The global financial crisis of 2007-09, which “marked the beginning of a new phase of depressed profitability and accumulation in the capitalist world economy, is crucial to understanding the rise of the populist right and Trump in the United States”, says Charles Post.
Wages have fallen and the meagre social safety net – food stamps, unemployment insurance, cost of living adjustments for pensions and disability payments – has been attacked, leading to a deep sense of insecurity among workers and sections of the middle classes. Household incomes, having fallen since the 1970s, today remain below pre-crisis levels. Wealth inequality has grown.
The institutions of US capitalism face a crisis of legitimacy. This has fuelled the rise of Trumpism. But Trump’s victory was not the right wing surge among the white working class that it is being made out to be. Post explains:
“We need to be clear that Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College does not reflect a massive shift to the right in the US electorate. Clinton won the popular vote. At the latest count, she leads Trump by more than 2 million votes.”
Though the exit poll data are often unreliable, they give a rough indication of voter participation. These polls show that the electorate was tilted towards the upper-middle class. The biggest drops in voter turnout were among households earning below $50,000 a year, and those earning between $50,000 and $100,000. Households that earn over $100,000 a year make up 17 percent of the US population. But they were over-represented as a voting bloc. In 2008, they made up 26 percent of the electorate. In 2012, the figure rose to 28 percent. In 2016 it climbed to 33 percent.
Trump drew votes from the working class. But the majority came from the traditional and salaried middle classes. They were older, white, ex-urban small business owners (with fewer than 10 employees) and came from the suburbs. They were lower level professionals (some of whom don’t need a college diploma) and managers. There were significant numbers of better off, college educated professionals and managers.
For Post, this isn’t the whole story. A significant minority of Trump’s supporters were impoverished white working class voters. This was especially the case in the rustbelt states – Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Pennsylvania:
“While 60 percent of households earning less than $50,000 a year voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, Clinton won only 52 percent of these households. Trump was able to win 43 percent of households with at least one union member. A significant minority of older, white workers – including union members –have been voting Republican since 1980. Faced with a labour movement incapable of organising even the most minimal defence of workers’ living and working conditions against the capitalist offensive, many workers have sought to defend their declining relative advantages over other workers.
“This has fuelled support for right wing politics – racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism – among a segment of the US working class. Trump’s razor-thin victories in a number of key states – he carried Michigan by less than 0.25 percent, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 percent and Florida by about 1.4 percent – were the result of shifts in a small percentage of voters in about 800 counties across the country. Of the 700 counties Obama won twice, Trump won a third in 2016; and in counties that Obama carried once, almost 94 percent went to Trump. Voters in these key counties were overwhelmingly small town and rural white workers.”
Trump’s rhetoric – his populist rage against neoliberal “free trade” deals – resonated with older, white middle and working class voters who have been falling behind. They are the downwardly mobile losers of modern neoliberal capitalism.
His virulent racism, immigrant bashing, tirades against people of colour and women connected with these segments of the population who view these other working people as competitors for jobs, housing and social services. A vote for Trump in these quarters means “hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”, to take a line from Malcolm X.
“Sociologists who have interviewed Tea Party and Trump supporters report that they see themselves as ‘hard working people’ who have ‘played by the rules’ but see their living standards and ‘earned benefits’ (especially Social Security pensions and Medicare for the elderly) under threat from those they deem ‘line jumpers’”, Post says. “People of colour, women who benefit from affirmative action and undocumented immigrants are seen as taking jobs, depleting social services and threatening their ‘quality of life’ (lowering housing values, increasing crime etc.)”.
Lesser-evilist trappings of the left
Trump’s victory was a gift for the far right. But it didn’t fall from the sky. It was the logical outcome of 80 years of lesser-evilist politics that the US left has fallen prey to, Post says. Since the US Communist Party embraced the politics of popular frontism (making alliances with bourgeois parties) in 1936, most of the US left has politically subordinated itself to the forces of official reformism – the labour bureaucracy, middle class leadership of people of colour and so forth – who tailed the Democratic Party through the late 1940s. The policy has had disastrous consequences:
“The result was the derailing of industrial militancy, the squandering of opportunities to launch an independent labour party, the bureaucratisation of the unions and their support for US imperialism, and the eventual destruction of the ‘militant minority’ – the layer of workers who posed an alternative to the politics of reformism and the Democratic Party.
“Since the decline of the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s, lesser-evilist politics has again become dominant, with the left, labour and the social movements subordinating their politics to an ever rightward moving Democratic Party. The poisoned fruits of this strategy are clear in 2016. With millions of people demanding some sort of radical break with neoliberal politics as usual, the only voice in the general elections who echoed these sentiments was the right wing populist Trump. The forces that should have been posing a left wing alternative, Bernie Sanders and the labour and social movement officialdom, tailed Clinton, leaving those looking for radical change with few, if any choices.”
They key lesson to draw from the latest election cycle, Post argues, is to break with this kind of lesser evilism – to argue for an alternative to the two great gangs of political speculators “who alternatively take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt end”, as Frederick Engels once remarked of the US republic.
This lesson may well fall on deaf ears within the remnants of the US left and the forces of official reformism. The social position of labour officialdom – free from the daily drudgery of working life and playing the role of deal maker between capital and labour – ties them to reformist methods, particularly when it comes to electioneering. This labour bureaucracy and the middle class leaderships of the organisations of women, people of colour, LGBTI people and immigrants, will most likely settle down in their commitment to make the Democratic Party electable again as the antidote to Trump, he says:
“While Sanders and most of the labour leaders have already raised the white flag and called for ‘giving Trump a chance’, what passes for a left in the US (social democrats and ex-Stalinists – all committed to a ‘strategic alliance’ with the forces of official reformism) and dissident officials will recommit themselves to the utopian task of ‘pushing the Democrats to the left’.
“Given the weakness of a militant minority in workplaces and oppressed communities, revolutionary socialists in the US will be limited to educating those individuals who are disgusted with the Democrats and the forces of official reform, but will be unable to actually initiate any significant breaks in the electoral arena in the short and medium term.”
More than a ripple in the Republicans
Trump’s 2016 candidacy, much like the Tea Party’s rise and fall between 2010 and 2014, came from the radicalisation of the Republican base among the middle classes and a minority of older white workers in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.
“Insurgents in the Republican Party pressed a program that was at odds with the ‘Republican establishment’ – the neoliberals with close ties to old-line White Anglo-Saxon Protestant capitalists”. They want a vehicle much closer to a formation like the UK Independence Party, whereas the more traditional sections that have a closer relationship to the capitalist class are against this on account of their support for the neoliberal project.
The Tea Party vehemently opposed pro-corporate immigration reform that would establish a massive guest worker program. Its demands for mass deportations came into conflict with capitalists who want a large pool of highly vulnerable workers with no political rights. This hard core of the Republican right alienated key sections of capital because of its willingness to shut down the federal government.
The corporate world’s opposition to the Tea Party was displayed in 2014, when the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest and most representative organisation of capitalists in the US, poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaign to defeat Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries for the House and Senate. They were successful in reducing the Tea Party’s presence in Congress, but, Post says, “The radicalised middle classes were able to rally behind Trump and secure his nomination. Traditionally Republican capitalists abandoned their party’s standard bearer, and Clinton garnered 80-90 percent of corporate donations in 2016”. The Chamber of Commerce issued a statement welcoming Trump’s victory, but it backed well over 90 percent of the Republicans in the House.
“Since the election, Trump appears to be trying to balance the neoliberals and the hard populist ‘alt-right’ forces. He seems to be creating ‘dual power’ within his transition team, appointing Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chair, as his chief of staff; and Steve Bannon, the alt-right firebrand editor of the openly racist and homophobic Breitbart website, as his chief strategist. The churning of his transition team in the week after the election indicates that these forces are not going to be easily reconciled.”
The corporate world backed Clinton as a reliable administrator of neoliberal policy. By appointing “alt-right” white nationalist advisers, Trump may well be trying to “divide and conquer” elements of the US capitalist class. Offering “concessions (deregulation of Wall Street, massive military-police buildup etc.), Trump might be hoping to remove obstacles to implementing the policies his base really wants – massive deportations of undocumented immigrants, abandoning the alliances that the US has organised over the past 70 years (NATO etc.) and dumping neoliberal trade pacts (NAFTA, Trans-Pacific Partnership)”.
Nevertheless, the structural obstacles remain – establishment Republican domination of Congress and the resistance of the permanent bureaucracy of the executive branch – that could limit Trump.
So it is unclear exactly which forces will dominate Trump’s administration as he appoints key cabinet officers and defines his relationship with the Congressional Republican leadership. But at his disposal, Trump has a far more militarised police force and anti-immigrant executive, both the legacy of Obama.
The so-called death of neoliberalism is trumped up
Many of his policies are compatible with the wants of the US capitalist class. Congressional Republicans will probably support corporate tax cuts, further deregulation of the financial sector and cuts to social services. And his anti-immigrant policies would be an intensification and continuation of Obama’s mass deportations.
“Trump’s call for the deportation of up to 3 million undocumented immigrants is not new – Obama has deported more than any other US president”, Post says. Trump will also continue the state’s support for police violence. Obama appointed Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch – the first two African-American attorneys-general in US history – but they failed to indict a single cop who murdered young people of colour. He will also inherit the historic institutions of US repression that have administered Guantánamo, Abu Graib, the CIA black sites, the round-ups of thousands of Muslims, the policing of mosques and Muslim neighbourhoods, mass surveillance and drones, which were more or less in line with the institutional mechanics of the Obama administration. But it won’t be all smooth sailing:
“While the mainstream Republicans and many Democrats will support most of Trump’s policies, there will be push back if he tries to implement his more populist, anti-neoliberal policies. It is very doubtful that Congress will agree to a renegotiation of NAFTA or the junking of the Trans-Pacific partnership. Nor will they, or the permanent, unelected bureaucracy in the key federal cabinet departments (State, Defense, Treasury, Commerce) go along with policies that undermine the system of imperialist alliances the US has built since World War Two.
“He will find it difficult, if not impossible, to abandon NATO for an alliance with Putin’s Russia; alienate the Saudis and other Arab regimes by allowing Israel to abandon any pretence of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority; or force the Mexican state to pay for building a wall on the US-Mexico border. Either Trump will backtrack on these policies, or he will face the sort of structural-institutional obstacles social democrats face when attempting to implement reforms through the capitalist state.”
It is not just what happens at the top, in the corridors of power, that matters. The rise of racist violence is the greatest danger and has begun in earnest. Fascist gangs and far right individuals ramped up their wave of violence in the immediate aftermath of the elections. They have attacked immigrants, people of colour and LGBTI people. Post explains:
“The Southern Poverty Law Center counted nearly 400 bias-related incidents of violence and harassment in the five days following Trump’s election. The spontaneous protests in many cities and the growing campaign to wear safety pins as a sign of solidarity against racist and homophobic violence are promising signs. However, the great danger is that these struggles, like the Wisconsin Uprising of 2010, Occupy in 2011 and Black Lives Matters at the present, will be short lived and leave little independent organisation in their wake.”
A hard road ahead
“[The] way forward for the left is rebuilding the militant minority – the layer of activists with a strategy and tactics that go beyond reformism, if not explicitly to revolution – in workplaces and social movements. Without such a layer rooted among broader layers of working people, the labour officials, Democratic Party politicos and the middle class leaders of the social movements will be able to continually derail and demobilise promising struggles – as they have for most of the last 40 years.”
Rebuilding a solid and durable militant minority in workplaces “is the key to reviving working class power and radicalism – and with it a radical left in the US”, Post says. He pointed to the changing dynamics of the labour movement:
“The industrial landscape is very different today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when I radicalised. While the industries that were crucial to the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s (auto, tire, machine making etc.) remain in the US, they have abandoned the upper midwest for the south. The rise of lean production and just-in-time inventory systems has produced huge transport-logistics hubs around the US, employing tens of thousands of people. Neither traditional manufacturing in the south nor logistics will be organised through the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) established in response to the militancy of the 1930s.
“In the south, ‘right to work’ laws and militant employer hostility have made organising through NLRB elections difficult, if not impossible. The workforce in logistic hubs is broken up among dozens of employers, with workers who labour next to one another having different employers. Others, like truck drivers, are deemed ‘independent contractors’, not entitled to union representation. The organisation of these industries will require a return to the direct-action approach – where successful strikes by strategically positioned groups of workers produced union organisation and recognition – that was central to the successful struggles of the 1930s. Thousands of worker activists around Labor Notes, the newsletter that sponsors organising schools and conferences across the US, have begun to grapple with these issues and the challenges of building opposition groupings in the existing unions.”
Trump’s election also requires an organisational response to racist and fascist violence. This is a great challenge for the left because the organisational and political weakness of the Black Lives Matter movement – its fragmentation and its reliance on NGOs – makes it harder for anti-racist struggles to score victories. Anti-fascist militancy, a necessity, is impeded by the weakness of the radical left and the militant minority in the workplaces. Therefore, Post argues, “One of the key tasks of the revolutionary left in the US in the coming months will be to link up with those who want to fight – in the workplace or in the streets against police racism and fascist gangs – and rebuild effective grassroots movements”.