You’re terrified. I’m terrified too.
It’s not hyperbole to say the United States, and in fact the world, will need some luck to get out of this one alive. So let’s concentrate on making our own luck.
The people who run America have constructed a political system that’s like a glitchy killer robot, one even they can’t control anymore.
Working as designed it murders African Americans and pregnant women and opioid addicts. The Iraq War was a minor hiccup that caused it to obliterate a country, several thousand Americans, and hundreds of thousands of people all around the world. The housing bubble was a more serious bug that liquidated hundreds of thousands more from the poorer half of the rich world.
But with Donald Trump, for perhaps the first time, the robot totally ignored the commands of its creators and now has everyone in its crosshairs.
If there’s anything to learn from history, it’s that elites don’t dismantle their beloved killer robots on their own. Either regular people — including you reading this right now — will deactivate this one, or it will never happen at all. Not a single person knows exactly how to pull this off. But one thing’s for sure: Trump’s rise proves that whatever it is we’ve been doing isn’t working.
So let’s exhale and let go of our fear, so we can think as clearly as we can about who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. We can start by sharing whatever educated guesses we have about what we should do for the next few decades. Here are mine.
Politics is absolutely a matter of life and death. Treat it like it is.
Twenty years ago U.S. elites had so successfully depoliticized America that simply caring about politics was like having a super-weird hobby. It wasn’t even like being a Civil War re-enactor; it was like being a War of 1812 re-enactor. The social opprobrium meant that many of the people in grassroots politics were troubled kooks.
Today, mostly thanks to the internet, tons of normal human beings have been drawn into the offline political maelstrom, which is far less awful than the online one. Join it yourself and bring as many family and friends as you can.
Obviously this is easier said than done unless you have a fair amount of privilege. Part of what people with privilege need to do is make it easier for those who don’t.
If there’s going to be any political force that can resist Trump and build a livable future, it will be led by African Americans, Latinos, and young people from all backgrounds.
The role for older, richer white liberals will be important but painfully different from what they’re used to. They’ll have to support other people’s priorities, put up money for things they don’t control, and use all of their social power to protect Muslims, immigrants, and every threatened minority.
What white progressives can and must pursue is outreach to Trump’s white base. One of the killer robot’s main fuels is white supremacy. But human beings are complex and inscrutable and sometimes change. If just 20 percent of the white supremacy could be neutralized, the robot might be much less powerful.
White liberals will be more effective doing this if they first spend time considering how they may be as equally complicit in white supremacy as Trump voters.
The core belief of the technocrats who run the Democratic Party is that people rationally evaluate facts and then make decisions.
In reality, humans all have an emotional, internally consistent story running inside them all the time about the world and their place in it – and if they encounter any “facts” that contradict this story, the facts just bounce right off. Ironically, this is demonstrated by how Democratic technocrats emotionally reject all the evidence for this.
Trump succeeds at telling a story – and while it’s hateful and bogus, any story always beats no story. Clinton never tried to tell a competing story, making her blizzard of facts meaningless to non-technocrats.
Part of Trump’s story was “Muslims are lunatics who want to slaughter your children, we can’t let them in!” Clinton would respond, “An intriguing Harvard School of Government study found our circa-2014 immigration vetting procedures were able to measure radicalization by five benchmarks that [audience loses consciousness].”
By contrast, a progressive story would say: “We’ve been bombing the Middle East for 60 years. People there are mad about it just like we were mad about 9/11. Until we stop bombing them a small number of Muslims will always want to retaliate, and some will pull it off no matter what we do to prevent it.”
That’s more complex than Trump’s story, but it’s superior because it’s true. If people internalize it, they can also understand facts about the world that would otherwise seem incomprehensible.
Here’s another possible progressive story:
“Capitalism was so cruel and brutal 100 years ago that people came up with an even worse solution, communism. Rather than make compromises that would take the wind out of communism’s sails, the 1 percent of the day decided to back fascism. This caused a war so catastrophic that the 1 percent understood they had no choice but to accept reforms that would make life bearable for regular people.
“Then communism collapsed, taking the daily threat of nuclear war with it. Today’s 1 percent should be thanking God they got out of the 20th century alive and vowing never to make those mistakes again. Instead they’ve decided to make every mistake again and turn capitalism back into something that human beings cannot live with. Here’s our plan to stop them.”
Again, that’s a lot more complicated than “build a wall.” But that’s reality for you.
Any successful progressive movement will have to come up with its own broad, true story of who we are and where we’re going.
When and where are the next Democratic and Republican Party meetings in your neighborhood? You don’t know, because neither the Democrats nor Republicans are political parties in the historical sense. Mostly they just demand we send them money and then yell at us about voting every few years.
While it has almost passed out of Americans’ living memory, parties used to have regular, local meetings where everyone got together, yammered about politics for a while, and then drank beer. Elections were the culmination of what parties did, not the starting point.
A healthy political party would foster community and provide people with concrete things to do between elections. Mike McCurry, one of Bill Clinton’s press secretaries, once suggested that Democrats should turn themselves into a pool of neighborhood volunteers “so that when people are trying to accomplish something, they would say: Call the Democrats, they always have people.”
Or they could get members involved in a local fight for a $15 minimum wage. Or helping women get a safe abortion. Or restoring funding cuts to local colleges. Or whatever members decide. That’s politics.
In return, political parties need to provide concrete benefits to members. If the Republicans are going to murder the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats should be figuring out if they’re a big enough risk pool to provide health insurance.
I realize this is so far out of Americans’ experience that it sounds bizarre. It’s also the case that both party hierarchies would try to block any worthwhile experiments. But if the new organization based on Bernie Sanders’s campaign succeeds, it will probably look something like this.
Corporation television funded by corporate ads will never, ever hold political charlatans accountable. That’s not part of their business model.
The core problem is that accurate news isn’t profitable. It never has been and it never will be. Newspapers made it seem like it could be for about 30 years after World War II, but that was an illusion: The news just piggybacked on what people cared about more, like sports and classified ads. As soon as technology made it possible to deliver it all separately, the news business collapsed.
Fortunately, there’s a patriotic solution: public funding.
It’s totally forgotten now, but for the 100 years after the American Revolution, the U.S. government made it free or almost free to send newspapers anywhere by mail. It was available to papers of all political perspectives, with no government censorship. The rationale was straightforward: This was necessary for people to participate in governing themselves.
The cost was significant, the equivalent of about $30 billion today. One intriguing idea that would support the media on a comparable scale with a comparable lack of government influence would be $200 vouchers for every adult, who could then give them to any nonprofit outlet of his or her choice. To work, such outlets would have to take seriously the realities of human cognition, described above.
We’re not going to make something like this happen anytime soon. But since our lives depend on it, let’s start working on it now.
Don’t give up. As bone-chilling as this moment is, it also proves that no one’s in charge and just about everything in America’s up for grabs. After all, Bernie Sanders looks like he’s appearing in a role where the casting notice read: “Male, 70s, white, must look exactly like the caricature of a socialist from 1980s right-wing agitprop.” Yet from a standing start he almost beat Hillary Clinton.
Young Americans are extremely progressive, so much so that Frank Luntz, the GOP’s top pollster, says it should “frighten every business and political leader.” To some degree we just need to engage in a holding action until they’re running things.
Despite having no resources other than lots of cellphones with the Twitter app, Black Lives Matter has done more to blunt police brutality than anyone in the past 40 years. There should be classes taught around the world about how they’re doing it.
Years of effort forced the top of the Democratic Party to change its position on the trillion-dollar river that is Social Security. Bill Clinton yearned to divert a healthy flow of the cash to Wall Street, and was only thwarted at the last moment by Monica Lewinsky. Obama’s greatest dream was to cut benefits so that David Brooks would write a complimentary column about him. Even Trump will be hard pressed to slash it.
Lastly, if you squint even Trump’s triumph has a teeny-tiny silver lining: The GOP’s grassroots don’t care at all about the party’s dogma and will discard it at a moment’s notice.
As Bernie Sanders put it this spring, Obama’s “biggest mistake” was organizing a huge grassroots army and then telling all those loyal followers, “Thank you very much for electing me, I’ll take it from here.”
Obama had one of the most powerful political organizations ever assembled in U.S. history, and he just disbanded it. According to one of Obama’s top organizers, he saw it “as a tiger you can’t control.” This unquestionably contributed to the current Republican dominance of Congress, and now most of his presidency may be washed away like a sandcastle.
If he ran for president for some reason other than just to live in the White House for a while, he can’t now start jetting around the world and giving speeches for $1 million. He’s going to have to stay right here and try to muster his troops again. They would be a force to be reckoned with, especially if he and Sanders could collaborate effectively.
Like you, I have absolutely no idea if he’d do this. Maybe we should ask.
Liberals, leftists and sundry have real and profound differences. But for the foreseeable future we must hang together or we will surely hang separately, metaphorically or otherwise.
Since we’re stuck with each other, let’s be kind. In a country engineered to treat everyone horrendously every day, demonstrating that we extend real respect to one another might even be a winning recruitment strategy.