Logging Out


Novem­ber 8, 2016 – we may remem­ber this as the day that the lib­er­al elite of the Amer­i­can coasts learned of a world out­side its Face­book feed. The cohe­sion of their world­view was rup­tured by the maps that split the nation and the lib­er­al imag­i­nary in two, the very car­tog­ra­phy that had become a hall­mark of that imag­i­nary: blue fringes sep­a­rat­ed by a vast land­scape of red, an unknown con­ti­nent of resent­ment, nation­al­ism, fam­i­ly val­ues, and firearms.

For the months run­ning up to this upset, the lib­er­al world­view attempt­ed to main­tain its uni­ty, por­tray­ing the res­i­dents of the Rust Belt as dupes of an absurd, spec­tac­u­lar machine. They had been swayed by the rav­ings of a buf­foon who appealed to their most igno­rant, rep­re­hen­si­ble prej­u­dices. Yet the ratio­nal and lit­er­ate among us, this nar­ra­tive assumed, could not pos­si­bly resist the allure of a pantsuit, an ele­gant and pro­fes­sion­al uni­form of the Amer­i­can future for the cos­mopoli­tan and enlight­ened lib­er­al who prefers drone strikes to mili­tias. Backed by a tremen­dous war chest, an arse­nal of celebri­ties, and a claim to rep­re­sent love itself, this exem­plary lib­er­al sub­ject would deter­mine the course of the elec­tion. Its votes would out­num­ber those of the dupes; it would see itself reflect­ed in the White House, to car­ry on the lega­cy of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go pro­fes­sor.

The non-dupes, how­ev­er, were mis­tak­en. The per­verse ide­ol­o­gy of Trump­ism had far greater mate­r­i­al force than any ratio­nal cal­cu­la­tion – to the point that the entire sta­tis­ti­cal appa­ra­tus of the lib­er­al media man­aged to get things exact­ly back­wards.

Today the non-dupes are also moral­ists. And who can blame them? An elec­toral man­date for unhinged misog­y­ny and racism is ter­ri­fy­ing, and demands con­dem­na­tion. Sad­ly, this whol­ly jus­ti­fied indig­na­tion presents no path to a polit­i­cal prac­tice which can destroy such mon­sters. All our cul­tur­al edu­ca­tion, the Ivory Tow­er hege­mo­ny of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, has not man­aged to shat­ter the ugli­est lega­cies of our Her­ren­volk democ­ra­cy; in fact, it seems to have pro­vid­ed such big­otry with a new source of nour­ish­ment, as com­mon decen­cy is reject­ed along with MSNBC and lattes as the cul­ture of the estab­lish­ment.

Lib­er­als appear to be at a loss to explain how their world­view shat­tered overnight. It’s too ear­ly to tell what hap­pened, and a full analy­sis will require detailed, empir­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion, but a few things are clear at the out­set.

Even while num­bers con­tin­ue to roll in, a lack of enthu­si­asm for the par­lia­men­tary process has made itself felt. If the num­bers hold, vot­er turnout was at its low­est since Bush-Ker­ry in 2004. What­ev­er comes of these num­bers, the map tells a clear sto­ry of a strik­ing shift that sweeps across the Mid­west, with near­ly one third of the 700 coun­ties that went twice for Oba­ma defect­ing for Trump. Indeed, at the same time as a surge of votes com­ing from rur­al areas, the urban base of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty in these same states saw low­er vot­er turnout – total Demo­c­ra­t­ic votes fell by near­ly sev­en mil­lion from 2012 lev­els. To off­set the surge from the coun­try­side, the Democ­rats need­ed high num­bers from the cities. They didn’t get them, and this is why Hillary Clin­ton lost in Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin, and Michi­gan.

This out­come can in part be chalked up to vot­er sup­pres­sion, espe­cial­ly in places like North Car­oli­na and Wis­con­sin, but that does not tell the whole sto­ry. We must look instead to the log­ic of the less­er evil, which has nev­er brought bod­ies into the street, and is bare­ly more effec­tive for bring­ing them to the bal­lot box. This year’s vot­ers want­ed to vote for some­one, not against some­one, and alarm­ing­ly this dynam­ic worked in Trump’s favor. The Not-Trump plat­form of the Democ­rats suc­ceed­ed only in demor­al­iz­ing peo­ple. Near­ly half of all eli­gi­ble vot­ers stayed home.

This lack of pos­i­tive vision led lib­er­als to a fail­ing iden­ti­tar­i­an strat­e­gy. As a woman, Clin­ton expect­ed to secure the female vote, which she thought would deliv­er her the elec­tion. In fact, a large part of her cam­paign was devot­ed to expos­ing Trump’s vile misog­y­ny. Yet when the num­bers came in, 53% of white women went for Trump. Clin­ton received only 43% – worse than Oba­ma among white women. The nos­tal­gic sec­ond-wave appeal to com­mon wom­an­hood had com­plete­ly failed.

The iden­ti­tar­i­an strat­e­gy revolved equal­ly around race. Clin­ton is white, but based her cam­paign on win­ning non-white vot­ers, with the assump­tion that since Trump was so clear­ly a white racist, non-whites would come to their sens­es and vote against him. And indeed they did – to an extent. In fact, Clin­ton did worse among African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos than Oba­ma. More sur­pris­ing­ly, near­ly a third of Asians and Lati­nos vot­ed for Trump. To con­clude that Clinton’s num­bers were low­er than expect­ed hard­ly does this sce­nario jus­tice. What hap­pened is that one third of Lati­no vot­ers cast their bal­lots for a man who called Mex­i­cans rapists and crim­i­nals and promised to build a wall along the bor­der.

There are many rea­sons for this bizarre out­come, reli­gion and social val­ues among them. But there is a deep, dras­tic fail­ure in the iden­ti­tar­i­an strat­e­gy to mobi­lize its very own con­stituen­cy – one which has its obverse in Trump’s extra­or­di­nar­i­ly suc­cess­ful white-nation­al­ist iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. With the demo­graph­ic shifts in the Unit­ed States, Trump’s anti-immi­grant racism should have destroyed him from the begin­ning. Yet the Clin­ton cam­paign man­aged to con­vince many non-white vot­ers to stay home, and some to vote for the can­di­date endorsed by the KKK. There is no ques­tion that white racism con­tributed mas­sive­ly to Trump’s suc­cess; but to com­bat racism in this coun­try, we will have to rethink an anti-racist strat­e­gy that has served most­ly to diver­si­fy the pro­fes­sion­al-man­age­r­i­al class.

Some on the left are tempt­ed to join Barack Oba­ma in say­ing that “the sun will rise in the morn­ing” – put dif­fer­ent­ly, that like every oth­er elec­tion, we are deal­ing with just anoth­er crim­i­nal, anoth­er politi­cian who will keep the cap­i­tal­ist gears spin­ning. But once again they are mis­tak­en. A reori­en­ta­tion of rul­ing-class strat­e­gy and a realign­ment of its pow­er bloc will have con­se­quences for the future field of class strug­gle that we can­not pre­dict in advance.

This realign­ment can­not be reduced to a clear mean­ing, advan­tage or dis­ad­van­tage. To be sure, it has opened a space for a right-wing extrem­ism that should put all those who care about jus­tice on alert. Yet at the same time, we see that the rul­ing bloc is not so omnipo­tent, not so mono­lith­ic. On the Demo­c­ra­t­ic side, the estab­lish­ment crushed the Bernie Sanders cam­paign. But on the Repub­li­can side, Trump secured the nom­i­na­tion by tak­ing advan­tage of the wide and inco­her­ent field. First, the Repub­li­can estab­lish­ment was torn between 17 can­di­dates. Sec­ond, between Ted Cruz and Trump, they sup­port­ed the less ide­o­log­i­cal­ly coher­ent Trump because they felt they could have greater influ­ence over him. Third, when the hour of deci­sion final­ly came, it was too late: Trump had pushed every alter­na­tive into irrel­e­vance.

Dur­ing the elec­tion, we saw the same dynam­ic. Some of the most sig­nif­i­cant sec­tors of the rul­ing bloc lined up behind Clin­ton: ele­ments from the mil­i­tary, CIA, big cap­i­tal, main­stream media, and Wall Street. Influ­en­tial Repub­li­cans, from Col­in Pow­ell to Glenn Beck, said they’d vote Demo­c­rat. The Clin­ton camp had mon­ey, infra­struc­ture, net­works, and a vast, expe­ri­enced ground game. Trump had noth­ing in com­par­i­son, despite win­ning a major­i­ty of the wealth­i­est vot­ers. Major sec­tors of the rul­ing bloc had cho­sen Clin­ton – and yet, despite the odds, they lost.

Of course, this frag­men­ta­tion is not the same as weak­ness – the rul­ing bloc will adapt, will main­tain the exist­ing struc­tures of prop­er­ty and pow­er, and will like­ly prof­it hand­some­ly while con­tin­u­ing to repress work­ing peo­ple. But it nev­er­the­less shows that the divi­sions with­in the bloc are more severe than we thought, and that the rul­ing bloc’s over­all abil­i­ty to steer the course of U.S. pol­i­tics is not as firm as we feared.

Most impor­tant­ly, this upset has shown that the mass­es have moved, though not in the direc­tion we hoped. We Marx­ists held stead­fast to the shim­mer­ing clar­i­ty of our eco­nom­ic analy­sis. Cor­rect­ly, we observed that while Trump’s coali­tion cer­tain­ly includ­ed some typ­i­cal­ly work­ing-class ele­ments, its most hege­mon­ic frac­tions were drawn from the pro­fes­sion­al-man­age­r­i­al class and small busi­ness own­ers. Gen­er­al­ly, most Amer­i­can work­ers – yes, even the white ones – have nev­er actu­al­ly been inclined towards con­ser­vatism; in fact, their elec­toral choic­es – if they vote – are large­ly ad hoc and float above their more or less left-lib­er­al atti­tudes about class inequal­i­ty. After all, even though many work­ers cast a bal­lot for Trump, Clin­ton won the major­i­ty of vot­ers who earned less than $50,000 a year. Just as cor­rect­ly, we saw that Trump’s rise was a threat to a rul­ing class that has con­verged across par­ty lines on a neolib­er­al pol­i­cy con­sen­sus. But all this did not turn out to be deci­sive in the con­crete real­i­ty of the polit­i­cal con­junc­ture. The cor­rect­ness of our analy­sis did not give us access to the ide­o­log­i­cal uncon­scious that drove vot­ing behav­ior and an epochal shift in the oper­a­tions of the Amer­i­can state.

Indeed, if we have learned some­thing from this elec­tion, it is that we know very lit­tle about the peo­ple rep­re­sent­ed on our maps. Trump, it seems, won vot­ers with­out a col­lege degree, white vot­ers of near­ly all ages, and the wealthy. But so much remains unclear. What class frac­tions do these vot­ers belong to? How deeply entrenched is their racism? What are their most burn­ing issues? How did they feel about Sanders? What of those white vot­ers who went twice for Oba­ma only to line up behind Trump? Who were the 40% of the low­est income vot­ers or the 49% of union house­holds sup­port­ing the Repub­li­cans? Why, ulti­mate­ly, did these vot­ers – espe­cial­ly non­white vot­ers – cast a bal­lot for Trump? What about those 200 mil­lion or so Amer­i­cans – the major­i­ty – who didn’t cast a bal­lot for either can­di­date?

The form a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy will have to take is to be deter­mined and con­sti­tut­ed by sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis and pop­u­lar strug­gle. Both of these require us to log out – to leave the dig­i­tal fortress that impris­ons left-wing intel­lec­tu­als in a com­fort­able pet­ty-bour­geois cul­ture and reduces our pol­i­tics to ide­al­ist wan­der­ing. Wan­der we must, but not on our Twit­ter feed. We need to leave our bub­bles. Those in the cities and sub­urbs need to inves­ti­gate them as if they were new to us. Those in the coun­try­side and small towns need to leave our zones and push fur­ther into rur­al Amer­i­ca, to knock on doors and talk to peo­ple across the coun­try. We have to talk to Trump vot­ers, of course, but also to those mil­lions who didn’t vote this year and the almost 100 mil­lion who can­not vote.

From these con­ver­sa­tions we can dis­cov­er the forms of orga­ni­za­tion that peo­ple are already in the process of con­struct­ing, for­mu­late an appro­pri­ate strat­e­gy for this unfore­seen con­junc­ture, and begin to rebuild social­ist pol­i­tics with a mass base. Now more than ever we have to work togeth­er, syn­chro­nize our efforts.

There are no easy vic­to­ries – only years of hard, coor­di­nat­ed orga­niz­ing ahead. The first step for every rev­o­lu­tion­ary is log­ging out.

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.