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Why the Democratic Party Can't Save Us From Trump's Authoritarianism

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There is a certain duplicity in the Democratic Party's attempts to remake itself as the enemy of the corporate establishment and a leader in a movement to resist Trump and his mode of authoritarianism.

Democrats, such as Ted Lieu, Maxine Waters and Elizabeth Warren, represent one minority faction of the party that rails against Trump's racism and authoritarianism while less liberal types who actually control the party, such as Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, claim that they have heard the cry of angry workers and are in the forefront of developing an opposition party that will reverse many of the policies that benefited the financial elite. Both views are part of the Democratic Party's attempt to rebrand itself.

The Democrats' new populist platform, called "A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages" has echoes of FDR's New Deal, but it says little about developing both a radical democratic vision and economic and social policies that would allow the Democratic Party to speak more for the poor, people of color and young people than for the corporate and financial elite that run the military-industrial-entertainment complex. Their anti-Trump rhetoric rings hollow.

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For Democratic Party leaders, the rebranding of the party rests on the assumption that resistance to Trump merely entails embracing the needs of those who are the economic losers of neoliberalism and globalization. What they forget is that authoritarianism thrives on more than economic discontent, as the recent white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, made clear. Authoritarianism also thrives on racism, xenophobia, exclusion, expulsion and the deeming of certain subgroups as "disposable" -- a script that the "new" Democratic Party has little to say about.

David Broder has recently argued that being anti-Trump is not a sufficient political position because doing so inures people to a myriad of neoliberal policies that have impoverished the working class, destroyed the welfare state, waged foreign wars and a war on public goods, polluted the environment, created massive inequities and expanded the reach of the punishing and mass incarceration state. Even though these neoliberal policies were produced by both Republicans and liberal Democrats, this message appears to have been taken up, at least partly, by the Democrats in a focused attempt to rebrand themselves as the guardians of working class interests.

For too many members of the Democratic Party, Trump is the eccentric clown who unexpectedly stepped into history by finding the right note in rousing an army of "deplorables" willing to invest in his toxic script of hatred, demonization and exclusion. Of course, as Anthony DiMaggio, Thomas Frank, Michelle Alexander, Naomi Klein, Paul Street and others have pointed out, this is a false yet comforting narrative for a liberal elite whose moralism is as suffocating as is their belief in centrist politics. Neoliberal policies, especially under Clinton and Obama, created the conditions for Trump to actually come to power in the first place.

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Trump's presidency represents not merely the triumph of authoritarianism but also the tragedy of a neoliberal capitalism that benefited investment bankers, Wall Street, lawyers, hedge fund managers and other members of the financial elite who promoted free trade, financial deregulation, cut-throat competition and commercialization as the highest measure of individual and market freedom.

Trump is not simply the result of a surprising voter turnout by an angry, disgruntled working class (along with large segments of the white suburban middle class), he is also the endpoint of a brutal economic and political system that celebrated the market as the template for governing society while normalizing a narrative of greed, self-interest and corporate power. Trump is the mirror reflection of the development of a form of illiberal democracy and authoritarianism that mixes neoliberal economic policies, anti-immigrant bigotry, the stifling of free speech, hyper-nationalism and a politics of disposability and exclusion.

A History of Betrayal by Both Political Parties

The tyranny of the current moment bespeaks a long history of betrayal by a financial and political class that inhabits both major parties. It is no secret that the Republican Party has been laying the groundwork for an American-style authoritarianism since the 1970s by aggressively pushing for massive tax cuts for the rich, privatizing public goods, promoting a culture of fear, crushing trade unions, outsourcing public services and eliminating restrictions designed to protect workers, women and the environment. But they have not been the only party reproducing the dictates of neoliberalism. Getting in bed with Wall Street has also been a favorite pastime of the Democratic Party.

It was the Democratic Party, especially under President Clinton, that prepared the groundwork for the financial crisis of 2007 by loosening corporate and banking regulations, while at the same time slashing welfare provisions and creating the conditions for the intensification of the mass incarceration state. The Clinton administration did more than court Wall Street, it played a decisive role in expanding the neoliberal gains that took place three decades before he was elected. Nancy Fraser insightfully sums this up in her contribution to The Great Regression anthology:

"Neoliberalism developed in the United States roughly over the last three decades and was ratified with Bill Clinton's election in 1992.... Turning the US economy over to Goldman Sachs, it deregulated the banking system and negotiated the free-trade agreements that accelerated deindustrialization.... Continued by his successors, including Barack Obama, Clinton's policies degraded the living conditions of all working people, but especially those employed in industrial production. In short, Clintonism bears a heavy share of responsibility for the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the 'two-earner family' in place of the defunct family wage."

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The Obama administration continued this abandonment of democratic values by bailing out the bankers and selling out millions of people who lost their homes while at the same time aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers. It was the Obama administration that added a kill list to its foreign policy and matched it domestically with educational policies that collapsed education into vocational training and undermined it as a moral and democratizing public good. Obama mixed neoliberalism's claim to unbridled economic and political power with an educational reform program that undermined the social imagination and the critical capacities that made democracy possible.

Promoting charter schools and mind-numbing accountability schemes, Obama and the Democratic Party paved the way for the appointment of the hapless reactionary billionaire Betsy DeVos as Trump's Secretary of Education. And it was the Obama administration that enlarged the surveillance state while allowing CIA operatives who tortured and maimed people in the name of American exceptionalism and militarism to go free. In short, the flirtation of neoliberalism with the forces of illiberal democracy was transformed into a courtship during the Clinton and Obama administrations and until death do us part under Trump.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)
 

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