By CWI reporters
The 2016 US presidential race so far offers striking evidence of the massive loss of support for the political mainstream. The Great Recession has created widespread social dislocation and a rising fury against the establishment. This can be seen in the social movements that represent a revolt against racism, a revolt against low wages, and a revolt against “politics as usual”.
In this situation, how can a racist, sexist billionaire like Donald Trump get such an echo?
Trump is popular because he attacks both parties and all politicians. He openly says that the political system can be bought, and he can prove it – he has bought politicians himself! He does not talk in the careful tones of a PR-perfected politician and his Republican base finds this refreshing. While very much a figure of the capitalist class, Trump has skilfully positioned himself as a political outsider. In doing so he has been able to excite a right-wing base that is frustrated with the Republican mainstream.
This sharpening polarisation is happening within both major parties. The appeal of Trump’s right-wing populism stems from the same place as the appeal of Democratic Party hopeful Bernie Sanders’ left-wing “political revolution against the billionaire class”. It is the ongoing crisis of the capitalist system – poverty, recession, and income inequality producing a mood of powerlessness, insecurity, and a desire for dramatic change – that is fuelling these insurgent campaigns.
While Sanders points to corporate domination of Washington as the cause of the problems working people face, Trump offers easier targets: immigrants, Muslims, people of colour and LGBTQ people. His idea of “making America great again” attempts to blame today’s economic ills on progressive social gains. He then backs this up with rhetoric against the so-called “liberal establishment” and even sometimes against big banks and corporations. Trump himself proposed increased taxes on hedge fund managers and penalties for companies that move jobs overseas in search of cheap labour.
The level of support for Trump’s open bigotry has taken many people by surprise. However, Trumps rise up the ranks of the Republican race does not negate the deeper overall shift to the left in society that we have seen in the past period. This is reflected in the increasing openness to socialism – according to Gallup, nearly 60% of Democratic voters now say they would be prepared to support a socialist for president. Polls have also consistently shown majority support for left positions like higher taxes on the rich (in 2013, 52% supported the statement “redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich”) and last year no less than 63% said they supported a $15 minimum wage. A Gallup poll in September 2014 showed 58% supporting the idea of a third party.
Since Occupy burst forth in 2011 in revolt against corporate domination and increasing inequality, there has been a re-emergence of social struggle. The sharpest expression of this today is the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, which have created a real crisis for the establishment, particularly in a number of major cities.
The popularity of Trump does not negate this broader leftward shift. It simply complicates it. The conclusion we must draw is that people are looking for radical change and are attracted to voices that are not afraid to rally against the rotten political establishment. It is no surprise that the Democratic candidate polling the best amongst Trump supporters is Bernie Sanders.
The only way to really cut across Trump and the growing appeal of right wing populism is to develop the overwhelming anti-establishment mood into a class conscious anti-capitalist mood. While genuine socialists can’t agree with Sanders decision to run as Democrat, we must recognise the potential of his campaign to rally working class people around socialist solutions to the crisis of capitalism. With over 2,000,000 individual contributions to his campaign that refuses to accept corporate money, we need to direct this enthusiasm for anti-establishment politics towards building a new, independent political force representing the interests of the 99%.
Many people think of a political party only in electoral terms, but what is needed is a party rooted in communities and workplaces, a party of social struggle whose political representatives give voice to the demands of ordinary people. At the end of the day all key reforms achieved by working people, black people, women, and LGBTIQ people have come through struggle.
While elections are not the source of fundamental change, as long as the electoral arena is ceded to corporate forces, working people’s interests will be constantly undermined. It is easy to ridicule Trump and deride his supporters for their bigotry and racism. But this won’t undermine his appeal. Instead, socialists must build on the incredible momentum of the Sanders campaign to build a new party for working class people capable of cutting across the populist politics of Trump.