Trump: 'the fortune' of the progressive left

Trump's overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny have helped US progressives to become more daring, vocal and visible.

by
    Oprah Winfrey became the first African-American woman to receive the  Cecile B DeMille Award, bestowed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for lifetime achievement, on Sunday night [Reuters]
    Oprah Winfrey became the first African-American woman to receive the Cecile B DeMille Award, bestowed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for lifetime achievement, on Sunday night [Reuters]

    Waking up to headlines on January 8 was an immensely disorienting experience. On the one hand, the Fire and Fury scandal continues unabated, offering us yet another glimpse into the dysfunctional and utterly destructive politics of the current administration. If Michael Wolff's book does indeed reflect reality in the Oval Office, then the image is devastating, further proof of the puerility and misogyny of the man charged with running the most powerful country in the world.

    On the other hand, the 75th Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which was covered on the very same newspaper pages, offers a totally different version of the US cultural landscape, one steeped in progressive visions of gender and racial equality. Oprah Winfrey, who was, by all accounts, the evening's star, forcefully articulated the aspiration for a more equitable and just society.

    How then do we reconcile these two diametrically opposed moments, one of reactionary politics and another of increasingly progressive cultural pushback?

    The 16th-century Italian political theorist Machiavelli can provide some insight into how we might understand the relation between the two. In his famous book The Prince, Machiavelli alters the Greek meaning of "fortune," using it, instead, to refer to the particular circumstances within a given situation. The virtuous prince, he tells us, knows how to take advantage of these circumstances in order to advance his political goals. It was, as Machiavelli explains, necessary "for Moses to find the people of Israel in Egypt, enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians, so that they would be disposed to follow him, in order to escape from their servitude." Thus, Moses's "fortune" was that the people of Israel were enslaved by Pharaoh, and his ability to take advantage of their predicament and exercise effective power that underscored his virtue. 

    Despite Oprah Winfrey's past cosiness with the likes of Harry Weinstein, her speech - reaching millions of people worldwide - should be understood as a momentous moment in the US, since it reflects the cultural pushback to an increasingly frightening political landscape while revealing how this process is helping to shift certain mainstream norms.

     

    Trump, like Pharaoh, has become the "fortune" of the progressive left. It accordingly makes sense that precisely as the US government actively dismantles reproductive rights while stoking racism and xenophobia through the Muslim Ban and draconian immigration policies, progressive movements and organisations, such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, can more readily mobilise citizens, in some cases becoming more daring, vocal, and, as it were, visible.

    This pushback is also bleeding into the cultural arena. Much of the media coverage has already commented on the fact that the Golden Globe Awards ceremony on January 7 was a night of firsts: Sterling K Brown was the first African American actor to win in the category of best actor for a TV drama; Aziz Ansari was the first Asian American actor to win in the category of best actor for a TV comedy; and Oprah Winfrey was the first African American woman to be awarded the Cecile B DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. These are important firsts, to be sure. Yet other media outlets have underscored that these firsts are not nearly enough. Hollywood still suffers from male domination. Even Natalie Portman, going off script, noted that all of the nominations for best director were men. She failed, however, to mention that all five male nominees were also white.

    It would, however, be misguided to simply dismiss these cultural "firsts" or the comments and speeches as a kind of empty virtue signalling. Indeed, underestimating the immense influence of the mass, popular, and social media is not only misguided but also hopelessly behind the times, especially given that the US is currently run by the king of tweets.

    As the political establishment has moved further and further right, the mainstream seems to have moved in exactly the opposite direction.

     

    Despite Oprah Winfrey's past cosiness with the likes of Harry Weinstein, her speech - reaching millions of people worldwide - should be understood as a momentous moment in the US, since it reflects the cultural pushback to an increasingly frightening political landscape while revealing how this process is helping to shift certain mainstream norms. 

    First, the speech centre-staged race, as well as gender, drawing on a different genealogy of role modelling from the one usually provided at venues such as the Globe Awards: from Sidney Poitier, an oft-named first, through Quincy Jones, to Rosa Parks and the little-known Recy Taylor. In 1944, Taylor was abducted and gang-raped by six armed white men in the South, men who later admitted to the assault but who, nonetheless, failed to be prosecuted for their heinous crime. Over the decades, Taylor, whose story was recently made into a documentary, was relentless in her pursuit of justice, even though she only received an apology from the Alabama Legislature in 2011. Rather than focusing on yet another celebrity, Winfrey put an unknown black woman front and centre, helping to transform Taylor into a cultural icon.

    Winfrey's words, however, were momentous not only because they offered a different genealogy of American heroism, but also because of the way in which they were received. Unlike the defensiveness of the media establishment when faced with the scathing criticism of the whiteness of the 2016 Oscars, Winfrey's speech was followed by a standing ovation. Mainstream US media outlets overwhelmingly endorsed the speech, calling it stunninginspiring, and rousing

    Thus, as the political establishment has moved further and further right, the mainstream seems to have moved in exactly the opposite direction. This can be attributed to the fear about what the US is becoming under Trump, a modern-day Pharaoh. Obviously, social change will require challenging not only race and gender hierarchies but also confronting neoliberal capitalism and environmental depredation, issues that were not addressed on the Golden Globe Award stage. Taking into account Trump's ruthless attack on both the poor and the planet, moving beyond identity politics is crucial. And clearly, making speeches at such a ceremony is only one tiny step in a much longer process.

    But it is a step. So let's not rush to dismiss the speeches as empty moralising. After all, stories matter and cultural symbols are vital. Sometimes these symbolic and narratives acts can have powerful effects that go well beyond our wildest expectations. 

    What is clear is that Trump's reign is arousing the masses. If the progressive left is going to lead the way, then we must continue to take advantage of our fortune, namely, the dire circumstances that Trump is producing and use them in order to advance a politics that stops catering to the greedy few and, instead, addresses the plight of the many.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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