Does the Left Bear Any Blame for Donald Trump?

The role of progressives in the 2016 election.

James Thindwa and Kathleen Geier January 17, 2017

Bernie Sanders supporters demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention. Could their persistent critiques of Hillary Clinton have helped reduce voter turnout? (Photo by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There are dozens of plau­si­ble expla­na­tions for Hillary Clinton’s defeat: her poor­ly run cam­paign, her close asso­ci­a­tion with a sta­tus quo that vot­ers seemed eager to reject, the nativism and right-wing pop­ulism stoked by her oppo­nent. Nor can we rule out plain old misog­y­ny. But there’s anoth­er fac­tor worth con­sid­er­ing: Despite the threat of Trump, many on the Left nev­er ful­ly embraced Clinton’s can­di­da­cy, crit­i­ciz­ing her pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials through­out the elec­tion. Giv­en that the con­test came down to a hand­ful of votes in a hand­ful of states, does the Left bear some respon­si­bil­i­ty for Trump’s win?

It’s true that leftists were more critical of Clinton than we had been of similar center-left candidates like Kerry and Obama. But that’s because we’d learned from experience.

In These Times asked James Thind­wa, a mem­ber of our board of direc­tors and a labor and com­mu­ni­ty activist, and Kath­leen Geier, a writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, The Baf­fler and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, to dis­cuss the Left’s role in Trump’s election.

JAMES: To be sure, there was plen­ty of hard-hit­ting inves­ti­ga­tion and analy­sis of Don­ald Trump’s prob­lem­at­ic poli­cies from the Left. And a hands-off approach to Clinton’s well-known weak­ness­es would have been an affront to democ­ra­cy. In the end, though, it became a mat­ter of emphasis.

The Left’s cri­tique of Clin­ton — jus­ti­fied as it often was — may have come at the expense of an urgent­ly need­ed focus on the threat Trump posed to peo­ple of color.

Much of the blame lies on the Clin­ton cam­paign: Clinton’s ill-advised strat­e­gy of appeal­ing to peren­ni­al­ly elu­sive inde­pen­dents” and mid­dle-class Repub­li­can women proved inef­fec­tu­al and neu­tral­ized any pro­gres­sive mes­sage. But an alarmed Left could and should have stepped in to fill the vac­u­um — that is, redi­rect­ed at least some of the ener­gy it put into crit­i­ciz­ing Clin­ton into aggres­sive­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing to vot­ers of col­or that, between the two can­di­dates, one (Trump) would put us on the defen­sive and the oth­er (Clin­ton) on the offensive.

As Clin­ton de-empha­sized race and oth­er con­cerns per­ceived to turn off white vot­ers, the Left should have stepped in to warn of Trump’s ret­ro­grade and dan­ger­ous pro­pos­als on issues like polic­ing, racial­ized incar­cer­a­tion and deportations.

Since Clin­ton wasn’t doing it, the full spec­trum of left forces should have more vig­or­ous­ly — and per­haps exclu­sive­ly, giv­en the high stakes — pushed a dogged agen­da around a nation­al liv­ing wage, edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy root­ed in com­bat­ing pover­ty and social insta­bil­i­ty (core imped­i­ments to stu­dent learn­ing), reduc­ing the defense bud­get and redi­rect­ing the sav­ings toward human needs, all aimed at African Amer­i­cans and Latinos.

Our pub­li­ca­tions, for exam­ple, should have pri­or­i­tized expos­ing and high­light­ing Trump’s racism and xeno­pho­bia rather than cov­er­age of Wik­iLeaks. Orga­niz­ers for var­i­ous grass­roots advo­ca­cy groups should have pro­vid­ed clar­i­ty and direc­tion about Trump’s reac­tionary agen­da and urged their con­stituents to vote. One did not need to be pro-Hillary” to sound the alarm.

We should have offered a stronger cri­tique of Trump’s new­found (and hyp­o­crit­i­cal) inter­est in the plight of work­ers. Even as he pro­fessed to love the work­ers,” Trump was try­ing to bust the union at Trump Inter­na­tion­al Las Vegas. A line of his and daugh­ter Ivanka’s cloth­ing is made in Chi­na, Viet­nam and oth­er over­seas loca­tions. We should have high­light­ed his his­to­ry of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in his apart­ment hold­ings, and that when five black teenage boys were charged with rap­ing and beat­ing the Cen­tral Park jog­ger” in 1989 Trump called for their exe­cu­tion, even after they were exonerated.

The Democ­rats need a long-term strat­e­gy to win state elec­tions and counter the post-truth phe­nom­e­non that enabled Trump’s rise. But in a moment as con­se­quen­tial as the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, a strate­gic call should have been made to resist the anti-Clin­ton band­wag­on or at least to coun­ter­bal­ance it by mobi­liz­ing Democ­rats’ most reli­able — and indis­pens­able — con­stituents: peo­ple of col­or. In major Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin cities, a stronger effort — reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers, vol­un­teer­ing to dri­ve peo­ple to the polls, walk­ing-and-talk­ing” — might have tipped the scales.

KATH­LEEN: I agree with much, but I think James under­es­ti­mates the degree to which the Left ulti­mate­ly did ral­ly around Clin­ton, and neglects sol­id strate­gic rea­sons for remain­ing critical.

I was cer­tain­ly a Clin­ton crit­ic. I con­tributed to an anti-Clin­ton col­lec­tion pub­lished dur­ing the cam­paign, and I also wrote an essay demand­ing more account­abil­i­ty and a sharp­er eco­nom­ic mes­sage from Clin­ton. At the same time, how­ev­er, I was clear about the threat posed by Trump and the GOP and the impor­tance of vot­ing for Hillary. Many oth­ers on the Left — includ­ing Noam Chom­sky and John Halle, Adolph Reed, Nan­cy Fras­er and Jesse Mey­er­son—also advo­cat­ed for a strat­e­gy of crit­i­cal sup­port” for Clin­ton. And despite the vocal pres­ence of the anti-Clin­ton Left on social media and a few pub­li­ca­tions like Coun­ter­Punch, most left­ist vot­ers went for Hillary. By July, accord­ing to Pew, Clin­ton had won the sup­port of more than 90 per­cent of Sanders vot­ers. Jill Stein bare­ly man­aged 1 per­cent of the vote — she did not spoil the election.

It’s true that left­ists tend­ed to be far more open­ly crit­i­cal of Hillary Clin­ton than we had been of sim­i­lar cen­ter-left can­di­dates like John Ker­ry and Barack Oba­ma. But that’s because we’d learned from expe­ri­ence. We failed to exert pres­sure on Oba­ma from his left, and the result was a pres­i­dent who, too often, caved in to Repub­li­cans and the 1%. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion bailed out the banks but did lit­tle to aid home­own­ers with under­wa­ter mort­gages, refused to pros­e­cute Wall Street fraud, offered the GOP a grand bar­gain” that would have cut Medicare and Social Secu­ri­ty, sup­port­ed the TPP and oth­er neolib­er­al trade poli­cies, esca­lat­ed depor­ta­tions, used drones for tar­get­ed assas­si­na­tions and more.

We demand­ed more of Clin­ton, push­ing her left and get­ting her to com­mit to a plat­form that was prob­a­bly the most pro­gres­sive in the his­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. That would nev­er have hap­pened absent Sanders’ pri­ma­ry chal­lenge and a crit­i­cal Left.

It’s also impor­tant to rec­og­nize that the Left’s Clin­ton cri­tiques occurred in the con­text of an elec­tion that almost no one expect­ed her to lose. We made more polit­i­cal demands on Clin­ton because we want­ed her vic­to­ry to be a man­date for strong pro­gres­sive policies.

Both the Left and the Clin­ton cam­paign under­es­ti­mat­ed Trump’s reach. He didn’t need a ground game. As The­da Skocpol and oth­ers have point­ed out, the con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment com­mands an impres­sive array of groups, includ­ing the Chris­t­ian Right, the NRA and Koch-affil­i­at­ed orga­ni­za­tions, that are pow­er­ful, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rur­al areas, in ampli­fy­ing GOP mes­sages and get­ting out the vote. This net­work is one of the main rea­sons the Right con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate U.S. pol­i­tics, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the state and local level.

The Left’s most glar­ing mis­take, then, is not our lack of enthu­si­asm for Clin­ton in 2016, but a more gen­er­al fail­ure to orga­nize vot­ers on a sim­i­lar scale. That’s why the most urgent task for the Amer­i­can Left is to cre­ate sus­tained orga­ni­za­tion­al out­reach — groups that are active in all 50 states, and not just at elec­tion time, in rur­al and urban com­mu­ni­ties alike. If we fail, we can look for­ward to more Don­ald Trumps, and more decades of right-wing dominance.

JAMES: Like Kath­leen, I think that many folks on the Left did not believe Trump would win. Their con­fi­dence in a Clin­ton win was not unrea­son­able — I, too, was in the Trump-can’t‑win camp — but the com­bi­na­tion of Clinton’s heavy bag­gage and clos­er-than-expect­ed polls should have awak­ened peo­ple to the alter­nate possibility.

For many Left pub­li­ca­tions, main­tain­ing a crit­i­cal pos­ture was also about jour­nal­is­tic integri­ty and trea­sured ide­o­log­i­cal cre­den­tials. The Nation gave one of the most pow­er­ful Clin­ton endorse­ments of any Left pub­li­ca­tion, but it devot­ed two full para­graphs to remind­ing read­ers of the litany of Clinton’s offen­sive actions and posi­tions: endur­ing ties to Wall Street and cor­po­rate CEOs”; back[ing] régime change from Hon­duras to Libya to Syr­ia; see­ing Amer­i­ca as the “ indis­pens­able nation’ enti­tled to police the world”; a blink­ered view of Israel and Pales­tine”; and so on. All true, but strate­gi­cal­ly ill-placed.

Since right-wing and main­stream media were already fren­zied­ly cov­er­ing Wik­iLeaks rev­e­la­tions and oth­er Clin­ton foibles, our side should have focused more on build­ing con­fi­dence in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee, not rein­forc­ing the beat­en path. A brief acknowl­edge­ment in The Nations edi­to­r­i­al that Clinton’s weak­ness­es were well known and a mat­ter of record” would have sufficed.

Some In These Times read­ers took umbrage at the end-of-year edi­to­r­i­al I wrote endors­ing Clin­ton. A New York City pub­lic sec­tor work­er respond­ed that Democ­rats were his ene­my because they were his adver­saries at the bar­gain­ing table, and he would not vote for Clin­ton. Yet being adver­saries should not obscure that we are talk­ing about cli­mate change, the threat of nation­al right-to-work laws and oth­er crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant issues.

On Face­book, a Chica­go com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er vowed not to vote for Clin­ton because, among oth­er rea­sons, she sup­port­ed the 2009 Hon­duras coup, despite Clinton’s strong record on men­tal health­care, one of the issues his orga­ni­za­tion cham­pi­ons. It is hard to extrap­o­late from such anec­dotes, but some on the Left wrote and spoke in ways that fos­tered the idea that elec­tions don’t mat­ter, that all the can­di­dates were the same. That may have con­vinced those Face­book friends already unsure that it wasn’t worth their time to vote this year.

While Green vot­ers may not have spoiled the elec­tion, those who stayed home cer­tain­ly did. In fact, reduc­ing vot­er turnout among Clinton’s most reli­able con­stituents was a key Trump strat­e­gy. In at least one of the debates — crazy as it sound­ed, giv­en Trump’s racist past — he attacked Clin­ton for call­ing black youth super preda­tors,” and he’s accused Democ­rats of caus­ing black immis­er­a­tion in the inner cities.” The repeat­ed rein­force­ment of Clinton’s neg­a­tives by some on the Left might have helped.

Vot­ers of col­or went over­whelm­ing­ly for Clin­ton, but turnout was low. In Mil­wau­kee Coun­ty alone, she received 43,000 few­er votes than Oba­ma — twice Trump’s mar­gin of vic­to­ry in the entire state.

Again, no seri­ous left­ist would argue for not crit­i­ciz­ing Clin­ton, espe­cial­ly if the goal was to push her left. But when ana­lysts like Nate Sil­ver put a Trump vic­to­ry with­in plau­si­bil­i­ty, one won­ders whether such cri­tiques might have weak­ened the enthu­si­asm of poten­tial sup­port­ers. It seems at least pos­si­ble that this is what hap­pened, and that the Left was mis­tak­en in con­tin­u­ing its loud and per­sis­tent cri­tiques into the final weeks — they could have been saved for Novem­ber 9.

KATH­LEEN: More times than I can count, I met that guy” on Face­book and Twit­ter — you know, the type of lefty who would insist that both par­ties are exact­ly the same, or that Trump might even be supe­ri­or to Clin­ton on for­eign pol­i­cy and the econ­o­my. I engaged with these folks, argu­ing that a Trump vic­to­ry would empow­er the white nation­al­ist Right and that Clin­ton, as a Demo­c­rat, would be far bet­ter on the eco­nom­ic issues that the Left cares about. I also made the argu­ment that, in Tom Geoghegan’s words, if you want the Left to come back, you have to put the cen­ter-left in power.”

Deal­ing with the pox on both hous­es” crowd was mad­den­ing at times. Did these knuck­le­heads learn noth­ing from the 2000 elec­tion about the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of Repub­li­can rule? At the same time, though, I have to won­der how large this left anti-Demo­c­rat con­tin­gent real­ly is, beyond social media.

It also can’t be empha­sized strong­ly enough that when it came to mobi­liz­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic party’s lefty base, Clin­ton did her­self no favors. Time after time, she made tone-deaf remarks that alien­at­ed the Left: claim­ing that sin­gle-pay­er would nev­er, ever” hap­pen, for exam­ple, or refer­ring to Sanders sup­port­ers as peo­ple liv­ing in their par­ents’ base­ment” who want Scan­di­na­vian-style social­ism but don’t know what that means.”

Even more con­se­quen­tial was Clinton’s fail­ure to pro­vide a pos­i­tive, com­pelling case for her can­di­da­cy. Some of her plat­form pro­pos­als were con­sid­er­ably more pro­gres­sive than what Oba­ma had offered. But few vot­ers real­ized that, because she focused almost entire­ly on anti-Trump char­ac­ter attacks. Trump’s ads were near­ly four times more like­ly to men­tion jobs and the econ­o­my than hers were.

Not only did Clin­ton lose the white work­ing class by an over­whelm­ing mar­gin, but she also under­per­formed among less edu­cat­ed vot­ers of col­or. The tragedy is that, accord­ing to a post-elec­tion analy­sis by poll­sters Stan Green­berg and Nan­cy Zdunkewicz, vot­ers from key con­stituen­cies like work­ing-class white women would have respond­ed bet­ter to a tough eco­nom­ic mes­sage from Clin­ton than they did to her attacks on Trump’s character.

Yes, the Left failed to stop Trump, and the con­se­quences will be cat­a­stroph­ic. But Clin­ton-style neolib­er­al­ism cre­at­ed the eco­nom­ic despair that gave rise to Trump in the first place; after all, it is the Rust Belt com­mu­ni­ties destroyed by NAF­TA that hand­ed the elec­tion to Trump. The most impor­tant task before the Left right now is to orga­nize on behalf of an econ­o­my that ben­e­fits work­ing peo­ple. That, and that alone, will put a stake through the black heart of Trumpism.

KATH­LEEN GEIER has writ­ten for The Nation, The Baf­fler, The New Repub­lic and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She lives in Chica­go.JAMES THIND­WA is a mem­ber of In These Times’ board of direc­tors and a labor and com­mu­ni­ty activist.
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