Landing in Washington, D.C., on a gorgeous fall day, I rode past the beautiful new museum of African American history on my way to the RT America studios, to spend election night on air with my old friend Ed Schultz.
Seeing an opening for a left media outlet in America, Russian TV in the United States has lately been hiring leftie talkers including Schultz, Mike Papantonio, Chris Hedges, and Thom Hartmann. Friends of mine in the progressive media are frequent guests. So are some interesting conservatives and libertarians.
But to be on Russian TV the night that Trump won—possibly with a deliberate assist from Russian hackers—and with the explicit praise and support of Vladimir Putin, did nothing to lessen the surreal mood in the wee hours on November 9.
At one point, former pro-wrestler-turned-Minnesota-governor Jesse Ventura joined Ed on the set for a long, jubilant explanation of the power of the outsider candidate versus the establishment. One of the highlights of Ventura's campaign, he said, was when he admitted he didn't know enough to answer a question in a candidate debate. The crowd loved it, he declared.
Welcome to Trump World.
No wonder Hillary's strategy of exposing Trump's ignorance flopped. It turns out there is a large constituency for ignorance. More on that in a moment.
In between sessions dissecting returns, I sat in the green room and watched RT stream promos for its shows. In one, Hedges inveighs against neoliberalism. Then there was a video of the over-caffeinated radio talker and occassional conspiracy peddler Lionel of Lionel Media mocking Hillary for connecting Trump to Putin, along with clips of Trump dismissing allegations of Russian hacking in the election.
Then Trump won.
It really changes the political conversation when neoliberalism is replaced by rightwing authoritarian populism, doesn't it? We progressives are going to have a lot of time to think on that.
I shared a ride back to my hotel at 2 a.m. with a European RT journalist. We went by the White House because she'd heard a crowd was gathered. But the streets were eerily silent. We chatted a bit about the network. There’s an opportunity for someone to support left media in your country, she said. But she doesn’t think Americans are aware how repressive the Putin regime really is, especially since 2011. And she fears what a NATO crack-up could mean for Russian expansion in Eastern Europe.
The rejection of the liberal democratic establishment by a rightwing populist electorate creates massive uncertainty for the whole world. Is working for Russian TV any worse than working for a corporate media outlet brought to you by Exxon and Archer Daniels Midland? My new friend and I pondered this question, briefly, on the quiet streets of Washington, as Trump prepared to deliver his victory speech.
I took a cab back to the airport Wednesday morning in the rain, again passing the new African American museum, minus the stirring feeling of progress and hope. Instead, I was feeling sick and disoriented, like so many other people returning to work in D.C.
I thought back to another bad election night I spent with Ed Schultz—when he came to Wisconsin for the attempted recall of Governor Scott Walker.
There are many parallels, including the sick sense of dread, and the frustration of watching the political professionals step in to take over a movement that had been fueled by the enthusiasm of regular citizens—and then fail those citizens completely.
The lackluster Democratic candidates in Wisconsin who kept the historic protests against Walker at arm's length failed to unseat him. Likewise, the Hillary campaign came in with experts and institutional support and told the young idealists who loved Bernie to step aside—and then they lost.
Wisconsin played a definitive role in Trump's victory Tuesday night. Our once-progressive state, now ruled by the political right, has eviscerated unions and changed the electoral map. In another step backwards, it rejected progressive former Senator Russ Feingold Tuesday and reelected know-nothing Ayn Rand acolyte Ron Johnson.
A friend of mine has documented Johnson’s antics on a website called Our Dumb Senator. Irony and snark have a certain appeal. We need to laugh. And pointing out buffoonery can be a lot less unnerving than contemplating scary demagoguery.
But I keep thinking back to the White House correspondents’ dinner when Obama, with his cool, smart, devastating stand-up routine, ran with the idea of Trump the reality TV star redecorating the White House.
But it turns out a lot of the country wasn’t laughing along. They were feeling laughed at, too. And they were itching to wipe the smiles off the faces of liberals they saw as too smug and comfortable.
The racism and misogyny Trump tapped are inextricable from the grievances of low-income rural and rust belt voters who elected him. What he offered them was a return to the dignity of their lost station in life, a return to white supremacy and male dominance for an anxious working class that feels itself losing its purchase on power, security, and respect.
With his brazen contempt for Mexicans, immigrants, and women, Trump restored the old social hierarchy.
Like Scott Walker who “divided and conquered” Wisconsin, Trump showed that for anxious, angry people, tearing down your neighbor is sometimes a good enough substitute for any concrete promise of a better life.
In the upcoming Trump Administration, there is no plan for jobs, affordable college, better opportunities, or healthier communities. Walker hasn’t delivered any of those things in Wisconsin, either.
But the idea of restored “greatness” for white workers, and a swift kick in the pants to the smug elites who scorn them, is enough to bring out an energized base.
On the progressive side, the energy left the room when Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary, ending a brief, exciting surge of leftwing populism based on idealism and hope.
Clinton’s campaign, while it borrowed language and policy details from Sanders, was the campaign of the status quo and sensible compromise. No one doubted that Clinton, like Obama, would protect big business, the banks, and guard the revolving door between government and Wall Street.
The stock market surged when it looked like she was up. Wall Street wanted her. The Washington establishment wanted her.
For a moment, a whole lot of women wanted her, too. We wanted her to “bury Trump,” as Gloria Steinem put it to a cheering crowd of Planned Parenthood supporters in Wisconsin.
But in the end, she was buried. She was the wrong candidate for the times. Now we are in uncharted territory. We on the left may look back with nostalgia at the era of corporate centrism. Or perhaps this terrible election will mark the beginning of a better, stronger, more focused progressive movement. It will be hard times ahead.
For a lot of people, it was already hard times.
We'll need to look that in the face, and figure out how to lift each other up.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progresssive.