Dividing the Left: The Alternative But Not Competing Explanations for the Rise of Trump


It occurred to me that the divide between the Democratic establishment and the progressive left is defined largely by their differing viewpoints for understanding the rise of Trump. Ironically, there’s no tension between those viewpoints. Both camps have it right. But those differing, yet entirely reconcilable, viewpoints lead to radically different courses of action.

Kind of paradoxical, huh? A common foe who logically should unify the left appears to divide it. Actually, there’s an explanation, to which I’ll return. First, the two viewpoints:

The Establishment View. I caught a segment of Sam Seder’s radio show Saturday. He had Heather Digby Parton on to discuss Trump’s impact on the Republican Party. She explained how beginning in the mid-20th century the Republicans built a fairly complex ideology. It featured a belief in small government, national security, and trickle-down economics. But it incorporated dog whistle politics in order to appeal to the nativist and racist crowds. Her observation, with which I agree, is that the Republican establishment members deluded themselves into believing that the base they built bought in to the entire ideology, when in reality it was all about the dog whistles for a huge swath of that base.

That worked fine, as long as the competition was Democrats in general elections, who weren’t appealing to nativism and racism, through dog whistles or otherwise. But dog whistles don’t cut it when your opponent is whistling loudly in the wavelength humans hear, as Trump did for the better part of a year.

Thus, to the Democratic establishment, Trump is a product of the Republican Party’s politics. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Progressive View. Progressives see Trump as an inevitable product of decades of ineptitude, cronyism and cravenness on the part of the political left, not just in America, but throughout the global West. That view is best summed up by Chris Hedges’ observation that when the liberal establishment does nothing to alleviate the misery of the masses, they ultimately will turn to the authoritarian right. The willingness of Democrats in America to support neoliberal economic policy, to the detriment of average people, is what has permitted the rise of Trump, according to this view.

In Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank explains how the Democratic Party in America transitioned from being the party of working people to the party of professionals, including the Wall Street crowd. Neoliberal policies suit professionals just fine.

The progressive view pre-dates the 2016 election cycle. In 2013, I wrote Wake Up Progressives. Borrowing heavily from Hedges, I speculated that America could vomit up a Ted Cruz as President. I aimed low, in a sense, as the Republican Party passed on Cruz and vomited up someone even worse — Trump.

Can the different viewpoints be reconciled?

Absolutely. Even in times of relative economic justice, like the ’60s, nativism and racism still exist. In America, Republicans saw that as an opportunity. Ironically, as they were able to ram through policies that exacerbated economic inequality, their nativist / racist source of support grew. When Democrats under Clinton and the DLC began competing with them for the support of the professional class, Republicans became increasingly dependent on their nativist/racist base.

Was that enough to pave the way for Trump? Not quite. That required the 2008 crash followed by an even greater concentration of wealth and income at the top. Consider the most recent data from the IRS. From Emanuel Saez, in U.S. top one percent of income earners hit new high in 2015 amid strong economic growth:

The share of income going to the top 10 percent of income earners—those making on average about $300,000 a year—increased to 50.5 percent in 2015 from 50.0 percent in 2014, the highest ever except for 2012. The share of income going to the top 1 percent of families—those earning on average about $1.4 million a year—increased to 22.0 percent in 2015 from 21.4 percent in 2014.

If you cram enough income and enough wealth into the top 1%, the bottom 90% ultimately will explode. In 2016, the explosion is taking place in the form of Donald Trump. In white America, the explosion is well underway. In the latest national poll, Trump leads 47 to 34 among white Americans.

Truth is, the only missing ingredient for Trump is sufficient willingness of non-White America to turn to the authoritarian right. But could an authoritarian more skilled than Trump surmount that hurdle? Time may tell.

So, why the divide between the Democratic establishment and the progressive left? In two words: Differing priorities.

The movement led by Sanders did not really start with him. It started with Occupy, almost five years ago. Remember the Occupy slogan? “We.    Are.     The 99%.” Now, scroll back up a few paragraphs and check how the 99% is doing. Remember the age demographic of Occupy? What was Sanders’ best demographic? See the connections here?

To many who supported Sanders, the priority is to confront the status quo. From that perspective, they don’t see the urgency in unifying behind Hillary Clinton. Most would prefer her to Trump if forced to choose, but they don’t believe in either of them. Heck, some even will explore the possibility of Jill Stein.

Those Sanders supporters, many new to the political process, are frustrated. Sanders spoke to that frustration. Now, they’re being asked (or, quite often, told) to put their frustration aside to beat the evil Trump. The problem is that the evil they see is economic injustice, not Trump.

Part of that frustration may be that their champion, Sanders, couldn’t quite meet the challenge. He did some amazing things. But he missed opportunities as well. He failed to connect in a meaningful way with Black Americans. Truth is, a slightly more skilled candidate with the same worldview as Sanders could have pulled it off. The frustration here for the progressive left is not with Sanders, but with a political process that allowed minor shortcomings to bring down a seemingly true champion of economic justice.

From the Democratic establishment’s perspective, the priority is entirely different. To them, it’s time to seize the moment. The Republican Party has been playing with fire courting nativists and racists. Now, it’s been exposed though the nomination of Trump and about to get burned. From their perspective, nothing is more urgent than the Democrats rallying behind an experienced, credentialed candidate. And Hillary Clinton is nothing if not experienced and credentialed. This is not the time to worry about petty squabbles over trade deals and military policy. It’s time to join forces to defeat the greater evil. Once that’s behind us, we can begin to move in the right direction.

If that’s how we got here, what’s the way forward?

I wish there were an easy answer, but I’m not seeing one. Scroll back one more time to those figures on the income share of the 1%. If that gets worse, or even if it stays the same, one of two things will happen:

Either a champion of economic justice from the progressive left more skilled than Sanders will rise to power.

Or an authoritarian more skilled than Trump will.

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Bob Lord
Bob is a tax and business lawyer who had given up on politics until deciding to run for Congress in 2008 (CD3), when he tried to unseat John Shadegg. He since has returned to his law practice and golf addiction. Bob has been writing for Blog For Arizona since late 2011, concentrating mostly on federal issues, with an occasional foray into Arizona state politics.


  1. So much will be “done” in the months leading up to the election (and beyond) to make sure we don’t let Trump “have” the white house …. we will have to modify our agenda, make compromises, see thing differently all in the name of not doing something. Many heroes will cave and the sorting hat will put more and more folks solidly in the “establishment”.

  2. What insight. Establishment lack of appreciation of Progressive concerns is dangerous. The young people I know feel betrayed and while they’ll vote Hillary they believe she cares about them — some are planning to attend the convention to support Bernie. President Obama’s been our only protector since Republicans took the Senate and it’s imperative Democrats win the White-house — but Hillary will only be a one-term President if the establishment doesn’t address income inequality.

  3. This is an excellent observation Bob. There are a multitude of issues that I think contribute to the points you make. One that I believe is significant is the lack of heart that Dems have when standing behind their agenda or beliefs. Last election there were many DINOs posing as true Dems. Look no further than the early successes of the ACA. Most canidates ran from this. Nobody had the guts to point out the successes of a plan that many Americans were willing to support. Thus, the right owned the conversation on this topic. When I saw this type of behavior it made me angry. Why not just vote for the Republican on the ticket if the Dem is gonna act like one? Maybe that is part of what drives the Trump movement.

  4. the rise of trump can be described in one word populism. what has happened in the rust belt is not nativism or racism but economic disaster. some are racists some are not but all their votes count.45 % of the population vote republican 60% of the white vote and since white people run america it has a disproportionate effect. the minorities are heard most loudly on election day as bernie sanders and his white liberal elitist supporters found out the hard way.

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