Social Hope in the Time of Trump
Election night 2016 dealt a profound shock to the majority of Americans who voted against Donald Trump. You can probably remember where you were and how you felt at the moment it became clear that Trump was going to win. The mainstream mood was captured in Gustavo Viselner’s poignant cartoon sequence a few weeks later showing Barack and Michelle Obama preparing to leave the White House. Their bags are packed and they’re about to go. The president says: “Are you ready Michelle?” He turns off the lights as they depart. The White House goes dark. And then in the final panel the lights go out all over America.
Vilsener captured the loss of hope at first shared by many of us. But only at first. Spontaneous demonstrations took place that very week throughout the country, meetings were held to discuss the implications of Trump’s victory. Sixty people came to one such meeting I participated in in a northern suburb of Detroit where usually twenty is a good turnout. At a followup meeting to discuss what to do in response to the election over ninety people showed up. A women’s demonstration was called for Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. This mobilization spread around the country and around the world, becoming one of the largest waves of demonstrations ever in the United States. Other planning meetings followed, former Democratic staffers published a guide to putting pressure on Congress, Indivisible, that led to the creation of thousands of local activist groups within weeks (now well over 6000), most of which are still going strong. The travel ban from Muslim countries provoked spontaneous demonstrations at airports around the country. Demonstrations continued at congressional and senatorial offices, town halls were disrupted, and everywhere people began newly familiarizing themselves with the budget, the Republicans’ various health care plans, Trump’s war on the environment, his attack on science.
In short, as Trump spewed a dizzying series of tweets and actions, allied himself with the extreme right wing and the most predatory capitalists, and immediately began to implement both his own white nationalist promises and a neoliberal agenda of deregulation, he was met with a massive and spontaneous uprising. A movement calling itself “the Resistance” willed itself into existence, determined to do battle on virtually every front. Any post-election discouragement was sloughed off immediately and replaced within days by an astounding new reality – one of the largest organized movements in U. S. history.
Contrary to the anticipation of many who shared Viselner’s sad vision of America going dark, what actually happened, and is still happening, tells us much not only about the meanings of the Trump presidency but about hope itself in the United States today. I am referring to social hope, not the personal or individual kind which has increasingly displaced the social kind over the past generation. In fact, as I’ve written in We: Reviving Social Hope, in the United States social hope has been under siege since the 1970s.
It is always possible to be confused about hope, since it is both subjective and objective. We may mistakenly see it as a mood or an attitude, a matter of wishing or desiring. And the personal hope we most often talk about stresses waiting passively, and frequently points to anticipating what is totally out of our control. So no wonder hope can seem elusive, vague, and indefinable. But this is not so if we think rigorously about social hope. A unique combination of the objective and the subjective, specifically modern social hope is not simply desire, restricted to what philosopher Ernst Bloch described as the “warm stream.” Bloch also stressed the “cold stream” of social and political reality, focusing on hope’s practical and secular intention of making objective changes and being guided by real-world considerations.
Coextensive with the modern world itself, social hope is the disposition to act collectively to improve our situation. It entails that people are not acting blindly, but with a sense of possibility. Its “cold stream” demands that we prepare ourselves and assess the conditions under which we are operating. It is the hope of social movements, calling for objective, clear-headed organization and action, appreciation of the circumstances in which we operate. The realistic stream of hope commingles with the visionary stream that inspires and motivates us; without both together there is no hope. Thus hope is hopeful action in the world, uniquely combining our visionary longing, our own real intention, and our sense of potency, with real possibility.
But in the United States over the past generation we have lived through a systematic attack on social hope-on the very possibility of collective solutions to collective problems, indeed amidst the very denial that there are collective problems. What I call the privatization of hope is an individualist rejection of communal vision and action. Neoliberalism rules out collective action that would make the social world fairer, more democratic, or more equal, and it rigorously taboos bringing the “free market” economic maelstrom under democratic control.
Over our lifetimes social life has been shrunken, characterized by rampant cynicism, dissolved by a pseudo-religious faith in the workings of the market, and displaced by the privatization of hope. Recently we have seen momentary revivals of social hope, as during the insurgent phase of the Obama candidacy of 2008, and then by Occupy in 2011-12. Yet even during the Great Recession that began in 2008, the broad general trend continued, insisting on the shifting of deeply social concerns onto individuals, to be solved by us personally. This process destroys social hope as it undermines thinking of and experiencing ourselves as social beings. One tell-tale sign of this was the doubling of charter school enrollment under Obama. Another, during the 2016 presidential nomination campaign, was the fact that all but one of the Republican field of candidates and the Democrat Hillary Clinton, were devoted neoliberals.
Hope in 2016
There were two exceptions, of course, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who together almost completely upended the political system in 2016. This is not to say that Trump was seeking to revive the kind of social hope I’m talking about. Rather, it was Bernie Sanders, and in the United Kingdom Jeremy Corbyn, who revived the modern progressive tradition of active, collective, solidaristic social hope that aimed to bring about a more democratic, more equal world. And each of them based this on the energies of a movement, people who made themselves into a we acting together. Certainly Trump’s voters hoped to shake up the system, and they hoped for change. But this was always a narrow exclusionary vision connected to racism, bigotry, white nationalism, and misogyny. Yes, people who support Trump share a collective sensibility, but their peculiar anti-elitism aiming at the educated but not the corporate system is nothing like the forward-looking, active, collective hope of a left movement. It is rather a cult of personality, focused on what he will do for us.
So if Trump’s campaign reasserted a sort of regressive authoritarian hope held by many in the society, including some members of the white working class, and was a reaction against the global economy building under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, it has nothing to do with collectively constructing a more diverse and democratic future. Instead it turns on a sour mood of nostalgia infused with xenophobia. Moreover, Trump’s embrace of the anti-government, anti-science, extractive and predatory capitalist right wing and his actual practice of governing are not aimed at shaking up the actual center of economic and political power. Trump’s people have been keen to implement their own agenda rather than responding to his working-class supporters. In all of these ways, Trump embodies what I would call anti-hope.
On the contrary, the Bernie Sanders campaign created a sense of active participation at its events, on the Internet, and on social media. It fueled a belief that things could change for all of us and that the movement itself would help to enact that change. Unlike Obama’s “hope”-which was after all a brilliant advertising slogan appealing to a widespread longing-the Sanders campaign actually made demands that focused on upsetting relations of power and privilege, proposed specific changes to a system of inequality and poverty. These goals were regarded as “unrealistic” by mainstream Democrats but the movement’s feeling for possibility was not. It raised financial support from millions of small donors, and it grew like wildfire as Bernie began to win primaries and give Hillary Clinton a run for her money.
The many specific proposals of the Sanders campaign drew support because they were filled with sincerity, idealism, a rejection of cynicism, and a striking sense of possibility. Its many specific proposals contained a broad, even universal appeal: reducing inequality by demanding that the very rich pay a “fair share” of their income in taxes; a living wage; government-funded and universal health care; free college education; dismantling corporate-friendly free trade agreements; and a serious effort to protect the environment.
Distinguishing between “genuine” and “distorting-mirror” hope is crucial, especially in this age of media spectacle when seeming and entertainment have become so central. Bernie, with his age and white hair, visibly symbolized his connection with a deeper past, reviving the very history of hope he evoked by calling himself a democratic socialist. In doing so, Sanders broke the great American political taboo against actively hoping for alternatives to the existing socio-economic system. Amazingly, he was welcomed rather than marginalized for doing so by a large portion of the electorate. In the course of a few months, it is important to remember two years later, the Sanders movement became the largest progressive force in national electoral politics in over 100 years.
Today this remains the all-but-forgotten secret of the 2016 election campaign and the 2017 elections in the United Kingdom. In both countries significant numbers in a generation raised to be selfish and cynical have rejected their parents’ watchwords and responded instead to two old guys calling themselves socialists.
We: The Anti-Trump Resistance
But this is not where we are in United States today. Since the inauguration of Trump a resistance has sprung up with a desperate commitment to narrower goals – first to limit the damage Trump is doing, then to win a majority in at least one house of Congress, and then to replace Trump in the White House in 2020. Its goals are not broad or progressive, but are narrow and focused, driven by fear, anger, disgust with the man himself, and a desire to protect the status quo. As defective as that status quo is, the anti-Trump resistance aims at conserving what Americans already have achieved. The we of the Resistance is a movement of social self-defense: to preserve the collective attainments of a certain historically evolved level of civilization, with all their weaknesses and contradictions, which are threatened with viciously being undone. The goal is to defend the entire web of social goods, regulations, amenities, constitutional provisions, their accompanying level of culture, science, and even literacy – that have characterized contemporary American society. And yet there has been a distinct revival of hope in the face of Trumpism, in the intensity of public discussion, in the sheer amount of activism, in the revival of community feeling, generosity, and solidarity. To understand this we must look at how it operates, this remarkable new we that has taken shape in the United States.
With no central direction, millions of people are acting collectively, some alone on the telephone and the internet, others in small groups, still others in demonstrations and mass meetings. The movement is everywhere. They are talking to each other, planning, strategizing. People are acting amid deep fears about what is happening and about to happen, not in the hope of achieving anything new – although “Medicare for all” has percolated up as one obvious solution to the crisis Trump and the right wing are creating over the Affordable Care Act. Most important, in the anti-Trump resistance a new collectivity is beginning to assert itself against his “I,” influencing the courts, the media, and even Congress. Noone can say where this movement will lead, but it has been acting with an energy equal to the magnitude of the threat.
We in History
Conventional as its goals may be, the anti-Trump resistance has shown striking similarities with other great hopeful modern movements. Their action, one of the key themes of modern history, has aimed at rejecting the harshest and most brutal forms of oppression–being others’ property, demanding democratic government, rejecting inherited relationships of dominance and subservience, demanding equality, self-determination, and a secure existence. Masses of people pick up the baton set down by earlier generations and other movements, hoping to carry it further. Colonial rule has largely met a fate similar to that of slavery, as is happening to patriarchy and homophobia – having been made, or still being made, unacceptable, immoral, illegal, obsolete. In concretizing such hopes, movements have usually pointed to a specific future that they seek to make happen such as union recognition, the end of apartheid, equal rights for African Americans, equality for women. Such demands, and the broader goals of making society fairer, more humane, more equal, more democratic, have challenged dominant systems of power and those who benefit from them.
What similarity do these movements have with the anti-Trump resistance? In all of them people have sensed their own power to make a difference politically and socially, rising up to make it so. Rising up: hope is not only about aiming at certain particular goals, although broadly speaking it inclines to the left. It also resides in the experience of coming together to make it happen, as with tens of millions of Americans since January 20, 2017. As a community of struggle is created, a current of solidarity replaces individual self-seeking as the functional norm, and activists draw upon and contribute to this current. In the past, among countless other movements, hope was generated by the action of the Paterson silk workers in 1913, the Flint auto workers in 1937, and the Montgomery bus boycotters in 1955.
The Montgomery bus boycott was self-organized, starting in the early morning of December 5, 1955, when the buses rolled from black neighborhoods to the rest of the city completely empty. The community would gather together in the evening, in church, to listen to Martin Luther King Jr., but was just as powerfully present in the empty buses, in the knots of people walking to work and home, in the car-pool vehicles carrying people around the city. In such times movements become a way of life, developing complex organizations, generating and drawing on new talents, creating new patterns of living, opening up new possibilities for ordinary people, inspiring – and needing – their ingenuity, sacrifice, and even heroism. In its own way, this is happening today: becoming members of a larger entity, people in the resistance draw power from it, have a responsibility to it, and experience themselves within it.
This remarkable change in people’s being is accompanied by a no less remarkable change in their perception. By becoming collective actors opposing ourselves to other actors, they look for their weaknesses and resistances as well as their own strengths and the objective possibilities of change. The once fixed and frozen field before all of becomes redefined as a practical one, and as participants become its active agents the adversaries lose their overwhelming power and unchangeability. The complex historical and social field now becomes a series of guides, helps, and obstacles. This change in how people see is also a change in what they see, as “the way things are” begins to appear as humanly created.
Thus collective hope can evoke a sense of potency and possibility. It can reach ever-widening circles as each group looks beyond itself for inspiration, support, and a sense of moral strength. The thousands of Indivisible groups felt justified by each other just as the American sit-down strikers were inspired by the French in 1936, and just as other auto workers were inspired by Flint and other workers inspired by auto workers in 1937.
Connecting the Dots
It is no accident that social hope is reviving in response to the Trump presidency. From the its beginning the anti-Trump resistance exploded on the ground with a remarkable diversity of forms and energies-defending immigrants, the climate, Muslims, women, science, and the rule of law. The former Democratic Congressional staffers who developed the Indivisible document followed the Tea Party in creating an organization to lobby Congress, and especially focusing on preserving the status quo rather than developing any new legislation. Their genius lay in narrowing their focus, seeking to oppose Republican initiatives and in doing so locally, in one Congressional district after another. As such, Indivisible activists were discouraged from creating their own progressive program, to the extent that even universal health care activists, long accustomed to biding their time, spoke at resistance meetings about protecting Obamacare and strengthening the principle of universal coverage rather than Single Payer. Still, the Republican attack on Obamacare was so flagrantly partisan and incompetent that Single Payer began to emerge as the single, simple solution to the Republican-induced health care mess. And so when former lone wolf Bernie Sanders finally introduced the Medicare for All bill in the Senate, he was able to do so with sixteen cosponsors.
Clearly, despite the restraint, progressive energy has been bubbling up in many directions at once. Solidarity with immigrants comes from and further generates a wider sense of solidarity. Protecting the existing defective health care system encourages thinking about a better health care system. Opposition to white racism promotes a wider sense of brother- and sisterhood. A higher profile assumed by women’s activism generates the confidence to expose male predators. In response to the crisis engendered by Trumpism, structures and acts of resistance generate and benefit from a widening sense of social hope.
At such a time, one natural impulse is to connect the dots – between Trump’s actions and the system he presides over, between past and present movements incarnated by old guys such as Sanders and Corbyn, between all of the different fronts on which Trump is carrying out initiatives, between child abusers and Evangelical Christians who support them. As Naomi Klein says, Trumpism is a deep and long-term product of American society. It will not be defeated in the 2018 or 2020 elections, but only by a truly progressive movement that questions its root causes and poses alternatives – and in the process generates a full-scale revival of social hope.
Ronald Aronson studied with Herbert Marcuse and has written on Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre’s relationship with Albert Camus, South Africa, and Marxism. He is author of Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, and the Undecided. His most recent book is We: Reviving Social Hope.