his Brooklyn house and lived mainly in his upstate abode.

“It’s crazy down there! COVID and now the protests! Things are getting worse.”

When I brought up our original conversation about Trump’s election, he said that he’d been “thinking a lot about it lately.” “Who could have foreseen things getting this bad?” He quipped.

“I did,” I said flatly. “So, I’m out there protesting so things don’t get worse. It’s hard.”

“You don’t have to,” he offered. “You can come up here and not deal with it at all.” And with that, I realized, we’d always lived in different realities.

Natasha Santos is a native Brooklynite with almost 20 years of child welfare advocacy, writing and organizing experience. These days you can find her hosting forums and attending classes on Zoom, in the streets declaring that Black Lives Matter and going for bike rides around her Brooklyn neighborhood.

KAZEMBE BALAGUN

Following the police murder of George Floyd, an estimated 10-25 million people took part in Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. The largely multiracial but Black-led protests were the largest civil rights demonstrations in U.S. history. In that mix, was a number of Black-led wildcat strikes and rent strikes.

After Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, many on the left saw the Black Lives Matter Movement as an example of “identity politics” that alienated the white working class. But Trump’s racist dog whistling and the rapid growth of white supremacist networks under his watch made a resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter a necessity.

As Trump leaves office, we can see there are really two #BlackLivesMatter. There is the universal hashtag, that is a sign of solidarity, and used by celebrities and influencers to draw attention to the oppression of Black people. On the other hand is a growing Black left, one that roots Black oppression within a critique of capitalism. Recently elected Squad members Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Ilhan Omar represent this wing, as well as sections of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party. Additionally, there is an influential wing of #ADOS, American Descendants of Slaves, which is seeking to create a third way between patriotism and a demand for reparations.

These factions cross over, conflict and at times coalesce with each other. Now with Biden heading to the White House, there is a necessity for a radical Black left to emerge to challenge the center. This radical Black left must produce what Michael Dawson called “Black counterpublics” rooted in protest politics and grassroots democratic culture. This is particularly true with the shockwaves of gentrification and economic depression threatening the existential and political standing of the Black community.

Kazembe Balagun is a cultural historian and writer living in the Bronx. He works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office.

JUANA PONCE DE LEON

Four years of Trump have exposed the fault lines of inequality, including in both independent and legacy media. For years there has been an outcry by Latino journalists that they, who are intimately familiar with their communities’ issues, are not called upon to provide information and perspectives, frequently not captured by English-language media. Hence the unexpected surprise for many when the Latinx voter preferences in the recent election revealed a more nuanced reality underlying the one-size-fits-all Latinx appellation.

Had Latino journalists been consulted or assigned to cover the elections, engagement of their communities would have been more granular and the egregious opacity in our comprehension of what diversity looks like in U.S. society would hopefully be diminished. To not avail ourselves of these journalists’ expertise is to negate/obliterate the vast cultural differences among Latino communities whose political legacies shape their social and political engagement. This is akin to trying to navigate a terrain where vast segments of the map remain blank. This willful negligence, this lack of inclusivity, is irresponsible to us all.

Juana Ponce de León’s many years in publishing, the nonprofit arena and government have been dedicated to ensuring a cultural conversation inclusive of the myriad voices representing the diversity of American society. She is former Director of Media Diversity Relations for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Former Executive Editor of New York Community Media Alliance, and is currently heading the communications group for Queens Borough President Dovonan Richards’ transition team.

GERALD MEYER

As Trump’s presidency comes to an end, what stands out is the degree that we have been reorganized tribally. The topsy-turvy distribution of class and party affiliation upends basic Marxist principles. Gender, education level, degree of religiosity are among the most decisive factors in determining people’s political behavior. The considerable degree of activism is encouraging. The degree to which the Republicans know that they can’t win a fair election is evident and not likely to change. Therefore they will continue to go down an extreme rightwing path. These circumstances make it imperative that we build a broad front that cuts across ideological lines.

Gerald Meyer is a professor emeritus of history at Hostos Community College and author of Vito Marcantonio Radical Politician (1902-1954).

ROSS BARKAN

We learned over the last four years that groups of people can’t be treated as monoliths and Democrats are fast losing the working class. Spanish-speaking voters in most states and cities, including New York, swung heavily toward Donald Trump, as did Blacks to a lesser degree. Trump’s coalition was more diverse than it was in 2016 and Democrats need to think really hard about why that is. Voters without college degrees are increasingly voting alike and they aren’t voting Democrat. The Democratic Party is becoming a coalition of educated elites, maintaining its Black and Latino base thanks to a legacy of GOP racism and liberal achievements that are now more than a half century-old.

The goal of the Democratic Party should be to reverse this slide — calling Trump a racist and fascist isn’t good enough. If the next generation of Democrats don’t prioritize broad, ambitious, and popular economic programs that can uplift millions out of working class precarity and poverty, they will not have unified control of the federal government for a very long time. If bold economics aren’t a part of that messaging, culture wins, and Republicans have been winning the culture war, despite what Twitter thinks. If people don’t have trade unions and don’t feel like the government is helping them, they can default to whatever it is Republicans tell them. This is the future Democrats face if they don’t change course. Conversely, if Republicans get smarter about economics and keep their culture message, Democrats won’t wield power again.

Ross Barkan is a writer and journalist from New York City. He is a columnist for Guardian and Jacobin, and the author of Demolition Night, a novel.

EVAN SULT

When Andrew Yang became the first presidential candidate to propose UBI of $1,000 per month, he was almost universally derided as an idealist pinning his run on an impossible policy goal. Two years later, the CARES Act turned into a real-world experiment in what happens when federal wealth is directly redistributed across the economic spectrum — whether you were formerly making $30,000 a year or $300,000 a year, you received $600 per week, every week. The result? Unequivocal success: the economy averted an immediate meltdown because money kept flowing in a way that would have been impossible otherwise.

In my household, both of us were suddenly unemployed in March. My job eventually returned; hers did not. The $600/ wk in addition to small unemployment amounts was absolutely critical to us paying rent, but it also allowed us to keep spending money in our community. Without that money, we’d have been scraping by at best, and spending the absolute minimum possible. Instead, we were able to let money keep flowing through our lives and through the community. I know this is true for countless numbers of friends whose jobs in entertainment, food, service, and events have been eviscerated. The CARES Act isn’t an exact analogue for UBI, but it’s close enough for us to learn the basic lesson: spreading money directly into the bottom and middle tiers of the economy is fantastic economic policy. If anything, Yang’s revolutionary idea wasn’t revolutionary enough!

Without intending to, Congress proved to America what a profoundly positive impact direct payment to citizens can have on our society, on our quality of life, and even on our institutions. They will surely do everything in their power to unlearn this lesson, so it’s up to us all to remember how immediately effective those payments were, and to push for a new economic model for our country based on what we learned from the CARES Act.

Evan Sult is a publication designer, printmaker, writer and musician based in Brooklyn. He is currently the art director of the Detroit Metro Times, Cleveland Scene, and St. Louis’ Riverfront Times.

MARESI STARZMANN

The Trump era was an important object lesson in the vulnerability of a political system founded on white supremacy. If institutionalized racism has always been at the base of American democracy, radical right-wing ideologies have gained new currency under an administration that has emboldened far-right extremists and mainstreamed their beliefs.

In Trump’s America, the count of right-wing hate groups has risen significantly. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, the number of white nationalist groups increased by 55% between 2017 and 2019, reaching a record high of 1,020 in 2018. Many openly advocate for violence, including terrorist attacks or a “race war.” The FBI reports that the majority of domestic terror attacks in the US today, approximately 1,000 per year, are motivated by such extreme far-right ideas.

But Trump did not simply amplify and intensify right-wing ideologies through divisive rhetoric, he also anchored them in policy and law. His administration hired members and allies of hate groups into high-level positions. And Trump personally sought to undermine an independent judiciary by attacking judges and tilting courts in favor of his appointees.

While the rise of hate violence in America is deeply unsettling, I retain some hope that intervention by political organizers and community leaders is possible. What is more troubling, to me, is Trump’s success in legitimizing a far right-wing policy agenda that will have consequences for decades to come.

Maresi Starzmann is a Research Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, a national non-profit research and policy organization. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Binghamton University. Views expressed are her own.

JULIE HOLLAR

When Donald Trump declared victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, corporate media began soul-searching, wondering how they could have gotten it so wrong—and the last four years have shown how rotten that soul is. Believing they just hadn’t spent enough time really understanding Trump supporters, establishment journalists have filed countless chin-scratching puff pieces interviewing folks from “Trump Country.” But with no evaluation of whether those supporters’ proclamations have any basis in reality, what is the function of such reporting besides to reinforce them?

The whole framing of the problem is wrong: We already know plenty about what Trump supporters believe. Journalism’s deepest failure hasn’t been its lack of attention to them; it has been its inability to stop normalizing Trump and Trumpism—of which the uncritical Trump supporter stories are part and parcel.

Every time a news outlet writes gently and inquisitively about “the Nazi sympathizer next door,” or waters down Trump’s racism and xenophobia, or paints his unprecedented weaponization of the powers of government against his opponents as a spat between him and his cabinet, or deems his press briefings newsworthy, no matter how much misinformation they contain or how much credibility they unjustifiably confer on him, or insists on an “objectivity” that must conjure an equivalence between “both sides” no matter how extreme one side might be, the media reinforce the idea that Trump—and support for Trump—simply fits into the usual narratives of democratic politics.

By repeatedly conferring legitimacy on a fundamentally antidemocratic president and his actions, media paved the way for our country’s dangerous slide toward authoritarianism — which will surely not end with the 2020 election.

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the national progressive media watchdog group, challenging corporate media bias, spin and misinformation.

LINDA MARTÍN ALCOFF

The idea that a audiotape of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump referring to women in vile ways would solidify a female vote for his opponent was uninformed, poorly thought through, and even sexist in its own way. Women are divided by race, class, sexuality, religion, immigration status, and region of the country in which they live. Our well-being is in almost all cases intertwined with the men in our lives: concerns about economic stability and the carceral state cross gender lines. Both Latinas and Asian Americans have significant internal divisions of nationality that incite memories of war. And in truth, many women simply do not identify with the well-dressed, conventionally attractive, white middle class women who Trump preyed upon. This accords with a fact prosecutors know well, that female jurors can be harder on rape victims: blaming or disbelieving female accusers renders the illusion that the rest of us are less vulnerable and thus need be less scared.

Identity politics has been hijacked by elites who disassemble our complex social identities and ignore those aspects of our lives that require radical and systemic solutions. In the face of this, the focus on identity based concerns needs to become more thoroughly intersectional. #MeToo is winning significant legal reforms, yet too few impact the broad multi-racial working class. The truth is, women in lower paid professions are the likeliest victims of on-the-job sexual harassment, but their ability to navigate around pig-bosses has everything to do with their immigration status, whether they have a union, whether they have an employed partner who can handle the bills while they look for another job. Some may have voted for Trump on the basis of his promise to create jobs, precisely because they hoped this, and his alliance with social conservatives, would help them fend off the dicks at work. Sexual harassment is an employment issue that affects women as a class, but the means by which we can manage the problem differs according to our intersectional situation.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College. She is the author of Rape and Resistance and The Future of Whiteness.

SEAN PETTY

The lack of respect for science has been a hallmark of these past four years. It is accurate, although one-sided, to place primary responsibility on Trump for the historic and intentional failure to prevent hundreds of thousands of American deaths from COVID-19. Years of favoring privatization and defunding public health infrastructure by both political parties was never going to be overcome overnight once the pandemic hit. Indeed, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s central political legacy in healthcare prior to COVID19 was decreasing the amount of hospital beds and decreasing Medicaid spending in New York. And then there’s the intransigence nationally and locally of both political parties to anything resembling universal healthcare access.

As a nurse, I got to see first hand the entire spectrum of pathological lying to the public during this crisis — Trump saying Covid-19 was under control, Cuomo saying we had enough personal protective equipment and Mayor Bill DeBlasio saying opening schools was safe. The bipartisan lack of commitment to public health and a public safety net as a subset of the pernicious and opportunistic antiscience denialism very much helped further the spread of the virus and made the experience of caring for people during this pandemic an unmitigated hellscape.

This denialism of course has been mirrored in the larger, more existential crisis of our generation — climate change. While Trump denies its existence, the Democrats practice a different form of denial in the idea that there is compatibility between supporting fracking and profitdriven climate solutions with the future of human existence on the planet earth.

Sean Petty is a nurse at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and a member of the executive board of the New York State Nurses Association.

DANNY KATCH

Starting the day after the 2016 election, people decided they had to get more involved with…something. Whether expressed through volunteering, running for local office, or going to a protest, millions shared an understanding that Trump’s shocking victory was an indictment of a dangerously broken political system that could no longer be trusted to function without their active participation.

Many named that system capitalism, and the result has been a sudden revival of American socialism—with scores of elected officials, a thriving subculture of publications and podcasts, and an 87,000 member strong Democratic Socialists of America—has been almost as stunning as Trump’s election.

When a marginalized idea goes mainstream, there is always the danger of diluted demands and co-opted leaders. Will the price of socialism’s further growth be its redefinition—as many liberals would prefer—as a handful of mild measures that leave arrogant billionaires mildly annoyed but still firmly in charge? The answer will likely be determined less by what is said in Congressional debates, Twitter rants, or even voting booths than by what is done in workplaces, schools, and highways.

The heart of socialism is that the working class majority should run society, and the emergency siren of malevolent incompetence blaring from the White House for the past four years has pushed the populace to maintain its 2016 vow to start taking matters into our own hands.

Increased voter turnout was one result, but so were student walkouts over gun violence and climate change, bombed-out police stations and toppled Confederate statues, teacher strikes demanding wealth redistribution from billionaires to poor Black and Brown students, and tech worker rallies against sexual assault and employer collaboration with the Pentagon and ICE.

We’re still a long way from having the infrastructure of parties, unions, and community organizations that can seriously raise the possibility of socialist transformation that 2020 has shown we desperately need. But the last four years showed us that another world just might be possible.

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.

SARAH JAFFE

We knew at the beginning of the Trump era that the labor movement was in trouble, and the number of voters from union households who went Trump was one big signal of how bad things were. That number hasn’t improved much in four years: 40 percent of voters from union households still backed Trump in 2020. In other words: things are still bad, and the narrow margin of victory reminds us just how bad they are.

It’s because of this that the big union victories of the Trump era stand out all the more: by and large, they were won by teachers’ unions, notably in Los Angeles and once again in Chicago, though many people probably think first of the “Red for Ed” movement kicked off in 2018 in West Virginia. But in both “red” and “blue” states the fights contained many important lessons: that the public sector is worth fighting for and a ground on which labor can win; that teachers across ideological backgrounds can come together to fight for their students and themselves; that parents and students will stand with their teachers if it’s made clear that the gains are for all; that teachers are well positioned to win gains for the broader working class in what’s called “bargaining for the common good”; and perhaps most importantly in the Trump years, that fighting racism, xenophobia, and sexism are part and parcel of union struggles. The Chicago teachers, whose 2012 strike provided the model that education unions have drawn from ever since, put racial justice at the forefront of their demands, and from St. Paul to Los Angeles, teachers have incorporated the lessons of movement struggles to demand defunding school police, protections for immigrant students, and even access to housing at the bargaining table. These demands helped the teachers win where other unions were losing.

Sarah Jaffe is a labor journalist and reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Necessary Trouble and Work Won’t Love You Back (Jan. 2021).

KAREN MALPEDE

Democrats inherit catastrophe from Republicans—illegal invasions, economic collapse, a pandemic, the denial of truth and science. Obama patched things up. The Biden Administration is tasked with saving organized life on earth. Of course, they are not up to it. But, just maybe, we are.

Having joined forces to elect a man who went along with stuff—the crime bill, Clarence Thomas, Iraq —we need him, now, to go along with us: 350.Org, Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, Black Lives Matter, a Green New Deal. We must insist upon and push meaningful climate legislation and real change: renewable energy, sustainable transportation, health projects for the common good, much more. Hundreds of thousands are dying from a pandemic that did not have to be—had we had universal health care and sound environmental justice policies.

Trumpism was the last gasp of Reaganism. We require a rapid turn toward veganism: eat some meat, if you must, but eat with conscious understanding of who has died to give you what you need, including meat packers and creatures. Consume with the principles of “an honorable harvest”, to quote Native botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer: the indigenous way of being in which everyone has enough, no one uses more than they need, and we return to the living earth what we take. Climate health is not separate from public health. Right now, we and our world are sick and dying. It need not be so. We are alive, together, on a living planet; all is connected. Time is running out. These could be the most exciting years any of us have lived: the contagion of changing consciousness from grasping to caring would be euphoric. Think of living at a time when creativity and collectivity give new, rich meaning to every life and we join with Gaia to thrive.

Karen Malpede is a playwright, co-founder of Theater Three Collaborative and a professor of environmental justice and theater at John Jay College.

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