President. Donald. Trump. These are three words that never had any reality outside of a grotesque comic. Until now. The man who has bragged of sexual assault, threatened to “build a wall” and refused to denounce an endorsement from a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is President of the United States.
Hate crimes and proto-fascist incidents are spreading across the country. A right-wing terrorist outfit in Texas is threatening to arrest and torture “diversity professors.” Thugs have torn hijabs from the heads of Muslim women on countless campuses across the country – including New York City. Women have been told to grow out their hair because “times are about to change.” Graffiti reading “Trump,” “Whites only,” “White America,” “Go back to Africa,” and “Make America Great Again” has been scrawled inside high schools. A Saudi college student was beaten to death in Wisconsin. Gay and gender non-conforming individuals are being targeted.
Resistance, however, is also pouring into the streets in cities across the country. Mass meetings are being organized. Protesters are shutting down highways.
1. Self-defense and Solidarity
There are immediate practical political tasks.
The first is self-defense and solidarity against Trump’s emboldened human dust. This means we must pursue maximum unity on the radical left to counter the right-wing threat. All the socialists and socialist organizations, all the anarchists and anarchist organizations, radical feminists and queers should be forming, in every city and town, on every campus, militant self-defense networks. We should begin conducting campaigns against the bigots.
The large protests are, of course, a good thing. But these are fights that will unfold over months and years. We must, as Tariq Ali argues, “build up forces for action once he’s in office.”
Secondly, we need to pursue maximum unity to project a counter-narrative explanation for neoliberalism’s failures.
While Trump’s base was animated by a reactionary core – a core far less working-class than the mainstream media has told us – the 2016 election was lost largely because Hillary Clinton and the DNC failed to mobilize working-class people, young people, people of color and other “traditionally democratic” voters. The DNC had absolutely nothing to offer but false promises (if that). [It must be noted, of course, that Clinton did win the popular vote.]
Demographically it should have been impossible for Trump to win. Indeed, he received roughly the same number of votes as Mitt Romney in 2012. But the majority of people (of all races and genders) stayed home on election day – uninspired by the choice of a reactionary blowhard and a corrupt neoliberal technocrat. Trump’s victory is a direct product of the marriage between liberal failure and growing xenophobia.
Anachronistic divisions on the left must be put aside. There is no justification for the absolute organizational separation of radical socialist organizations that share similar definitions of socialism and similar political positions or perspectives.
To carry out the tasks sketched above is obviously easier said than done. Trump’s “National Conservatism” is an unknown quantity. His gestures toward manufacturing workers and student debt will likely befuddle an American population (and left) unfamiliar with right-bonapartism.
2. Left Failure
When Red Wedge began we were inspired by the return of crowds in Occupy and the Arab Spring. People overcame post-modern fragmentation to challenge neoliberalism’s failure to meet human needs. Red Wedge wanted to be a clearinghouse for a new radical left art and a space to discuss and debate that art.
But the crowds did not cohere into a new totality. Occupy could not withstand police truncheons (sent by Democratic Party mayors) or the demobilizing impact of the 2012 elections. The left was unable to project an alternative.
One of the most important lessons in recent years is that if the left doesn't provide answers the right-wing will. We can see the fruit of our failures in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, SYRIZA’s betrayal in Greece, and the rolling back (and worse) of the Arab Spring.
3. Trump vs. Art
The art world response to Trump has been gratifying but inadequate. Most artists have rallied against Trumpian racism and bigotry. A recognition of how social class played into the failure of 2016, however, is largely absent –notable exceptions like Barbara Kruger aside.
And, in some cases, art figures betray a liberal confusion of what “America” actually is, or how its neoliberal fabric is woven into the art world. After all, it was the contemporary weak avant-garde that produced the likes of Kenneth Goldsmith and Kelley Walker. The bigotry that Trump represents is not some plebian force alien to “serious” culture.
Hrag Vartanian, editor of Hyperallergic, writes:
We live in a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic nation – we already knew that. But we imagined it was always improving, changing its ways, and learning as it went. But America has proven itself uninterested in facts, preferring to be swayed by bravado. This isn’t the first time the United States has showed us its ugly, hateful face; we’ve seen it previously, as recently as the years after 9/11 and many many times before.
Of course history is not a matter of progress. It is as much disaster as innovation. Vartanian undoubtedly knows this – rhetorical flourishes aside. More problematic is his explanation for Trump’s ascendancy:
During the past election season, we’ve been warned again and again about America’s obsession with a new car smell, and tonight we got a sense of what that means. Sure, the car may be a lemon, but it has the scent nonetheless.
People did not vote for Trump or abstain from voting because of fashion or novelty. A mutually reinforcing dyad of bigotry (Trump) and elitist inertia (Clinton) mobilized the right and demobilized left-leaning working-class voters.
A subset of those voters, mostly but not entirely white, voted for Trump because he seemed oppositional to the status quo and claimed to oppose free trade deals. Many of these voters saw Trump as the lesser of two evils.
Vartanian is mostly right to argue “[a]ll art is some form of artivism now, as we will all become inadvertent activists, whether we like it or not.”
It would be more accurate to say all art is more clearly political “whether we like it or not.” Zombie formalism and conceptual detachment are even more suspect than before. And the art world, connected as it is to neoliberal elites, is marked by those elites’ failures.
“Barbara Kruger’s Loser cover for New York magazine will become the ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ of our age,” Vartanian writes, “a sign of hubris by a corporate media that rushed to prove it knew what it was talking about."
But Kruger’s remarks, collated on artnet.com, are among the better comments by artists.
"[T]his is also the failure of the center left to speak powerfully to the fears and grievances of the white working classes,” Kruger argues, “Not only their rage, but also to their growing displacement, both socially and economically.
By contrast Shepard Fairey – of Obama “Hope” poster fame – expresses insulated incredulity:
[A] majority of the American voters have embraced xenophobia, sexism, racism, and a candidate with unprecedented narcissism, zero experience as a public servant, and zero ability to relate to the struggles of average Americans. In effect, the voters have rewarded possibly the most uncivil and disgusting behavior from any candidate I can recall.
Fairey concludes, mimicking a stereotype of a coastal snob, that Americans are lazy and stupid.
The main reason why my wife Amanda and I founded Make America Smart Again was to combat both of the factors I believe led to the Trump victory: voter apathy and low information.
Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly, however, revisit the class dynamics.
In our view, this election underestimated the people hit hardest by the 2008 banking greed, a greed that, in its constant support of Wall Street, the Democratic party actually defended. Those disenfranchised by this corruption in our view could have had an outlet of revolt through the positive and inclusive voice of Bernie Sanders… Because Sanders was not an option, our sense is those sitting on the fence joined the candidate more aligned with their pain… Yes, we believe there is misogyny at work here, and White Supremacy, and other forms of hate. But that sliver (of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people) who just felt the American political establishment left them behind could have turned this into a Democratic win.”
There are, of course, a number of musicians and writers who have spoken against Trump and supported the post-election demonstrations. Even the writers of Star Wars: Rogue One have taken a dig at the President Elect. Unfortunately, many of these gestures (Star Wars excepted of course) reproduce mainstream assumptions about the election.
Many artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers, poets and writers positioned themselves against the presidency of George W. Bush (2001 - 2008). Much of this was inspiring on a basic level. Not only did they speak against the idiot son of a Republican dynasty, but against the war in Iraq and immigrant scapegoating and for the autonomy of women and queer people. But horizons were limited by the hold of elections and the Democratic Party.
The Rock Against Bush compilations rallied punk bands – some musically interesting, others anodyne – to collide the punk imagination with visceral hatred of Bush. These questioned, at least in theory, the creative limitations of American life, most of which were encapsulated by the ethos of a post-9/11 consensus. A good thing. Unfortunately, they ultimately implored the listener to vote (Democrat).
We prefer the example of Rock Against Racism (RAR) in the UK in the 1970s. RAR didn’t just figuratively rally sympathy and ideas but rallied concrete bodies – marching and pogoing in chaotic syncopation against a very real fascist threat washing over Britain’s streets. Its aesthetics were dangerous because they pivoted off the reality of the moment into possible futures – radically democratic (small-d) futures.
Red Wedge believes a main task for art and artists, in the wake of this disaster, is in service of the struggles sketched above. While the proto-fascists and anarcho-liberals alike are, to invoke Benjamin, “aestheticizing politics”, we politicize aesthetics.
But our work does not end there. Our art must wage war on neoliberalism’s limited imagination – its zombie formalism and empty conceptualism as well as a moronic culture industry (that elevated Trump in the first place). We can no more afford to leave our imagination to the likes of Moby or Fairey than we can the Goldsmiths and Walkers of the world; the kind of art that limits itself to an artist-consumer relationship and demands nothing of its viewers or listeners or readers. It is this limited imagination – in its electoral form – that gave us the “choice” of Clinton vs. Trump.
But even this is not enough. To answer the twin dehumanizations of neoliberalism (Clinton) and proto-fascism (Trump – or rather Trump’s hard-core supporters), we aim to valorize the individual subjectivities of those disenfranchised by the system.
This means, first and foremost, valorizing those targeted by Trump’s hatred.
But it also means telling the stories of those who have been incorporated into a false narrative about that hate; poor, working-class and rural white people also injured by the neoliberal order. Poor white people, along with poor people of color, will be among the first to suffer the economic policies of a President Trump. We have no patience for racism, sexism, transphobia and xenophobia. We believe in fighting oppression by any means necessary. But we will not abandon any victims of this barbaric system.
Our art is part of the battle for ideas, a sketch of the revolutionary imagination, and a valorization of the exploited and oppressed.
Finally, our art demands a new messianic moment – a moment that culminates in the pathos of a multi-racial working-class victory – against the proto-fascists and the neoliberal elites alike.
Whether this comes at the dawn of a socialist civilization – or at our descent into barbaric climate change – we will have our revenge.
The Red Wedge editors thank everyone who donated to help us attend the 2016 Historical Materialism Conference in London.