A damaged Trump administration continues to hunt for a way forward from the series of humiliating defeats it has suffered in its first months in power. These setbacks, and in particular the collapse of Republican healthcare plans, have also fundamentally undermined Trump’s ability to make progress on key parts of his and the Republican agenda.
The ongoing wave of mass protests since Trump’s inauguration have underscored the complete lack of a mandate for his right wing policies, while the defeat of Trumpcare and the Muslim ban, as well as the departure of key cabinet appointments under pressure, have shown that the Trump agenda can be beaten back. When Trumpcare was killed on March 24, it was after being brought down to just 17% support in the polls following opposition in town halls and at rallies around the country. Trump’s approval ratings followed suit, hitting a new low of 35% in the days after the defeat, worse than Richard Nixon’s during the Watergate hearings.
Much of the Republican base is now deeply disappointed. This was reflected in the April 11 Kansas special election for a House of Representatives seat. Trump had won the vote in this area by a whopping 27% just five months earlier, but the Republicans narrowly won the election despite the fact that the inept corporate-controlled Democratic Party leadership did not put resources into their candidate’s campaign.
But while Trump is down, he is not out. And there are few things more dangerous than a bully who is bruised and backed into a corner.
The situation remains contradictory and unpredictable. Some of the most right wing and reactionary parts of Trump’s domestic agenda are continuing to forge ahead. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is preparing to abandon consent decrees to let cops off the leash, re-boot the war on drugs and at some point seek more decisively to criminalize political dissent.
Meanwhile, Trump’s defeats which have intensified the crisis in his administration, have also pushed him in many areas toward policies more acceptable to the Republican establishment and the ruling elite, though also deeply hostile towards the working class. The markets were booming after Trump’s election with the prospect of further corporate deregulation, more tax cuts for the wealthy, and handouts to weapons manufacturers. With Trump’s standing now weakened and increased international instability, the temporary boom seems to be over, potentially paving the way for deeper economic crisis.
But perhaps the most fundamental change in Trump’s approach is in regards to foreign policy, where Trump appears to be abandoning his earlier isolationist views, and is instead beginning to tap into the established and bloody playbook of diverting attention from domestic troubles by military means.
Foreign Policy Turn
Trump is increasingly looking to recast his presidency as that of a strong commander in chief who is not afraid to reassert American military might. The airstrikes in Syria and overall shift in the administration’s approach was preceded by a shakeup in the National Security Council with arch-racist and “America First” ideologue Stephen Bannon taken off the body and “hawkish” mainstream advisers and generals promoted.
Trump’s missile strike on Syria, the first direct attack on the country since its civil war began, represents a dramatic shift in the administration’s foreign policy position toward President Assad and the Middle East. Trump had long maintained that he was against intervention in Syria, and greater involvement in the region. Shortly after his election he said, “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis, and you have to get rid of Isis.” Assad in turn called Trump a “natural ally.”
The attack is also part of a change in relations with Russia, the major power behind Assad’s regime. Trump had of course long refused to criticize Vladimir Putin in spite of enormous pressure to do so both during and after his election, saying Putin was “doing a great job” and calling him a “stronger leader” than Barack Obama. Following the Syria attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed Putin for the chemical weapons atrocity in Syria, as well as for meddling with U.S. elections in spite of Trump’s longtime insistence that Russia had not. In his recent visit to Moscow, Tillerson summed up the new situation: “There is a low level of trust between our countries.”
Both moves served a purpose for Trump in getting off the defensive in terms of his domestic defeats and also by countering the ongoing media stories and investigation around his links to Russia.
While the Syrian attack may be a “one off” event, the door has been left open for further action against Assad, with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley coming close to calling for regime change: “There is not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.”
The dropping of a “Mother of all Bombs” on Afghanistan, the strongest non-nuclear device in the U.S. arsenal, for the first time in history, is another demonstration of the many-sided shift toward a more aggressive foreign policy.
Civilian deaths have risen substantially in Iraq and Syria as the Trump administration has been giving the generals freer rein in the region. The death toll from the March 17 strike on Mosul in Iraq has now climbed to over 300 civilians, making it one of the deadliest incidents in recent years.
Equally striking are developments with North Korea and China.
Trump’s recent pivot on China is almost as dramatic as his pivot on Russia. In the last few days Trump has abandoned his claim that China is a currency manipulator after already backing off on his threat to abandon the “One China” policy. China in turn prepared to make a few concessions to avert an enormously damaging trade war that would actually be disastrous for the whole world economy.
But the administration’s threats toward North Korea could inflame relations with China, which sees already the moves against the country as a threat to China’s authority in the region.
Trump told the Financial Times in an interview published on March 31, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all that I am telling you.”
The administration’s bellicose statements have given way to increasingly aggressive actions and preparations, with nuclear armed U.S. vessels being sent to North Korean waters, and a recent report from NBC news that the administration is prepared to launch a military strike against the country if they proceed with their next nuclear test. The consequences of such an attack, however, would be very serious and would threaten a potential conflict between North and South Korea, and even the dragging in of China and other powers.
While nervous about many of these developments, leading Democrats, the ruling class, and the corporate media broadly support both Trump’s attack on Syria and his shifting position toward Putin. They are happy to see a move away from his avowed isolationist policy, and toward the neoliberal establishment view of Russia. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the Idlib attack the “right thing to do,” while Hillary Clinton came out of hiding to say she favored completely destroying Syria’s air bases.
As socialists, we offer no support for any of these regimes. We completely oppose the vicious dictatorship in Syria, but we also oppose the long history of brutal interventions by U.S. and Western governments in the Middle East, which have led to the rise of ISIS and are the main source of the crisis in the region. We oppose both Assad and Trump, and stand for workers’ unity and the building of a broad working-class movement to cut across religious and sectarian divisions and to fight for a socialist alternative internationally.
The Arab Spring, which Socialist Alternative and the Committee for a Worker’s International supported, pointed in this direction and the redevelopment of class struggle in the region, though it was ultimately overcome by the lack of strong working-class organizations, and sectarian divisions further inflamed by the interventions of Western powers in the Middle East.
Republican Party Deeply Divided
The deep crisis within the Republican Party was put on full display by the Trumpcare defeat. A section of more moderate Republicans refused to hitch their wagons to the hugely unpopular plan for fear of signing their political obituaries. Meanwhile, the far-right wing of the party grouped around the Freedom Caucus refused to back it on the basis that it did not go far enough in attacking working people. They demanded the elimination of minimum health care benefits and the requirement to cover those with preexisting conditions. The debate exposed the utter viciousness of the Republican agenda, as even the modified, more brutal proposal failed to satisfy ultra-conservatives.
Trumpcare was also defeated by mobilized opposition. The health care bill became increasingly toxic as Trumpcare was shouted down at town halls around the country and mass rallies and marches against Trumpcare and for Single-Payer health care were held in many cities. People got the message that tens of millions would be cut from health care; that Medicaid which covers 1 in 5 Americans would be gutted; and that this “reform” was really a cover for a massive tax cut and transfer of wealth to the top 1%.
The defeat of the bill blew a gaping hole in the GOP budget plans, and created major complications for their 2017 agenda going forward. Republicans had structured their overall budget plans as well as their plans for “tax reform” around the cost savings enabled by Trumpcare. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that $337 billion would have been freed over 10 years, at a devastating cost for working people, with 24 million people losing healthcare over that same period.
These billions would have made space for major tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, a 10% expansion in military spending, and the financial space for an infrastructure bill at some stage. Much of this is now in disarray, with Republicans still scrambling weeks later to reshape their agenda.
The budget proposals also include deep cuts to public education, the Environmental Protection Agency, mass transit, renewable energy, public water systems, environmental cleanup, and across-the-board attacks on social services. This is not to mention the ripping up of environmental regulation by executive order. Altogether, the current Republican agenda represents one of the most vicious assaults on the American working class in modern history, as well as an all out declaration of war on the environment.
Democratic Leaders Under Pressure
Democratic leaders, after taking an initial position following Trump’s election that he must be given a chance and “his success is our success,” have been forced under huge grassroots pressures to oppose parts of his agenda.
After a prolonged internal debate over whether to filibuster Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination, a majority of Democrats ultimately carried out the filibuster and forced the Republicans to use the so-called “nuclear option.”
Yet so much of the Democrats’ opposition to Trump has centered around his administration’s and election campaign’s links to Russia, rather than firmly or consistently opposing his reactionary agenda and appointments, or helping to build social movements.
While the Democratic Party leadership refused to support Trumpcare, they also failed to use the opportunity to build support for a real alternative to the dysfunctional, for-profit American health-insurance system – a Medicare for all, single-payer system – just as they did when the Democrats held all three branches of government in 2009. Leading Democrats focused almost exclusively on defending Obamacare.
As Bernie Sanders organized rallies to defend health care and call for Medicare for all, Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative City Councilmember in Seattle, has called repeatedly for Democratic-led state governments in Washington, Oregon and California to take the lead in creating a single-payer alternative on the West Coast.
Support for a single-payer healthcare system is at an all-time high. Yet key Democrats have already rejected the call for it, including California Governor, Jerry Brown, and Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee. Building a fighting movement for single-payer, along with a federal $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich to fully fund social services, and other concrete positive demands, could play a key role in decisively defeating Trump. It could show how a radical left program can defeat right populism by making a bold class appeal for programs that would make a decisive difference in the day-to-day lives of working class people.
Yet outrage at Republican policies has fired up the Democratic base, as Republican Party supporters in the different and divided camps are angry and disappointed in Trump from different directions and for different reasons. If an election were held today the Democrats might well retake the House.
But it’s a long way to 2018 and the Democratic Party leadership has shown again and again how prepared they are to blow up their own chances rather than give ground to demands from the left.
Bernie Sanders’ talk at a West Virginia town hall in March showed again the dramatic opening for working-class politics as Republican-voting former coal miners embraced his class appeal and call for Medicare for All. The situation is crying out for a new class based political force but the main energy at the moment will clearly go to getting the Democrats back in power in 2018, and with progressives trying to “take back” the party.
Socialist Alternative has called on the Democratic Socialists of America to join us in running 10 socialist and left independent candidates in 2017 to begin building an alternative to corporate Democrats. In Seattle, we are supporting the campaigns of Jon Grant and Nikkita Oliver, both of whom are running as left independent candidates, and are rejecting donations from big business.
In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative is spearheading the campaign for Ginger Jentzen, director of 15 Now Minneapolis, on a campaign for $15 minimum wage and rent control, while accepting no corporate money. As this article goes to press, the leadership of Jentzen, 15 Now, Socialist Alternative, and labor and community organizations in Minneapolis, appears to be on the way to succeeding after a multi-year struggle in forcing the city establishment to enact a $15 minimum wage.
There is the space to build a new socialist party in the U.S. with tens of thousands of members, based on social movements and building a fighting opposition to the right wing, as a step toward a new mass party of the working class.
The Trump Agenda
Trump is an imbalanced and unstable figure who while deeply racist, misogynist, and pro-corporate, has no clear political or ideological center. A one-time supporter of big business Democrats like the Clintons, he opportunistically campaigned for the presidency on a right populist, anti-immigrant platform under the influence of figures like Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon.
The general direction of the administration, facing mass protests on one side and ruling class opposition on the other, is toward a pulling back from some key parts of Trump’s campaign program. Trump will remain highly unpredictable, but there is a clear direction toward adoption of policies more acceptable to the ruling class and compatible with Republican orthodoxy.
The removal of Stephen Bannon from the Security Council and overall decline of his influence within the administration, as well as the corresponding rise of Jared Kushner’s authority, points in the same direction. At some stage Bannon could be forced to step down altogether. These are hugely significant developments, which have not escaped the notice, nor failed to raise the ire, of the far right.
In one day alone, on April 12, Trump flipped on four major administration positions – from his policy on NATO to an Import-Export Bank to Janet Yellin’s future to reversing his view of China as a currency manipulator.
The administration has gone into near full-scale retreat on its “America First” protectionist trade agenda. From calling NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever” during his campaign, his administration has now offered only mild proposals for its revision, while also backing down, at least for now, from tariff proposals regarding Mexico and more broadly.
But Trump’s positions on trade, as elsewhere, remain highly contradictory, and he is also backing away from the “border adjustment tax” supported by House Republicans. As socialists, we oppose “free trade” neoliberal policies which are written to carry out a brutal anti-worker, anti-environmental agenda. But we recognize that protectionist policies also offer no way out, and would only detonate an international trade war that could trigger recession and a deepening of crisis of global capitalism.
Instead of budget cuts, privatization, or trade wars, socialists pose the need to tax the billionaires and cut the bloated Pentagon war budget to create union jobs through increased funding of infrastructure and social services like health care and education. Rather than the rampantly increasing inequality that flows from profit-driven “solutions” like protectionism or rotten “free trade” deals, we need democratic working-class control and management of the top 500 corporations that rule our economy and our lives. With these socialist policies, we could begin to fundamentally counter the environmental devastation, war and poverty generated by a capitalism in world crisis.
Big business is thrilled with Trump’s massive tax cuts, radical deregulation and attacks on the environment, attacks on public education, and across the board cuts to social services. The overriding concern of the ruling class was toward his protectionist proposals and foreign policy isolationism. But they are increasingly unimpressed by the chaos, lack of coherence and inability to get things done, and continue to worry about the damage Trump threatens for the authority and prestige of the presidency and American capitalism as a whole.
The Trump agenda continues to be a vicious attack on working people in the United States and globally. While the administration’s attempts to find common ground with the Freedom Caucus on a more brutal revival of Trumpcare quickly fell through, his concessions would have spelled further destruction of health care for tens of millions of people. Trump’s abandonment of isolationism has been applauded by the corporate media and both Democratic and Republican leaders, but what it has given way to is an increasingly aggressive and militaristic foreign policy.
As Socialist Alternative has explained since his election, stopping Trump’s right wing agenda will require a massive and ongoing mobilization of working people. In the run up to Trump’s inauguration, we called for 100 days of resistance leading up to May 1, International Worker’s Day. Since then we saw the single largest day of protests in U.S. history, with the tremendous Women’s Marches on January 21, as well as a broad wave of protests, mass civil disobedience, and the growing radicalization of young people and working people searching for a way to defeat Trump.
Stopping Trump will require working people to use their social power, through strike action and mass civil disobedience to shut down business as usual. We are seeing the re-emergence of a discussion about strike action in the U.S., first on International Women’s Day and now in the run up to May 1, with hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers and others preparing to strike or protest. May 1 will not be a national general strike, but is an important beginning to what can become a summer of resistance, and in further raising the vital importance in the power of strike action to hit the ruling class where it hurts – by shutting down their profits.
The coming weeks will also see a series of mass protests, with the March For Science on Earth Day, and the People’s Climate March on April 29. Trump’s war on the environment has so far not been answered by a mass protest, but that is about to change.
There will be ups and downs in the fight against Trump. The crisis of the administration can on the one hand decrease the sense of imminent danger and need for immediate fightback, but on the other it can embolden the movement as it increasingly feels its own power. The mass protests that have happened so far, and those coming in the next weeks, are only a beginning of a period of far greater social upheavals in the U.S. and around the world.
Because what is at stake is not only a question of blocking the worst aspects of the Trump agenda or ending Republican control of Congress in 2018. Winning major reforms like a federal $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, and the dismantling of the racist mass incarceration system will require building a powerful mass movement with a socialist backbone, as well as the creation of new mass socialist and workers parties.
In the struggle against the right and to win progressive gains, the working class and youth will increasingly recognize that the bankrupt system of capitalism cannot be transformed to meet our needs or be made environmentally sustainable. What is needed is a fundamental, root and branch transformation of society, toward one based on solidarity, genuine democracy, and equality. Join us in the fight for a socialist world.