Trump's victory in the presidential election two weeks ago was a profound shock to tens of millions of progressive workers, young people, immigrants, women, people of color, Muslims and LGBTQ people across the US. As Trump's reactionary cabinet appointments have been announced and the list of targets of his administration has become clearer there is enormous fear and anger in many communities.
Many are waiting to see how events unfold or hoping against hope that Trump will see reason and moderate his positions. But the reported plans to deport three million people, establish a “registry” for Muslims, criminalize dissent, and nominate a Supreme Court justice who will vote to overturn Roe v Wade and shred union rights in the public sector are not idle threats.
Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across the country and the mood to resist is growing. Socialist Alternative called many of the first protests which were dominated by young people. But now we are seeing wider forces preparing for what will be truly massive protests around Trump's inauguration, particularly the Women's March on Washington DC on January 21. We and Socialist Students are also focusing on building student walkouts across the country on the actual day of the inauguration, January 20, which could become the biggest coordinated student actions since the Vietnam War.
The truth is that Trump's racist, misogynist agenda does not have a popular mandate. Votes are still being counted but despite winning in the undemocratic throwback Electoral College, Trump only got 46.4% of the popular vote and Clinton now has a lead of over two million.
Some leading Democrats have continued with their pathetic attempt to blame the outcome of the election on FBI director Comey – who reopened the investigation into Clinton's emails in the final days of the campaign – Bernie Sanders supporters, or even Jill Stein and the Greens. But even those sections of the corporate media which backed Clinton to the hilt have had to partially acknowledge that the outcome was more a defeat for the Democrats than a victory for Trump.
Exit polls showed that fully 20% of Trump voters (approximately 12 million voters) had an unfavorable view of him. As the Washington Post said, “There is no precedent for a candidate winning the Presidency with fewer voters viewing him favorably, or looking forward to his administration, than the loser.”
The underlying reality in the US remains, as we have said, huge political and social polarization. Big sections of society moved to the left in recent years. This was expressed in Occupy, the fight for $15, BLM, mass support for marriage equality and more recently for Native people at Standing Rock. But without doubt the most dramatic expression of this trend were the millions, especially young people, who supported Bernie Sanders' call for a political revolution against the billionaire class. At the end of the day, Clinton's status quo campaign had no appeal to those hostile to the ruling elite and simply failed to energize and mobilize progressive Americans in sufficient numbers despite the fear of Trump. As the roughly 54% election turnout showed, tens of millions of Americans simply saw no point in choosing between the two most unpopular presidential candidates in the country’s history.
This has led to the situation where the right now controls the White House as well as both Houses of Congress. In 23 states the Republicans have control of all three branches of government. This gives the right enormous institutional power. There is also the real danger of an energized hard right sinking roots. But there is huge potential power in the opposition to Trump especially if the social power of the working class can be brought to bear. Trump's agenda is beatable but it will require the most profound social struggle since the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s and 70s.
In the past week, Trump's transition team has announced a series of appointments to cabinet and adviser positions in the White House. This includes Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General; Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff; Steve Bannon as Trump's main adviser and General Michael Flynn as national security adviser.
Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, represents the Republican establishment which is reactionary enough. Bannon, however, who was the CEO of Trump's campaign in the fall, was previously the chairman of Breitbart News which is one of the central platforms for the hard right, white supremacist “alt-right.” Sessions was rejected by a Republican-controlled Senate in the 80s for a position in the federal judiciary because he was simply too racist even for them, while Flynn rants about Islam being “like a cancer.” It is a bit difficult to know which of these disgusting reactionaries we should be most alarmed about.
Further appointments before Thanksgiving include Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. DeVos is a billionaire advocate of charter schools and vouchers and a vicious opponent of public education.
But in appointing Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, as US representative to the UN, Trump may be seeking to put a bit of balance into this toxic mix. While Haley was elected as a Tea Party Republican she is also remembered for having pushed through the removal of the Confederate Flag as the state's official symbol after the killing of nine black churchgoers by white supremacist Dylan Roof. This is a bit of a poke in the eye to Trump's far right fans. Trump may try to go further in this “balancing act”. For example, he now says that he will not pursue further investigations of Hillary Clinton's emails or the Clinton Foundation.
Trump's agenda becomes clearer
But while Trump may try to inject some “balance” in his appointments and talks of “healing the wounds” of the campaign, this should in no way blind people to the deeply reactionary plans for the beginning of this billionaire led administration.
It is amply clear that Trump intends to deliver on the threat to deport three million immigrants. He intends to do in months what it took the Obama administration eight years to accomplish as it deported 2.7 million. There will also be a special focus on Muslim immigrants under the cover of “fighting ISIS,” with the threat of a national registry of all Muslims being raised.
This will be linked to a recasting of US policy in the Middle East as an existential struggle with “radical Islamic terrorists.” Both Bush and Obama sought to avoid lumping all the world's 1.6 billion Muslims together as part of the “enemy” but Trump may be prepared to go in this direction. This is highly alarming to US allies who fear that it would lead to a massive expansion of conflict in the coming period even if ISIS suffers further defeat on the battleground.
Clearly Trump will nominate an outright reactionary to the Supreme Court who could go after Roe v Wade and it is very possible that he will be make a further appointment during the next four years. This comes after years of relentless attacks on women's reproductive rights by Republican-dominated Southern state legislatures.
There is also clear intent to go after union rights. The public sector unions dodged a bullet last year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the Supreme Court's 4-4 tie in the Friedrichs case. The effect of this case succeeding would have meant extending anti-union “right to work” rules which exist in Republican run states to the entire national public sector.
There will definitely be an attempt to revive Friedrichs. Trump's team sees Scott Walker's successful campaign to eviscerate public sector unions in Wisconsin as a model. But the administration's more immediate target will be the unions representing federal employees and those workers' rights and benefits. They undoubtedly see the federal workforce as a soft target which will not elicit much sympathy. If they succeed, this will then allow them to ramp up the anti-union campaign more broadly.
Trump intends to gut environmental protection in the name of “bringing back jobs” as in the energy sector. But the main reason the coal industry has collapsed is due to market factors, especially the extremely low price of oil and natural gas.
Finally there is a clear desire to criminalize political dissent linked to Trump’s ominous talk about a “law and order” offensive. Key Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has talked about bringing back the McCarthy era House Un-American Activities Committee which launched an anti-communist witchhunt in the 1950s. Former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, another key Trump surrogate and possible appointee, has described the Black Lives Matter movement as “inherently racist” and “un-American”. Chris Christie claimed BLM called for killing police officers.
Taken as a whole this is the most reactionary agenda of any administration since at least Ronald Reagan. However, to be clear Trump will also push populist measures like infrastructure spending and paid parental leave. He will halt negotiation of further trade deals as part of a protectionist shift. At this point the Trans Pacific Partnership which represented a serious threat to workers rights and the environment is dead in the water. A section of the working class and middle class has real expectations based on Trump's promises to bring back manufacturing and good jobs. They will be severely disappointed but perhaps not immediately.
The lessons of the past
The stakes now are extremely high. Trump will seek to inflict severe and demoralizing defeats by picking off one target at a time. All sections of society targeted by Trump must therefore unite their forces from the start.
The old slogan of the labor movement – “an injury to one is an injury to all” – was never more relevant. And the labor movement has a key role to play in this situation. Despite its long retreat the unions still represent 16 million workers and retain strength in some industrial sectors but especially the public sector and in key cities that will be central to the resistance against Trump.
The social power of working people uniting all parts of a mass movement must be counterposed to the institutional power of the right. The mass protests around the inauguration are a crucial first step. How events unfold after January 20 is very difficult to say but there are critical lessons which must be drawn out from previous battles against the right wing in this country.
After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the air traffic controllers' union PATCO went on strike. Reagan decided to turn this into a showdown with labor as a whole by firing all the members of this union which had actually endorsed him in the election! There was an enormous willingness in the still-strong labor movement to fight back. Tens of thousands would have responded to a call from the AFL-CIO for mass pickets to shut down key airports.
Labor Day in 1981 saw 250,000 workers march in Washington DC with the PATCO workers at their head. But the union leadership criminally refused to extend the strike, PATCO was smashed and the labor movement was put decisively on the defensive. The defeat is what is remembered but what is equally important is that Reagan could have been beaten which would have changed the entire dynamic and encouraged the further development of a mass movement to defeat the rest of Reagan's neo-liberal agenda.
In 2006, the Republican-dominated House passed the Sensenbrenner Bill which threatened mass deportations of all undocumented workers in the US and their families and made it a crime to help them. This sparked the biggest mass demonstrations in US history including the “day without an immigrant” on May 1 which had elements of a general strike of Latino immigrant workers. The movement beat back the bill and also pushed back anti-immigrant attitudes for a period. But although many were sympathetic with the stand of millions of immigrants demanding citizenship rights and “equal rights for all workers,” the native born working class largely stood on the sidelines. This allowed the Bush administration to eventually move to savagely repress the movement especially the section of immigrant workers that was actively moving to unionize.
In 2010, Scott Walker was elected Governor of Wisconsin. He and the Republican-controlled legislature moved to impose savage cutbacks in education but also cripple public sector unions by stripping their right to collectively bargain over anything besides wages. Even then they were no longer allowed to negotiate wage increases above inflation. Part of the legislation also stipulated that all public sector unions had to hold recertification votes on a yearly basis. This was the most serious frontal attack on the labor movement since the PATCO strike. Tens of thousands marched on a weekly basis in the state capital Madison in early 2011 in the largest protests in Wisconsin history, and the capitol building itself was occupied for weeks on end.
Beating Walker required escalating the movement. Socialist Alternative argued for a one day public sector general strike as a first step in this direction. There was an enormously positive response from workers to this idea but the national leadership of the AFL-CIO, as in 1981, put on the brakes. Rather than escalate they de-escalated and advocated a campaign to recall Scott Walker, i.e. to get a Democrat elected. This strategy failed comprehensively and Walker is still in office today.
The right Is beatable
As in 1981, 2006, and 2011, the right can be beaten but only with an effective strategy and an utterly determined leadership. There are several factors that can help the movement. First of all, unlike in the 1980s when neo-liberalism had a real base of social support including within sections of the working and middle classes, right wing ideology has a weaker social grip today. The far right is emboldened by Trump's victory but they are far from establishing a mass base in their own right.
Also the ruling class remains on the whole deeply unhappy about Trump's accession to power. They see him as potentially highly damaging to their global and domestic interests. It is true that at the moment markets are factoring in the possibility of economic growth under Trump because of infrastructure spending and ending DC gridlock. Wall Street also supports his proposals to cut taxes further for the superrich and get rid of financial regulation. But there is real possibility of global and domestic recession in next period which would throw a Trump administration into deep crisis.
With or without a recession sections of the ruling class could begin to exert real pressure against Trump, especially if he overreaches and provokes effective mass resistance. They would do this in the wider interest of the system and precisely to cut across the movement. In this context, it is significant that a number of Democratic big city mayors are promising to resist attempts to ban “sanctuary cities” for immigrants despite threats to cut federal funding. Governor Cuomo of New York, a reliable ally of Wall Street, even declared that he, as the grandson of immigrants, should be deported first.
But where was Cuomo as the Obama administration ramped up deportations to record levels? We must place no reliance on corporate Democrats whose anti-working class policies have driven so many into the arms of the right. Instead, a mass movement against Trump must be centered on the social power of working people mobilized to fight for their own independent class interests.
Working class unity against the right
There has been a vast amount of ink spilled in the media about the “white working class” either vilifying it as one reactionary mass because it is supposedly in lock step behind Trump or trying to “understand” its concerns. We have consistently rejected the narrative that the support for Trump is simply motivated by racism and sexism although that is a real factor for a section of his supporters. We have repeatedly pointed out that Trump, through a right-wing populist and nationalist appeal, tapped into the anger at the effects of neo-liberalism and globalization especially the massive loss of good manufacturing jobs which was partly the result of trade deals like NAFTA. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 5 million manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2014.
But while some particularly obtuse liberal commentators seem to think that the question of jobs is about defending “white male privilege” the truth is that de-industrialization and the deep retreat of the unions in the private sector had an even more devastating effect on the black working class.
But neither are we blind to the fact that Trump’s open racism, xenophobia and misogyny resonated with a section of his supporters. This is not the first time in history that the accumulated failures of the left and the labor leadership has opened the door to dangerous right wing ideas. This situation can be reversed with a determined mass movement that speaks directly to the common interests of all sections of the working class and firmly opposes racism and sexism.
The truth is far more complicated and contradictory than most liberal commentators seem able to grasp. What is certain is that the Democratic Party establishment has lost the ability to even pretend to speak to working people’s interests, whether white, black or Latino. What was notable in this election was not just a limited (and frequently exaggerated) turn by white workers to the Republicans, but the lack of enthusiasm among young black workers for the Democrats and the incredible nearly 30% vote among Latinos for Trump. As Mike Davis recently pointed out on versobooks.com, “the lower Black turnout in Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia alone would explain most of Clinton’s defeat in the Midwest.” He adds though that the lower turnout was also due to voter suppression, ie traditional Republican election rigging.
The question of Trump’s working class support is not simply a matter of “understanding others.” It is a very real practical question facing the movement. Simply put, to really defeat the right and begin to resume an offensive struggle for the needs of working people, the movement will need to win over sections of Trump’s base. Sanders’ poll numbers against Trump and the huge response he received among working people generally shows that this can be done.
Another section of Trump’s base will not be reached. But it is possible to isolate and defeat the organized far right forces which at this point remain small, though emboldened, and generally extremely unskilful.
The Democrats, the unions, and the role of socialists
A huge debate is opening up among progressive workers and youth about how to defeat Trump. Packed meetings of hundreds, including many organized by Socialist Alternative, are being held around the country.
One argument which at this point has a lot of support is that we must combine building a movement against Trump with a determined effort to “take over” the Democratic Party and make it an instrument that represents the interests of ordinary people rather than Wall Street. This is the argument of Sanders and Our Revolution, as well as the dominant elements in the Democratic Socialists of America.
Given the crisis that has opened up in the Democratic Party due to their incredible failure to defeat the odious Trump, it is understandable why many would be attracted to this perspective. More than at any time in the past 40 years the “centrist” neo-liberal leadership of the party is on the defensive. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren have been strengthened. They are supporting Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who is standing for chair of the DNC. While Ellison has also received the support of some figures in the establishment like Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, who are playing for time and want to avoid deeper division, Ellison’s campaign is now running into pushback from the Obama White House.
Undoubtedly, the Sanders position which stresses the need for movements “from below” is far superior to the craven response of Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO and key Democrats who said they wanted to “work with Trump” or have a “seat at the table.”
We believe in the unity of the widest possible forces in common action against Trump's attacks. But we strongly disagree with the idea that the corporate Democrats can be turned into an instrument for working people. There is a mistaken idea promoted by some on the left that the Democrats once represented the interests of working people. This was never the case. It is true that the party shifted sharply to the right in the 80s and 90s but this reflected the needs of capitalism in a new period.
The question of the character of the Democrats was sharply posed by Sanders historic campaign earlier this year. This led to ferocious resistance by the party establishment. The lengths to which they were prepared to go to prevent Sanders pro-working class campaign winning has now been fully revealed by Wikileaks.
But even if Sanders had somehow managed to win the rigged primary he would have faced the choice of either capitulating to the demands of the neo-liberal party establishment or having to go to war against their sabotage. This would have meant essentially laying the basis for a new party. As Sanders correctly said to Clinton in the debates you can’t serve the interests of both Wall Street and working people.
A party which stands for working people must first of all advance a bold anti-corporate, working class agenda. But it must also require their elected representatives to refuse all corporate donations and accept only the average income of their constituents like Kshama Sawant, socialist councilmember in Seattle. Most Democratic elected officials would choose to leave the Democrats rather than accept this situation. This is why we will continue to argue for a new party of the 99%.
The movement to defeat Trump’s reactionary agenda will face many challenges. But there is no reason for despair. The enormous determination to fight back already being shown by hundreds of thousands of young people, women, people of color and LGBTQ people points to the potential for building the biggest mass movement in American history which can inflict a decisive blow to the right.
But we have to clearly understand the tasks posed and who our friends and who our enemies are. As we have argued here we need a clear strategy based on the social power of working people. Some might despair given the conservative leadership of the existing unions. But there have also been real signs of life like the Verizon strike earlier this year, the biggest strike in nearly 20 years which beat back the company’s attacks. There is also a developing alliance of progressive unions including National Nurses United, the Communication Workers of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union, all of whom supported Sanders and are now supporting the heroic fight of Native people at Standing Rock. The questions of shaking up, transforming and building unions into democratically run campaigning organizations that can organize and lead struggles will be more and more sharply posed.
At the end of the day, Trump's ascendancy is a reflection of the deep and growing crisis of the capitalist system whose institutions have been deeply discredited during the last historical period and even more during this election cycle. The ruling class is divided, not sure how to respond. The economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 and the millions of jobs lost and homes foreclosed while the rich have got richer has led to a serious questioning of the system along with the looming climate catastrophe and the exposure of searing racial injustice.
Trump’s presidency will deepen the radicalization of sections of society. Poll after poll indicates growing support for socialism especially among young people. Socialist Alternative is working towards building a new socialist party, based on Marxist politics. The movement we are building will need a clear anti-capitalist, socialist force within it that argues for a working class centered struggle against Trump and the entire system which has totally outlived its usefulness. If you agree, join us!