Does the Left Bear Any Blame for Donald Trump?

The role of progressives in the 2016 election.

James Thindwa and Kathleen Geier

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] regime 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.

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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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