Oscar-winning actor and progressive activist Susan Sarandon sparked a good deal of controversy during the primary stage of the presidential election when she expressed doubt to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about whether she could bring herself to vote for Hillary Clinton in a “lesser-of-two-evils” situation. It was a common question at that time among leftists—if Bernie lost, as it was becoming clear he would, did it make sense to support the neoliberal candidate, or to withhold support in the hope that Trump’s election would, in Sarandon’s words, “bring the revolution immediately”? It sparked a bitter divide with Clinton supporters, and in the wake of Trump’s victory, liberals looking for a scapegoat turned predictably leftward to blame progressives—even those who eventually voted for Clinton. Their hesitation, the thought went, deprived her candidacy of critical enthusiasm.
The conundrum at the heart of the argument, in fact, is still relevant. Donald Trump has been a nightmare, but as yet he has not inflicted the death blow to America. Meanwhile, there has been a political awakening on the left which has risen up in opposition to form the kind of resistance that hasn’t been seen in U.S. life in decades. For progressives, it remains a distinct possibility that this debacle will result in a strengthened political left that empowers politicians who will diverge from the classic centrist Democratic agenda of the past 20 years—no more hawkish foreign policy excursions costing American lives and destabilizing entire regions, no more environmental degradation via ties to large corporations, no more deference to banks at the expense of the worker, and etc. For liberals, this idea is anathema. Trump is the sole icon of evil, in their worldview, and his defeat is the be-all and end-all. Anything that detracts from that end goal, including criticism of the center-left, is ultimately serving Trump. And while they’re willing to look backward to blame their enemies for Clinton’s loss, reflecting on her actual weaknesses, and the weaknesses of the party, is strictly verboten.
It comes down to a simple question. Do you believe that neoliberalism is unacceptable, and that if Trump’s presidency stops short of total tragedy and energizes the left, it will have been worthwhile? Or do you believe that things were fine under Obama, would have been fine under Clinton, and ridding ourselves of Trump in order to restore neoliberalism should be the exclusive goal of the resistance?
Enter Sarandon, who reappeared on Chris Hayes’ All In last night alongside activist and Gasland director Josh Fox, both to re-litigate that question and to discuss Trump’s fracking policies, less than a month after the inauguration.
Over the course of the 12-minute interview, she and Fox made a few key points:
1. It is foolish to look into the past and play the blame game for Trump’s victory, because the larger point is that without enthusiasm and sincerity, a candidate like Clinton won’t win presidential elections. Just as it’s pointless to interrogate progressives on whether Trump has been worse than imagined. Embracing the status quo, or fighting to go back in that direction, is asking for the same kind of defeat that Democrats suffered in November. In other words, look forward, not backward.
2. Obama was a “fracker-in-chief” who facilitated its spread, paving the way for thousands of pipelines and millions of fracking wells as a byproduct of the Global Shale Gas Initiative, and Clinton’s ties to the oil industry, as well as her fracking advocacy while Secretary of State, suggested that she would be the same.
3. The collective focus should be on protest and divestment (removing money from banks that are tied in with fracking organizations), and encouraging an anti-fracking agenda in politics, rather than longing for the days of neoliberal power, which were not anti-fracking to begin with.
Of course, as befits a member of the corporate media, Hayes could not internalize the point (just as he wasn’t able to produce a satisfactory answer for why he didn’t spend enough time covering DAPL, or other energy issues). He repeatedly tried to corner Sarandon and Fox on the Trump decision, and whether they regretted not supporting Clinton more vociferously. “This question of the status quo is the crucial one,” he said, and reverted to the lesser-evil conundrum. Even when Fox recounted his (desperate) experience trying to get the Clinton campaign to adopt a ban on fracking in their platform, and how their refusal to do so engendered an enthusiasm deficit that contributed to her defeat, Hayes, like a robot, returned to the same old question: “Can you look me in the eyes and say, yes, 24 days into the Trump presidency, ‘this is about what I expected it to be’?”
Fox and Sarandon met the question with a bemused silence, as you will when an interlocutor completely misses the point for the tenth time. And when they turned the focus back to him, asking why he hadn’t given fracking, Standing Rock, and the recent pipeline explosions their due coverage—as he’d admitted moments before—his answer was an all-timer: “Susan, excuse me, excuse me…I spend all day covering things. There are things that don’t get covered because there are things that don’t get covered.”
Hayes is coming from a place of good intentions, and he’s not cynical in the same way that many of his cable news colleagues can be, but when he raises the point of how activists now have less leverage under Trump, he misses the essential point that there was also very little leverage under Obama, or Clinton—they may have wanted to put a better face on things, and Trump may be more overt in his disdain, but if the end result is the same, and Trump actually inspires more counter-activism, which is really the better situation?
The neoliberals on the Internet, though, were not interested in engaging with these subtleties. They were simply furious at Sarandon for not breaking down and begging forgiveness for her resolute progressivism even after the primary. Man, were they furious! The usual suspects chimed in first:
A few misogynists joined the fray (and you have to wonder if these same people were condemning Bernie supporters for sexism just a few months ago…oh wait, of course they were):
And the messages continued, many of them reprises of the central arguments from the primary and general elections:
Now, it should go without saying that Susan Sarandon had a negligible impact on the election, and certainly didn't cost Hillary the chance to be president. Those who make that claim are beyond delusional, and you should read Katie Halper clowning on them. The question is, why did Sarandon's appearance last night provoke such antipathy?
The answer is obvious: We're stuck with a center-left in this country that absolutely cannot look in the mirror and admit that their vision for the country, with Hillary Clinton as the figurehead, was totally stagnant and uninspiring. The fact that Trump is worse is the only reality they can wrap their heads around, but they continuously fail to acknowledge that many Americans on the left demand more, and those in the center and right who are susceptible to messages like Trump's need a compelling alternative…not a living, breathing embodiment of the status quo. If you fail to inspire any of these groups, you open up the gates to a future that is considerably darker. Clinton was fundamentally corrupt, insincere, and not progressive, and people could tell. As much as liberals want facile Trump comparisons to be the only metric for electability, they are emphatically not, and Susan Sarandon—in her refusal to bend to an absurd narrative, and her insistence on a dynamic progressivism—serves as a reminder of everything they don't want to admit. Hence the rage.
So, again, we state the obvious. Sarandon did not cost Clinton the election. Progressives did not cost Clinton the election. Trump did not even cost Clinton the election. Clinton cost herself the election, against one of the easiest opponents in history, because her vision for the country was cynical, regressive, and unfailingly corporate. Liberals who can't see this are, quite frankly, embarrassing themselves.
Clinton’s failure doomed us to four years of a Trump administration, and unless the center-left can confront its obvious shortcomings with something like honesty, we will be doomed to much worse.