What Should the Left Do in the Trump Era?

Get over it, Joe Biden was advising us the other day. It’s happened, it’s done.

Well, yes. Donald Trump is our 45th president, and our cross to bear. And, okay, what next?

A lot of ink, some of it mine, has been spilled over the question of whether Trump is a legitimate president. As I’ve said, I think the answer is no, because of voter suppression in some of the swing states that gave him his Electoral College majority. That doesn’t make The Donald the first president to have gained the White House by fraud, though. John F. Kennedy probably won the presidency in 1960 when some voters rose from the dead to cast ballots in wards controlled by then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. George W. Bush got into office through electoral shenanigans in Florida in 2000, and got the benefit at least of some others in Ohio in 2004. Both parties cheat, and the Democratic Party set the gold standard for voter suppression in the Jim Crow era South, when trying to vote with the wrong skin color could get you lynched. It’s just that the Republicans are so much better at it today, and the Democrats so complaisant and feeble in their response. Among 153 parliamentary-style governments in the world today—let’s not even begin to call the vast majority of them democracies—the United States ranks 52nd in electoral integrity. Get over it, right?

On the other hand, there is a sense in which Donald Trump’s election is legitimate indeed. He is fully and truly the nightmare product of the political system we now have, and if we don’t deal with that system then he is the prototype of what we can expect to keep getting.

First, a short primer on governments and what they do. Karl Marx got it exactly right when he wrote 170 years ago in The Communist Manifesto that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This is usually abbreviated as the apothegm that the state is the executive committee of the ruling class, but this formulation is misleading; Marx knew exactly what he wanted to say, as usual. His point was that the ruling class of his time, which he called the bourgeoisie and we now call, rather less accurately, the 0.1%, was a profit-seeking missile with little regard for what it blew up or even rules of the road for its gilded stakeholders. The super-rich might make their side deals so as not to get too much in each other’s way, as sharks in a feeding frenzy sometimes set on each other, but they leave too much blood in the water generally, destroying jobs and industries wholesale when it suits them and leaving the human wreckage to drift as it will. It’s the job of the state, not the creation of the people as our constitutional charter fondly declares but the instrument of the elite, to regulate the system in the interests of maximum wealth extraction, and to deal as expedient or necessary with the incidental debris. It also, crucially, serves as a center for overall capital allocation. Nineteenth-century capitalism would not have conquered the continental sprawl of our country nearly as quickly or efficiently without publicly subsidized railroads, or its twentieth-century successor have facilitated consumerism without the interstate highway system. Today, the government sends satellites aloft and lays fiber-optic networks to ensure the instantaneous communication on which the system now feeds. Newer technology; same deal.

General infrastructure construction and repair thus falls under the heading of state functions: capital projects too big, or too little profitable, for the so-called private sector. Not all of these projects have public utility, however, as witness the biggest ongoing one we have, the military-industrial complex. This is a pure profit center for the industries that feed on it, and almost entirely parasitic on the economy as a whole: you can’t eat an intercontinental ballistic missile, or smoke it, or (unless you’re Slim Pickens in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) ride it; and you’d sure as heck better not fire one except for practice. But we keep churning out the little darlings anyway.

Modern capitalism required a modestly literate workforce, and so we got public education. This worked too well, and so we are now degrading it as a profit center through charter schools. The Great Depression suggested the need for unemployment relief and minimal income maintenance after retirement, so we got temporary work projects and Social Security, the latter a bitter target of the super-rich even though its costs are borne almost entirely by the needy through regressive taxation. Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Imperial Germany, had figured this out fifty years earlier, but, hey, the guy was a bleeding heart.

What the state does, then, is to serve the interest of the elite sometimes in spite of itself. To do this, it must on occasion do things whose benefit is not immediately apparent to its master, like road repair or guaranteed health care. The dumb show of a two-party system helps grease the wheels, providing a mechanism of negotiation for agreeing to the finally obvious. People can’t simply starve in the streets, at least in excessive numbers, when the economy tanks; streets can’t keep cratering indefinitely under exploding gas lines and water mains because, even if you travel by Lear jet, you have to touch the ground sometime.

Politics, then, is the fine art of keeping enough separation between the instinctive and untrammeled greed of elites and the necessary adjustment and fine tuning required to keep the mechanism of wealth extraction functioning at maximum long-term efficiency. When a politician in pursuit of votes suggests more generous adjustments than strictly necessary, this is called demagoguery. Such a person will be denounced, as Bernie Sanders was, in The New York Times.

The history of the past fifty years in America has been one in which the separation between the state and its employer has dangerously eroded. When an employee can never say no to his boss, even when the plant is on fire, bad things will happen. In the case of government, this means distress and disturbance from below. The result, this time, has been Donald Trump.

Trump squeaked by in the general election but, even more impressively, he strode past sixteen perfectly acceptable stooges (well, maybe Ben Carson was a bit of a stretch) to win the nomination of the Republican Party on an openly albeit right-wing populist agenda. He campaigned to bring back American jobs, gone forever of course; to scuttle free trade deals that threatened such jobs; to retreat from our imperial wars behind a Fortress America ginned up by patriotic militarism; and, of course, to fix all those potholes. Much if not most of this was perfectly compatible with elite interests, but the rhetoric behind it was inflammatory, and occasionally the policies were crude. If Trump doesn’t deliver for his core electoral constituency, as he certainly can’t and won’t, popular disturbance will grow.

What, in these circumstances, should a genuine left—assuming this country can produce one—do? It could begin by recognizing what a gift Trump is to it, because his election has revealed beyond any possibility of doubt the utter bankruptcy of both our political parties; that is, their inability to provide even minimal adjustments in the system. That is no surprise in the GOP, which under its true leader, Paul Ryan, has cast off all pretense of doing anything but the most slavish bidding of its corporate masters. But it has also put paid to any illusion that the modern Democratic Party offers even the most marginal alternative, and therefore any toehold for progressive politics. The Party establishment beat back the very modest populist insurgency of Bernie Sanders with both hands, and even in the past couple of weeks has scuttled Sanders’ token initiative to permit drug competition from Canadian suppliers. All the Democrats have accomplished in the past decade is to resurrect their Republican comrades-in-arms from the ashes of the electoral disaster they suffered in 2008, and put themselves in their place. They’re a dog that doesn’t deserve to be revived though, even were that possible.

What’s needed now is not even a new political party—not yet—but a grass-roots movement for structural change based on a democratic labor movement and a reconstituted citizenship at the local level. This needs to be based on a very clear-sighted appraisal of our global situation in the early twenty-first century, with its more than obscene concentration of wealth, its degradation of labor, its suicidal assault on the natural environment, and, above all, the overarching need to present a vision of the human future that offers dignity and justice, and requires a common shouldering of responsibility to ourselves and the world we share. That is probably asking more of even a genuine politics than it can hope to deliver. But demanding less of ourselves at this point is not worth the time of day.

About Robert Zaller 54 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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