Many progressives are in a major defensive crouch. We’re all about resisting everything Trump does, no matter what. We should stop his appointments, decry his PR efforts on jobs, chide him for his love affair with Putin and atomic weapons, defend the social programs he threatens to destroy, ridicule him for his climate change denials, advocate for groups he threatens to deport or discriminate against, and most importantly, impeach him as soon as possible for his disregard for the constitution.
While resistance is critically important, we will fail unless resistance is contained within a long term strategy to reverse runaway inequality and upend neoliberalism (defined as systematic tax breaks for the rich, cuts in social programs, anti-union legislation, financial deregulation and corporate-managed trade). If we don’t build an alternative movement, our defensive struggles could enhance Trump’s popularity rather than to diminish it.
Here are some of the risks of a resistance-only response.
1. It makes our politics Trump-centric or even Trump-dependent.
Trump thrives on being the center of attention. Attacks feed his ego, propel him into action and energize his base. The more he is attacked personally, the more he can command center stage in every discussion, on every news show and in every forum. A resist-only strategy, without a broader movement-building effort, allows Trump to set the terms of debate — he is for X, then we are against X….he is against Y, then we must be for Y.
Of course, resistance is badly needed. But it also must be part of, and lead to, the promotion of a pro-active positive agenda along the lines field-tested by the Sanders campaign. The key items include a financial transaction tax on Wall Street, free higher education, single-payer health care, massive infrastructure spending, a halt to the off-shoring of jobs, criminal justice reform, taking money out of politics, and reducing global warming. That’s our agenda, not Trump’s.
The fact that few if any of these issues are being discussed today shows the weakness of a Trump-centric approach.
2. Trump resistance can slide into defending the status quo.
The 2016 election featured a major revolt against runaway inequality and all the elite corruption that goes with it. Sanders from the left and Trump from the right attacked the neoliberal order with considerable success. Hillary Clinton was viewed, perhaps by a majority, as an elite representative of the old order in league with Wall Street.
A full court Trump defense can back us into defending the established order. The Affordable Care Act is such an example. Already progressive groups are rallying to defend it against the Trump/Republican attack. But defending the Affordable Care Act is also a defense of the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Our job is to fight in behalf of Medicare for All rather than defending a program that enriches the private healthcare establishment.
But, if Obamacare is eliminated won’t millions of low and moderate income families lose their coverage? Isn’t it foolish in the era of Trump to press for single-payer?
Long-term movement building requires that we make the case for what we really believe in. As Trump reopens the healthcare debate, we need to clearly define and promote the progressive position, rather than accept the polls of a debate that claims the only real choices are Obamacare or something worse. We should be joining forces with Labor for Single Payer and others who continue to press for a rational single-payer system that eliminates the power of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
3. Resisting Trump by itself will not win back swing states.
It appears that the defense-only mode assumes that because Hillary won the popular vote, it’s not important to win over marginal Trump supporters who are seeking an alternative to the status quo. We have a national majority so there’s nothing lost by writing off Trump voters.
But this is a very risky assumption. Key swing states may remain in Trump’s column if all we do is resist. A marginal voter could view progressive resist actions as simply disruptive if we don’t put forth a positive agenda that frames our resistance and expands the debate.
Impeachment efforts also have a way of backfiring. It’s important to recall that the impeachment of Bill Clinton made him more popular not less so. And Hillary’s barrage of anti-Trump ads had very little impact on marginal Trump voters. The future goes to whichever camp develops the most compelling vision for America. A negation of Trump is not a vision.
4. Resisting Trump on trade and the off-shoring of jobs is a big mistake.
Progressives are sneering at Trump’s efforts to lure jobs back to the U.S., and using high tariffs to threaten companies that off-shore jobs to low-wage areas. But attacking Trump for saving 850 jobs at Carrier, for example, is politically stupid, morally wrong and factually incoherent.
Here are the simple facts we ignore at our own peril:
Trump did indeed save those 850 jobs. There are 850 people and their families (half of whom are women and minorities) who have avoided disaster. It’s a sad commentary on establishment politics that Trump is the first president who has so intervened. But it’s good for American working people when companies are pressured to stay in the U.S. Intervening into our supposedly sacred free-markets is not a sin. We need to advocate for more efforts to slow down the movement of capital rather than critiquing Trump’s interventions.
The $7 million given to Carrier to remain in Indiana is par for the course and not a new bribe invented by Trump. Each and every day, in every state of the union, government agencies are showering companies with cash and tax forgiveness either to lure jobs into their states or keep jobs from leaving. In fact, the $7 million is a bargain compared to similar recent efforts in Connecticut and New York.
The fight against off-shoring and bad trade deals should be a progressive cause as it was during the Sanders campaign. We should be rallying in support of workers who are losing their jobs due to off-shoring and support the legislation Sanders is proposing to stop it.
5. Betting on Trump’s failure is reckless.
Progressives are hoping that Trump will self-destruct, that he will do something so stupid the country will denounce him. At the very least, liberal economists tell us his billionaire-centric trickle-down polices will harm his working-class base and lead to their alienation.
But those are risky bets. We just witnessed Trump destroying the Republican field while bragging about the size of his penis. Somehow, in the general election, he also survived the groping video along with the many insults he hurled against women, the disabled and war heroes. Doubling down on the idea that his behavior will lead to his undoing seems a bit naive at this point, don’t you think?
Similarly, it is not a forgone conclusion that Trump’s economic policies will fail. It is possible that his use of the bully pulpit combined with his privatized infrastructure plans might create a jobs boom large enough to reach workers in key swing states. We don’t as yet know how far he will go on the job creation front, but he seems to be taking that task seriously.
So waiting for Trump’s collapse or just pushing for it, seems like an irresponsible political strategy. Instead, we actually have to do the hard work of building something new that is independent both of Trump and the neo-liberal establishment.
6. Resisting Trump could turn into an excuse to stay within our issue silos.
We have a long, long way to go before we can truly capitalize on what the Sanders campaign showed was possible. Clearly, waiting for Sanders to run again at age 78 is not realistic. Something new must be built starting now.
But progressive organizations are designed poorly for this task. For the last generation each issue, each cause, each identity group has developed its own silo. Each group creates its own purpose, agenda and fund raising base to ensure its survival. Most of our groups are highly dependent on philanthropic funding, and those foundations are also segmented into specific issues areas. The net result is extreme fragmentation among progressive organizations.
There is no common agenda, no common strategy, no common structure. We have enormous experience in promoting our specific agenda silos and very little practice in working together around a hard hitting common program that transcends all of our silos.
At the moment, resisting Trump is a proxy for a common cause. It could lead to a broad pro-active movement, but only if we aim it that way. It also could be another excuse to stay within our issue silos. As Trump and the Republicans go after social programs, they will negatively impact many of the issues around which progressives have organized — voting rights, abortion, the environment, etc. Defending what we’ve accomplished will seem like the first order of business while broader movement building, it will be argued, is pie in the sky during the Trump era.
That is the most dangerous path of all. Of course, we need to defend the rights we have won. But overall we will continue to lose ground to runaway inequality — something that impacts all of our issues. In fact we are likely to lose on our specific silo issues as well unless we build a broad-based unified movement.
Is movement-building pie in the sky?
Sanders proved that a social democratic movement was possible. But it can’t be sustained around one person. We need a tangible organizing effort that brings together our many issue groups. That entails four tasks:
We need a common agenda and common analysis. This should be a no-brainer. Bernie just about got us there last year. Now we need to lay it out simply and clearly and get everyone and their uncle to sign onto it.
We need a national educational campaign that explains the agenda and analysis all around the country, as the Populists did in the 1880s. At that time they fielded 6,000 educators that toured the country building local chapters along the way. Today, we need about 30,000 educators, especially in the swing states. (Several key union and community groups are working with our organization, the Labor Institute, to build such an educational infrastructure.)
We need a new national organization that we can all join as dues paying members. We should be able to go to Pensacola, Paterson, Pasadena or Poughkeepsie to attend chapter meetings to fight runaway inequality as members of the same national organization. We don’t need to abandon our issue silos, but we need to climb out of them to join something bigger, stronger and more clearly aimed at a new social democratic agenda.
Finally, we need to expand our own perceptions of the possible. After 40 years of neoliberalism, our vision has been curtailed. We now find it normal that students should go deeply into debt to attend college or trade schools. We find it normal to have the largest military establishment and the most prisoners in the world. We find it normal that companies can simply pick up and move jobs to low wage areas. And most importantly, we find it normal to believe that a coherent national movement is pie in the sky.
We will never succeed until our sense of the possible expands. Sanders proved that a new social democratic movement can be built. He raised more money than the Clinton machine and overwhelmingly won the support of young people for an agenda that only a few years ago would have been called socialistic. We can argue about why he didn’t win, but there is no question that his agenda caught on.
Trump’s election is another eye-opener. The very existence of someone called President Trump should shake us up enough to build a massive new movement that starts with resistance but goes far beyond. We really have no choice. Trump’s not playing little ball. Neither should we.
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.