In the frenetic early months of the Trump presidency, reaction has been swift and bold. A series of protests have rocked the country, with thousands taking to the streets. The movement—often dubbed “the resistance” on social media—is a massive grassroots movement motivated by disgust with the new administration.
This is no surprise—Newton’s third law of motion often applies to politics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A demented used car salesman—buoyed by a ratings-starved media and a pack of rabid Nazi frogs—stumbled into the Oval Office. It would be downright unnatural if Americans (the majority who didn’t vote for Trump) didn’t rebel en masse against this strange despot, this orange overlord.
A Leftist Tea Party?
Eight years ago a reactionary movement on the right grew during a nascent Obama administration. The movement’s leaders claimed it stood for staunch conservative values—small government, religious freedom (code for maintaining Christian hegemony), Second Amendment rights, and lower taxes. The movement’s name—TEA Party—was said to stand for “Taxed Enough Already.”
Many representatives of the movement—Glenn Beck, Mike Lee, Rand Paul—insisted that conservative-libertarian ideology was central to the Tea Party. But only the most ignorant or complicit failed to see the racist-nativist elements of the movement. Many adherents believed President Obama was a secret Muslim, not born in the U.S. (a position that came to be known as birtherism), and was a socialist. Their framing of Obama as an extremist was absurd. In reality, most of his policies were centrist, only slightly left of Bill Clinton.
Later, Glenn Beck and other conservative standard-bearers stood by in horror as a sunburnt parasite fed on their movement. Trump bulldozed his way through the Republican primary. Ted Cruz was the more doctrinaire conservative, yet it was Trump who understood the subterranean impulses of the Tea Party. He spouted birtherism, embraced xenophobia, and gave the hungry GOP base a huge dose of red meat (Trump steak?).
Trump also used his uncanny knack for understanding his audience to win the general election—he won over many working class Americans who had previously voted for Obama. The Democrats helped him in this regard. Chuck Schumer foolishly uttered, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” The Democrats’ abandonment of these voters was Trump’s gain.
Few conservatives would have ever imagined that President Donald Trump would be the Tea Party’s end game. But winning and ushering in a Republican congress tends to win over the conservative soul. Even the ardent #NeverTrumpers over at the National Review are coming around to President Trump.
The oppositional nature of both the Tea Party and the current Resistance has many commentators drawing parallels between the two movements. But there are major differences—the Tea Party was primarily fueled by phantom fears and racial resentment against the first black president. The actions of the Trump administration so far have been radical and unprecedented—the bold reaction by the Resistance is justified.
While the Obama administration was moderate in scope, Trump is proving to be the disruptive reactionary he sold himself as. But what’s lacking is the anti-establishment populism he presented to working class voters. Instead he’s doubled down on the worst excesses of both capitalism and movement conservatism—filling his cabinet with Goldman Sachs and nominating a rightwing ideologue to the Supreme Court (a pick that has many of the #NeverTrumpers gushing).
So the Resistance has every reason for being, and will eventually shift the political landscape. How many years Trump will be president remains a mystery—countless wannabe prognosticators have underestimated him before. He may not make it to 4 years, or may swindle his way into 8—but the political pendulum will eventually swing in the opposite direction. Such is the yin and yang of American politics. The big question is: how far will the pendulum swing?
The Resistance may not be far enough. What America really needs is more than just opposition to a single figure. Trump is a symptom of a bigger disease—the crisis of late capitalism. A partisan opposition can easily be co-opted by a clever Democratic candidate, who may revert to pre-Trump status quo once elected. This would be a mistake, because the neoliberal consensus of both parties—unfair trade deals, free market fundamentalism, private-public policy—is what led to the populist unrest of the current moment. We need to not only take on a candidate, but an entire system.
Going Beyond Resistance
Another difference between the Resistance and the Tea Party is that the left is a coalition of diverse groups—LGBTQ, blacks, Hispanics, feminists, and environmentalists. The right is now nearly monolithic in its commitment to white identity politics—the only significant divergence is between its rural base and corporate establishment. It’s a difference that’s mostly ignored, since many lower middle class Americans romanticize rich scoundrels like Donald Trump.
The left needs to find solidarity—a message that both binds their coalition and wins converts. Many Democrats loyal to Hillary Clinton balk at focusing on economic inequality, since this approach was used by her rival Bernie Sanders. But if those center-left Democrats need an example closer to their sensibilities, they only have to look back at Hillary’s husband’s 1992 campaign. Appealing to economic insecurity was central to Bill Clinton’s early success.Bill Clinton & Bernie Sanders' campaigns had a strong economic message. @TheDemocrats can start there.Click To Tweet
If the Democrats want a path forward, they need to adapt the phrase of Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville. Instead of “It’s the economy, stupid,” they should change it to: “It’s economic inequality, stupid.” Economic inequality affects the majority of Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. But unlike Bill Clinton, they must continue to push bold leftist policies that address the issue in a tangible way.1992: 'It's the economy, stupid.' 2017: 'It's economic inequality, stupid.'Click To Tweet
A leftist movement in the Trump era can not merely be opposition, it must be revolutionary. It must be a critique of the very system where a candidate like Trump flourishes. The alternative offered needs to be visionary—tax credits and incremental reform will no longer suffice. Full government programs and massive wealth distribution are necessary.
Capitalism is failing the majority of American citizens. The Overton window must be pushed where a critique of capitalism is acceptable in political discourse. The Democratic Party needs to be pressured to question many of their assumptions (as Nancy Pelosi recently was)—and if they fail to offer transformative solutions they will lose relevance as a party. Many young people aren’t afraid of the socialist label, yet Democratic politicians bend over backwards to avoid it.
Many centrist Democrats defend their accommodationist policies under the guise of ‘pragmatism.’ But when the opposition is fascist rightwing extremism, center-left politics are no longer pragmatic, revolutionary politics are. Even centrists must recognize the necessity of a mobilized left flank—one that encompasses both social justice and economic justice, yet realizes that economic justice can tie together disparate groups.
The time for truly visionary politics is here.