My Turn: Trump’s election will not be the fault of his supporters

Eugene V. Debs

Eugene V. Debs LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

By ALEXANDER EWING

Published: 07-10-2024 6:05 PM

 

Just over a 100 years ago, in the presidential election of 1920, nearly a million people (3.4% of the popular vote) voted for a man in federal prison who eight years earlier had managed to attract 6% of the popular vote, although in number this was actually less in 1912 than in 1920 since women had not yet won the right to vote. What is remarkable in each instance is not that it remains one of the most notable third-party electoral attempts in our country’s history, nor even necessarily that the candidate was imprisoned in one of these instances, but that he was an avowed socialist, labor organizer, and open supporter of the Russian and German revolutions.

That man was Eugene Debs, who had been jailed for his uncompromising speeches against the draft during the First World War. He had been targeted by the predecessor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation, which had been formed under President Teddy Roosevelt without congressional approval almost exclusively in response to a rising tide of working class agitation in the United States, stoked by both anarchists and communists working in labor unions.

What should strike fear and worry for those who ostensibly care for social change is that the American working class was more unified and self-consciously organized in favor of what are now called progressive positions a 100 years ago than it is today. What should give us hope is that they did it without support from and, more often than not, in complete opposition to both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The 20th-century philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, who would take his life to avoid becoming a victim of the Holocaust, noted that “behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” This was the case in Germany following the Spartacist uprising, with Italy in the immediate aftermath of the Biennio Rosso, in Hungary after the Aster Revolution, and it could potentially have been the case in Russia too had the Bolsheviks not taken power, where the Western-backed anti-communist militias committed antisemitic pogroms to an extent not seen even in Tsarist Russia.

On a much smaller historical scale, the Espionage Act under President Woodrow Wilson gave the American government a blank check to prosecute not only the socialists of a 100 years ago, who had been growing in popularity among the working class, but also Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning in our own day. As we face the strong probability that Donald Trump will once again be elected president, this now-common trope of Trump as fascist, although perhaps rhetorically tantalizing, is counterproductive not only because it ignores the fact that fascism is a historical emergence of middle and upper class reaction against socialist politics, but because it also misrecognizes the historical emergence of Trumpism itself.

Following Benjamin, it is helpful to view the theorizing of politics as, in one sense, the theorizing of symptoms. To be sure, Trump is most definitely symptomatic of a deep failure, not of a revolution, but rather the entire lack thereof. Trumpism might then be inverted fascism.

The Bernie Sanders campaign was popular because it was based on working class politics, yet it wasn’t Trump who reacted the most ruthlessly against him (since Trump himself made gains appealing to the working class); it was the Democratic Party.

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One might think this is the point where I insist on some overdone apologia for the Sanders campaigns of ’16 and ’20, its promises of “political revolution,” and talk about fight which the DNC waged, not against Trump, but Sanders himself, as if the evidence for that hasn’t been public for years now.

As an aside, we can see the most recent repetition of this dynamic in the defeat of Rep. Jamaal Bowman, albeit he probably would not have won even without Democratic money going against him.

Yet, I would like to go beyond all this. What if the emergence of Trump is symptomatic not simply of the failure of the Democratic Party to provide any alternative, but of the left’s inability to see an alternative outside the Democratic Party?

One need not look further for evidence of this than the increasing apathy many leftists, particularly those of my own generation (Gen Z) have against the party. The wave of college protests across the country have been a thorn in the side of Democrat canvassers targeting the youth. People who looked at me side-eyed if I said I probably would not vote in 2020 are today expressing their own reasons for abstaining this November. Still, nobody knows what to do without the Democrats.

Politics as symptomatology means left and right as historical functions, not principles. The Third Estate of the French Revolution, from which we get the categories of left and right, were not leftists because of their ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but because their ideals were symptomatic of a definite function which registered a historical reality, i.e. the ineptitude of feudal aristocracy, an already rapidly expanding global economy, and the subsequent precedence of labor over the noble privilege to be free from work.

The liberals at the time of the 18th-century democratic revolutions in Europe and America functioned as those who not only recognized their historical position for what it was, but embraced it. The left today will live or die on whether or not it can come to assert a real meaning for human history which is not against liberal democracy, but which nonetheless does not see it as the final apotheosis in the human struggle for freedom.

History as a source of cynicism, pessimism, and resignation from those who are ostensibly “left wing” is in fact something peculiar to our own day. Since there is no failed revolution behind Trump, what we are experiencing is not the coming of fascism, but rather, and I mean this in an incredibly specific and also rhetorical sense, something worse: the apathy of a people who cannot see any alternative to the ostensible fascism they deride, nor to the system which produced it.

Perhaps this is the crisis we need. Most certainly it is the one we have created.

Alexander Ewing is a student of classics and philosophy at UMass Amherst.