It’s hard to keep track of all the cruel and brutal things this president has done. There’s another one today: he’s making it easier for states to cut people’s Medicaid. Of course, that’s not what they say—they call it adding “flexibility.” (That’s one of the most common euphemisms of our time, used to justify everything from letting police abuse people to making people work shitty jobs with no benefits and no guaranteed hours.) With this new “flexibility,” states “could decide who exactly to cover and omit traditional Medicaid benefits like long-term care, transportation to medical appointments and retroactive coverage for people who got care in the months before they got Medicaid.” So more sick people who can’t get to appointments, more people with long-term debilitating illnesses who are neglected. Despicable.
I mean, really, this administration is just monstrous. Sometimes they seem to border on being psychopathically committed to inflicting harm. They get rid of environmental regulations by the dozen no matter how many people might die as a result, they are even more pathological in wanting to escalate the use of fossil fuels than fossil fuel companies themselves. Donald Trump has made clear that some of the most horrible people in the world are completely above the law. He treats Middle Easterners like they are ants who can be blown up at his pleasure. Of course, he’s increasing our production of weapons that could only ever be used to destroy the world.
The National Labor Relations Board under Trump is making it easier for employers to crush unions (which they are doing a great job of), and he’s piling on government debt to give corporations a huge tax giveaway. Millions of people who would have gotten new overtime pay don’t have it because of the Trump administration’s choices. I don’t even know where to begin on immigration; my colleague Brianna Rennix has had to start a series called “This Week In Terrible Immigration News” because there is so much that’s so wrong. (It only comes out every month because she’s too busy trying to keep her clients from being deported.) The whole thing is stomach-churning: letting teenagers die alone and abandoned on the floor of jail cells, tearing babies from their mothers’ arms and then losing them for months, with terrified parents having no idea where their children had gone. People scared for their lives who arrive here hoping for asylum are told they must instead stay in dangerous Mexican border towns, where hundreds of them have been threatened, robbed, raped, kidnapped, tortured, or killed. This policy was introduced specifically in order to be cruel enough to serve as a “deterrent.”
* * * *
I could go on and on about this man’s crimes. It seems like you never run out.
But the question is: how do we stop him? What will bring this to an end?
And I can only think of one answer: we have to make sure that every time Donald Trump cuts another person’s lifeline by attacking Medicaid, it’s another person who will throw him out of office in November. People whose workplaces are unsafe, people whose healthcare is inadequate, people whose children attend crumbling schools, people whose relatives are in prison, people who will experience the catastrophic effects of climate change: all of them need to be organized so that they can take away this man’s power.
I get extremely exasperated with Democrats, though. This impeachment farce is a waste of time: do any of the people Trump’s actions screw over care about the suspension of aid to Ukraine? I met a guy recently whose wife and kids were stuck in Honduras, because the government won’t process their green card application. He’s struggling to pay the rent driving full-time for Uber. What do you think he would prefer we be talking about, our immigration system that keeps families like his apart, or whether Donald Trump told John Bolton that there was a quid pro quo over Joe Biden?
Donald Trump is not going to be easy to beat. People who think he is are deluding themselves. He his raising hundreds of millions of dollars, and will spend this colossal sum broadcasting propaganda to every person in the country and paying a giant network of staff to pull every dirty trick possible to get people to the polls. Incumbency is a major advantage in presidential elections, especially in a “strong” economy with low unemployment. Trump’s approval ratings are low, but they’re not that low; 42% of the country is a huge number of people. Trump was underestimated in 2016 and there are already plenty of Democrats underestimating him in 2020.
In order to beat Donald Trump, we have to have a way of getting as many people as possible to be passionate about getting rid of him. More than 40% of eligible voters did not vote in 2016. Why not? One reason, as Malaika Jabali has discussed in this magazine, is that they are cynical about politics and do not see why it matters. They saw Clinton as a crook and Trump as a clown and decided not to bother going to the polls.
In this magazine, I have often made the case that Bernie Sanders represents something different and exciting: a politician you can feel good about voting for, because his vision for the country is a good and inspiring one. He sees a world where people don’t have to worry about copays and deductibles, public services are well-funded, workers have good union jobs, American foreign policy is based on at least somewhat humane principles, and climate change is treated as the emergency it is. A lot of people have indeed come to support Bernie Sanders because they agree with his agenda, and often we on the left find ourselves emphasizing the degree to which talking about working people’s struggles and offering them solutions might get more of them to participate in the political process. We point to Bernie’s fundraising, his organizing, his ability to speak persuasively to Trump’s own voters. All of this is important.
But there is something else Bernie has. He has the most devastating and forceful case against Donald Trump. He is the only one who will expose just how truly bad Trump is. Liberals, for all their outrage at the present administration, for all their ire at how he is unfit for office and their attempt to impeach him, are soft on Trump. They do not expose the depth of the ugliness, the darkness, the cruelty in his presidency. They give him a pass on the very things that matter most. In fact, I used to think the problem with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 was that she was too focused on attacking Trump and not enough on presenting an affirmative agenda. I now think that’s not quite right: true, she lacked the agenda. But she also did not unleash the kind of attack on Trump that is necessary.
To see what I mean, let us consider highlights reported in the press from Joe Biden’s “closing statement” to Iowans, in which he makes his own case against Trump:
- “Health care. Climate. Guns. National Security. All these issues and more are on the ballot… But something else is on the ballot. Something even more important. Character is on the ballot. America’s character.”
- “Trump and I have already gone one round with each other on health care. In 2018, I went to 24 states for 65 candidates. I took on Trump all over the country — and beat him… We should remember that this year. I believe if we take the fight to Trump on Obamacare again, we’ll beat him again.”
- “This is a president who laughs at, insults, demeans, and demonizes other people… He’s more a bully than a president… Welcome to Donald Trump’s world. Up is down. Lies are the truth. Allies are enemies. Everything is through the looking glass.”
Biden paired his speech with an ad about “character.” Here is a description:
Biden’s speech will be paired with a 60-second ad called “Character,” in which a narrator says that quality is what counts in the Oval Office, whether it’s Barack Obama’s or Donald Trump’s. With a series of images of the candidate’s past, the commercial highlights his working-class background, his family tragedies, his work in the Obama administration and his countless miles on Amtrak trains. “Character matters. Maybe more here than anywhere,” the narration says in closing, an image of the Oval Office on the screen.
Now, do you notice something about Biden’s criticisms of Donald Trump? They are weak. They seem like they’re strong. But they’re not. Trump laughs at people? Up is down? How about this: HE KIDNAPS CHILDREN. He deports U.S. military veterans. He tells cops to beat people up. He makes people do work and then doesn’t pay them. He kept you from getting overtime. He lets phony for-profit colleges defraud people and leave them in debt. (He even ran one of these himself.) He physically attacks women. He sent a mentally ill diabetic who had been here since he was a baby to die on the streets of Baghdad. He is threatening to cripple Iraq with sanctions unless they allow the U.S. to continue illegally occupying it. He helps Israel brutalize Palestinians and steal their land. He helps dictatorial regimes blow little children to pieces. He thinks cops and soldiers should be able to kill people with total impunity. He wants corporations to despoil the earth and doesn’t care if you get a heart attack or stroke from the pollutants they put in the air.
Okay, you don’t want to hit them with too much at once, of course. But come on: “character”? Yes, I suppose you could describe this as a quality of his “character.” But only in the way that Jesus Christ and Ted Bundy also had “differences of character.” Trump is a war criminal. He’s a predator. There are innocent people dead today because of decisions he has made. Malarky? That’s what you call this?
You and I both know, of course, why Joe Biden can’t bring this kind of righteous moral thunder down on Trump. It is because Joe Biden, too, has been complicit in a fair few of these things. The devastation of deportation? Plenty of that under Obama. Selling arms to Saudi Arabia? They did that too. Letting corporations write the laws? Did that too. One reason liberals can’t impeach Trump for incinerating Afghans or destroying refugee families is that they do not want to have a very uncomfortable spotlight turned on Barack Obama.
Another reason is that they just don’t care very much. Nancy Pelosi mocks and dismisses Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, because the lives of the sick and climate refugees do not weigh too much on her conscience. She’d deny that. But I can’t think of any other explanation for the complete lack of urgency. Everyone currently obsessing over this impeachment stuff is showing how little they care about the lives of asylum-seekers confined to dangerous Mexican border towns. In doing so, they’re being soft on Trump. Corrupt? Spreader of Fake News? He’s worse than that. He’s a killer.
On the left, we prosecute a far more vicious case against Trump. And it’s the one we need to bring to the general election. The problem with Trump is not that he is a liar and a fool and incompetent and vulgar. The problem is that he has broken people’s lives and that a parent had to watch their child die on the floor of an immigration jail because of decisions he has made. The case is that he has defrauded working people the way he screwed his Trump University students and his casino contractors, by promising them he’d fix their lives and then trying to cut their retirement benefits. He is a man who would grope your spouse, watch your teen daughter in the changing room, and steal your wallet while he’s doing it.
If the Democrats nominate Bernie, and this becomes the “socialism or barbarism” election, we on the left are not just going to defend socialism. We’re going to show what barbarism really means. We will film those veterans he deported, and we will run ads showing people what he did to them. We will find every worker he stiffed, every woman he abused, every person he conned into voting for him only to screw them over completely. Those people will tell their stories. We are not going to let Jimmy Aldaoud, who died in Baghdad vomiting blood and begging to be allowed back to his home country, be forgotten. We are going to make sure his specter follows Donald Trump wherever he goes. The people whose voices are never heard, because rich assholes like Trump do not care whether they live or die, will be broadcast loud and clear. We are going to force every single American to confront what this man has done. There’s no need to worry that the left can’t run a good campaign against Trump. We are going to vaporize this man.
* * * *
I really wish I didn’t have to talk about Bernie Sanders at this point, because frankly none of this is really about Bernie Sanders at all. Frankly, I wish Bernie didn’t have to be the vessel for what we need to do, because he’s old and he’s not ideal in many ways. And I wish I got to talk about people’s pain without having to relate it to supporting a political candidate, because it feels gross and exploitative in a certain way. But Bernie has a plan for beating Trump, and it’s the best plan we’ve got, and if it works it will be a truly beautiful moment where something pretty damn good kicks something evil out the door, and for once the smug plutocrats who rule the world don’t get to win and smirk.
The plan is: let the working class speak. Let people talk about what their jobs are really like, what they worry about at night, what it’s like to raise a child with one parent in prison. Let all of the things that are hidden behind closed doors come out. Let us finally talk about what it is McKinsey really does, and what the pleasant euphemisms that cover up crimes really mean (“disposition matrix,” “flexibility”). Let’s let service workers into Congress so they can expose what happens and isn’t discussed. Let us talk about who made your phone and who picked your beans. Let’s talk about how the lack of legal aid and public defenders means people’s legal rights are a joke. Let us talk about the people who call the suicide hotline. Let’s talk about what it’s like in Gaza, what it’s like in an immigration jail, what it’s like to be homeless, what it’s like to be sick and getting sicker. Forget Bernie: it’s not about Bernie. It’s about finally facing the things that matter that nobody has wanted to confront seriously.
Donald Trump: what is he? He’s the worst boss you’ve ever had. He’s a guy who strokes your thigh and then smiles. He’s the kind of rich prick who doesn’t even notice all the labor of all the thousands of workers that it takes to make his life happen. In fact, he doesn’t think of people in “shithole countries” as really being people at all. If he thought of migrants as having as much humanity as he does, he couldn’t have done half of what he has done to them.
This election is an opportunity to expose him completely, to show that everything is fake. The gold is fake, the “populism” is fake, the “greatness” is fake, and yes, the hair is fake. Donald Trump isn’t just “a liar,” he’s the giant lie that everything is fine, that 2.7 million children aren’t going to sleep at night with a parent who has been taken away and banished to an authoritarian nightmare-city (we call them “prisons” or “correctional facilities” but they’re better understood as an entire dystopian mini-country we’ve built within our borders). We are going to confront Trump and the rest of the billionaire class with the reality of this country: with the homelessness, the illness, the precarity, the incarceration, the brutality. And we will say: you and people like you did this. You sat on your mountain of bullion while people were killing themselves and each other because they couldn’t afford medicine. You could have paid their bills. Any of the hideous super-wealthy could have. You never would have, though, and nor would they. Instead you all just make life hell for your employees—and make sure their contracts have noncompete clauses, lest they think of going anywhere.
You’re the most powerful man in the world, and what do you do? You take away poor people’s healthcare. You deny their student debt relief and then don’t even tell them you did it. You lock kids in cages. You support far-right leaders who torch the rainforest and persecute dissidents. What the hell kind of person are you even?
Look at the candidates’ closing statements to Iowans. Read them closely. Biden’s speech talks about: growing up in Scranton, lessons from his grandpop about dignity, how he has met every world leader, how the president “divides” us, what Trump said about Charlottesville, the Middle Class, and of course, stuff like this:
If we stop questioning people’s motives, we start to argue with them about the substance of our disagreement. If I turn around and say, “You’re in the pocket of,” or “you’re unethical,” “or you’re this” and say by the way, “Let’s figure out how to build more roads and airports for transportation and deal with global warming” — fat chance. But if I disagree with you on the substance of what you say, we argue like the devil. We can then reach an agreement, based on what we disagree on, as long as you don’t go after each other in a mean way.
What does that mean? I don’t know. But each candidate’s speech is exactly what you’d expect. Biden’s is served with a side of word salad, Pete Buttigieg’s transcript contains: “[At this point, Mr. Buttigieg was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters],” and Elizabeth Warren talks about growing up in Oklahoma, her Plans, and Big Structural Change. Interestingly, Warren does not mention Trump once. She just talks about how the government isn’t “working” and how we can make it work. Buttigieg does talk about Trump, and opens by talking hopefully about the day when Trump is no longer president. But here’s what he says:
Are we ready for that day? Ready to put the chaos behind us? Ready to put the meanness behind us? Are we ready to put the tweets in the rearview mirror once and for all?
Chaos and tweets! I don’t care about the tweets. Okay, now Bernie’s speech… well, the New York Times called it “dark.” And he began by savagely laying into Trump:
No. 1, it is absolutely imperative that we defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country. And it seems to me that Donald Trump is getting a little bit nervous… [He and the Republicans] know that we will expose Trump for the liar and the fraud that he is. I have very little respect for somebody who campaigns in 2016 as a candidate who’s going to represent the interests of the working class of this country and then proceeds to sell them out. You are not a supporter of working families when, as Trump attempted, you try to throw 32 million Americans off the health care they currently have. You are not a friend of working families when you tell the people that you are going to have a tax plan that benefits the middle class, and yet you pass legislation which gives 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent… We have a president who goes around the country every day demonizing the undocumented. We’re supposed to hate the undocumented, and then as a businessperson, hires undocumented workers to work in his resort so he can exploit them. Trump runs for president telling us that he’s against outsourcing. He doesn’t want to see good jobs in America go abroad and yet as a businessman, he ran his companies in countries around the world where they were paying workers extremely low wages… The reason we’re going to defeat Trump is because we tell the truth.
Yes. This is the correct approach. I am not surprised that Trump fears Bernie. You don’t begin by talking about where you grew up. You begin by talking about what Trump has done to the country and why they need to be angry about it. Is some of it “dark”? It is, though Bernie goes on to show what a different and more humane country could be like, and tell us what we could do together if we organized. If you’re going to tell the truth though, you have to be dark, because the truth is that there is a lot of darkness in this country that goes unmentioned in public.
In fact, if I’m to convey what we really need to feel about Donald Trump, I have to tell you about something dark. (Warning: I mean it, it’s disturbing.) Each morning, I bike through New Orleans to work. And as I ride, I pass by the wreckage of the Hard Rock Hotel, which partially collapsed in October while it was under construction, killing three workers. Ramírez Palma, an undocumented construction worker at the site who had lived in the U.S. for 18 years, had tried to warn his supervisors before the collapse that the building was unsafe. He was ignored and ordered to keep working. Two days after he was injured in the collapse, Trump’s government seized him and deported him to Honduras.
That’s not all. There was something I hadn’t noticed as I have been biking by the building. There’s a tarp hung up on the side, many floors up. The tarp was placed to conceal from public view the body of one of the two dead workers who remain inside (José Ponce Arreola, and Quinnyon Wimberly). People only realized this when the tarp was blown away, revealing his body. The city has said it is too unsafe to retrieve his remains. So the tarp has been there since October. You can see it for miles, but most people don’t realize what’s under it. The man’s family have to live knowing that his body is hanging over the city.
I don’t want to have to tell you about this. It’s horrible. I get the creeps every day as I bike past the building, and see the tarp high above me. I want to pretend it isn’t there. But if we do not talk about these things, that does not make them go away. And they are political: when workplace safety rules are relaxed, workplace deaths rise. When undocumented immigrants fear deportation if they speak out about dangerous conditions, they’re less likely to do it. This is not difficult: gut the safety rules and people get hurt, make immigrants afraid to talk and they won’t.
That is what “telling the truth” about Trump means. The problem is not so much that other Democrats “focus” on Trump himself rather than on an agenda for working people. It is that they are incapable of making the anti-Trump case that needs to be made. He’s not a clown. A clown is funny, entertaining. He’s a monstrosity. None of this is entertaining. It’s just horrible. People are dead.
So what we have to have is a politics that says: there are now going to be consequences for waging war on working people. There are consequences to being a billionaire who hoards wealth while people die. There are consequences for sexual assault, racism, assassinations. The Trumps of this country, the people who have gotten away with so much for so long, are not going to get away with it anymore. We are coming to get you. And we will win.