This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As the Trump administration enters its third week, it’s time to take stock. The sense that Trump himself and those surrounding him pose a threat to American democracy has been exaggerated. The push back on the streets and at the airports has been effective. Even more important are the institutions of American democracy. The federal judges stay of Trump’s Executive Order on immigration was crucial, as was the immediate implementation of the judge’s decision by Federal agencies. The generals Trump appointed may also function as a break on his power. As it turns out, the generals may not be all in.
The major lesson of these first weeks? The American political system is centrist. There are too many powerful vested interests to move it very far in any particular direction.
Hillary Clinton’s election debacle has been attributed to a variety of factors but it seems, in retrospect, that her defeat was quite ordinary. Systematically undermining a popular candidate from her own party and carrying extraordinarily negative ratings involving her own candidacy, Clinton handed a victory to an easily-defeated right-wing hotel developer and reality television star.
Clinton’s defeat is consequential in many ways; it may be the most consequential defeat in American history. But her defeat is not about the rise of authoritarian fascism. Rather it is about a return to a right-wing Republicanism that has the possibility of becoming mainstream.
Whatever the days ahead bring, including the possible downfall of Trump himself, the challenge to those on the Left is to realize the limits of political change in America. With all its substantial faults, America has never been a fascist state. America has never been a revolutionary state either. Even the American revolution can be a classified as a fairly centrist revolt.
America’s future lies somewhere else. Most likely the political and economic system as constructed over the last centuries will continue with minor shifts in conservative and progressive directions. With all of his faults, President Obama, as a progressive centrist, was most likely the best kind of president America is likely to see for the foreseeable future.
Though the candidacy of Bernie Sanders seemed to promise much more than President Obama, it is doubtful that his stated policies would have been implemented in full. Besides, “our revolution” as Sanders views it, wasn’t revolutionary at all. Importantly but with severe limitations, it promised an extension of President Obama’s policies, with some upgrades. How much of this vision would have been implemented is a question mark. Still, there is no doubt he would have defeated Trump decisively. Herein lies Sanders’s significance. Clinton’s destruction of Sanders and his movement remains unforgivable.
For those who want more, much more, from the American political order, another form of politics needs to be thought-through and acted-upon. This is true across the board. On the Middle East for example, the policies of Trump, Clinton and Sanders seem poles apart. The details of these policies and how they could be passed and implemented bring them much closer together. Would the Israel-Palestine situation look much different after four years of Trump, Clinton or Sanders? As with the American economy, the details of these policies, especially with their possible implementation, bear too great a resemblance.
In the weeks ahead the struggle will continue. As we struggle, we should be grateful for the limitations of the American political system. In a time of crisis it will save us from the worst of the worst. Yet the limitations themselves pose as great a challenge as the emergency itself.
Now, we need serious political, economic and religious thinkers to chart a course forward for our nation. Outrage about Trump, so necessary, is not enough.