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Rhetoric and Division of Left and Right in the Trump Era

William Schmidt

Platypus Review #92 | December 2016

The election of Donald J. Trump to the office of president opens a number of opportunities for the Left. However, the outcome of the election resists satisfactory explanation, so recognizing and seizing these opportunities will be difficult. Diverse news sources pose numerous different rationales for choosing Trump over Hillary Clinton: dissatisfaction with urban elite liberalism,[1] with Clinton, [2] with current economic conditions, and with shifts in the racial makeup of the country.[3] None of these factors, products of a widening division in political rhetoric engendering widely different ideological inferences, appear particularly opportune for the Left. Understanding this division allows the Left to seize the opportunities presented by this divisive election while, insofar as it is possible, undertaking damage control for the consequences of a unified Republican government.

Trump’s victory means a difficult future for the Left. In “Politics Is the Solution,” the Jacobin’s response to Trump’s presidential win, readers are asked to accept the following dichotomy: “There are two ways to respond to this situation. One is to blame the people of the United States. The other is to blame the elite of the country.”[4] This exclusive disjunction fits perfectly in the 1%-vs.-99% rhetoric employed by Bernie Sanders, only more pointedly: Hold the 1% solely responsible for the election and all of its fallout, not the 99%. Readers on the Left are primed to accept this “Marxist” picture: Either the people, always already subject to their pre-existing material conditions under capital, are at fault, or it is their bourgeois capitalist masters who keep them down—and surely, we cannot blame our fellow workers.

Oddly enough, this dovetails nicely with the Right’s characterization. In the stupor of his surprise acceptance speech, President-Elect Trump proclaimed, “Ours was not a campaign, but rather an incredible and great movement, a movement comprised of Americans from all races, religions, backgrounds, and beliefs, who want and expect our government to serve the people. And serve the people it will.” So, on the one hand, we have a president elect who rose to the Oval Office on a wave of frustration with the current administration and direction of this country; on the other, we have a leading Left voice in the Jacobin, offering two options for moving forward: blame the elite, or the people—and the authors of this piece rightly shy away from the latter. The [far] Right and far Left agree: “Neoliberal” centrism and elitism continued through President Barack Obama and typical of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will not do. Bill Clinton’s New Democratic project,[5] begun in the early nineties,[6] must be put down.

Coming to terms with this agreement and seizing the opportunities it presents requires understanding how Hillary Clinton, new standard-bearer of neoliberal centrism, failed so spectacularly. A few thoughts come to mind: Clinton courted politicians and voters on the Right openly for months under the false assumption that voter turnout on the Left was secure and bountiful after Sanders’ defeat. Both as a person and as a politician, and despite numerous clumsy attempts to curry favor with young voters (“Pokemon Go to the polls”), Latinxs (Hillary as abuela), and with Zach Galifianakis, Hillary Clinton excited so few. Most significant, however, is her repeated declaration to continue President Obama’s initiatives and what ideological differences this brings out.

If elected, Clinton promised to iterate and improve the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which was a “comprehensive health reform” bill to the ears of the Left, but a “Washington takeover of health care” to the Right.[7] Yet, the post-Recession epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdose are not mere complications of poverty and access. They are the result of political and economic conditions influencing people’s lives and how they consequently represent their material conditions to themselves.[8] Neither Left nor Right account for it, and the health care act amounts to a political intention that fell short. This is by no means an isolated case of abstract rhetorical difference. Following the Orlando nightclub shooting, Democrats, including Obama and Clinton, called it a “mass shooting” and linked this issue to broader phenomena of gun violence and mental health. On the other side of the aisle, Trump criticized Obama and Clinton for “saying nothing about” this act of “radical Islamic terrorism,” thereby connecting the issue to concerns about national security, immigration, and quickening sands across the theological landscape.[9] Again, Clinton and the outgoing president believe “climate change” is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time. But the President Elect referred to “global warming” as a “Chinese hoax,” thereby cementing, let’s say, the issue in terms of a weakening of American competitiveness in the manufacturing sector. Under Trump, the U.S. will probably reject the Paris climate pact, and American workers will pay in taxes for internationally imposed carbon tariffs.[10]

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton taking part in the second debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton taking part in the second debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016.

The Right and the Left, for all intents and purposes, experience different realities and speak languages in which a given event is depicted in ideological phrasing that maps to wildly different inferences about cause, nature, and consequence. What the facts are does not matter at this point. Given different ideologies, we cannot “accurately” depict both sides of this agreement. We will skew the picture just as much as they would. It is therefore paramount that we collapse this division in political rhetoric to which even some of the strongest accounts of the election are subject.[11] With this gap between sides of the aisle in front of us, we will fail to fully account for the election results and we’ll struggle to move forward. Even if conflicted or undecided voters en masse and at the last minute decided Clinton was the worse option, even if the outcome were a fluke, it doesn’t mean the Left has the wherewithal to approach voters about the real problems impacting their lives. We simply agree that the negligence of Clinton neoliberalism is no way forward at all.

We want to say that if we could show voters that we recognize the real conditions affecting them, they will flock to the Left who, we think, has their best interests in mind. And in recognizing the inferences drawn as a result of this rhetorical division we might say, “The facts are only dressed in political clothes,” but this would not do justice to the issue. Althusser puts it well:

[A]ll ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.[12]

It would simply be an attempt to avail ourselves of a fiction that we can get (or already are) outside of ideological language and that the Left has an unimpeded access to facts that the Right doesn’t. But ideology is not an empty dream; there is no outside. The fact that an event, say, the Orlando nightclub shooting, implies both an act of radical Islamic terrorism and a single individual’s mental health issue in conjunction with mildly restricted firearm access, illustrates that even if ideology of the Left and Right represent the imaginary relationships of individuals to the real relations in which they live, then the language utilized in explaining these relations distort any view of the real conditions in our lives. And people will act in accordance to their understanding—whichever, to them, is “correct.”

It might look like we need a thorough means of defrocking the ideological structures seizing political language in the US, but we cannot peel back the skin of political discourse to proceed scientifically, objectively, etc. The polar disparity in political speech is not new and has been widening exponentially[13] since Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994.[14] Behind Gingrich’s platform, Republican congressional candidates in ’94 unified under common negative claims: (1) We are against the fiscally irresponsible Democratic congress; (2) We are against crime; (3) We are against “illegitimacy and teen pregnancy”; (4) We are against bad education for children and child pornography, and so on. By simultaneously reducing Bill Clinton from the heralded (neoliberal) New Democrat to a “tax and spend liberal” during midterm campaigns, Republicans seized both the House and Senate. With Republican candidates popularizing Gingrich’s neoconservative vision, the “Contract” served to express ideological difference from the Left. All this, by only saying what Republicans were against and scarcely implying positive policy. This divide sets the conceptual space in which our debates and discussions occur, and sets the implications we draw. The depth of this linguistic divide between Left and Right presents a starting point to unpack the doxastic tension in our political process: neither side believes the other addresses “the issues.”

Trump, as we know, tells the people of this country what they have heard from Rush Limbaugh and his ilk for years: The Liberal Regime ruins this country by failing to grapple with the issues. It suspends the right of citizens to make their own decisions, like whether or not to have health care. Yet, as the Right codes it, for all the tax hikes, bureaucrats did nothing about “radical Islamic terrorism,” nevermind all of the jobs leaving the country for China. In fact the Left seems to want demilitarization and the reduction of nuclear safeguards. Again, consider the variety of social identity issues burgeoning across the country. The insistence upon racial, gender, sexual equality represents, to Trump’s base, “new microtechniques of surveillance and control.”[15] For the Right, Trump’s campaign and presidency is a long overdue challenge to liberal authoritarianism. It is little wonder the phrase “Silent Majority” rang true for Trump supporters.

As a consequence of Gingrich’s “Contract,” the Right cannot help but portray the Left as people who “neither want nor expect our government to serve the people.” The Left would not, and should not, accept this depiction. But if this is how the Right understands the Left, then it is really Trump, of all people, who challenged liberal elitism and Democratic authoritarianism. Communication between parties is breaking down—if it has not already collapsed. Political polarization is deeper than ever. So, if it is true that writers in the Jacobin and Donald Trump’s so-called “deplorables” agree that the foregoing government has failed our country, this agreement can only consist in a shared conclusion about neoliberalism’s failure and widely different premises used to reach that “consensus.”

As far as agreements go, then, the far Left, naturally, shares dismay and dejection with the foregoing administration, and shares the Right’s ambition to topple it. Given the disparity in reasons on which the agreement is reached, there is great misgiving regarding Trump’s ongoing purge of neoliberal Washington. And the alternative given to us by the Jacobin, a demand to rage against the capitalist class, is both expected and, perhaps, cathartic. But it will not satisfy the Left in the coming years. Donald Trump’s election to the Office of President revises what the entire Left took to be possible.

How the Left parses the question of what to do at this point rests on how our divided political language can be parsed. Althusser is correct in thinking we cannot get outside this linguistic division into some realm of clear facts—i.e., this is how facts get presented at all. Nonetheless, the logic of class—the subordination of labor to the capitalist class—can be overturned. Yet, we face (at least) four substantive problems in the face of the failure of the New Democratic regime: (1) Donald Trump is President of the United States and Mitch McConnell is living a wet dream of Republican control of, what is soon to be, all three major branches of government; (2) neoliberal Democrats, following the election, remain the major players in the Democratic Party and we’ll need to work with them to make substantive changes, especially as we know a Leftist campaign as inspired as Sanders’ did not pan out; (3) we’ll need to understand why and how Trump spoke to the people—and understanding this will require navigating the present inferential calculi of Right-Left political rhetoric; and (4) our extant linguistic conditions make discourse about political issues (the very word, “issue” assumes something ideologically shared) incalculably difficult.

Against the disjunction posed in the Jacobin, a piece published by Nathan J. Robinson from Current Affairs, in response to problem (1) and peripherally (4), pushing for the Left to reach out to the Right, make the case for the Left, and have a vision for what kind of world we wish to build.[16] This is the real opportunity.

Neither the far Left nor the entire Right are satisfied with the Obama administration. The first step, Robinson says, is to accept the results of this election, as we would have if Clinton had won. The next step, whether professionally for the media or personally, requires opening ourselves to the problems faced by people on the Right, hearing those problems, and offering our solutions. This does not explicate how we start accommodating the linguistic divide presented in (4). The ideological space is uneven; we must level this playing field all the same as the material one.

One way forward will be for us to lay out the conceptual space for possible future debates between Left and Right, and to prepare for them. Good will on the part of the far Left does not ensure open communication. Clearly identifying current issues, offering the far Left’s response to both Right and neoliberal views will be paramount in providing both a clear vision and articulating the benefits of our perspective. We have plenty of literature and history, over every issue imaginable, but it needs to be variously distilled for various readers. Alana Semuels of the Atlantic makes headway trailing policy, poverty, and workers rights. To further this, we need candidates, ideally, who can appropriate Sanders’ “Our Revolution” as a funding apparatus.

McCarthyism, nevertheless, is coming back into style; the Professor Watchlist and the Syria debate indicate as much.[17] The Supreme Court, in five cases between 1956 and 1958, weakend legally sanctioned red-baiting. This, nonetheless, leaves the Left open for obfuscating and undermining argumentum ad metum. Positive attempts to reclaim the worker base neoliberals abandoned and clarification between Soviet Communism and the intended vision of the Left are in order. We can, perhaps, take solace in the fact that McCarthyist responses mean a more public Red presence than we have had in the last few decades.

A second component of any larger strategy will be, in more Rightist terms, to exercise one’s freedom of speech in pointing out how Donald Trump will be lionized and have his history re-written to sound presidential over the next decade.[18] Donald Trump has, repeatedly, said terrible things about women,[19] Latinxs,[20] Muslims,[21] and African-Americans.[22] These remain the case whether or not Trump is President. But against Clinton’s approach to critiquing Trump, our message cannot take the form of presupposing virtue over vice. Trump’s ardent supporters love what they call his “honesty.” We cannot, as Clinton did, assume an already questionable common morality. The very use of the word “honesty” denies this commonality. However, in place of Trump’s call to bring back jobs—a response to anxiety over manufacturing job loss that the Right links to immigration, border control, and national security—we can offer prospective skills training and higher education under the united call for universal undergraduate education to help workers, young and old, find work with fairer rates of pay and stronger health benefits.

Donald Trump and Melania Trump with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at Trump’s wedding in 2005.

A third way forward, in the vein Robinson proposes, will be to try to change the effects of Gingrich’s contract without availing ourselves of the belief that we can get down to some raw fact of the matter. Social and news media, equally, are responsible for fairly debating issues and sides—and for showing where, how, and whether what is “at issue” is disagreed about. If we are to have political discourse, at all, the next step will be to open that space for discussion. Fact-checking and empirical verification are important, but they do not give us a sideways-on view of our political sphere.

These options, while acknowledging our rhetorical/ideological divisions, aim to hold and expand territory currently possessed by the Left rather than cede it to a unified Republican government. Any vision the Left can offer must accommodate the diasporic inferences drawn in either ideological depiction of a given event or issue. Any accommodation therein must provide a clear vision for discussing and debating opposing depictions of events. Organization and open discourse, not blame one way or another, must be our way forward. |P


[1] Michael Lerner, "What Happened on Election Day" The New York Times, November 8, 2016. Available online at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ben Chu, “Why did Trump win – ‘Whitelash’ or economic frustration?” The Independent, November 13, 2016. Available online at

[4] Megan Erickson, Katherine Hill, Matt Karp, Connor Kilpatrick, and Bhaskar Sunkara, “Politics Is The Solution” Jacobin, November 9, 2016. Available online at

[5] Lily Geismer, “The Places Left Behind” Jacobin, November 1, 2016. Available online at

[7] Frank Luntz, "The Language of Healthcare 2009,” available online at

[8] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112:49 (2015): 15078-15083. Available online at

[9] Wilson Andrews and Larry Buchanan, “Mass Shooting or Terrorist Attack? Depends on Your Party” The New York Times, June 13, 2016. Available online at attack.html? r=1

[10] Coral Davenport, “Diplomats Confront New Threat to Paris Climate Pact: Donald Trump” The New York Times, November 18, 2016. Available online at

[11] Dan O’Sullivan, “Vengeance Is Mine” Jacobin. November 18, 2016. Available online at

[12] Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)" The Anthropology of the State: A Reader 9 (2006): 86.

[14] Newt Gingrich, Richard K. Armey, Ed Gillespie, and Bob Schellhas, eds. Contract with America: The Bold Plan by Rep. Newt Gingrich, Rep. Dick Armey and the House Republicans to Change the Nation (New York: Times Books, 1994).

[15] Colleen Flaherty, “NYU’s Mysterious, Anti-P.C. ‘Deplorable’ Prof Has Been Unveiled” Slate, November 4, 2016. Available online at

[16] Nathan J. Robinson “What This Means, How This Happened, What To Do Now” Current Affairs, November 9, 2016. Available online at

[17] Fredrik Deboer, “1953-2002-2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism” Current Affairs, November 3, 2016. Available online at

[18] Lisa de Moraes, “Hollywood Urging Itself to Boycott People Magazine Over Donald Trump Cover” Deadline Hollywood, November 10, 2016. Available online at

[19] David A. Fahrenthold, “Trump Recorded having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005” Washington Post, October 8, 2016. Available online at

[20] “The Wall that Appalls,” Economist, November 12, 2016. Available online at

[21] Rachael Revesz and Andrew Griffin, “Donald Trump Statement on Banning Muslims from U.S. Disappears from his Website” The Independent, November 9, 2016. Available online at

[22] David A.Graham, “How Donald Trump Speaks to—and About—Minorities” The Atlantic, May 3, 2016. Available online at