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Trumpism and the spectre of socialism. On the US election

I write this while we are still waiting to know the outcome of the 2020 American presidential election.  Six states—Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania—have yet to finish counting their votes and may not complete and certify those counts for days. Some states do not even require that absentee ballots arrive at the polls before November 12th.  While Biden has a slim path to victory and Trump an even slimmer one, we also don’t know what will happen with the court challenges the Trump campaign is filing today. These challenges will, among other things, attempt to de-legitimize mail ballots, a long established and accepted means of voting used this year by tens of millions to avoid crowded social settings during the Covid 19 pandemic.  

So there is much we do not know. But there are some things we do know, and with which we must reckon, no matter the outcome.  

Of approximately 155 million voters, which is about three quarters of the American adult population, between 72-75 million have voted to re-elect Donald Trump. This is a substantial increase over the 63 million that brought Trump to power in 2016. Thus, Trump not only lost few of his previous supporters, he recruited new ones, including from Black, Latinx and young white populations. Nearly a third of American voters affirm his presidency, and want more of it, or at least ardently want to avoid a Biden presidency.  

So what do we know about that? 

These voters either like or do not care that this president makes no attempt to lead or gather the nation, but, rather, barks, boasts, name-calls and attacks in the manner of an undisciplined playground bully. 

They either like or do not care that he pays lower taxes than working people and is nearly half a billion dollars in debt to unknown creditors.

They either like or do not care than he failed to deliver on his 2016 campaign promises, from a new health care plan, to re-industrializing the Midwest to a border wall paid for by Mexico, to addressing the opioid crisis. 

They either like or do not care that he eggs on white supremacist hate groups, armed rightwing militias, and dangerous conspiracy theories linked to threats of extreme civil violence.   

They either like or do not care that he has been credibly accused of sexual harassment or assault by over two dozen women, and routinely attacks female interlocutors or opponents with misogynist slurs. 

They either like or do not care that he approached Covid 19 almost indifferently, without regard for public health and medical protocols, such that the American infection and death rate is now surging in regions that support him and surpasses that of any industrialized nation, has helped to crater the economy, and will likely soon break the already overburdened American health care system.

They either like or do not care that the only federal fiscal rescue package during COVID, the CARES Act, far from alleviating the frightening predicaments of the working and middle class economically displaced by the pandemic, constituted the greatest single upward redistribution of wealth in the history of capitalism through tax cuts to the wealthy and cheap, unrestricted loans to corporations. 

They either like or do not care about his rejection of the climate emergency and related ecological crises that threaten everything about the future. 

Perhaps most significantly, they either like or do not care about the President’s contempt for democratic institutions, norms and practices. They affirm or are indifferent to the fact that his regime has all the markings of a new fascism, guaranteed to intensify in a second term. Apart from his own dictatorial personality, on display as he baselessly declared himself the election winner on Tuesday night, these include attempts to pack and control the courts and independent government agencies; punishing legislators, governors and entire states for lack of loyalty; relentless attacks on the media, on professionals and intellectuals; disseminating propaganda from his office; using the military and police to intimidate and quash resistance, and of course, challenging established procedures and outcomes for elections. 

But apart from those who really like all of the above—and some do—what of those who just do not care because the Trump regime offers something else that is vital to them? Here, there is no single issue or monolithic account. For some, all that matters is their investment portfolio or tax bill.  For others, it is the sanctity of heterosexual marriage or the unparalleled innocence of the fetus. For a few, it is Jerusalem or the West Bank settlements and for still others it is gun rights. And of course, for many it is their imperiled white and male supremacist entitlement. For nearly all, however, a certain kind of freedom is at stake. In nearly every interview with a Trump voter leading to the election, Biden and the Democratic Party were identified with socialism and Trump with freedom. The GOP Congressional campaigns pounded this theme: To vote against a Democrat was to prevent a socialist takeover of the nation, one exemplified in the DNC primary, by the “Squad” in Congress, by the supposed Marxists organizing Black Lives Matter, and by the Black woman VP candidate who once endorsed Medicare for All. 

It would be easy to imagine this as warmed over Cold War talk, and certainly that is what consolidated Trump support in Miami, Florida where millions of Cubans still nurse resentment over the 1959 revolution. But the Cold War was barely at play in the tarring of the Biden-Harris ticket with socialism. Rather, the danger at stake is the kind Hayek charted in the Road to Serfdom and Friedman depicted in Capitalism and Freedom. This is the sleeping socialist giant that the right sees contained in any program for social justice (which the right calls “social engineering”), that is, in any effort to redress systemic, historically generated unequal access to housing, banking, education, jobs and even voting, and the promise to replace regressive with progressive taxes on income and wealth.   

Obamacare is identified by the GOP with socialism. Fox News refers routinely to the socialism of the DNC. And the rightwing news site, Breitbart, identified “Kamrade Kamala” with communism after she released a campaign video explaining equity as a principle in which everyone begins a competition from the same starting line and plays by the same rules. These attributions do not invoke the danger of political repression (though they may extend to associations with enforced “political correctness”).  Rather, they draw on a fear of social provision and redistribution replacing a raw (rigged) market economy that Trump supporters have learned to identify as the space of self-determination. They may be living on a financial precipice, coping with opioid addiction in their families and communities, sending their children to failing schools and regard college as financially unreachable. But the socialist mantra fills them with fear that what little they have will be taken away by a Green New Deal, expanded Obamacare, expanded college accessibility, immigration reform, and a nation less hard and mean toward outsiders as well as its racially and ethnically abjected insiders. 

Of course what animates some Trump voters is more raw: visceral racism and xenophobia; hatred of feminists, environmentalists, and coastal elites; enraged resentment of the disdain they know educated and cosmopolitan Americans have for them; and love for a bully who grabs what he wants and assaults as he pleases. The passion of all Trump supporters cannot be explained by neoliberalism alone. But the most brilliant thing the GOP and its auxiliary media outlets did to overcome Trump’s actual performance was to tar the Democrats tout court with socialism and identify Trump with freedom. It was a version of freedom expressed in his resistance to Covid protocols, in his tax cuts for the rich, in extending the power and rights of corporations and in seeking to destroy what remained of the regulatory and social state. It was a version of freedom already saturating anti-government and anti-democratic neoliberal culture. All the GOP had to do was build on it. 

One can only wonder. If the DNC was going to be tarred with the socialist label, might it have been better to run an actual democratic socialist rather than Biden? Might this have generated a chance to educate America about what democratic socialism (and the freedom it features!) actually is, to openly excoriate the Trumpist kleptocracy and not only the person, and to galvanize the tens of millions of Millennials who once regarded 2020 as a year that could generate a fighting chance for the planet and their own prospects of thriving? Biden ran on decency, but that old-fashioned virtue wasn’t exactly at the top of most people’s concerns in the twenty-first century. For many, a better future is. 

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