The Trumpian afterlife

rs21’s Charlie Hore spoke with US socialist activist Charlie Post about the political situation in the US after Joe Biden’s election win, the political afterlife of Trumpism, and prospects for socialists looking to rebuild.

Photo: Flickr / Matt Johnson

Given that Trump increased his total number of votes in this election compared to 2016 and the widely predicted ‘blue wave’ didn’t materialise, is the election result only a partial defeat of Trumpism?

The election results clearly indicate that Trump’s nationalist-populist politics continue to have tremendous appeal in the US population, especially among the sectors of the traditional (small business) and new (semi-professionals, managers, supervisors) middle classes – and a minority of working-class people.

Overall voter participation increased from 59% in 2016 to nearly 67% in 2020 according to the latest figures. However, key elements of Trump’s base grew significantly – non-college-educated voters increased from 50% to 59% and those living in exurban and rural areas increased from 17% to 19%. The voter participation in traditionally Democratic urban areas actually dropped from 34% to 29% compared with 2016. Trump’s greatest support was among households earning over $100,000 annually (54%), among white voters (58%) and among voters in the 45 to 64 (50%) and 65 (52%) and over age ranges. Trump did best in areas with low levels of economic activity and where many are either retired or no longer counted as unemployed because they have ceased to look for work after prolonged periods of unemployment.

Biden, by contrast, found increased support among households earning less than $50,000 a year (55% compared with Clinton’s 53% in 2016), the shrinking portion of union households (56% compared with 51%), younger voters between 18 and 29 (60%) and 30 and 34 (52%), urban (60%) and suburban (50%) voters. While the Democrats continue to command the loyalty of the vast majority of voters of color, Democratic support among African-American voters fell from 92% to 88% and Latinx voters from 71% to 68%. Biden also tended to do best in the counties (mostly urban and suburban) that have a high level of economic activity and suffered sharp rises in measured unemployment in 2020.

Although these categories are not based on a Marxian understanding of social classes, we can draw some conclusions. First, the small layer of older white workers in the upper mid-west (‘Rust Belt’) who gave Trump his razor thin margins in 2016 shifted back to the Democrats in 2020. This shift fueled the swing in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Biden, giving him his Electoral College majority. While suburbs outside of large cities with growing unemployment claims swung to Biden. The majority of the white suburban/exurban/rural middle classes, in particular the traditional middle class of small business people and the self-employed, and a significant minority of workers, continue to support Trump.

In the absence of strong ‘class-against-class’ organizations – militant unions, a mass labor party, independent working-class anti-racist and feminist organizations, unemployed and tenants’ movements, etc. – the most economically insecure sectors of the white middle and working classes face an existential dilemma. In the absence of significant social support (grants to small businesses, unemployment benefits that match take-home income, protection against foreclosures and evictions, etc.), they must choose between their economic and physical survival. Least capable of securing their social reproduction during a ‘shut down,’ these layers are drawn to Trump and the far-right’s Covid-19 denialism. The possibility of dying from COVID is, for them, a ‘lesser-evil’ than the certainty of poverty and homelessness from an economic shut down. Biden and the Democrats’ failure to campaign for (no less push through Congress) an expanded Covid relief program for working people only fueled support for Trump among those facing economic disaster.

Trump’s refusal to concede manages to be both farcical and menacing at the same time. Is there a plan here, and if so, what? And how much more damage can he do in his last two months in office?

Predictions of a ‘coup’ – constitutional or otherwise – promoted by many liberals and (unfortunately) sectors of the US socialist left have not come to pass. The actual fascist gangs were unable to effectively intimidate voters or disrupt vote counting. While Trump’s support among capitalists increased relative to the 2016 election campaign (he received 51% of capitalist donations in 2020 compared with a mere 8% four years ago), no sector of capital were ready to abandon the ‘constitutional framework’ that has served them so well for over 200 years. Even the most pro-Trump elements of the repressive apparatus in the Homeland Security Department declared the election ‘free and fair.’ Today (Tuesday 1 December), it appears that all the states where there were relatively close races have been certified for Biden – including in those states governed by Republicans. Trump’s judicial appeals have all been swatted down quickly, and an appeal to the Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn the election, given that the ‘Supremes’ have been loath to review any state-certified election results. Trump has all but conceded, allowing the Biden-Harris transition team access to classified government briefings.

In his remaining time in office, Trump will attempt, with some success, to use Executive Orders that do not require congressional approval to loosen environmental regulations (for example, opening large swathes of the Arctic wilderness to disastrous oil and gas ‘exploration’), complete more of his southern border wall, and to pardon many of his cronies (Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, et al.). When Biden becomes president, he will likely overturn a number of previous Executive Orders – restoring quasi-legal status for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children (‘the ‘dreamers’’), ending the embarrassing ‘‘Muslim ban,’’ and restoring the US role in the system of alliances that has allowed it to maintain leadership of the capitalist world since World War II.

What will the ‘afterlife’ of Trump’s time in office be, both in terms of the organisation of state violence and the direction of reactionary social forces and far-right militias?  And will the Republican party fall in behind him, or are we likely to see significant divisions?

The ‘afterlife’ of Trumpism will be primarily in terms of certain policy initiatives – Biden is unlikely to reverse the massive tax cuts for capital and wealthy individuals – and in the continued growth of actual fascist gangs. Clearly, Trump’s attempt to use Federal forces against urban uprisings – when the state and local authorities (often Democrats) can do this themselves, using the weaponry they received under Clinton and Obama effectively to repress elements of the movement – will be abandoned. Biden-Harris will continue the Democrats’ repressive strategy of strengthening local and state police forces and National Guard to deal with any possible unrest, and using select Federal agencies to coordinate repression – as Obama used the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to coordinate mayoral evictions of ‘Occupy’ encampments in 2011.

The emboldened fascist gangs (and I do use them in a ‘clinical’/classically Zetkin-Trotsky sense of gangs of downwardly mobile middle class and working-class youth, mostly young men, terrorizing the workers and oppressed) are and remain a threat to us – especially to immigrants, people of color, queer folks, open leftists and workers attempting to organize outside of the largest cities (remember, the crucial logistic hubs are generally located in suburbs with cheap land outside of, but near the big cities). Their demonstration in Washington, while not even a dress rehearsal for a ‘March on Rome’-style seizure of power, is a clear signal that the ‘brown menace’ is not going to disappear with the election of Biden. Anti-fascist mobilizations that aim to outnumber, overwhelm and disperse the far right must be a priority for the socialist left in the next four years.

I believe that while they will try, the ‘establishment Republicans’ who had hoped to purge the party of Trumpism after an electoral rout will have a difficult time isolating or taming their increasingly radicalized base. Trump, himself, will not disappear after his exit from the White House. A possible new cable news channel will allow him to whip up his supporters and continue to play a role in Republican politics over the next four years.

Biden will take office in the middle of a raging pandemic, with a flailing economy and huge tensions between the US and China. Will we see a shift back to more mainstream neoliberalism following Trump’s isolationism, and will a Biden administration have any different answers to the crisis of US capitalism?

For the most part the Biden administration will shift back to mainstream neoliberal policies. While Biden will probably be more effective in dealing with the pandemic (via a national mask mandate, more aid to state governments, etc.), his version of ‘stimulus’ will involve few redistributive measures like the $600/week bonus to unemployment insurance or a ‘public option’ as part of Obamacare. Instead, it will focus on bail-outs for state governments and their creditors.  With these priorities and their success among suburban, college-educated voters, the Democrats will attempt to position themselves in the center-right of US politics. We have already seen the beginnings of the attacks on the ‘Sanders-AOC’ wing of the Democrats, as mainstream (and even so-called ‘Progressive’) Democrats blame the Sandernistas’ real championing of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal (along with false claims that they advocated defunding the police) for their relatively poor electoral performance in 2020.

The most substantial changes will come, I believe, in terms of foreign policy, where the Biden-Harris administration will make a number of efforts to reassert US hegemony and politically, militarily and economically isolate its Chinese rival. My comrade, Ashley Smith, will be publishing a lengthy analysis of the incoming President’s plans in Tempest in the near future.

What does the result mean for the Black Lives Matter movement, and does Biden’s election change any of the fundamentals? Is there a risk of any disorientation in the movement or a decline in its popular support? Will the successes of ‘the squad’ and the election of Cori Bush (a leading organiser from Ferguson elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat) present a risk of co-option?

I believe that the Democrats, even before their victory, have had a significant success in integrating many activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite Biden and Harris’ repeated dismissal of the most important demand of the movement – to defund the police – a considerable layer of activists shifted from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to ‘Black Votes Matter’ politics. How did the biggest social movement in a generation – with over 20 million people in cities, suburbs and small towns across the US – devolve so quickly into Democratic Party politics? The ability of the Democrats to derail the movement with generally symbolic victories (removing monuments to the Confederacy, the most reactionary scum in US history) and selective repression, reflects the weakness of the organized left in the US (more below). With the exceptions of small groups of activists, no on-going, democratically run, national organization of militants dedicated to continued education and activity around defunding the police emerged from the historic uprising. In the absence of a multi-racial, non-campus based version of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960s which provided leadership and vision to ongoing struggles, the forces of official reformism in communities of color – the NGO/non-profit, union officials and Democratic politicians – were able to channel much of the energy of the movement behind Biden and Harris.

What are the prospects for building leftist organisations that can coordinate the fight against the far right, state racism and the social and economic pandemic crises? DSA has recruited thousands of members in the last few weeks, but are there discussions in and around the DSA about a more independent and non-electoral focus? And what should be the strategic orientation of revolutionary socialists?

The socialist left enters this unstable terrain in a politically and organizationally weaker position than we did when Trump took office in 2016. Despite the continued numeric growth of DSA, its head-first dive into Democratic Party electoral politics during and after the Sanders’ primary challenge has significantly weakened its capacities to intervene in or build mass struggle.

DSA failed to engage in any self-critical assessment of the failure of the Sanders 2020 campaign. Despite the overwhelming support for a ‘Bernie or Bust’ resolution at the 2019 DSA Convention – pledging the organization not to support any candidate but Sanders – elected and unelected leaders of DSA openly campaigned for Biden-Harris.

DSA was caught ‘back-footed’ by the anti-racist uprising, and was unable to work with the new layer of leaders that emerged to help organize an ongoing anti-racist organization independent of the NGOs and the Democrats. Rather than seeing the need for a radical reorientation of its activity, DSA’s leadership seems even more committed to ‘down-ballot’ Democratic Party electoral politics. The ostensible DSA ‘left’ – the Bread & Roses caucus in particular – have abandoned any talk of an eventual ‘dirty break’ with the Democrats and the need for an independent working people’s party, in favour of a practice that is indistinguishable from the failed ‘realignment’ project of the social-democratic left of the 1960s and 1970s, which aimed to transform the Democrats into a party of a different nature.

What is to be done by radicals and revolutionaries inside and outside DSA? We need to recommit to the centrality of extra-electoral organizing and struggle in the coming period. In these struggles, we need to be clear that Biden and the Democrats are as much our enemies as Trump and his middle class hordes.  We need to help build spontaneous struggles and on-going independent organizations that will arise against racist police violence, renewed ‘silent’ deportations, mass unemployment, evictions and foreclosures; and renewed attacks on living standards and working conditions.

These struggles will have to go far beyond the ‘campaign’ mode favored by the NGO/non-profit complex, with their emphasis on lobbying, stage-managed demonstrations and the like, or trade union mobilizations that are unwilling to countenance transcending the legal limitations on their actions. We need to look back to the last living examples of mass struggles in the US  – the unemployed workers movement of 1929-33; the mass industrial workers’ strikes of 1934-1937, the early Civil Rights and Black Power movement and the wave of multi-racial working-class job actions in the late 1960s and early 1970s – for our inspiration.

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