The Republican and Democratic party conventions held in July both staged a virtual political reality well removed from what is happening in America’s communities. The Democrats produced a carefully choreographed appearance of unity that masked deep divisions between its establishment and Sanders-inspired delegates. The Trump-dominated Republican convention appealed to profound dissatisfaction with the country’s prospects, but stoked the demonization of immigrants to protect the billionaires who are actually responsible for outsourcing jobs.
Meanwhile, state legitimacy is dissolving because of unconstrained shootings of non-white Americans by trigger-happy police.
Clinton’s acceptance speech showed clear signs of the influence of Sanders’ campaign, denouncing factory closings, economic inequality, Wall Street vs. Main Street, and money in politics; but while her speechwriters are attuned to the outcome of the primaries, they are insensitive to the disenchantment of many Americans with the political establishment. For these people, contrary to her message, America is not great. There is a pervasive anti-establishment populist movement in society based on a decline in middle-class jobs and living standards – above all, on a perception that there is no prospect of a better future – that has produced a fundamental shift in the relation between the political elite and the public.
This has created a dangerous desire for a powerful leader who will fix everything. The Associated Press reported: “After a recent Trump rally in West Virginia, countless news articles and academics dismissed Trump’s pledge to bring back coal as impossible, tied to market forces and geology. Chuck Keeney, a professor of political science and history at Southern Community College in Logan, often hears his students dismiss the criticism as the establishment, the very machine that ignored them for so long, beating up on Trump now, too. ‘What they see in their minds is the elite that looks down on them, mocks them, makes fun of them, thinks they’re stupid,’ Keeney said. ‘They see all those establishment groups ganging up on Donald Trump and that makes them root for him more’.”
Trump has leveraged the reaction against globalization and the rejection of political authority to take over the Republican party. Although his convention speeches were politically chaotic, they nevertheless succeeded in convincing his base that he could be president. Moreover, it articulated the appeal of his authoritarian rhetoric to the security forces and the rightwing NRA – not to mention the KKK.
A star speaker at the Republican convention was an African American police officer who denounced the Black Lives Matter movement. Milwaukee county sheriff David A. Clarke told the delegates: “What we witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge was a collapse of the social order. So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcend peaceful protest and violate the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy.”
This is the true danger of Trumpism – its affinity with the authoritarianism of repressive state agencies built up under Bush and Obama. Max Blumenthal commented: “Clarke opened with what was perhaps the most successful applause line of the evening: ‘Ladies and gentleman, I would like to make one thing very clear: Blue lives matter in America!’ … Invoked on the national stage by culture war icons like Sheriff Clarke, Blue Lives Matter has become an integral component of the Republican base. It is not only a catch-all for opposition to Black Lives Matter and virtually any effort to spur police reform, but also a brand that conveys the racial backlash sensibility cultivated by the Trump campaign.”
The Democrats began their convention with party organizers maneuvering to contain dissent from Sanders’ supporters, and ended with Obama and Hillary Clinton staking out the Republican territory of American exceptionalism to deliver a message of patriotic optimism. Their election strategy appears to be one of winning over moderate Republican voters disenchanted with Trump and to pivot away from the concessions made to Sanders’ representatives on the platform committee.
“America is already great. America is already strong,” insisted Obama in his convention speech. According to the New York Times, “Democrats sought to seize on the traditional core of Republican campaign messaging: America as a place of virtue, optimism and exceptionalism. … Democrats celebrated the country’s diversity, with Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the vice-presidential nominee, ladling on the Spanish.” It’s a welcome sign of the times – but, as Greg Grandin points out, while Kaine speaks Spanish to market the presidential candidate, he still supports “the policies of free trade and militarization that produced the poverty, the violence, and the immigration [from] Central America.” The party’s leaders are simply blind to the contradiction between their professed aims of social justice and their close connections to corporate financial interests.
Alternet reported that “for most of the 1,900 Sanders delegates in Philadelphia, the convention was a turbulent and trying affair. It began with DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz being forced to resign a day before it opened, after WikiLeaks posted emails of aides plotting against Sanders, but then she was rewarded with a top appointment to the Clinton campaign. That didn’t just affirm their suspicions about DNC bias, but it more ominously signaled that the party and Clinton campaign didn’t care about them.” Luis Eric Aguilar, a delegate from Illinois, told Democracy Now: “The theme of the DNC was to unify the party, but the delegates for Hillary get there early, reserve seats in the front rows so it shows good to the media, and then they push us to the back. … They tried taking away these signs, the ‘No TPP’ signs. All the homemade signs were taken away from us. But that is taking away our freedom of speech.”
By day four of the convention, Sanders’ supporters were arguing passionately about what to do next. They had expected to have more of an opportunity to express their critique of Clinton, but found themselves being shut down. Melissa Michelson, a member of Sanders’ California delegation, told Alternet: “We kind of understand where Sanders is going. We understand that he doesn’t want Donald Trump to win. However, he also told us that the political revolution is about us, not him… A lot of us are going to start getting involved in local politics. … We’re still skeptical how things will work out with this new relationship, you know [with Sanders endorsing and planning to campaign against Trump]. I will not vote for Hillary Clinton and I will not vote for Donald Trump either.”
A different view was expressed by a Texas delegate, Fawaz S. Anwar. He said: “I’m scared that Trump’s going to win now. And now that Clinton is sagging behind Trump, the most misogynistic, sexist, sexist, racist person that the Republicans have ever nominated, Clinton is slipping up. I just—I don’t know how else to say it. But our democracy is in danger if Trump becomes president. I’m in agreement with Bernie. I’m going to vote for Clinton if she’s the nominee.”
Now that Sanders activists have reached the limits of the Democratic nomination campaign, they face a decision about the presidential election. In a discussion between Robert Reich and Chris Hedges hosted by Democracy Now, Reich said he saw no alternative to supporting Clinton because under a Trump presidency there would be negative changes that would irrevocably worsen the structure of the country, including appointments to the Supreme Court. He suggested that it was still possible to build “a multiracial, multiethnic coalition of the bottom 90 percent that is ready to fight to get big money out of politics, for more equality, for a system that is not rigged against average working people, where there are not going to be all of these redistributions upward from those of us who have paychecks” in order to take back democracy.
Hedges, advocating a vote for Green party candidate Jill Stein, responded that corporate power has already seized all the levers of control and the Democratic party was identical to the Republicans in this respect. “We’ve got to break away from political personalities and understand and examine and critique the structures of power,” he said. Obama “has been as obsequious to Wall Street as the Bush administration. … I don’t think it makes any difference. The TPP is going to go through, whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Endless war is going to be continued, whether it’s Trump or Clinton.”
However, the majority of Americans are not going to abstain in this election, nor vote for a third party. For African and Latino Americans this is not an academic debate. They will vote overwhelmingly for Clinton because a Trump presidency is literally life-threatening for them. It would give the police carte blanche to gun down minorities without cause and Trump the power to use state force to suppress political opposition. White liberals have the luxury of potentially abstaining or voting for a third party, but this implies walking away from a long-term fight within the ranks of the Democratic party, and within the communities outside it, in order to change its leadership. It means giving up the struggle before it has begun. The left cannot use its criticisms of Clinton to avoid going through the experience of voting down Trump with the rest of America.