Raising the resistance

March 3, 2017

The only answer to the Trump onslaught is to raise the level of the resistance--but the struggles of today open the way to building a stronger left that can rise to the challenge.

AFTER JUST a month or so in office, Donald Trump's presidency has already been unprecedented--just not in ways he would want.

Trump took the oath of office with the lowest approval rating of any previous incoming president. His first full day in office saw the largest single day of protest nationwide in U.S. history. Defiance of his first executive orders led to a new form of political mobilization--the airport occupation--and revived an older form with the "Day Without Immigrant" strikes.

Though it's still in its formative stages, the resistance to Trump's presidency is causing a higher level of left-wing radicalization, political discontent and struggle than the U.S. has seen in years--maybe in all the nearly 40 years that Socialist Worker has been publishing.

But that won't stop the Trump presidency by itself. His administration is locked on full-steam-ahead in attempting to drive through his reactionary agenda. As massive as the opposition to Trump has been already, the resistance will need to grow bigger still--its politics need to deepen and radicalize, and the level and forms of its struggles need to expand.

A crowd takes the streets in Washington, D.C., to protest Trump's Muslim ban
A crowd takes the streets in Washington, D.C., to protest Trump's Muslim ban (Stephen Melkisethian)

The mobilization of determined opposition to Trump has won some victories, though--most obviously, the legal halt on his first Muslim ban--and it has given rise to another "unprecedented": The greatest opportunities in a generation for the U.S. left to expand the influence of its politics and the reach of its organizations, which are necessary conditions to raising the resistance to a new level.

SIGNS OF the scale of opposition to Trump were clear right after the election as the streets of major cities were clogged with nightly protests.

But there was some reason to fear that the discontent could be stifled or dispersed--in particular, because the immediate response of the official "opposition" in mainstream politics was so pathetic.

Barack Obama led the way in insisting that the Democratic Party would hope for Trump's success, and unions and liberal organizations--accustomed to their unquestioning loyalty to the Democrats, above all else--were either invisible or in retreat mode already.

We got another example of spinelessness this week after Trump's speech to Congress. After he managed to smile for the cameras instead of snarl the whole time, the media declared him to be "presidential," and leading Democrats emphasized what they shared in common.

But the attitude to Trump is different outside the political and media establishment. That's why the massive turnout for the Women's Marches on January 21 was so important. It proved that there are millions of people who not only want to say they're against Trump, but show it--and they mobilized themselves to do so.

In the many eruptions of protest and struggle that have followed, January 21 has been cited often as a huge confidence-booster.

It was a starting point for the women and men who wanted to confront the anti-abortion fanatics and the plans for actions on February 11 outside Planned Parenthood clinics--even though that organizing meant challenging the conservative strategy put forward by Planned Parenthood itself.

This year, International Women's Day on March 8 will be a day of action in more than 30 countries, with feminist activists hoping to revive an old initiative--the women's strike--that marked an important moment of the last women's movement in 1970.

Though the Department of Homeland Security run by Trump is claiming new victims among the undocumented, public opinion is against mass deportations. The call for the biggest Day Without Immigrants protests yet on May 1 holds the possibility of mobilizing that sentiment.

The underlying discontent with the Trump regime stretches beyond where anyone guessed it would before Inauguration Day. Trump himself has suffered some setbacks, but even GOP members of Congress representing states and districts that are reliably Republican are paying a price.

In a reversal from the right-wing Tea Party protests of legislators' town-hall events during the Obama years, Republicans are facing demonstrators opposed to the Trump agenda--especially the drastic health care cuts ordinary people are likely to face if the GOP goes ahead with repealing Obamacare.

Trump and Co. call them "professional protesters," but more than more than 40,000 people have sent a message of defiance at congressional town halls and activist meet-ups in over 300 cities in 49 states, the Guardian reported, citing estimates by liberal groups.

IF THE U.S. political system were a democracy, Trump would be toast. His agenda has been exposed already as representing a small minority of the population.

But Trump won the U.S. presidency, whose extensive powers are insulated from popular control--not only by an Electoral College that allowed Trump to "win" despite losing the popular vote, but by a political system that leaves elected leaders, and especially the president, unaccountable in between elections.

Gone are any of the illusions that Trump would be reined in, either directly by the Republican Party or indirectly by the ruling class it represents. However unexpected his victory may have been, he and the circle of reactionaries that have accumulated around him have a program to unite them, and they are ready to go to any lengths to achieve it.

Parts of the Trump agenda are unpopular with a majority of the U.S. ruling class. In particular, Trump's economic nationalism--a response to the relative decline of U.S. imperial power--threatens to upset a framework for the world economy that made most of Corporate America and the bankers very rich and powerful.

But Trump--despite the populist rhetoric he adopted to win votes last year--is also promising a lot that the U.S. ruling class is thrilled about: more tax cuts for businesses and the super-rich, elimination of corporate and financial regulations, anti-union measures aimed at crushing the last remaining bases for organized labor.

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, whose company has a lot at stake in maintaining both multinational markets and an international production chain, nevertheless told CNBC: "There's a lot that I like in what President Trump is doing."

The post-election stock market boom tells the story: after an initial period of uneasiness, stock prices soared to new highs on expectations of a further bonanza for the rich at the expense of the rest of us.

And as incompetent as the administration has been in rolling out its agenda, the Trump regime has one thing going for it in mainstream politics: the cowardice and capitulations of the Democratic Party.

In February, for the election of a new chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), party leaders, reportedly led by Obama, recruited a longtime apparatchik, Tom Perez, to run against Rep. Keith Ellison, an early supporter of Bernie Sanders during the primaries last year.

That kept the DNC out of the hands of someone whose loyalty to the Clinton-Obama leadership isn't locked down. But the Democrats' craven behavior since Trump's election isn't a matter of the wrong people at the top of the party apparatus. It's a product of the nature of the party itself--as a defender of the same corporate interests that have found "a lot to like" in the Trump agenda.

GIVEN ALL THIS, it's all the more significant that Trump has suffered setbacks on important issues.

The most obvious example is the travel ban against Muslims, which was blocked by the rulings of federal judges. This was partly a sign of a conflict within the political establishment. Judges appointed by a former Republican president opposed an action of the current one, and in so doing defended the powers of their branch of government against the White House.

But we certainly can't count on unelected Republican judges to stand up against injustice. The Washington system of "checks and balances" routinely allows completely unchecked power. As Danny Katch wrote at SocialistWorker.org, "[T]he judicial branch has a long history of deferring to the executive one at precisely the moments when we need it to protect our liberties."

The court decisions might have gone differently if not for the massive eruption of protest against Trump's travel ban and everything else that he represents. That put pressure on a naturally conservative institution to block a plainly illegitimate and unjust order by the executive branch.

When the Trump administration comes up with a revised ban, as it has repeatedly promised to, the protests will matter once again in determining what the judiciary does.

THE TRUMP offensive will continue, and the only answer to it is to raise the level of resistance--to bring millions more into open protest, to link together and magnify the different movements for justice, ultimately to put the full economic and social power of the working class majority behind the struggles against Trump and the right.

That's a tall order, especially considering the years of defeats and disorientation suffered by the labor movement and the broad left. There is no short cut to building up politics and organization, which are both necessary to a resistance that can rise to the challenge in the months to come.

But the critical point for socialists is that the eruptions of struggle taking place around many issues are creating the opportunities to take those steps.

When anti-abortion forces called for a day of action against Planned Parenthood last month, large numbers of women and men wanted to respond, and were more confident to do so after the Women's Marches. But they faced opposition from Planned Parenthood itself, which remains wedded to a strategy of lobbying and support for Democrats, while asking for, at most, passive support from the pro-choice majority.

So the instinctive response to confront the right ran into a debate that helped those involved in it clarify and develop their own ideas further. Those who went ahead in organizing counterprotests were drawn into further political discussion and organizing that will help prepare them for future struggles--and connect them to others who want to resist on this and many other issues.

As Jen Roesch wrote about the experience of organizing the counterprotests:

This collective process is the only way we can determine the best ways to fight back. As we did around this protest, we will have many debates as we move forward, but we should welcome them as an indispensable part of building the renewed movement we so desperately need.

Experiences like this one are part of the history of every social upsurge in the U.S. and beyond.

In the struggle against injustice or to win some economic or social advance, however modest, the people who want to fight have to either build on existing organization or--when existing forces hold things back, as is often the case--create new ones to build the struggle.

In that situation, what socialists can do in making their ideas and the distilled experiences of past struggles and movements relevant to the current moment can be decisive.

We are only at the beginning of a new era of radicalization and protest, but the eruptions of resistance to Trump and the right are giving socialists the greatest opportunity in a generation and more to seize the moment--and build not only the vitally important struggles of today, but the movement to win a new world.

Further Reading

From the archives