Democratic Party’s Enemy: Not Trump, But Trumpism

Is the enemy this man? Or the movement that bears his name?

The huge, black cloud of Donald Trump’s presidency has a silver lining. It has energized the opposition in a way not seen for at least 40 years, and has even revived the dying embers of a true left wing in American politics. After the carnage of the next few years, there is hope. Let’s not blow it.

Things work this way: Jewish people have miraculously maintained an ethnic identity over many centuries, doing so in spite of diaspora and persecution. Yet they find themselves divided amongst Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed, with many permutations in between. Muslims are either Shiite or Sunni. Christians are Catholics (Roman or Orthodox) or Protestant. Protestants are constantly at each other’s throats, often over the tiniest doctrinal difference, and condemn each other to perdition — out of love, of course. It seems to be human nature to group together and identify others, then to make war on them. It’s the same in politics. The Republicans have market worshippers, libertarians of sundry stripes, law-and-order fanatics, economic royalists, social radicals and outright bigots. The Democrats have neoliberals, socialists, social radicals, feminists, people of color, peaceniks and the police force of political correctness. On both sides, the views of the various groups toward each other range from suspicion to hatred. Uniting any or all of these groups of people can be done only by identifying a common enemy.

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But all those Democrats have a clearly defined common enemy now. It is not Trump, but Trumpism. It is a gargantuan political force. A short definition of Trumpism is raw corporate power in politics, escalating inequality under cover of mass fear and populist rhetoric. Masquerading as a political party, Trumpism now controls 32 state legislatures (17 with veto-proof majorities) and 34 governorships. Its momentum is not abated by Trump’s crippled start in Washington. It is funded by the Kochs and the Mercers and others whose pocketbooks cannot be matched by Democratic big donors.

Taking on this leviathan requires, in approximate order of importance: a message of both economic growth and economic justice; the genuine commitment of millions of voters; candidates, and good ones; money; and organizing skill. The order is approximate because many underlying elements are necessary. But here is the critically important point for the next few years: all of this — all of it — has to hang together. The Democratic Party is the only existing vehicle to make that happen, and it is controlled by people who actively do not want it to happen. They don’t want it, that is, at the price they will have to pay, which is control of the party. It’s pathetic, really, because they have made the party all but nationally irrelevant, and yet still their control of its future is important to them. Those people include the Clintons, Barack Obama and their Wall Street sponsors.

Before we get to the nut of the decisive conflict now being waged, let me explain why I voted against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Pennsylvania Democratic Primary. I do this, not to flog a dead horse, but to help explain the party war that has not abated. My reasons were two: I disagreed fundamentally and vehemently with Clinton’s bellicose internationalism and her neoliberal economic policy. I thought that she could lose, even to Trump, and she did.

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Now, the term “neoliberal” has become something of a buzzword, flung about without much care. It has meaning, though: deregulation, paranoia about inflation, fiscal austerity and “free trade.” By “free,” neoliberals mean pretty much no-holds-barred. Neoliberalism, in other words, is traditional Republican policy.

The reason I go into all this is to suggest that there may well be a reason Clinton lost that has nothing to do with lies, misogyny, “Clinton fatigue” or even her own ineptitude. The truth, I believe, is that she represented the wrong ideas — and she had few of the saving skills and attributes of Obama. That she was almost beaten by a 73-year-old, crotchety, self-described socialist says what you need to know: the country was ready for something new; and it still is. The status quo of the Democratic Party is an old, tired, losing formula. I believe that most voters, without understanding the complexity and nuance of policy or legislation, see clearly that the old ways are not working for them. They want and need something new.

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At the risk of seeming atavistic, it must be said that there’s little to nothing really new in politics and policy. The rise of so-called Democratic Socialism is mostly a call for a return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party — a new New Deal, if you will. The first one worked awfully well, and it was still working when we began to dismantle it in the 1970s. This is hardly socialism — it is merely sanding down the rough edges of capitalism — and all the doctrinaire leftists are going to need to shut the hell up about that. It’s as close as they’re going to get. People who fancy themselves in the political center need to forget about a center, too. It does not exist.

For the rest of us, know this: opposition to Trumpism is a powerful, cohesive force, but it is not enough. You’ve got to be in favor of something, and it cannot be business-as-once-usual.