Millions of people in the United States and around the world have protested the policies of Donald Trump, who wasted no time signing a “Muslim ban,” attacking the Affordable Care Act, putting forward an anti-choice bigot for the Supreme Court and packing his cabinet with billionaire financiers, wing-nut militarists and assorted arch-reactionaries. Proposed cuts to corporate taxes and plans to gut environmental, food and workplace safety regulations demonstrate that Trump’s populist posturing as the champion of the dispossessed and desperate residents of the Rust Belt was just a giant con. If implemented, Trump’s policies, particularly the further deregulation of the Wall Street casino, will significantly reduce the living standards of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. To impose this program of brutal austerity on behalf of the corporate ruling class, Trump will inevitably resort to authoritarian measures to suppress popular discontent.
Many leftists and radicals describe Trump as a “fascist.” While his crude misogyny and “America First” xenophobia have emboldened neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and variegated layers of “white nationalist” and “alt-right” scum, Trump is operating within the framework of bourgeois legality – he is not wielding an organized mass movement of extra-parliamentary thugs, the hallmark of genuine fascism. Rather, his clumsy outbursts, naked self-interest and disregard for established conventions reveal the cracks in the fašade of cozy bipartisan business-as-usual.
The already hollowed-out democratic traditions of U.S. capitalism have, in the recent past, been further eroded by the encroachments of the “deep state”: the military-industrial complex and its burgeoning “intelligence” apparatus, most prominently the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The unprecedented reluctance of the leadership of these organizations to consolidate around the new administration is motivated not by concern for the victims of Trump’s policies, but by a desire to pressure the White House to “stay the course” pursued, with only minor modifications, by generations of Republican and Democratic presidents. The “deep state” bureaucracy is alarmed by Trump’s unpredictability and willingness to consider overhauling the institutions created at the outset of the “American Century” after WWII (the United Nations, International Monetary Fund [IMF], World Bank and, particularly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]). Trump’s belief is that this framework is outdated and that to “Make America Great Again,” it will be necessary to jettison existing trade agreements and resort to a mix of economic protectionism and military assertiveness, aimed in particular at the Chinese deformed workers’ state, which has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s leading industrial power.
Trump has to have the cooperation of the “deep state” in order to assert control over American economic, foreign and military policy – and accommodation between them is fully possible. At root, they share common class interests that are diametrically opposed to those of the vast majority of Americans who have taken to the streets, as well as the many tens of millions of Trump’s opponents (and plebeian backers) who have so far stayed at home.
Trump won the presidency as a political outsider campaigning on outrage over the impact of deindustrialization and the dramatic decline in living standards in the American heartland. In his inauguration speech, he reiterated this theme in referring to “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” But Trump’s cynical promises of job-creation through rebooting American industry and a massive infrastructure program will mostly involve funneling federal money to well-connected cronies.
Emails published by Wikileaks revealed how the Democratic Party establishment actively sought to sabotage the populist campaign of “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders, who rocketed from nothing to national celebrity on the strength of his denunciation of Hillary Clinton’s affinity for Wall Street and the “billionaire class.” Despite the fact that the polls consistently showed that Sanders was far more likely to defeat Trump than Clinton, the Democratic machine opted for the discredited warmongering former secretary of state, who failed to even excite proponents of liberal identity politics. As we noted before the election:
“Despite the fear and loathing her opponent inspires, as well as her status as the first woman nominated on a major party ticket, Clinton’s campaign has been marked by a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm at the base. This is a consequence of her pledge to continue the policies of the Obama administration, which produced an unprecedented transfer of wealth from Main Street to Wall Street. Tens of millions of working people who have suffered declining living standards for years, and who are becoming increasingly fearful about the future, are not excited by the prospect of 'staying the course.’ But corporate America feels differently, which is why Clinton’s top contributors include JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Time Warner and Bank of America.”
— “‘Democracy’ in Decay,” 31 October 2016
As contemptible as Donald Trump is, his Democratic Party critics have found it difficult to deal him many serious blows. Their hysterical denunciations of Trump as a fascist and/or Kremlin stooge, and attempts to offer token opposition to his policies in Congress, have thus far failed to resonate with much of the public.
The leading lights of the Democratic “left” – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – joined other Democratic senators in confirming James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Democrats have also given a thumbs up to many of the rest of Trump’s cabinet picks (New York Times, 31 January 2017).
From Sanders to Clinton, the Democrats are united by their unfailing commitment to the ruling class and its needs. Instead of acknowledging the obvious fact that Clinton was deeply compromised by her personally lucrative career shilling for Wall Street and by her hawkish enthusiasm for military action in Libya, Ukraine and Syria, the Democratic leadership absurdly attributed her humiliating loss to “Russian hacking.” There is no evidence that the true information about the Clinton campaign and the Democrats released by Wikileaks during the campaign was originally obtained by Russian intelligence agents. Even if this was the source of the leaked emails, it would not change the unflattering revelations about whose interests Clinton actually represents.
Notwithstanding the Democrats’ feigned moral outrage at Trump’s reactionary xenophobia, there is a fundamental continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations. Trump’s executive order authorizing the construction of his infamous “wall” with Mexico cited the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which before being signed by George W. Bush was supported by Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Barack Obama and various other Democrats in Congress (Boston Globe, 27 January 2017). ABC News (29 August 2016) reported that Obama’s administration “deported more people than any other president’s administration in history. In fact, they have deported more than the sum of all the presidents of the 20th century.”
Trump’s appalling executive order barring entry into the U.S. by people from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen) employed a list approved by Obama in 2015 for “visa-waiver” cancellation, ostensibly to help address “the growing threat from foreign terrorist fighters” (CNN.com, 30 January 2017). Yet, as has been widely reported, citizens from those countries “killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015,” (CATO Institute, 25 January 2017). The Obama/Trump list did not include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, whose regimes are aligned with U.S. strategic interests. Glenn Greenwald observed:
“Beyond U.S. support for the world’s worst regimes, what primarily shapes Trump’s list is U.S. aggression: Five of the seven predominantly Muslim countries on Trump’s list were ones bombed by Obama, while the other two (Iran and Sudan) were punished with heavy sanctions. Thus, Trump is banning immigrants from the very countries that the U.S. government – under both Republicans and Democrats – has played a key role in destabilizing and destroying.…”
—TheIntercept.com, 28 January 2017
The same Democrats who were outraged over Trump’s ban on innocent Muslims were not so concerned when Obama and Clinton were starving them and bombing their countries. This has been ignored by the corporate media, whose owners are nearly unanimous in preferring a trusted establishment figure – either Democratic or Republican – in the White House. Also absent from mainstream media coverage is the fact that the semi-authoritarian executive powers wielded by Trump were handed to him by Obama, who oversaw a vast expansion of the surveillance state – with mass spying on hundreds of millions of American citizens (Time, 4 June 2015. While Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning (after seven years in prison for the “crime” of revealing the murderous abuses of the U.S. military in Iraq), he refused to pardon NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who publicized the vast scope of the unconstitutional American domestic surveillance program. Democrats such as Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine confirmed Trump’s nominee for CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, despite his call for “the traitor Edward Snowden” to be executed (TheIntercept.com, 18 November 2016).
The massive protests against Trump that have erupted across America and around the world signal a deep revulsion at the program of reactionary irrationalism represented by the new administration. But the struggle for fundamental societal change must begin with a rejection of the entire toxic political system in which the twin parties of racism and imperialist war, playing the roles of good cop and bad cop, take turns managing the affairs of the ruling class. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are no less committed to preserving the economic and political power of the capitalist oligarchy than are Clinton, Schumer and Obama. They sometimes propose positive, but limited, reforms like free college tuition, while upholding the right of a tiny minority to own most of the wealth of society and defending the Obama administration’s militarist interventions abroad. The two wings of the Democratic Party differ merely over tactics, not principles. The Democrats may object to Trump, but on most issues are barely distinguishable from their Republican twin.
The virtual identity of the two major parties makes it easier for smaller, pro-capitalist “third parties” to posture as radical alternatives to the status quo, and thus contain popular outrage. Disaffected Democrats who embrace the Green Party remain firmly within the framework of what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Some self-styled “socialists,” like Bhaskar Sunkara, who edits the trendy left Jacobin magazine, openly backed Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination. Others called on Sanders to break from the Democrats and run on the Green Party ticket or as an “independent.” All of these options only sow illusions that pro-capitalist politicos can somehow be turned into agents of fundamental change.
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, a supporter of Socialist Alternative, openly backed Sanders and, subsequently, Green Party leader Jill Stein:
“We need to build a new political party, one completely free from corporate cash and influence. In fact, Socialist Alternative and I urged Sanders to run as an independent after the primaries, which would have inspired millions of people and helped lay the basis for such a party.
“But it’s still possible to make a stand this year for single-payer health care, free college, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a rapid transition from fossil fuels, and an end to endless war. That’s why I’m supporting Jill Stein. We need the strongest possible vote for her in order to continue building the power of social movements and to fight back against the right in the form of Trump and Libertarian Gary Johnson, both of whom dishonestly portray themselves as ‘antiestablishment’ candidates.”
— Kshama Sawant, The Nation, 21 September 2016
Truly “radical change” requires the revolutionary expropriation of the tiny handful of parasites who control the wealth of society and the establishment of democratic economic planning aimed at meeting human needs, not maximizing corporate profit. This can only begin by winning working people to the understanding that their historical interests are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. Even a nebulous call from the left wing of the Greens for the creation of an “alternative” economy claims to evenhandedly reject both “the old models of capitalism (private ownership of production) and state socialism (state ownership of production)” (www.thepetitionsite.com).
They deliberately sidestep the critical issue of the expropriation of corporate capital and other big monied interests. During the campaign, Stein merely called to “Make Wall Street, big corporations, and the rich pay their fair share of taxes” (www.jill2016.com). Self-styled “socialists” who take the “pragmatic” stance of supporting the Greens thereby limit themselves to advocating reforms to rationalize the existing inequitable social order. This fails to acknowledge that capitalism is a fundamentally irrational system.
The pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, which has historically tied the unions to the Democrats, helped pave the way for Trump by injecting poisonous “Buy American” protectionism into the working class. But organized labor and the broader working class can play a very different role. On inauguration day, members of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down the largest container terminal in Oakland, California to protest Trump’s reactionary policies. This symbolic labor action is the latest in a series of similar ILWU work stoppages, most recently the May Day 2015 shutdown of the Port of Oakland to protest racist police killings of blacks across the U.S. (see “Labor Action to Fight Racist Cop Terror!”). Similar actions, on a larger scale, by a class-conscious labor movement could effectively block the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims and indigenous peoples and lay the basis for a powerful counter-offensive. Mobilizing labor’s power to carry out such actions will require a direct political struggle to break the grip of the conservative, pro-imperialist leadership of the AFL-CIO, which has presided over the relentless decline of the unions.
The once mighty American labor movement can only be rebuilt through hard class struggle – and that begins by drawing a class line between the capitalist exploiters and their victims. In political terms, it is necessary to break decisively with the Democrats, not in order to embrace the Greens or some other pro-capitalist “third-party” dead-end, but rather to build a new workers’ party that fights for the interests of all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism.
Trump has already helped demystify and discredit the office of the presidency, and his tenure seems likely to accelerate the decline of the traditional institutions of capitalist power. But new forms of rule – by, for and of the working class and its allies – will not spontaneously arise and sweep away the old state. This requires conscious leadership, of a sort that led the October Revolution a century ago in Russia, an event that shook the world and shaped the 20th century. That revolution was betrayed within a decade, and the workers’ state it created overturned by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991. But it demonstrated, for the first time in history, that working people can overthrow capitalist rule and successfully wield state power in their own interests. The indispensable precondition for this victory was the creation of the Bolshevik Party, which was forged through many years of hard ideological struggle against all forms of class collaborationism.
The world today is in some ways a very different place than it was a century ago, but in many essentials the fundamental problem remains – the necessity to overturn the rule of a tiny parasitic elite, and reorganize society to serve the interests of the many. To make this possible, a new generation of revolutionaries must embrace the lessons of the only successful proletarian revolution in history, and once more prepare to “storm heaven” in the name of a just, socialist future.