This article appears in the Winter 2018 edition of The Public Eye magazine.
On the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, PRA Executive Director Tarso Luís Ramos talks about some of what’s changed in the past year, and what progressives should be alert to going forward.
PE: What should we make of this anniversary?
As relentless a year as it’s been, the Trump camp accomplished less of its agenda than they might have. They’ve not been able to fully convert on GOP control of both chambers of Congress and it took them a full year to win a major—if devastating—legislative victory in the form of the tax heist. The widespread and fierce resistance to the Trump agenda from the Women’s March onward compelled congressional Democrats to take a harder line of resistance than they could have and deep divisions on the Right scuttled repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and other administration initiatives. Trump has had to rely disproportionately on executive power and by all accounts, his is not a tight ship. This is all to say that things could be—and may yet become—much worse.
Of course, tremendous damage can and has been done through executive action and the full implications of changes at the various federal departments have not been fully felt. Yet looking back on what PRA anticipated from a Trump presidency, a lot of things that have come to pass were predictable in their broad outlines, if not always in the details.
PRA warned that White nationalists would make a show of force; that the Christian Right would be rewarded with things like judicial appointments and pushback against LGBTQ communities. It was clear that Trump was going to engage in eliminationist policies, directed at Muslims, refugees, and immigrants, and expanded targeting of Black communities.
Looking back on what PRA anticipated from a Trump presidency, a lot of things that have come to pass were predictable in their broad outlines, if not always in the details.
We also warned that Trump would not make good on his promises of economic populism and argued that it would be the job of progressives to reveal Trump’s betrayals as quickly as possible. That nobody, including Trump voters, would deserve what was coming. I should admit that even we, who may have a reputation for gloomy forecasts, thought Trump might choose to lead with the “carrot” of infrastructure (if in a privatizing, crony capitalist way) before the “sticks” of Muslim and trans military service bans and so on.
Given the hollowness of his economic populism, it seemed inevitable that the regime would have to deliver tangible non-economic benefits to Trump’s electoral base. And I think we’ve seen that: No student loan relief, but the revocation of guidelines for redress around sexual assault on campus, as well as challenges to Higher Ed access for Black and Brown students. No policies to revive manufacturing, but a crackdown on “Black identity extremism.” No reining in of Wall Street excesses—people forget that was part of his stump speech, before the Goldman Sachs appointees—but Muslim bans and a steady drip of antisemitism.
Yet after the election came a chorus of liberal critics calling on progressives to reject identity politics—by which they meant appeals to gender or racial justice—in favor of the supposed universalism of economic populism. We at PRA heard this as a call to a different sort of identity politics: White identity politics. The Trump campaign combined White racial grievance with toxic masculinity and economic populism. It linked, especially, race and the economy, blaming people of color and immigrants for the declining economic fortunes of White people. Trump campaigned on the lie that bigotry can bring prosperity. The challenge for progressives is not to shut up about race, gender, and sexuality but to do a better job of addressing them in relation to widespread economic inequality. Of course, the booming stock market may foster complacency in some quarters about the upward transfer of wealth.
Is any of this similar to dynamics under the last Bush administration?
There are parallels, such as tax cuts for the rich, the crackdown on immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, the “clash of civilizations” framework, and endorsement of torture in pursuit of national security goals. We’ll see whether Trump also leads the country into major military engagements.
But quite a bit is different from the George W. Bush period, including the more open-throated expression of an exclusionary, White definition of American identity. Many have noted that we’ve left behind the dog whistles for straightforward racial and ethnic appeals. Also, where Bush was an heir to the Republican establishment, Trump ran a hostile takeover of the GOP from the outside. And while they each won support from the Christian Right, with Pence the dominionists appear to have even more influence in Trump’s government. Of course, there’s also Trump himself—a demagogue and racist campaigner from a very different mold.
Another difference is the vast scale of political real estate captured by the GOP in 2016—the executive branch, both chambers of Congress, and the lion’s share of the states. With that has come an opportunity to do deep, generational damage to the economy as well as to any broadly felt experience of American democracy—something long denied to African Americans, Indigenous communities, and others and that may now be denied to an expanding number. Trump’s attacks on the institutional pillars of democracy—the judiciary, the vote, independent media—signal a potential descent into oligarchy or authoritarianism.
So there are continuities from the Bush era, as well as real ruptures that could make what’s coming unrecognizable to large swaths of the population.
Given the increase in violence grounded in bigotry, how should we think about “hate crimes” and “hate groups”?
There’s been a real surge in reported bias crimes—from the desecration of Jewish cemeteries to physical assaults against African Americans, Latinx immigrants, and people perceived to be Muslim. Both the Trump camp and organized bigoted groups are successfully stoking hatreds based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, and so on. Their relentless demonization of targeted communities inevitably encourages individuals to act on their bigotries. Yet defining the problem in terms of “hate” and “hate groups” can obscure both the root issues and the appropriate responses.
Organized bigots, like the White nationalist groups who mobilized to murderous effect in Charlottesville last August, have social and political goals beyond any simple notion of hatred. Richard Spencer and his ilk seek a racially cleansed White authoritarian state. Naturally, they are thrilled to see their agenda of ethnic cleansing reflected in Trump’s push for a southern border wall, Muslim ban and registry, crackdown on Black dissent, and aggressive immigrant detention and deportation program. For these White nationalists, mobilizing racial resentment—and, yes, fostering hatred of other groups—is critical to movement building. But it’s not an end unto itself any more than “hate” sums up the agenda of the German Nazi Party.
If we misunderstand the problem as being limited to a small—if growing—number of violent militants, we’ll tend to use the wrong yardstick to measure White nationalists’ influence. Of concern is not only the number of militants they can mobilize but how broadly influential their ideas have become. The president of the United States champions their eliminationist policies and provided political cover for overt White nationalists even after Charlottesville. Yet the “hate frame,” as PRA contributor Kay Whitlock calls it, relies mostly on legal and law enforcement responses to so-called extremists and avoids dealing with structural racism and other systems of domination. As the Black Lives Matter and trans justice movements regularly remind us, police agencies are among the principal sources of bigoted violence. We should be wary of positioning law enforcement as the solution, particularly in a moment of “blue lives matter” backlash and a national security doctrine of counter-terrorism.
Is Trump’s engagement with White nationalists unprecedented in the presidency?
Yes and no. People don’t know or forget that the Reagan administration cultivated European fascist émigrés who came to the U.S. after World War II—a story PRA published decades ago. Pat Buchanan, a White supremacist, served in more than one administration. So there’s some precedent on the staffing. By the way, with Trump, it’s not just Bannon, Gorka and Stephen Miller; the administration has pulled in personnel from national anti-immigrant groups founded by White nationalist John Tanton to serve at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Trump’s amplification of neonazi Twitter and his defense of the Charlottesville Unite the Right really are extraordinary developments indeed. Different even from the Klan, which is American as apple pie, Nazis have been beyond the pale even for many armchair racists since U.S. involvement in World War II. The White nationalists and fascists who marched in Charlottesville are part of a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the current political order. Even racist politicians who defend the current system of White dominance generally reject insurrectionists as treasonous. Trump has broken with that tradition.
How much of what we’re seeing now are things that many people weren’t paying attention to before?
Trump’s campaign and election have been a wake-up call for many people. In a way, Trump represents the fruition of the economic and social initiatives of the Hard Right in the 1960s and ‘70s that led to the election of Reagan and have continued ever since.
We have been in an extended social and economic crisis in the U.S., and now that emergency is being felt by a much broader segment of society.
One way to think about this moment is to acknowledge that we have been in an extended social and economic crisis in the U.S., and now that emergency is being felt by a much broader segment of society. Suddenly, there is open and widespread discussion in mainstream media about whether the president is a proto-fascist and whether the U.S. is drifting toward autocracy. These are valid questions. Yet conditions were already quasi-authoritarian if you lived in a low-income African American community—in terms of things like policing, denial of due process, regulation of the body and family, deprivation of social services, and denial of education and economic opportunities. To get an idea of what a more authoritarian U.S. could look like, we should look not only at other nations’ histories but also more deeply into the American experience.
So there’s both deep continuity and rupture in this moment. We believe there’s a danger of descent into something more authoritarian but it’s in no way inevitable and it’s all of our jobs to prevent that. Some find the possibility novel and shocking while others view it as an extension of current conditions. Holding those different perspectives simultaneously can be a challenge but is necessary to the project of building a mass movement—not only for resistance but for transformative change.
What are your concerns about the normalization of Trumpism?
We can’t allow what’s happening under this regime to become normalized but neither can we behave as if resistance to oppressive governance began in November 2016.
There’s a gift in this moment: tens of thousands of people are newly aware of themselves as historical actors and are forming (or reforming) their sense of purpose in this extended moment of crisis. There is tremendous opportunity for deep transformation there, of understanding our roles as social and political actors. There’s also tension with and tremendous challenge for movements that have long been in the struggle for transformational change. We are at an inflection point in the social, cultural, and political life of this country, in which simply having a well-formed opinion is insufficient.
In general, we have to practice deep solidarity: if the regime comes for any of us, they will have to come through all of us.
Non-normalization involves grounding ourselves in shared values. In general, we have to practice deep solidarity: if the regime comes for any of us, they will have to come through all of us.
Is this a fight we can win?
People define the fight differently. For some, success might be getting back to something like what existed under Obama or Clinton. For others, including PRA, the levels of economic and social inequality; the violent, unprecedented deportation program; the military adventurism and reliance on drone warfare; the decimation of economic opportunities for an ever-growing part of the working and middle classes; the ongoing attacks on reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights; the system of mass incarceration—these were all unacceptable conditions even before Trump. For us, Trump represents an escalation of the local and global crisis of liberal democracies. The answer cannot be, as in France, defeating the Far Right at the ballot box with a supposed liberal whose austerity programs will worsen economic inequality and possibly strengthen opportunities for the Right down the road.
There should be no going backward to unjust economic and social arrangements, however worse present circumstances have become. Russian meddling aside, the crisis of our political and economic systems facilitated Trump’s rise to power. His explanation of the causes and remedies for our crises were and remain horrifyingly wrong, but he got a hearing in part because he connected his bigotry to an unrelenting insistence that the economy is fundamentally broken for everyday people. Any victory over Trump that’s worth fighting for should advance a more fundamental restructuring of our social, political, and economic lives and must reject the sort of neoliberal austerity economics that have bipartisan support.
Do I think it’s possible? Yes, but there are many challenges and a desperation for anything but Trumpism could lead to set our sights too low. It took decades for the Right to consolidate this much power and it will take more than one or two political cycles to produce transformational alternatives. We need to shore up institutional pillars of democracy, like the judiciary, that, however inadequate, are critical bulwarks against the worst excesses of the Right. At the same time, it’s a moment to be pretty bold about the need for fundamental structural changes, because the brokenness of our social and economic systems require more than a little tinkering.