Hope in Dark Times

Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017

Chris Maisano

DONALD TRUMP’S ELECTION shocked me and all of my comrades. While a Trump win was never outside the realm of possibility, all signs pointed to a close but decisive victory for Hillary Clinton. She never trailed in national polls, seemed to have a built-in advantage in key battleground states, and enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the ruling class.

These advantages, plus the widespread revulsion at Trump’s open racism and misogyny, would have propelled Clinton to the White House in any normal year. But it turns out that 2016 was not a normal year — far from it. As the editors of Salvage put it the morning after, in these times “the algorithms do not work, the machines are broken, and politics prevails over technique and personality cult.”(1)

It would be wrong to read the results as unalloyed proof of the strength of far right politics in the United States. As many commentators have observed, Trump did not win the White House because of a surge in support for him and the Republican Party, but rather a drop in turnout among Democratic voters in key states and districts.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Clinton ran almost exclusively on temperament and personality, and focused much of her appeal on suburban Republicans while taking the votes of women and people of color for granted. As Ed Rendell infamously described her strategy, “for every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents.”

Her campaign spent vast sums on television advertisements in states she didn’t need to win, and skimped on the states where the election was ultimately decided — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. While Clinton outperformed Obama in the liberal strongholds of the professional-managerial class, Trump crushed her in many downscale districts characterized by low levels of educational attainment, deindustrialization, and poor public health indicators.

Many pundits and commentators have seized on this data to argue that the “white working class” carried Trump to the White House. There is some truth to this argument. According to exit polls, about two-thirds of white voters without a college degree voted for Trump. He won white men without college degrees by a staggering 72%-23% margin, and won a strong majority (62%) of non-college white women voters.

In 2012, Barack Obama won Ohio’s union household vote by 23 points. In 2016, Trump won it by nine points, a remarkable 32-point swing in a key battleground state with many working class white voters.

Beyond the Headlines

The reality beyond the headlines, however, is far more complicated than the media narratives suggest.

Consider McDowell County, West Virginia. This overwhelmingly white, rural and working class county has become the symbol of Trump Country in many media reports. Trump won over 90% of the GOP primary vote in McDowell, and about 75% of the vote in the general election. But the narrative unravels the moment you start investigating it.

While Trump ran up the score in McDowell’s Republican primary, only 860 people voted in it. By contrast, about 2700 residents voted in the Democratic primary and Bernie Sanders, the Jewish socialist from Vermont, won it with 55% or roughly 1400 votes (Clinton polled more primary votes than Trump as well).

A similar pattern played out in the general election. Trump may have won three quarters of the presidential vote in McDowell, but the initial returns showed a shockingly low participation rate of 36.2%.(2)

The actual data from McDowell County suggest that many people in white working class communities are open to a broad left agenda when one is presented to them, or have simply disengaged from politics altogether. They have not, by and large, become foot soldiers of the far right.

As expected, Clinton won the overwhelming majority of the Black vote. But enthusiasm for her candidacy among African Americans was decidedly half-hearted, particularly in working-class Black communities. As Matt Karp put it in a post-election analysis for Jacobin, “a choice between the Democrats and a party that flirts with the Ku Klux Klan is no choice at all,” and despite Trump’s racially inflammatory rhetoric many Black voters simply did not vote.(3)

A very illuminating New York Times profile of Black (non-)voters in Milwaukee highlights the ways in which the Democratic Party has abandoned the entire working class — not just working-class whites. A lack of material improvements under the first Black president kept many working-class Black voters away from the polls, and the ones who did vote seem to have done so under emotional duress.

As a barber who wrote in Bernie Sanders for president put it:

“I’m so numb,” said Jahn Toney, 45, who had written in Mr. Sanders. He said no president in his lifetime had done anything to improve the lives of Black people, including Mr. Obama, whom he voted for twice. “It’s like I should have known this would happen. We’re worse off than before.”(4)

While election data seem to indicate that Clinton may have outperformed Obama among highly-educated Black voters, it seems that this enthusiasm did not trickle down to working-class African Americans. Like their white counterparts, many of them didn’t see any good reason to participate in the election, despite Trump’s racism. As one of those non-voters profiled in the Milwaukee report despairingly concluded, “ain’t none of this been working.”

Grim Prospects — and Hope

There’s no sugarcoating it — the Trump administration is going to be a disaster for working people of all races and backgrounds. If early reports are any indication, a unified Republican government is eager to take an axe to Medicare and Medicaid, the federal tax code, business and environmental regulations, reproductive health, and workers’ rights.

It seems very likely that Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court will result in an anti-union decision in the pivotal Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which would impose a right-to-work regime on the entire public sector.(5)

While the Republicans are short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it also seems likely that they will attempt to push a national right-to-work law covering the private sector through Congress. If these efforts are successful, then the labor movement as we have known it since the New Deal will be finished.

Considering the circumstances we’re in, it would be very easy to succumb to despair. But a sober reading of the situation makes it clear that all is not lost.

To begin with, the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign should be a profound source of hope. If Trump’s victory is a sign that we no longer live in “normal” times, so should be the mass popularity of a politician who proudly identified as a socialist while campaigning for president of the United States.

Not only was Sanders not harmed by the label, he drew strength from it, particularly among the young people for whom capitalism is synonymous with rampant inequality, endless wars, racism and police brutality, and crushing student debt. This is a major breakthrough in U.S. politics, and we must take advantage of it.

Furthermore, Clinton’s disastrous campaign has exposed the utter bankruptcy of establishment liberalism in this country. In the wake of Trump’s election, thousands of people have flocked into socialist organizations, including my own Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which now has well over 10,000 dues-paying members.

Many are young and working-class people of all backgrounds, who have been radicalized by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Jacobin magazine, the Sanders campaign, and the Democratic Party’s indifference to their needs and interests. The relative strength of our organization’s left wing has increased, and there is a growing rejection of the realignment strategy that has dominated DSA and the broader left for decades.

The need for new left-wing and socialist formations capable of both winning elections and building mass movements is clearer now than it ever has been. As the labor movement becomes increasingly deinstitutionalized, the organizational void it leaves behind must be filled (at least partially) by a new left so working people don’t retreat from politics entirely or heed the siren song of the far right. In addition to fighting attacks on racial minorities, immigrants and LGBTQ people, this will be one of the primary tasks of the left in the days ahead.

Finally, it is important to remember that the right’s political gains are fragile, tentative and vulnerable to counterattack. Trump lost the popular vote by two million ballots, and his election was immediately greeted with mass protests in cities around the country. He will assume office as one of the most reviled and unpopular presidents in history.

Republican dominance will give them a window to pursue their toxic agenda in the short term, and they will move quickly to take advantage. They will do nothing, however, to address the needs and interests of the vast majority of the population.

We must be prepared to organize people’s anger at the system into a broad movement with the capacity not just to fight back against the right, but to offer a radical and credible alternative to the failed politics of lesser-evilism.

The most dynamic and emergent forces in U.S. politics today are on our side, and possibilities for a radical transformation of the system have not yet been foreclosed. Whether we make good on them is up to us.


  1. “Saturn Devours His Young: President Trump,” Salvage, November 11, 2016 (http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/saturn-devours-his-young-president-trump/).
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  2. That percentage will likely increase as the votes are tallied fully, but it will remain well below the overall rate in the state and nationally.
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  3. Matt Karp, “Fairfax County, USA,” Jacobin, November 28, 2016 (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/clinton-election-polls-white-workers-firewall/).
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  4. Sabrina Tavernise, “Many in Milwaukee District Didn’t Vote — And Don’t Regret It,” New York Times, November 21, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/many-in-milwaukee-neighborhood-didnt-vote-and-dont-regret-it.html?_r=1).
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  5. For political and historical background on the Friedrichs case, see Chris Maisano, “The Road to Friedrichs,” Jacobin, January 11, 2016 (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/01/friedrichs-public-sector-unions-abood-right-to-work/).
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Januiary-February 2017, ATC 186