Trump’s victory in the presidential election was a profound shock to tens of millions of progressive workers, young people, immigrants, women, people of colour, Muslims, and LGBTQ people across the US. The target list of Trump’s administration has become clearer. This is compounded by a rise in hate crimes around the country since the election. The enormous fear and anger in many communities is only increasing.
Trump’s reckless and undisciplined nature has also opened up real divisions in the ruling class itself, with a large section fearing that he could damage their interests domestically and internationally. This division was seen most recently in Trump’s dismissal of the CIA announcement that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. This brought a sharp rebuke from key Republican leaders.
Many are waiting to see how events unfold or hoping against hope that Trump will see reason and moderate his positions. But the plans to deport three million people, target Muslim immigrants for “extreme vetting,” criminalise 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 took to the streets across the country in the weeks after the election. Socialist Alternative (the Socialist Party’ sister group in the US) called many of the first protests, which were dominated by young people. But wider forces are preparing for what will be truly massive protests around Trump’s inauguration. Socialist Alternative and Socialist Students are also focusing on building student walkouts across the country.
The truth is that Trump’s racist, misogynist agenda does not have a popular mandate. Despite winning in the undemocratic Electoral College, Trump received only 46% of the popular vote and 2.9 million fewer votes than Clinton.
The huge political and social polarisation in the US remains. Big sections of society moved to the left in recent years. This was expressed in Occupy, the fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, mass support for marriage equality and, more recently, for the struggle of Native people against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Without doubt, the most dramatic expression of this trend was the support for Bernie Sanders. Millions, especially young people, supported 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 failed to energise and mobilise 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 energised hard right sinking roots. But there is huge potential strength 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.
Despite Trump’s talk of “healing divisions” from the campaign, his emerging agenda and his appointments to cabinet and adviser positions in the White House point to the most reactionary administration since at least Ronald Reagan. Among his closest advisers are Steve Bannon from Breitbart News, which has provided cover for the “white nationalist” far right, while his key security adviser, General Michael Kelly, is a crackpot who believes Islam is a “cancer.”
For Secretary of Education, he has appointed an enemy of public education; for Secretary of Labor, he appointed a fast-food executive and enemy of raising the minimum wage; for Secretary of the Interior, he appointed a sworn enemy of emissions controls on coal-fired plants.
He said he would “drain the swamp” of Washington insiders and corporate hacks and then brought in a Goldman Sachs executive to be Treasury Secretary. Besides swamp monsters he has stuffed the cabinet with billionaires. The Daily Mail reports that his cabinet will have a higher net worth than the bottom third of American households combined! This from a guy who said he was going to represent the “forgotten men and women” of the working class!
Trump’s agenda becomes clearer
We need to be clear about the multiple threats a Trump administration poses to working people and minorities.
He intends to deliver on his promise to rapidly deport three million immigrants. If successful, Trump will do in months what it took the Obama administration eight years to accomplish, as it deported 2.7 million people. There will also be a special focus on Muslim immigrants under the cover of “fighting ISIS,” with “extreme vetting” for all people from a list of “Muslim” countries.
Trump will nominate a right-wing justice to the Supreme Court who will be committed to going after Roe v. Wade, and he may be in a position to make a further appointment in the next four years. This comes after years of relentless attacks on women’s reproductive rights by Republican-dominated Southern state legislatures, which is now spreading to the Midwest.
Unions and union rights will be targeted, especially in the public sector. 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 probably be the unions representing federal employees and those workers’ rights and benefits. They undoubtedly see the federal workforce as a “soft target” that will not elicit much sympathy. If they succeed, it will allow them to ramp up the anti-union campaign more broadly.
Trump will gut environmental protection in the name of “bringing back jobs” in the energy sector and beyond. This will effectively be a huge handout to the world’s largest oil companies. Despite campaign rhetoric, the coal industry actually collapsed due to market factors, especially the extremely low price of oil and natural gas, not “over-regulation.” Trump will seek to reverse the victory against DAPL.
Trump will support the rollback of Obamacare, which will deprive millions of health insurance – especially if the Republicans succeed in reversing the extension of Medicaid. They may try to privatise Medicare. We must oppose all these attacks while pointing toward a single-payer system that can provide health care for all.
Trump knows he will face massive opposition, and he will seek to criminalise dissent. This is part of what’s behind his ominous talk about a “law and order” offensive. He will go after the Black Lives Matter movement specifically. Former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump ally, has described BLM as “inherently racist” and “un-American.”
But in addition to his reactionary agenda, 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 demoralising 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 labour movement – “an injury to one is an injury to all” – was never more relevant. And the labour 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 to build a mass movement must be counter posed to the institutional power of the right. The mass protests around the inauguration are a crucial first step. But we must draw critical lessons from previous battles against the right wing to prepare for the situation after January 20.
In 1981, the air traffic controllers’ union PATCO went on strike for better working conditions. President Ronald Reagan turned this conflict into a showdown with the labour movement as a whole by firing all PATCO members – despite their endorsement of him in the 1980 election!
There was an enormous willingness in the still-strong labour movement to fight back. Labor Day in 1981 saw 250,000 workers march in Washington, D.C. with the PATCO workers at their head. But the union leadership criminally refused to extend the strike and PATCO was smashed, putting the labour movement decisively on the defensive. The defeat is what is remembered, but what is equally important is that Reagan could have been beaten. A PATCO victory would have changed the entire dynamic and encouraged the development of a mass movement to defeat the rest of Reagan’s neoliberal agenda.
In 2006, the Republican-dominated House passed the Sensenbrenner Bill, which threatened mass deportations of all undocumented workers in the U.S. and made it a crime to help them. This sparked the biggest mass demonstrations in U.S. history, including the May 1 “Day Without an Immigrant,” 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. 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 savagely repress the movement, especially those immigrant workers who were actively moving to unionise.
In 2011, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature moved to impose savage cutbacks in education and also cripple public-sector unions by stripping their right to collectively bargain over anything besides wages. This was the most serious frontal attack on the labour movement since the PATCO strike. In early 2011, tens of thousands marched in Madison, the state capital, on a weekly basis, 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 enormous positive response to this idea from workers, but the national leadership of the AFL-CIO, as in 1981, put on the brakes. Rather than escalate, they de-escalated and campaigned to recall Walker to get a Democrat elected. This strategy failed comprehensively and Walker is still in office today.
As in 1981, 2006, and 2011, the right can be beaten but only with an effective strategy and an utterly determined leadership.
The right is beatable
There are several factors that can help the movement against Trump. First of all, right-wing ideology is weaker in society today than in the 1980s when neoliberalism had a real base of social support, including within sections of the working and middle classes. The far right is emboldened by Trump’s victory, but their social base is still very weak.
Also, as pointed out earlier, 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 Wall Street is enthused about his proposals to further cut taxes for the super-rich and to repeal financial regulation. But there is a real possibility of global and domestic recession in the 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 a mass movement from below. 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 Trump’s 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 cannot rely 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 centred on the social power of working people mobilised to fight for their own independent class interests.
Working class unity against the right
The liberal media has written a lot lately about the “white working class,” either vilifying it as one reactionary mass in lockstep 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 neoliberalism and globalisation, especially the massive loss of manufacturing jobs. This was partly the result of trade deals like NAFTA. According to the Economic Policy Institute, five million manufacturing jobs were lost in the US between 2000 and 2014.
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 labour leadership have 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 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, incredibly, a nearly 30% vote for Trump among Latinos.
While some will seek to dismiss Trump supporters as one reactionary mass, it is clear that if we are serious about building a movement to defeat the right, this will require articulating a program that speaks to the needs of working people generally, and through fighting for that program, winning over sections of Trump’s base. Can this be done? Sanders’ poll numbers against Trump – significantly higher than Clinton’s – and the huge response he received for his pro-working-class program shows it can.
Another section of Trump’s base will not be reached. But it is possible to isolate and defeat the organised far-right forces, including the “alt-right” – which, though emboldened, at this point remain small and generally ineffectual.
Huge challenges ahead
The enormous determination to fight back already being shown by hundreds of thousands of young people, women, people of colour, 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 to win we have to clearly understand the tasks posed and who our friends and enemies are. 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: the Verizon strike earlier this year was the biggest strike in nearly 20 years.
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. Trump himself, though distasteful to many in the elite, is actually the perfect embodiment of the thoroughly corrupt, predatory nature of this social order.
The ruling class is divided, not sure how to respond. The economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 led to millions of jobs lost and homes foreclosed while the rich got richer. Along with the looming climate catastrophe and the exposure of searing racial injustice, this has led to a serious questioning of the system by millions of people.
Trump’s presidency will deepen the radicalisation of sections of society. Poll after poll indicates growing support for socialism – especially among young people. Socialist Alternative is working toward forming 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-centred struggle against Trump and the entire system, which has totally outlived its usefulness.
By Philip Locker and Tom Crean