The Trump emergency

November 29, 2016

Bill Mullen is a professor of English and American Studies at Purdue University and the author of several books, including W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line. In this article, first published at the Pluto Press Blog, he dissects Trump's election victory and the challenges it poses for the U.S. left.

THREE THINGS must be said at the start about the role of racism, xenophobia and nativism in Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election.

Firstly, Trump scapegoated immigrants from Mexico and Muslims in what has become a right-nationalist move globally to split the working class. As a result, we have seen an upturn in hate crimes and racist attacks in the U.S., especially against Muslims, in the seven days since the election. African Americans and Latinos, many poor or working-class, overwhelmingly rejected him by margins of 8 and 9 to 1. Black women voted against Trump by 93 percent, the highest of any single group in the electorate. Trump's solid majority of votes was won among whites without a college degree. Though Trump voters did list immigration as one of their main reasons for supporting him, the deeper, longer-term effect of that scapegoating is not easy to determine, it is important to note that Trump's actual margin of victory among whites was almost exactly the same as Mitt Romney's over Obama in 2012 (20 percent--21 percent). See Mike Davis:

Anti-racists march through Manhattan with a message of unity
Anti-racists march through Manhattan with a message of unity

The great surprise of the election was not a huge white working-class shift to Trump but rather his success in retaining the loyalty of Romney voters, and indeed even slightly improving on the latter's performance amongst evangelicals for whom the election was viewed as a last stand. Thus economic populism and nativism potently combined with, but did not displace, the traditional social conservative agenda.

Secondly, voter suppression, especially of minority votes, massively affected the outcome. Hillary Clinton earned 10 million fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2008 and a smaller percentage of the African-American vote than did Obama in 2012: 88 versus 93 percent. In some states like Wisconsin, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana, the combination of new voter I.D. laws and reduction in polling places likely repressed minority turnout.

Third, the fact that 60 million people in the U.S. voted for an openly racist, nativist, misogynist candidate has devastated and enraged the political morale of many, especially racial minorities. Trump's formal endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan, his appointment of an anti-Semitic white nationalist, Stephen Bannon, to a key advising post, his campaign's open outreach to white supremacists, is a toxic reminder of the U.S.'s history as a capitalist, slaveholding empire of war, genocide, imperialism and ruin. "Whitelash" is one current popular expression for this development.

BEYOND THESE, what are important lessons for the left and revolutionary left to take away from the U.S. election of Trump?

The presidential vote represented a massive consensus that the U.S. capitalist system is in a crisis of legitimacy. Nearly half of eligible voters who could have voted did not vote at all. In polls, nearly three quarters of voters affirmed that neither party fully represented their interests.

Both campaigns stoked this legitimation crisis by failing to articulate a coherent agenda for the economic immiseration of America's multiracial (and female-majority) working class. Trump's attacks on free trade (his threat to tear up the NAFTA agreement, for example) were a bait-and-switch to push workers into anti-government resentment while preserving their loyalty to the capitalist system. Trump argued to workers that they simply needed a new boss, not a redistribution of resources. Clinton did back popular grassroots initiatives like a $12 federal minimum wage, but paid almost no attention to economically devastated rural areas of the country (in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania) where she lost votes to Trump. As with Black voters, Clinton and the Democratic Party took for granted that its traditional bases (unions, for example) would carry the day. This was mistaken: 43 percent of union households voted for Trump (3 percent better than Romney did). There are several reasons for this: a clear rejection of Democratic Party indifference to labor, the uneven sway of racism and nativism, and a stultified union leadership that mechanically told the rank and file to support a candidate many did not like.

The campaign and the election were a disaster for opponents of Israeli apartheid and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Trump's campaign was bolstered by massive contributions from Sheldon Adelson, a Zionist billionaire. Trump gave his first post-election interview to The Forward, a pro-Israel paper. Clinton ran promising to make fighting the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel a "priority." Trump's appointment of Bannon, an open anti-Semite, will now be used to maintain his nativist base while the candidate shills for Israel. This contradiction will be defended by U.S. Zionist organizations like AIPAC. Trump has also said he does not see West Bank settlements as an obstacle to a "deal" between Israel and the Palestinians; hard rightists like Israel's Minister of Education Naftali Bennett are already declaring Trump's victory a deathblow to the "two-state solution." A metastasized Zionism can be expected in the next four years in the U.S. that will defend state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the name of protecting Israel and destroying Palestinians.

Relatedly, state-sponsored Islamophobia will rise, stoked by Trump's threat of a "Muslim registry" of immigrants and likely bans on Muslim immigrants from so-called "hot spot" countries, and help underpin calls for enhanced militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney has already been appointed an advisor to Trump's transition team. It is unclear what Trump will do in the Middle East save succor Israel, but it is likely he will saber-rattle against Iran, wed new coalitions against ISIS (with Assad in Syria, for example) and possibly posit a new terrorist "axis of evil" of Hezbollah, Hamas and U.S. supporters of Palestinian rights.

TRUMP'S GROTESQUE misogyny and boasting about sexual assault coupled with vague rumblings about repealing Roe v. Wade (women may have to go to "another state" for an abortion, he has said) have conjured images of a gender dystopia under a Trump presidency. Trump will appoint at least one current open Supreme Court vacancy and likely one or two more, if he reigns four years. Bannon's Breitbart website has published articles ridiculing feminists as a "bunch of dykes." As governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence helped ram through the supremely homophobic Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. The legislation was overturned after mass protest. Queer bashing, LGBTQ calls to suicide hot lines, transphobic attacks and homophobic slurs have been on the rise since his election. Also of interest: in October the Supreme Court agreed to take up a key Virginia transgender bathroom rights case. No matter its outcome, a presumptive racist heteronormative nationalism is the aspirant default of a Trump/Pence regime.

Trump's victory will speed momentum against an already deracinated working class in the U.S. He will likely try to repeal modest reforms supported by organized labor in the U.S. where he can: for example, new rules meant to expand worker eligibility for overtime pay. There is talk that Trump may appoint Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to be Secretary of Labor. Walker successfully (against significant resistance) pushed through so-called "right-to-work" legislation in Wisconsin in 2011 meant to weaken unions by allowing workers in unionized workplaces not to pay dues. It is possible a Trump/Walker coalition could push for a National Right to Work Law.

There are fascist elements in Trump's base of support, but the Trump presidency is not fascist (yet). He is most likely to move to the "center" as a president in order to keep the support of the Republican Party whose Senate and House votes he will need to move legislation through. Like Reagan and Bush, he will surround himself with ideological pit bulls to carry out the most racist and reactionary elements of his program (Jeff Sessions, a proponent of virulent anti-immigration legislation, has already been appointed Attorney General) while trying, if unsuccessfully, to burnish a presidential style that might make him palatable. However, as the U.S. economy falters, Trump fails in key areas of his presidency, and protest grows (see below), he and his cabinet will be prepared to move harder to the right, and it is anyone's guess what that might look like.

The Black Lives Matter movement will be a primary target of a Trump regime. Trump openly accused the movement of promoting the killing of police. His law-and-order rhetoric (a replica of Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign that introduced the racist "war on drugs," as Michelle Alexander has argued) is predicated on promoting and defending the authority of the police: Blue Lives Matter. A Trump presidency will likely increase police violence against African Americans and anyone else in their way, given the cops' renewed confidence in a boss so publicly behind them. New forms of counterintelligence to destroy dissident movements are likely, especially if Giuliani is given a cabinet position. The former mayor of New York City was the ardent proponent of expanded police powers in the city after 9/11, including so-called stop-and-frisk campaigns against Black and Brown people and police surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities.

SO WHAT is the other side of the dialectic?

First, the demonstrations against Trump in 40 U.S. cities within 24 hours of his election are unprecedented for a U.S. presidential election. They capture the statistical underbelly of this number: 75 percent of Americans who could have voted for Trump did not. Trump is also, statistically, most likely the least popular president ever to win the office, based on vague factors like "likability." More than this, the massive, and immediate, demonstrations reflect the depth of wounds inflicted by his racist, misogynist, homophobic campaign. Many people were in tears the day after his election, literally traumatized. They are healing through protest.

Second, while many people in the streets after Election Day were admitted first-time demonstrators, the demonstrations themselves were not entirely "spontaneous." They included many veteran participants in anti-police violence demonstrations, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, BDS and pro-Palestine movements, the Occupy movement, immigrant rights, the Fight for $15 minimum wage, Slutwalks, clinic defenses, gay marriage demonstrations--a layer of semi-trained activists, many under 30, who not only voted against Trump but were ardent supporters of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the only openly socialist (albeit social democratic) U.S. presidential campaign in modern times. Indeed, protests against Trump have spread to the high-school level--with student walkouts across the country to protest his election. Even some of these protesters--14- to 18-years-old--have been seasoned by the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights movements.

Third, Trump was elected to the presidency without being the choice of the U.S. ruling class--a not unprecedented, but nonetheless potentially daunting fact. Corporate donations and Wall Street support flowed heavily to Hillary Clinton, in part because the Trump "brand" was so toxic, in part because she had championed neoliberal policies her entire career. It is not clear how Corporate America will respond to Trump, nor how international markets will perceive him, and U.S. capitalism will need both to succeed. Global stock markets tanked, then rebounded, within 24 hours of his election. Capitalism's anarchic tendencies are likely to be exacerbated by the victory of a rogue, relatively unknown quantity to the ruling class. This could work against him.

FOURTH, THERE is deep intraparty conflict within the Republican Party. Trump effectively ran against the party en route to victory, lashing out at party leaders like Paul Ryan. This was part of his appeal to dissident voters. In self-interest, the party closed ranks around Trump after his victory. But it is not yet clear what "coalitions" Trump can build within the party (witness the chaos around his "transition" team this past week) or in fact how or whether he can "govern" a traditional bourgeois party at all. Trump will find allies in the Democrats, who will often capitulate in order to try to legitimize their role as the out-of-power party.

Fifth, the years of grassroots struggles--against racism, for LGBTQ rights, for immigrant rights, against the 1 Percent, for Black Lives Matter--has created a much wider range of political associations, social organizations and networks especially for young activists than existed prior to Obama's first election. Many of these will be critical spaces for resisting Trump. The Movement For Black Lives Platform, released earlier this year represents this coalitional renaissance: it calls not just for reduced state-sponsored violence but attention to rebuilding infrastructure in poor communities, protections of workers rights to join unions, an end to mass incarceration, universal health care and protection of trans rights. The document should be part of a wider rebuilding of a broad multiracial, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-capitalist alliance in the U.S. to defeat Trump.

Finally, a movement against Trump must be informed by clear socialist ideas and principles. Left calls to combat Trump must not just break the chains of the two-party "duopoly" in U.S. politics but forge a clearly articulated alternative. A Labor Party centering the rights of workers--a much-deferred dream of the U.S. left--may resurface in discussion. At the very least, a revived left must make clear that Trump's triumph was a victory of what Occupy called the 1 Percent. That rallying cry has brought a majority of millennials in the U.S. to the conclusion that socialism is a more desirable method for social planning than capitalism. This explains the phenomenal appeal of Bernie Sanders. Trump's strategy to "divide both to conquer each," as Frederick Douglass once put it, is more than ever visible to Americans, especially young ones, as a strategy of class rule and domination. For many, but not yet enough, we are perceptibly in what Walter Benjamin would call "emergency," a moment demanding that we carry out the "work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion." But we must stay woke, and we must build a real, revolutionary present from the ashes of the Trump disaster.

First published at the Pluto Press Blog.

Further Reading

From the archives