Hope in the Time of Trump

Digital image of original artifact.

Of all the profoundly strange things to have befallen the United States in the past year or so, perhaps none is more intimate and inescapable than the new experience of time. In time under Trump, days feel like weeks, weeks feel like months, months feel like years. Every hour is packed with the feeling of eventfulness even if we are witnessing few events of actual import.

Anthony Scaramucci, for instance, was fired almost four months ago, though it may as well have been four years ago. In the end, his brief tenure was entertaining but deeply insignificant. Not all recent events have lacked significance, of course, but the new experience of time has warped our capacity to take in what is and is not significant. The Las Vegas Massacre occurred little more than six weeks ago, but it has seemingly vanished into distant memory; for all but the victims’ families, the mourning is over, as is the scuttled debate over gun control.

Though Mooch is taken, Mooch abides

This new experience of time may nevertheless have some other, curious consequences. From the moment Trump’s improbable campaign turned into a real possibility, one of the constant fears of both liberals and the left centered on the specter of a domestic terrorist attack—not attacks perpetrated by white supremacists and their fellow travelers, but those committed by brown and black people, the only ones that seem to count. An attack, we feared, would give the administration the pretext they need to further crack down on Muslims, refugees, and immigrants, and to similarly deploy the extraordinary powers of the state against citizens and residents that we witnessed in the wake of 9/11.

Precisely one such attack occurred in lower Manhattan three weeks ago. On the day after the attack, news outlets spent a good amount of time discussing the perpetrator and his victims, the attack’s significance to New York City and its relationship to America’s visa policy.

And yet, they moved somewhat quickly to other news of the day: the debate over Trump’s tax cut proposal, Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign, Russia’s use of Facebook to influence the election, John Kelly’s aggressively wrong ideas about what caused the Civil War, the US presence in Niger, Spain’s bellicose handling of Catalonia, and so on. Near the end of the week news outlets were consumed by Donna Brazile’s explosive allegations of Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s collusion with the DNC prior to locking up the nomination. By the week’s end, all of this news was overshadowed by America’s latest massacre, this time at a church outside of San Antonio.

A whole month’s worth of events packed into one week, the combined effect of which produced a truly rattling experience. Time under Trump rapidly turns recent memory into history, it makes antiquity out of yesterday.

As the now largely forgotten Trump aide Sebastian Gorka might say: events move quickly, you see.

Still, in response to the Manhattan attack, Trump pouted instantly, proclaiming that he had “just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program”—which is not really a thing, but the damage already done under Trump is bad enough. Trump called on Congress to end the visa program that allowed the suspect to enter the country, but if all other recent fumbling attempts to pass something through Congress provide any guidance, this latest measure may very well not stand a chance, assuming it is even formally introduced as legislation.

Could it be that the bewildering acceleration of time so seemingly unique to this moment somehow manages to push a domestic terror attack—one so long feared by liberals and the left—into the far reaches of our memory before Trump gets his chance to drastically escalate an already violently anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant American domestic and imperial policy?

We’ll find out soon enough, though so far there are few signs that our rapid experience of time is losing any pace. Lest we forget, a little more than a year ago, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas, amid a Black Lives Matter protest. Since then, President Trump has encouraged police officers to assault captive suspects and has redoubled his commitment to further militarize police departments.

And yet, this has done little to quell the BLM movement. If anything, it has emboldened activists: so long as police departments continue to murder, assault, and disproportionately surveil and imprison black people, BLM will persist. The spectacle of violence against police officers in Dallas has not haunted the movement the way many initially thought it would. Time has moved too quickly, BLM has been too resolute, policing continues to be defined by racism and brutality. The battle over our immediate collective memory is a continual one. In time under Trump, no event has been allowed to haunt us for too long, save for that of Trump’s election itself.

A Brief History of Hurried Time

To speak to the baby boomers who lived it, one gets the sense that the 1960s and early 1970s was the last such period to experience a similar feeling of accelerated time. (Futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller Future Shock captured the sense of many at the time, of a dizzying acceleration of events defined most simply by “too much change in too short a time.”) One might say that the difference between that moment and ours is that, judging by the writings of scholars and activists of that earlier moment, the eventfulness of their earlier accelerated time seemed speedy but at least somewhat coherent—coherent, that is, until it wasn’t. The 1960s and early 1970s offered a whirlwind of events spawned by the rebellions of the Black Freedom Struggle, Women’s Liberation, and the Sexual Revolution. Each of these revolts no doubt featured liberal and radical splintering. Nevertheless, time accelerated in a general direction—one that pointed towards progress, however imperfectly—until it ran up against the Vietnam War and the economic calamities of the 1970s. With the onset of the Reagan Administration, it appeared as if a new time regime reigned, one marked by stasis rather than acceleration.

This is not, of course, to say that 1980s lacked the eventfulness that so marked the accelerated time experience of just a few years earlier. Indeed, arguably the opposite is true: this period was defined by a revolution of its own, by what historians like Jefferson Cowie have called a “great restoration”—that is, the end of the “Great Exception” of the New Deal era which featured relatively egalitarian economic gains and robust economic growth rooted in the establishment of the welfare state and, at least theoretically, state mediated relations between labor and capital. While this view of history no doubt fails to account for what was genuinely new in this incipient post-New Deal era, in the view of many liberals and those on the left, it nevertheless provides a neat encapsulation of the passing of a moment of incredible ruptures in favor of what seemed more common: unconstrained plutocratic (white male) rule.

It was no accident, then, that the Reagan-Bush and Clinton years provided fertile grounds for the wildly ahistorical notion of “the end of history” to flourish among elites—after all, they had few serious ideological challengers and thus fewer moments to fill the monotonous time of neoliberal order. In discussing the unique timelessness of the Age of Reagan, the historian Daniel Rodgers describes lucidly Reagan’s peculiar invocation of history:

Here history did not unfold step by step, organizing the chaotic patterns of causation and change, explaining the past’s continuous, irreversible pressure on the present. In this alternative vein, the boundary between past and present virtually dissolved. History’s massive social processes disappeared. One traveled between past, present, and future in the momentary blink of the imagination, through a wrinkle in time.

Time, in other words, held steady enough for one to travel back and forth between past and present by dint of imagination, at least for a brief moment in history.

Liberalism in the Time of Trump

Today, time’s arrow moves hurriedly but also erratically. The feeling of time isn’t determined by some autonomous force but is made by the people and ideas that create events, that put history into motion. The present moment, however, leaves us with no clear view of narrative direction, at least for now. Indeed, one of the more jarring features of our present moment is the profound uncertainty found in the presence of so many stunning juxtapositions, of the galling reality of reactionary power and policies amid a remarkable but slow, reluctant crawl of liberalism to the left.

FDR steers the way

The seemingly unthinkable has happened: Trump is through his first year of power, literal neo-Nazis march through our streets, the current administration has escalated the already appalling deportation policies of the Obama Administration, and the GOP seems committed as ever—though mostly ineptly, it turns out—on dismantling the minimal welfare state and further enriching the wealthy. Democrats, for their part, generally seem as aimless and wanting of an actual positive political vision as ever.

But, slowly, movements from below are chipping away at the centrist barriers to popular power: young people’s newfound verve for unions in graduate schools, disabled and socialist Americans’ indefatigable fight to protect the Affordable Care Act and demanding something better, fast food workers organizing for a $15 dollar wage, and victims of sexual assault bravely exposing their victimizers and seeing them, even the most powerful of men, fall from the good graces of polite society. All of these disparate events and movements have yet to coalesce into a coherent political vision, but they have come to pass incredibly quickly, leaving open the possibility of a greater vision of a good society to emerge perhaps sooner than we may think.

Consider, for example, how the common sense of the Democratic Party has been upended in such short order. In The Workfare State: Public Assistance from the New Deal to the New Democrats, historian Eva Bertram describes Bill Clinton’s reluctance to get behind a minimum wage increase in his first term despite the fact that, in 1995, “The hourly minimum, at $4.25, had fallen far below the minimum of the late 1960s in real terms; its purchasing power was near a forty-year low.” Liberal Democrats, in Bertram’s telling, were furious, insisting that “There’s nothing more basic to the Democratic philosophy than the idea that people who work hard should get a fair day’s pay.” And yet centrist Democrats, the winners of this debate and so many others that so defined the Clinton years, thought the idea of a minimum wage increase anathema.

Bertram describes vividly the response of a centrist Democrat to more liberal calls for a minimum wage increase in the wake of the 1994 midterm elections that swept in GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 1950s: ‘“Take a good look around this room,’ one member said. ‘Why do you think there are so few of us left? Because this party couldn’t let go of old Democratic ideas that are obsolete, like raising the minimum wage.’” Such was the vision of the “third way,” of the centrist “New Democrats” who thought they had captured the mind and spirit of the Democratic Party permanently.

Today, however, debate among Democrats isn’t about whether the minimum wage should be raised at all, but rather how much it should be raised by. In state and city elections throughout the country, the Fight for $15 campaign has won victory after victory. The idea that proposing a hike to the minimum wage is political suicide now appears as if from a distant past rather than a living memory. After years of apparent ideological stasis, suddenly, the New Democrats are now the Old Democrats.

On an issue of equal import—health care—it’s worth noting the positions of two Democrats considered realistic 2020 presidential nominees: Corey Booker and Kamala Harris. It is notable that one is a black man and the other a black woman, inconceivable profiles for Democratic frontrunners in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton could easily equate Sister Souljah’s words with David Duke’s near-lifelong Klan membership. Despite Harris’s and Booker’s establishment bona fides—especially Booker’s—both have come out in favor of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare For All bill, a position that less than a year ago was dismissed as delusional.

Indeed, credible potential candidates across the board have taken positions that were only recently considered too far out of bounds. Democrats have held fast to the goal of protecting trans rights despite the fact that not so long ago Barack Obama started his first run for president while officially opposing equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. Even Democrats once skeptical of more welcoming immigration policies—including Bernie Sanders, on the grounds of protecting labor—are now fully opposed to building walls (a staple of Clinton’s presidency) and demanding immigrant rights be upheld and a path to citizenship be paved.

I’m a millennial, albeit an elderly one, and yet all these transformations have occurred within my lifetime. As the 1990s Clinton saga illustrates, liberalism is subject to change in response to challenges from the right as well as the left. As such, just as liberalism is subject to change over time, what constitutes its center is open to redefinition at any time. Centrists, still monumental stumbling blocks to progress, are feeling the ideological ground move beneath their feet, and some are responding accordingly. While we are far from Democrats calling on workers to seize the means of production, a surprising amount of the left’s vision that elites once considered insane or unthinkable is starting to become taken for granted, at best, or respectable opinion at worst—all within an incredibly short period of time.

Making a Future Out of the Present

Time under Trump is undoubtedly exhausting, but it also leaves open the possibility of our time being exhilarating as well. Two remarkable events from two weeks ago are perfectly illustrative of this tension between despairing exhaustion and hopeful exhilaration. On Thursday, November 9, workers at Fuyao Glass America in Dayton, Ohio, voted overwhelmingly against unionization (886 to 441). The vote marked yet another stinging defeat of organized labor in America’s former industrial heartland. Fuyao’s President remarked on the vote, reinforcing the common sense with respect to unions: “While we respect our employees’ right to support or reject a union, we also admire their courage to reject this union’s [the UAW] desperate attempt to prop up its revenue in the face of declining union membership worldwide.”

On the very same day, service workers at the Green Valley Ranch Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, voted resoundingly in favor of joining UNITE HERE. Almost 80 percent of the Casino’s nearly one thousand workers voted to unionize in Las Vegas. This organizing effort is part of a broader service worker movement that has transformed Nevada politics. For example, on November 5, 2016, just three days before the presidential election, the New York Times published a remarkable story on the Culinary Union in Nevada, which consists of 57,000 members. In the mid-1990s 35 percent of the union’s members identified as Latinx, but today they constitute more than half of its membership. The Times piece told the story of the union’s incredible growth—and its backing of labor-friendly Democrats—through the narrative of Celia Vargas, 57, a native of El Salvador who fled in the 1980s amid the country’s bloody civil war. Her story, as told by the Times, is illustrative of both the changing nature of work and the changing nature of the American worker. Whereas before the prototypical worker could be imagined as a white male breadwinner working in an industrial factory, today’s workers overwhelmingly labor in the service sector and, increasingly, are women of diverse backgrounds.

It is precisely these workers that are at the forefront of the labor movement’s most recent (if few) triumphs. Despite the overwhelmingly Republican political bent of Las Vegas hotel ownership, the Times reported that “Most of the hotels on and around the [Las Vegas] Strip are union shops.” This labor mobilization helped Democrats take two traditionally Republican Las Vegas-area House seats in 2016 and helped Democrats obtain control of both chambers of the state legislature. Not every state has witnessed the mobilization of service workers, of course. But, lately, where unions have shown more life hasn’t been in factories but in the public and service sectors—precisely sectors in which women and people of color make up an increasing proportion of the workforce. If it is at all possible, one can find some solace in this service sector unionization trend since it’s where most Americans work, by one measure comprising nearly 80 percent of the workforce while manufacturing constitutes less than 10 percent of the workforce.

If the 2016 election taught us anything, however, it was that demographic trends alone won’t save us. Demography is not, in fact, destiny. Nevertheless, one particular demographic trend may point to an opportunity. In a brilliant review essay, Gabriel Winant recently made note of the impending crisis of baby boomer aging. The number of direct care workers—nurses, nurse assistants, home health care workers, and so on—has grown at an impressive clip since the late twentieth century, but even still we face the looming threat of a catastrophic shortage of care workers in the near future. As Winant notes, “When the boomers were young, little more than 5 percent of the population was over 65. Today, we’re coming up on 15 percent, and we’ll get to 20 percent as quickly as 2030—then stay there for some time.”

The significance of such a demographic trend is hard to overstate. “It certainly will put enormous pressure on social support and caregiving systems,” says Winant, “likely beyond what they can sustain in anything like their current form.” The current form of caregiving is defined by unpaid familial labor (performed by mostly women family members) and shockingly underpaid care workers (disproportionately women and immigrant workers). As one recent study notes, “A salary of $20,000 for a personal care aide or home health aide is typical, with 90 percent of workers making under $30,000.” It is easy to see how this troubling trend of a fast-growing aging population cared for by unpaid or low-wage health workers can spell doom. But it does not have to. Winant argues:

The need to replace parents and care for the old always marks a watershed in the life course, but it isn’t usually a mass event capable of rewriting the social contract. A crisis of such breadth and intensity as we are likely to face seems the only possibility for breaking the political deadlock currently pitting young against old. If there’s a path to political resolution short of apocalypse, it runs through the young growing up and assuming the caretaking role, and compelling the old to accept care on our terms—and with it, our political hegemony. Either we rebuild democracy around care provision, as political theorist Joan Tronto argues we must, or we lose it as [Malcolm] Harris predicts.

Winant forces us to see “baby boomer” and “millennial” not as abstract categories used for cultural shadowboxing, but rather descriptors of real social relations that will inevitably carry great moral and political weight. How that weight will be wielded is what’s undetermined as of now.

It should go without saying that, as it stands, the situation for many is unmistakably bleak and could without a doubt become worse. But as the temporal vertigo of our current political moment has shown, the future is as indeterminate as ever. It is not easy to will ourselves to hope in a time of genuine darkness, but, in their own times, movements of earlier generations accomplished more unimaginable feats under more dire circumstances. Less abstractly, if a poor young immigrant like Celia Vargas could find the courage and fortitude to alter the course of her adopted city’s history, why can’t we change the course of our broader, collective history? If Trump is possible in this era, then, with the right vision and fervor (no small things, to be sure), perhaps anything can be possible for the left. Events move quickly, you see.

Joel Suarez is a doctoral candidate in History at Princeton University. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin and his MA from Columbia University.  His research interests include the history of morality and work, the history of political thought, and cultural and intellectual history.