A Vision for the Progressive Left: Transcript


Bhaskar Sunkara: Hi, I'm Bhaskar Sunkara. I'm the editor of Jacobin magazine. I'm here with Jonah Birch, who is a contributing editor at Jacobin and a graduate student in sociology at New York University. I'm also here with Kate Aronoff, who is the cohost of the Dissent podcast Hot and Bothered as well as a writing fellow at In These Times. I guess there's a lot of media narratives that are focusing on how Trump's a completely new phenomenon, where he just emerged out of a vacuum. It went straight from reality TV sets to the White House. To what extent is there continuity between Trump and the Tea Party, between Trump and just the conservative movement generally? How do you see it?

Kate Aronoff: There's a lot of bad narratives about how Trump came about. The one you mentioned is that he came out of nowhere and was just this reality TV star, and was preying on people's worst impulses. I think where he really came from is in the priming that the GOP has been doing for years and years and years, most acutely with the Tea Party. The base of the Tea Party looks very similar to Trump's base. It's a lot of middle-class white folks, and there was real organizing in the Tea Party in a way that I think gets a little bit ignored when we're talking about the narrative of Trump, which is that the Tea Party had grassroots organizers, had this real organic presence in many parts of the country, and this real genuine energy, which of course was bolstered by folks like the Koch brothers, by these big think tanks and organizations truly moved into place when the Tea Party momentum started taking off.

Of course, as we've seen in the last couple days, Donald Trump's cabinet, all of his policy agendas, have been taken out of these playbooks. He's not really ... There are things that are genuinely new about Trump, and maybe we can talk about that later, but a lot of it is very standard, even down to his economic plan. It's things that the Republican Party has been doing for a very long time.

Bhaskar Sunkara: There has been over the past two years this divide between the Tea Party-inspired wing as well as a traditional Chamber of Commerce-style business wing. I guess that's best represented by people like Paul Ryan in Congress that are already butting heads on certain issues with Donald Trump. How deep are these fissures in the Republican Party? Do you think these are just things that will be papered over? Will one wing win? Is there a possibility that the Steve Bannon wing of the Republican Party is really going to be in the driver's seat?

Jonah Birch:I think that the short answer to that is no. I don't think that there is a possibility that ... It's not just amongst the Republican Party. What we're asking is whether the American ruling class and political establishment is going to lose power, essentially, in this context. I don't think that's the case. Clearly, this is a moment of crisis, and the mainstream Republicans and really the entire American elite ... The election of Donald Trump that they were expecting or wanted to see happen. You definitely see these splits developing within the Republican Party between, on the one hand, the dominant business wing that really I think controls the party, and sections of its base, and what Kate was talking about in terms of small business owners, white suburban middle-class professionals. I think you saw in the government shutdown of was it the fall of 2013, that was something that business really did not want. In the course of the primary and this election, there was a degree of disorganization, obviously, that meant that even though Trump was not their preferred candidate, they didn't get what they wanted. Still nonetheless, I think that to the extent that he is empowering people who are beyond the pale of mainstream politics, there are going to be lots of constraints, structural constraints, institutional constraints, that are going to limit how far they're going to be able to diverge from the consensus in American politics.

Bhaskar Sunkara: We often talk about these fissures in the Republican Party, but it did seem at least in the last election that there wasn't the anticipated defections over from the Republican side to the Democratic side that Hillary Clinton and others were banking on. I think a lot of people thought that suburban women, especially, lots of other traditionally Republican constituencies, would swing in great enough numbers over to Clinton that the election would be a cakewalk. How do you explain Clinton's loss? Not among just these constituencies, but just in general.

Kate Aronoff: How long do you have?

Bhaskar Sunkara: We have lots of time. I think initially, right after the election, there was a lot of emphasis on okay, Clinton didn't campaign enough in the Rust Belt, and she was a pretty bad campaigner. She didn't go to those states, and the Democrats didn't have a narrative around class or around speaking to people's concerns. Lately, there's been all these other factors added in. There's been a lot of talk about Russian interference in the election and the hacking of the DNC and whatnot. How do you weight, in your mind, all these different factors, and which narrative is right? Is it contingent factors, like her campaigning ability and the Russians? Is there something deeper, more underlying?

Kate Aronoff: Definitely something deeper and more underlying. I think especially recently there's been this move by higher-ups in the Democratic Party to blame what happened in the election on these outside factors, on Russian interference, on these hacks. Did that have an effect? Probably. I don't know. I think we'll see as these investigations move forward how big an impact that actually had, but either way, whatever those investigations show, there are structural factors in the Democratic Party which made Hillary Clinton lose the election.

It's not just the fault of her campaign. It's that the Democratic Party's strategy for the last couple years, the way they run campaigns, is to target as few people as possible. Some of the most damning articles that came out in the days after the election, trying to make sense of this, are about these algorithms that the campaign to used to say, "We don't have to go to Pennsylvania because our algorithm says that we have that shored up." They lost Pennsylvania by 60,000 votes. That they shouldn't have gone there was just a clear oversight. That they didn't go to these places where Trump won so strongly was really just a flaw on the part of both the Clinton campaign and the operating logic of the Democratic Party establishment, which says, "You can go after these very strategic constituencies. You can go after a specific demographic, and really ignore everything else." I think we saw this in the campaign, which was that Trump was telling a pretty compelling story about what America should look like. As bigoted, as racist, as xenophobic as that was, he wove together this narrative about what America should look like that really spoke to a lot of people, and spoke to a lot of people not maybe because they're in their heart of hearts racist, though those people did vote for Trump, but because they're sick of the way politics has worked. People hate politics. Trump doesn't look like a politician, and so cast against Hillary Clinton, who's this embodiment of establishment politics on both sides of the aisle, it was really easy for him to just trounce her. I'm 24. Hillary Clinton has been on my TV screen for as long as I can remember. The fact that people wanted to vote against that is not surprising.

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