Is punishing Hillary worth a potential Trump presidency?

Did you know that “some of the smartest progressives” out there are going to be pulling the lever for Donald Trump this November? Are you one of them?

Like these savvy progressives, do you hate Hillary Clinton so much that you’re starting to think the short-term pain of a Trump presidency might just be “an acceptable cost” so long as we can inflict a little punishment on the Democratic Party for its many sins and neoliberal betrayals of the past few decades?

At least some on the left are thinking this way, according to a new op-ed in Politico Magazine from Yves Smith, publisher of the Naked Capitalism blog. (Smith also happens to be known as Susan Webber, a principal in the management consulting firm Aurora Advisors, in the offline world.)

Smith says that “the highly educated, high-income, finance-literate” readers of her website, which has become one of the go-to places for hard-hitting critiques of the dark and seamy corners of finance, are so fed up with the unequal and crushing economic status quo of the Clinton and Obama presidencies that they are willing to wager it all. (Somehow the eight-year neoconservative-dominated reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney has fallen out of this story, but we’ll let that slide for now.)

These folks are ready to put everything on the line for the sake of blocking Hillary from ever setting foot inside the White House again. They want Bernie, Smith tells us, and if they can’t have him, then they are willing to risk four years of Republican rule under Trump.

If you identify with the Left and have political discussions with others of such an ideological persuasion, you’ve probably encountered some version of this kind of argument lately. When prominent peace activist Medea Benjamin took the stage inside a packed gymnasium at the Left Forum conference in New York May 20, she asked for a show of hands: who among the hundreds gathered, she asked, has worked or voted for Bernie Sanders? Nearly all hands went up. Plan to vote for Hillary Clinton? A “very small sprinkling” of hands went up, which Benjamin noted. Who would vote for the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein? A majority of hands went up. This was the same crowd that had just cheered advocacy journalist Chris Hedges when he said that the Left ought to abandon the Democratic Party and “free ourselves from the insidious mantra of the least worst” because “our two-party duopoly, while it has [sic] a different rhetoric, serves the same centers of power.”

Who would suffer the first casualties?

Pretty words. But here’s the problem with these kinds of arguments: only certain sets of people can afford to make them.

The “smartest progressives” that Smith referred to, for instance, are, demographically, a small segment of the broad center-left coalition of forces currently supporting one or the other of the Democratic candidates. They’re an even tinier portion of the American population as a whole. In Smith’s own words, they are “disproportionately graduate-school educated, older, male, and high income.” We won’t question Smith’s assessment of who her readership is. She certainly knows her crowd and likely has a good handle on which way the political winds are blowing for them.

As for the conference-goers at the Left Forum, based on our observations, they were disproportionately older middle-aged or elderly activists, lifers in the movements for socialism, against war, and for saving the environment. A few younger-looking activists were also present, though not as vocal as their elders in scrapping for a fight. It seemed to matter little to them that the votes they might drain from the Dems could end up helping Trump.

In other words, though they may not be Trumpvangelicals (as journalist and longtime observer of the Right Sarah Posner calls the core Trump base), Smith’s group of male fifty-somethings with money and college degrees or the Left Forum’s battle-hardened veteran activists are willing to gamble that Trump can’t be all that bad, or at least not bad enough to justify letting Hillary have a go at things.

While neither of these groups has built the mass base of political power that it would take to sway a national election, they are using every platform they can to denounce Clinton as the establishment candidate and urge others to vote another way. As Yves Smith, Chris Hedges, and Medea Benjamin point out, their arguments can be compelling.

But those who denounce Clinton and urge a vote for Trump are consigning others to be the first to run at the Right’s machine guns. They can take this position because the future that is on the line, for the most part, isn’t theirs. They aren’t the ones who will suffer first or disproportionately when a Trump presidency begins.

President Donald J. Trump

Trump will triple the number of ICE agents, creating a force that will further terrorize immigrant communities who already face daily the fear that they will lose their livelihoods or be separated from their families at a moment’s notice. His agents will round up and imprison as many as they can find of the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. He will eliminate federally-run Medicaid, forcing millions of poor people and people with disabilities to rely on state-level services, which in many states are under-resourced and in some states are nonexistent. Reproductive health services for women, already hard to come by in many localities, would become even fewer and farther between. Mosques would come under heavy surveillance, intensifying an already-charged atmosphere of fear and intimidation for Muslims. If he couldn’t completely undo the Iran deal, he would certainly damage it as much as he could, which would set a reckless precedent for any future negotiations to stop nuclear proliferation. All of these measures are either explicitly listed on Trump’s campaign website, or have been suggested by Trump himself.

It is likely that we will soon get a preview of such events. When Trump is confirmed in July at the Republican National Convention as the GOP nominee, the sort of political violence that has marred his rallies, in which people of color have reported being physically attacked, may escalate. Will those on the Left who plan to withdraw their support for the Democratic Party – which is the primary counterforce to the Republicans – also stand by as Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, and others are assaulted?

Progressives and those on the Left must think hard about who would really make the biggest initial sacrifices in the event of a Trump victory. With his tacit approval of white nationalists’ assaults on our most vulnerable communities, Trump has already poisoned our national political conversation. We cannot pretend otherwise.

As Yves Smith’s readers say, it is probably the case that Hillary Clinton, as her campaign is currently configured, doesn’t “deserve” to inherit Sanders’ supporters. Her campaign has tried at various points to weasel away from making the leftward shift that would make it truly representative of the Democratic Party base. Her ties to Wall Street and Walmart remain strong. All this is true.

Thinking strategically

But in politics – especially for people who should be paying attention to the bigger questions of long-term strategy and are serious about making change – purity of principle isn’t enough. It can’t be. It is necessary to mix in a little more pragmatism with our ideological fervor. Our votes and our activism cannot hinge solely on the supposedly “principled” concern of which candidate “deserves” our support.

Do poor people deserve the cuts that will come their way under a Trump presidency? Do people of color deserve to be on the receiving end of a spike of racism and violence that will be legitimated by the rhetoric spewing from a Trump White House? Do immigrants deserve to face the prospects of permanent family separation and deportation? Do women deserve to be “punished” when they seek out reproductive health services? Do young people deserve to see their future continuously mortgaged by an every-increasing burden of debt?

Furthermore, this game of “punishing” the Democratic Party for the sins of the Clintons (and believe us, we know they are many) is really an oversimplification of what the Democratic Party is and who it represents. It also totally ignores the diversity of constituencies that will become targets once the GOP controls all branches of the federal government.

If such an outcome occurs, Muslims, Latinos and African Americans won’t be the only ones who are harmed. They’ll just be the first ones. Once Trump has successfully used Islamophobia, xenophobia and white supremacy to divide Americans against one another, there will be no constituency strong enough to defend our best social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the U.S. Postal Service against him and the rest of the Republicans in Congress who have for decades been trying to eliminate them.

Taking a chance on Trump, whether by voting for him or simply siphoning votes away from Clinton, might inflict some punishment on a few hundred Democratic politicians in the DNC. It might deny Hillary Clinton some votes that she doesn’t “deserve.” But is that small goal really worth gambling America’s future?

Photo: Donald Trump supporter pulls the hair of a young immigrant woman at a rally. Credit: Twitter / Jassiel Perez (@fl_dreamer)


Mariya Strauss
Mariya Strauss

Mariya Strauss is a writer and labor and community activist who lives with her family in Baltimore, Maryland.

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.