Trump, coronavirus, capitalism, and the presidential race

ISG supporters on a covid-19 front-line health workers protest

Five months after Covid-19 reached the United States, the Trump administration and US capitalism have still failed to mobilise an effective response to the pandemic. Parts of the country began reopening for business on 1 May despite a national lack of mass testing and an insufficient drop in hospitalisation and infection rates. The rich are desperate for workers to return to work. Without our labour and our purchasing power, there are no profits.

Emergency unemployment benefits administered through the CARES Act run out on 31 July, unless extended in a new stimulus package.

One way out from under these costly emergency measures is for the government to declare the economy open. For example, Ohio State, in an attempt to accelerate the return to work, encouraged reopened businesses to report workers who elected not to return to work. Workers who are too scared to return to work can then be denied unemployment benefits for “voluntary joblessness”!

This push to reopen clearly places profits above lives, as 1.45 million Americans are confirmed infected, as of writing, with over 86,000 deaths reported. The continued lack of mass testing hides the real rate and spread of the infection. With most workplaces still lacking proper protective equipment, sanitation, and social distancing practices, workers may not survive returning to work.

Economic crisis

The American economy staggers forward like someone who has been dealt a fatal blow but not yet fallen. The real jobless rate has reached 23% and is expected to increase further, including losses in traditionally ‘recession-proof’ industries like healthcare. Workers who lose jobs also lose any employer-sponsored healthcare. Already an estimated 27 million additional Americans are newly uninsured.

Thanks to the billions of stimulus funds pumped into major corporations, the stock market is showing a rebound, directly contradicted by the real economic conditions. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos saw his wealth jump by $24 billion. But this level of profiteering is not an indication that the capitalist economy is healthy. Rather, it reveals a gap in the pandemic-constrained market that Amazon will likely monopolise in the aftermath.

The billions in stimulus funds are saving so-called ‘zombie corporations’ that took out enormous loans while credit was cheap only to spend it on stock buybacks.

While this creates profit for stakeholders in the short term, it has no bearing on real productivity. Stimulus funds and tax cuts to the rich are used to speculate in the market or squirrelled away in offshore accounts, unlike stimulus support to workers which is injected directly into the economy through purchases and payments.


High-profile confrontations between lockdown protesters and essential worker counter-protesters have filled the headlines.

While some may be protesting because they see a return to work as the only way to regain some semblance of economic security, the organisations that initiated the protests have been linked to powerful right-wing forces including “some of the same people and money that built the Tea Party” (New York Times).

Following the widely reported racial targeting and killing of a black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery – by a white father and son in the predominantly white and conservative neighbourhood, of Satilla Shores, Georgia – legally armed black citizens came out to protest in the neighbourhood.

As the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) mentioned previously, there are elements of a civil war developing in the United States. The situation will polarise further when the inevitable second wave of the virus, spread through contact after reopening, hits during the phase-out of expanded welfare benefits, eviction moratoriums, and other emergency economic measures.

Trump’s response

Leading experts, scientists, and policymakers are either stumbling over each other to appear the most loyal to Trump and his decisions or are fired for defending a scientifically informed pandemic response. But the greatest weakness of Trump’s response to the pandemic comes not from his personality, but his role as a representative of capitalism’s interests.

Despite being briefed on the risks of Covid-19 before it even reached the US, Trump denied the initial spread of the infection. This was an attempt to maintain market confidence and Trump’s poll numbers since the US economy was looking strong on paper.

Undoubtedly, the initial response to the pandemic by the Trump administration caused tens of thousands of preventable deaths, and his ongoing response will be responsible for tens of thousands more. After finally declaring the state of emergency, his administration and many allied state governments began manoeuvring to reopen as soon as possible.

The burden of preventing infection has been forced onto individual workers, rather than coordinated at a national and international level.

The Trump administration is encouraging competition, not cooperation, between states but also between nations. The lack of a centralised response is exacerbating existing inequalities and snarling supply chains.

The pandemic response is handled largely on a state-by-state basis, from policy decisions to supply provisioning. States have been caught in the middle of national bidding wars for much-needed supplies. Unlike the federal government, states do not have the authority to run a budget deficit to fund response programmes.

The US has been accused of blocking or diverting supply orders of other countries. Tensions are rising among traditional ‘allies’ over the ‘America First’ attitude of the Trump administration.

Imperialist tensions are also on the rise as Trump and US capitalists continue to clash with China over trade matters, exacerbated by the economic meltdown. The Financial Times has described the vaccine race between the US and China as a “new cold war”.

These failures are not specifically a failure of Trump or his administration – many capitalist countries wasted precious early response time. Barack Obama was responsible for scrapping a White House pandemic unit during his presidency as well as bailing out the big banks and auto manufacturers at the expense of workers. The history of pandemics in the modern era is a history of capitalist mismanagement and inability to plan for the long term, putting profits over preparedness.

The Democrats

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Democrats attempted to brand themselves as the “resistance” against Trump in hopes of capitalising on the upsurge of anger and disillusionment. Yet politicians and government officials of both parties are using the pandemic as an excuse to push through a host of anti-worker measures.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back key climate policies. The Department of Justice is quietly seeking the right to indefinitely detain people without trial during emergencies. The decision to ban abortions in Texas during the pandemic as a “non-essential medical procedure” was upheld in appeals court.

New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo continued to push cuts to Medicaid – even if it means risking billions in relief funds. Thousands of essential city workers in Philadelphia had their time-and-a-half coronavirus pay revoked.

Joe Biden, Democratic presidential nominee-apparent, continues to oppose free universal healthcare, along with his party.

Only now, in the second month of the crisis, is the Democratic Party seriously proposing a major stimulus package that would be more far-reaching than the previous Republican-initiated packages.

A real opposition party would be mobilising its supporters to win far-reaching change. There have been no protests organised by the Democratic Party, despite multiple demonstrations of safe protest methods over the past weeks.

Trump is clearly relying on a resurgent economy to anchor his campaign, but the Democrats are not interested in using their ties to US labour to organise job actions to win real gains.

The Democrats have not put forward anything resembling a comprehensive programme or plan to deal with the crisis.

Such a plan would provide wage guarantees for those who have lost jobs or are otherwise unable to work, hazard pay for those still working, intervention into the food market to keep supply up without ruining farmers; importing tests and implementing on-demand testing; opposing any unsafe reopening; nationalising hospital companies to increase capacity; nationalising pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and centralising research for a vaccine.

Presidential race

The capitalists have worried since the beginning of Trump’s administration that his erratic behaviour may damage the government’s credibility and US capitalism’s interests more than the precedent set by impeaching him.

The Republicans have now united behind him. Initially campaigning on job growth and a healthy stock market, since the outbreak, Trump has attempted to minimise the economic damage.

Reopening the economy without mass testing, proper sanitation, and appropriate hospital capacity will undoubtedly cause a devastating second wave, but Trump sees it as his only option.

A new spike in deaths would be catastrophic for his campaign, but the expected deep recession caused by continued shutdowns would be an equal threat. Trump’s campaign will gamble on the timing of the second wave and hope that the economy is back to some semblance of its pre-crisis self by November.

In case he can’t revive the economy, Trump is attempting to paint the virus as a foreign plot to boost his reelection. From stoking racist violence by calling Covid-19 the “Chinese Virus”, and demanding reparations from China for damages, to passing an immigration ban in the guise of “preventing contagion”, the Trump administration is using racist rhetoric to appeal to the most xenophobic elements of his base.

The Democrats

Despite a strong start, the Sanders campaign has already conceded the race and supported Biden, who has pushed for anti-union, racist, and sexist policies over his long career in Congress.

The two millionaire presidential candidates and their parties agree on the vast majority of policies, most of which Sanders supporters oppose. Nonetheless, the Sanders campaign is exerting serious pressure on the forces it mobilised to now support Biden, including a party unity campaign, and high-profile Sanders allies accepting nominations to various positions proposed by Biden.

Biden’s campaign has failed to counterbalance Trump’s poor pandemic response.

Despite Trump’s abject failure to handle the deep crisis, the Biden campaign may still find a way to lose the election.

The left

Sanders supporters are only now beginning to grapple with the way forward in the vacuum of left leadership. The Democratic Socialists of America (a left-leaning faction linked to the Democratic Party) has, for now, voted against supporting Biden, though it may reverse its position or condemn with faint praise any of the independent left campaigns.

The Los Angeles chapter of Our Revolution, an organisation founded by Sanders after his 2016 run, has now broken with the national organisation and allied itself with the Movement for a People’s Party by calling for the formation of a left party to challenge the Democrats and Republicans.

This call has been the centrepiece of Howie Hawkins’ campaign for the Green Party presidential nomination.

It remains to be seen whether any of the independent left campaigns can be used to successfully harness the anger of Sanders supporters and mobilise the alienated working class in enough numbers to lay the foundations of a serious challenge to the capitalist two-party system.

A workers’ party

We won’t get universal free healthcare, guaranteed income, rent and mortgage forgiveness, or job security from the Democrats or the Republicans. The heavy cost of the 2008 Great Recession was paid by working people in the following decade while the capitalists made unprecedented amounts of profit.

Workers, especially people of colour, permanently lost generations’ worth of wealth through home foreclosures and bankruptcies.

The high-paying jobs with benefits lost during the recession were replaced with precarious, low-paid, and ‘gig’ alternatives. We only have to look at the bailouts of the big banks, airlines, and auto manufacturers to know how the capitalists intend to make workers pay for this crisis again.

But we don’t have to resign ourselves to further suffering. We can defend our jobs, pay, benefits, and workplace safety by organising among our co-workers, especially in union workplaces. We can push for union leadership to take up a fighting defence of our rights and wellbeing instead of rolling over and conceding to the cuts.

If the current union leadership won’t fight to defend us, we can elect one that will defend and extend our rights.

To resolve this pandemic we need an organisation that draws together the working class, our organisations, and our movements into a coherent force that can fight to win. We need to organise to promote our political interests, from universal free healthcare to full funding of social programmes.

Building a left workers’ party in the US would be an enormous step in the right direction. The vast majority of Americans don’t support either the corporate Democrats or Republicans – they simply don’t vote!

Some have been deliberately disenfranchised, others see no point in voting. Some voters hold their noses and vote for the ‘business-as-usual’ Democratic Party candidate, while others vote for figures like Trump in protest!

Through a workers’ party we can unite workers, youth, oppressed communities, unions, progressive organisations, and social movements to build campaigns to win the policies we need now, without having to wait for election year.

We can, and must, also run workers’ representatives on a workers’ platform and show what it means to have an administration and society that puts people before profit.

Fundamental change, however, would require breaking with the capitalist system and bringing the 500 major corporations that dominate the US economy into democratic public ownership. This would then enable society’s enormous accumulated resources to be harnessed to begin to build a democratic socialist society that could meet the needs of all.

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May 2020