I was here in Portland, Oregon when Obama won in 2008. Me and my two-year-old daughter were hanging out in a pub, listening to our favorite local band (the Pagan Jug Band). The pub and the streets of Portland around it were full of celebration.
"We won!" some very enthusiastic, drunk guy with dreadlocks shouted too close to my sensitive ears.
Wanting to get away from the pandemonium, I carried Leila outside. A young man dressed in black, standing against the wall, looked like he felt as out-of-place as I did.
"Meanwhile in Afghanistan," he said.
At least there's one sensible anarchist among these very friendly but clueless hippies, I thought. It wouldn't take long before both of our suspicions of what had just happened were confirmed, as our new Black president appointed a team of rich, old white men to lead the US further down the road of neoliberalism and imperialism.
Fast forward eight years. Leila is ten now. Last night a friend and neighbor of hers here in Portland was having a little birthday party, and most of the parents were getting drunk on very good beer (Leila's friend's dad brews his own) and getting high on very good weed (another parent in the neighborhood grows some of Oregon's finest cannabis). And they were all looking shocked and confused, consulting those who were glued to their phones every minute or so for election updates.
For about 24 hours prior to this, my Facebook page was awash in hundreds of comments related to my prediction that Trump was going to win, and especially to a song and essay I wrote about how I didn't have any idea whether this outcome would be better or worse than the Democratic Party's alternative (of more Clintonian neoliberalism and imperialism). The comments were all over the map, but many of them expressed complete confidence that Hillary Clinton was going to win, and that she and her party represented the lesser evil.
Why were they all so sure Clinton was going to win? Well, there were a few who expressed their belief that the election was rigged and that the outcome was predetermined. (They were wrong, at least on the predetermined aspect. US democracy is very corrupt and extremely primitive, but it is an oligarchic pseudo-democracy, not a monarchic one.) Mostly, they were so sure she would win because they don't understand why so many people would vote for Trump.
Why were they so sure that Trump didn't have the widespread support he clearly has? Because these people live in a bubble. (Obviously.) What kind of bubble?
There are many aspects to this bubble, or these bubbles. Social media tends to be an echo chamber full of people who agree with you, more or less. I mean, it's all relative -- within a general agreement there can be lots of vitriolic disagreements. So my Facebook friends and Twitter followers include lots of people who agree with my general assessment of our two-party plutocracy (it's all shit). This group includes a diverse array of anarchists, socialists, and communists from throughout North America and northern Europe, primarily (not coincidentally, mainly people living in the countries where I tour a lot). And then there are a lot of people who believe the Democratic Party to be the lesser evil, particularly, it seems, in this most recent election. Among this group, my friends were divided between those capable of reasonable discourse, and pro-Clinton bullies, flinging largely baseless accusations at anyone who disagreed with them.
Among the hundreds of people commenting on Facebook (drawn from a total of around 10,000 friends and followers, mostly white men from the United States), not one person advocated for voting for Trump. This is the nature of social media, for better or for worse. It does not give us a clear vision of any kind of shared reality. It is, by nature, an echo chamber. (And sometimes echo chambers have great acoustics!)
If these folks were also getting their news from more traditional forms of corporate-controlled media (aside from corporate-controlled social media), as most of them probably were, then they would have been similarly out of luck. Most of the media that I listen to, watch and read, such as NPR, BBC, the Guardian, NY Times, etc., was virulently anti-Trump -- in a way that was different from media opposition to any prominent politician in my memory, aside from Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader.
Personally, I felt so out of touch with what was going on in this country that I subscribed to Donald Trump's YouTube channel, and started listening to his speeches from beginning to end. Then it all made sense.
All I was ever getting on most corporate, public and community media to date had been the most incendiary quotes from the landlord of landlords from New York City. And to be sure, xenophobia and racism played a huge role in his campaign. But what I learned from listening to his speeches was that far from the way he was generally characterized as a flip-flopping madman spewing whatever bile happened to come out of his mouth on a given day, changing his positions with the wind, here was a guy who was staying on message -- and his message was very clearly classic National Socialism.
National Socialism is not a terribly coherent or one-size-fits-all ideology. It's flexible, depending on various circumstances. But Trump's version of National Socialism is consistent. It integrates nationalism with socialism -- that is, it can be hard to separate the nationalism from the socialism. We want to build a wall to keep out "illegal aliens" because they are "taking our jobs." That is, we protect our borders (nationalism) in order to lift ourselves up economically by not having this unfair competition represented by non-citizens (socialism, sort of). We want to Put America First (nationalism) in order to renegotiate trade deals so they're a good deal for American workers (socialism). We want to stop worrying about protecting Japan and South Korea, pull our troops out of there (an isolationist version of nationalism) in order to spend the savings from not maintaining a huge military presence there on infrastructure in the US (socialism). The working class -- yes, he frequently used the term that only Sanders dared to use, among leading Democrats -- had been forgotten, and would be forgotten no longer.
These were the sorts of messages he was hammering home day in and day out, to massive crowds throughout the country. During Bernie Sanders' primary campaign -- which he lost largely because of the DNC's rigged super-delegate system -- he was also attracting huge crowds, hammering home messaging on similar themes, minus the nationalist, racist, xenophobic elements. But the messages about a fairer system where politicians are not bought and sold by corporations, opposed to TPP, etc., were basically the same. And the messaging from the media -- that Sanders and Trump were both idealists without any practical proposals, was also the same.
Sanders lost. Trump won. Socialism failed -- not due to a lack of popularity, but due to a rigged system. The National Socialist won -- voted in by many of the same people who would otherwise have voted for Sanders. There's a lot of history in the world with this phenomenon.
For many of those people who could have gone either way with these two candidates, it seems abundantly clear to me that what they were voting for was for a fairer system that's not rigged by plutocrats. One of the reasons the polls were wrong and I was right was because there were lots of people who didn't want to admit to pollsters that they were going to vote for Trump. Because they were shy about their support for him -- because they didn't want people to think they were crazy, since the media was portraying his supporters as being a collection of racist, sexist lunatics.
Here's one thing I don't want to do over the next years: I don't want to spend my time insulting Donald Trump or his supporters. I want to be part of building an internationalist, socialist movement that can be more popular than the Trump phenomenon. I don't believe this movement can or will come from the Democratic Party, since the leadership of this party abandoned the working class in favor of dividing our society into various interest groups, devoid of any awareness of the basic, class-divided nature of this country.
What I know for sure, wherever this movement might come from, is that the road forward does not involve pitting educated urban liberals against the semi-employed denizens of the countryside and the exurbs -- or writing them all off as racists who don't know their ass from their elbow. The road forward involves recognizing the socialism in National Socialism, and appealing to that aspect of Trump's message -- while also communicating effectively about how many aspects of nationalism (and racism, sexism and xenophobia) are actually inconsistent with socialism.