Let’s be grateful to Susan Sarandon for exposing just how vapid and callous the left-wing #NeverHillary argument is. Speaking to Chris Hayes on MSNBC on Monday night, Sarandon, a Bernie Sanders surrogate, said she was unsure if she could bring herself to vote for Hillary Clinton in a general election. Hayes was shocked, but Sarandon posited that a Trump presidency might be preferable to a Clinton one, because it would hasten the revolution. “Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in, things will really explode,” she said.
It’s unclear how many people Sarandon speaks for. There are lots of posturing radicals on social media who pretend Clinton would be no better than Trump, but my guess is that they are a tiny fraction of Sanders supporters. Sanders himself certainly doesn’t encourage such political nihilism and will surely rally to Clinton’s side if she beats him in the primary. Inasmuch as #NeverHillary is a phenomenon, however, Sarandon, a rich white celebrity with nothing on the line, is a perfect spokeswoman for it.
What Sarandon is voicing is the old Leninist idea of “heightening the contradictions,” which holds that social conditions need to get worse in order to inspire the revolution that will make them better. In this way of thinking, the real enemy of progress is incremental reform that would render the status quo tolerable. That was the position of the German Communists in the early 1930s, who refused to ally with the Social Democrats, proclaiming: “After Hitler, our turn!” A similar—if less deadly—assumption underlay Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, for which Sarandon served as co-chair of the national steering committee. George W. Bush, Nader argued then, could serve as a “provocateur,” awakening the power of the left. “If it were a choice between a provocateur and an ‘anesthetizer,’ I’d rather have a provocateur,” said Nader. “It would mobilize us.”
To be fair to Nader, under Bush, the contradictions got pretty high. He left the Middle East in flames, and the economy hasn’t recovered from the financial implosion he presided over. Had Bush not wrecked so many lives, we might never have gotten President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, or, for that matter, a democratic socialist running a credible presidential primary campaign. Yet the Bush example should also make it obvious that the cost of electing a Republican provocateur is human misery on an inconceivable scale, inflicted on people who lack Sarandon’s many resources.
The problems with Sarandon’s position go beyond its tolerance for human sacrifice. There’s also the gormless unreality of her idea of revolution. Does she mean a political revolution, like the one Sanders has proposed? Because the major barrier to such a revolution is not a populace that needs to suffer more in order to reach Sarandon’s superlative level of wokeness. It is the structural obstacles to democracy systematically erected by Republicans and Republican-appointed judges: the widespread erosion of voting rights, the unlimited flood of money into politics unleashed by the Supreme Court, and the epic gerrymandering following the 2010 census that makes it nearly impossible for Democrats to win back the House, even if they win a majority of votes. These things will get worse, not better, in any Republican administration, making the possibility of a peaceful electoral revolution all the more remote.
But maybe that’s not the sort of revolution Sarandon has in mind? Maybe she actually longs for the kind where things “really explode”? If so, one wonders who she thinks is going to fight this revolution. It’s certainly possible that a Trump presidency could lead to violent political conflict. If it comes to that, however, my money is on the side with all the gun fetishists, not subscribers to Jacobin.
The results of a Trump presidency would likely be far less dramatic. They might just include the widespread persecution of undocumented immigrants, the appointment of Supreme Court judges who will jettison Roe v. Wade, the end of any federal action on global warming, and a ramping up of American war crimes. We certainly won’t see any expansion of family leave or early education. Based on what we’ve seen of Trump so far, we can expect him to use the powers of the federal government, including NSA surveillance, to target and humiliate his personal enemies, especially women. One thing, however, is sure. No matter what happens, Susan Sarandon will be just fine.