The Challenge Facing the Left: Building a Real Mass Movement
While special counsel Mueller’s 17 prosecutors widen their investigation into the affairs of Trump and his associates, the ground is being laid for a new phase of social and political struggle in the U.S. After a lull in protests over the summer, a series of issues are galvanizing young people and sections of the working class into action. The potential exists to bring mass pressure to bear to push back the agenda of the right and to decisively undermine the odious Trump regime in the coming period. But there is also the real danger of the emergence of a more serious far right political force if the left does not build a mass movement on a clear program addressing the needs of working people and all the oppressed.
Trump’s declaration in early August that the white supremacists in Charlottesville included “some very fine people,” in addition to the killing of an anti-fascist protester, re-mobilized anti-racist protesters into the streets. 40,000 marched in Boston, showing how to shut down the alt-right who give cover to neo-Nazis. But it also led to a section of corporate America – which had been willing, up to this point, to look the other way at Trump’s racism and misogyny because they supported his agenda of deregulation and tax cuts – to take a step away from him.
The calamitous impact of Hurricane Harvey allowed Trump to pose as “presidential” although even then he seemed utterly incapable of displaying genuine empathy for other human beings. But barely avoiding another all out Katrina-type disaster – due to the Obama era reorganizing of FEMA – is the extremely low bar that Trump seemed to cling to. Meanwhile, working people in Houston, Southern Florida, and now Puerto Rico face massive ongoing fallout that capitalism makes far worse. But on another level the relentless hurricane season will sharpen the debate around climate change and undermine the climate change deniers whom Trump coddles.
Trump’s sabre rattling with North Korea and now his threat delivered at the UN General Assembly to wipe out the country entirely are making people across the world extremely nervous. The ruling class is also nervous about the bumbling Trump at the helm in the middle of this crisis. Further escalation could see the beginnings of an anti-war movement for the first time since the early stages of the Iraq War.
Trump then decided to attack NFL players who had “taken the knee” during the national anthem against police brutality and in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in a typical but particularly inept move to deflect attention from other problems. This has spectacularly backfired with one of the most significant anti-racist protests by athletes in decades.
But from the point of view of galvanizing opposition, Trump’s decision to rescind Obama’s DACA program with a six month stay until March 6, 2018 is by far the most important development. This threatens 800,000 Dreamers with deportation but also with loss of jobs, health care, and the ability to attend college. Trump and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer say they have a deal to regularize the position of Dreamers in exchange for “border security” measures. But, as Steve Bannon has pointed out, pushing this through Congress could lead to “civil war” in the Republican Party. If, as is very likely, no legislation is passed in the short term and this issue drags on, it could lead to some of the biggest mobilizations yet against the reactionary Republican agenda and the despicable regime in the White House.
Right Populism in Power
Trump’s election campaign was based on right populism, which included attacking the establishment of the Republican Party and the establishment as a whole in the name of the “forgotten men and women.” Trump famously promised to bring the jobs back and to provide health insurance for “everybody.” This was a complete con job as Trump immediately made clear upon winning the election by stuffing his cabinet full of billionaires and then backing up one savage plan after another to take health care away from millions of poor and disabled people.
The Republicans insisted on the obstinate pursuit of the destruction of Medicaid – which is potentially politically disastrous for them – because it is a massive transfer of wealth to the wealthiest which lays the basis for even more tax cuts for the rich. While Trumpcare appears to be finally dead (for now), we can expect the underlying agenda of attacking “entitlements” to continue through the budget process and the Republicans’ so-called “tax reform” agenda.
And while Trumpcare exposed Trump and the Republicans as vicious enemies of working people generally, the full exposure of Trump’s economic claims has been put off because the economy remains superficially buoyant. But a looming new downturn in the world economy points to the end of the “recovery.” More fundamentally, what hasn’t changed is the profound social crisis affecting large sections of the working class, the stark inequality and the lack of any way forward offered by capitalism which is driving the polarization and crises within and between both corporate parties.
In office, Trump’s relationship with the Republican leadership in Congress has deteriorated further as they have failed to deliver any decisive legislative victories. The repeated failure to pass Trumpcare is especially stark. With a couple Republican Senators openly questioning his fitness to rule, including Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, Trump began to lash out and threaten to “primary” those who defy him.
As we have pointed out, this is why Trump has doubled down on his alliance with the Christian right, anti-immigrant forces and the NRA – the traditional far right. So far, these forces feel that Trump’s presidency provides a vehicle for their agenda and they are key to keeping the Republican Party base behind him while he wages war against the leadership.
Things have reached the point where, “Republicans fear that Mr. Trump has relinquished his role as leader of the party, instead assuming the mantle of his own political movement” (NY Times, 9/9/2017).
Paranoia Runs Deep
The Trump White House is increasingly consumed by the highly aggressive Mueller probe which is clearly going beyond the question of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections and his associates’ Russian links to Trump’s own dealings with Russian businessmen and politicians over a much longer period of time. Trump’s firing of FBI director Comey has been identified as a possible case for obstruction of justice.
Inside the White House things have reached the point where it is reported that leading administration officials have all retained lawyers and are very careful what they say to each other in case one of them is wearing a wire, having turned “state’s evidence” for Mueller.
Trump’s fear of what could be coming from Mueller – who is said to dislike investigations that drag on for years – is clearly playing a role in his political zig zags. It definitely informs Trump’s constant playing to the most reactionary sections of his base and mobilizing them against the Republican leadership so they will be given a clear picture of what happens if they try to abandon him. But it is also playing a role in his recent dealings with the Democratic leadership in Congress over hurricane relief, the debt ceiling, and DACA.
Furthermore, post-Charlottesville, Trump can see more clearly that the ruling class has definite limits to its patience. His attack on DACA also does not play well in the corporate establishment who want “immigration reform” in their own interests.
Working with consummate corporate politicians like Schumer and Pelosi and acting “bipartisan” helps give him some political cover. But it is very doubtful that this will be a sustained direction for Trump as it can lead to defections in his core base. Right-wing demagogue Ann Coulter recently said Trump should be impeached after he declared he would support legislation giving Dreamers the right to stay.
Crisis of the Democratic Party
The Democrats clearly feel that with Trump mired in crisis they have the wind in their sails heading towards the 2018 midterm elections. This, rather than defeating the agenda of the right or bringing down Trump, is their focus. But they also have serious problems as polls continue to show that, while their popularity is somewhat higher than the Congressional Republicans, it is still below that of Trump!
During the summer, Schumer and Pelosi announced their “better deal” economic policy which was meant to address the party’s complete inability to put forward a message that connects with the reality faced by working people. This fell flat and what was particularly striking was their failure to include Medicare for All which is wildly popular in the base of the party. As we have repeatedly said from the day Trump was inaugurated, people don’t just want a party that votes against the attacks coming from this administration. They want a party that fights for real change that will substantially improve people’s lives along the lines advocated by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, including a $15 minimum wage, tuition free college, massive investment in rebuilding our infrastructure and renewable energy, and an end to mass incarceration.
The launch of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill is of huge significance and absolutely taps into the desire of the base for a party that fights for radical reform. The fact that 16 Democratic Senators co-signed it reflects the massive pressure from below but, as we explain in the accompanying article, no one should expect that the Democratic Party will actually fight for this. Pelosi and Schumer, who set the agenda for their party, are conspicuously absent from the endorsers. But if the Democrats fail to take this up seriously, it will only stoke further opposition in the party.
The Democrats are also taking a real risk by playing footsy with Trump. A large section of their base correctly wants no rotten deals with this racist, misogynist, anti-worker administration. On September 18, Dreamer activists protested at Nancy Pelosi’s press conference demanding that legislation protecting DACA not be done at the expense of making the southern border even more deadly for migrants.
At every point the party’s corporate leadership will look for any alternative to mobilizing ordinary people. But without a serious and determined mass struggle, the right cannot be defeated and Trump will not be brought down. Millions support the idea of transforming the Democrats into a “people’s party.” But as we have argued this will not happen unless the Democrats stop taking corporate money, like Sanders did last year, and adopt a program that speaks to the needs of working people, while creating the grassroots democratic structures necessary to hold their public representatives accountable. The corporate leadership of the party will fight this to the death.
This is why we need a new party based on the interests of working people, the poor and all the oppressed. A new party launched by serious forces can galvanize working people generally and also critically degrade Trump’s base and win more socially conservative sections of the white working class away from the seduction of right populism and nativism.
The hunger for a political revolution against the billionaires will continue to drive polarization within the Democratic Party and could lead to sharp battles in the primaries next year. This is a major factor in laying the basis for a new party, but it will also require the forces of the left to seize opportunities as Sanders failed to do last year when, after the rigged primary, he did not continue his campaign for president as an independent. This left only the thoroughly corporate Clinton standing in Trump’s way.
If we fail to build a real and sustained mass movement and a new political force, this will open the door further to right populism in the medium term even if the Democrats manage to win control of the House in 2018. This includes the real possibility of a far right party emerging with a mass base that we can see clearly outlined in Trump’s campaign and presidency. This is a very serious danger and requires a sense of urgency from the still limited forces of the real left in this country about the tasks in front of us.
How Do We Bring Trump Down?
As we move toward the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, millions want to know how and when Trump will go. While 40% of the population support impeachment, the reality is that the Republicans will not, at this stage, let this be discussed in the House, and the Democrats (with some exceptions) are strongly opposed to going down this path. The basic unspoken position of the Democratic leadership is that the process of removing Trump in this way would further damage the credibility of the political institutions of American capitalism, which they resolutely defend.
Some activists on the left also understandably raise that bringing down Trump would simply mean his replacement by Vice President Mike Pence, a hard right ideologue. But the circumstances of Trump’s demise would be a further escalation of political crisis combined with a sustained mass movement in the streets. In this situation, Trump’s resignation or removal would be an enormous victory which would embolden the struggle against the right and for offensive victories. A Pence presidency would be crippled from the start.
We must remember the lessons of history. In the late 1960s, Lyndon Johnson was effectively brought down by the escalating mass movement against the war in Vietnam. Johnson was forced to admit this on TV in his “I will not run” speech announcing he would not seek a second term. Nixon was of course brought down by Watergate, but the ground was again laid by the anti-war movement, including within the army, and by escalating class struggle and the ongoing black freedom and women’s liberation movements. It actually never came to a vote in Congress, and Nixon resigned after the establishment made it clear he had to go.
These examples show that impeachment is not the only way to bring down a president and that what is key is a mass movement. Socialists favor bringing maximum pressure to bear to drive out Trump, including forcing the Democrats to introduce bills of impeachment. But as in the ’70s, it is the atrocities being committed or threatened by the right that are galvanizing people into action. We need to point the way forward to bring all the strands of discontent and revolt into one massive movement of resistance. Within this, the role of the organized labor movement, despite being in long retreat, is critical. The social power of America’s multiracial working class is the key force for changing this society — and ultimately bringing an end to decaying capitalism which will endlessly breed Trumps.