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What now?

The American Left under Trump


On Thursday November 17, 2016, Freddie DeBoer got off work, walked his dog, and came to Amber A’Lee Frost’s filthy Brooklyn apartment for a second discussion, this time to autopsy the Clinton campaign they had previously considered a shoo-in. This time Amber sprung for overly hoppy micro-brews as per Freddie’s preference, even though she believes IPA’s taste like a bong farted. The following is a transcript of their conversation, with most of the “um”s and curse words taken out, so that they sound like serious intellectuals.

Amber A’Lee Frost: Okay, so let’s… go ahead and start… let’s start talking about… let’s do a mea culpa.

Freddie DeBoer: Yeah. Well, we fucked up.

AAF: We fucked up so badly.

FDB: We fucked up really hard.

AAF: Everyone fucked up. I have a friend that teaches Political Science at John Jay College — brilliant woman — and we were all having a post-election wake/socialist dinner party, and we all went around the room talking about what we got wrong, and her answer was “I trusted the experts, because I’m a political scientist and I had faith in the models and the authority of experts.”

FDB: Yeah.

AAF: I overestimated the competency and the machinery of the Democratic Party.

FDB: I was completely wrong. I was so confident that they were gonna win.

AAF: Everyone was. Certainly the Hillary people were.

FDB: I was way overconfident. I assumed that the Democrats were the party that had their shit together for a  “Get Out the Vote”-operation, and now we hear all these stories like they didn’t go to Wisconsin post-Primary. Or the fact that John Kerry in 2004 had  ten times as many canvassers in Michigan as Hillary Clinton did this time. Just all these fundamental break-downs, and it turns out a lot of it is that they had an algorithm that told them not to campaign in these places.

AAF: The liberal fetish for technocracy always backfires and they never learn.

FDB: It was incredible. They paid an enormous sum of money for this algorithm Ada, and it told them not to campaign in the Rust Belt at all, that they didn’t need to. So for example they spent way more time and money in Nebraska with its three electoral votes than they did in Michigan, which is fucking insane. It’s just crazy. It sucks too because I could have been prescient: I’ve been saying for years that there’s going to be an electoral armageddon coming for the Democrats, but I thought it would be in 2020.

AAF: Absolutely. I definitely saw them losing interest in a massive swath of the population, but I also just assumed they had their shit together on some level, and at least knew what they had to do to scrape by. But they spent so much time on these weird cultural campaigns, the amount of money they spent on fighting internet trolls.

FDB: It’s weird in general to spend so much money on capturing the voters you were never going to lose anyway. They spent so much of their time and energy turning over their social media accounts to Lena Dunham or doing Katy Perry concerts or going on Broad City and Saturday Night Live. The people who are into that shit are never going to vote for Donald Trump anyway. It was just a terrible allocation of resources in general, but especially in a cycle we knew was about populist anger. She was already not a populist candidate, and it just seemed to play to her weaknesses instead of her strengths. It’s incredible.

AAF: Felix [my roommate and Chapo Trap House podcast co-host] had a good line about how the Democrats spent more time and used more resources trying to defeat Bernie than they did Trump. And they were certainly more organized in their attack.

FDB: Yeah, they’re better at that.

AAF: I was incredibly depressed initially. I was worried about all the institutions that we had started to build, as small as they are, that only exist and grow in direct opposition to liberals in power — Jacobin, Current Affairs, Chapo Trap House, and, most importantly, Democratic Socialists of America. But, perhaps to enable my irrational optimism, there has been such a massive spike in interest in all of those things after the election. It’s certainly not like it was after Bush, where the left was so weak and had no real political program or organizations. I think people are more invested in ideas of economic justice than they were. I was foreseeing doom for a few days after, but thousands of people have been enrolling in DSA. Who knows what that will actually yield, but it does indicate that people now understand that liberals can no longer beat the right. For a long time people like you and I have known that liberals really have no interest in beating the right, but now we know that they can’t — they’re no longer capable.

FDB: I think we’re still doomed. I think we’re fundamentally fucked in a lot of ways.

AAF: Well I think we’re on the fast track to American decline, but maybe that’s not a bad thing long-term [laughing].

FDB: I do think that we’re seeing a real spike in activism, particularly from people who had once been skeptics. A lot of my squishy liberal Dem friends who ten years ago would have made fun of protests are now protesting. I think that really does matter. I also think we on the left should take a couple of lessons from this. Number one, my entire adult life the argument against trying left wing shit has been that this is a center-right nation and the voters just have too much attachment to conservatism to pass anything we want, but Donald Trump is not a conservative in any meaningful sense. And so not only is the country as a whole not enthralled with economic conservatism, it turns out even the Republican Party isn’t. So from now on we should reply to moderates and liberals who insist “don’t go too fast because this is a conservative country,” that actually we just showed that it’s not. And the other thing is, as grim as it is to look ahead, Donald Trump is going to be unable to fulfill the promises he made. He’s not going to be able or willing to actually give anybody anything. He’s not going to help people who are suffering under globalization. He’s not going to take on Wall Street. He’s not going to get us out of our foreign entanglements. His cabinet is filled with the same old Republican guard who fucked us all over on those fronts in the past. So I think it’s going to be easy to demonstrate his promises are fraudulent.

AAF: He’s too incompetent to enact any of the policies that might have actually helped people. I think it’s just going to be chaotic, but I just have no idea what’s going to happen.

FDB: The Republican Party sort of grabbed control of his transition team in some ways, which is why you’re seeing neocons and Wall Street guys after he ran a campaign attacking neocons and Wall Street guys. They have reasserted in his administration the preeminence of financial capital and limitless war. People have said this before, but I think if we could get in a Manchurian Candidate in there to explain the concept of a public option in healthcare but let him name it “TrumpCare,” he might immediately jump on board [Laughing] Because he’s so fucking dumb and he wouldn’t know what you were doing!

AAF: Yeah totally! “We’re gonna make it gold. It’s gonna be beautiful. It’s gonna be amazing. Everyone’s gonna love it!”

FDB: My assumption is that the Republican Party will be careful enough to form a bubble around him to maintain the typical Republican agenda, and Paul Ryan will end up dictating terms, which is terrifying.

AAF: At the same time his volatility means it just takes one world leader calling him a pussy and he bombs the whole country back into the Stone Age. But, moving forward, I really only have some amorphous ideas. We are going to have to form some kind of united front of the broad left, but I think at this point it has to be lead by communists and socialists. I think a lot of where we did fail in our opposition to Bush is allowing liberals to dictate the terms, and that’s why we ended up with the drone President, deporter-in-chief. I’m very wary that the resistance to this new political era is going to be “Fuck Trump,” and a replay of “Fuck Bush.” But we have to be based in politics, not on a politician. I’m very concerned that Trump will serve as an icon, which is the flip side of the whole Saul Alinksy tendency of putting a face to the enemy. That has shown to produce shallow liberal politics. So I guess it has to be anti-fascist, but based in a positive political program.

FDB: A lot of this is just going to have to be protecting the vulnerable people in your immediate context in whatever way you can. I do think we already have signs of it here in the People’s Republic of New York. Municipal governments are stepping up. I think politics is going to become very local again. For example, the California State University system just reaffirmed their policy that none of its employees can narc on any undocumented students, and that they won’t cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security unless under the compulsion of a subpoena. That stuff matters and will make a real difference in people’s lives.

AAF: Yeah… but again, I don’t just want to maintain ground, I want to have an offense. I always come back to the same thing as a vulgar Marxist with silly workerist tendencies, and I think this will have to come back to labor. Mass organized actions through the workplace. We’ve seen a surge in mass demonstrations in the past few years, some have been more effective than others. Murders of civilians by the police in 2016 are nearly consistent with the numbers in 2015, so we certainly need to rid ourselves of the idea that pure protest has some sort of power. These are political problems that require political solutions. The only thing I can think of is taking hostage that which matters most to the capitalist and bringing everything to a screeching halt. That’s not unprecedented, but it’s certainly something that Americans are out of practice with.

FDB: I think it depends on what examples you want to use. The AIDS crisis and ACT UP activism was very effective, but they had very specific goals and could pressure very specific public agencies like the FDA.

AAF: But we don’t have an agency to appeal to.

FDB: Yeah, well, the goal of removing Trump is not going to happen through official channels. But I would bet that there is a good chance Trump will resign and we’ll end up with a President Mike Pence.

AAF: But everyone is even more scared of that, and reasonably so.

FDB: Mm-hmm. Mike Pence is…

AAF: He’s a calculating monster.

FDB: He’s a calculating monster and he was probably the most anti-choice governor in the country, and he has the backing of the party. A President Pence has almost all the bad features of Trump, but you could lose some of the liberal opposition to him because, you know, “oh he’s just an old school Republican.”

AAF: Yeah… so…

FDB: So…ways forward?

AAF: Yeah… god.

FDB: I mean we’re fucked. We really are fucked.

AAF: To be fair, though, if Hillary won we would also be fucked, at least on a global level.

FDB: We would also be fucked but one of the things that’s most fucked up about this is that people who were politically dead have been resurrected, like Giuliani. It’s a rogue’s gallery. Did you see that Henry Kissinger is meeting with Trump?

AAF: [screaming from the kitchen while getting more beer] He’s going to DIE!

FDB: He’s 93!

AAF: Why won’t he die?!?

FDB: Michelle Rhee is running out the last of her credibility, and that might put to rest the whole charter school and testing model, because finally bougie parents saw how terrible it was. But the rogue’s gallery frightens the hell out of me. Paul Ryan appears really ready to go after Medicare.

AAF: There could be some resistance against that, though. Medicare is the third rail in American politics, because of the older Republican base. I’m actually panicking about climate change in a way I never have before.

FDB: On the one hand, yes, that is urgent. On the other hand, Obama policies were not seeing to climate change. Even if Hillary pushed through all her propositions, Miami is still under water in however many years.

AAF: Bangladesh is going to be underwater before Miami and we just won’t care. It’s going to be horrific, disastrous weather that kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in undeveloped countries before it even gets to us. And that’s going to accelerate the migrant crisis and people are going to be displaced, and that will feed into the global trend of anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism.

FDB: On the optimistic side, there’s a chance that the risk of legitimate nuclear war went down. I was horrified that the Democrats were reinstigating hostilities with Russia. But then again, he’s fucking Trump, so who knows what he’s going to do. I have no idea. And that’s really the thing, he’s so completely… he’s so entirely… fickle… and free of…

AAF: He’s an idiot.

FDB: He’s an idiot.

AAF: He’s a fucking idiot.

FDB: He has no consistent political positions. He has no ideological core. It’s just impossible to know what’s going to happen. So I don’t know… maybe we will go to nuclear war.

AAF: I feel like Duterte could call him a “faggot” and we would nuke the Philippines. I’m literally going through the rolodex of global political leaders that might challenge Trump’s masculinity or authority. As you know, I think the threat of masculinity has become a bit overblown due to internet feminist discourse — though I certainly have my own bias since I’m a big fan of masculinity from way back — but Trump’s machismo is actually monstrously terrifying because it’s been weaponized with the most absolute weapons on earth.

FDB: If you’re looking for optimism, I think we might see a really amazing time for agitprop and resistance art. I mean the Reagan era was terrible but if gave us a lot of really amazing punk music and visual art… and…

AAF: [anguished, wordless animal wailing]

FDB: Yeah, I know you’re too cool for that stuff.

AAF: [extended keening towards doom]

FDB: [trying desperately to console me] Come on! You like The Replacements! You like The Dead Kennedys!

AAF: [exhausted laughter] I like not dying better!

FDB: [Joking.] Well, Amber, some of us aren’t going to make it.

AAF: Well… I’m encouraged by the way people are responding and I’m glad people are trying to come up with plans. Have you read Seth Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party?”

FDB: I have.

AAF: I don’t agree with him entirely on this stuff. I think relying on a Democratic Party right now is so dangerous, when they’ve proven to be futile at best and actively detrimental at worst, but there has to be something.

FDB: Doug Henwood says this a lot and it’s true — third parties are irrelevant, but when you try to take over the Democratic Party like Bernie Sanders did, they crush you.

AAF: Yeah, we’ve seen people pushing for Keith Ellison for DNC Chair, but first of all DNC Chair isn’t actually that powerful. He can’t create a new platform. Second of all, if the argument is just that’s he’s a good man we want to see move up in the ranks, and I think that he is, well, we’ve seen what the Democratic Party does to good men.

FDB: Yeah, I’m not going to be out there beating the bushes for Keith Ellison. I guess my support for the idea is that there is going to be a DNC Chair.

AAF: Yeah, and I hope it’s him.

FDB: Sure, I hope it’s him. And he is saying the Democrats need to get back to door-to-door canvassing instead of relying on algorithms.

AAF: It’s just amazing to me that Bernie Sanders, who posed zero threat to capitalism whatsoever, was just so viciously disposed of. He’s not a radical. He’s not even particularly politically sophisticated.

FDB: Just a cool, old New Deal liberal who calls himself a socialist and that’s fine.

AAF: Yeah, a social democrat, and that’s fine. But they had to get rid of him. And he’s the most popular politician in the United States right now.

FDB: I think the Democrats have to have a positive message. They have to move in a more economically left direction. Democrats have trouble differentiating their message from the Republicans in a strong way because they’ve been triangulating so long. They need to nominate people who can make a credible argument that they will represent the interests the masses against the interests of the few.

AAF: I don’t think we can do anything with the Democrats.

FDB: I think you’re right, but I don’t know what else to do.

AAF: I think we have to build a new thing.

FDB: In the mean time, just hold on. Try to defend people however you can.