The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

Franklin McCain has died- one of the Greensboro Four

Credit: Jack Moebes/Greensboro News & Record

The Greensboro lunch counter sit-in is a seminal points in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement- on par with the Little Rock Nine, the Birmingham campaign, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One the four college students who dared to walk into a whites-only lunch counter on February 1st, 1960 has died-  Franklin McCain.

Reflecting decades after the event, he remarked “If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time. If I were not quite so lucky…I would come back to my campus … in a pine box.” However the campaign was stunningly successful, kicking off a huge wave of sit-ins all over the South. Five months after they sat down at Woolworth’s, it served its first black customers.

This incident is now studied in sociology classes as an example of the power of social solidarity. Given all the violence against blacks for centuries in the South, to many people it would seem insane to try to stand up to white segregation. But when people have incredible trust in themselves and with each other, they can do extraordinary things.

History as it is taught, however, tends to view these people as spontaneously courageous. In fact, an important role of civil rights organizations like CORE and the SCLC was to train people to keep on point and on message (here is a trainer from the era running over the system taught). If dogs and firehoses had been unleashed on unprepared marchers in 1963, it would have been an ugly riot. The key was to expose the brutality of the opposition through disciplined nonviolence.

As the icons of the Civil Rights Movement pass on- those that were able to get through the 1960s alive- it is more and more important for newer generations to keep the spirit alive. Because the fight isn’t over, and its goals are still unmet.