My first meeting with the Trump coalition came before my fifth birthday. It was in 1977. Disco was the music that energized my family’s television on the weekends, but it was a mark of shame – the Devil – in our neighborhood. Country and gospel offered legitimate expressions of faith, humility, and perseverance in my neighbors’ minds. In that atmosphere, I learned why I lived where I did.
If you know me, you know the powerful impact William Harris had on my life. He was my mother’s “god-brother” – a specific form of affective kinship that protected him from most of the harm which would have otherwise shaped his life. His mother, Ariana, was a migrant farm worker who knew my mother’s parents. My mother, as a child, often babysat William – despite his being seven years older. William was developmentally disabled, physically and intellectually unable to live independently. He was thrown out of school in the early years of the Great Depression because the other children laughed at him. After years of working in potato fields, after Ariana and her sister, Pearl, died, William moved in with my family. Shortly thereafter, my family moved to the neighborhood where he had grown up. It was a rural delivery route where his ranch house (built in large part by my mother’s support for Ariana) sat 300 yards back off the main road – hidden behind a migrant labor housing site.
William became my older brother. Like my mother before me, I helped him wash, get breakfast, and do chores around the house. He often told me about the ways he and his family struggled to survive the harsh realities of Jim Crow segregation in New Jersey. As I made sense of these stories, I asked my mom questions like, “why was William thrown out of school?” The one that changed my life was, “why did Ariana live back behind all of the other houses?”
In 1958, despite changes to the New Jersey State Constitution to provide legal protections from racial and ethnic discrimination in 1947, white families in western Monmouth County remained very comfortable with the traditional barriers to racial equality that had evolved after the final enslaved African Americans became free in 1865. While formally segregated sites like the Court Street School in Freehold gradually changed to include white children, the larger institutions of government and commerce only made limited concessions to include black voices in local politics. There was no functional participation of African Americans in the region’s economic growth. Now, that possibility has been foreclosed for another generation.
When Ariana saved enough money to acquire a plot of land to build a house, her white neighbors feared that her family’s home would reduce the value of their houses. So, they raised a pool of money and purchased a larger plot behind the migrant labor site. They sacrificed to hide the spectacle of a black woman homeowner from public access. The fact that she was able to pay the property taxes on the lot, as well as build a larger ranch house on it, was never meant to be part of the equation. When my family moved there, we became inheritors of both a gift and a curse. The gift was the legacy of rare, African American property ownership in a community steadfastly hostile to black dignity and wealth. The curse was the unspoken recognition that the accomplishment came at the cost of accepting an invisibility – a politics of respectability – as the only, flimsy shield against dispossession and violence.
Never has that film felt thinner, more transparent. The compromised system of the Electoral College will likely deliver Donald Trump and Michael Pence to the Office of the Presidency of the United States in January 2017. The moment to rehash the successes and failures of the campaign season has passed. The occasion now calls for immediate preparation for the changes that will unfold over the next two years – at minimum. It also is an opportunity to see the indelible long-term impacts the new administration will likely accomplish.
Millions of activists and political operatives have started organizing campaigns to limit the powers of the White House over the next four years. In this way, they hope to stage public outrage against new policies and executive orders until they can shift the political composition of the federal Senate or House of Representatives. Both tasks are difficult changes to make in 2018. However, the longer goal is to cultivate a society that resists the politics that the Republican Party rode to victory since 2010. American resistance to government expansion animates nearly every public institution from town councils through the Supreme Court. The Obama coalition believed that they could show that good government might erode that cultural resistance. Hillary Clinton’s campaign showed that the effort to create inclusive democracy has never been more popular in American society. It was simply not popular enough right now.
If the remnants of the Obama coalition could learn to organize at the local level, none of the immediate changes in policy over the next four or eight years will last. There will be suffering, though. Beyond the obvious efforts to register Muslims and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants, the increase in surveillance and incarceration of all Americans (especially African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and poor, white Americans), and the reversal of legal gains for women and the LGBTQIA communities, the turn towards the economic strategies of the George W. Bush presidency will be more severe. In fact, these changes will resemble a broad governmental effort to overturn all of the political reforms accomplished since 1932.
The First and Second New Deals, under President Franklin Roosevelt, created the core promise of a stable, social safety net for the first time in American history. From 1932 to 1941, the Congress acted forcefully to stabilize banks, provide old-age insurance, stimulate industry, create new infrastructure, and provide direct employment. While industry did not grow in those nine years, the suffering of individual poverty never returned to the extremes of deprivation seen between 1930 and 1932. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s legislative agendas, led by the most reactionary body of Republican officials since the Dixiecrats in 1966, promise to return the nation to the laissez faire economics of 1924. It is an attempt to resurrect the industrial protectionism of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Leaders in the White House like Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon have their eyes on an even earlier target – 1876. It would be a world without the Fourteenth Amendment where the only equality in America exists among the several states. The Confederacy will have won its greatest victory.
Such a reality remains beyond the scope of the new administration for now. Yet, the desire to undo the New Deal, and prevent any future steps towards a true Reconstruction of democracy, has never had greater voice. In this recognition, citizens who supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton must measure their strategies and tactics carefully to advance the work that the Reconstruction Republicans and New Deal Democrats never undertook. (Sadly, the multiple incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Councils mastered this approach.) Any political mobilization to defend and expand progressive and liberal milestones must ground themselves in private organizations, regional business interests, and local government. It is a lesson of the nineteenth century labor politics that built the most successful socialist movement of the early twentieth century behind Eugene Debs. If the voters for Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders organized successful campaigns over the next year for local elections in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts; Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Oakland, California, the tide of change could rise to reshape major races like the campaign for Governor in New Jersey. The politics of protest are critical, but fundamental, transformative resistance must be grounded in steady, daily activism to create new systems of local government that better serve individual families.
In the short term, observers must expect the Republican administration to accomplish much of their proposed agenda in the next two years. The fundamentals of the economy are strong; the effort to deregulate will promote an immediate rush of new bubbles in the energy, healthcare, and industrial sectors. Low-interest rates will finally have a framework to stimulate infrastructure spending especially in states where the Republican governments dominate. An aggressive push to isolate and destroy terrorist cells like ISIL, in conjunction with efforts to dismantle Iran, will cause defense spending to surge. The immediate rush of capital into a system that the Obama administration managed for stability will create a perception of affluence that the Republicans will use to justify their choices across every media platform.
Projecting corruption, dysfunction, and failure does little except make these officials stronger when the predictions are wrong. Expect some success from this unified government through 2017. Stay critical of the shortcomings and false promises. In the long battle to protect the major victories of human freedom, the immediate protests and public outcry must yield to steady, sustained analysis. Better candidates will emerge from the effort to serve every community more effectively. A national government predicated on gerrymandering, voter suppression, and public deception will collapse.
However, the politics of outrage surrounding the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina will not suffice to change public opinion next time. The leading images of the Obama coalition and the voices of the Clinton campaign will not persuade the moderate voters of the rural North and Midwest to reject Donald Trump. It is a time to lift up a new generation of John Browns, Thaddeus Stevenses, and Helen Kellers. The spectacle of white respectability, in service to a progressive agenda, is the key to a short-term political reversal. Only then will the opportunity to secure the safety and stability of all people be restored.
Former Federal Reserve banker and GE Capital executive Michael Silva recently gave a public presentation about the mechanics of the global financial system. His discussion demonstrated why so many people supported the Trump campaign. In many ways, their energetic mobilization reflected the support for William Jennings Bryant in 1896. Silva talked at length about the ways that leaders like Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner saved the world economy through ingenuity, humility, and determination. The audience responded with respectful skepticism. Questions focused on the repeal of Dodd-Frank as a regulatory structure and the errors of Janet Yellin in overlooking asset quality as a measure of macroeconomic stability.
At the heart of the conversation was a fundamental misunderstanding. None of the people in the room understood the main point of Silva’s presentation. In describing the differences between the Bear Stearns and AIG bailouts, specifically in contrast to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, Silva emphasized the betrayal of basic banking principles on an unprecedented scale. The markets compounded this betrayal by overreacting against an entire category of assets — money market funds — in September 2008. Most importantly, the solution was a public-private partnership in creating a unique investment vehicle to supply liquidity to multiple sectors of the global economy. In a room full of bankers and financiers, no one questioned global market fragility and the arbitrary nature of the solution.
Billions of people worldwide relied on three men in a room to invent a fiction to restore market confidence. The unwieldy, conglomerate structure that no one can adequately manage is now the most significant line of defense against the excesses of the new American government. For the people who chose this leadership, uncertainty is the only truth. For the opposition, the certainty is the unprecedented extent of surveillance and suppression for the foreseeable future. Beyond this moment, we need a world of cooperative self-reliance that defies the savagery of global capitalism.
Having lived in places committed to the intersectional dominance of patriarchy, heterosexism, white supremacy, and rural capitalism all of my life, I know the country that the Republicans want back. It is where a little boy with physical challenges knows peonage, yet thrives because his mother and god-sister gave him the miracle of a better home. It is where women defer to the dominant men in their lives, staying quiet enough to not be neglected or beaten. It is where gays, lesbians, and transgender people live in iron maidens, dreaming of closets where they can hide. It is where Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists keep themselves silent in public, preferring flight to ridicule, shame, and abuse. It is where immigrants, American Indians, and African Americans shuffle quietly through their days, expressing only humble gratitude at the crumbs they’re offered to avoid deportation, incarceration, and murder.
It is a world that must never exist again.