Liberal politics have become disproportionately concerned with the symbolic. In part, this is a reaction to the slow loss of influence of liberal politicians in the American government at the national and state levels. When the avenues for legislative change narrow, people will find alternatives, and liberalism has found one avenue in the symbolic. Principal in this move is the alienation of the average American’s political life from the material reality of political decisions. Not only do most people feel disconnected from goes on in Washington, the liberal expression of politics is unable to bridge the gap—and, at its worst, only increases this alienation.
This is no better expressed than the sale of McDonald’s themed t-shirts and apparel under the banner, “Supersize the Resistance,” in response to a tweet by the corporate McDonald’s account that called Trump a disgusting president. The apparel carries several slogans such as “vive la résistance” imposed over fast food or the image of Ronald McDonald’s fist raised in solidarity—notable that it is the mascot’s fist raised in solidarity and not that of, say, a fictionalized employee. The imagery is the explicit merger of the language of resistance with that of global capitalism. Political action is reduced to another commodity on the market.
The striking thing about this commodification of “resistance” is that it is not a lone example. Whether it is the infamous $300 safety pin, Chelsea Clinton publishing a book titled She Persisted or the fact the much-celebrated fearless girl statue is a marketing stunt for an investment firm, liberal resistance has been market friendly. Here resistance becomes another product paradoxically upholding the status quo rather than challenging it. Wall Street’s problem isn’t that the financial industry explicitly profits off others poverty, they just need more women as board members. McDonald’s hasn’t fought paying employees a living wage—it’s part of the resistance. That liberalism is largely uninterested in challenging the status quo makes this emphasis on the symbolic necessary.
If resistance to Trump is to be meaningful, it should stand for more than symbolic victories and, thus, oppose more than just Trump in isolation. Horrific actions under the Trump administration are rightly condemned but it is rarely asked how such actions were made possible in the first place. Trump’s decision to okay a raid in Yemen that largely saw only the slaughter of children was rightly condemned, but there were no mainstream pundits asking why the US was in Yemen in the first place. The increased autonomy surrounding ICE and their deportation practices are documented in all their barbarity and horror—but why a de facto deportation force existed at day-one of Trump’s presidency is seldom explored.
What has been absent from the liberal response to Trump has been the articulation of a real alternative. One of the biggest obstacles to articulating real differences to the Trump administration means addressing this question of why Trump’s actions have been possible. This means addressing the material reality of the Obama administration as opposed to its symbolic value alone. The notion there is any continuity between the administration that extrajudicially killed an American teenager and justified it by saying that he, “should have a far more responsible father,” and the administration that killed that same teenager’s 8-year-old sister is one that liberals would prefer not to contemplate.
By engaging only with the symbolic values of the Obama presidency, liberals have set themselves up for a resistance that is unable to fully respond to Trump’s policies. This is not to underplay the value that seeing a black president has for a nation founded with the notion that black people were not even human beings. Not at all, this is not a flat rejection of the role of symbols in politics outright. But understanding the presidency through its symbolic value alone does a disservice to those who lived in the shadow of the decisions made by that president. Particularly if that presidency oversaw the bombing of seven countries or a staggering foreclosure crisis at home. Politics exist in the material world and have material consequences and those must be grappled with.
The failure of the Bush-era liberal resistance should serve as a warning. The emphasis on Bush’s personality left liberals unable to articulate the structural forces that enabled the Iraq war or the widespread use of torture. They still won numerous symbolic victories—until recently the image of Bush was that of a total moron. “Bushisms” adorned gag-gift calendars and Will Ferrell’s performance as a bumbling frat boy informed other Bush parodies. The Daily Show built a small media empire out of skewering Bush with a knowing glance and the show’s alumni make up a notable contingent of contemporary political television.
But not only did Bush get eight years in office, the various members of his administration have found well-respected second political lives. Even Bush himself has finally found rehabilitation in liberal circles not because of anything he did, but because he took a photo hugging Michelle Obama people found charming. “Miss Me Yet?” went from the slogan of a conservative to an actual liberal position. If nothing else, symbolic victories are fleeting.
And it is recalling the Bush administration and Iraq specifically that there is another reason to be leery of the emphasis liberals have placed on the symbolic—the escalation of nationalist rhetoric. While liberals have never been unpatriotic as charged by conservatives—Clinton and Obama both touted the myth of American exceptionalism repeatedly on the campaign trail, it was Madeline Alrbight that called America the “indispensable nation,” etc.—their expression of nationalism became a more prominent part of their discourse since Trump’s victory. One does not have to go very far into resistance circles to find people placing American flags on their profiles or decrying Trump as uniquely un-American. Keith Olberman, who runs a web show literally called, “The Resistance” has an image of himself draped in an American flag as his avatar on social media. Trump’s brand of nationalism cannot be beat or discredited by engaging in a “better” nationalism. If a similar embrace of nationalism among liberals during the lead-up to the Iraq war is any indication, it’s that any “type” of nationalism lends itself to being used for violent and destructive ends.
Only by recognizing that symbolic victories cannot occupy an outsized portion of the resistance does change become possible. And there is an appetite for this kind of change—whether it’s the fact that a majority of Americans now want a nationalized healthcare system or that even a right wing poll like the one conducted by The American Culture and Faith Institute suggested that 4 in 10 Americans are open to socialism, it is clear maintaining the status quo alone is not sustainable in the long run. This means expanding the political imagination beyond what liberalism alone has offered—imagining only a better version of the existing system is insufficient. Ronald McDonald may raise his fist in solidarity on a t-shirt, but he won’t be there for us when it counts.