On the day of the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, the left in the United States must grapple with three interrelated questions: what gave rise to Trump’s victory? how can we resist the threat to civil, political and social rights posed by his administration? and how can we rebuild a progressive majority capable of taking on the neoliberal, pro-corporate national leadership of the Democratic Party while also building sufficient strength to defeat reactionary Republicans at the local, state and national level?
Was it a surprise? Trumpism and the reactionary rejection of global neoliberalism
Why did Trump narrowly win? Trump’s victory is part of a popular revolt in capitalist democracies against bipartisan elite policies of neoliberal globalization, fostered over the past 30 years by both conservative parties and neoliberal “third way” social democrats. Such policies have at most benefitted the top 20 percent who possess STEM or “symbolic manipulative” managerial skills, while subjecting the vast majority to declining living standards and government austerity. This institutionalization of the 4 “D”s of neoliberalism — economic deregulation, state-sponsored de-unionization, decreases in taxes on the rich and corporations, and defunding of public goods — have led to popular disgust with the establishment. In France, the neo-fascist Marie Le Pen is vying for the French presidency, while explicitly anti-immigrant parties are serious players in the Netherlands, Britain and even Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe this trend is even more powerful; the anti-immigrant authoritarian right already governs in Hungary (Prime Minister Viktor Orban) and Poland (the Law and Justice Party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski). These parties have deep roots among traditional far right constituencies, small town business elites and petty entrepreneurs. But many “native-born” older working class voters view the traditional party system as having long abandoned their interests and are often drawn to nativist, semi-authoritarian far right politicians who blame the decline of working class life opportunities on immigrants, Muslims and cultural “others.”
In the United States, overt Republican resistance to basic civil and voting rights and to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants leads most people of color, if they vote, to back the Democrats. But white working class voters have the option of staying home (which many more socially liberal working class voters did this time out) or voting Republican. In much of the former confederacy, Democratic candidates receive less than 15 percent of the white vote. The Republicans have increasingly become the party of white nationalism; 92 percent of their vote comes from whites. In presidential elections the Democrats draw nearly 50 percent of their vote from voters of color. This is why Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke the language of diversity in the corporate boardroom and also endorsed a vague path to citizenship for undocumented workers. But the neoliberal leadership of the Democratic Party never criticizes corporate domination of our society for screwing working people of all races.
Close elections are won on the margins, so the extent of Trump’s victory can be exaggerated. This remains a nation evenly split between the right and the center-left, with concentration of the Democratic vote in cities and inner suburbs giving Republicans a structural advantage in state legislative and Congressional races (not to mention gerrymandering). Trump garnered slightly more than 46 percent of the total national presidential vote and lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes or over 2 percentage points. Trump’s victory occurred because the Republican base eventually came home; he received nearly 90 percent of the vote of registered Republicans, even though many in the Republican establishment did not wax enthusiastic about his most egregious racist and misogynist behavior (perhaps because it too blatant a version of Reagan’s railing against “welfare queens,” George H.W. Bush conjuring up the threat of “Willie Horton” and Mitt Romney drawing liens between “the takers and makers.” The Republicans have long identified with the white “silent majority”).
Trump also won because he narrowed the traditional Democratic margin among working class voters. Clinton did win the votes of families earning less than the median family income of $52,000 by 58-46 percent; but that 12 percent margin was down from Obama’s 60-40 margin in 2012. Of course, close to half those voters are people of color. Clinton’s lost the vote of non-college educated whites by a margin of 70-30, versus Obama performing 10 points stronger among these voters in 2012. Outside the South in 2012, Obama almost broke even among this sector of the electorate (versus Clinton losing 60-40), largely because Romney attacked the federal auto bailout, which saved over 2 million auto-related jobs, mostly in the rust belt states. (Obama carried Ohio in 2012 by three points; Clinton lost by 10 points!) That overt attack on the auto bailout, plus Romney’s patrician demeanor, meant he could not run as the pseudo-populist candidate that Trump did. Take away Trump eking out narrow victories in the rust belt states of Pennsylvania by 68,000 votes, Wisconsin by 18,000 and Michigan by 11,000 and pundits would still talk about the natural advantages Democrats have in the electoral college. What the pollsters forgot is that a narrow switch in voter turnout and behavior can yield massive changes in electoral college outcomes.
The left must continue to fight voter suppression and to reform an electoral system that consciously works to suppress working class votes, particularly voters of color. Only 30 percent of the presidential electorate comes from individuals from families below the median income and 70 percent comes from the top 50 percent, with voter participation rates rising steadily along with income and educational status. This is a permanent conservative bias in the U.S. electorate, accentuated by our not holding elections on weekends or national holidays and by citizens having to pro-actively register to vote rather than being passively registered by state identification records. Only 70 percent of Americans eligible to vote bother to register and only 70 percent of these turnout in presidential elections, declining to 50 percent in off year Congressional races. Voter suppression measures such as fewer polling places, curtailment of early and absentee voting, and stricter identification requirements cost the Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes in North Carolina and contributed to a drop in the African-American vote in Wisconsin and Michigan greater than the national drop of ten percent. The Moral Monday movement in North Carolina prefigures the type of multi-racial coalitions against voter suppression and in favor of racial and economic justice that they left must build. Attorney general nominee Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is a major proponent of voter suppression laws and his horrid record on civil rights should lead Senate Democrats to vote against his confirmation. (One would not be surprised if Sessions, upon taking office, put Black Lives Matter on the domestic terrorist watchlist.) While 60 progressive Democratic Congresspersons (half of whom are Black and Latino) are boycotting the inauguration, all the Senate Democrats will be in attendance, unfortunately.
Play aggressive defense on the national level
The first task of the left is to engage in massive resistance against Trump’s likely initial onslaught against basic civil and political liberties. Swing voters may have voted for Trump hoping for an improvement in their economic lot, but only a minority of the population supports mass deportation of immigrants or immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). If Trump engages in any form of Muslim registry we must all register immediately. Progressives must join immigrant rights activists in fighting for sanctuary cities and campuses which refuse to cooperate with any federal deportation efforts. And if immigration raids accelerate, we must engage in acts of mass civil disobedience that render such raids ineffective.
The Issue Is Not Trump, It's Us
Last weekend’s large demonstrations against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act often adopted Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) call that “in the short term we defend the ACA and in the long term we fight for single payer.” Packed meetings and assertive confrontations in Republican district and D.C. offices has already forced several Republican Senators and House members to declare that they will not support repeal of the ACA without a clear replacement being in place. The left should use the growing popular sentiment that health care is a right, not a privilege, to push for single-payer systems at the state level. Though the Tea Party had the advantage of massive funding from the Koch Brothers, it mobilized sufficient number of constituents to press Republicans to resist any cooperation with the Obama administration. We need a grassroots, left version of the Tea Party to pressure Democrats to refuse any cooperation with the Republican legislative agenda and to filibuster reactionary cabinet and Supreme Court appointments, particularly any who would threaten reproductive rights and/or labor rights.
What the left needs to build is a national federation of locally-based organizations that can run multi-racial Sandernistas on a social democratic platform at the local and state level. Whether this takes the form of Our Revolution chapters or Working Families Party affiliates will depend upon the local terrain. But such a post-Bernie political trend must not only link social movement protest to electoral work; it must also build a coalition that brings in as equal partners organizations rooted in communities of color, labor, and the feminist and LGBTQ communities. To build a neo-Rainbow comparable to the multi-racial coalitions that opposed the Reagan administration’s reactionary agenda, post-Bernie groups have to sit down at the table with these key constituency organizations and negotiate a coalition in which all progressive constituencies have a true voice.
Going from defense to building a left governing alternative in blue cities and states
This opposition to Trump – and to neoliberal Democrats – cannot take a solely defensive form. The success of the Sanders campaign and general election victories against the reactionary Phoenix Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the work of Black Lives Matter to defeat reactionary district attorneys in Cook County, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio, demonstrate that progressive victories are within our grasp. My own organization, Democratic Socialists of America has recruited close to 6,000 new members since Nov. 9 (the day after the election). Our 13,000 (and growing) members makes us the largest socialist organization in the U.S. since the Communist Party of the late 1930s. Many of these recruits are millennials out of the Bernie movement. DSA realizes that if socialists are to play a significant role in U.S. politics they must ally with organizations rooted in communities of color that are fighting for racial justice and immigrant rights. And in the electoral arena, if we are to both successfully primary neoliberal Democats and defeat Republicans (and also run open socialists in nonpartisan races or as independents) we have to broaden the post-Bernie trend in terms of its class, racial and gender composition.
In “blue cities” and “blue states” such as California and Minnesota we can win victories that can prefigure more just federal policies, just as the state level experiments in social and labor rights in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1920s anticipated the New Deal reforms of the 1930s. We can raise the minimum wage to $15 and index it to inflation and win paid parental leave. Working people can no longer afford to live in the very cities in which they work; thus movements for affordable and publicly financed housing are beginning to emerge. Now is the time to popularize the concept of a second economic bill of rights. The working and middle class of this country cannot survive, yet alone raise children humanely, absent high quality public education, affordable housing, truly universal health care and expanded Social Security. But we can only win on these issues if militant social movements coalesce to back progressive candidates for state, local and federal office – and hold their feet to the fire once they are elected. The left needs to adopt a 50 state strategy and cease ceding much of the heartland to Republican control of all three branches of government.
Exploiting the contradictions in the Trump coalition
Trump’s personal agenda remains hard to discern. He promises high-wage jobs, but has no coherent plan to develop them. Investment in public infrastructure might create some high-wage jobs, but not under his tax-credit plan which would essentially privatize infrastructure development into the hands of private developers. The left should back as an alternative Bernie Sanders $1 trillion alternative infrastructure bill that would create 3 million public jobs over a 10 year period. And the desire of corporate America and the upper middle class to continue to employ undocumented workers could suggest that Trump’s talk of mass deportation is just that, talk. But, again, no one can fathom the true intentions of a classic narcissist. Trump’s domestic cabinet appointments are a parade of traditional Republican corporate deplorables united in their desire to end government regulation of the economy and to privatize public goods as rapidly as possible.
Only in the realms of foreign and trade policy, do Trump’s instincts deviate from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Trump’s unilateral and nationalist instincts in foreign policy contradict the more traditional multilateral, pro-Nato commitments of his foreign policy appointments. Trump will likely be reined in by the bipartisan foreign policy elite and intelligence community. But his promise to destroy the Islamic State group and his savior complex could lead to unilateral U.S. interventions abroad, far more robust than the secret drone program of the Obama administration. In his trade policy appointments Trump has veered from appointing traditional Republican neoliberal supporters of “free trade” (read freedom for capital, repression for labor and restrictions on the rights of states to regulate their economy). His appointment of the protectionists Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative and Peter Navarro to head the National Trade Council may indicate that Trump is serious about taking China on in regards to their policies of currency manipulation, export subsidies, and theft of intellectual property. But while these appointees are economic nationalists, they are no friends of fair trade advocates who fight for trade agreements with robust labor rights and environmental regulatory provisions. Nor do Navarro and Lighthizer favor the abolition of the Investor-State Dispute Resolution mechanisms that invariably rule in favor of corporate interests and against nations regulating their economy to promote equitable and pro-labor development policies. But an open debate about trade policy could allow the left and labor to gain greater public visibility for progressive “fair trade” policy.
We now know all too painfully that neoliberal Democratic government that fails to deal with the needs of working class people of all races can lead to Republican rule of all three branches of the federal government and Republican top-to-bottom rule in 25 states. Such rule already threatens to severely limit union rights and to accentuate the corporate terror unleashed upon anyone engaging in union organizing. But this election should strengthen those of us who know that neoliberal Democratic politics simply won’t cut it. A candidate who cozied up to Wall Street with reassuring $250,000 a pop speeches and ran on a theme of “competence, expertise and sound character” failed to defeat a narcissistic misogynist who proclaimed that the system is broken. Enough white middle and working class disaffected swing or irregular voters opted for the narcissist who admitted something was profoundly wrong with America (even if part of making “American Great Again” is a nostalgic look back to a time when white supremacy reigned securely). In order to defeat Trumpism and the Republican right we have to build a multiracial left – a left that can win power, rebuild a democratic labor movement, and restore progressive taxation to fund those public goods that empower working people of all races.
Joseph M. Schwartz is a veteran left activist who teaches politics at Temple University and serves as a national vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).