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Aiming Beyond the Status Quo

Lawrence Bush
April 1, 2017

Breadth of Resistance! Unity of Purpose?

An Editorial from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

FOR THE MAJORITY of Americans who voted against Trump, his lies, his appointments, his executive orders, and his all-around autocratic ugliness have been so appalling that it is easy to infer a broad sense of unity rooted simply in a shared revulsion. Even George W. Bush recently stepped away from his easel to chastise his bizarre successor for being hard-hearted on the immigration issue and disrespectful towards the news media.

Indeed, the wave of antisemitism that has accompanied Trump into office, along with his terrorizing of immigrants and his bald-faced mendacity, has put the fear of fascism into many liberal hearts. Very soon, however, there will be far more to worry about than Trump’s xenophobia and swagger. The Republicans who applauded him madly during his address before Congress at the end of February will be launching their own missiles: attacks on business and environmental regulation; slash-and-burn taxation policies that will further diminish government power while enriching our oligarchy; cruel policies towards low-income families; privatization of refurbished infrastructure; carte blanche permission to violate civil rights in the name of “religious conscience”; wholesale attacks on public sector unions; trial balloon reform plans to weaken Social Security and Medicare; and worse.

These will not necessarily be the brainchildren of Steve Bannon and the other quasi-fascists who constitute Trump’s entourage, but of corporatist Republicans who have gerrymandered their way to power in Congress. In truth, Bannon and his racist, antisemitic crowd, and even Trump himself, may prove to be sideshows to the main act, which is the campaign of corporatist conservatives to break our government and surrender our planet’s well-being to the “marketplace” for once and for all.

Wall Street is having multiple orgasms in anticipation.

THE FIGHTBACK against Trump has been impressive so far. There is an exciting new dedication to activism, including electoral activism, and to defending the social progress we’ve made in America. As a Jewish magazine, we have been especially heartened by the nearly unanimous condemnation of Trump’s attacks on immigration among Jewish organizations. Jewish “history and heritage compel us to take a stand,” declared Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, describing Trump’s initial ban as “cruel and contrary to the values of our country.” (See Ron Skolnik’s roundup article.)

If today’s activist energies, however, simply serve to restore in 2020 the establishment status quo represented by Hillary Clinton and all the familiar faces she would have brought into power, nothing enduring will come of it. For the past thirty or more years, the so-called Democratic base in the U.S. has seen its energy drained by the thankless mission of trying to keep a corporatist Democratic Party in power. So scared have many progressives been of the rightwing bogeyman that status-quo politics is the best for which they have dared strive (with several notable exceptions such as the marriage equality and Black Lives Matter movements). That status quo was rejected, however, by a large plurality of voters last November — indeed, by a majority, if you count the Obama voters who were uninspired by Clinton and simply stayed away from the polls.

Now the bogeyman has taken power, thanks primarily to his false promise to look out for American workers. Surely our response cannot be limited to the hope that some combination of the FBI, the CIA and the “deep government” will determine that Mike Pence would make a more reliable leader of the “free world”; or to the effort of peeling off a couple of Republican votes in support of Obamacare; or to thanking Chuck Schumer for making a few oppositional speeches; or to donating small amounts to Andrew Cuomo’s soon-to-come presidential exploratory committee. Our response must instead be to refashion liberalism into a pro-working-class program that defends a pluralistic, multicultural America while putting restraints on corporate power, marketplace fetishism, and sheer greed. We need to force the Democratic Party, election by election, at every level of government, to represent that program or lose.

IT WOULD BE a tremendous error to interpret Bernie Sanders’ narrow defeat in the party’s primary last year as a progressive failure, as in, “Oh well, good try, now we have to compromise.” Sanders ran a remarkable insurgent campaign that literally came from left field and mobilized the passion of an entire generation. His success at raising money, winning primaries, and forcing Clinton to tack left in her rhetoric marked a beginning, not an end, for renewed leftwing passion. As documentarian Michael Moore noted on MSNBC at the end of February, when he asked at the Washington Women’s March how many in the crowd were demonstrating for the first time, a sea of hands went up. Yet the “massive, incredible” outpouring of protest against Trump has only begun, he noted, “because only a few of us predicted that what happened would happen on election day.” (See Moore’s nationwide “Resistance Calendar” to find out about political protest going on in your locale.) Such spontaneity, lubricated by social media, is coalescing into electorally-focused organizations such as Indivisible, led by former Congressional staffers; Swing Left, which is mobilizing, especially among young people, to win a liberal majority in Congress; and Our Revolution, a multi-issue offshoot of the Sanders campaign that is seeks “to take it upon ourselves to elect progressives — even if elements of the Democratic Party are locked in complacency.”

Those “elements” may respond by insisting that the party set its sights on the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” the middle-aged white men who complained about their marginalization by voting for a sexist bigot. No matter how many baseball hats such Democrats choose to wear, however, the enduring impact of rightwing talk radio and Fox News, and the appeal of white supremacy -- veiled with plausible deniability -- cannot be quickly reversed unless we were to surrender our fundamental multicultural principles and practice the kind of faux Republicanism that has sunk the Democrats in the past. The stark reality of our political landscape is that America is today as deeply divided as it was in 1860, at the edge of the Civil War. The Democratic struggle for power will only succeed if it builds upon the majority that it already possesses by making the well-being of the 99 percent the driver of its policies.

This means filling the ranks of the Democratic Party with progressives who will speak, first and foremost, to the needs of the millennial generation, in whose hands electoral power truly resides — if only they’re given something to vote for! Those needs were well articulated by the Sanders campaign, and will only become more acute as Trump and the Republicans ravage the country.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.