“Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere.”
In spite of the nomination of Joe Biden, progressives have been given reason to hope that their movement may come to define American politics in the not very distant future. From the popularity of AOC, to the overwhelming victories of Rashida Talib and Ilhan Omar over their primary challengers, to the recent primary wins of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Mondaire Jones, and a host of progressive candidates in local races, progressives can see the future and many have come to believe that it belongs to them. It’s only a matter of time and boomer mortality rates. But there’s something they’re not taking into account: Donald Trump.
This is surprising, because unlike their neoliberal nemeses, progressives have been relatively clear-eyed about how Trump won and why. It’s obvious to most of them that by running to Hillary’s left on war and economics, while running to her right on social issues, he hit the American sweet spot, no Russian trolls required. To assume that progressives are going to own the future then, is to assume that the GOP aren’t going to figure that out over the next few years, and that new politicians aren’t going to rise up on the right who copy the Trump model with the added benefit of not being Donald Trump. Because if a patently absurd figure like Trump could ride that message all the way to the White House, imagine what a competent politician could do with it. And now imagine what a politician who actually meant any of it could do. A candidate like that would not only win Republicans and Independents, they’d take a lot of conservative Democrats, and at least a third of the progressive movement along with them.
Don’t believe me? Think you’d never vote for the Republican? Okay, let’s run a thought experiment for the progressives - but to run it we’re going to have to be a little honest with ourselves. At the risk of triggering your PTSD, lets think back to 2016 for a minute. Remember all those times you tried to make a policy case against Hillary Clinton and you got called a sexist if you were a man, and someone with a bad case of “internalized misogyny” if you were a woman? Remember how frustrating and unfair that was? And remember how the media reinforced those narratives while sandbagging your candidate and his supporters at every opportunity? Now remember how even though you may not have liked or trusted Trump, you kind of secretly loved it when he went after the media, the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, and the whole MSNBC-liberal enterprise? And here’s where you’re going to have to be really honest, even if its not something you’ll ever own up to publicly - remember how all those images of crying Hillary supporters on election night made you feel all warm inside? You probably had those YouTube compilations playing on loop for a week after that election. I know I did. Now imagine after four more years of neoliberal bullshit, with a huge extra helping of “woke” thrown in, a GOP candidate is running on economic policies you agree with, while attacking everything cancel culture and slamming liberal elites at the same time. For the coup de grace, add into the mix that Harris is their opponent, and she’ll likely have gotten into that position by beating a progressive in yet another rigged primary. Now tell me you aren’t going to vote for the GOP candidate, or at very least, secretly cheer them on. See what I mean?
And you probably aren’t even so much socially conservative as you are repulsed by the self-righteous hypocrisy, and anti-free speech tendencies, of liberals. So how do you think conservative Democrats who really are freaked out by “autonomous zones” and talk of defunding the police are going to vote, given those choices? Especially after the crime rates explode in the cities that try it. Now, wait, I know what you’re thinking. How dare you suggest that we need a gestapo police force on the streets to prevent crime. But we kind of do. Because the system of capitalism creates the conditions of dehumanization and desperation that cause crime. If you don’t change those conditions, having less police is inevitably going to lead to an increase in crime rates. The real job of law enforcement in an oligarchy is to get those who have been most brutalized by the vicissitudes of capitalism off the streets, so that everyone else can sip their lattes without being brutalized in turn. It’s no accident that the prison population has exploded as the greater share of national wealth has been gradually funneled to the top 1%. The more unfair the system, the more forcefully you need to suppress the have-nots in order to protect the haves from their vengeance. But we aren’t likely to have that conversation in the event. We’re just going to do what we did the last time crime exploded in our cities under conditions of mass unemployment and poverty: turn to law and order types like the current Democratic nominee, to rescue us from the victims that our system has created. Out of sight, out of mind.
And in case you’re thinking that the African-American community will stand as a bulwark against any such repetition of history, I have two words for you: Joe Biden.
But look at Trump’s numbers! The American people have clearly rejected him. No, they really haven’t, at least not in any meaningful sense. Trump is a great performer. But like any actor, he’s only as good as the script you hand him. His campaign is so remarkably tone deaf this time around, only because he’s surrounded himself with traditional Republican operatives and consultants who don’t understand that painting Joe Biden as a closet socialist makes about as much sense as painting Barrack Obama as a radical did in 2012. It didn’t work then, and it isn’t working now. There needs to be a kernel of truth in order for propaganda to be effective. There are an infinite number of devastating angles one could take on attacking Joe Biden, but calling a man who very obviously wouldn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho, a socialist, isn’t one of them. However, this doesn’t mean that Trumpism is politically impotent, or that its victory in 2016 was an aberration. It simply means that running Trump on traditional GOP talking points is like casting Meryl Streep in Plan 9 From Outer Space. There’s only so much he can do with the material. Without the evil genius of soon-to-be felon Steve Bannon to guide him, he seems to have no idea of what the basis of his own appeal was, or how to recapture it. But smarter people on the right have surely been watching, taking notes, and plotting their own stab at the Bannon/Trump formula. And those wanna-be Trumps are likely going to find very fertile ground for their message in four years.
Assuming the Biden/Harris ticket prevails this November, by 2024, the memory of Donald Trump will have faded, while the experience of governance by virtue signaling and corrupt corporate toadying will be the current reality for most Americans. Educated suburban elites will be rejoicing, with Biden-Harris having successfully restored their leisurely, politics-free, pre-Trump brunch habits, while for the working class, and the habitually rational, the combination of pronoun policing from the highest office in the land and policy crumbs where a bread factory’s worth of loaves are needed, will have left the same bitter taste of bait-and- switch in the mouths of voters that has followed the election of Democrats for at least 30 years. Enter an economic populist who unabashedly attacks woke culture, without veering into the overt “Mexican rapists are coming for you and everyone you ever loved” racism of Trump, and you’ve got yourself a winner. Especially with an empty pantsuit like Harris as their opponent.
The identity politics left fucking it up for the economic populist left is an old story, going back at least to the 60’s. It was the central disagreement that led a certain portion of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) to splinter off into the Weather Underground and start bombing post offices. They were the identitarians of their time, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s had the displeasure of running into their humorless, holier-than-thou ideological descendants. As long as the left was associated most strongly with economic populism, they had an edge on the GOP. Once it became associated with obnoxious suburban white kids preaching at the working class, the Reagan era was all but assured. They fucked it up for us then, and they’re very likely to fuck it up for us now, once again handing our future to the American right with their politics by pussy hat.
Add to all this the fact that, embarrassing assurances of our old mentor aside, if Joe Biden wins, we won’t be entering a new era of populist FDR Keynesianism. We’ll be replaying the Carter years. Just like Carter, Biden will be inheriting a devastated economy, with high unemployment and exploding crime rates. As with Carter, those conditions will not have been of Biden’s making, but very much like Carter, he’ll be too weak a President to find a way out. In Carter’s case, his own idealism stood in the way of doing the kind of politicking that, as distasteful as it might be, is necessary to get anything done in Washington. In Biden’s case, his lack of idealism will lead him to cut deals that are going to infuriate his base (well, maybe not his base, but the more progressive base of the Democratic Party), while continuing in the neoliberal vein of championing identitarian causes, in the absence of meaningful economic policies.
By the time 2024 rolls around, the door will be wide open to any right-wing populist with the stones to seize the main chance.
Post RNC Convention Update: Here’s the reality; Biden has historically low enthusiasm, and all indications are that his turn-out from young, Latino and African-American voters is going to be weak. Without a plague, the Dem ticket would have no chance of winning under those circumstances. To compensate, Dems have thrown all their eggs into the converting suburban Republicans basket. Just like Hillary did. The thing is, those people are Republicans for a reason. They may not be racist AF, but they’re at least racist af. I promise you, parading out John Kasich and company didn’t make up for the overall virtue-signaling tone of the DNC convention with that audience. They hate that shit. That’s a big part of why they’re Republicans. Not like this was the party of Eisenhower before Trump, or even the party of Nixon. These are people who stayed Republican after the Bush years. Their support for a Democratic ticket is dicey at best. For those voters, the RNC convention’s celebration of free markets, small government, and law and order, played out against a backdrop of rising crime and riots, resonates. The polling in swing states was already tightening to the margin of error before the convention. Don’t be surprised if Trump starts to pull ahead in some of them this week. In other words, reports of Trump’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Photo: Michael Stokes