The second Clinton – Trump “debate” was a dismal affair, a low point in the history of the American Republic. Donald Trump demonstrated with great clarity why it is imperative that he not become the next president of the United States. He treated the event as a reality show, with an opening segment including a Facebook video presentation of Bill Clinton’s accusers. He attacked Hillary Clinton mercilessly with little respect for factual reality. He offered her and democracy no respect. He treated her not as an opponent, but as an enemy. He declared that when he is President, she will be in prison, shamelessly revealing himself to be an authoritarian with no respect for democratic norms. That he might prevail suggests that these are very dark times. That a significant portion of the American electorate will vote for him demonstrates how dark these times are. I was flabbergasted by the response of the TV pundits: “he held his own”; “he stopped the bleeding” and the like.
I also worry about the judgment of some of my friends on the left who don’t yet realize how serious the threat is and focus on Hillary Clinton’s “neo-liberalism.” Note: it was Trump who argued for the magic of the market, not Clinton, when a little substance slipped into the debate. He argued for his amazing plans to replace Obamacare (more competition) and to revive the economy (lower taxes and less regulations).
But, as we get ready for the third and last debate, I am writing now not to denounce Trump (I find particularly alarming both his sexism and his willingness to undermine democratic norms), but to consider the promise and perils of a Clinton victory, and a Trump defeat.
Although I don’t expect Clinton to lead the country into a bright and beautiful future, I do anticipate that her decisive victory very well may lay the foundations for an enriched public debate and political contest that would provide creative prospects for progress. I heard more than one friend in responding to the debate on Sunday with nostalgia for the debates between Hillary and Bernie. Those, they remember, were actually about important stuff. I believe they foretell what public deliberations could be with Clinton as President.
The question would be not whether there should be a minimum wage, but how to achieve a living wage for all working Americans.
The question would be not whether “Black Lives Matter,” but how to insure that this indisputable good is realized, as a matter of public policy.
Climate change would not be questioned, but alternative ways of addressing it would be debated.
There would be serious discussion of a wide variety of global conflicts, including the U.S. relations with China and Russia, and American involvement in North Africa and the Middle East, among many others.
Her positions on the issues of the day, on the economy and jobs, the environment, health, justice and equality, and national security, may set the terms of discussion over the next few years. How these are debated and whether there are any chances to make real progress will depend on the outcome of the Congressional races, as Paul Krugman outlined in an op.ed. piece in The New York Times.
But it won’t only depend on that. What is debated, how it is debated, and to what effect, will also depend on what I call “the politics of small things,” as popular mobilization, opens and closes possibilities for the reinvention of political culture and practice.
People with common concerns and principles meet each other as equals, face to face and virtually, speak and act in each other’s presence, revealing themselves and developing a capacity to act in concert. This generates political power in the sense of Hannah Arendt. A Clinton Presidency is opened to being moved by this power of the politics of small things, as was Obama’s for better and for worse.
I know, much of the time Obama didn’t seem so positive. I believe this is because in the wake of his election, the right organized while the left, at least at first, was pretty dormant.
The Republican Opposition + the Tea Party = Regression.
Until Occupy Wall Street the problem of gross economic inequality was not on the public agenda. In the wake of the Great Recession, resistance to Obama and his policies was much more forthcoming and consequential. The Tea Party pushed the Republicans to oppose, not only: the stimulus package, Obamacare, immigration reform and environmental policies, but, with the flourishing of the birther movement, led by Trump, the very legitimacy of Obama as President. People meeting and talking to each other and acting in concert but expressing outrage about the stimulus package and deficit spending, about taxation, balance budgets and unfair financial transfers to “losers,” and questioning the President’s citizenship.
But things began to change with OWS, and related movements, and Black Lives Matter. The struggles for social, economic, and justice were pursued. Among other results of these movements, they laid the social infrastructure for the Sanders campaign and they are the reason why Clinton has shifted left in her campaign. If these movements are sustained and remain visible, President Clinton will be pushed. A debate will develop about issues that really matter.
But I see an immense challenge to this, and it is not that Hillary Clinton is in the pocket of Wall Street and not really a progressive. Rather it is the prospect a radical right mass movement, mobilized by Trump, focused on the major themes of his campaign: xenophobic, sexist, racist and profoundly anti-democratic.
The promise and perils of a Clinton victory and a Trump defeat:
If the progressive movements stay mobilized and intensify their mobilization, there is a real chance that public debate and public policy will be moved in a progressive direction, and that the emerging forces of reaction around Trump will be resisted.
Yet, we need to recognize that Trump is likely to be dangerous both in and out of office. There is a real danger that the McCarthy era will pale in comparison with what lies ahead. There is a filial connection from Joe McCarthy to Roy Cohn to Donald Trump, and Trump is potentially much more dangerous. He is the candidate of the party of Lincoln. He is very close to the presidency. While his actions now suggest that he is aware that he isn’t going to win, he seems to be preparing for a mass movement intentionally directed against both parties, the media, international finance and the intellectual elite, very much linked to enduring racism and escalating suffering. Sound familiar in a post-modern sort of way?
Trump no longer seems to be an amusing entertainer. His mastery of the media is a significant threat. I am tempted to say he must be resisted by any means necessary, but what I actually mean is using the politics of big and small things, capturing the White House and Congress along with mobilized social movements to push them in the right direction. And then: President Clinton + the politics of small things = progress.