TRUMP: WHAT CAN PROGRESSIVE PLANNERS DO?
Note: These are hard times and we are all trying to regain our bearings after the election. This was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written as I, my four children, and my seven grandchildren, all a part of a multi-racial and multi-cultural family, so acutely feel the pain of this transition. I’ve been through many rightward turns in this country and I hope these early thoughts will help others sort out the way forward. In the meantime, remember labor organizer Joe Hill’s advice: don’t mourn, organize!
In these days after getting Trumped, street demonstrations, meetings to build understanding, solidarity and opposition, and conversations about alternatives are important. Coming out of a state of shock, it is also time to think about long-term strategies for the American left and the planners among them.
My starting point is with political strategy. I can already hear the policy wonks in the press and Democratic Party dismissing what’s going on now as emotional purging of pain and distress. Bold ideas for resistance and revolution will remain “impractical.” I can already hear the professionals telling themselves that the demands on the street are unrealistic and “never gonna happen.” They will tell us that because of the recalcitrance of the Republicans we have to keep our expectations down low, barely inches above the Republican Party sewage outlet, so they can sit at the table and negotiate with Trump’s people.
Already, leading Democratic politicians are blabbing about “working with President Trump,” coming together with him on areas where there might be agreement such as investment in infrastructure and some aspects of foreign policy. Their strategy is driven by the idea of leveraging what little power they have in Congress to inch towards a possible advance during the Congressional elections two years from now. It seems they are still gambling on pollster numbers and already giving up on everything else. They will downplay Trump’s promotion of white supremacy, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia as “ideological” baggage that will dissipate as Republicans seriously try to govern. Please, let’s not be fooled again by the pros.
Take, for example, the possible meeting of the minds about rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Both Clinton and Trump featured that issue prominently in their programs. But the Republicans want to reduce the size of government. They want government to finance new private infrastructure. Public-private partnerships will rule. Are we to expect that the Democrats will fight them on this when the Democratic Party has also been in the forefront of these neoliberal schemes. For example, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, arguably the most “progressive” of Democratic mayors, is stumping for a new waterfront light rail system cooked up by a group of developers that will be financed by real estate taxes they will pay on their luxury towers. Some are calling this the “Gentrification Express.” If this is to be the progressive alternative, then we are in real trouble.
"They will downplay Trump’s promotion of white supremacy, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia as 'ideological' baggage that will dissipate as Republicans seriously try to govern. Please, let’s not be fooled again by the pros."
WHAT WILL BE THE PROGRESSIVE AGENDA?
We have to think about strategy for saving what rights and social benefits we have while plowing forward with urgent agendas for the future. Progressive, radical, left, socialist, anti-racist, feminist and LGBQT activists all over will be talking about strategies to confront the formidable Trump machine and the moribund Democratic establishment. Can we work together at local and national levels to present a united front? Can we construct new forms of solidarity that will maximize our strengths? Can our unity create the basis for a truly alternative progressive political force?
These are not normal times. We can’t continue with “business-as-usual.” Constructing a laundry list of things we would like government to do isn’t good enough. Technological fixes are illusory. We can’t afford to spend all of our time appealing to foundations, steeped in the private dollars of capitalist success stories, to fund our little non-profit alternatives. Local experiments in democratic, sustainable and socially just alternatives are good but not good enough. We have to reevaluate attempts to move the lethargic, money-fouled Democratic Party machinery to the left and move towards alternatives.
We have to come together to construct a strategy for new and better ways to organize the economy and society, building on human solidarity and not competition, in harmony with earth and not at odds with nature and respectful of our histories, cultures and differences. This past year, we have both crossed an important Rubicon of climate change as the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is now beyond 400 parts per million, as well as ushered in a new administration that fears and denies science. The challenges of climate change must be a major focus, but within that a commitment to climate justice must be primary.
But those of us in the urban professions have to resist the temptation to retreat into safe expressions of local utopian alternatives and technological fixes. Instead we should follow the calls by Occupy!, Black Lives Matter, No DAP, and Bernie Sanders for fundamental and revolutionary changes. Let’s name the system underlying the exploitation and greed that drive our politics – capitalism. It is capital’s drive to suppress labor costs that produces competition and racial and ethnic conflict among working people and anti-immigrant bias. While capital thrives on these conflicts, they have established a life of their own. Since the founding of the nation, private property – including the ownership of slaves – has been ingrained in the law and culture of the nation. We need to identify and understand these structural problems as a way of undermining the historic prejudices that keep us divided and push some to support those who are responsible for their problems.
Structural problems are imbedded in the US Constitution and they must be changed. Donald Trump was elected by only about one-fourth of eligible voters. Between low turnout, voter suppression and the Electoral College, the US has sustained one of the lowest voter participation rates in the world. There is no national voting system, only a collection of state and local systems. State’s rights remain the clarion call for the protection of local property rights, which included the right to own slaves and is now the right to police and kill black and brown people, and the right of industries to be free from taxes and regulation. Thanks to the undemocratic Electoral College, established because white elites in the slave states wanted to be able to check the power of more populous states, Trump got fewer votes but still won the election. The Electoral College fundamentally betrays the notion of, “one person, one vote.” The policy wonks and pragmatists, of course, will remind us that talking about structural change is meaningless. Talk about “getting things done.” Those were among Hillary’s favorite words, by the way.
NATIONAL URBAN POLICY?
Unequal legal structures affect everything we do to promote urban reforms. They are the reason there really is no progressive national urban policy. We have federal programs that funnel money to the states, but since the federal interstate highway program and mortgage guarantees in the post World War II period, federal intervention has diminished and major urban programs favoring low-income working people, like public housing, are slated for the scrap pile so that everything can happen through public-private partnerships in which the public pays and the private sector profits. Those public programs that do still exist are made anemic as cities struggle to raise revenues while also extending subsidies, loopholes and tax cuts to their wealthiest residents. Donald himself bent over backwards to ensure that while he profited off New York City, the city itself would not see any returns.
Over 80% of the nation’s population now lives in metropolitan regions. This is an urban nation. But thanks to a federal system created at a time when more than 80% of the nation was rural, the states retain constitutional authority for land use and transportation planning and are the main overseers of local governments. They allow for and support residential segregation and racial inequality. They finance and arm repressive police and prison systems. They persecute and demonize homeless people. “State’s rights” was the code word for the protection of Jim Crow and is now fully imbedded in the national consciousness and political discourse.
"It is not sufficient to just protect HUD funding and programs, as important as they may be. We need to address the fundamental, structural problems in this nation in the places where 80% of the population lives – in metropolitan regions."
Over the last century, when these regions formed and the nation went from a mostly rural to a mostly urban nation, in the popular imagination the central cities (or the “cities”) were mostly black and poor while the “suburbs” were largely white and middle- to upper-class. Massive public subsidies in the form of the interstate highway system and federal mortgage guarantees helped create the white suburbs, while federal subsidies to central cities only made life more difficult for people of color, and often forced them out.
In the early years of his first term President Obama talked valiantly of addressing urban problems by developing inclusionary policies for metropolitan regions. That was a fleeting initiative and Obama did not seriously address the whole system of national apartheid. We now see the fallout of that failure in the form of an urban versus rural split in our electorate that has the power to propel bigotry into our highest office. President Trump will surely protect it.
It is not sufficient to just protect HUD funding and programs, as important as they may be. We need to address the fundamental, structural problems in this nation in the places where 80% of the population lives – in metropolitan regions. At the heart of these problems are stark social and economic inequalities, chief among them the most critical and long-lasting inequality of racism. It affects housing, transportation, education, food and health care systems. All of these inequalities are rooted in the racial divide.
AGAINST FALSE OPTIMISM
Beyond the media hype about the genial but irascible Trump personality lies a Republican Party solidly united behind his corporate agenda, an army of lobbyists, right-wing think tanks and a silent majority at peace with his racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic rhetoric. We must all be troubled by Trump’s unpredictable character because he will be commander-in-chief of the world’s mightiest military and have the keys to the nuclear launch system.
However, as someone who for years has been exposed to this arrogant “bad boy” of the New York City real estate mafia, I am less concerned with his personality and more concerned about his politics. Trump is a populist advocate for the neo-liberal agenda of reducing taxes and regulation. Disregard all the media hype about him being the renegade in the Republican Party. He may have rubbed a few people the wrong way but he’s with the program, not against it. Beware of the meek calls from the mainstream to “work with Trump” and extract concessions wherever possible. Forget writing to Donald. Organize, demonstrate, resist and unify. Then, some day, he may have to come and talk to us.
But shouldn’t we be happy that Trump is from a big, multiracial, cosmopolitan city? Won’t he be more tolerant than his supporters?
Forget it, my friends. Big city cosmopolitanism is not a panacea for racism. Here in New York City, Trump has regularly cuts raw deals for most of us. He has excluded people on the basis of race, cheated workers and contractors, milked public subsidies to his benefit and used monumental, imperial buildings to shout his dominance over the urban landscape. Now Donald can play Monopoly and Three-Card Monty with the nation. Now he will graduate from building luxury towers, hotels, golf courses and casinos to the revanchist campaigns of gentrification and displacement to make cities whiter and wealthier. This process has been underway for some time with full bipartisan support. Trump will drop all pretentions about social equity and racial integration. I can already hear the Democratic Party honchos telling us to go easy on the calls to protect communities of color and learn how to settle for the worthless crumbs of “affordable housing” that might fall off the table.
In our search for silver lining in the Trump cloud, a hope arises that Trump’s isolationist foreign policy could save us from resurrection of a Cold War with Russia and direct intervention in Syria, and peace with the world. I fear that this too is wishful thinking.
Trump has done little more than criticize Hillary’s blunders and her support for failed wars. He has lobbyists for military contractors and gun manufacturers on his team. He has not questioned the outsized military budget, which accounts for more than half of the nation’s total discretionary funds. Trump hasn’t been an isolationist when it comes to his real estate business, which thrives on global investors and overseas investments. And he won’t be an isolationist when he needs the military to maintain its presence in 160 nations across the world so he can “make America great again.”
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY?
Let me close by confronting another structural problem: the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party was responsible for undermining the only candidate that could have defeated Trump – Bernie Sanders. Worse, since the 1950s it has undermined from within every candidate that opposed war and racism. It’s time to dump the Democratic Party.
I have had a long history of disappointments with them. My first encounter with the party was the anti-war primary campaign of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. The Party ended up anointing the wishy-washy Hubert Humphrey to run against Richard Nixon. I reluctantly supported Humphrey because I felt Nixon had to be stopped at all costs. Kind of like Hillary vs. Donald. That was my first post-election depression.
The next shock was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1982. An aggressive Cold Warrior and open racist, Reagan successfully dismantled the last remaining pillars of the New Deal. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Fortunately, many of us mobilized, and I’ll never forget the millions demonstrating in New York City against Reagan’s warmongering. Then, after the brief pause filled by one term of George Bush the Elder, the Democratic Party formally surrendered its progressive heritage and moved to the right with Bill Clinton. This convinced me once and for all of the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party and its willingness to fall over backwards to please corporate donors and white voters and surrender principles of democracy and social justice. The final shock was after George Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore.
The depression we felt at each of these junctures was deep, but we recovered, organized and pushed forward. Now it’s time to move from sharing our outrage and sorrow to an even greater commitment to organize, organize and organize. The political revolution is the only thing that can stop Trump from implementing his racist, xenophobic, and sexist program.
"The depression we felt at each of these junctures was deep, but we recovered, organized and pushed forward. Now it’s time to move from sharing our outrage and sorrow to an even greater commitment to organize, organize and organize."
I started writing this a week before the election as a “Dear Hillary” letter. Like everyone else I was a victim of the media pundits who said Hillary was going to win. I was going to give voice to the many great ideas coming from progressive urbanists and activists, taking advantage of the moment to push an urban agenda that was barely visible during the campaign. For starters, I would tell Hillary to restore cuts to public housing, end homelessness, get serious about fair housing, expand funding for urban mass transit and regional rail, ban fracking, firmly reject the TPP and other free trade deals and definitively stop the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines. Then she could follow through on promises of free public higher education and universal health care, and restore protections to voting and civil rights. And so forth. I’m sure everyone reading this could add to the list. But laundry lists don’t work as political strategy. They are a symptom of the pragmatism, incrementalism and rank individualism that surrounds us.