Donald Trump shrugs his shoulders at a podium with a small crowd behind him.
Donald Trump shrugs his shoulders at a podium with a small crowd behind him. Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
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With every new outrage from the Trump administration, well-meaning progressives often remind us not to legitimize Trump’s policies with hashtags like #NotNormal. They claim that Trump’s racism and xenophobia fly in the face of American values and long for a return to Obama’s “scandal-free” tenure. But the harsh reality is that Trump’s horrific policies, far from being a departure from the American tradition, are all too normal for the communities under attack.

From the “Muslim registry” previously overseen by both the Bush and Obama administrations (to say nothing of the Native American registry that is Tribal Enrollment), to the infamous border wall that, in effect, already exists, to the bipartisan continuation of drone strikes in Yemen and across the globe, many of Trump’s most ruthless policy prescriptions are already in place and have been for years under both major political parties.

Until progressives come to terms with this reality and accept that Obama’s neoliberalism laid the groundwork for Trump’s police state, we will never climb out of the abyss. As Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer has argued, “You don’t really know what you’re doing unless you understand what happened.” Unearned nostalgia and Joe Biden memes will not save us.

Imperial Normalcy

In the wake of Trump’s election, liberal commentators have painted a picture of the Obama years that borders on hagiography. Writing for The Nation, Katha Pollitt lauded Obama’s two terms as “eight years free of scandal and drama,” apparently forgetting why, at the time of writing, Edward Snowden remains in Russia and Chelsea Manning remains in prison (though Obama finally chose to pardon her in the 11th hour of his final term). Going one step further, Dave Eggers claimed that Obama’s tenure has in fact been an “uninterrupted stretch of calm and decency,” which no doubt comes as news to all the Muslim wedding parties torn apart by U.S. bombs over the past eight years.

Such claims should be farcical on their face, but they have gained widespread currency as the resistance to Trump heats up. Ensconced in their own imperial privilege, these authors are unable to draw a line from Democrats’ “colorblind” violence against Latinx people and Muslims to the bluntly race-conscious violence of the Trump administration. And yet, in perhaps the most striking example of this bloody continuity, Trump’s recent raid in Yemen killed an eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, whose older brother Abdulrahman was killed by an Obama drone strike.

Even when it comes to his most egregious proposals, Trump has in many cases been beaten to the punch by his liberal rivals. Mass deportations? Obama holds the all-time record—over 2.5 million people forcibly relocated. Expansive police powers? Bill Clinton’s own law-and-order bills doubled the number of people in federal prison and ushered in the modern prison-industrial complex. A border wall? We already have 700 miles’ worth of it—and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, voted for it alongside their Republican colleagues. Stronger together, indeed.

This is not to deny the dangers posed by the Trump administration. On the contrary, it is to insist on their seriousness by recognizing that these dangers existed before him and should have been reported on with the breathless urgency media outlets have only found in the last few months. And because they predate him, these dangers will also outlast him regardless of when, or whether, the Democrats succeed in retaking power.

Under Obama, progressives faced a neoliberal regime intent on masking its ugliness with lip service to LGBTQ2IA+ equality and women’s rights. Under Trump, progressives face a neoliberal regime that is unapologetic about its denigration of these groups. The political dynamics have changed. But for resisters, as Black Youth Project 100 has noted, “the work is the same.”

The Establishment Cabinet

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Parenting for Anti-Racism

For an administration that has been almost universally reviled by the media for its right-wing populism, it is striking how few of Trump’s advisors hail from outside the Beltway. Liberal pundits have noted this apparent contradiction in passing, mocking Trump’s campaign-trail promise to “drain the swamp” when he began populating his cabinet with consummate insiders.

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Parenting for Anti-Racism

But their analysis stops there, never questioning how it is that an “abnormal” character like Trump with such wild and offensive policy ideas has found a ready following in the corporate and military elite. Could it be, just maybe, that the content of Trump’s platform, putting aside his crude rhetoric, is not all that controversial in the corridors of power?

Trump’s cabinet is indeed a rogues’ gallery, but it is one stocked with familiar faces. The odious civil rights opponent and newly-minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions spent 20 years in the U.S. Senate and served as a ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. General “Mad Dog” Mattis, who bragged in 2005 that “it’s fun to shoot some people,” oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for Obama before his promotion to Defense Secretary. Rex Tillerson, now head of the State Department, is a pillar of the business community. Even Steve Bannon, the white nationalist bogeyman of Saturday Night Live infamy, is hardly a fringe character: he’s a Harvard MBA and former Goldman Sachs vice president who has addressed the Vatican.

The racism and classism of Trump’s courtiers is no secret. They have voiced their reactionary opinions for decades. Indeed, Sessions’ racist streak was so apparent that it derailed his 1986 bid for a federal judgeship. They have, in many ways, built their careers on their willingness to serve white corporate America. They have not been hiding in plain sight; they have not been hiding at all. If Trump is an anomaly, how does one explain this veritable army of “little Trumps” whose open racism, misogyny, and classism paved their way to the top of the political order? What sort of system not only tolerates but also rewards such people at its highest levels?

Trump’s lieutenants did not just appear on the scene, and neither did their toxic worldview. They have been there all along. The rot runs deep.

Too Soon?

With people still reeling from Trump’s latest attacks on Muslims and undocumented immigrants, this may seem like an inopportune time to ask progressives to repudiate the Obama legacy. Denying people the solace of nostalgia and Joe Biden memes seems more than a little hard hearted in these trying times.

Trump’s first acts as president have shocked civil society and people are, justifiably, traumatized. Many Americans continue to process the rage and grief that welled up after the election. Pointing out Obama’s misdeeds in light of Trump’s auction-house style of governing appears insensitive at best, counterproductive at worst. Can’t we have a period of mourning?

The short answer is no, we can’t, not if we want to build a resistance based on anything but rank partisan opportunism, one that won’t immediately be co-opted by other elites. The way we respond to Trump’s rise to power is important.

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There is, for example, a difference between valorizing wartime deaths in the service of a noble cause and grieving them as the bitter fruit of an immoral foreign policy. One encourages blind patriotism and future wars, the other does not. Similarly, we can—and must—acknowledge the harsh realities of the Trump administration without sugarcoating Obama’s poisonous neoliberal legacy.

We must also come to terms with why Trump’s election has rattled so many people so deeply. It extends beyond physical safety concerns, although the past several months have already seen a steady uptick in Black and LGBTQ2IA+ gun ownership. It also has to do with our assumptions about the world. The election had the effect it did on the national psyche because most people, particularly white liberals, believed their country was good at heart despite all prior evidence to the contrary. That assumption was unsettled by the election. Resistors must continue to unsettle that notion. This is the time for reality checks, not reassurances. Challenging these assumptions is the first step on the road to recovery.

This stubborn insistence that America was “never great,” as some subversive hats have put it, is a less appealing rallying cry than #NotNormal. But it is a stronger organizing principle, and it has the advantage of being historically accurate, unblinkered by partisan nostalgia, and more difficult to debunk. Will it be harder to build coalitions around a radically honest appraisal of U.S. history? Perhaps. But that coalition will be built on rock, not sand.

The Perils of Partisanship

The danger of the #NotNormal refrain is that in painting the Trump administration as an aberration, what preceded it—and what will, almost inevitably, follow it—becomes romanticized in comparison. This is a pair of rose-tinted glasses the world can ill afford. For the majority of the world’s population, the neoliberal status quo was just as intolerable as many Americans now find life under Trump. For the thousands who perish each year due to the brutal inequality perpetuated by our domestic and foreign policies, it was not only intolerable but also barely survivable. A return to this lethal status quo must be resisted as fiercely as any of Trump’s draconian plans.

And make no mistake, that is precisely what anti-Trump elites want to go back to. Already, the Democratic Party has signaled its plans to ride the wave of anti-Trump fervor back into power without making any significant concessions to workers and people of color. Its official autopsy of the Clinton campaign can be boiled down to three names: Vladimir Putin, James Comey, and Bernie Sanders. The recent elevation of party insiders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to the status of “resistance” leaders only further demonstrates the party’s intention to stay the neoliberal course.

Faced with electoral catastrophe—with state legislatures decimated and the presidency lost to a blustering proto-fascist—the Democratic response has been to circle the wagons around its failed center-right strategy and hope for the best in 2018. For all of Bernie Sanders’ optimistic talk about “taking back the Democratic Party,” Pelosi has made it clear that the party’s dedication to corporate profits leaves little room for Sanders-style social democrats. “We’re capitalists,” she told a young Bernie fan at a town hall event in early February. “That’s just the way it is.”

Such complacency must be resisted at all costs. As the Italian resistance to right-wing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi learned the hard way, overlooking liberal politicians’ own misdeeds in order to demonize an authoritarian ruler is ultimately self-defeating. The following thought from New School professor Cinzia Arruzza is relevant here: “As the disaster of Italian anti-Berlusconism shows, the only way to effectively oppose authoritarian, racist, and sexist neoliberalism is by offering a radical and credible alternative.”

The #NotNormal phenomenon and popular invocations of resistance are, ultimately, heartening signs. They serve as daily reminders to rededicate ourselves to solidarity and organizing, and the growing realization that we face a state of emergency is welcome. But for marginalized people, it has been a state of emergency since Jamestown. The United States was an empire before Trump, and it is an empire today. It will stay that way until we stop it. The best time for that would have been 400 years ago. The second-best time is now, and we have a lot of catching up to do.

Matthew Kovac is a writer and commentator focusing on war, prisons, and borders. Based in Michigan, Matt previously investigated wrongful convictions with the Chicago Innocence Center and covered education, labor, and criminal justice issues for The Chicago Reporter magazine. His work has been featured by AlterNet, Antiwar.com, Common Dreams, and Truthout. You can read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter @matthewkovac.