The Covid-19 pandemic is spreading and is ineffectively controlled, as is the global political pandemic, spectacularly on view in Washington, D.C. White supremacy and politicized misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are becoming ever more virulent, supporting an ascendent right-wing authoritarianism around the world. Economic and social inequalities are increasing, as police brutality against people of color is becoming more clearly visible. And the most mature constitutional democracy in the world is teetering, with its Commander-in-Chief inciting a seditious insurrection. I am anxiously awaiting the day when the sociopath leaves the stage, realizing the grave and escalating threat he poses.
Until this point, Donald Trump seemed to be “merely” a authoritarian wannabe. He expressed admiration for authoritarian dictators, and sometimes acted as if he were one. But with his election defeat, he crossed a line: he is now unambiguously leading a right-wing authoritarian movement. His relationship to his fervent supporters demonstrates that Fascism is a significant dimension of the American polity, performed openly first in Trump’s rally in Georgia in his relationship with his adoring “base” and then fully enacted when he provoked the storming of the Capitol. There has been a clear trajectory during Trump’s presidency: ever more independent from reality, ever more attached to his resentments and phobias, reaching its logical conclusion since his defeat on November 3rd.
I thought that it couldn’t happen here: that a democratic culture was knitted into American social fabric, creating a democratic power of inertia in our everyday life. But with the appearance of Trump and Trumpism, there has been a radical transformation. I realize that this democratic power might not hold, as our society fractured.
Since Trump’s defeat, my worst fears have been confirmed, and I’m fighting against despair; I’m sure with many of you: democrats who are in the U.S. and looking in from the outside. I’m searching for hope.
Disuniting the right. Over the past four years, Trump has completed his takeover of the Republican Party, until this week, at least. Since Nixon’s “southern strategy” the party has used white supremacy as an integral part of its politics, including dog whistles, gerrymandering and voter suppression. Trump radicalized this, adding a cult of personality. He has been much more explicit and aggressive, openly racist, welcoming far-right extremists attacking the political heart of American democracy. Thankfully, more traditional Republicans have finally openly turned against him.Both because of his electoral failures, (following his election in 2016, the Republicans have lost the House, the Senate and the Presidency), and because of principle, in the aftermath of the insurrection, a fissure in the Republican Party is emerging. It is divided between his loyalists and the remnants of what the party was before his arrival.Trump leads the Fascist faction, as he provokes his loyal followers, a Fascist mob. In opposition to this faction, there are Republicans who are now re-positioning themselves as committed centrists, even indicating a desire to work with President-Elect Biden on such pressing issues as climate change, perhaps even joining in the impeachment effort. I should add that I have no special admiration for those who have to this point collaborated with Trump, but if they do unite with the principled “Never-Trumpers,” it would be a positive development. This suggests a bizarre happy ending to Trump’s presidency: the development of an open split among Republicans, with a more clearly center-right “New Republican Party” emerging and a marginalized “Trumpist Party.” I have no idea which faction would maintain the Republican Party label.
Uniting the center and left. With the election of Joe Biden, with Democrats having working majorities in the Senate and House, and the Republicans divided, there are great opportunities for the re-constitution and development of democracy and for progressive changes in the United States, and far beyond. I hope the re-constitution and the change go hand and hand. Through executive action, many of Trump’s most reprehensible moves can be quickly corrected, and some progress can be pursued concerning enduring social problems. The rule of law will be respected. The battle against climate change will be rejoined, and the cries for social and economic justice will be heard. All this is already evident as Biden has been announcing his candidates for positions in the new administration.How far the progressive change will go depends on the thoroughness and inventiveness of the re-constitution of democracy. It requires a broad commitment of democratic norms and factual truth. Centrists in the Republican Party should join Democrats in pushing forward serious programs that address the pandemic and its social and economic consequences, the challenges of healthcare and fortifying infra-structure.On the other hand, progressive and pragmatic Democrats should join in achieving the progressive agenda of the 2020 Democratic Platform. Re-reading this today, I am struck by how cogent, comprehensive and specific it is: both “doable” and principled, pragmatic and idealistic. The position on restoring and strengthening our democracy is particularly important in the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol and the attempt by a significant portion of Republican members of Senators and Representatives to destroy democracy by overturning the Electoral College count (in my judgment every bit as troubling as the attack).I have hopes that Democrats and Republicans of the center enable the Biden administration to respond to the immediate practical challenges. I also have hope that progressives and pragmatists Democrats push forward. I believe that these two hopes are not mutually exclusive, as many observers and political leaders seem to assume.
Compromise. This is where my hope departs from many of my friends and colleagues on the left. They think that the answer to the problems is radical steadfastness supporting ideological purity: “the Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All” and “Defund the Police,” or bust, or even refusal to take part in mainstream politics. They would like to prevail, but think that even if they don’t, that by insisting on everything, they will get the most.I have un-pure thoughts. I hope a broad appreciation of the bright side of compromise develops, a “gray is beautiful” political aesthetic, with civility as a precondition of both moderate and radical political action. I hope Democrats convince some Republicans to collaborate with them to address pressing public dangers, and I hope that pragmatists and progressives in the Democratic Party recognize their dependence upon each other to achieve their agreed upon party platform, as they recognized the necessity of their common action in defeating Donald Trump.Compromise can be deadly, especially when facing a Fascist threat. The principled distinction between democracy and autocracy must be recognized. Fascists are enemies, not opponents. They must be vanquished. But when real common ground can be discovered and developed, it should be pursued. I hope and believe that this will be understood among democrats in the coming months, as Trumpism is vanquished and as we begin to address the major matters that festered under Trump’s watch, from climate change, to economic inequality, to social injustices.
Justice Democrats. I am a progressive democrat. I think that it is imperative that we address as quickly and as aggressively as possible the threats of climate change. I also think that it is necessary to finally create a system in which medical care is recognized as a human right, and to fight against racism as it is knitted into the fabric of American social life, in police departments and the entire criminal justice system, in educational institutions, in the electoral system and many other social institutions.That said, I think it is important not to confuse these projects with specific policy proposals and slogans, such as “The Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All” and “Defund the Police.” Policies should be formed politically among political actors who can agree to the principles that stand behind them. Slogans should be used to bring such actors together, not to separate them. I worry that some of my friends on the left are too committed to specific formulations of policy and specific slogans that are expressively satisfying, but politically enervating. Thus, for example, I see great advantage in the label “Justice Democrat” over that of “Democratic Socialist,” and thus to return to an old theme of mine, I have grave doubts about the criticisms of “neo-liberalism,” and especially “progressive neo-liberals,” in contrast to market fundamentalism and market fundamentalists. I hope the centrists stop denouncing the “socialists” for disappointing election results and that progressives stop denouncing “corporate democrats.” I hope they confront their differences and don’t use lazy labels to avoid political negotiations and compromise.
Competence. Of all the problems we face, Covid-19 is the most immediately threatening, at least to me personally given my age, but also the problem that seems to have a pretty clear solution. With masks, social distancing, and vaccination, the end of this nightmare is in sight, though things are getting worse right now. I am struck how advances in biotech have played a significant role and how listening to the scientists, doctors and public health authorities has been a wise course of action. But clearly, nonetheless, politics and political judgment matters, especially evident right now, as the problem seems to be less about the creation of an adequate supply of vaccines and more about mobilizing public health institutions, workers and the general population to make the crucial move from vaccine production to widespread vaccination. With the election of Biden and the appointment of competent officials, I think there is reason to be hopeful in 2021. This is a “Hamiltonian hope.” Democracy will be legitimated and empowered through competence.
Even though I am shaken to my core as we are experiencing the last days of Donald Trump, I hope that the worst is soon to be over. The dimensions of the problems we face after Trump are immense. I worry that his Fascist supporters may still disrupt the transition of power. I think it is absolutely frightening that a major American political party has been so seriously implicated in treason. That said, thanks to the disuniting the right, while uniting the center and the left, the promise of the sunny side of compromise, the possibilities for justice democrats and the pursuit of competence, I think we have grounds for hope.
Hopeful New Year!
Postscript: Donald Trump was impeached yesterday, after I first published this piece as a Democracy Seminar substack greeting. I am a bit more hopeful: both because ten Republicans who voted for impeachment have pushed forward the “disuniting of the right” and also because their action, along with the moves of the Democrats, may lead to the development of a much broader stigmatization of Trumpism, as McCarthyism once was. Opposition to Trump seems to be mounting. Even many of the Republicans who opposed impeachment, condemned Trump for his actions on January 6th. Further, the momentum may build to the point that Trump is actually convicted in the Senate, and then officially blocked from holding Federal office in the future. A clear opening: the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, one of the chief Trump facilitators, now is reported to judge that Trump did commit impeachable offenses. I think McConnell is one of the major facilitators of the abominations of the Trump era. He is a rat jumping the ship, unlike the principled position of the House members who voted for impeachment.
That said, I welcome the jumping for what it portends for the future. I hope some on the center right manage to form a party that marginalizes the Trumpists and competes with those of us on the left. American democracy needs this. I also hope that progressive pragmatist on left now work to realize the goals of the Democratic Party Platform, addressing the pressing problems of our times.
Photo credit: Lorie Shaull
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.
This post (without the postscript) was initially published in the Democracy Seminar’s newsletter of January 12, 2021.