W. B. Yeats’ seminal 1919 poem The Second Coming has been used so many times in political commentary that it has become cliché. Joan Didion did it best in Slouching Towards Bethlehem when describing the maddened social malleability of drug addled, 1960s San Francisco; Chinua Achebe stole a line for his novel Things Fall Apart; and the apparently sex-deprived jurist Robert Borke invoked the poem in his crazed attack on the sexual and political liberation of America: Slouching Towards Gomorrah. These authors, like the battle hardened Yeats, used the poem because they saw a divergence from the past that was so radical, so profound, that it was shockingly destructive.
The election of 2016 brought a sense of violent political destruction not seen in a generation. The most famous line from the poem: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” was used more by commentators following the election of President Donald Trump than it had been in the 30 years prior, and the trauma that was felt then has largely been sustained. We live in an age of shock, where the news cycle spins so quickly that it becomes impossible to remember what happened the previous week. Both in America and internationally, political discourse has evolved into political conflict. These things will not end with the presidency of Donald Trump because they did not start with him. Trump was never the harbinger of this new age of extremes, merely the product of it. A country that elects such a repulsive charlatan is already in an economic and social crisis. Liberalism has ceased to be a viable political force because, for at least the last 50 years, it has failed to deliver anything substantial for the majority of people it claims to serve. Moderation is dead. If those opposed to Trump fail to realize this, they will be doomed to play by his tune long after he has left office.
Only in this current moment could Trump, a man so incomparably stupid that he is unable to form a sentence, be considered a political genius. Compared to the craven leaders of the Democratic Party, he freely claims the mantle of political kingmaker. Despite the tears shed in the Jacob K. Javitz center on the night of November, 6, 2016, below a glass ceiling that was never metaphorically smashed, the Democratic Party has failed to learn its lesson. So teary were the eyes of the Clintonites that they seemed unable to see the greater horror present in America, which was the reason Trump was able to beat them at their liberal bourgeois game. How selfish they are to be hell bent on making the same mistake four years on. Those who support Joe Biden now, like those who supported Clinton, defend their candidate with an unproven illusion of electability, without paying due attention to the larger crisis of American democracy. Namely, that the cancer of economic inequality is driving voters to extremes.
To some extent, to understand why Hillary Clinton lost the election, you only have to ask her husband. His desperate push to be electable drove the Democratic Party to the right and rendered it impotent to enact meaningful long term change once in office. One of the finer examples of this repugnant ethic: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, decimated America’s already feeble social safety net and drove millions into degrading poverty. One of the most consequential pieces of legislation signed into law over the last half century drove a wedge into American society, stretching the extremes of economic inequality. Bill Clinton and the Demcoratic Party were not simply neglectful bystanders, but active perpetrators in this economic violence. Clinton and his ragtag bunch of triangulation-mad cronies no doubt thought they could get away with it. But just like Ms. Lewinsky’s semen covered dress, the evidence couldn’t be hidden forever. Two decades on, the inequality his administration advanced is clear to see. If the white working class revolution contained within Trumpism tells us anything, it is that economic war begets cultural war. Democrats should heed this lesson if they are going to afford any chance to America entering a post-Trump age.
Since President Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Great Society in the 1960s, the Democratic Party has not done little to help those it promises to care for. When disaffected voters flocked to Trump, when Flint, Michigan and rural Minnesota turned red, Democrats seemed completely unaware that it was their chickens that had come home to roost. In the absence of action in office, they should not have wasted tears when thrown out of it.
America’s liberals have not, as Yeats said, been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,” but continued to play by the same rules as before. Politics is not, as some appear to think, a game that can be won or lost on election night—it is everything. It is about the very being of a person: their economy, their livelihood, their responsibilities and hopes and dreams. Justice will not be found through elections, nor would it have been found in the presidency of Hillary Clinton, because it requires a continuous political fight through any and all means. It is not that the center will not hold, it “cannot hold,” and it has already been smashed through. The response to this extreme must be extreme, not moderate, especially when moderation has ceased to be a viable political force.
We have not, as Francis Fukuyama might have liked, reached the end of history. History rolls on, traversing from one epoch to another without regard for even the best laid plans. It must be crafted and built, as only vision and hope for a better tomorrow can be the antidote to these uncertain times.
Regardless of whether Trump leaves office in 2020 or 2024, his ascendency has already shown the way for right wing populists here and abroad, both now and in the future. For too long, the left has suffered the dual problem of laziness and absence of imagination. It is all too easy for the right to chart a course for government, because they always veer backward. They require no imagination, merely the ability to pick a point in history on any economic or social matter and undo the work that has been done up until now. The left, however, always needs to be bold.
In many ways it is impossible to know exactly what the world will look like once Trump has left office, but in many ways it is irrelevant. We are already at a point of crisis. In keeping with the Hegelian notion that an era can only be properly judged when it has ended, that the owl of Minerva only flies with the falling of the dusk, we can judge the era of liberalism as it is: an abject failure. Trump is not so much the start of a new era, the start of a grand diversion from the past, as he is the result of an old one. The election of Trump signalled the end of the era of the liberal third way, the end of moderate politics that have failed so many for so long.
The Democrats now face a choice. Embrace the opportunity to create a radical and viable alternative to the disgusting selfishness of modern day Republicanism, or be doomed in mediocrity to the ash heap of history. In the midst of a global financial crisis, a climate crisis, a healthcare crisis, and a population crisis, the left would be doomed not to respond with radicalism appropriate to the cause. Not since the soixante-huitards of yesteryear has any permanent, radical action been taken on the part of the left. Two generations on, there is no more time to waste. Let the Trump presidency scream like a fog horn to warn of the necessity for change in this present political moment.
Trump is the starting block from which all else will come. There are two roads from here. Either the lessons from the past are not learnt and the left continues acting in moderation, satisfying in the short term and sacrificing in the long term, or a new era of radicalism offers people an extreme divergence from the past. Only in the latter case will history recognise such a period as “After Trump.” For, without a bold alternative, Trumpism as we know it will be here to stay.