Trump, the Democrats and what can turn the tide
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and a longtime Socialist Worker contributor, appeared earlier this month on the Intercepted podcast hosted by Jeremy Scahill. Their discussion ranged across many issues facing the left today, from the Trump administration assault, to the Democratic Party to what the opposition looks like on the ground. Here, we publish the transcript of their conversation.
Few things bring elite Democrats and Republicans together more than good old-fashioned capitalism and the church of the so-called free market.
In fact, it was blasting that bipartisan system that was one of the main issues that propelled Bernie Sanders to his still-maintained very high popularity ratings. Sanders, of course, identifies himself as a democratic socialist, and he has inspired others to run who campaign under that same banner. But is democratic socialism actually compatible with the Democratic Party? What happens to insurgents when they become part of the system?
Those are questions that candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are going to be facing next year when they arrive on Capitol Hill. It would also be a question facing Bernie Sanders, should he run again for president and actually win. Both major corporate political parties in this country are in their own battles of sorts over their core identity, and time and again in this election cycle, we have seen powerful establishment Democrats step into races where progressives are challenging establishment Democrats to back their old horses against the new blood. We’ve seen a Republican version of this in some races as well, though that largely involves Trump intervening to support candidates challenging or fighting off more traditional Republicans.
It’s no doubt a fascinating moment, but it’s also one that comes with great stakes. One of the big questions that really should be asked is if the Democratic Party, as it has existed for a long time and continues to exist, is worthy of progressive support for any reason other than they’re not Trump or they’re not Republicans? As I followed and analyzed this political moment we’re in, I’ve been wanting to speak again to my friend and all-around brilliant person, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She is assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. She’s also the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. That’s an examination of the history and politics of Black America and the development of the social movement Black Lives Matter.
Dr. Taylor has just finished her forthcoming book, Race for Profit: Black Homeownership and the End of the Urban Crisis. That’s a book that’s going to look at the federal government’s promotion of single-family home ownership in Black communities after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. The book is going to drop next year. Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, welcome back to Intercepted.
Thanks, Jeremy. Very glad to be here.
Where do you see things now with the Trump presidency, the state of resistance against Trump and the institutional Democratic Party?
I think that we’ve seen the kind of racism and reaction that this presidency has unleashed. You know, we’ve seen the constitutive elements of the possibilities of a sustained movement against Trump over the last year. Some of the most heroic and important examples of that are the teacher strikes.
Audio clip of West Virginia teachers: 55 united! 55 united! 55 united!
That began in West Virginia, and it continues in Washington state. So we see the battle on the labor front that certainly is a repudiation of Trumpism beginning to develop. I think that we’ve seen a kind of popular mobilization against the Trump administration’s regressive and disgusting immigration policies, particularly the attempts to separate children from their parents at the border. There was a popular rebellion against that policy that very quickly led to it being dismantled, even though there are still 500 children who remain in detention at the hands of the Trump administration. We saw what a kind of popular mobilization can do and still has the power to do to resist the Trump administration. I think there are smaller examples of protests. There have continued to be protests against police abuse and violence in Black communities. There has been the strike of the incarcerated — the prison strikes.
Then I think there is the challenge for those of us who are interested in, not just episodic resistance, but really knitting together the different kinds of movements into a cohered and larger unified social movement, to not just resist Trump, but to resist those issues that give rise to Trump in the first place: We have to be able to put forward a kind of political vision and understanding of how that can happen.
And my fear is that as we get closer to the midterm elections in November, all of the energy, intellect and the focus that has been very important in responding to different aspects of Trump’s agenda get sucked into the electoral cycle, get sucked into the midterm machinery, and that we become so fixated that we forget that the most powerful resistance that we have to Trump’s agenda remains our ability to be organized in the streets. We didn’t just protest, but we began to talk to each other, understand our different struggles and try to find the points of unity, try to find the points at which they come together so that we can build not just a movement that is reactive, but that we can really look beneath — that we can get to the root of what has given rise to Trump, which, of course, is not just about Trump.
What is it about our political and economic system in this country that allows for these kinds of injustices that in many ways are bipartisan to continue? That’s not just a question that can be resolved in the midterm elections. It’s a deeper and systemic issue because when Obama came out last week with his speech at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, you know Obama is very good for a sweet-sounding speech especially when we have become used to the Neanderthal in the White House who were not even sure is literate —
Audio clip of Barack Obama: The biggest threat to our democracy, I said yesterday, is not it’s not one individual. It’s not one big Super PAC billionaires. It’s apathy. It’s indifference. It’s us not doing what we’re supposed to do.
Obama always says: “We can’t be cynical; we have to get out and roll our sleeves up.” But at some point, we have to try to examine and understand what the nature of some of the cynicism is, and I don’t think that we can understand the victory of Trump without understanding the failures of the Democratic Party, and particularly the failures of the Obama administration, because those two things are directly connected. We can talk about cynicism within the electorate but we have to understand that what is at the root of what I would describe as the enthusiasm gap with Democratic Party voters is that someone like Obama talks the big talk on the campaign trail and all of the things that government can do in this vision of the Democratic Party that is leading the charge for reform. But then once in office, there’s the inability to act in ways that fundamentally change people’s lives for the better, and that’s why people become cynical. We can look at that, and the failures of the Obama administration, as a significant contribution to why people didn’t turn out in 2016 and why people continue to remain skeptical about the ability of the Democratic Party to transcend the status quo.
As I look at it, when we look back at the last 16 years of Democratic presidents — two terms of Clinton, two terms of Obama — what you largely had come out of those 16 years was a push even further to the right in this country. Certainly, with its domestic politics, did the lives of poor people get better as a result of the Clintons and the and Obama? No. Did the war stop? No, they expanded. Did the Republicans mainstream many of their ideas within the institutional Democratic Party? Yes, they did. And I look at that and then I compare it to what did Hillary Clinton’s people say they wanted? They said we want women to run for office. We want young people to run for office. We want Black people to run for office. We want people of color, LGBTQ people. And in so many races that we’ve seen just in the past year, you see the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party coming in and endorsing incumbent conservatives — in some cases, old, white, male Democratic candidates — against the very people that they said that they wanted to run.
Audio clip of Joe Biden: We have leaders in Washington who want to roll back decades of progress no matter what the cost. This is one of the most challenging times I’ve ever seen for our country. Andrew Cuomo is the perfect antidote. I’ve known Andrew for over 20 years...
And so why should anyone put their energy, their effort, their faith, their trust into a machine that says, “Oh, we want all of you to run, except don’t run against these old white male senators who are our friends.” How many times are people going to step on this rake in the backyard of the Democratic Party. It’s been there in the same place, and people just keep stepping on it and it whacks them in the face every time?
This is why it’s important to know history and to understand the really subversive relationship that the Democratic Party has had to social movements to its left, whether it’s the 1930s or whether it’s in the 1960s.
There’s certainly the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson ran the Rainbow Coalition and ran a left-wing campaign that is used to capture Black voters, left-wing progressive, white working-class voters, but really to bring them back within the orbit of the Democratic Party.
Audio clip of Jesse Jackson: Labor cannot win the battle against right-to-work laws until women are free. Women cannot be free until Blacks and Hispanics are free. Thus Blacks, women, Hispanics, workers, Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, we must come together and form the Rainbow Coalition. We need each other.
And so, when people have believed that they could use the machinery of the Democratic Party, all too often, instead of those forces changing the party, they have been changed by the party.
What happens in Black politics in the 1960s and 1970s is the Democratic Party had a conscious strategy of absorbing broad parts of the left to try to create the impression that you could be active in formal politics and the political system that political activism didn’t just need to be in opposition to the system, but that the parties and the structures of the political system could be flexible enough and open enough to allow for the activism and activity of Black people, of women, and of young people. The outcome had a conservatizing impact on those politics. Because no longer was the discussion about Black liberation or women’s liberation or anti-capitalism, but instead, the objectives became much more contained and constrained into what was possible within the confines of the political system.
So what was pushing the political discussion of objectives to the left in the first place was a mass movement that centered around the Black movement as a way to try to respond and engage with that movement. And without the political propellant of social struggle on the ground, politics became very conservative, and they went back into the framework of what was possible, what is pragmatic. It’s not to say that elections are unimportant or immaterial, because obviously, they’re not. But we can’t talk about politics within a vacuum of what happens within the Democratic Party or what happens between the Democratic and Republican Party, because we can see that outside of the context of a social movement politics in this country functions within the framework that the right creates.
And it’s only when there is a social movement afoot that raises the much broader demands that these needs even come into the view of the discussion.
This is part of my concern with the victory and ascent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And by the way, I interviewed her on this program.
I like a lot of what she’s about. I think she is really smart. And I think she has great potential to really be an unusual voice in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the way that the situation got handled when she was confronted about her condemnation of the Israeli pogrom against the Palestinians was to sort of immediately back away and say:
Audio clip of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I am not the expert geopolitics on this issue. You know for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution in this issue.
If we elect people who say that they’re democratic socialists to get into office, and then they go to Washington and most of what they are is Democrats and a little bit of socialism when it’s acceptable or when rabble-rousing is permitted by the party leadership, then it’s going to have the opposite effect that I think a lot of people wanted it to when they cast their votes for somebody different, which is, you know, we don’t want more of the same. So with this new kind of attention being paid to the term socialism and to democratic socialist candidates, as a longtime committed socialist, how do you see the positives and the risks, the dangers of this moment, where you have the left outside of the Democratic Party piercing into that tent again, with the democratic socialists kind of playing this inside-outside game with the Democratic Party?
The idea that you could ever sort of openly talk about socialism and say that you were a socialist — this was unfathomable 20 years ago. It was unfathomable maybe even 10 years ago. And so today that’s different. And that’s a great thing. I mean Jim Carrey is somewhere on some talk show saying that:
Audio clip of Jim Carrey: We have to say “yes” to socialism, to the word and everything. We have to stop apologizing.
These are phenomenal developments, and they open up the space to have what I was talking about earlier, which is to have a much broader, bigger discussion to talk about fundamentally transforming people’s lives. What does it mean to have a life unencumbered by poverty, by concerns about housing, by concerns about health care, by concerns about education, by concerns about being able to maintain any semblance of a quality of life? And so, when we can talk about socialism and talk about the enormous inequality that pervades American society, this is a good thing.
The problem, however, is that some of the discussion about socialism is being reduced to issues of state control. You know, do we just need more social welfare programs? Do we just need more public policies that advocate for more funding for public schools or public hospitals or things of that nature? But in discussing socialism as if it were simply a social welfare program, it really truncates the breadth and the depth of what the socialists project actually is that: Ordinary people, who are the creators of all wealth in our society and across the world, have the right — the democratic right –– to decide how those wealth and resources that they create through their labor should be utilized. And that means not having millionaire interlocutors speak for us to determine how those resources should be used.
Which, to be honest, is all Congress has been reduced to. Most of them have absolutely no clue about what it is like to be a regular person in this country and to have to make decisions about rent or prescriptions. And that’s not hyperbole. Those are actual debates that people have with themselves or within their households on a day-to-day basis.
And so socialism is about removing those people and letting the people who create the wealth decide. That discussion — the sense of socialism as the emancipation of ordinary people to be in control of their own lives and to be in control of their own situation — is being jettisoned for what is really talk about an expansion of the social welfare state. When we look at the impacts of capitalism and climate change, when we look at the enormous amounts of poverty and deprivation that are created by and perpetuated by capitalism, and also when we look at the war and the destruction and the human carnage that is generated through a system for profit, the idea of U.S. imperialism and the impact of war in our society and abroad has been completely left out of this resurgent discussion of socialism.
On the flip side from Democrats to Republicans, in my estimation, just really monitoring the developments of the Republican Party in this moment of Trump, the extreme right wing in the United States right now has an incredible amount of power. And I don’t just mean officially. I mean that this game that is playing out where the Republicans can anonymously say, “Oh, well the real adults in the room, we’re making sure that the empire stays afloat, and we’re keeping Trump at bay,” but then benefiting from every single thing Trump does — that seems to me like quite a shrewd play on the part of the lifers within the extreme right-wing movement in this country. They’re using Trump in a spectacularly evil and brilliant way. And I think that they’re largely winning with what they’re doing in part because of all the problems you just described with the Democratic Party. But how do you see this moment? You and I both came of political age in the 1990s, where the campus free speech struggles were a big deal at that time. A lot of racists were doing the same things we see now, where they’re going to try to cause a provocation. But you also had this sense that the extreme right wing had a long-term plan, and I don’t think that Trump is as much of a monkey wrench in their plan as he is this gift that they had to be dragged into realizing they should accept.
People ask me all the time, “If Trump is such an embarrassment, why do the Republicans put up with this?” If you look beyond the chaos that is generated from his Twitter account, it’s easy to see why the Republicans put up with this. Whether it’s the historic tax cut, the rapid and utterly frightening transformation of the judiciary or the tinkering with the machinery of the state, this is creating the kinds of changes that will far exceed the tenure of the Trump administration. We’re witnessing a virtual coup within the confines of the Supreme Court in the ultimate validation of the strategy of dealing with the chaos, the lack of civility, the inattention to political norms, all of the things that people have said that this administration represents, while missing what is actually happening under the hood.
It’s an important thing to pay attention to in understanding what the actual impact of this administration is and what its reverberations will be. But as important as the institutional impacts are, we can see them as infallible or beyond the reach of ordinary people. And this especially becomes true with the Supreme Court.
Clearly it’s a frightening thing to have a disproportionate number of right-wing zealots on the Supreme Court. I think this will create a permanent schism at 5-4. I mean, the court presents itself as impervious to political influence and all politics. And we should know that that is absolutely incorrect — that the court trades in politics and basically helps to create politics and is also impacted by politics. That doesn’t mean that these institutions are all-powerful and are beyond the reach of popular demands or popular appeals. But it does point back to why our side has to continue to organize, and we have to be able to build the kinds of movements that have the power and the capacity to force these governing institutions to accede to the will of those who are most affected by its decision-making.
You brought up the prison strike earlier, which got very little attention. There was a smattering of publications that were reporting on it. And it was a 19-day national prison strike. The strikers put forward 10 demands addressing the conditions of people being held in the prisons. They called for policies that “recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women. An end to prison slavery,” and you have prisoners doing all sorts of manual labor, sometimes 24-hour shifts. What is the significance of this 19-day national prison strike that officially ended this past weekend?
It speaks to the level of organizing that exists within the prisons. It also says something about the humanity of the imprisoned, which in this country is so critical to assert and reassert. An important aspect of the strike was asserting what we should be demanding under whatever conditions someone exists in the jails and prisons of this country. While some of us fight for the abolition of these cages and of the system of caging people, as long as people are in prison, they have the absolute right to live and exist in the most humane conditions possible and, so the prison strike and the organizing of the strike show that to be the demand of the imprisoned themselves is to assert their own rights to dignity and humanity — it’s not that we’re here talking about them. The Black Lives Matter movement has helped to put a national and international spotlight the racist policing and practices and abuse of American police. And in doing so, it has necessarily questioned the criminal justice system, the system of policing, and within that discussion, there has to be a further examination and evaluation of what happens to those who are caught up in the system of policing and the criminal justice system.
I think what we see is that it will take a mass movement just to be able to address the conditions that the imprisoned have raised. Prisons, policing and a racist, unequal criminal justice system are absolutely integral to the system of capitalism–– the economic and political organization of society that relies on the marginalization and demonization of some. Prison is a way that they help to reinforce the ideas of dehumanization and marginalization. So they are core features of the economic system that we live under. And so the strike is absolutely essential to trying to both connect with other prisoners within the system itself, but to also educate the broader public about what it means to be imprisoned in the United States of America.
Final question. There was this huge match in tennis between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams over the weekend at the U.S. Open. And I saw live this incident where you had Serena Williams reacting to a call from the umpire.
Audio clip of Serena Williams: I don’t cheat. I didn’t get coaching. How can you say that? You need to, you need to, you owe me an apology. You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I’ve never cheated. And you owe me an apology.
And then standing up and calling out the clear sexism at play in the way she was treated after breaking her racket versus how her male counterparts are treated.
Audio clip of Serena Williams: You know how many other men, how many other men do things that are much worse than that — this is not fair. There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things and because they’re men that doesn’t happen to them.
The racism of the commentators that I watched afterwards, it was a bit jaw-dropping. I mean, I’m not shocked at anything I see on TV, but the words they use to talk about Serena Williams are words they would never use to talk about a man or a white woman.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the cartoon [a racist caricature of Williams that appeared in Australia\. All that’s missing is either a huge slice of watermelon or a bone for her nose. I mean, it’s straight out of the 19th century. I’ll just say that this, along with Kaepernick, shows there are no discrete categories of culture, politics and sports. These things are enmeshed in the United States, and I suspect elsewhere, and it means that when anything happens, especially when it comes to pro sports that are often where Black players dominate, it immediately becomes a lightning rod for this kind of racist invective. The fact that that cartoon, which is literally some caricature out of a minstrel Jim Crow scenario from the 19th century —
Before you continue on, I just want for people who did not follow what Keeanga and I are talking about to know that there is a cartoon published this week in the aftermath of that tennis match. It was published in the Australian newspaper, The Herald Sun, but because of the social media universe that we live in, it was promoted all over the Internet and social media, and also has been attacked for very much the same reasons that Keeanga is articulating now, also on social media.
And the cartoonist was very proud of it. He tweeted out that this was my cartoon for the week. And it’s the same kind of thing that Donald Trump is trying to tap into and instigate: The idea that these are loudmouth Black people who have not earned the right to speak out or who have not earned their place in their sport, but who have been given something and are ungrateful. As if their prowess in the sport that they play is because of someone else’s hard work. So it very quickly taps into racist discourses that are at the heart of American society. The idea that Black people are entitled, that Black people want something for nothing. This is so seductive to white people who have been raised on this idea of the domestic dysfunction, personal irresponsibility and entitlement of Black people.
This is the burden borne by a Colin Kaepernick and particularly a Serena Williams –– who is a dark-skinned Black woman in a racist country, dominating a sport that has been owned by white people since its very existence. Many of them can’t come to grips with the fact that Serena Williams dominates the game, which is why she’s drug-tested more than any other athlete on the tournament circuit, and why she has to put up with the constant questioning of her athletic abilities — that she has no game that all she has his brute strength.
I think that the burden that women, especially Black women, have to carry with them in all forms of work speaks so much to other social crises that Black women are disproportionately represented in. So you can imagine with Serena, with her celebrity, with her access to resources, that she is able to navigate these kinds of things. You can imagine what this is like — what type of toll this would take in the life of an ordinary person. This is a burden that millions of Black women have to deal with on a regular basis.
We’re going to leave it there. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, thank you so much for all of your work and for joining us again on Intercepted.
Thanks, Jeremy. Glad to be here.
First published at The Intercept.