How the Left Can Thrive Under Trump

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the previous post, we talked about the threats Trump poses and how the American left can meet some of those threats in the short-term. In this one I want to talk about opportunities, because there’s a case to be made that in the long-run a Trump presidency may be the best thing that ever happened to the left in America.

The Republican Party is now completely tied to Donald Trump. Trump will carry many Republicans into the executive branch and he has already carried many governors and members of congress into office, especially in the rust belt. As a Republican incumbent president, Trump will define the Republican brand. This means that if he fails to solve the core problems that resulted in his election, not only will he be blamed but the Republican Party will go down with the Trump ship.

Trump was elected in large part because working class whites feel economically left behind and they have no confidence in the Democratic Party’s governing economic ideology. Trump has promised to bring back their jobs and make their communities prosperous again. There is no evidence that the policies he has proposed will accomplish this, if he can even pass them to begin with. As the Republican Party has demonstrated over the last eight years, creating gridlock can damage the incumbent president and his party by making them look impotent and ineffectual. And any Trump policies that do get through are likely to have pernicious consequences for the workers the Republicans rely on.

This means that Trump is highly likely to fail. Most of the things he has said he will do he won’t accomplish, and the remainder will not work out as intended. This will create an opportunity for the Democrats to win more seats in subsequent elections and to elect a new president in 4 or 8 years with a genuinely different agenda. Just as Donald Trump will determine the Republican brand today, Barack Obama determined the Democratic brand of yesterday. And with his departure there will now be a genuine opportunity to change that brand.

When the Democrats get back into power, they are unlikely to be the same party they were in 2016. Whenever the incumbent president’s party loses a presidential race, that party tends to return to office in a somewhat revised form, and in some cases there’s a complete ideological overhaul. Think about a few of the past cases:

  • In 1932, Roosevelt defeated Hoover and moved the Democratic Party to the left on economic issues, creating the New Deal. The Republicans did not get back into power until the 1952 election, and when they did get into power they looked nothing like the Republicans from the 20s–unlike Hoover or Coolidge, Eisenhower broadly accepted and even to some degree extended the economic policies enacted by Roosevelt and Truman.
  • In 1960, Kennedy defeated Nixon and moved the Democratic Party to the right on foreign policy, making the Democrats more anti-communist and more hawkish. When the Republicans returned to power in 1968 they did so by adopting the Southern strategy, breaking southern whites out of the New Deal coalition with a law and order agenda.
  • In 1976, Carter defeated Ford and moved the Democratic Party to the right on economic policy, making the Democrats more favorable to deregulation. The fact that he was from Georgia and very personally religious also disrupted the southern strategy. When the Republicans returned to power in 1980 they did so by moving much further to the right on economic and social policy than Carter had been willing to go and much further right than Nixon and Ford had gone.
  • In 1992, Clinton defeated Bush and moved the Democratic Party much closer to where the Republicans were on economic policy, also aligning with many of their positions on social issues, especially crime. When the Republicans got back into power, they did it by doubling down on social conservatism.
  • In 2008, Obama defeated McCain and moved the Democratic Party to a less interventionist foreign policy stance, defeating Clinton in the primaries on the strength of his decision not to support the Iraq War. When the Republicans got back into power, they did it by choosing Trump, a man who belittled the Bush foreign policy record on national television to Jeb’s face, de-emphasized social issues, and repudiated the traditional Republican position on trade.

We can break these transitions up into two groups:

  1. Ideological paradigm shifts, in which the party that wins power does so by breaking economic alignment with its previous administration (Democrats in 32, Republicans in 52, Democrats partially in 76 and completely in 92, Republicans in 16).
  2. Substantive revisions, in which the party that wins power does so by modifying, intensifying, or de-emphasizing some of its positions (Democrats in 60, Republicans in 68, Republicans in 00, Democrats in 08)

In all of the ideological paradigm shift cases in living memory, the new paradigm has managed to solve or at least appear to solve whatever major problems the country was facing. One of the parties gets the credit for this (the Democrats in the 30s, the Republicans in the 80s) and the other party then makes a corresponding shift to restore its credibility and electability (the Republicans in the 50s, the Democrats in the 90s).

This time is different because Trump’s policies are not going to work or even give the appearance of working. In the 30s and the 80s, there were many prominent academics who supported the paradigm shifts (e.g. Keynes in the 30s, Friedman in the 80s). Trump’s policies have no substantive academic support because they are not based on research or facts. When an ideological paradigm shift happens and it doesn’t solve the problem, things get interesting. Both the old ideology and the new ideology are discredited, which means there is an opportunity for the other party to introduce another paradigm shift. There is a real chance for the Democrats to introduce a transformational economic alternative.

The Democrats have to do this, because if they don’t do it we will sustain a crisis of confidence in our democratic institutions. We believe in democracy to the extent that we do because it seems to work well enough most of the time. When things go badly wrong, we get the ideological shift we need, and order is restored. The biggest strength of democracy is that it allows the governing ideology to be transformed without civil conflict or a transformation in the structure of the political institutions. So what happens if democracy loses this flexibility and can’t produce the shift we need, or produces shifts that go nowhere or make things worse? At that point, our system would be no more dynamic than the Soviet system and it would be easy for people to lose confidence in it. We can already see a little of this–all of these people who are going out to protest Trump are dissatisfied with the result our political institutions produced. Their confidence in our institutions has been shaken by Trump. This will get much worse if Trump fails and no one produces a credible alternative to him. By the time 2020 rolls around, Democrats hawking 90s style Clinton politics will be three decades out of date. If the Democratic Party continues to cough up retro throwback candidates it will subject us to another election between the “the old garbage you know doesn’t work” and “the new sewage you know doesn’t work”. That is a recipe for institutional collapse, if not in 2020 then in 2024 or 2028. The longer the Democrats fail to produce a credible alternative, the longer the Republicans will remain beholden to orange nightmare fuel, and the more likely these protesters will stay in the street long enough to precipitate collapse.

Because that’s all it takes to bring down a political system. The protesters just have to stay out there in large numbers, refusing to go to work. Political and economic systems can’t function when people don’t work, not without a great deal more automation than present technology allows. If enough people stay out long enough disrupting things badly enough, it all comes down. Either the military turns on the protesters or the military turns on the government. At best you get a color revolution, at worst a coup or even a civil war.

The Democrats will get an opportunity to fix this, and if they don’t sooner or later the people on the street will do it for them.