A Radical Leftist
in
Donald Trump’s America

Time Magazine cover, January 1989.

Time Magazine cover, January 1989.

“I vote for the Democratic Party
They want the UN to be strong…

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal”

Phil Ochs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”

I’m not here today to rehash the election. I did that already, a couple weeks ago, to a surprisingly good response. Apparently Jill Stein is hoping to rehash the election, which almost makes me regret voting for her instead of the Socialist Party candidate. As my good friend Russ, who just visited here, put it on Facebook the other day, “I’ve heard the TV say ‘Jill Stein’ more in the last two days than in the entire election cycle. [facepalm]”

No, instead I’m here to discuss what it’s like to hold my political beliefs in the era of Trump’s ascendancy in American political life. Near as I can tell, I’m in a pretty unique political camp. As a pacifist socialist who generally sits on the far leftmost fringe of most (but not all) issues, my take on Trump is decidedly different from most of my friends, who generally fall in a narrow band of liberal to center-left. Most of these folks voted for Hillary Clinton, some gleefully, others glumly, most with a sense of some sort of urgency that Trump represents a new and unprecedented menace to our society (that presumably Clinton did not). Their views are generally espoused in the mainline news media, a media that didn’t realize they were feeding Trump’s support base with every hit piece they wrote about the man between August and Election Day, that they were tacitly endorsing the worldview that the mainstream was out to get Trump, and that he truly did represent a blow to the establishment. This media is now only too happy to play Chicken Little to the contemporary American winter sky, announcing every policy proposal and cabinet nominee floated like the discovery that an entire metropolis has had its humans replaced by flesh-eating zombies.

There are aspects of this that I feel are right, good, or at least understandable. Trump is associating with some truly scary people, some of whom he may want to put in his cabinet. A lot of Trump’s followers are terrible human beings with hate in all its forms in their heart. (I should know – I did direct verbal battle with them in December 2015) And those hateful people are feeling empowered and emboldened to spread their hate across the country and the world right now, making very real and dangerous threats against all manner of people. This all should be reported, condemned, curbed, and prevented in all cases.

But there is a fine line between raising very reasonable alarm bells about truly dangerous and scary things and crossing over into making literally everything Trump says and does a lightning rod for alarm. And there are very good reasons to care about this line that do not involve being a Trump apologist or failing to check one’s privilege. There is a reason that “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a compelling cautionary tale. Creating a widespread and loud narrative that everything Trump does is an element of fascism or neo-Nazism undermines credibility among everyone who hasn’t already decided that Trump is Hitler. This doesn’t just embolden Trump’s supporters, it makes those on the fence (e.g. the 9% of American voters who voted for Trump despite not liking him, thus swinging him to electoral victory – or the 40% of registered voters who stayed home on November 8th) distrust those against Trump. And it makes it impossible to separate the wheat of truly dangerous and heinous things Trump does or might do from the chaff of him implementing policies that look a lot like Obama or Bush.

While incidental examples of crying wolf seem to come up every day, the best and most salient example was a couple weeks ago with the purported resurfacing of the proposal to implement a registry of all Muslims in the United States. Facebook went nuts over this, focusing on the fact that a Trump surrogate went on Fox News and cited Korematsu as a good legal precedent for such a policy. That line, in isolation, is scary and intolerable, sure. But the policy actually being discussed was not Muslim internment camps. It wasn’t a Muslim registry. It was a revival of the NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), a post-9/11 policy that was law for Obama’s first term until 2011, when the administration suspended the program saying it was redundant with other policies. One of those policies might be CARRP (Controlled Application Review and Resolution Policy), a program created in 2008 that is still on the books today. Like many Obama programs (he’s overseen all but a few months of its implementation), this one is shrouded in secrecy, but basically deftly profiles Muslims and Arabs exclusively and looks a lot like an extreme vetting registry. As al Jazeera recently noted, there’s really nothing more for Trump to do. CARRP already does it.

Needless to say, there are not protests in the streets over CARRP, any more than there is vocal widespread liberal opposition to Obama deporting a record 3 million human beings from the United States in his two terms. Though there was certainly outrage at the announcement that Trump intended to follow suit. So I am left with two simultaneous and equal reactions, which incidentally seem to be about 98% of my reactions to everything since the election:

It is so refreshing to see the left vocally opposing awful US policies!
It is so weird that the left thinks these policies are so much worse than the policies of the last sixteen years!

And I don’t know what to do with that. Because these are bad policies, all of them. But they don’t become bad for the first time on January 20, 2017. They have been bad since September 11, 2001, when they began in earnest. On the one hand, I can just get in line to rail and hand-wring and be so excited that these policies are finally getting the calling out they deserve. But that also feels weird and intellectually dishonest when all that railing and wringing comes tied up in a neat little package of Trump Is Hitler, Bring Back Barack. Like, if believing Trump is Hitler is what it takes to get people riled up about these awful policies of the last sixteen years, okay? I guess? But the narrative that the Democratic Party, as assembled from 2001-2016, has anything different to offer is just factually wrong. And part of what’s really important to me is that someone (Democrats, Greens, Socialists, extraterrestrial aliens – I’m not picky) spends the next four years preparing for new proposals that do not look like the Fear and Hate of post-9/11 America to date.

This set of problems becomes decidedly more complicated in the few instances where I (gulp) agree with Trump more than the Democratic Party as assembled from 2001-2016. The only really clear example of this is the TPP, which Trump has promised to scrap. It’s kind of hard to know what Trump’s economic gameplan really is. Clearly there are places, like TPP, where he’s fighting against the globo-corporatist establishment agenda. Yay! But of course Trump is personally pretty much a lifelong avatar of the globo-corporatist establishment agenda. Oh no! And he seems to be stuffing the cabinet with some pretty mainline establishment Republicans, who champion globo-corporatism. So why is he getting rid of TPP? Will he actually? Is it just window-dressing while he carves up the the government and sells it to corporations anyway? At least he’ll be doing it instead of Obama or Clinton, so the left can oppose it! Yay?

Of course, the nature of the left’s opposition is going to be important. On a legislative level, assuming that Congressional Republicans and Trump are aligned (which is probably a totally faulty assumption as I expect them to be at frequent loggerheads), there’s very little the left can actually do to obstruct anything. They can do some Senate filibustering and risk a government shutdown they are predisposed to particularly dislike, but beyond that, it’s mostly speeches, organizing, and trying to peel some less crazy Republicans to take a stand against the worst Trump policies and people. No amount of writing letters to your Congressperson is going to fill the House with Democrats, much less Democrats who are invigorated to speak truth to corporate power. Hey, I thought you liked political realism! Isn’t that why you voted for Clinton?

The problems with vilifying everything about Trump and treating it as the same Zombie-Nazi Apocalypse are similar to the problems of concluding that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist xenophobic sexist bigot. For one, they isolate and entrench the opposition. If all a Trump supporter hears from political opponents and the media is that Trump’s choice of breakfast cereal indicates his love of fascistic genocide, then they’re going to be redoubled in beliefs that (a) the left is irrational, (b) the media is untrustworthy, and (c) Trump really is shaking up the establishment. Yes, there are hardcore Trump supporters who will believe those things no matter what. But the people who need to be persuaded in the next two and four years for things to change are not those people. They are more thoughtful and discerning than you think. And they are being barraged with the message that the continuation of a bunch of Obama policies amounts to a world where all the left and the media can say is “This. Is. Not. Normal.” (T.I.N.N.)

So far, most of Trump, with a few exceptions, is the definition of normal. It has been normal for sixteen years. And it’s taken someone that half the country truly believes to be the living reincarnation of Hitler implementing and proposing the status quo policies to alert them to the idea that maybe it should not be normal.

Can we all agree to a few terms? Like only pulling out the T.I.N.N. bomb for things which are, in fact, not normal. Not normal here being defined as something that was never proposed nor implemented by Bush nor Obama.

See, as we may remember from a fable about calling out a lupine presence, speaking histrionically about everything wrecks someone’s credibility. And that credibility may be better served in pointing out actual wolves. Of which there may be some. Steve Bannon? Probably a wolf. That’s a winnable battle, if it’s not one of 372 that everyone is trying to fight on day one. Most folks who try to fight all the battles at once lose them all.

I want to be clear about a few things I am not saying. I am not saying “give Trump a chance.” You probably shouldn’t, on almost every issue. There may be exceptions, like TPP, or not going to war with everything that moves, but most things are probably going to be bad policies. I personally, as a far-left pacifist socialist, believe that this is also true of Obama and Bush and Clinton, too. You may not believe that is largely true of those folks, but I bet you believe it, as in the examples cited above, way more than you think you do.

And I am certainly not saying that you shouldn’t be afraid of the rise in violence and hate stemming from the worst of Trump’s supporters. That is important to bring up, highlight, and turn back in every instance. That is a very real problem and a very real change and something that we should all unite against. That is a pack of wolves and one that must be opposed.

But it is important to realize that not all Trump supporters or voters are in that pack, nor do they all support the white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other awful ideologies that some of his supporters and voters do support. Being nuanced about this is important, because otherwise you are calling a bunch of people who are not white supremacist neo-Nazis (for example the 28% of Latino voters who voted for Trump) by heinous names. And this alienates them and makes them believe they can trust Trump more than they can trust you. And that is very very bad for the future that you want.

It’s not going to be an easy four years. It’s not going to be a good four years. It hasn’t been a good or easy last sixteen years, for the most part. Maybe you’ve done well, while most of the country has stagnated, while much of the country has been sent to kill Iraqis or Afghans or Libyans or Syrians and sew chaos in their countries. If you have done well and prospered in that time, maybe it’s because of that oppression and fear we’ve been spreading as a nation. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Whatever it is, you’re exceptional, you’re lucky, and thus you’re privileged. You may have also worked hard or struggled or overcome adversity, but you are also exceptional, lucky, and privileged. Both/and. That’s the nature of capitalism, especially the aggressively corporatized capitalism tinged with global hegemony that we’ve been practicing since 9/11. Most people don’t do well. Even fewer do good.

But the really important thing about the next four years is what kind of opposition we build. It should be smart, sophisticated, nuanced, and right. Left, but right, as in correct. It should do the right things for the right reasons and fight for a world way better than Obama’s world. Because fighting as hard as we should for as much as we should isn’t worth it if we land back in the corporo-compromise world of the last sixteen years. We need to do better. And the first step is saving the wolf calls for when we need them. And blasting them from the rooftops when we do.


PS – Please stop getting excited about the possibility of one of Trump’s many legal problems leading to his impeachment. Unless you have a scenario that also brings down Mike Pence immediately. His VP is not Paul Ryan, who is admittedly third in line. It’s not John Kasich. It’s Mike Pence. Who in every way, shape, and form is worse than Trump. I promise you. You do not want Pence to be President, even if your only alternative is Trump.

Storey Clayton
Storey Clayton is a writer, debater, poker player, and non-profiteer. He spent nine years as an academic debater, winning the 2001 North American Championship for Brandeis University. He spent five more as a coach, guiding the Rutgers University team to second at the 2014 National Championships. He is the author of three novels (one published) and the creator of the popular online quiz site The Blue Pyramid. Originally from the West, Storey just moved from New Jersey to New Orleans, where he is reporting for Clarion Content on politics, philosophy, and life in the South.

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