Different next time
Donald Trump’s victory is a blow for the nationalist right - but hardly an irreversible one, argues Paul Demarty
The global press has, for the last week, been focused on a very particular anachronism in the American constitution - the anti-democratic electoral college.
It was designed initially to pass the choice of commander in chief to sensible members of the elite (the favoured method of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists), but which evolved, state by state, into a layer of indirection over an otherwise ‘direct’ election just complicated enough to give the rural slave states the upper hand. Since the 1860s, of course, the slave power has been destroyed; but the metropolitan drives of late capitalism have skewed the rural and suburban bias of the college very dramatically, with the consequence that a Democratic presidential ticket has won the popular vote, but come away empty-handed for the second time in less than two decades. Now of all times, there is a great hue and cry about how this is ‘unfair’.
Our own thoughts, however, turn to another such quirk - in the old days, in so vast and underdeveloped a territory as the infant United States, counting votes took a long time; and, after all, Alexander Hamilton’s sober electors were supposed to deliberate for a time before taking their choice. Thus there emerged the current situation of a two-and-a-bit-month lame-duck period, between election and inauguration. This must be the most dramatic such interval since the South Carolinians used the same opportunity to secede from the union in 1860, provoking the second revolutionary war.
Donald Trump has been elected, but has not yet taken office; and thereby the imagination runs riot. Among the hardcore ‘deplorables’, the Confederate nostalgics, alt-right trolls and opportunistic fascist creeps, saliva glands are no doubt throbbing with anticipation. In boardrooms, the bourgeoisie nervously watch for signs as to which harebrained schemes will survive the winter, and which will be quietly shelved (and, no doubt, many corporate billions of dollars are diverted to the pockets of hungry lobbyists). In parliaments and civil bureaucracies and ruling cliques around the world, formal congratulations are grudgingly issued, while dread creeps in at the edges.
What of the leftwing imagination? Various options are available, the most common being complacency, anger and abject terror, in ascending order of prevalence.
For complacency, we turn to the Communist Party USA, which was lifted from its recent decades of obscurity briefly in Barack Obama’s first term, when Glenn Beck noticed that the latter enjoyed the enthusiastic support of America’s ‘communists’. This time around, they not only supported Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, but also against the soi-disant socialist, Bernie Sanders, in the primaries, such is their genuflection before the task of keeping out the “ultra-right”.
Not that the comrades seem too terribly concerned, oddly: in People’s World, their online paper, one John Bachtell sounds a curiously defiant note, in an article headlined “After the Trump election: Fight! Resist! Organize!” “Defeats are part of life and struggle,” he writes - quite correctly, as it happens. “But they should not lead to paralysis. It is not the end of the road.”1 So what do we do?
What is urgently needed now is unity. Every conceivable movement and ally prepared to defend social advances and democratic norms must be mobilized, starting with the labor-led people’s movement, Black Lives Matter, climate justice groups, the Dreamers, the LGTBQ community and women, in alliance with the Democratic Party and all parts of what was the Hillary Clinton electoral coalition, and those inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign (our emphasis - PD).
What can one say about this, except that it is laughable? “Women” are supposed to be part of this coalition - including the women who voted Trump? Gay people - including Peter Thiel? And as for “all parts” of Hillary Clinton’s “coalition” - which has just now been sent to richly deserved oblivion! Can the comrade really be advocating a repeat of the recent disaster? Insanity, according to the old saw, consists of doing the same thing again and again, but expecting different results. Thus, we fear, are the comrades of the CPUSA irretrievably pixillated - for their refusal to rethink, now that their perspective has been spectacularly invalidated, is precisely what it means for a defeat to lead to “paralysis”.
At the other extreme, we find many people paralysed by something else altogether - total fear.
Most such people are on the edges (at best) of liberalism, and may have really believed the stupid alarmism about Trump maybe pushing the nuclear button (seriously?); and we discover, in otherwise relatively sensible responses from American progressives, a kind of assumption that the next four years are now to be characterised by internment camps and relentless racially motivated violence (the story here is not exactly untrue, but - as we shall see - still misguided).
Such is the main motivation for the spate of spontaneous-ish protests that have taken place across America in the wake of the result. (Any such protest wave, nowadays, needs its own Twitter hashtag, which is ‘#notmypresident’, to which we can only reply with a panto flourish, ‘Oh yes he is!’) The participation of ‘anarchists’ in such demonstrations - bringing oh-so-radical activities like flag-burning to the party - invites the counterfactual speculation as to whether Hillary would have also provoked such protests. We do not think so - and so, as ever, such ‘anarchists’ are revealed as merely liberals with anger management issues.
For an exemplary write-up of this mindset, however, we can do no better than turn to our old friends in Left Unity, whose reaction statement is self-explanatorily headed: “Trump’s victory: Hitler’s shadow”.2
The film of the 1930s is running in slow motion ... Millions are now supporting rightwing-populist ideas with close parallels to the ideology that brought us the catastrophe of the 1930s ... Do not be deceived by the fact that Trumpism ... does not wear all the trappings of classical fascism. We have national flags, not swastikas. We have bullies in suits, not thugs in jackboots. We have electoral triumphs, but the union offices have not yet been ransacked ... This, make no mistake, is creeping fascism.
For a Marxist, of course, fascism is not a simple matter of having sufficiently unpleasant opinions, but of social function in times of crisis - as the LU statement puts it, the use of “paramilitaries” to “physically smash” the left and labour movement. Fascism does not creep: it marches. The circle is squared with the idea that Trump’s fascism faces only a weak labour movement, and thus does not need paramilitary force when “the state police will suffice”; but if we are so weak, why should he even bother with sending in the police? What exactly is left of this ‘fascism’, which is not especially fascist because fascism is unnecessary?
It is the concluding part of the article which is the most eyebrow-raising, however, where it is claimed, bizarrely, that:
Hitler and Mussolini also had some, otherwise sound [sic!], economic ideas, that became unworkable, because they were subordinated to their fascism and their militarism.
If we cannot develop a good, left, alternative economic programme to the rightwing populism, and create a party that is capable of contesting elections, based on that programme, we will have to watch while the rightwing populists and fascists win many more elections.
It is time for a reality check: if these people genuinely think that the next step in American politics is the collapse of the constitutional regime and a move towards some sort of Hitleresque racist dictatorship, then there is one and only one obvious course of action for Americans - armed uprising; not putting left-Keynesian policies to an election! If Trump is Hitler, why should there ever be another election? If that is your analysis, the answer is crystal-clear: embark on a coup or, failing that, revolutionary civil war. Tool up or shut up.
In truth, things are somehow both better and worse than is made out. The ‘good’ news is that, so far as the issues of primary concern to liberals and the left go, Trump is mostly not going to make much of a difference. The bad news is that this is mainly because most of his supposedly unconscionable proposals are, in substance, already in place. Chris Cutrone of the Platypus group made a small stir a couple of months ago by claiming:
Everything Trump calls for exists already. There is already surveillance and increased scrutiny of Muslim immigrants in the ‘war on terror’. There is already a war against Isis. There is already a wall on the border with Mexico; there are already mass deportations of ‘illegal’ immigrants.3
This is something of an exaggeration - in particular, the current ‘wall’ is more of a fence, and scarcely covers a quarter of the 2,000 mile length of the US-Mexican border; but it is worth noting that among the congress members who authorised and financed the damn thing was a certain senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and that it would take a lot more than four years to extend it to the full extent, through all the mountains and deserts hitherto unwalled by the intrepid gringos. We might add to the list: the police are already in a state of quasi-militarised occupation in American inner cities, resulting notoriously in endless shootings of black males, and prisons are already overflowing with other black males, the bitter legacy of past ‘law and order’ presidencies; Trump’s crime is merely not pretending to care, unlike the hypocritical bleeding hearts who have actually created this state of affairs thus far (Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, both Bushes and other ‘sensible’ conservatives, etc).
This brings us, belatedly, to the last of our groups - the people who understand, at least, that Trump’s victory is the perverse product of the exhaustion of American liberalism’s moral authority.
It should be no surprise that the bulk of the US far left is to be found in this category. The International Socialist Organisation, formerly the American outgrowth of the British Socialist Workers Party, is energetically pushing the line that Trump’s “rightwing agenda won’t be stopped by voting for the lesser evil, but by mobilizing our power.” The “lesser-evil Democrats are as committed to upholding the political and social status quo as the Republicans”; the answer, seasoned Trot-watchers will be unsurprised to find, is endless mobilisation and protest.4 This line is shared, in substance, by the third-worldist Party for Socialism and Liberation; and by what remains of the American Socialist Workers Party, which drifted from Trotskyism to Castroism in the 1980s.
The idea that the perfidy of the Democrats and the political choices of its bungling apparat has a little something to do with the incoming president has much to recommend it. Yet there are two fantasies that might follow from it, which have to be scotched. The first we have already mentioned - the idea that the order of the day is merely a permanently hysterical pitch of mass mobilisation. Many far lefts were already pushing that line to Sanders supporters after the failure of his bid, when the whole point was that Sanders represented a potential political alternative to the status quo, however timid his proposals actually were. The US left has had plenty of activism over the last decade (Occupy, Black Lives Matter and so on), but it did not prevent Trump from being elected; why on earth should it bring him down?
The other falsehood is more a problem for the more astute liberals and, on the other hand, lefts who support Democratic candidates in elections (we think of the ‘millennial Marxist’ journal Jacobin), say. This is the idea that the disaster was merely that the Democrats failed to pick Sanders, and that next time they really ought to choose someone more leftwing, or at least (as the contemporary jargon has it) ‘relatable’, than Hillary, and then that will sort things out.
For example, Thomas Frank - a journalist whose most recent book, Listen, liberal!, argues persuasively and amusingly that the Democrats’ total abandonment of the issue of income inequality and transformation into a party of technocratic professionals would lead to disaster - has wasted no time in pointing out that something of exactly that sort has come to pass. Yet even he wonders whether “Joe Biden, with his powerful plainspoken style”, might have done better.5Really?
The error of the hyper-activists is to imagine that formal expressions of militancy can substitute for deep-rooted political organisation and the development of sophisticated mass political consciousness; the error of the left Democrats is to imagine that the (quite real) political differences within the Democratic caucuses of Congress are in themselves the basis for a real transformation in this direction. After all, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and - eventually, unfortunately - Bernie Sanders all ended up stumping for Hillary, and must all accept some responsibility for this farce. Why should they do differently next time?
No: if ever there was a time for real, substantial and fleshed-out revolutionary politics in the United States, it is now.