Defeating Trump through mass struggle can be a breakthrough for the left.
Tom Crean, Socialist Alternative (ISA the US)
With less than a month to go until election day, the presidential election has begun to turn in the Democrats’ favor after a disastrous debate performance by Donald Trump. This was followed by Trump testing positive for Covid-19 which most people – two thirds according to a poll by Reuters – correctly see as the result of his own refusal to take the pandemic seriously. He then continued to damage his campaign by returning to the narrative that the virus is no worse than the flu, that no one should be afraid of it and then pulling out of negotiations on a desperately needed stimulus package.
But while Trump is down, he is not out. The Democrats have an extremely weak candidate. We are also likely in the days and weeks ahead to see Trump resume his blatant threats to steal the election and refuse to leave office if he loses. With an unprecedented level of political polarization in society, there is massive anxiety about what will happen next.
Elections in the midst of unprecedented crisis
It is impossible to understand the current state of American politics without looking at the disastrous state of capitalism in this country. The U.S. has begun the second wave of the pandemic without ever ending the first wave. There have been over 7.5 million confirmed infections and 210,000 have died. Nor is this counting tens of thousands who have survived with deeply compromised health.This is first and foremost due to Trump’s criminally incompetent management, especially in the early stages of the pandemic. Tragically, another 200,000 could die before this is over, meaning the toll could approach total U.S. losses in World War II.
The pandemic has been the trigger for the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Reported unemployment levels do not tell the real story as we have explained. Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics broader U6 measure which takes into account underemployment and those who have given up looking for work, and is still an underestimate, is currently 12.8% (compared to the 7.9% generally reported) down from 22.8% in April. This is disastrous but only part of the story. The $600 top-up to unemployment benefits played a critical role in keeping millions afloat but those payments stopped at the end of July. Now Trump has said there will be no negotiations on further stimulus until after the election! Millions are now using their credit cards to pay the rent; the only reason there have not been massive evictions across the country is because of the government moratorium.
Most shocking is the level of hunger in the supposedly richest country in the world. It has been estimated that one in three families with children are experiencing food insecurity.
The recession is increasingly described as “K shaped” meaning that the rich and upper middle class are doing even better than before while the rest of the population is being slammed in various ways. Covid-19 and the economic crisis have disproportionately affected the Black and Latino working class. Women have also been disproportionately affected by layoffs, while many have been forced to give up their jobs to stay home to help children with online school. Young people are seeing their future go up in flames. Early in the summer, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated that in the previous month one in four young adults aged 18-24 had contemplated suicide.
All of this contributed to the explosive character of the revolt against racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd at the end of May. But while the biggest wave of mass protests in U.S. history had a positive effect on consciousness, the movement’s lack of structure, leadership and clear program gave the rotten establishment — both the Republicans nationally and the Democrats in the big cities — an opportunity to regroup. In Minneapolis, where the rebellion began, the City Council rapidly retreated from their earlier promises to radically reform policing. The far right also began to assert itself with the blessing of Trump.
This is not to mention the massive wildfires stretching from California to Washington State on the West Coast, which brought home to everyone with eyes to see that beyond the pandemic and the economic depression we are also entering a climate catastrophe. This crisis, along with the other two, is the result of the workings of the diseased system of capitalism.
This was the situation in September as the presidential race began to enter its final stage. It can only be described as explosive.
Republicans fail to change the subject
The key thing weighing on Trump’s campaign is the failed response to the pandemic which is the number one issue on the minds of voters especially as the second wave worsens. The Republicans have tried desperately to change the narrative. They sought to portray the Democratic leadership as beholden to the “radical left” and that a Democratic victory would lead to chaos extending from the cities to the suburbs. The “law and order” narrative is a blatantly racist appeal to the white suburban vote, but it has clearly failed to win over those who were already disaffected. Trump’s poll numbers are sinking among suburban women.
Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Republicans saw both an opportunity to cement a reactionary majority on the Supreme Court and to appeal to socially conservative voters and again try to distract from Covid-19. But the Democrats can also use the issue of the Supreme Court to galvanize voters. While the Republicans in the Senate clearly have the votes to push through Trump’s nominee, it’s also coming out that Amy Coney Barrett is part of a religious cult which strongly believes in the second class status of women and that married women should be under the control of their husbands. The hearings on her nomination may not help the Republicans electorally.
The biggest setback for Trump came with his insane performance in the first presidential debate, which CNN commentator Jake Tapper described as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” Trump constantly interrupted and there was generally very little substance. He then refused to condemn white supremacy and gave a shout-out to the far right Proud Boys. In a way this is consistent with Trump’s entire presidency where he has focused on stirring racial divisions and encouraging the most reactionary parts of his base. But it is completely out of sync with the vast majority of Americans including many Republicans. Biden won the debate because Trump defeated himself, but also because the expectations for him are so low – just standing there and being semi-coherent was a victory.
Then Trump and Melania tested positive for coronavirus and he was hospitalized for several days, clearly more sick than was ever admitted publicly. The big problem for the Republicans is that this put the focus squarely back on the pandemic and how it’s been handled. This was underlined as it became clear how extensive the virus outbreak was in the White House. Trump can’t even contain Covid-19 in the workplace where he’s the boss. It is also emerging that as a result of the White House event introducing Coney Barrett where many were infected, it could ultimately lead to hundreds or thousands of infections.
Trump’s inner circle still hoped that there might be a “sympathy bump” for him and that they could use this to reset a bit on the pandemic. But things deteriorated as Trump was released from the hospital, and returned to dismissing coronavirus as no worse than the flu as he did at the start of the pandemic. The fact that he has the best care money can buy and literally a whole team of doctors is not lost on the millions of ordinary Americans who have experienced the virus directly, including those facing catastrophic medical bills as a result.
Even by Trump’s depraved standards, it is still incredible to tell people “don’t be afraid,” especially when he is on tape with Bob Woodward in February admitting how dangerous the virus is. It shows that he is willing to whip up the most reactionary and ignorant sections of the population who believe the virus is a hoax even if it means losing more lives.
But the polls demonstrate that the net effect of Trump’s approach is to weaken his chances for re-election. Biden is now ahead by 9.7% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. This compares to Hillary Clinton’s 5.3% lead at the same point in 2016. Of course, we must remember that the election will not be decided by the overall popular vote but by an 18th century anachronism, the Electoral College.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million, but lost the election because she lost in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But Biden has now pulled ahead in those key swing states as well as in Florida.
Why Trump should not be written off
Donald Trump is a reflection of the deeply diseased state of American capitalism. Unfortunately, Joe Biden and the Democrats represent a continuation of the disastrous pro-corporate policies that opened the door to Trump in the first place. While there is little enthusiasm for Biden, we completely understand why so many would vote for almost anyone to get rid of Trump.
However, the only reason Trump is still in this race is because his main opponents are the corporate Democrats and their extremely weak candidate. Joe Biden is a lifelong servant of corporate interests, one of the architects of mass incarceration, and a supporter of free trade deals that destroyed millions of union jobs. He and Kamala Harris still refuse to support the massively popular Medicare for All in the middle of a pandemic and an economic slump which has revealed the disastrously underfunded state of public healthcare and where millions will lose their employer based healthcare. They refuse to support the Green New Deal even after the wildfire inferno on the West Coast. Harris underlined the corporate agenda by pointedly saying in the vice presidential debate with Pence that a Biden administration will not ban fracking.
It is precisely those who have suffered most under this administration, younger Black and Latino people and young people generally who are least enthused about voting for Biden. This is the same reason Hillary lost in 2016. Biden, Harris and the Democratic establishment focus on the “existential threat” posed by Trump which is real enough but have nothing to say to the tens of millions of working people who are taking the brunt of the pandemic and the economic crisis. Their pathetic and hollow appeals to identity politics mostly work for white middle class liberals.
Trump’s threats to steal the election
The other issue that hangs over the outcome of this election is Trump’s increasing authoritarian tilt and his threats to steal the election or not accept the outcome if it goes against him.
Let us remember how Trump ominously sent federal agents to Portland and other cities in July and August to defeat the “antifa” and “Marxist” threat and how these agents, many not wearing insignia, went around in unmarked vehicles snatching protestors off the streets. This was reminiscent of how the military dictatorships in Latin America in the 70s “disappeared” leftists.
Then Trump talked about canceling the election, but that was too much even for the Republican establishment so he switched to talking about how mail-in ballots will lead to “fraud” despite there being almost literally no evidence for this claim. This is a big issue because so many people this year will vote by mail due to Covid-19. Trump has also done everything possible to undermine the Postal Service which will deliver and return the mail-in ballots. Now the Justice Department has announced it will pursue voter fraud investigations in coming weeks, which they have for decades suspended until votes are completed so as not to “undermine faith in the elections.” Clearly Attorney General Barr wants to “undermine faith” in the elections to help Trump.
This is on top of all the “normal” forms of voter suppression, including voter ID laws and inadequate numbers of polling stations in poor communities. In Florida, the Republican state government is trying to undermine a referendum that restored ex-prisoners’ voting rights by requiring that they pay court-related fines, fees and costs first. This could prevent hundreds of thousands from voting.
Trump Threatens to Not Leave Office
Trump has also repeatedly said he will not step down if he loses the election. This has fueled fears of a dictatorship or that the U.S. is headed towards fascism, an issue openly discussed in the corporate media, including for example in the pages of the New York Times.
This is an important discussion. The economic and social crisis of U.S. capitalism after ’08-’09, on top of decades of neoliberal attacks on the gains of working people, is set to get exponentially worse. This has led to massive political polarization, especially in the absence of a fighting labor movement or a left party, which can show a way forward and unite the multiracial working class.
Overall, U.S. society has broadly shifted to the left in the past fifteen years (reflected on issues ranging from Medicare for All, support for unions, opposition to racism and support for LGBTQ rights). There has been a particular radicalization to the left among young people. However, there has also been a radicalization to the right in sections of society, which has gone further under Trump. We can now see a real opening for the far right expressed in many phenomena including the support for the QAnon conspiracy theory and the mobilization of the “militias.”
Where there is a clear difference to Germany in the 1930s is that the ruling class doesn’t “need” fascism in the U.S. at this point to stop the threat of working class revolution. No significant wing of the ruling class nor most of the state apparatus (except perhaps parts of the police) would support Trump trying to cancel elections or refusing to hand over power if he loses. Also, unlike Germany, the actual organized far right is far from being a mass force, but there is no room for complacency about the danger they pose. In the broad sense, capitalist democracy has served the ruling class of this country very well and they will not abandon it lightly. But this equation can change if they lose control in the face of mass social unrest.
Trump’s threats in regards to the election are also a preparation for defeat and to consolidate his base for a continuing “further right” movement around the narrative of a stolen election. But it would still be a mistake to conclude that the threats to steal the election are just a bluff that can be ignored.
How will things play out? One scenario that has been widely discussed in the liberal media is that because far more Democrats will vote by mail than Republicans, it might appear on election night that the Republicans are significantly ahead based on the in-person ballots. Trump would declare victory and the Republicans would do everything possible to obstruct the count of mail-in votes. This would open up a massive conflict in American society.
The 2000 election is instructive. The outcome of the election between George Bush and Al Gore depended on Florida and a recount. The Republicans mobilized to disrupt the recount and pushed the issue to the right-wing Supreme Court, which stopped the recount before it concluded and as it was trending towards Gore. Essentially the Supreme Court chose the president. The Democrats refused to mobilize the labor movement and the Black population to defend the vote in Florida expressing concern about protecting capitalism’s institutions. They also preferred to lose than to come to power in part beholden to a mass movement.
The Democrats have not fundamentally changed since then although the stakes are much higher today. Confronted with hard line Republican tactics, their instinct will be to pursue a legalistic strategy. As in 2000, the Republicans may hope that a Supreme Court with an entrenched reactionary majority will give legal cover to their attempt to steal the election. As in 2000 we can place no faith in the Democrats to stop Trump and defend the vote.
It is of course possible that there is a clear outcome on election night, especially if the Democrats win in a landslide. Some states will count their mail in ballots early and in some the mail in vote will be less of a factor. For example, if the Democrats were to win Florida and Texas on election night, even if many other swing states were undecided, it would be clear that they had a decisive victory. In this situation, the ruling class would bring massive pressure to bear on Trump to accept the outcome.
We must prepare
But while the election is trending towards the Democrats, it is more likely that on election night the outcome will not be so decisive. We must therefore prepare for the real possibility of Trump trying to steal the election. We must begin organizing mass mobilizations to defend the vote starting on November 4 centered on the social power of the working class. We need trade unions and organizations and leaders on the left including the Democratic Socialists of America, AOC and Bernie Sanders to join this call. Socialist Alternative has already initiated events in a number of cities.
If the Republicans try to stop the vote count in particular states the count needs to be defended and if necessary there should be strike action. There are also calls from Trump to his supporters to enter polling stations on election day itself to “monitor.” In reality this is a call to disrupt the vote and to terrorize people from voting. Where this is a real threat, the labor movement must take the lead to defend polling stations. This could include rapid response networks for union members to go to polling stations where right wingers have arrived to intimidate people.
A mass movement to stop Trump stealing the election must go beyond defending democratic rights, as important as this is. It must also take up demands that speak to the needs of working people like restoring the $600 unemployment top-up, forgiving rent, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. This will motivate even more people to get actively involved in the movement as well as begin to lay the groundwork for the type of struggle that will be needed to force the Democrats to enact basic measures to protect working people if Biden wins. If the Democrats win control of both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, which is not excluded, they will not have the excuse of “Republican obstruction” for why they refuse to act in working people’s interests.
But we need to be very clear. While tens of millions will be enormously relieved to get rid of the odious Trump, a Biden administration will also rule in the interests of corporate America and will attack the interests of working people in every way it can. As under Obama, these attacks can help fuel the growth of the right and the far right. This is not inevitable, but this threat can only be pushed back if we build a fighting labor movement and a new political party that represents the interests of working people and the poor. This is why we are calling for a vote for Howie Hawkins, a socialist and Green Party candidate for president, as a protest and to point towards political independence, despite the weaknesses of the Greens.
Defeating Trump’s threats to steal the election through mass struggle can be the springboard for a more decisive breakthrough for the left in the U.S. but only if we really understand what is at stake now and what needs to be done.