One year on: Building the politics we want to see
Trump’s tactics of division can help us create something better—but can we pull it off?
We’ve reached the one-year mark. It feels like more, not just because the past year has been so eventful—to use a polite term—but because the assault on our democratic foundations started long before. Last November was when the big one hit. The foreshocks and aftershocks have been daily.
The 2016 campaign had already brought the dawning realization that political norms were crumbling. As a candidate, Donald Trump said things that should have ended his career or, at the least, led his co-partisans to abandon him in defense of their own political futures.
Yet he gained more allies than he lost. His disregard for honesty and decency attracted a sorry bunch: the Breitbarts, 4channers, alt-right, Russian Trolls, spineless former primary opponents, and less respectable parts of Fox News. They mounted up alongside their wild-haired warlord, riding toward a post-apocalyptic politics devoid of natural resources or human relationships, screaming to one another for validation—“Witness me!!” in the Mad Max parlance—as they made their mothers ashamed. Together, they stumbled into a victory that even they didn’t expect.
Politics in America has changed. But if we only fight the changes stemming from the Trump administration, then we implicitly endorse the status quo ex ante. Barack Obama’s administration fought toxic and decaying institutions for the progress it made. We should aim to create something better. Doing so starts with leveraging the core elements of political action that continue to shape the outcome of each political fight. They’re the same core elements that Trump uses.
Mean drunks doing improv
In the transition period between the election and the inauguration, the self-appointed reasonable voices tried to convince themselves to give Trump a chance. He didn’t mean those crazy things he said. His supporters didn’t even support those things. And anyway, the Republican party and the institutions of government would keep him in check.
Most of us knew better. Trump had already shown his hand, and the Republican leadership had shown theirs. Our cynicism has been born out as further norms crumble, almost daily during some periods. Trump handed regulatory bodies over to industry insiders, and social welfare agencies to unqualified zealots. His foreign policy spurns democratic allies and flatters autocrats. He made nepotism and kleptocracy normal again. America is getting an impressive show of the presidency’s destructive power, which the Republican congress has shown little interest in checking.
Despite that, the GOP seems unable to advance a legislative agenda. One reason may be that destroying something is always easier than creating something new. This is as true in governance as in infrastructure: Godzilla levels the city in one film, but rebuilding it runs the length of a Ken Burns box set. Creating takes longer.
That’s a partial explanation for the GOP’s failure. Their bigger constraint is the ghost of rhetoric past. On health care, Republicans spent several election cycles telling their base what darkness Obamacare had brought upon the land. It was more bluster than analysis, leaving them no ground to rebut candidate Trump’s promises of “something so much better”: better plans, lower premiums, everyone covered. Unfortunately for the Republicans, those promises were in deep conflict with what they and their donors wanted out of repeal. Fulfilling Trump’s promises is functionally impossible without an expansion of the federal government that true ideologues wouldn’t allow and even the most loyal partisans couldn’t stomach. There were no policy options available.
The same dynamics shape the budget and tax fights. Notice how Trump’s old promise of over three-percent GDP growth has faded from the GOP’s messaging? That’s because no reasonable arithmetic shows a tax cut achieving such growth (increasing immigration would be a more promising path).
Instead, they’re cramming a corporate tax cut into something resembling a middle class cut. Even if they managed such contortions, the near-term drop in government revenue would require a combination of politically impossible spending cuts to big-ticket items (like defense or Medicare), politically feasible but highly inadvisable cuts elsewhere, or dramatic increases in the debt ceiling that many Republican legislators would block. And never mind the budget hole that Trump’s border wall would leave. (See Matthew Yglesias’ latest analysis of the tax plan.)
So far, the Republicans’ most durable achievement has been court appointments. Not to downplay the significance of getting Neil Gorsuch on the bench, as he’ll impact jurisprudence for a generation, but politically this was a lay-up.
How is the party with such electoral success facing such legislative failure? As the motivational poster says: what got you here won’t get you there. Trump and the Republicans spent years insinuating that their opponents were guilty of every evil from terrorism to child abuse. They spent decades peddling fictions like “trickle-down economics” and “money is speech”. And they have a solid half-century of experience dog-whistling racists themes, with Trump himself leading the lies about his predecessor’s birthplace.
Those are acts of destruction, chipping away at meaningful public discourse and undermining the social contract that holds us together as a body politic. Those acts got Trump to the White House. That he continues to spew lies and invective without making progress on a positive agenda just proves how much more useful they are for whipping up your base than for getting things done.
Have you ever seen a bad improv show? Imagine a few amateur comedians giving it their first go, only to get shackled by screwball audience prompts. (“Can we get an occupation?” “The opposite of what doctors do!”) They might cobble together a legislative scene. Their bravery might earn a courtesy laugh. But in this case, they tried to loosen their nerves with a few too many shots of whiskey before the show. They stumble around the stage, each pulling the scene in different directions. They turn out to be mean drunks too, especially the supposed star player, who just keeps picking fights with the other actors and making racist jokes.
The GOP might have muscled through its contradictions, incompetence, and downright belligerence, if not for the emergence of a sustained resistance movement. They might have found some compromise on health care or extremist immigration policy that they could sell as a victory to their base.
Instead, facing a galvanized and increasingly organized opposition, the party controlling the White House and Congress has made progress on its agenda only at the expense of democratic norms and institutions. They chip away directly, avoiding accountability by canceling town halls and restricting constituent access. And they do it indirectly, by looking the other way when Trump and his barnacles flout ethical and legal obligations.
Cirque du Soleil meets Sleep No More, by Franz Kafka
Improv comedy only gets us so far as a metaphor. The practice is too fleeting, without history or context. Trump’s time on The Apprentice has inspired countless reality show comparisons, but that focuses us too much on Trump himself. Our problems both predate and will outlast him.
The disorientation we feel is more like a local playhouse ditched its normal repertoire of three-act, narrative plays, in favor of a more daring approach. The seats and stage are gone, the cast and audience mix in an immersive experience, and the plot jumps around in fantastical ways, stuck in someone else’s dream or nightmare. The dialogue reads like refrigerator word-magnets that were mis-translated through a search engine.
Politics has always been a form of theater. Its more optimistic practitioners imagine the production fills in details that observers can’t discern on their own. Whenever the actual value of something is greater than the perception, you want to boost your signal: through crafted soundbites that help voters see the candidate’s truer self; or through high-level endorsements that impress supporters and dissuade opponents.
The art of improving perceived value can boost a signal past the actual value. Going just beyond parity is considered reasonable in polite society. But going too far, you open the bullshit gap. (Apologies for such a crass term, but in all the English language, no word better encapsulates this concept.)
Exhibit A — of many, many examples — is the gap between Donald Trump’s business success and the way he describes it. Before he ever descended that golden escalator to announce his candidacy, he spent a lifetime cultivating an image of his business acumen that strained the facts. It was nevertheless a good pitch for his brand-oriented businesses: you can have as much wealth and live as luxuriously as does, and he can help you do it.
Trump’s continued bravado is not the only part of the pitch he carried forward. The key is not simply to lie or inflate. The pitch sits on a framework: setting the stakes (wealth and luxury), creating a shared identity (you and him), and linking it to an experience (eating the mediocre steak, watching The Apprentice, sleeping in his hotel).
You can see that same framework — stakes, identity, experience — in his most successful political moves. Take his efforts to co-opt the protests by Colin Kaepernick and other football players. In September, Trump told a crowd in Alabama that these protests were against the anthem and the flag (stakes), by “those people” who were different from “people like yourselves” (identity), tied to the emotionally and culturally meaningful act of watching Sunday football (experience). That combination sparked a backlash and then a counter-backlash that fired up his base and consumed several news cycles with debate over free speech and patriotism — with depressingly little focus on the issues of racism or police violence that led Kaepernick to first take a knee over a year ago.
Without that combination, Trump’s outrageous statements fall flat. Think back to his attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who oversaw the Trump University case. Publicly, Trump defended himself by claiming bias by a judge whose Mexican heritage differentiates him from other Americans. That’s an identity play. But it held no stakes for Trump’s base, and was disconnected from their experience. While his opponents pointed out the racism of his claims, and a few of his allies feigned mild discomfort, Trump’s voters shrugged.
The National Rifle Association plays the same game: the stakes are the safety of your family and your ability to hunt, and you build a shared identity with others in your local gun club, through the experience of hunting or going to the shooting range. Woven together, these three are mutually reinforcing. (For more, see Hahrie Han’s recent op-ed on the NRA.)
Back at our local playhouse, as our shock over the new format wears off, we see the logic through the haze. The political theater carries on. It may look like the Trump show, but his role is tenuous. Some of the old rules still apply.
Elements of the drama
Those rules work against Trump as well. Town halls provided a powerful check against the Obamacare repeal efforts because the dire stakes of losing health care allowed a broad cross-section of people to identify their common cause, and that fed into the visceral experience of yelling at your elected representatives. Meanwhile, the Women’s March should win a political branding award for almost packing identity, stakes, and experience into just its name.
Despite some successes, those three elements spark handwringing by progressives, liberals, Democrats, and others on the left.
Arguments over the stakes — what we’re fighting for and why — have caused internal fissures at least since Bill Clinton brought the Democratic party closer to the center and began courting Wall Street. There are real struggles over the left’s (dis)comfort with corporate power and its influence on policy. Those are internal fights worth having.
However, somewhere along the way, the “what and why” questions got conflated with the words used to frame the message. The biggest confusion came in the wake of George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election. Following the insights of linguist George Lakoff, many on the left decided that the right’s successful framing (“tax relief”, “death tax”, “war on terror”, “clear skies”) had helped convince the country to give Bush a second term.
A favorite Republic talking point echoes this sense: the claim that the Democrats have no message. But once you discount the conservative echo-chamber’s discipline and disregard for misleading the public, the framing behind their talking points has no more inherent strength than progressive framing.
Wordsmithing aside, a few consistent themes frame the stakes for progressives: Everyone deserves health, education, and the opportunity to make a living. No one’s health, education, or opportunity is worth less than anyone else’s. Systems of oppression and injustice should be systematically dismantled. Government can play a positive role in people’s lives. Democracy matters, here and abroad.
You can drag the Democrats for thinking “Better Deal” conveys these values, and for the ways they fail to live up to their values, but you can’t deny the basic framework is there.
Forging a common identity is harder. The left coalition is diverse by design. Just as creation is harder than destruction, bringing harmony from a choir of voices is harder than lining up lockstep behind those who shout the loudest. Frustrating as it might be, that’s a good thing. The progressive challenge is a subset of the American one.
The standard solution — rallying around a presidential candidate every four years — is not a great response to this challenge. Party leaders can’t substitute for a shared identity, not in a pluralistic democracy. Your political opponents are more than happy to define you in terms of national figures, whether Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi, because it’s always easier to undercut a flawed individual than to marginalize an entire movement.
The identity you want reaches back farther than the last time a Democrat sat in the White House, and broader than the politicians elected at any level. Identify with everyone who has fought for justice and progress, the people standing up for themselves and one another against oppression and exploitation. Ally with those who show up in community meetings, vote in primaries, and march in the streets. The Democrats are not a DC-based cabal; progressives are not a set of well-branded advocacy groups. They are each the people who show up to be Democrats or progressives around the country.
We also need to reach beyond those who already show up. As veteran organizer Jonathan Smucker argues (in Hegemony How-To and elsewhere), we’ve allowed activism to become a niche activity for the already committed to pursue with their closest comrades. We need to reach beyond the die-hard lefties and build a progressive movement from the populist energies that defy the left-right spectrum.
The dominance of the quadrennial standard bearer disrupts the organizing that forges this longer-term identity. Presidential campaigns offer a unifying force, just as making the playoffs unites fans across a city, but that force is weak and fleeting, especially if you lose. What strength it has lies in the common experience provided by the election.
That sort of experience — the channels and mechanisms through which people engage in politics — shapes people’s emotional responses to the issues at stake and their ability to identify with others in common cause. The most powerful and lasting experiences are real-life interactions. Human connections at physical gatherings — whether the Women’s March, a town hall, or a community meeting — have greater emotional impact on people. You shake someone’s hand, sit uncomfortably close together in the same folding chairs, shout back at a speaker and chant in unison. The physicality of the experience brings it weight.
However, the institutions and organizations that create those first-hand, in-person unifying experiences for the progressive coalition are even more frayed than the identity. That’s no coincidence. Unions and affiliated organizations have weathered sustained attacks. The formal party structure has only pockets of strength across the country. With that organizing capacity diminished, people experience less of the political drama first-hand; their own ability to identify with it drops accordingly, so they withdraw support from those institutions, and their capacity falls further.
In their place, online platforms increasingly mediate our political experiences. These can complement real-life interactions, as they provide recruitment for events and channels for sharing the experience in real-time. But the driving dynamics of social media platforms are to constantly your demand attention. Taken to their logical extremes, Facebook and Twitter would happily constitute your entire experience of politics. (They are not unique in this goal: CNN and Fox News follow the same logic, hoping you never change the channel just as Twitter hopes you keep scrolling, but cable news is a less effective technology for total attention capture.)
In dominating the political experience, social media also overpowers efforts to frame the stakes and build identity. Where previous political engagement moved from educating to organizing to mobilizing, in our current context we jump straight to mobilizing. As technologist Zeynep Tufekci explores in her recent book, Twitter and Tear Gas, digital capacities entice movements into skipping the hardest work of building strategic capacities through organizing.
Technology also makes organizing easier than it was in the past, but the effect is disproportionate: our effectiveness in mobilizing so greatly outstrips the organizing potential that the balance has tipped. And in a world where everyone else is emergency mobilizing, it becomes very hard to be the one who slows the pace for deliberate organizing.
Write your own script
We need the elements of stakes, identity, and experience working together in support of progress and justice. But stewarding them turns out to be more complicated than we’d like. Looking at progressive commentary and Democratic party soul-searching since the election, you can see the mistakes that occur when they get out of balance.
We can frame the stakes any way we’d like, but they won’t get magically transmitted out to potential constituents. Advertising, mass media coverage, and viral tweets aren’t the only way constituents experience politics, so crafting messages for those channels alone leads us astray. Likewise, identities are built through experiences. Talking about the identity of your political base without a plan for you’ll organize people into creating that identity — how they’ll experience that identity — will get you nowhere. And you can’t organize that base without framing the stakes of what you’re organizing around.
These three are intertwined. Any critique of one without reference to the others is making unstated assumptions. Any plan or progress on one without the others is fragile and unsustainable. Trump wins when he marshals these three elements together, and when we fail to do so.
We’re all audience-actors in this show. It matters how we engage online, the click-bait we take and the comment threads that absorb our attention. It matters how we show up for political actions, and which ones we show up for. Our role in this show is very different if we only attended the Women’s March but haven’t shown up to protest police violence or protect voting rights in the months since.
Even more important: we need to show up for the general membership meetings, roll up our sleeves, help plan the next action, and recruit the people who didn’t come to the last one.
Slowly, through local action, we forge the kind of democratic politics that will defeat Trump and his allies, that would have prevented them from gaining power in the first place, and that will set us on a path toward the country we want to build together.