In the second round of France’s presidential elections in 2002, the left was faced with an unfamiliar challenge: What accessories to wear to the polls? The Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, had been knocked out in the first round. Now the choice was between the fascist National Front candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the conservative sleaze magnet, Jacques Chirac. There were no good options: Chirac had once opined that French workers were being driven crazy by the “noise and smell” of immigrants. But there was certainly a catastrophic option: the election of Le Pen, who had branded people with AIDS “lepers” and trivialized the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail” in history.
So the left debated casting ballots for Chirac wearing gloves or surgical masks (until they were told doing so might nullify their ballots), and in the end, many went to vote with a clothespin on their nose. “When the house is on fire,” François Giacalone, a Communist Party local councillor, told The Guardian, “you don’t care too much if the water you put it out with is dirty.”
In 2016, Donald Trump’s clinching the Republican nomination in the same week that a right-wing extremist narrowly lost the presidential election in Austria raises a serious strategic challenge for the progressive left. We are rightly buoyed by the notion that a better world is possible and have tasked ourselves with creating it. But it is no less true that, at any given moment, a far worse world is possible too, and we should do everything in our power to ensure that we don’t let somebody else create it.
There are two crucial distinctions to be made here. The first is to distinguish between those political opponents who are merely bad, and those who represent an existential threat to basic democratic rights. The second is to draw a clear distinction between the electoral and the political. For example, Mitt Romney was bad: Had he been elected in 2012, terrible things would’ve happened, and it is a good thing that he was defeated. But Trump is of a different order entirely. Xenophobic, Islamophobic, unhinged, and untethered to any broader political infrastructure, he has endorsed his supporters’ physically attacking protestors. His election would represent a paradigmatic shift in what is possible for the American right. To call Trump a fascist may suggest more ideological coherence than his blather deserves. But he is certainly part of that extended family and, as such, represents the kind of threat that Romney (for example) did not.
The same is true of Le Pen and Norbert Hofer, the hard-right Austrian presidential candidate who called gun ownership “the natural consequence” of immigration. The fact that the Austrian presidency is primarily ceremonial is beside the point; had Hofer won, others in more substantial positions would have followed.
Since this kind of threat is of a different order, so should be the response. While fascists have learned to cloak their bigotry in less inflammatory rhetoric (one more reason why Trump is an outlier: This is a trick he has yet to learn, though I’m sure the Republicans have their best folks working on it), their blunt message must be met with a blunt response. They must be stopped. And if their route to power is through the ballot box, they must be stopped there.
The question of whether, in America for example, one should forgo the two main parties for a third that is not beholden to big money and will back the interests of the poor and marginalized is an important one. But the question in these instances is not whether we will be in a better or worse position to organize and fight back after the election, but whether there will be future elections at all—and if so, in what atmosphere of intimidation and coercion they might take place.
In that case, one should vote for the largest immovable object in the path of the extreme right—whether that’s Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Jacques Chirac or Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party spokesman who narrowly beat Hofer in Austria. But while defeating these forces at the polls is important, it is also insufficient. It does nothing to tackle the underlying causes for their popularity or address the grievances on which these parasites feed. Preventing them from gaining office is in no way commensurate with stemming their influence or power.
Take the most likely US presidential matchup: Clinton and Trump. Trump’s rise is rooted, to a significant extent, in the profound disenchantment of a section of the white working class created by the effects of neoliberal globalization in the wake of the most recent economic crash. Hillary’s staunchest advocate (her husband), whose legacy she shares on the stump (“We lifted people out of poverty” and “We created jobs”) bears considerable responsibility for the conditions that made Trump possible. Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act exacerbated the economic collapse, and his embrace of the North American Free Trade Agreement helped depress wages. Hillary Clinton backed these initiatives at the time, even if she has rowed back on some of them since. Setting her up in political opposition to Trump pits part of the cause against the symptom, with no suggestion of an antidote.
So even as one votes for Clinton—if she’s the nominee, then no one else is going to be able to stop Trump from taking power—one must prepare to organize against her. If she wins, her agenda will make an eventual victory for someone like Trump more likely, not less. More than a decade after Le Pen’s defeat, his daughter, who now heads the National Front, could yet reach the runoffs again. Hofer’s Freedom Party came in second place in the parliamentary elections in 1999 and was in a coalition government. Elections alone cannot defeat the populist right; we have to drain the swamp from which they gather their bait. When your house is ablaze, you grab whatever’s handy and put it out. But when the flames are quenched, the laborious task of fireproofing is in order.