It is now absolutely clear that the Republican establishment has utterly lost control of their party’s primary process. Normally candidates who are not acceptable to the party’s elected officials and corporate donors are weeded out or clearly on the road to defeat by this stage.
For months the establishment watched and hoped that Trump would self-destruct by finally saying something so outrageous that his supporters would turn against him. Or that the field of more acceptable candidates would narrow so that someone would emerge as a clear anti-Trump alternative.
In the wake of Super Tuesday, it became evident that this “wait and see” strategy had failed and that Trump was not only the front runner but on course to winning the Republican nomination outright. This set off a completely panicked reaction as sections of the establishment moved to block his path. Tens of millions of dollars are being poured into ad campaigns in key states holding primaries on March 15. Last week, Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, came out to warn that Trump was a “phony” and a “fraud” who has “neither the temperament or the judgment to be president.” And certainly the idea of President Trump having access to nuclear codes is alarming.
All of this activity has given one other candidate at least a theoretical path to beat Trump: Ted Cruz, who is barely more acceptable to the party’s leaders. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham joked recently that “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” Meanwhile Marco Rubio’s campaign is increasingly on life support.
There is increasingly fevered speculation about a “brokered” Republican convention, trying to draft Paul Ryan, and a former CIA director saying the military might refuse President Trump’s orders. There is even talk of running a conservative candidate against Trump if he won the nomination which would almost certainly guarantee the victory of Hillary Clinton, assuming she is the Democratic nominee. This level of division in a major corporate party in the U.S. has not been seen in at least a century.
Trump: the Threat Is Real
The corporate elite see Trump as an unreliable egomaniac who could seriously damage U.S. prestige abroad and provoke serious unrest at home.
But from the point of view of the working class the real threat is the virulent xenophobia pushed by Trump – calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and saying there should be a ban on all Muslims entering the country. The response he has received from a section of the white working class shows that while there is an overall shift to the left in the US, the deep polarization in society can also lead part of the population to temporarily embrace right wing ideas. Dividing workers along racial lines or pitting native born workers against immigrants only serves the interests of the corporate elite.
Trump has tapped into fears about what the future holds after the devastation caused by the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009. Even now, during the limited economic recovery, large parts of the country have been left behind, decently paid working class jobs keep disappearing and are replaced with poorly paid service jobs. The “American dream” is over, US power is declining on a global level and Trump promises to “make America great again.” Trump has also departed from the orthodox neo-liberal script of the Republicans by opposing trade deals and suggesting that he would be prepared to punish companies that move jobs abroad. While Trump defends capitalism, this is an example of a populist position he has taken to win white working class support which goes against the overwhelming consensus of the ruling elite.
Trump’s rallies have taken on an extremely ugly character with violence or threats of violence encouraged by Trump against anyone who would dare to protest, no matter how mildly. His campaign has also given encouragement and cover to the extreme right and fascists to come out of their holes and assert themselves, like those who shot and injured BLM activists last November in Minneapolis.
There is a lot of talk, encouraged by sections of the liberal media, that Trump himself is a fascist. Historically, fascist movements mobilized mass movements of the middle class, the unemployed and sections of workers with the aim of completely overthrowing democratic institutions, physically smashing the labor movement and the left and targeting racial and ethnic minorities. Fascist movements that took power like those led by Hitler and Mussolini received the support of key sections of the ruling class who saw this as necessary to save their system from revolutionary upheaval led by radical socialist parties in the context of economic and social devastation.
The American ruling class today does not see any need to go in this direction. But in conditions of profound crisis, fascist and neo-Nazi organizations can gain a base, like Golden Dawn has in Greece. There are also a number of far right parties in Europe like the National Front in France led by Marine Le Pen which have sought to shed their neo-Nazi past and link their racist, anti-immigrant agenda to right populist themes that seek to appeal to working class voters. In all these cases the space is opened up for the far right to grow to the degree that the labor movement and the left do not put forward a clear alternative to the crisis created by capitalism.
Trump’s politics have much in common with Le Pen although, unlike her, he does not represent a fully fledged far right party. But the Trump phenomenon does not resemble the organized paramilitary, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. When corporate publications like the New York Daily News compare Trump to Hitler or Mussolini the goal is primarily to mobilize women, black people, Latinos and young people behind the Democratic Party. And we should not be fooled into thinking that many of the leading Republicans including Cruz or even Rubio are not also deeply reactionary. This is not in any way to minimize the threat posed by Trump’s right populism. But we need to accurately characterize the threat in order to know how the labor movement and the left should respond.
The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost
A lot of liberal commentators have made the point that while Trump is certainly more vulgar and demagogic than any leading Republican in a long time, his rise is also the logical product of the party’s toxic politics. Since 1968 and Richard Nixon’s shift to a “Southern strategy” the party has consistently used coded racism to build a base among conservative whites and played on the fears of “liberal values” and demographic change. Mitt Romney who now denounces Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border, himself said in his 2012 presidential race that the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. should “self-deport.” This shows the total hypocrisy of the Republican establishment’s attacks on Trump.
While pretending to speak for ordinary people against the “liberal elite,” the Republicans have led the charge in attacking working people at every stage, relentlessly pushing to lower taxes on the rich, slash social services and attack unions. The Republican leadership’s contempt for most ordinary people was also captured by Romney in 2012 when, in a secretly-taped speech to donors, he dismissed 47% of the population as “dependent on the government.”
But we must look deeper to see what has created the space for the new strain of virulent right populism. The Democratic Party’s turn to neo-liberal policies 30 years ago left them closer to the Republicans on many economic issues. For example, both parties supported the NAFTA trade deal which contributed directly to deindustrialization and job losses. In reality, despite worker-friendly rhetoric and the ongoing support of most trade union leaders, the Democrats have offered only a less vicious version of the same anti-working class agenda as the Republicans.
In 2008, the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House. What followed was a massive bailout of the banks and millions of people losing their homes through foreclosure. This opened the door to the Tea Party, the demoralization of large parts of the Democratic base and the Republican victory in the mid-term elections in 2010.
At the end of the day it is the Democrats themselves who have again and again created the space for the right to come back from defeat. In general one would expect that a Trump nomination would provide the Democrats a huge opportunity to galvanize progressives, women, Latinos and black people to vote Democratic. But if their candidate is Hillary Clinton, as is very likely, Trump will also be able to attack her as the very embodiment of the establishment that working people are rising up against in both primaries.
In this election cycle, Bernie Sanders has put forward a program which broadly speaks to the needs of working class people: breaking up the banks, opposing corporate trade deals like the TPP, a trillion dollar investment in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, single payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, free college education and ending the policies which created mass incarceration. This points towards the alternative that needs to be put to the lying promises of the right populists. If Sanders does not win the Democratic nomination, he needs to run all the way to November to provide a left challenge to the establishment and not allow Donald Trump to be the only “anti-establishment” candidate in the general election.
How the Right and Racism Have Been Pushed Back Before
The building of a real left political challenge to mobilize ordinary against the divisive lies of the right must be linked to the building of a mass movement in the streets. This is something the corporate Democratic leadership will never do.
It was the building of the industrial trade unions in the ’30s which led to real gains for working people like the 40 hour week and Social Security. It was the mass mobilizations of the civil rights movement with the support of sections of the labor movement that brought down the white supremacist Jim Crow regime in the South.
More recently it was the mass movement of immigrant workers in 2006 which pushed back the threat from the right at that point and also for a period pushed helped push back anti-immigrant attitudes. Unfortunately this movement did not succeed in breaking into the native born working class to win a majority to the position of ending the threat of deportations and giving citizenship rights to all workers on the basis of a common struggle against the corporate elite for well paid jobs for all.
In 2011, in Wisconsin the mass movement of workers and young people who pushed back against Scott Walker’s drive to destroy public sector unions temporarily checked the right including the Tea Party. But what was needed was to take this struggle to a higher level beginning with a one day general strike against Walker. This idea, which Socialist Alternative argued for, resonated with workers but was cut across by conservative union leaders and the Democratic Party.
These examples all point to the type of movement we need to build to push back against the renewed threat of right populism. Last Friday in Chicago we saw thousands protesting, outraged by Trump’s hate, leading to Trump canceling a planned rally. We need to urgently organize meetings around the country to discuss how to build the movement on the streets as well as a left political alternative against the right, a party of the 99%.