APRIL 10, 2019
WHY, EXACTLY, did Donald Trump become president? The answer may forever be out of reach. But there have been no shortage of attempts to explain it in real time, as though historicizing a still-unfolding catastrophe.
Jeffrey C. Isaac, professor of Indiana University, Bloomington, and former editor of Perspectives on Politics, has a series of essays and opinion pieces called #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One. In one respect, the American public have heard many of his arguments elsewhere. But as an artifact of its time, perhaps readers can see how journalists like himself who were labeled “enemies of the people” used their resources and writing abilities to document this important era of American history. Isaac’s essays also provide a sense of premonition — that what happened in 2016 may happen again if the fragmented parties do not reconcile their differences to rebuild.
Isaac’s book is broken up into five sections: “Trump Agonistes,” “Rude Awakening,” “Interlude,” “Trump Ascendant,” and “What’s Next?” In his introduction, he writes that “[t]he period covered in the book, then, is a period that includes real contingencies and genuine surprises. The structure of the books is intended to mirror this shifting terrain, even if it culminates, in the now, at a dark moment indeed.” He also notes that the middle sections explore events from a leftist-liberal perspective.
While the latter sections of the book criticize multiple aspects of the administration, the most informative section explores the events that led up to the election. Isaac criticizes both parties, especially the fatal flaw that prevented a critical minority of Democratic politicians and voters from standing behind Hillary Clinton. This resulted in a large number of supporters of Bernie Sanders to either not vote, vote for a third-party member, or write-in the name of a deceased gorilla named Harambe. But what this shows is that many American voters of the leftist persuasion were not in love with their alleged party.
Isaac notes that “there is no democracy in the world that has political parties as weak as the political parties of the United States.” Because individuals who don’t belong to either Democratic or Republican parties can run for president and because of in-fighting and alliances within the Democratic Party, Isaac argues that “the obstacles facing Sanders are more daunting than those that faced Obama. That his aspirations are greater make his success even less probable.” Given the course of the primaries and the rigorous campaigning of both Clinton and Sanders, Isaac states that the remaining candidate may not be a viable one in the upcoming election.
In fact, Isaac later switched his support to Clinton; in another essay, he appeals to colleagues to stand behind Clinton for the sake of a unified party against the Republican nominee. He writes, “any Democratic candidate is preferable to any Republican candidate,” citing the “lesser of two evils” rhetoric to support his claim. He even blatantly warns, “And if she [Clinton] loses, we are fucked. Seriously. We are fucked. Think about that. And then, perhaps, we will act accordingly.”
In the latter sections of the book, Isaac comments on multiple subjects. Among these are Trump’s Twitter storm, his loose talk of nuclear war, the authoritarian air he arguably possesses, and his hate speech. These topics have been debated ad nauseam in numerous published books and talking-heads media that revisiting them here feels redundant. For me, they left a bad taste in the mouth — to clarify, not Isaac’s arguments, but the subjects that he felt necessary to revisit. Rereading these topics reminded me of all the hate that’s been slung around in social media posts and between people in the streets of our nation, of families torn apart by political beliefs, and the uncertainty Trump’s presidency has planted in the minds of many American citizens. Call it fatigue. But I commend Isaac for including these topics, despite how difficult they are to stomach. They serve as a reminder that “Make America Great Again” cannot be accomplished if it’s nothing more than a PR slogan.
In the short essay, “Charlottesville and Trump: David Duke Explains Neo-Nazi Violence to You,” Isaac covers the violent response that erupted when a statue of Robert E. Lee was removed. “What is happening in Virginia is not due to Trump,” he argues, “and combatting both right-wing extremism and underlying structures of racism, and also the structures of economic dislocation that generate a politics of resentment, requires much more than criticizing Trump.” He concludes that
it is impossible to understand, and to combat, what is happening right now in Charlottesville without recognizing the danger that Trump and Trumpism pose to social justice and to liberal democracy. Saying this is not “hysterical” or “tyrannophobic.” And it does not reduce everything to Trump, or insist that other dynamics and institutions are not also responsible.
The greater mistake is that of leaving this matter on the side-burner of political discussion.
This seems given, considering how racism in the United States dominates political and media discourse. Spike Lee’s sobering Oscar-nominated BlacKkKlansman has helped keep this topic in the limelight. Lee’s placement of recent interview segments with David Duke and footage of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville in 2017 at the end of the film supports Isaac and other writers’ worries that addressing racism in America today is an ethical necessity.
Another of Isaac’s essays collected in #AgainstTrump that stands out is “Why I Welcome John McCain’s ‘Liberty Medal’ Speech,” in which the Arizona senator confronted the Trump-driven fissure in the Republican Party. His speech represented not only a moral necessity, but also one of political importance as a voice against Trumpism on behalf of American citizens living “in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.” While Isaac disagrees with McCain’s politics, he makes an important distinction:
McCain is a neoconservative. But he is not a neo-fascist. And that difference matters, especially now. […] [McCain’s speech] enacts certain values, minimal to be sure, that define a liberal, constitutional democracy and distinguishes it from illiberal and indeed anti-liberal alternatives. McCain speaks the language of citizenship and not the language of “enemies of the people.”
While his essay doesn’t paint McCain as a poster child of the Republican Party, Isaac at least acknowledges the inherent goodness and appeals to decency that can be present in political opponents.
Although #AgainstTrump recycles arguments heard by many others during the first year of Trump’s presidency, the book as a whole serves as a compendium of journalistic writing from the front lines of American democracy. In light of Bernie Sanders’s announcement that he will again be running for president, early sections of the book almost serve as a warning: that if the fragmented Democratic Party repeats history, then the country will be subject to another four years of darkness.
In Isaac’s view, that would be an extension of the “lesser evil” for the good of the country losing out again. He doesn’t believe that resistance in the face of values is enough to combat Trumpism. Instead, “it is a matter of concerted action to support, to enact and realize values” and must involve support from multiple institutions and social movements. In that respect, #AgainstTrump may be a read as an informative primer to the current dysfunction of our two major political parties.
Sean Woodard is a staff writer for Drunk Monkeys and a co-producer of the faith-based podcast, Ordinary Grace. His film criticism, fiction, and other writings have been featured in NonBinary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Addiction Now, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications.