The talk of needing to stop Trump is a legitimate fear. But the talk is spun in ways designed to provoke a stampede toward the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In this way, the fear is often left unexamined and unchallenged. (fear image at right above I found at the ‘Shiel Yule Weblog’)
I do not dismiss the fear of Trump. I understand it. I share it. But it assumes a simplistic strategic binary, that if you feel the fear of Trump the antidote you must prepare is your vote for Hillary Clinton, to move from the Republican to the Democrat. Although the fear of Trump is often quick and simplistically affirmed, the phenomenon of Trump is complex. Trump is different from Clinton, but neither he nor his supporters are simple opposites to her and her supporters. It will be the burden of this column to offer a response to the often unexamined fear and the complexity of Trump. Knowing this complexity can help us respond to the fear of Trump in ways more creative and politically liberating than simply running to Clinton. And so I will here offer four rejoinders to those who urge us to act simply on a fear of Trump.
Consider first though the quote I used, in another essay, one shared with me in a prison visit by revolutionary journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. He suggested, “If Trump is the price we have to pay to defeat Clintonian neoliberalism – so be it.” Note that this statement features no naïve bravado that overlooks how menacing a Trump demagogue in the White House could be. It is no mere macho defiance. Abu-Jamal surely knows how vulnerable would be the front-line targeted groups of U.S. history under a Trump presidency. I am thinking primarily of black and brown peoples, Muslims, Mexicans and other immigrants that Trump’s rhetoric has already vilified.
I would add that we should recall that this Trump of 2016 is the same public figure who in 1989 used his wealth to take out a full page ad in the New York Daily News and other media venues, calling for the execution of the black youths falsely charged with raping and killing “the Central Park jogger” under the banner “Bring Back the Death Penalty/Bring Back the Police.” Those youth have since been exonerated for being outrageously and unjustly convicted and imprisoned.
I also recognize a challenging point made by Linda Sarsour of the organization MPower Change. Sarsour is a Brooklyn born, Palestinian American activist. She was a speaker at a June 2016 event called “The People’s Summit” in Chicago’s McCormick Place. She is also a Sanders delegate who will presumably also throw in behind Hillary Clinton. (Maybe she’ll change and help lead a walkout from the DNC convention?) When interviewed by CNN at the June summit, she said this:
Being a Muslim in America, I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Let’s see what happens when Trump gets in the White House,” . . . If you’re not going to vote for Hillary, you better be ready to defend my people when we’re about to go into the camps . . ..
Sarsour reminds us that the U.S. is a place of genocide. North America is what scholar of indigenous peoples Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz analyzes as a “crime scene” in her recent Indigenous People’s History of the U.S. (228). This crime scene enabled the institution of slavery, a veritable “whipping machine” (Baptist, 141-142) that carved capitalist power from the flesh of African slave bodies to drive a cotton trade that generated U.S. financial capital of the nineteenth century.
This violence is a “founding” violence for the U.S. state. As such, it remains deep and pervasive through the everyday living and structures of our current day. The founding violence of the U.S. state has been confirmed time and again for a U.S. readership that cares to know. U.S. history has included repression against organized labor, such as Appalachian miners and Black longshoreman in Philadelphia. It also has driven out and lynched Chinese Americans, and interned Japanese Americans. It rounded up Muslims after 9/11 and hate crimes against them regularly recur. Islam has been constructed as enemy to “Christian America” since North America’s colonial period. U.S. security forces detain and deport Mexicans (also historically sufferers of lynching along with blacks, the Chinese and others in the U.S.) as well as Southeast Asian and African immigrant peoples (Tram Nguyen).
It is precisely this history that a Trump regime could catalyze in new forms. He does it with his modern-day forms of nationalism, white racism, and his near automatic defense of the police establishment. After the killing of police in Dallas, Trump requested an opportunity to address the New York Police force, though he was turned down by the NYPD chief. In light of this it would not be surprising if we saw the state giving even more leeway than it does today, to the white militias and agents of white violence. We should not be surprised if the police, and prison guards too, will all feel their trigger fingers and batons freed up to do even dirtier work by day and by night than they already do.
The front-line targeted communities are right to fear some sort of return of the “the camps” and “the lynching tree” under a Trump regime. This past violence was not the result of rogue individual leaders, as Trump is sometimes seen to be. In fact, U.S. state officials and structures accommodated the likes of Trump, made them possible and unleashed them. Trump could indeed be poised to mobilize an even more blatant form of such state repression – at least one more visible – than the neoliberal state regularly facilitates.
So I do not deny this fear of Trump. But I offer four rejoinders to those driven to Clinton by this fear.
As a first rejoinder, I emphasize that we are already paying an enormous price under the system we have, and Clintonian neoliberalism has built that system stronger in the present day. That system was erected as much by Democrats as Republicans to serve the interest of the corporatist state that makes fodder of the poor. This is the context for the police murders of black, brown and often even white poor too. Our warehousing of human bodies (over 2 million in cages, over 7 million under some kind of correctional control – we call it, “mass incarceration”) is blight upon our nation, sheer torture and trauma for families of the sufferers. It is especially “a social catastrophe” for the black community,” as the National Criminal Justice Commission (99) called it as early as 1996. The black community through the mortgage housing fraud crisis of 2006-2008 has suffered the largest setback in racial wealth equality in a quarter of a century. There are in the U.S. over 100 million in poverty, extreme poverty or “near poverty.”
Most of us in the so-called 99% are already paying the price of economic stress in severe doses. This has for decades already been the case. Since the 1980s the U.S. has foregrounded the smallest and fastest shrinking middle class among developed nations, while its military and corporate elites grow fat by promoting wars that wreck the matrix of life for ever large swaths of the world’s poor, leaving them in war’s chaos.
So I ask: is there not already a political regime to be feared? Indeed yes. And Trump will be another regime to fight as well as to fear.
A second rejoinder I offer to those who fear mainly, and often only, Trump. I am reminded that we rarely act toward virtue – in political or personal life – when we act out of fear, even when there are real things to be feared. Princeton religion Professor Ed Glaude registered the point poignantly as he wrote about his problem with voting for Clinton. He admitted his own fear of Trump, but recalls this from his experience in African American communities of the South: “My daddy, a gruff man who has lived all of his life on the coast of Mississippi, taught me that fear should never be the primary motivation of my actions. It clouds your thinking, and all too often sends you running to either safe ground when something more daring is required, or smack into the danger itself.”
There are those ready to dismiss any of us who refuse to be stampeded to Hillary Clinton as mere “privileged” voices, those who utter our criticisms from within “safer” spaces, where we will not be the front-line targets of a right wing Trump presidency. As a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, I and other professors with some proximity to white wealth may often not only be among the 99%, but more tellingly often in the upper 7-10 percent. This is significantly below the 1% or even smaller fraction with greatest economic power, and the “professoriate” is generally a different class from that of corporate CEOs. Still, I acknowledge that those of us in university systems today – within what many call the “academic industrial complex,” the “neoliberal universities,” or “the imperial university” – are not as distant from the exploitative corporate classes as we often like to think. Moreover, as a white scholar and activist I operate with the protections of white entitlement. This is not a mea culpa. It is simply a sober political acknowledgement.
I counter, nevertheless, by asking: if we are somehow privileged by class position or racial and other entitlements, do we then just shut our mouths and retreat to Clinton because of the specter of a Trump regime?
No; so here follows my third rejoinder. On the contrary, we need to renew our commitments to the political movements on the ground and at work in contesting both the right and the “lesser evil” of today’s corporate and imperial state. As one part of these movements, we need those in the centers of entitlement to come out against Clintonian neoliberalism. “The camps” under Trump about which Sarsour warns us have already long been built. They are the U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers of our era. Bill Clinton’s unprecedentedly large build up of law enforcement and prisons, with his 1994 crime bill, provided the material and ideological conditions for later round ups and confinement of Muslims and Arabs. We should not cower behind our fear, least of all should we spread counsel to our students and the wider public that the “lesser evil” Hillary Clinton is the best this nation can do. Again, I consider Cornel West exemplary in his living a radical political critique in public while teaching at the Harvards, Yales and Princetons, and at Union Theological Seminary of New York.
The white organizers in Philadelphia who blocked downtown traffic and protested at police headquarters also have shown the way, acting and not retreating into a white political enclave. They march into the streets with their placards to proclaim: “You don’t have to be black to be outraged.”
All differently privileged citizens and residents need to bare their rage at the structures of abuse. Privileged professors need to stand with their students against those who are recalcitrant and hardened, those who reside on corporate-based university boards. Businesses and their executives need to stand against making profit from U.S. wars. They also need to deny themselves the profits that come – today in a near avalanche – from the privatization of public prisons and from building private prisons and detention centers. They (and we) will not do this out of their own good will. It will be the pressure of social movements that must deprive such profiteers from their often intentional promotion of unchecked prison-building for personal gain.
I hasten to add, though, that as the privileged dare to step forward in this way, they should not reckon themselves to be leaders in the fight to defeat Clinton and her establishment. We must know that any creative coalition, any fresh vanguard for revolutionary change, must come from the most vulnerable themselves, from the communities long targeted by racist and misogynous power in the history of U.S. capitalism’s structural violence. It is these communities’ movements that put material pressure on the more privileged and protected to resist the corporate state.
And precisely this third rejoinder brings me to a last one. Again, it is offered to those who think risking Trump is too high a price to pay.
This fourth rejoinder reminds that those most vulnerable to a Trump regime are not powerless. They are not primarily – surely not only – victims. They are also resisters with powers for throwing off oppression, building movements for justice and to redress wrongs and imagine new political life. All the while they can also extend at times astonishing acts of love and human dignity.
Today’s fears of Trump and all the warnings come from a white elite or a black elite, or from any others who have some proximity to white wealth and power. But proclaiming a fear of Trump and running to Hillary Clinton is, at best a gross underestimation of the organizing power of the poor, at worst a paternalist and maternalist condescension toward the resistant creativity of the vulnerable.
Black Lives Matter, the Black Youth Project 100, Dream Defenders, our reinvigorated labor movements, Socialist Alternative Party, Workers World, the movements for Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners, the MOVE Organization – all of these are organizations by some of our most vulnerable and repressed peoples who have combined with some from elite sectors to fight repression. Their fight will continue.
I wager that the fight of these new growing movements will be greater than the bluster, despair and demagoguery of a Trump regime – even with his henchman at the ready. We can face them down. The repressed can return. They can rise up against the order represented not just by the Republicans but also by President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, two faces of Clintonian neoliberalism.
(for clarification of what I mean by Clintonian neoliberalism as threat to us all, but especially to the black, brown and poor, I would refer you here.)