Idealism in the Age of Trump
How Trump Getting Elected Helped Democrats
Donald Trump did Americans a huge favor by being elected. This favor has nothing to do with the jobs he will bring back to America, the wall he will force Mexico to build, the terrorists he will keep from reaching our shores, or the metaphorical swamp he will drain.
Rather, Trump’s favor to the American working- and middle-class folks who voted for him was in allowing them to hold onto certain ideals that form the backbone of their American identity:
American values are above suspicion. Poor people are poor because they are lazy, and laziness is chosen. Black people get shot more because they commit more crimes. The police are a benevolent force that upholds law and order without bias or prejudice. Other countries hate us because of our freedom. Oppressive regimes in foreign lands are that way because they are evil, and if they weren’t evil they would accept American foreign policy. To be an enemy of America is to be an enemy of basic human decency. Climate change is only a theory, and theories are not facts.
Without such clear-cut, manichean beliefs, huge amounts of people would be forced to consider the possibility that these apparent absolute truths are, in fact, not true. Then, by extension, they would be forced to consider that that there are no absolute truths, that there are only negations of the truth:
No politician, political party, or government agency is working entirely in the best interests of the people. No war in foreign lands makes the world safer. No union-busting, tax-cutting for the wealthy, social-program-defunding, privatizing, or outsourcing is in the best interests of the worker. A police officer can hurt or shoot you or anyone else at any time for no obvious reason and get away with it. Tensions with other powerful nations around the world are being agitated, not defused, inviting possible nuclear war. Human activity is ruining our environment and at some point may produce an apocalyptic weather event that will destroy humanity if nuclear war has not already.
And, seemingly, no one is doing anything about any of this, least of all Trump.
The funny thing about Trump, though, is that he did a similar favor for the people who voted against him. On first glance, it would appear he shattered Democratic idealism, and showed them just how bad things really are.
But his victory also served, and serves, to reinforce the idealistic notion that the Democratic Party represents sense and rationality.
Trump makes Democrats look smart, sane, and rational. Far from shattering their idealism, his victory—racist gaffes, trashy tweets, blatant ignorance, and all—allows them to continue to believe in the intellectual and moral superiority of the Democratic Party.
In their mind, it was not a flawed candidate that lost the election but the stupidity of the American working class. This stupidity originates in the people and finds its figurehead in Trump. “Could people really be that stupid and bigoted to vote for such a man?” In doing so, Liberalism gets to emotionally assert the superiority of its own ideas over those of the Right. This is its eternal “consolation prize” whenever it loses an election: that, somehow, superior ideas will eventually triumph in society by virtue of being superior, that common sense and rationality will prevail, if not now, then someday.
The truth that many Democrats cannot accept is that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party did not represent superior ideas. They represented the neoliberal status quo, which has failed the American working- and middle-class since FDR.
Forgetting that Hillary Clinton spent much of her long career furthering the same warlike, corporatist, and “tough on crime” measures that dot Trump’s agenda, the defeated liberal voter continues supporting Democrats in the meantime, in order to feel like he or she is still fighting for “the good, sane, smart side.”
A left-leaning person can continue to believe that America would truly be the greatest nation in the world if only Democrats controlled the entire government, further forgetting that Truman dropped two atom bombs on Japan, Kennedy initiated the Vietnam War and Johnson intensified it, Carter gave us Reaganism before Reagan, and Obama oversaw America’s longest war in Afghanistan. All of these atrocities started or were sustained with Democrats controlling both the Presidency and Congress.
“If only people weren’t so stupid, they would all vote Democrat, and then the world would be great!”
What voters of both the Left and the Right don’t know—and the party leaders don’t want them to know—is that it is not superior ideas themselves that win elections, but people armed with ideas.
But the Democratic party can’t arm its constituents with the ideas of justice and truth because it doesn’t embody them. Unlike the Republicans who unashamedly lie through their teeth and appeal to voters’ fears as defenders of freedom and the American Dream, the Democratic Party is not good at saying what it does embody.
As a result, the Right and its media outlets and well-organized think tanks have done a hell of a job equipping a veritable army of frightened Americans with an image of the Left as a bunch of elitist bureaucrats who want to take away your privileges, give your job to a less-qualified Black person or woman, invade your lives with “big government” and destroy your civil liberties (starting with your free, non-PC speech), and tax you to high heaven in order to support hordes of welfare-grubbing parasites, undocumented immigrants, and union thugs.
I’m not saying this image of Democrats is accurate. I’m saying that it is powerful, and it allows right-wing oriented people to believe that Republicans aren’t doing as much to limit and destroy people’s lives as they would have you believe Democrats are doing, if not more.
All idealism involves the idea that believing something makes it true. But the difference between left-wing and right-wing idealism in the age of Trump comes down to what each side believes. Right-wing idealism allows the working class to hold onto its comforting illusions of America’s infallible greatness, while its freedoms and economic stability are eroded along with its moral, humanistic, and critical fiber. In part, appealing to this idealism got Trump elected.
The idealism of the left, however, encourages its adherents to believe that ideas which are right and just and true and "sane" will win based on their intellectual and moral superiority, and the Democrats are the party of rightness and justice and truth, whether or not the human element actually espouses these values or has ever embodied them. It is just as deep a delusion as right-wing idealism, except that it is repellant to much of the working class, coming off as anti-American, elitist, and dismissive of their fears.
Hillary did not challenge ideals. Rather, she appealed to the Liberal ideal that the Democratic Party is the party of intellect, of common sense, of rationality. Unlike Trump, she spoke in complete sentences, wasn’t a reality-TV grotesque or womanizer, possessed a vast political background, and, as a woman, was intrinsically associated with ideas of justice and social innovation, despite possessing very little substance in these regards.
Hillary hoped that idealism about the Democrats would be enough to carry her to the White House and allow her to continue her political career.
Meanwhile, the one person who, in his flawed way, spoke to the concerns of vast swathes of the working class and addressed the root causes of their misfortune, Bernie Sanders, was removed by a political machine that wanted a figurehead to maintain things as they are, not a person of actual ideas, rationality, and perhaps even substance. Hillary would be this figurehead.
This is why Hillary lost. She did not have a vision — to challenge Trump’s nationalist appeals — of what a truly improved and more just society based on economic reform would mean for the unemployed American masses. She could not tell them that she would bring their jobs back, because she wouldn’t. Trump wouldn’t either, but he had no problem saying that he would.
Nor could Hillary tell people she would break up the big banks, curb defense spending, or redistribute wealth in America, because her political career has been dependent on banks, defense contractors, and billionaires.
As long as Democratic Party’s devotion to upholding the status quo of war, destruction, poverty, and corporate greed remains self-evident, the Democrats will never be in a position to do what is absolutely necessary: to challenge the idealism on both sides of the aisle and expose it as a tool of the ruling class, used to manipulate the good, trusting, idealistic hearts of ordinary Americans, whether through nationalism or individual self-congratulation, and make them vote time and again against their own interests.
Democrats will never be able to truly speak to the concerns of the people, identify the causes of their woes and find concrete solutions, to take bold steps to embody its values through action in the same way that Trump signs his executive actions into law.
As long as Democrats have a monopoly on what is called “left” in America, The Left, and the working class, and the world at war, will always lose, even when a Democrat wins.