Trump and the system that spawned him

March 23, 2016

The left needs to be clear about what Trump represents--and that his right-wing agenda won't be stopped by voting for the lesser evil, but by mobilizing our power.

DONALD TRUMP'S campaign has turned American politics--and especially the favorite party of Corporate America--upside down.

It also poses questions for the left. Is Trump more than a run-of-the-mill right-winger? Has he crossed the line into fascism, as writers on both the left and the right have argued? What implications does the answer have for how we organize? How will Trump and Trumpism affect the inevitable chorus of "lesser evilism"--the call to vote for the Democrats, no matter how conservative, to stop the greater evil of the Republicans--as the November election approaches.

The answers we give to these questions are important. Trump may still be denied the Republican presidential nomination--there is a long way to go before he wins a majority of delegates. But if he succeeds and is on the ballot in November, the pressure will mount to stop even criticizing the Democratic candidate. Anyone who stands up for the cause of a left-wing independent alternative to the two-party system will be accused of risking political catastrophe.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Michael Vadon)

The fear of Trump is understandable, but he is not a fascist, and it's important for the left to say so, as part of resisting the attempt to stampede everyone who wants to oppose the greater evil into supporting a not-so-lesser evil.

The widespread desire to see Trump's bigotry and conservative politics repudiated is positive. But socialists should insist that a vote for the "lesser evil" has never been the way to stop the right in any form--because the lesser-evil Democrats are as committed to upholding the political and social status quo as the Republicans, which is why they accommodate and concede to the right at every step.

Instead, the way to begin to halt and then reverse the advance of the right is to build the organization and mobilizing power of the left. That means putting forward alternative politics to counter the despair and deceptions that the right feeds on. And it means building action--like the protests that confronted Trump's hate in Chicago and have continued ever since--to give confidence to our side to challenge oppression and injustice.

THE SUPPORT that Trump claims today didn't come out of nowhere. He is taking advantage of the Republican Party's continuing lurch to the right over decades to build support among the party's base with calculated appeals to bigotry, especially anti-immigrant hysteria and Islamophobia.

Trump has been particularly effective at playing on the bitter discontent with declining living standards for the majority of people in the U.S. The impact of the Great Recession and its aftermath actually hit hardest among those who Trump scapegoats. But a majority of whites, too, have experienced falling income, worse access to health care, disappearing pensions and retirement security, and a shredded social safety net.

The support flowing to Trump from a section of the disenfranchised reflects a sense of hopelessness--and especially the feeling that the government doesn't work in their interests, and the politicians are disconnected from their concerns.

This sentiment is based in reality. Barack Obama was propelled into the White House by his promises of change, but he has continued to follow a neoliberal agenda that has failed almost everyone--except for corporations and the rich.

When the well-paid commentators of the corporate media try to explain Trump's support, their elitist ideas about the working class show through. They paint a picture of easily duped white workers eager to jump on Trump's scapegoating bandwagon. To those in the media who want to attach the f-word to Trump, fascism comes down to a charismatic leader who can mystify big audiences with backward ideas.

But working people in the U.S. today don't have to be duped into thinking their living conditions are deteriorating. Trump can get a hearing because the figures who represent mainstream American politics have nothing to offer ordinary people except the threat of worse to come. It took a self-identified socialist, Bernie Sanders, to provide a more hopeful, left-wing alternative--that's the secret of Sanders' extraordinary success, which also baffles the media.

Trump connects with some of the same sources of discontent, but his message is one of scapegoating, not solidarity.

For example, he has reached new lows in Islamophobic hate--and encouraged others to follow his lead. After the terrorist attack in Brussels this week, not only did Trump demand that the borders be closed and propose more waterboarding, but Republican frontrunner-up Ted Cruz declared in a statement that he wanted police to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized."

It was campaign grandstanding, sure, but we know from the very recent past that the hate-filled rhetoric of political leaders has a real effect--one that can be measured by an increase in physical attacks on Muslims and Arabs.

TRUMP AND Trumpism are dangerous. He is legitimizing racist and reactionary ideas and contributing to the polarization to the right in U.S. society.

But in the interest of sounding the alarm, some on the left are all too ready to call Trump a fascist. The label does little to describe what Trump actually does represent--and it gets in the way of our side organizing against that agenda.

To begin with, though the violence of individual Trump supporters is scary enough, this is nothing compared to the organized paramilitary forces associated with fascist movements, whether of the past, like Germany's Nazis, or the present, like Golden Dawn in Greece.

Also, one central characteristic of fascist organizations is a willingness to dispense with basic democratic norms, like voting and elections, often with the support of at least a section of the capitalist class. Trump's campaign shows no signs of this, and he certainly wouldn't, at this point, have the support of any significant section of capital if he did.

Trump's bigoted themes recall right-wing demagogues from history like George Wallace, as well as figures who actually were fascists. But his ideas still fit within the confines of the Republican Party right, particularly as it has taken shape during the Obama years.

For decades, the Republicans have relied on various right-wing vehicles to build popular support for a reactionary, anti-working class agenda--like the anti-abortionists and the hysterical opponents of marriage equality mobilized by the Religious Right. More recently, the party establishment encouraged the Tea Party phenomenon--a fake grassroots "movement" directed against symbols of "big government," but easily turned toward anti-immigrant, anti-woman and racist hate.

Because he's a billionaire and reality TV celebrity, Trump's operation doesn't look the same as traditional GOP campaigns, but there are veteran operatives of the Republican right among his advisers. For example, Trump's thuggish campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was recently caught on video helping to rough up an anti-Trump protester, used to work for the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity--a main source of support for the Tea Party and the political figures it spawned.

The point is that the Republican Party establishment, much as it may despise Trump now, opened the door for his campaign to win over the party's base. Trump should be viewed as a creature of the 21st century Republican Party--one that its leaders wish they could have kept locked away, but who they can't deny.

IT MATTERS what we call Trump because it makes a difference in how we oppose him.

For some on the left who are panicking most about Trump's supposed fascism, they have one answer to the threat, and one answer only: build support for the Democratic Party presidential nominee, who most likely will be Hillary Clinton.

Take the recent statement released by liberal organizations, including, Color of Change, Greenpeace and Jobs with Justice, that called on other groups to commit now to voting against Trump:

This is a five-alarm fire for our democracy. A hate-peddling bigot who openly incites violence is the likely presidential nominee of one of our nation's two major parties. It is alarming and dangerous.

And the solution?

A voting renaissance. We know that a majority of Americans reject hate-baiting and racism--if we vote, we stop Trump, and we show that our country is better than this.

According to the statement, some protests are fine--though not necessarily those that confront Trump--but really, the most effective way of organizing against Trumpism is to vote Democratic.

At this point, that almost certainly means Hillary Clinton. As for all the people who support Bernie Sanders because they hate the direction that Clinton and other Democratic leaders took the "party of the people," liberal commentators are already heaping disdain on "purists" who would dare to stick to their ideals and not vote for Clinton. As In These Times' Joel Bleifuss wrote:

Surely, Clinton's supporters would vote for a Sanders presidency. But would Sanders' political revolutionaries be willing to brook political compromise and make common cause with those with whom they differ on issues...Would they be willing to vote for Clinton?

Could good, principled people be dumb enough not to? Look no further than the 2000 candidacy of Ralph Nader, which was embraced by many on the left who saw no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and consequently had no problem casting a vote for Nader--which had the same effect as abstaining and thus passively voting for Bush.

Those who supported Nader's popular independent presidential campaign at the time will remember that we didn't see "no difference" between Gore and Bush--but we did see a big and refreshing difference from past elections in being able to cast a vote for a genuine left-wing alternative, and against the two-party grip on the U.S. political system.

But get ready for more of this kind of rhetoric as November draws closer. The message comes down to this: It's not the fault of Democrats like Gore and Clinton for doing so little to win left-of-center voters to support them; it's the voters' fault for not being enthusiastic about casting a ballot for someone who doesn't believe in what they do.

And Sanders supporters may soon be hearing that message from a different source: Sanders. He said early on in his campaign that he would support the eventual Democratic nominee, even against a left-wing choice like Jill Stein of the Green Party, who is closer to Sanders' own views. That candidate is all but certain to be Hillary Clinton--the very symbol of the status-quo system he urged supporters to rebel against.

IN AN article written almost half a century ago, the U.S. socialist Hal Draper summarized the classic case of voting for the lesser evil--one from Germany that did involve an actual fascist:

In the 1932 presidential election, the Nazis ran Hitler, and the main bourgeois parties ran Von Hindenburg, the Junker general who represented the right wing of the Weimar republic but not fascism. The Social Democrats, leading a mass workers' movement, had no doubt about what was practical, realist, hard-headed politics and what was "utopian fantasy": so they supported Hindenburg as the obvious Lesser Evil. They rejected with scorn the revolutionary proposal to run their own independent candidate against both reactionary alternatives...

So the Lesser Evil, Hindenburg, won; and Hitler was defeated. Whereupon President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and the Nazis started taking over.

The classic case was that the people voted for the Lesser Evil and got both.

Now, Hillary Clinton, if she is elected president, is unlikely to appoint Donald Trump to anything. But a similar dynamic has played out in U.S. politics over recent decades, if not in quite so dramatic a fashion.

Think about all the expectations invested in Barack Obama when he ran for president in 2008, with his promise to bring fundamental changes to Washington after eight long years of Bush and the Republicans.

And what was the result? Obama adopted the Bush administration's mega-bailout of Wall Street after the 2008 financial crash, while stiffing homeowners facing foreclosure. He continued Bush's "war on terror," with a few changes in tactics and strategy. He deported more undocumented immigrants in a shorter time than Bush managed. He accelerated the corporate school deform drive.

The list could go on. And the reason for this outcome is this: Without strong social movements, independent of both mainstream parties and determined to fight for their agenda, the Democrats know they can take their base supporters for granted, so they feel comfortable moving to the right to curry favor with the corporate and political elite that really pulls the strings in the party.

As Draper wrote 50 years ago, if you vote for the lesser evil to stop the greater evil, you usually end up with a combination of both kinds.

IT'S POSSIBLE to challenge and defeat the right-wing agenda Trump stands for, but that won't happen by supporting a candidate who represents the status quo that spawned him. It will happen by organizing people who want to change the status quo, and mobilizing them for protests and actions to push back the right and advance the left.

That's what took place in Chicago earlier this month when several thousand people turned out to confront Trump and forced him to cancel his rally. The demonstrators were united by their desire to stand up to racism and right-wing reaction, and they had the numbers to succeed.

Afterwards, Democrats like Clinton showed their true colors, condemning the protesters and racist Trump supporters alike. The chorus of criticism included Barack Obama, who called the protesters' actions "misguided."

Yes, that's the same Barack Obama who, while running for president in 2008, said: "I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up."

By contrast, the protests gave the thousands who participated--and the millions who cheered them on as they watched the live footage and read the accounts afterwards--a greater confidence that hate and oppression can be fought.

That's an important step toward building a movement that can confront the right wing consistently and successfully--and that can mobilize when it's not the Republican right, but the Democrats "left," that is responsible for injustice and inequality.

Further Reading

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