Progressive Liberals’ Hollow Hope Is No Win For America



Gennady Shkliarevsky


Progressive liberals are now at the helm of American politics.  They have the White House and a majority in Congress.  What can America expect from them?  The answer lies in their thinking.

The recent piece “Trumpism has No Heirs” by Jane Coaston that appeared in The New York Times is not particularly remarkable among numerous other pieces that appear these days in the liberal mainstream media. Its ordinariness, however, helps understand what many progressive liberals think these days.

The main point of the article is simple.  Coaston argues that the movement against elite rule—she calls it contemptuously Trumpism—is all about Trump and nothing else.  In her view, the movement lives by Trump and will die by Trump; and America will be better off for it.

Coaston is not alone in viewing the anti-elite movement in this way.  Most of her liberal colleagues offer very similar interpretations, which creates an impression that they all live in their own echo chamber completely detached from reality.  Their writings reveal something important about the current strategy of progressive liberals.  Their message is simple:  Let’s wait.  Let the dust settle.  Trumpism has no future.  Trump is not going to be there forever; and when he finally departs, the movement will disappear with him.  Then the liberals will once again be able to dominate the political arena and will be free to pursue their agendas.

Coaston also makes another point.  In her view, Republicans do not represent s serious problem for progressive liberals since their agenda is limited to a few conservative principles:  personal responsibility and small government.  These principles have limited appeal and offer little for shaping America’s future.

While one can agree with Coaston’s assessment of the Republican Party in its current state, her assessment of the movement she contemptuously calls Trumpism or populism has several holes.  She claims that this movement is only and exclusively about Trump and has no substance beyond its obsession with him as an individual.  Trump, in her view, has brought this movement to life and has given it direction.

The author, however, completely disregards the fact that the chasm between America’s middle class and progressive liberalism did not emerge in 2016.  It emerged much earlier and was on full display in the late 1970s.  Back then, the revolt against progressive liberalism propelled Ronald Reagan to power.  The basis for this revolt was the sense of exclusion and disempowerment among American middle class.  In 2016 this sentiment created the phenomenon of Donald Trump, not the other way around.  Americans find Donald Trump appealing because Donald Trump promises to end the domination of liberal elites and government hierarchies.  His succinct slogan “drain the swamp” captures this promise.

Donald Trump did not create the aspiration for inclusion and empowerment among the American people.  This aspiration has its roots in American history and culture.  Moreover, the economic, social and technological changes that have taken place over the last several decades have invigorated this aspiration—and not just in this country but throughout the world.  It gave rise to the Arab Spring, the revolution of dignity in Ukraine, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and much else.  The departure of Donald Trump will not cause a sudden disappearance of this aspiration.

Coaston and other liberal critics denigrate and belittle the participants of the anti-elite movement.  They put themselves above these common Americans.  Progressive liberals see them as having no meaning of their own, as a mere reflection of Donald Trump.  By denying their capacity for self-determination, independent judgment, and decision-making, liberal elites show that they regard common Americans as lesser beings.  That is why they disdainfully refer to them as deplorables.

Why do the elites have this denigrating view of the common people?  What is the basis for their judgment?  How much do they know about these people?

Make no mistake, common Americans are the bedrock of this country.  They make America tick.  They provide food, build houses and roads, and produce goods that we all need.  They create families and bring up children.  In the course of their lives they make many decisions on which their life and the lives of their loved ones depend.  In order to make such decisions, they have to interpret reality and they have to interpret it correctly.  They are intelligent, creative, and insightful; and they are capable of independent and critical thinking, no less and perhaps even more than those who denigrate them.

Instead of citing some liberal scholars and misleading statistics, Coaston and others like her would be well advised to learn more about common Americans by talking to them and reading what they write in social media.  They would be able to appreciate how much common Americans understand politics, how politically savvy and sophisticated they are.

The thought of doing something as simple as this does not even occur to the elites.  They prefer to live in their insulated world, feeding of false expectations.  They continue to believe that they can win by simply waiting long enough for Donald Trump to disappear and people they despise so much go back to their private lives.  These “enlightened” minds cannot understand that America needs these people.  The progress about which the elites talk is impossible without creativity, insights, and independent judgment of those very Americans whom they despise and want to turn into obedient tools that would follow their orders.


Gennady Shkliarevsky is Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College, New York

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