Was Trump's Election Somehow a Positive Thing?

May 08, 2019

This blog post is my trying to capture the gist of a conversation I’ve had a bunch of times. It often starts with a relitigation of whether it’s in some way a good thing that Trump won in 2016. The argument is that, as a result of Trump’s election, people are more awake to the racism in the US, and that anyways Clinton was also bad.

I’m kind of tired of this conversation, so I want to be clear: While the USA / capitalism / structural racism is deeply bad and we should fight to reform and restructure it at deep levels in order to promote justice, we should also work within the system as needed, i.e., we should emphatically vote for the boring centrist if the alternative is a Nazi.

Most recently I had this conversation triggered by a quote from this Žižek talk:

The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves.

Here’s what I think is a useful translation, given the context:

The problem with slavery isn’t that enslaved people are mistreated, it is that they are enslaved. At least the cruel slave owner is sincere. The kind one is dishonest, and doing nothing to solve the underlying problem while profiting from slavery. Worse, his behavior makes it easier to justify the institution of slavery, thus prolonging the injustice.

I feel where this is coming from, and I disagree. The worst slave owners were the ones who beat and raped their slaves. There’s a reactionary tendency to reject incremental improvements entirely, in favor of overthrowing the entire unjust system. This is an enticing idea, but practically, this insistence on revolution tends to use the lives and wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in the world (e.g. trans women of color, migrant children) as collateral.

In other words, I agree unequivocally unjust and oppressive systems (e.g. capitalism, slavery) ought to be overthrown. However, as long as we exist within those systems, it is worthwhile to do the to minimize the suffering of others, even if that minimization does not dismantle the unjust system. In addition, I don’t believe humans will ever design a perfectly-just system, so the existence of injustice is not a reason to abstain from acting righteously.

Variations on this choice come up all the time in real life, so it’s not just a thought experiment. Macron is a pawn of the rich but he is emphatically not a Nazi, which can’t be said of LePen. Trudeau is a dishonest bastard but he’s a better PM to the indigenous peoples of Canada than Harper any day of the week.

There is something perversely refreshing about the overt racism of the Trumps and Dutertes and Bolsanaros of the world. These men say what they feel, not accounting for the tremendous amount of lying they tend to do. After years of the dishonest centrist neoliberalism of Reagan, the Bushes, the Clintons, and even Obama, it’s nice to finally not be gaslit.

Trump may be a misogynistic anti-semite, but at least you know where he stands. At least he’s sincere in his awfulness. To that I say, so was Hitler.

Though the anti-incremental-improvements praxis often comes from a place of privilege, it isn’t exclusively white bullshit: one of the most memorable and challenging scenes in Accidental Courtesy (which is itself a hugely challenging documentary) is when Daryl Davis (a black civil rights activist who befriends and gradually deradicalizes KKK members) sits down to talk with young Baltimore Black Lives Matter activists. It turns into a bitter argument. During that argument, which occurred prior to Trump’s election, one of the BLM activists expressed hope that Trump would become president. I forget his exact words, but it was something to the effect of “at least then white supremacy will be out in the open”.

There’s a lot to unpack in that one scene. I can’t find a Youtube clip of it, but here’s a description, and here’s a panel featuring Davis and BLM activist Kwame Rose. In my mind, the men are both doing good and necessary work. It hurts to see them fight because they are on the same side. That being said, Davis does some real piece-of-shit things. Here’s a solid critique of some of that.

I recognize that there is depth and nuance to this topic that I’m not fully delving into in this blog post: how do we avoid legitimizing the system while working within it to improve lives? How, basically, do we win? What does our ideal society look like?

And this might sound a little clumsy or shoehorned but some version of the question of whether to vote for a less-bad candidate doesn’t just come around every four years; it is central to how we choose to live our lives. Consider the following quotidian dilemmas:

  • Should you take the bus to work or drive your car?
  • Should you eat meat?
  • Should you tip your waiter?
  • Should you give money to a panhandler?

Or more generally, “If I am part of an immoral system, is it worthwhile to take small moral actions even if they don’t dismantle that system?”

Yes. Yes yes yes yes. It is never wrong to do the right thing, even if it’s within an immoral system, and as I said, immorality will always exist. Tip your waiter even though the notion of tipping is garbage. Ride your bike to work even if it’s not going to undo climate change. Do these things not because they will solve underlying problems, but because they are the right things to do.. And when the opportunity to take part in collective action to dismantle or improve systems at a deeper level appears, do that too.

And, yes, vote for the center-left politician in the general election even if you don’t like her, because she’s not Trump.

What’s the alternative? Live in the woods and pretend like you can abstain from taking responsibility for our flawed and unjust world? That’s nothing.

In conclusion,

  1. If some centrist asshole like O’Rourke or Biden wins the nomination, vote for them in the general. The alternative is not just a teachable moment; it is annihilation.
  2. Let’s rally to get someone really good nominated in the primary. I’m thinking Warren.
  3. In addition to the unexciting work of voting for the better of two candidates, do radical activism.
  4. Eat less meat, tip your waiter, and take the bus when you can.