Like the Grinch who couldn't keep Christmas from coming to Whoville, the Democratic Party with all its might and money couldn't stop Trumpmas from coming to the American heartlands. It came just the same. But how?
The answer to that question is not as elusive as one might think. As Thomas Frank recently suggested, the liberal establishment all but handed Trump the White House. We only add that in the process of giving life to the Trumpian monster, liberalism itself died violently in the birth.
For months, the smug, Ivy League-educated Democratic party apparachiki and their army of policy wonks and marketing consultants, neoliberal pollsters and newspaper columnists ensconced at the New York Times and Washington Post, together smirked at the notion of a Trump victory. They treated legitimate public concerns about Hillary Clinton's character and policies with offhand contempt, scoffing at concerns over Clinton's mishandling of classified material while she was Secretary of State.
They also did something worse. They engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the campaign of the only Democratic candidate who might actually have defeated Trump--Bernie Sanders. Despite polls consistently showing Sanders outperforming Clinton in a hypothetical match-up with Trump, Democratic elites spread the fiction that "only" Clinton could defeat Trump. Partly as a consequence, millions of Democrats voted for Clinton in the primaries not because they liked Hillary, or agreed with her positions, but because they perceived her as the "safer" of the two candidates. In reality, the opposite was probably true--only another populist, from the left, could have derailed the Trumpian juggernaut.
Now the election farce is over. But what comes next is certain to be far worse than anyone today can possibly imagine.
Ten years ago, I predicted the rise of a new form fascism in the United States and Europe, suggesting that the injustices and contradictions of the capitalist system were growing too large to be contained any longer by the existing liberal political order. In the absence of an effectual movement from the political left, I suggested, we would see the waning of liberalism and the consolidation of extreme right-wing and authoritarian movements and states in the West. That scenario is now coming true in spades, as millions of people disaffected with the political and economic status quo are flocking to nationalist and anti-immigrant movements. In an ironic inversion of Cold War "domino theory," one European state after another is likely to fall in the coming years, not to Communism, but to the extreme nationalist right. Brexit is just the beginning.
Here in the US, it was inevitable that we would similarly see the coming of a right-wing, illiberal, hyper-masculine "strong man," a figure able to dominate the political landscape by capitalizing on the atavistic impulses of the American nation, which have been kept on continual boil by right-wing media for decades. The election at last tore off the colorful Band-Aid of multiculturalism and supposed feminist progress in America, revealing the old, ugly, ulcerous sores lurking just beneath the surface of our liberal polity--nativism and xenophobia, hatred of the feminine, a worshipful attitude toward aggressive white men.
However, while Trump's victory was unquestionably an existential howl of protest from straight white men, who have seethed at the growing diversity and equality of their society and have feared the loss of their power and privilege, it also represented a misdirected gut reaction to the widening gulf between haves and have-nots, between the people and the arrogant, remote technocrats who rule them.
On election night, Trump told his supporters, "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer." The phrase eerily echoed Hitler's similar promise in the 1930s to avenge "der kleine Mensch," or "Little Man"--the overlooked individual long shoved to the side by society. As Goebbels wrote admiringly of Hitler, "He understood the cares and worries of the little man and spoke about them." The question then of whether Hitler genuinely cared for the "little Man" is of course of no more significance than the question now of whether Trump "really" cares about forgotten people. In politics, it is only appearances that matter, not truth. And what matters today is that Trump, like Hitler, is believed.
Clinton too talked about the "forgotten," in her way, appealing especially to the half of the US population who continue to be treated as second class citizens in their own land--women. Yet even white women deserted Hillary in the end, having concluded that enough was enough of the old order.
If Clinton's middle and upper class supporters misjudged the depth of the public's rage, it was because they themselves have been doing well economically, and so have been buffered from the violent shocks and insecurities that plague everyone else on our planet. Their folly was to take the essential rightness of the existing world order for granted, virtually as an eternal metaphysical truth. But they forgot, because they never in fact knew, that the precarious world they enjoy, with its "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!", its Starbucks lattes and MacBook Airs, is based on ruthless violence.
The fatal contradiction of liberalism is that it embraces diversity and claims of justice, yet accepts and colludes in a structure of inequality and exploitation. I am speaking of the capitalist project. Liberals are happy to welcome immigrants, but they never think to question the ravages of a capitalist world system that forces millions of people to uproot themselves and their families to try to eke out a living in the wealthier North. They support climate change reforms, but only so long as the latter do not disturb the prerogatives of the free enterprise system, or interfere with their right to order whatever they want, whenever they want it, on Amazon Prime. They despise Donald Trump, yet they continuously affirm the system that created him in the first place.
Liberals like Paul Krugman at the Times seem to think that Trump and Fox News came to us from outer space. In fact, both are creatures of capitalism, and therefore too of the very liberalism Krugman and his ilk espouse. It was a liberal named Tony Schwartz who ghostwrote Trump's bestselling Art of the Deal. It was another liberal, Mark Burnett, creator of The Apprentice--and 2014 recipient of an Entertainment Industry Award from the Anti-Defamation League--who is responsible for making the racist, sexist, billionaire loud-mouth into a national celebrity. It was the Comcast corporation, the corporate behemoth which donated $5.6 million to the Democratic Party earlier this year, that produced The Apprentice through NBC (which it owns). And, as Maureen Dowd reports, it was a certain power-couple named Hillary and Bill who celebrated Donald Trump's wedding to Melania at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in 2005.
Welcome to the merry-go-round of the liberal capitalist system, where political alliances and moral values are as fluid as a slush fund.
With its death-embrace of capitalism, liberalism has sown the wind, only to reap the whirlwind. And the winds are only just beginning to blow--in mass species extinction, in catastrophic global warming, in regional war in the Middle East, in millions of refugees desperately overflowing national borders--and now in the rise of fascism.
The guttural war-whoops issued by Trump's most zealous white supporters this week were the cries of people who smell not just victory but also blood in the air. A predatorial instinct has been unleashed in our nation, and it won't be sated until heads have been smashed, leftist dissidents are jailed or worse, and the nation has been plunged into war.
And that other shuddering sound, of grief and confusion, of chaos sweeping through the land? It is the death rattle of liberalism as a viable political project. So I have terrible news for liberals who've begun consoling themselves this week with the thought that the nation only needs to get through the next four years, before things are finally set to rights again. There's no setting things to right. Because they were never right to begin with.