Socialist politics in the Trump era

October 17, 2018

Danny Katch, author of Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People, draws up a balance sheet of the first two years (almost) of the Trump presidency — and looks at what this tells us about the challenges ahead for socialists and the left.

IT’S ALMOST two years since Donald Trump’s election, and somehow, it’s been every bit as bad as our worst fears: praising violent Nazis in Charlottesville, snatching children from their parents' arms at the border, leading the crowds at his sinister rallies in making a mockery of sexual assault survivors.

The Trump presidency is a horror show. But that’s only part of the story.

It’s estimated that one in five Americans have taken part in protests or rallies since the start of 2016.

Wide segments of society have joined in a genuine resistance, from climate scientists to striking teachers, and Hollywood actors to school-shooting survivors. Actions have ranged from millions shouting at the White House on inauguration weekend to professional football players, individually or in groups, taking a knee in a hostile stadium.

The streets of Washington, D.C., were filled for the Women's March
The streets of Washington, D.C., were filled for the Women's March (Mobilus In Mobili | flickr)

Sometimes these protests have been able to block Trump’s attacks. They stopped the Republicans’ all-out assault on health care in 2017 and delayed his attempts at a Muslim travel ban. Other times, they’ve simply provided hope that we will live to fight another day.

The dominant feature of politics in the U.S. and beyond is a political polarization — with people radicalizing to both the left and right — that was set in motion by the Great Recession 10 years ago.

Not only did the government bail out the crooked banks that wrecked the economy while millions of regular people lost their jobs and homes, but this policy continued uninterrupted from the reactionary George W. Bush to the liberal savior Barack Obama. Nothing has been the same since.

Some saw this rigged system and concluded that we have to democratize the immense power and wealth in the hands of Wall Street, Big Pharma and the rest of the billionaires running — make that ruining — the U.S. These are the millions of people who now identify with socialism.

Others saw the rigged system and drew the cynical conclusion that they need to make sure it’s rigged for them and their kind — and screw everyone else. This is the base of Trumpism.

Unfortunately, the polarization to left and right has been asymmetrical in who has gained power, if not in the size of the radicalization.

Roughly equal numbers of people voted for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. But Trump was able to take over the Republican Party and occupy the White House, despite losing the popular vote — while the Democratic Party establishment closed ranks to stop Sanders.

The result: A hardened right-wing GOP, with links to actual fascists, controls most levers of the government, while a left that is just beginning to radicalize and grow doesn’t even control a mainstream political party.

WHEN TRUMP was elected, many observers weren’t sure if he stood for anything other than his own glorification. Now the meaning of Trumpism has become clear.

Globally, Trumpism represents unvarnished American nationalism. It is a proudly cynical worldview that doesn’t even pretend to care about human rights, dismisses the previous status quo of the U.S. running the world through multinational organizations like the UN and NATO, and looks forward to a historical confrontation with the rising economic and military power of China.

Domestically, Trump’s politics are more nationalism: whipping up racialized patriotism through trade wars and immigration raids, while showering the corporate class with massive tax cuts for the rich — supposedly to spur investment, but actually to further enrich the 1 Percent, while setting a time bomb to blow up Social Security, Medicare and what’s left of the social safety net.

Trumpism isn’t actually convincing to most Americans, but it isn’t meant to be. Its political strategy is to rule based on the support of a fervent minority that includes the Religious Right, a rainbow coalition of bigots (xenophobes, Islamophobes and old fashioned racists), and sections of the billionaire class.

Trumpism counts on a few factors to maintain minority rule in a country that is nominally a democracy:

One, anti-democratic institutions like the Electoral College, the Supreme Court and the Senate — as a result of which, the historically unpopular Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice for life after being nominated by a president who lost his election by 3 million votes and confirmed by a Senate “majority” that represents only 44 percent of the population.

Two, making the system even more undemocratic through widespread and shameless voter suppression.

And three, counting on the opposition to be divided and demoralized — and, in particular, wedded to a Democratic Party whose corporate-funded leadership can always be counted on to sell out its multiracial, working-class and far more liberal base.

THE GOOD news is that what our side stands for is also becoming clearer than it was two years ago.

Anyone who has attended a Trump-era demonstration, from the most modest to the more politically diverse larger outpourings, knows that millions of people recognize the importance of solidarity.

There is a clear sentiment to stand up for all those under attack in the Trump era — from Syrian and Honduran refugees, to sexual assault survivors, to workers falling further behind the rising cost of living — because of an instinctive recognition that if we let them attack any of us, they become that much stronger to attack all of us.

Our side also understands that the problems run deeper than Trump and the Republican Party. People are beginning to identify with socialism because they see the systemic nature of crises like climate change, police violence and income inequality.

Let me make it clear that by “our side,” I don’t mean Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and the leadership of the Democratic Party. One of the most striking aspects of the last two years of anti-Trump opposition is how little of it has been initiated or led by either the Democratic Party, or the unions and mainstream liberal organizations long associated with it.

In fact, the weak response to Trump from these quarters has forced people to recreate new organizations of resistance on the fly: the Women’s March, Facebook groups of angry teachers, student groups against gun violence, Time’s Up, Occupy ICE encampments and so on.

These new formations are an exciting but uneven development. Many people drawn to them are both frustrated with the Democrats’ inactivity and still waiting for them to take the lead.

The result is a pattern of ups and downs to the resistance: Democrats who have vowed to fight Trump scatter when the time for battle arrives, disorienting people who are ready to struggle and giving up the momentum. Then we regroup and push back, showing our strength in numbers and the potential to shut down the system, until we run up against our limitations.

After which, the Trumpists regroup and attack, Democrats retreat, we regroup, and the cycle repeats — but with the two sides of the political polarization in society, right and left, become more radicalized and more organized than before.

VIEWING THE Trump era in this way, we can make out four phases — and maybe a fifth one beginning now.

Phase One: November 2016 to January 2017
The shortest phase but worth noting. People forget this now, but after Trump’s election, Democrats, ranging from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, turned on a dime — from warning about how horrible Trump would be, to calling for respect for the presidency and looking for common ground.

Phase Two: January 2017 to July 2017
It was only when millions of people responded to a call put out by a few Facebook friends for women to march in the capital against the inauguration of a sexual predator that Democrats were pushed into a more oppositional stance.

The momentum of the first Women’s March carried into a series of grassroots mobilizations and protests, from the “airport uprising” that stopped the first Muslim ban, to the Climate March and Science March, culminating in smaller but intense protests over the summer led by disabled activists to stop the Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The Republicans lost their drive against Obamacare in the Senate, but by then, the series of one-off mass protests on different issues had started to run out of steam.

Phase Three: August 2017 to December 2017
Trump’s notorious “blame on both sides” reaction to the far-right violence in Charlottesville threw his presidency into temporary turmoil. But in hindsight, this was the start of a sharp right turn in which Trump felt confident to take actions such as repealing DACA.

Democrats talked tough about fighting for young immigrants, but backed away from every confrontation — and while they, of course, denounced Trump’s quasi-endorsement of the alt-right in Charlottesville, they followed his logic by portraying anti-fascist protesters as part of the problem.

As a dreary fall gave way to a depressing winter, Trump and the Republicans got their first major legislative victory: massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which showed the ruling class that this buffoon was capable of delivering for them. With the exception of graduate students, whose protests helped remove a higher education poison pill from the final legislation, there was shockingly little protest against the tax cuts from the labor movement.

Phase Four: January 2018 through ?
Once again, masses of people turned out for the second Women’s Marches in January, kicking off months of explosive protests. These mobilizations, however, were different.

From the red-state teachers’ rebellions, to the student walkouts against gun violence and the right, to the protests against Trump’s family separation policies — involving a wide range of people, from tech company employees to activists who invaded the restaurants where Trump officials like to dine — the movements of 2018 were more sustained than their predecessors of the previous year.

They also showed the leftward-shifting character of our side. West Virginia teachers not only fought for their benefits, but demanded that the state raise taxes on energy corporations. At the nationwide protests against gun violence, students spoke out about not only school shootings, but police violence and harassment. The upsurge against the family separation at the border gave rise to calls to abolish ICE that forced liberal political figures to embrace the demand, and not previous timid calls for bipartisan compromise.

I PUT a question mark on duration of this last period because it’s not clear whether its general contours will continue or we will move into a new phase.

One possibility is a new period of right-wing advance. We could look back on this fall’s confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite massive opposition — plus the Democratic Party’s midterm elections strategy of running away from issues like immigration and sexual assault — as a time that further emboldened the right, including the far right that uses Trump’s rallies as recruiting grounds.

On the other hand, the bitterness sown by the Kavanaugh confirmation runs deep. Plus, the Democrats appear likely to make significant gains in the midterm elections. Though the Democrats’ record shows that no one should expect much action once they take office, a “blue wave” that returns control of at least the House to the Democrats could give the widest layers of anti-Trump opposition new confidence to act.

What’s more, another feature of the past two years is the significant growth of the organized socialist left — particularly the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — for the first time in several generations.

The main face of the return of the s-word has been the success of genuinely left-wing candidates, many of them DSA members, contesting and sometimes winning major elections inside the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign helped shape the new socialist movement, and congressional candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib helped to popularize demands for abolishing ICE and Medicare for All. At the same time, their belief that the Democratic Party can be pulled to the left and fundamentally changed has revived an old debate on the left.

The new socialist movement, inside and outside DSA, has the task of trying to shape the radicalizing left into a force that’s large enough to stop Trump’s attacks — and politically coherent and radical enough to build a lasting alternative both to Trumpian nationalism and the Democrats’ miserable status quo.

That will mean recognizing that the U.S. is a country of limited democracy — where the power to win change has most often come from outside the system, in labor campaigns, sit-ins and marches: the red-state teachers’ strikes, the airport protests, the Black Lives Matter actions demanding justice for Laquan McDonald in Chicago, to name a few.

We have to figure out how to channel the energy and enthusiasm for left-wing candidates currently running as Democrats toward building movements — and ultimately an independent political party — that fight for our demands around health care, immigration, climate change and more.

We’ll have lots of questions and debates in the coming years about how to move forward. There will also be many more protests against Trump’s atrocities, some of which will win, and others of which won’t.

But one more lesson we’ve learned over the past two years is that being a part of those protests and actions and debates is the only way to survive the Trump era.

Further Reading

From the archives