Down but not out: Why the left needs to completely rebuild after the election of Trump

The powerful blow to establishment politics should be seen as an opportunity...

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Image: Timothy D. Easley / AP

The dust is settling, and the emotions of US election night - whether they were joy, relief, sadness, anger or confusion - have started to recede.

Millions of words have already been written reflecting on the US’ historic decision to elect Donald Trump. Glasses have been raised, blame has been apportioned (pretty much every major player and faction has had the finger pointed their direction by someone or another), and many have attempted to contextualise the result. Commentators from every segment of the political spectrum have weighed in, and will continue to do so long after Donald Trump leaves the White House.

Let’s put aside our individual partisan and political biases for a moment, and reflect on something that for the vast majority of people is good news: the establishment has received a long-deserved hiding. US voters - like British ones earlier this year - have powerfully expressed their frustrations with the political elites, the ‘special interests’, with ‘expert’ opinion and the mainstream media. It’s not a truly radical revolution - it has all happened within existing structures such as the Republican Party, and let's not forget the incredible irony that the anti-establishment candidate was a billionaire and reality TV star - but it is a revolution of sorts nonetheless. 

There’s plenty to criticise about the methods that led to this result - from the worrying prevalence of disinformation to straight-up fabrications and hate speech - but the result is undeniably significant.

For many right-leaning voters and commentators - especially on the far right - it’s a dream come through. Their platforms, often nationalist in nature, will now be put to the test, and we here in Ireland can only watch while our neighbours to the east and west enter uncharted territory and conduct their major political experiments.

With all that in mind, it has been a bad year for the left and progressives. A quick glance of social media will show members of the fringe right taking great glee in the suffering of what they have dubbed the ‘social justice warriors’ or ‘Generation Snowflake’.

For all the legitimate grievances that have manifested themselves in these election results, there is without question a dark undercurrent to the current situation. The need for immigration reform has been clearly articulated, but the discussion has sometimes turned more xenophobic in nature. In the US, women’s rights have been dealt a blow - not just because of Trump’s well-documented treatment of women and the failure to elect the first female president, but also the ascent of a party dominated by anti-abortion sentiment.

Minorities in America - such as Latinos, Muslims, black Americans and the LGBT community - will be taking the results particularly hard. Donald Trump’s frighteningly anti-scientific climate change comments and conspiracy theories will have a major impact on the entire world and its future if they translate to actual policy - perhaps the only case where the word 'apocalyptic' seems apt. All these challenges demand a strong response from the left.

Self-destructive fantasies

Noam Chomsky - perhaps the great social & political academic of our time and a prominent critic of establishment systems for decades - wrote in 2010: "The mood of the [US] is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.”

In an article co-authored with John Halle and published earlier this year, Chomsky further suggested: “The suffering which [Trump’s] extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalized and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency.”

There’s already been some troublesome omens in the days after the election: companies that performed strongly on Wall Street after the election included private prison companies and big pharma. Not exactly good news for oppressed populations or the neglected low income earners.

The very real frustration of a huge percentage of the US population manifested itself in voting booths around the country. There is no longer any justification for dismissing the legitimate concerns of disenfranchised voters as racist or ignorant: huge swathes of people are justifiably angry, and the condescension of elites - the media included - has only made them angrier. Donald Trump has pledged new jobs for millions of marginalised people: only time will tell how that promise manifests itself in a fair and equal way.

Here’s the thing: as rough as 2016 has been for the left, it also marks an incredible opportunity. With a form of anti-establishment politics now having firmly taken root in the mainstream, the chance is now there for an emboldened, motivated left to take real advantage of the situation.

It’s important to make one thing crystal clear, though: Hillary Clinton was not a particularly progressive candidate. Sure, compared to her rival she was almost radically left-wing. But really she remained firmly centrist on many key policies, from the economy to her moderate, even timid language on controversial issues such as gun control and crime. That’s not to mention her deep links to the Washington establishment and ‘special interests’.

She was encumbered with scandals - both real and imagined - before even putting her name forward. She was only considered the ‘progressive’ candidate in a race against a demagogue (although Trump himself would even be considered moderate on several issues by more extreme GOP standards).

For the left, a Clinton victory would have been welcomed primarily in the very particular context of the 2016 race, and for the symbolism of a first female president - there was little of the sheer passion seen in President Obama’s historic run in 2016. It would, of course, also have been a stamp of approval for the neo-liberal status quo, and would have brought very little in the way of fundamental change.

The causes for optimism

Picture by John Locher AP/Press Association Images

All that said, there have been positive signs among the more ominous ones. This may seem like a strange thing to say when Donald Trump is President-elect, but Bernie Sanders was his own sort of winner in 2016. Even though he failed to secure the Democratic nomination (at least partially as a consequence of democratic failures within the two-party system), there is something to be celebrated in the fact that a genuinely progressive politician, with a long & consistent record to that effect, managed to go from dark horse to a real contender. His campaign was built on optimism and progress, and he won the unwavering support of millions in the process.

Even if this was Sanders' only chance at the White House - he’ll be nearly 80 by the time the 2020 election rolls around - there’s plenty of reason to hope his influence will echo far beyond the Bernie ‘16 campaign, especially as millennials become an increasingly large proportion of the electorate.

Similarly in the UK, the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader shows grassroots supporters deeply dissatisfied with the ‘new Labour’ initiated by Tony Blair. Labour parties, traditionally the representatives of the working class, have unquestionably compromised or at least ‘reinterpreted’ their values to appeal to more centrist voters. That is very much the case with Labour here in Ireland, which has been overtaken by the likes of Sinn Féin and People Before Profit/Anti Austerity Alliance. But in the UK at least, they seem to be going back to their roots, even if they’re likely to face incredible challenges in the next round of UK elections as a result.

Let’s not be naive: the gap between the left and the right is more pronounced than ever. The campaigns of 2016 have shown just how divisive contemporary politics has become, and the narrow margins seen in both the Brexit referendum and US election have shown how close a public vote can be (Hillary Clinton won the ‘popular vote’, after all).

A huge amount of work will be required to persuade millions of people that ‘socialism’ is not a dirty word, and the messaging will need to be fundamentally reconsidered. Policies need to be ambitious but realistic and reasonable. Any arrogance or elitism from the left and sympathetic media will be rightfully attacked. Social media slacktivism is not nearly enough. Corbyn’s struggles even within his own party are testament to the uphill battles that will likely be amplified significantly when the next round of general elections approach. A few lessons could even be learned from the popular appeal and approach of the right.

Breaking with the establishment

Chomsky and Halle again: “The left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.

“Often this charge will emanate from establishment operatives who will use it as a bad faith justification for defeating challenges to corporate hegemony either in the Democratic Party or outside of it. They will ensure that it will be widely circulated in mainstream media channels with the result that many of those who would otherwise be sympathetic to a left challenge will find it a convincing reason to maintain their ties with the political establishment rather than breaking with it, as they must,” they suggest.

This analysis, written ahead of the election, has already proven incredibly incisive. Anybody interested in left-leaning and progressive policies should and can no longer be comfortable settling for centrist, establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton. Perhaps reform and progress can be achieved with within existing structures - the Republican party’s transformation has proven that can happen. More than likely, a whole new model is needed. Whatever the case, there’s no time to waste.

The establishment is down and out like those on the left has always wanted it to be - and there’s a unique opportunity to take advantage of that. There will always be a political divide, people on one side and people on the other. That’s humanity for you. A 'total victory' is near impossible. But it’s the job of every left-leaning politician to try and provide real answers to real issues in an accessible, coherent and positive way to try and narrow the gap.

The final words here should go to Bernie Sanders, who issued one of the most provocative statements in response to the election of Donald Trump. “To the degree that Mr Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him," the senator argued. "To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”