The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has mobilized rightwing populists, economic nationalists, racists, anti-Muslims and anti-Semites, sectors of the marginalized and growing precariat, and some Republicans. His stock in trade has been a continuous communication by brief soundbites and tweets lies and innuendos, egregious insults, personal attacks, and slanders. These have exceeded much of the history of political discourse in the United States (with the possible exception of the anti-Communist ravings of the 1950s and the virulently hostile campaigns in the days of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr).
It is clear to most well-meaning political activists of the center and the left, that a Trump presidency would cause untold pain and suffering to an already aggrieved population of people of color, workers, women, gays and lesbians, and advocates for the environment. However, Donald Trump, for a year now, has been a candidate who is largely a creation of the mainstream media. Day after day mainstream media reported on the candidate’s every word, his seeming popularity, and his “presumptiveness” as the Republican nominee of his party. CBS executive Leslie Moonves said about the Trump candidacy: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” (Campbell Brown, “Why I Blame TV for Trump,” Politico Magazine, May/June 2016). The Trump candidacy has been worth millions more dollars in corporate profit for a news industry that has experienced declining viewership and readership in recent years.
Once Trump secured almost enough delegates to be nominated the Republican candidate, the media, including liberal and left voices, launched a non-stop effort to discredit his background, his assertions, and his broad array of rightwing supporters. And since candidate Trump continuously articulates his bizarre views he has become the gift that never stops giving. The frame has shifted from Trump the curiosity to Trump the monster. Both tropes, it is hoped, will increase the viewership and advertising as 24/7 coverage shifts to the general election.
The narrow media frame on the Trump phenomenon and his daily statements lead to a portrait of an electoral contest with his Democratic Party opponent that prioritizes personalities and sound bites and not ideas, issues, worldviews, or ideologies. The media frame reaffirms the typical American personality “binary,” that is if not Trump then the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton. Although the differences between the two candidates matter, fundamental questions of policy and purpose which should be part of political discourse are frozen out of the political process. The central issue of the election has become Donald Trump.
The Trump candidacy has poisoned and distorted the real political contest of ideas undergirding the issues of the twenty first century. Black Lives Matter, the Occupy, the Fight for 15, Moral Mondays, and the climate change movements are all about the fundamental structural impediments to any semblance of a humane society. Many of the issues articulated by these campaigns have been reflected in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. But because of the Trump media frame and the political binary these vital issues do not get discussed.
Fundamentally, because Trump represents the worst aspects of United States history and politics, political conversations center on him. They do not address the connections between capitalism and poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, war, and terrorism. And the mainstream media prefers that such discussions not take place either. In addition, since the Democratic candidate is part of the problem, not the solution, the Trump conundrum limits necessary political discourse.
So progressives have a problem. A Trump victory in November will have enormous negative consequences for the vast majority of the most marginalized sectors of American society, some of whom struggled for almost 100 years to achieve some modicum of social and economic justice. And a Clinton victory ensures the continuation of the institutions that have promoted the global capitalist agenda that has been in place for the last forty years: monopolization and financialization of the global economy and the use of “humanitarian” military interventions to implement the neoliberal order.
Perhaps for the coming period the prioritization of the progressive political agenda should include in this order: say “no” to Trump; say “no” to the revitalization of neoliberal globalization in a Hillary Clinton Administration; and finally say “no” to the American political binary that institutionalizes just two choices, forestalling discussions of fundamental change in the United States.