Taking on Trump with our eyes open

March 21, 2016

Todd Chretien contributes to a discussion on the character of the Trump campaign.

JAMES ROBERTSON'S article "'Trumpism' and Socialist Strategy" rightly argues that disgust with Donald Trump should not lead the left to support the Democratic Party, a case that Socialist Worker has argued consistently over many years, dating back to both Bushes, Ronald Reagan and the rest of their Republican clan, before and since.

James further demonstrates that Trump's rise has upset the Republican apple cart and may be a harbinger of a deeper crisis to come inside the party.

However, I believe James misses the mark on other important questions.

Let's start with his point that Trump has held positions that are out of step with the Republican right wing. For example, Trump has not gone out of his way to oppose abortion historically, and he has criticized George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. He hardly seems a natural fit for the Christian Right.

From this, James argues that Trump cannot be understood as "the latest and most repugnant expression of the long-term rightward drift of the Republican Party." Instead, he proposes that Trump represents an "anti-politics" candidate--a phrase he borrows from Australian leftist writer Tad Tietze--because he "trashes the political class and its failures."

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Trump certainly does deliver on this front, but anti-Washington rhetoric is a staple of American politics, particularly at election time. Even Hillary Clinton claims at times to be an "outsider," campaigning against "inside the Beltway" special interests.

The problem with James' analysis is that it downplays, intentionally or not, precisely what is new in Trump: Not his supposed "anti-politics," but his understanding--and exploitation of the fact--that the base of the Republican Party has adopted increasingly xenophobic and racist ideas and attitudes.

Trump's willingness to champion those ideas more openly and more proudly than any major candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964--Pat Buchanan tried in 1992 and 1996, but couldn't muster more than 20 percent of Republican primary voters--is the secret to his success. He isn't leading the Republican primaries because of his relatively more moderate statements on abortion, but because of his open bigotry and hate.

FOR THE last 40 years, the Republican Party leadership has built up a Frankenstein's monster to have a popular base of support for its ruling class agenda. That monster has been raised on opposition to same-sex marriage, anti-immigrant hysteria, Islamophobia, a brutalizing 15-year "war on terror--and, of course, openly racist vitriol directed at the nation's first African American president. Now Trump is going around the GOP establishment to exploit all that hate behind his candidacy.

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James seeks to downplay this, suggesting that the "Trump phenomenon is just a spasm." Trump's bid for political leadership may or may not be "doomed to be ephemeral," as James asserts--a little too confidently, in my opinion. But what is definitely not ephemeral is a real polarization on the right.

Insofar as Trump is bringing that social layer out of the shadows, putting wind its sails and helping it recruit new supporters, Trump is moving the goalposts of American politics. Demanding a ban on all Muslim immigrants may be merely the domestic analog to George Bush's call for war on the "axis of evil," but it's another long step down the ladder nonetheless.

Certainly it is possible to overstate Trump's potential for "realigning the Republican Party along more populist lines or creating the basis for a mass right-wing movement," as James sums up what he believes to be the prevailing argument.

But James seems to think that any warning about the danger Trump poses must inevitably be "unhelpfully catastrophist"--and a position that "will create serious problems for the radical left come November" because it also inevitably leads to the conclusion of supporting the Democrats as the "lesser evil" against Trump.

Why should this be so? There is no doubt that if the general election is, as looks increasingly likely, a contest between Clinton and Trump, then Clinton and her liberal supporters will argue that progressives must hold their noses and vote "against Trump," regardless of what they think of Clinton.

By the way, liberals will make exactly the same argument if the Republican nominee is Ted Cruz--who James seems to regard as the genuine danger, rather than Trump--or even John Kasich, in that most unlikely of events.

As always, socialists will have to patiently explain why voting for the lesser evil, represented by the Democrats, to stop the greater evil, represented by the Republicans, is no way to stop the further rightward shift of mainstream politics, much less fight for a left-wing agenda. This is the basic case that Bernie Sanders' hero Eugene V. Debs made 100 years ago, and we stand by it today.

But why should we allow the inevitability of the "lesser evil" argument to blind us from the concrete dynamics developing around Trump today? Can't we walk and chew gum at the same time?

TO BE fair, James published his article before the militant Chicago protest that shut down the Trump rally on March 11 and has led to further confrontations since then. At any rate, thousands of people paid no heed to the concern that mobilizing against Trump would "unintentionally [contribute] to his 'anti-establishment' aura."

Hopefully, in the wake of these protests, James will reconsider his view that "well-meaning but knee-jerk reactions that over-exaggerate Trump's ideological commitment and broader social significance will contribute to the pressure on the left to rally behind an uninspiring Clinton campaign in November."

We should take precisely the opposite tack. Instead of shying away from protesting Trump, socialists should mobilize alongside others to challenge him and the racist filth he spouts. This should be done carefully with maximum publicity, democratic planning and concern for security, as we have already seen that many of Trump's supporters are prone to violence and especially eager to target people of color.

Rather than simply ceding this terrain to those who would tie together opposition to racism, militarism and misogyny with support for the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, socialists should openly reject that connection and proclaim our support for Jill Stein's Green Party presidential campaign as an immediate step in the direction of building an independent left alternative.

We should equally openly state our opposition to demobilizing social protests and the labor movement during the election season, as well as our belief that in the long run, we must build up a socialist party, independent of and opposed to the Democratic Party.

I am positive that James shares these end goals. He ends by asking what an "anti-political campaign might look like from the left, grounded in the mass, independent struggles of working people against a political and economic system in crisis." I agree with his general sentiment, but rather than an "anti-political campaign"--which only confuses what's at stake--we need a good, old-fashioned left-wing political campaign, based on working-class solidarity.

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