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Strategies for trumping Trumpism

Grappling with the fallout of populism is critical to the survival of democratic societies in the US and beyond

The majority of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton are still reeling from the results of the election which will bring Donald Trump to the White House on January 20, 2017. Their reactions — echoed throughout the democratic world — have ranged from shock and surprise to a mixture of alarm, anger, depression, disbelief, outrage and self-flagellation. These sentiments have been exhibited in every conceivable public and private forum and have been especially visible in the streets, on social networks and in the media. Immediate responses — however passionate and powerful — are still just random expressions of political unease. Although they contain kernels of future directions, how they coalesce into viable forms of political action will have a critical impact on American and international futures. What alternatives are beginning to take shape and what are their implications?

The Trumpist phenomenon has several key components, the first — and most overriding — being its blatant nationalism. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that encapsulates a sense of loss together with immense hope for a better future. It also pinpoints those supposedly responsible for the depreciation of the American dream: minorities of all colors, religions and preferences who differ from the white majority — thus fueling bigotry, intolerance and racism, along with pent-up fears of the other. African-Americans, gays, Latinos, Jews and anyone who supports a diverse America have felt this antagonism viscerally (and often physically) during the course of the campaign and its aftermath. And finally, Trumpism highlights the vehicle which brought about the seeming regression — the Washington establishment and the Wall Street elites — who together purportedly sold out the American economy to globalization via inequitable trade agreements and American global dominance through misplaced foreign escapades. And finally, Donald Trump’s form of populism — which harps on a nationalism resting on deep-seated prejudices and growing class discrepancies — has been thickly laced with a profound gender bias.

During the campaign Hillary Clinton proved an easy target for all those opposed to various facets of American liberalism. She also became the living object for that misogyny that continues to manifest itself in the president-elect’s first set of (all-male) appointments.

Inevitably, the days following the elections not only continued the confrontation between Clinton and Trump supporters, but actually exacerbated it in new ways. Beyond the personal digestion of the results (ranging from jubilation to grief), many Democratic voters have taken comfort in public types of therapy (notably, the “post-it” empathy walls in New York subway stations, often expressing variations of the message “Love Trumps Hate”). Some Clinton supporters have disavowed the results in a series of spontaneous protests and marches throughout the country (at times devolving into violent clashes) under the banner “Trump is not my president”. Trump’s backers have viewed the outcome as a license to continue to berate Clinton supporters (viewed by Rudi Giuliani as “goons and thugs”) and mount verbal and even physical hate campaigns against Muslims, Jews, LGBTs and migrants. But such venting is not a replacement for longer term strategies to deal with the Trump phenomenon.

In post-election America (just as in Britain after Brexit, Israel after the 2015 elections, and in many parts of Europe), key political clashes will increasingly revolve around fundamental values. Liberalism, with its stress on diversity, human rights, equitability and transnationalism (however uneven its track record) is facing a serious challenge from a rampant neoliberalism which has now evolved into a managerial populism best embodied today in the person of Donald Trump (very similar political figures are gaining traction elsewhere).

Four incipient anti-Trumpist strategies are beginning to emerge. The first, and most obvious, is one of disengagement. It has an external expression in the form of overly publicized efforts to flee the country (the crash of the Canadian immigration website is a case in point). Its domestic articulation is far more serious: a purposeful dissociation from the public sphere into various types of escapism socially, geographically and — most significantly — mentally. However, neither of these types of withdrawal, whatever their meaning on the personal level, actually mounts a serious challenge to the impending Trumpist hegemony.

The second strategy, building on the initial public outcry against the election results, is one of resistance. At the moment, some purveyors of this approach are content to verbally promise an all-out struggle against the incoming administration (to the point of threatening separation from the United States). Others have focused more narrowly on specific causes (the circulation of petitions calling for the abolition of the Electoral College, decrying possible changes to Obamacare, warning about changes in the composition of the Supreme Court, protesting particular appointments) or the forging of new alliances (such as the emerging Muslim-Jewish coalition) and the revival of others (in the shape of the resuscitation of a reenergized Rainbow Coalition against growing bigotry and racism). The purpose of these efforts is still blurred. More to the point, they have failed to date to distinguish between a broad rejection of the incoming administration’s worldview and a modicum of empathy to the unresolved issues faced by many of its electoral backers.

A third — antithetical — strategy is one of adjustment. Working on the assumption that Washington will be dominated by Trumpism at least for the next four years, many Democratic stalwarts are arguing for a measure of pragmatism. Some are adopting a wait and see attitude in the hope that the incoming administration will prove to be more inclusive than it appears at first glance. Others are already urging practical accommodation as a means of salvaging at least some recent achievements. Major Jewish organizations have been among the first to promote such normalization. What they fail to do is to draw a clear line between what they can live with and what crosses clearly-demarcated normative lines. Thus, they have been hard-pressed to explain why the appointment of xenophobic, anti-Black and anti-women bigots with close ties to white supremacists (Stephen Bannon, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions) is in any way acceptable or why their positions — however ostensibly supportive of the current Israeli government — are not also anti-Semitic. When this happens, pragmatism devolves into opportunism and loses any ethical foundation.

The fourth approach, and admittedly the most difficult, is one of recalibration. This strategy presumes that in order to successfully halt spreading inter-group friction and isolationism it is necessary to identify the faults of old-school liberalism (particularly its penchant for a sweeping universalism insufficiently attentive to the specific needs and sentiments of particular, increasingly depressed, groups in their midst) and to revamp the liberal mindset by taking into account these concerns. On this rectified substantive platform, it may be possible to begin to regroup and organize a serious challenge to the values advocated by the incoming president. The first seeds of such a process are already evident on the local level: in grassroots communal efforts to disavow the new conventional wisdom and its guiding principles. The further elaboration of a refined liberal outlook is still being fleshed out, potentially offering the most comprehensive way to combat the consequences of further populist proliferation.

At this juncture, no single strategy to contend with the ramifications of Trumpism has gained ascendancy; perhaps no one strategy alone can contain all the answers. In the United States, as in Israel and large portions of Europe, it is likely that some combination of disengagement, resistance, adjustment and recalibration will be tried and ultimately perfected. What is clear is that all will have to provide concrete answers to the pressing question of how to sustain and develop multicultural democracies in ways that serve citizens with very different backgrounds, cultural identities and aspirations.

This challenge requires much strategic thought, reengagement, mobilization and action — along with heavy doses of patience. Still, successfully grappling with the fallout of spreading populism remains the key to the survival of democratic societies not only in the United States, but in all places subject to deeply disturbing processes of de-democratization.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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