The Trump administration is one of the most reactionary governments in US history. It is a shotgun marriage of the far right, the Republican establishment, Goldman Sachs Democrats and Pentagon generals, each intent on implementing a different agenda.
Trump stands astride this chaotic faction fight like Jabba the Hutt in a suit, vacillating between the various camps and lashing out in tweets and bizarre rants against his enemies, real and imagined.
He is, as Princeton University associate professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor famously dubbed him, “a racist, sexist megalomaniac”. His recent outlandish description of Haiti, El Salvador and the entire African continent as “shithole countries” is only the tip of the iceberg of bigotry.
He’s ranted against Muslims, ridiculed people with disabilities, denounced the 16 women charging him with sexual assault, ritually derided immigrants, given coded compliments to the far right and threatened nuclear annihilation of the entire Korean peninsula, boasting that he has “a bigger button” than North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Amid this eruption of crude prejudice, his administration has issued a stream of executive orders to let capital run roughshod over the rights of workers and oppressed people. He’s also repealed countless regulations that restrict capital from ravaging the natural world. And he ended his year in office with an enormous tax cut for billionaires and corporations, disproving for the nth time that he has workers’ interests at heart.
His reactionary, vengeful, incompetent administration has not made “America great again” but accelerated its relative decline abroad and, at home, at least for the vast majority of its population, turned it into the world’s biggest shithole.
A year of misrule
In power, Trump has attempted to implement a program to “make America great” by putting “America first”. But his administration has been torn apart from day one by unending conflicts between its various factions. On one side, Steve Bannon, the self-appointed consigliere to Trump, went to war with the Republican establishment to push for the implementation of his program of immigrant bashing, isolationism and confrontation with China. On the other, the establishment, corporate executives and generals wanted to continue a more muscular version of the Democrats’ program of superintending the neoliberal order.
Their unending war, exacerbated by Trump’s unpredictable swings from one camp to another, has driven record numbers of appointees to resign or be fired, most dramatically with Bannon returning to his right wing website, Breitbart, to uphold Trumpism against Trump – at least briefly; he was fired for his damning indictment of the administration in a new book, Fire and Fury, which documents the turmoil in the White House.
Increasingly, the generals and bankers have attempted to control Trump, but to little avail as he continues his bigoted comments, tweets and public rebukes of even his most loyal lieutenants.
Despite this three-ring circus, Trump has passed executive orders targeting Muslims, immigrants, women and other oppressed groups. He has used this rampant scapegoating as cover for his regime’s other agendas – further deregulating the US economy, gutting whole departments of the US state, from the Environmental Protection Agency to Housing and Urban Development, trying but failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, in one of the greatest giveaways to the rich in the history of the country, ramming through an enormous corporate tax cut, mandating deep austerity measures against social programs for the working class majority in coming years. Already, he’s issued an executive order allowing states to require impoverished recipients of Medicaid to work or volunteer.
And that’s just his impact on domestic policy. Internationally, the Trump administration has tried to break with the US imperialist strategy of superintending a neoliberal world order and replace it with a nationalist one designed to compete principally with China.
It has scrapped free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change, adopted a confrontational posture toward its competitors large and small, threatened nuclear war with Korea and is poised to impose sanctions on Iran and China.
Far from restoring US power, however, Trump’s bellicose nationalism has, if anything, discredited US imperialism, alienated historic allies such as Germany and opened more space for its competitors, especially China, to exert their own imperialist ambitions. The New Yorker went so far as to title an article about Trump’s foreign policy, “Making China Great Again”.
Resistance and a new left
The Trump administration has intensified the political polarisation of US society. It has triggered the emergence of “the resistance”, a wave of radicalisation and protest against the billionaire bigot.
This has not been led by the Democratic Party, which has been remarkably quiescent, believing that it needs to promise little because Trump is so bad and so unpopular. Indeed, he is the least popular president after one year in office in US history, with an approval rating of 39 percent.
Comfortable in their business as usual posture, Democrats floated as an election slogan, “Have you seen the other guys?” They have been content to focus on portraying Trump as Putin’s Manchurian candidate and backing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the campaign’s collusion with Russia, a strategy that enables them to avoid taking responsibility for his election and therefore changing their neoliberal program in anything but cosmetic ways.
The actual resistance has been led from below by forces largely outside the establishment. It produced the Women’s March – the largest protest in US history – the day after the inauguration. Soon after came the March for Science and the Climate March. On the heels of these protests, other smaller but no less significant actions exploded across the country. For example, activists staged sizeable actions that shut down airports against Trump’s executive order barring Muslims from entering the country. These compelled the courts to block the ban.
During the northern summer, activists swamped meetings of Republican representatives and stopped Congress from repealing the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps most dramatically, spurred on by the Women’s March, the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and harassment has exposed and brought down scores of bourgeois men, from media moguls such as Harvey Weinstein to politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Amid this resistance, a new left has emerged, most dramatically exemplified by the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has exploded from a small paper membership to 30,000 largely young and working class members. It has a reformist outlook and is oriented mainly to elections, and it has not made a clear break with the Democrats. Most organisations of the left are now growing, including revolutionary ones such the International Socialist Organization.
The far right
Trump has emboldened the far right, which views the situation as the biggest opening in decades. A host of figures and organisations have gained national prominence – from bigoted buffoon Milo Yiannopoulos and pseudo-scientific racist Charles Murray to the fascist Richard Spencer (who infamously led chants of “Hail Trump” in a speech in Washington, DC) and neo-Nazi groups such as the Traditionalist Workers Party.
These came together in August in a carnival of reaction in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a Unite the Right rally. It culminated in the brutal murder of left wing activist Heather Heyer. Most everyone in the US reacted with horror and outrage. Not Trump, who condemned both sides and declared that there were “very fine people” on the right in Charlottesville. Former KKK grand wizard David Duke and Richard Spencer read this correctly as telegraphed support for their bigotry and violence.
The shock of Charlottesville focused the resistance for the first time on the threat posed by the far right. When another right wing demonstration was called in Boston 10 days later, more than 20,000 people marched and forced a tiny demonstration of a dozen fascists to run for cover. The result of Charlottesville was thus contradictory. It consolidated the fascist right, showing its ability to field a cadre of thugs prepared for street battles. But the popular condemnation, and especially the mass march in Boston, splintered this hard core from its softer supporters.
Setback should not, however, be confused with disappearance. The unhinging of a section of the middle classes from the ruling class parties will keep replenishing the fascist right in the US and internationally. They are already planning more provocative meetings on college campuses across the country this semester.
The resistance to Trump and the far right has, however, not sustained its mass character. This is true for three key reasons. First, Trump’s attacks initially provoked people into protest and organising, but their unrelenting and almost daily character has also demoralised many. New activists alternate between bouts of hyper-activity and depression.
Second, our side is not yet sufficiently and independently organised. Our social and class organisations are weak after three decades of defeat and retreat. We have hardly any strikes, the key indicator of our side’s confidence to fight. And the new left, however exciting and promising, is still in its earliest stages of formation. So the militant minority inside the resistance is not yet clear enough politically and influential enough numerically to provide leadership for more sustained struggle.
Third, many if not the majority in the resistance, including whole layers of the emerging left, still view the Democratic Party, however critically, as an electoral alternative to Trump and the Republicans. The DSA and others hope to use the Democrats’ ballot line to advance a socialist agenda, and many even believe the Democratic Party can be reformed into a social democratic one.
Throughout autumn, much of the left was oriented not to organising struggle but to the November special elections. Liberal figures in and around the Democratic Party, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, encouraged this transformation.
While the elections signalled a sweeping rejection of Trump, including satisfying victories such as the one in North Carolina, where transgender woman Danica Roem defeated the author of a bill that would have restricted trans people’s access to bathrooms.
But the emerging left will have to come to terms with the fact that the Democratic Party is not a vehicle for the resistance against Trump, Trumpism or the capitalist system that spawned them both. First, Democrats and their policies are largely to blame for his election. Second, their return to office would not deliver on the demands of our side, and their business as usual neoliberalism would stoke the flames of the far right.
The Democratic Party is a liberal capitalist party devoted to the system. It exists not to reform or get rid of it, but to co-opt those who desire fundamental change. The lesson of its 200-year history is, as Malcolm X rightly proclaimed, “You put them first, and they put you last”. Or, as Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi infamously declared on CNN, “We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is”. It remains the graveyard of social movements and the left.
The contradictions between the Democrats appeal and popular protest were apparent on the anniversary of the Women’s March. The liberal leadership failed to call a national demonstration and encouraged local protests oriented to organising support for Democratic Party campaigns.
These, however, connected with the red-hot moment of #MeToo and produced a multi-issue outpouring of rage against Trump that numbered in the hundreds of thousands if not millions in countless cities across the country.
Some local leaders pushed the Democrats, but others did not. And the ranks of protesters had a far bigger vision of social change and were quite critical of the Democratic Party, even though many if not most will vote for it despite its betrayals.
The revolutionary left must not write off such contradictory protests but join them and agitate for a strategy based on struggle against Trump’s attacks and against the far right he has inflamed. As the airport protests showed, mass struggle, especially if it extends to strikes in the coming years, is where we have the greatest power to roll back Trump’s assault on us all.
And amid these actions, we need to convince the rest of the left and the resistance to build an alternative to both capitalist parties, a new workers’ party to lead the struggle against class inequality and oppressions on all fronts – from the workplace to the community and the ballot box – to win reforms in the here and now on the road to a new and international socialist society.
Ashley Smith is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Burlington, Vermont.