On Donald Trump Apologia or: Why Things Getting Worse Won’t Make Anything Better

Image: Aaron Cynic

I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about electoral politics, but for someone who works in media, election 2016 debates are pretty much inescapable. In most election seasons, I find myself making very unpopular arguments that upset a lot of people — people who might otherwise be happy to march alongside me, most days of the year — so I usually try to sidestep such conversations, knowing that eventually, all roads will lead to Rome, or at least to where all mass movements for change are really bred: the streets.

But in this political moment, I find myself particularly frustrated, because for once, I can’t comprehend why the things I am saying would be upsetting to anyone remotely left of center.

To describe my participation in electoral politics as reluctant would be the understatement of 2016, but I nonetheless felt that enough was at stake that I went ahead and cast my vote for Bernie Sanders in my state’s primary. Between a proto-fascist, a neoliberal catastrophe, and a flawed would-be socialist, I chose the man who I don’t think would wreak absolute havoc on Black and Brown communities, both at home and abroad, and who just might improve access to essential services.

This is not an endorsement — just a quick note on harm reduction. Because what I have to address here is much more absurd than the worst of the Clinton vs. Sanders folderol.

It’s about a debate that I would typically expect from the right, but that some on the left are currently taking very seriously: the notion that Hillary Clinton is more dangerous than Donald Trump.

First: Hillary as the Literal Worst

Just in case you haven’t seen it said, trust me, it’s out there. The argument that Hillary’s track record on issues like mass incarceration, race relations, human rights and interventionism make her more of a threat to pretty much every vulnerable population than Trump, who has never held office and certainly has none of Clinton’s political savvy or finesse, has in fact been loudly asserted.

I get it. Hillary Clinton is the worst. But let’s be honest: she’s not the literal worst. She’s more of the same neoliberal bullshit we’ve been coping with for years, but there are in fact worse things, and we deny the reality and humanity of the vulnerable when we pretend that there aren’t. Yes, she may be more effective at organizing and implementing the havoc she would wreak, but at what point do we acknowledge that the power of the presidency isn’t the sum of one person’s abilities — or underlying wickedness?

Just as George W. had his Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys, so too would Donald Trump. The only difference is that Trump is starting from a place of promising full deportation for the undocumented, and supporting random acts of violence against women and Black people and a ban on all Muslim immigrants. Are full deportation and a ban on Muslim immigrants realistic aims? Probably not. But what could a man elected on such promises — a man with no sense of boundaries — accomplish, when surrounded  by a team of clever jackals?

If you don’t think the answer is something much worse than what Clinton might do, I don’t trust your analysis or your judgment.

Yes, Trump is a performer, and he probably doesn’t believe much of what he says out loud. But once in office, why would we assume that this self-consumed actor would suddenly cease his performance, with the entire world as his stage? Why would we assume that, in the role of a lifetime, with nuclear weapons at his fingertips, and executive orders a mere pen stroke away, that he would suddenly hold back, while his rabid fan base cheered in the background? Trump may not have the faintest idea of how to be president, or have even set out to acquire the job, but he has succeeded in merging the spectacle of reality television with the circus of electoral politics. And within that conjured realm, with all its sound and fury, President Trump would have little incentive to break character. Because in the end, that character, and that performance, are all that he has.

I know that some of the “Trump is better than Hillary” arguments come from a place of wanting people to realize that we will never break the cycle of our oppressions by electing people like Clinton. It’s true. We won’t. And to be honest, I don’t know if I, as an Indigenous woman and a prison abolitionist, could ever pull a lever or check a box for her (and the Democratic Party should take note of such perspectives). But I am not going to pretend that I don’t find the drumbeat of fascism, with its already violent pep rallies, its promises of genocidal policies and its unapologetically racist ideas, doesn’t frighten me more. Trump has already breathed fresh oxygen into fires that the left has never quite managed to extinguish, and his apologists aren’t the ones who will be caught in the flames as that fire rages on.

Trump’s celebrity presence has provided a march route and a rhythm for those who have felt slighted and displaced by left-leaning social change. His popularity helped fashion the loose noise of hatred into a drumbeat. And just as that drumbeat has fueled his political victories, his victories have amplified the drumbeat.

And while I work alongside people who continue to present me with numbers assuring me that Trump’s campaign cannot succeed, I am reminded of how laughable his candidacy seemed to many at its inception. How many of us laughed? How many are laughing now? How could we possibly fault anyone for feeling terrified or believing that his trajectory simply cannot be clearly predicted?

I for one am not laughing, or assuming I can predict how far Trump might rise. The phenomenon that he has created terrifies me, because it is more than a man. It is a political moment.

Some have said that even if Bernie Sanders ultimately loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton, the Sanders campaign will still have helped to shape a new populist front that could continue to impact electoral politics for years to come. This is a comforting thought to many, and far less comforting when I imagine that the same could be true for Trump’s proto-fascism.

On Breaking Up With The Establishment At All Costs

The argument that what America needs now is a break from the establishment — even if that break means lifting up a man like Trump — is reminiscent of many arguments that have been made in years past, in the face of leaders that people should have known enough to fear. In the face of so much that is terrible, it’s easy to declare that anything else would be better. It’s easy to say that any interruption of the machine, such as it functions, would be a victory. But when that interruption is a voice loudly calling for racist, xenophobic terror, what are you really saying the world needs?

“Anything else” is not good enough. It may be easy, amid your frustration, to reverse the old adage and say that the devil you don’t know is better than the devil you do, but do we really not know this man? He has told us who he is, loudly and clearly, while promising great harm. He has promised violent policies and social regression. He has promised to lift up the voices of those who call for a return to the good old days, when protesters were more freely brutalized, and Black and Brown people were even more vulnerable to white violence, committed with impunity. He has told us. So why wouldn’t we believe him?

I have also heard some people invoke the old argument that people will never advocate for real change if they keep opting for “lesser evils,” and that Trump is better than Clinton precisely because things are bound to get worse under his reign. Such people believe that the protests a Trump presidency would inevitably bring — and the slew of political catastrophes that might well discredit the Republican Party — would ultimately be worth whatever is lost in the process.

Memo to the “it has to get worse before it can get better” crowd:

Read more history. There is no sustained correlation between deteriorating conditions and revolutionary resistance. People have suffered, do suffer and will suffer without striking back, every day, because having your life devastated by oppression does not magically imbue a person with the community, tactical analysis and culture of resistance that makes revolution possible. Do profound examples of people suddenly rallying when plunged into such circumstances exist? Of course. But the tendency of many radicals to fetishize this phenomenon, and reduce it to a formula (radical ideology + intensified suffering = revolution) is, in fact, counter-revolutionary.

Most movements with the power to displace popular oppressive constructs are fed, over time, by the development of shared ideas and tactics within affected communities. The reactions of the affected shape the course of conflict, but transformation requires cultivation. It is the act of standing with the community, as it responds to its oppression, that breeds revolution.

That is not to say that we should engage with our communities uncritically, or without offering our own input or analysis. But we must move beyond our adherence to ideological branding by acknowledging that we will build nothing by dismissing the suffering and oppression of others as some necessary step towards a full systems change.

Communities are where our will to fight is nurtured, where discipline is developed, and where love dictates how we negotiate with the struggles of today, while building toward the battles of tomorrow. This is where trust is built and revolutions are born. It is where we have to build, because without deep roots and firm foundations, we stand no chance in our battles with intractable enemies.

And when we’re hungry for a fight, we must remember that Assata Shakur taught us that we have much more than a “duty to fight” and a “duty to win.” We also have “a duty to love and support one another.”

But if your attitude is, “hey, at least if Trump gets elected, there will be revolt,” please remain seated. Because you are untrustworthy, and you have no concept of history.

Of course there were protests under Bush and Reagan, and people who long for the energy of an active fight appreciate such moments, but the dead are just as dead, are they not? How many millions? And how much harm did the successors of these men do, trying to bridge the gap between the absurdity of the right wing and the floating ideals of liberalism? And in the end, what gains were actually translated from the fact that the anti-war, anti-racist left was forced into an ongoing standoff with George W. Bush? A Black president who has deported more Brown people than any of his white predecessors?

The ascendancy of an extremist Republican president is no guarantee of the demise of the Republican party. If you take a good look at how far astray the right has gone, and how the Republican Party has consistently weathered the storm, you just might come to understand that hard swings to the right, no matter how absurd, do not mean the implosion of the Republican Party or the ascension of a more radical politic.

This is by no means an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who would likely continue Obama’s worst policies, or even intensify them. Even the Sanders campaign, which does not address the concerns of many, has been marked for destruction by the Democratic National Committee, because it was not created in the service of the elite.

This is not an endorsement of Sanders, as I don’t believe in electoral messiahs, and I do not believe that Bernie Sanders is a revolution.

But it is a wakeup call aimed at anyone who doesn’t have enough sense to understand that this march towards fascism, towards millions more dead, towards mass deportations and the abandonment of those who’ve already been brutalized and displaced by our systems of violence, is a tragedy of epic proportions. Arguing that “at least” it will generate more street protests is akin to arguing that there’s an upside to the death and suffering that may await millions of people (who probably don’t look like you) because it will lead to great late-night comedy. In short, if you would say this, then you do not care about the lives that will be ended, and destroyed, en masse because of a Trump presidency.

On Being Harsh About This

If these words may seem harsh, it’s because they are meant to be. They are meant to be a balled fist in the face of anyone for whom they are applicable, because your fantasies of revolutionary lightning hitting the right spot during dark days deserve interruption.

Those who bear the brunt of bad policy, and worse policy, will always have to negotiate with it. For those who will not live in such a state of negotiation, for those who will not lose their lives, their freedom, or the contents of their cupboards if the worst comes to pass, some reverence is in order. You do not have to pledge allegiance to a candidate you don’t believe in, but you can reject that candidate while having some respect for what each of these electoral outcomes will mean for people in the margins. You can acknowledge that there is in fact a difference between bad and worse, and that not everyone who opposes Donald Trump has been hoodwinked by party politics. Their fears are grounded in reality and should be respected as such.

The ties that bind us together in struggle will not be formed by writing off mass murder, displacement and the popularization of hatred. And while pushing back against the further loss of liberty may give you more to do in the streets, it is not, in of itself, social progress for the oppressed.

But above all, if you think Brown, Black and poor people, and refugees, are just going to have to suffer and die in large numbers, as fascists cheer, in the march toward your political vision, how are you any better than what’s currently being offered? Like Trump, you are treating others as expendable while insisting upon your own desired ends.

If you can disregard outright promises of our destruction, why would those of us living in those margins ever trust you — or your “vision” of a better world? If you don’t see the value in mitigating our suffering, so we can live and grow and build, why would I trust what you seek to create? And if you think our desperation is the fuel you need to power change, fuck you. Fuck you for not caring if we live or die. Fuck you for putting your ideology above our humanity. And fuck you for not understanding that organizing is about building relationships, not cultivating despair.