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O My America: What We Might Learn from Trump

Lawrence Bush
January 12, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

I ATTENDED a screening this week of Lilly Rivlin’s new documentary film, “Heather Booth: Changing the World.” Jewish Currents co-sponsored the event, and the audience included a lot of veteran New York activist leaders as well as a sprinkling of younger progressive organizers. The spirit of both the film and the remarks that followed the screening (mostly by Heather Booth herself, a civil rights veteran and a key player in literally dozens of progressive organizations) was that of a leftwing pep rally, generously buoyed by a score of congratulatory shout-outs — but the reigning emotion in the hall seemed to me to be a hold-onto-each-other, how-can-this-be-happening anxiety about the calamitous election of Donald Trump, mixed with a Sisyphean resignation to our “fate” as a marginalized community of enlightened New Yorkers in a stupid country.

It pissed me off.

The final question/comment came from an old guy who asked about how we could avoid turning “them,” Trump voters, into the “Other.” The question was meant to be big-hearted, but it was rooted in the misapprehension that all 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump share an identity -- namely, they’re the guys who do the plumbing, and the women who clean the countertops, in this audience’s country houses (I would bet that at least half the people in the hall have New York apartments and second homes in beautiful spots ). If only we would start offering them cups of coffee and strolls in our gardens, we could make some political progress ...

Not true. College-educated women voted for Donald Trump. Twenty-nine percent of Spanish-speaking or Spanish-ethnic voters voted for Donald Trump. Twenty-nine percent of American Jewish voters voted for Donald Trump. Twenty-nine percent of Asian-American voters voted for Trump. And a sizable portion of white working-class voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries went on to vote for Donald Trump!

Moreover, it was Hillary Clinton who actually won the majority among low-income voters -- 52 percent of voters earning under $50,000, and 53 percent of voters earning under $30,000.

In short, the election of Donald Trump was not a fascist uprising or a peasant pogrom. For sure, the racist right is celebrating and will probably make some trouble (see Dusty Sklar’s piece about the Alt-Right’s antisemitism by clicking here), and our country’s large, fundamentalist Evangelical movement is crying hallelujah in anticipation of an old-fashioned rightwing Supreme Court (which they would have gotten from any of the Republican candidates) -- but this election was NOT, to my mind, a reactionary groundswell against the politics of economic justice or women’s equality or even racial justice and LGBTQ citizenship. It was simply an election that was lost by the Democrats because they nominated an unpopular, establishment candidate with delusions of entitlement, a grating voice, and an inauthentic feel; they misplayed the state-by-state Electoral College campaign game; they failed to turn out enough poor voters, black voters, and young voters; and they were unprepared for the media savvy and disruptive energy of Donald Trump.

It was Trump who said fuck you to the decorum of the political debate stage, in which both Republican and Democratic candidates knowingly “play to their base” and then “tack to the center” and deliver memorized lines, and we the public pretend that what they are saying is what they’ll do if elected.

It was Trump who said fuck you to the idea that enlightened internationalism means mobilizing NATO right up to the borders of Russia and leaving corporations to move jobs wherever they please.

It was Trump who said fuck you to the condescension of educated elites who speak against racism and wealth inequality and then send their children and grandchildren to private schools and pay their nannies $15 an hour.

I know, I know, Donald Trump also said fuck you to truth, to women, to men, to immigrants, to responsible citizenship, to honesty, to the media, and to many other people and human virtues that I value highly. But it was far less these offenses, I believe, than his man-of-the-people populism that won him votes. Outside the edges of the “basket of deplorables,” Trump’s offensive character and grotesque lying were tolerated as ugly flaws or, at best, ballsy bullshit, from a billionaire who was promising -- perhaps with his little fingers crossed behind his back -- to champion the average American.

EVERYONE at the film showing, and everyone I count as a friend, DESPISES Donald Trump so much that they can’t discuss him with any subtlety. Of course, he is eminently despicable: pompous, swaggering, bullying, adolescent, tasteless, misogynistic, prejudiced — and having such an ugly human being in office does bring real danger with it. I’m afraid, however, that our own political orthodoxy, and our own insular group identification, our own classism, and our own defeatism, are already making it impossible to explore the complexity of having Trump -- the New York business tycoon, former funder of Hillary Clinton, sexist father of a converted-to-Jewish daughter, disrupter to the Republicans as well as the Democrats -- in the White House.

For example: Trump has already challenged the defense industry about their out-of-control profiteering. “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35,” he tweeted on December 22, “I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” I don’t think any other politician, including Barack Obama, has offered such a public challenge to the F-35, which has so far cost more than $400 billion to develop! Has anyone on the left applauded him and started to build public awareness about the corrupt profiteering of the Masters of War?

Another example: Trump probably WILL bring about some reindustrialization to America, and a boom in infrastructure construction and reconstruction. Is anyone on the left taking that seriously, wondering if there’s a role for labor organizations, for community involvement, for fair hiring, environmental progress, pro-government discussion, in that process?

Trump may also back the U.S. out of confrontations with Russia and respect that country’s historical zone of influence in its own region. Is anyone on the left (besides Stephen F. Cohen in The Nation) thinking that this might be a good thing and seeking to enlarge upon it to challenge America’s arrogance in other parts of the world?

Finally, Trump has opened the door to a disruptive style of politicking — really, a rightwing version of what Adbusters magazine used to call “culture jamming.” Is anyone on the left feeling inspired to rent a few billboards, throw a few cream pies, sponsor a few NASCAR racers, or adorn some rooms in some of Trump’s hotels with tell-the-truth graffiti?

I’M VENTING. FORGIVE ME. I trust that the answers to all the questions above are yes, yes, yes, and that I’m just ignorant of what’s being spoken and written. But I find it appalling to hear progressive people, again and again, telling me that they are unable to read the newspaper any more because it’s just so upsetting. The sky is falling! The world is coming to an end on January 20th!

No, it’s not. What is coming is an unleashed period of greed, of the rich getting even richer, of business and hyper business and business fraud -- while working people feel grateful for getting back an $18-per-hour assembly-line job. What is coming is a devastating wave of legislation by Republican hypocrites, ideologues, and scoundrels that will hurt many, many people -- especially people outside the white middle-class bubble -- and which Trump may or may not influence or moderate, depending upon who is saying what to him. (“Not My President” won’t get his ear. “Hail to the Chief” would serve better.)

What is coming is a complete betrayal of the two-state solution -- and, of course, the Palestinians are going to resort to violent struggle in response.

What is coming is the next level of global climate change (and we’d better be nice to the scientists).

WHAT IS COMING is not fascism -- but, hell, conservative Republicanism is plenty bad enough.

So we have to stop freaking out and start strategizing, to consolidate our energies around modest and achievable goals. The demonstrations in Washington and New York on the day after Trump’s inauguration will have dozens and dozens of different signs making different protests and different demands. Which of those signs do we ALL want to hold high in the years of struggle to come?

Bernie Sanders has certainly earned the mantle of leadership through his amazing primary campaign, and the strategy of his Our Revolution organization seems most focused on electoral politics and a progressive take-over of the Democratic Party through local election victories. Great idea -- and a hard row to hoe. Who the hell wants to be a politician, after all?

Still, I’ve just signed up with Our Revolution and will send them money after I’m done writing.

Then I’m going to open my Twitter account for the first time in months and learn how to use it.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

Check out the trailer, below, to Lilly Rivlin’s Heather Booth: Changing the World. Learn more about the film here.

Heather Booth Film Trailer from JARX on Vimeo.

​​​​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.