Resistance in Trump’s America
By Wael Elasady
Trump’s surprise election is a dangerous turn for US and international politics. Internationally his election represents another advance and potent example for the populist right, this time though in the world's leading capitalist power. Trump’s victory means a likely strengthening of US relations with authoritarians like Sisi and Erdogan whom Trump sees as kindred spirits and a normalization of their undemocratic practices. More seriously Trump’s election threatens to further destabilize the international order and ratchet up competition and with it the possibilities of a dangerous confrontation with China.
Domestically, his victory has gone some distance in normalizing explicit racist and sexist discourse and is emboldening far-right bigots and white supremacists like the so called “alt-right” movement. In the aftermath of the election, the Southern Poverty Law center has document a rise in hate crimes and harassment of muslims, immigrants, and other minorities.
Meanwhile Trump has filled his cabinet and top leadership positions in his administration with white supremacists, arch-conservatives, and billionaires who collectively have more wealth than 30% of Americans combined and who would like nothing more than to ramp up the attacks on immigrants and muslims, further police militarization as well as dismantle labor laws, public education, and environmental protections. His choice for chief strategist Steve Bannon, for example, who is the former executive of Breitbart News, a right-wing news agency known for its openly white supremacist content. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General was crowned ‘amnesty’s worst enemy’ for his anti-immigrant views and he was once denied a federal judge appointment by the US senate for his racist views. Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary, a department supposed to enforce rules that protect the nation’s workers, is fast food CEO Andrew F. Puzder who opposes minimum wage increases, overtime pay, sick days, and health care benefits for workers. These are just a few selections but they should make clear that any illusions that Trump’s campaign rhetoric was only for show are dangerously misplaced.
While Trump’s election is a dangerous turn to the right at the top of US politics, it would be a mistake to see this election as a decisive right-ward shift among the American population and here lies the hope for resistance.
The first thing to say is that Trump actually lost the popular vote by some 2.8 million votes, the largest margin in history by which a candidate lost the popular vote but went on to win the White House. Therefore the electoral college, a system setup to protect the rule of the slave aristocracy and which today gives greater weight to rural conservative regions over the great multi-racial working class urban centers, allowed a minority of the population to choose the president. But this minority election of Trump rests on an even more narrow basis when one considers that 42.7% of the population of the US did not vote at all, leaving 3.1% who voted for 3rd party candidates, 27.4% who voted for Clinton and only 26.8% who voted for Trump. Or to put it another way 73.2% of the population did not vote for Trump or voted for his opponents.
Trump’s electoral college victory rested on a slim margin of victory in three states Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, with polls showing that only a 100,000 votes determining the outcome. The most decisive element in Trump’s victory was not an increase in Republican voter turnout but rather a drop in turnout for historically democratic voters in the working class and among minorities. For example, Black voters dropped from 13% of all voters in 2012 to 12% in 2016 while households earning $50,000 per year, dropped from 41% to 36% in 2016. The other factor was a small but ultimately decisive shift from Democrat to Republican among some voters since the last election. For example, the Latino vote for Democrats dropped from 71 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2016, this despite Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant racism and the percentage of union households voting Democrat fell from 59 percent in 2012 to only 51 percent in 2016, the lowest percentage for a Democratic nominee since 1980.
The Democrats ultimately did not give voters any reason to vote for them. Living standards of American workers have been under assault and the 2008 economic crisis further increased class inequality. The Democratic Obama administration which was elected on the slogan of Hope and Change provided neither by rushing to rescue not the millions of working people who lost their jobs and homes but the banks and financial institutions which caused the crisis in the first place. Furthermore, after 8 years of Democratic rule under the first black president police brutality against African-Americans continues to be an epidemic and the Obama administration was responsible for a record number of deportations, outdoing all past presidents in breaking up families and destroying the lives of immigrants. The Obama administration's record was fresh on voters minds and after Bernie, who had electrified millions of Americans with his message of fighting the billionaire class, was defeated in the primary--Hillary and the Democratic Party moved to the right. They relied on a program that pushed a politics of “fake diversity” for urban voters in the city, but which offered no real gains for oppressed groups, and instead tried to primarily appeal to suburban conservative voters. Bernie Sanders on his end dropped his left-wing critiques and attempted to corral his supporters into voting for Hillary Clinton’s tone deaf campaign leaving nowhere for the left-wing radicalization to express itself in this election.
So as millions of Americans felt they were living through an American nightmare and were absolutely livid with the Status quo. Hillary Clinton ran as the champion of the status quo adopting the slogan that America was ‘already great’.
This on the one hand failed to mobilize in the numbers needed of the Democratic base and on the other left the field wide open for Trump who claimed he could “make America great again” to claim that his reactionary program would benefit the majority of people who have seen their living standards stagnate and decline.
Thus for a small segment of American workers, Trump was able take the discontent at declining living standards and misery americans feel and channel it in a racist and nationalist direction, directing their anger not at billionaires like himself who are responsible for the massive inequality, but at immigrants, foreigners, women, Black Lives Matter and Muslims.
Understanding this context in which Trump won the election helps us understand the prospects for resistance and what shape it will need to take.
First, is the fact that Trump does not represent the views of most Americans and he his entering office with the lowest ratings of any past incoming president. This should give us confidence that the left is not isolated and that we can and should aim to connect with and mobilize the millions of Americans disgusted by his election into resistance to the reactionary policies he is sure to pursue even if they have not yet reached the radical conclusions of those in the already existing left. Therefore patience with those just entering into political struggle and the politics of solidarity and a united fight back will be key in this period.
The second, is the role the Democratic Party has played in creating the conditions through years of neo-liberal austerity and adaptation to conservative social agendas which allowed Trump’s rise and how their commitment to capitalist system makes them utterly incapable of challenging the rise of Trump and his brand of reactionary politics. This means that resistance to Trump’s agenda by itself is not enough, instead that resistance must maintain its independence from the Democratic Party who would otherwise steer any movement back towards placing its energy into electoral campaigns that would inevitably elect candidates to a party committed to the same kind of politics that opened the gates for Trump in the first place.
Finally, it's important to understand that the American context is one of polarization both to the right and the left, the right-wing was the one that was able to find an expression in this election but the possibilities for growing the left have not been greater since the 70s. Millions of young people voted for an open socialist in Bernie Sanders and millions say they prefer socialism to capitalism. Regardless of how vague that understanding of what socialism might be, it is clear that a real opening exists for socialists to begin to clarify and organize that sentiment and make sure it does not get trapped in a Democratic Party that will sap it of its potential. The time for openly and confidently building explicit socialist and revolutionary organization is now.
The protests in the immediate wake of Trump’s election by tens of thousands, the mass protests being planned for Trump’s inauguration, most of all the Women’s March on Washington, and the inspiring victory at Standing Rock against the North Dakota Access pipeline are encouraging signs. As is the small but not insignificant spike in interest that socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization have seen in the wake of Trump's election.
With that said, the challenges facing our side are significant. First, while Trump’s attempts to enact his reactionary program can foment resistance they also have the potential to demoralize and leave those who oppose his politics feeling isolated if a visible and viable resistance is not sustained. This possibility is increased by the Democratic Party’s criminal appeal for people to be ‘patient’ and give Trump a ‘chance’ have resulted in the leadership of the Labor movement and the main liberal organizations failing to mobilize their significant resources to challenge Trump as of yet. Meanwhile, the existing left independent of the Democratic Party continues to be small and is not able to yet provide coherence and political direction to the outbursts of struggle which regularly break out but quickly dissipate as a result of their political and organizational weaknesses.
Therefore we can expect resistance to Trump’s policies in the coming years but for the reasons laid out aboveو this resistance will likely continue to have both ups and downs and our side will face defeats as well as defensive victories.
The ability to challenge Trump’s initiatives and his brand of right-wing populism in this new period will therefore depend on whether those of us on the left can both help to mobilize and organize the largest number of people to resist his policies while simultaneously winning larger and larger numbers of people to politics independent of the Democratic Party and finally building a socialist alternative to the despair and sense of powerlessness that Trump feeds off.
Wael Elasady is a Palestinian Syrian living in Portland, Oregon and is active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). He is a co-founder of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights and a long-time member of the International Socialist Organization.