Fighting Back for Survival

Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017

The Editors

ON NOVEMBER 8, some 135 million U.S. voters chose between the two least popular capitalist party candidates in the country’s modern history.  By a margin of close to 2.7 million votes — concentrated, to be sure, in huge majorities in California and New York — they opted for the choice that seemed less frightening, if hardly inspiring. She did not, however, win the election. By virtue of a relic of slavery-era federalism called the Electoral College and narrow victories in Midwestern battleground states, Donald J. Trump emerged as the president-elect.

Instead of the widely anticipated result, which for progressive hopes would have been dismal enough — the stagnant neoliberalism of a Hillary Clinton administration — a con man with a well-earned frightening reputation, uniquely unfit to hold any responsible office, will now assume power on January 20 as probably the most reviled incoming U.S. president in history. The shock waves from the electoral result continue to reverberate, if anything magnified by the bestiary lining up for Cabinet and high-level White House appointments and the prospective rightwing packing of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Drain the swamp? Trump’s actually digging a deeper Wall Street-military-corporate cesspool. If one appointment is representative of the lot, it would be Secretary of Education nominee billionaire-heiress Betsy DeVos — a voucher-and-charter-school lobbyist and the architect of Michigan’s empire of disastrously failing charters, whose only connection to public education or the teaching profession is her commitment to destroying both.

Contrary to premature and superficial prophecies of its demise, the Republican Party will control the presidency and both houses of Congress. What does this portend in a new period where, in fact, both corporate parties find themselves in low-level internal civil wars, where regional wars are raging across the world — and where capital is at war against nature itself, with incipient mass extinction as planetary collateral damage?

First, what happened? The result is in part a fluke, but also the culmination of certain trends both internationally — including Brexit and a rightwing nationalist tide in much of Europe — and in the United States. Even if the voters favored Clinton over Trump by a pretty substantial margin of close to two percent, the Democrats got smashed in areas they once dominated — swamped by a revolt against the neoliberal, free-trade “new economic order” to which the Clinton-Obama-Pelosi leadership attached itself.

Second, on a closer look, it’s highly dubious to call the election a “populist working class revolt.” As Kim Moody’s analysis in this issue of Against the Current shows, it’s much more an uprising of the affluent. (See other election articles in this issue.)

Nonetheless, in those closely fought battleground states that produced the Electoral College result, a declining overall working-class vote and a swing by white workers were decisive factors. A New York Times post-mortem analysis concisely nailed how the Hillary Clinton Democrats managed to lose:

“(A)s the dust settled, Democrats recognized two central problems of Mrs. Clinton’s flawed candidacy: Her decades in Washington and the paid speeches she delivered to financial institutions left her unable to tap into the anti-establishment and anti-Wall Street rage. And she ceded the white working-class voters who backed Mr. Clinton in 1992. Though she would never have won this demographic, her husband insisted that her campaign aides do more to try to cut into Mr. Trump’s support with these voters. They declined, reasoning that she was better off targeting college educated suburban voters…” (Amy Chozick, “Clinton’s Campaign of Hopes and Missteps,” NYT special section Election 2016, November 10, P1.)

There’s one point to add. Beyond the fact that the Democratic neoliberals saw no need to address much of the working class — white, Black or Latino — is the reality that they have nothing to say to workers whose jobs, communities and lives have been damaged by industrial flight and deteriorating wages and job security. Donald Trump had something to say to them: We’ll bring back those jobs by cancelling “bad trade deals” and building that “big, beautiful wall” to keep out those Mexicans.

It was both racist and pseudo-populist, of course. These promises, despite the sound and fury over “saving” those several hundred Carrier jobs in Indiana with a big tax giveaway, are a “huge” fraud that can’t and won’t be kept. The Trump/Republican game plan is to make those folks feel “great” about being white again, even while their real lives continue to stagnate.

How they will respond when their expectations are betrayed — whether by turning against Trump as the fraudster he is, or becoming more virulently nationalist and racist — is one of the great open questions of the new period. Precisely because the Democrats’ abandonment of working people’s concerns is one of the main tendencies that have come to fruition in this election, it’s up to the independent left and social movements to present an alternative.

Rightwing Agendas

Both parties are sorting themselves out after this election. The Obama/Clinton/Pelosi Democratic “center” is mobilizing to ward off the “progressive” challenge for control of the Democratic National Committee, while much of the Bernie Sanders movement’s leadership undertakes the perennial, ever-failing crusade to turn the Democrats into a “people’s party.”

On the Republican side, the internal divisions are actually greater — and it was the GOP, after all, which was supposed to be going into crisis in the wake of Trump’s hostile takeover. Relations between the “Trump party” and Republican establishment will remain tense, but the advantages that power confers will help bridge them at least for a while. That’s why the comforting conventional platitude that the responsibilities of government should “moderate” the party’s hard-right edge is more likely to prove radically false in this case.

Tactically, to be sure, the need to “replace” and not merely “repeal Obamacare” means that the Affordable Care Act probably won’t disappear all at once. But on the whole, the Republicans will not be gradualist. A set of overlapping reactionary agendas, even if partly contradictory, will be pursued with all the more vigor since the ideologues in power know that these next few years might be the only chance to ram them through. Those disparate elements of the Republican coalition — Wall Street and big business, the religious right, and the extreme racist-nationalist elements — can hold together only while each of them feel they’re getting something from the new dispensation.

Paul Ryan’s scheme to enact huge tax cuts to benefit the rich, and to starve and wipe out most of Social Security and Medicare, is definitely on the table even though Trump promised not to touch these programs. That such tax-cutting policies, to say nothing of the promised massive increases in military spending, would balloon the budget deficit and cause ultimate economic damage as well as absolute social disaster, is a problem to be cleaned up down the road — perhaps when neoliberal Democrats next take over, according to the usual alternating pattern. A national “right to work” assault is also pending.

As these measures hit some of Trump’s own working-class voters, the Republicans meanwhile need to consolidate their 2016 electoral good fortune by permanently tilting the scales against Black and Latino voters. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General means a Justice Department hostile to the Voting Rights Act, which can be effectively dismantled through all of the Grand Theft Election voter-suppression and gerrymandering techniques perfected in rightwing state legislatures.

The same goes for women’s right to choose, as states’ assault on abortion will now be abetted by the federal government and ultimately, quite likely, the Supreme Court. Heavily militarized police forces — a product of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations — will be further emboldened to smash protests and racially profile civilians. The election result has also encouraged the extreme racist “Alt-Right” to emerge from its hole, as Angela Dillard’s discussion of events at the University of Michigan shows.

The very idea of “registering” Muslim residents smacks of classic fascist technique. The wave of fear sweeping through immigrant communities will intensify, whether or not mass workplace raids and deportations materialize. One hopeful sign is the open statements of refusal by several large city administrations to cooperate in such atrocities — both as an act of principle and a defense of their own economies that (notably in the case of New York City) are already threatened as people hunker down and stop spending.

Imperial Contradictions

Global strategy is trickier as it involves imperial dilemmas, real risks and potential conflict with adversaries that can actually fight back. Trump’s boastful pledge to “smash ISIS and take their oil” (as if it were “theirs” or “ours” to take) is likely to produce little more than a continuation of president Obama’s drones-and-special-forces strategy. The new president’s peculiar elective affinity with the likes of Vladimir Putin is a wild card that troubles some militarist conservatives even as it sits well with more neo-isolationist America-First types.

For the Palestinian people, as bad as the Obama presidency has proven to be, the Trump and rightwing ascendancy will be even worse. The U.S. election result has emboldened the Netanyahu government and the even more extremist Klan-type Israeli settler forces.

There are open questions. Would Trump really “tear up” the crucially important nuclear deal with Iran, sabotaging the United States’ main strategic allies — Britain, France and Germany — and pushing the Iranian regime into the protective embrace of Russia? If motivated by the interests of American business, would he want to mess up the commercial aircraft industry’s sales opportunities in Iran (or for that matter, the already lucrative opportunities for business with Cuba)?

No one knows what, if anything, Donald Trump actually believes about any of these issues, or whether he’ll be driven by profit or ideology. It may be best to avoid further speculation at the moment, except to say that all those wars that president Obama inherited from George W. Bush, and the new ones that he entered, will rage on under the new administration.

Bitter Neoliberal Legacy

It is still difficult, and will remain so for some time, to grasp the concept: President. Donald. Trump. The anachronistic peculiar institution of the Electoral College has played a particularly nasty trick this time — and we are in the midst of a political upheaval that will reverberate for many years. Although we can’t yet know whether this reality will turn out to be problematic for U.S. capital, it will certainly be brutal for the working class, oppressed and immigrant communities, women and civil rights.

Resistance is critical — and it’s underway. The flood of contributions to Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, the upsurge of people (many from the Sanders upsurge) signing up with socialist groups, the flood of activist volunteers heading to Standing Rock — all these are among the positive signs.

But amidst the horror over Trump, it would be remiss to overlook the pernicious role played by the present administration in paving the road to reaction. When Barack Obama took office eight years and so many broken dreams ago, who thought that the Guantanamo prison, which he announced on his first day would be closed, would remain open so that a Republican president could plan to expand it and revive waterboarding “and much worse” torture?

Who imagined then his deportation practices would be so vast that the new president will be hard-pressed to match them? Or that after 15 years in Afghanistan and 13 years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military would remain deeply entangled in both, with no end in sight?

A proper assessment of the Obama presidential era requires a separate treatment, but as we head into a period of escalating reaction and confrontation, it would be wise not to become overly nostalgic for it. There can be, in any case, no going back. The truly sinister menace that Donald Trump represents will be defeated by defiance and mass action, by movements in the streets and by a vibrant genuinely progressive political agenda, not by the resuscitation of a dying Democratic neoliberalism.

January-February 2017, ATC 186


  1. Bravo, Jules!

    Let’s face it: Bernie Sanders has changed the rules and the playing field.

    Socialists can adopt a Sanders model – and engage in some real efforts – or they can demand a pure/ideal alternative. Essential actions outside the Democratic Party (e.g., the demonstrations we’ve seen over the last three weeks) AND inside the Dem Party are both possible and desirable.

    If the medium-term results are a Dem Party that looks and acts like a soft social-democratic entity, that’s not insignificant. Socialists need not lose their souls in the process; they can actually build a Left. The American working class deserves as much.


    The four articles featured in the Jan-Feb. issue of ATC under the heading of “The Election and Beyond” were informative, particularly Kim Moody’s piece, “Who Put Trump In The White House”. Strangely, only Chris Maisono’s article, “Hope In Dark Times” gives the Sanders campaign more than passing mention. This convinces me that the socialist left does not really understand its significance and the lessons to be drawn from it.
    Bernie Sanders, an Independent senator, has called himself a democratic socialist and, as late as 1979, was denouncing the two capitalist parties as dead ends for workers. He produced a documentary about his hero, E.V. Debs, entitled “Eugene V. Debs, Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary: 1855-1926” (Smithsonian Folkways, 1979) in which he quoted Debs:
    “Every four years the Democratic and Republican parties come forward and tell the working people of this country all that they are going to do for them. How they are going to end unemployment, raise wages, lower prices and stop war.” Gene Debs didn’t believe a word of it. He believed that the only way that workers could protect their own interests was to have a political party of their own-a socialist party.”
    Yet, despite using the term “revolution” in his campaign, Sanders’ “socialism” was hardly Debsian. When questioned, he took the opportunistic course of defining “socialism as Social Security and the safety nets of the Scandinavian countries. Socialists no doubt could find a number of defects in Sanders’ positions on foreign policy and elsewhere, but these are of minor significance compared to the remarkable results.
    Starting with close to zero name recognition, and with no corporate dollars, the Sanders campaign gathered considerable working class support. He defeated Clinton in 23 of the 50 states and tied her in two others. He garnered more than 13 million votes, 43% of the total, and managed to win outright in the “battleground” states of Michigan and Wisconsin. He also exceeded 40% of the vote in four others (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri.)
    Despite his many flaws, the Sanders campaign had a working class, implicitly anti-capitalist flavor, that garnered considerable support among those who might otherwise have voted for Trump, as many perhaps did.
    In contrast, the independent campaign of Jill Stein fizzled. Granted, she was not a charismatic candidate like Sanders and was blocked by the media who refuse to take any but the two capitalist parties seriously. Still, her failure to get a significant fraction of the vote won by the libertarian, Gary Johnson, in an election between the two most unpopular major party candidates in history was both disheartening and informative. It indicated to me that, if there is a road to a working class party in America, it will not develop out of middle class, left liberal third parties like the Greens.
    Since I was old enough to vote, in 1952, I have never voted for either of the two capitalist parties. In presidential elections, I always cast a protest vote for one of the parties that had “socialist” in its name.
    I was a follower of Hal Draper whose seminal article, “Who’s going to be the lesser-evil in 1968” (Independent Socialist Jan-Feb 1967) I found convincing. The two capitalist parties were dead ends for socialists.
    Draper had been a leading proponent of the “Labor Party” position within the Independent Socialist League, of which I was a member. As I understood it, this was the view that when a major capitalist crisis hits and workers became more militant, they could pressure the trade unions to organize an independent Labor Party. This party would most likely follow the road of the British Labour Party or the social democratic parties of Europe. In it, independent socialists would have a voice, leading rank-and-file workers into ever more radical anti-capitalist solutions.
    Since then, I have witnessed several capitalist crises and the decimation of the American trade unions. I still believed that somehow an independent party of labor could emerge. I voted for Jill Stein with the full knowledge that, in New Jersey, a Clinton state, my vote would be irrelevant.. Her candidacy echoed the Sanders agenda in many items and was superior in others. Still, I had to cringe in embarrassment at her proposal to forgive college debt by “quantitative easing”.
    I am sure that Sanders gave considerable thought to running in the primaries of one of America’s capitalist parties, as I did before choosing to participate in the Sanders campaign. Lacking a parliamentary system, the U.S. has been locked into the two party system since its birth. When a major third party emerges, it comes out of one of the two, as the Republican Party emerged from the Whigs.
    The way the crazy quilt primary system has developed, it was possible for Trump to hijack the Republican Party and Sanders, a transplanted Jew from Brooklyn who calls himself a socialist, to gather working class support to an astonishing extent.
    Socialists can run against the tide, hoping for the working class to be attracted to a third party like the Greens with their fine program, or accept the alternative: that it is more likely to develop from a rump campaign such as the one that Sanders led. I am now convinced that the latter is the better hope.

    Jules Greenstein

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