Editorial for Socialist Appeal Issue 98.
And so begins the Trump era: with worldwide protests, pessimism, and polarization. The carefully stage-managed inaugural spectacle had to be protected by 28,000 law enforcement officers. Militarized police kept people waiting for hours at vehicle checkpoints, going so far as to confiscate any fruit they found, lest the presidential motorcade be pelted on live television. In 2009, nearly two million Americans flocked to see Obama after his promise of “change we can believe in.” In 2012, after four years of bitter disappointment, over a million turned up. Trump, who claims to have the support of a majority of Americans, attracted 700,000–800,000 at most, according to expert estimates.
The day after his inauguration, well over 3 million Americans—fully 1% of the population—participated in Women’s March actions across the country to let the new Commander-in-Chief know they will not be cowed by his bigotry. Some estimates ranged as high as 4.6 million. This is a fitting response to the “whip of counterrevolution” represented by the Trump presidency. History shows that even movements that begin with basic liberal-democratic demands can take on a revolutionary character on the basis of events. The Trump era will be full of combustible material, to put it mildly. The most anti-worker administration in decades has formally taken possession of the White House, and an avalanche of austerity and attacks on the working class is on the order of the day.
Immediately after his swearing-in, the attacks were underway. About an hour into his presidency, Trump indefinitely suspended a scheduled cut in mortgage insurance premiums—effectively raising costs for working-class borrowers by about $500 a year. Other attacks were detailed by The New York Times: “The Department of Labor’s report on lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgender people in the workplace? Gone. The White House’s exposition on the threat of climate change and efforts to combat it? Gone.”
Trump’s very first act was to sign an executive order stating his intention to repeal Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is widely hated, and for a good reason. Under this colossal corporate handout, the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies have flourished, premiums for working families have skyrocketed, millions remain without access to health care, and only the poorest of the poor have received a modicum of relief. 58% of Americans favor its replacement by a federally funded system providing healthcare for all.
Trump may demagogically go after the pharmaceuticals and HMOs, but this would be nothing more than partially curbing the excesses of one part of the system to preserve the system as a whole. Like Obama and the Democrats before him, when they controlled all branches of government from 2008 to 2010, Trump and the Republicans are not about to implement universal health care. They despise Obamacare for even hinting that the government should give the poor even the slightest subsidy, let alone provide quality care for all.
Trump’s so-called “Contract with the American Voter” is, in reality, a contract on American workers. It is an open declaration of class war, a one-sided capitalist rampage against the workers, youth, women, Latinos, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, the poor, and all those exploited and oppressed by the system of private ownership of the means of production. The crisis of capitalism must be paid for. The capitalists want us to pay. We say: “make the bosses pay for their crisis!” We have no alternative but to fight back. This weekend’s protests were only the beginning of the beginning.
The path to Trumpism
Trump’s election is the bitter fruit of so-called lesser-evilism, of disillusionment with Obama and with Bernie Sanders’s capitulation to the Clintons and the Democratic Party. For those workers who voted for him, it represents a confused attempt to protest capitalism’s organic incapacity to benefit the majority. Despite the macroeconomic figures touted by Obama in his “Goodbye, cruel world!” adieu to the presidency, things are objectively worse now for the majority than they were ten years ago.
Economic growth under Obama was tepid at best, averaging just 2.5% per year. But the overall average hides the reality. While the top 20% of the American population benefitted from 5% income growth, the bottom 80% saw an average of 0%. But even these numbers obscure the fact that the top 1% took in 95% of total income growth, while the poorest of the poor and large swathes of the so-called “middle class” have fallen off a precipice.
After nearly a decade of crisis, millions of Americans have lost faith in the system’s parties, politicians, and institutions. According to CBS News, “The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer finds a decline in trust in four major sectors including media, NGOs, business, and government. The new report calls 2017 the year of ‘Trust in Crisis’ where the mass population believes that systems are failing and becoming less credible.”
The meager crowds that gathered to watch a reality–TV star swear an oath of loyalty to the US Constitution have big expectations from their candidate. Desperate for real change, a handful of workers in a handful of states rolled the dice and voted for a billionaire ignoramus. For them, a vote for Trump represented a triumphant “you’re fired!” to the hated rich and elite of both parties. As one rust belt worker put it on the eve of the election, “No one has been able to solve my problems. Trump says he can.” Change has come, indeed—but it won’t be the kind of change most Trump supporters had in mind.
“A wretched hive of scum and villainy”
The intractable divisions in the American ruling class, which, given the depths of the crisis, can no longer govern in the old way, were on full display throughout the Republican and Democratic Party primaries and caucuses. No one really expected Trump to win—including The Donald himself. Now he has hurriedly cobbled together a hodgepodge administration reflecting the eclectic and reactionary nature of his program.
A quick review of his cabinet picks makes it clear what kind of government he will preside over: The CEO of the one of the world’s largest multinational corporations as Secretary of State; a climate-change–denier for the Environmental Protection Agency; the CEO of a major fast-food corporation as Secretary of Labor; a pro-privatization crusader as Secretary of Education; a Secretary of Energy who once favored shutting down the Department of Energy; an Islamophobic Christian fundamentalist to head the CIA; a Secretary of Defense nicknamed “Mad Dog.”
In one indication of his Bonapartist governing style, he has largely eschewed the “normal” channels of communication, preferring to plan the presidential transition via Twitter from the comfort of Trump Tower—“White House North”—and several of his other private luxury properties. But divisions, defections, and resignations plagued his weeks as president-elect. On the eve of installing himself in the world’s top office, Trump had received approval for just two of his 15 cabinet nominees and named just 29 of 660 executive department appointments.
Donald J. Trump is uniquely unqualified to helm the world’s most powerful country. Administering a vast government bureaucracy and the world’s largest economy and military is very different from wheeling and dealing a collection of eponymously branded buildings, golf courses, resorts, and failed casinos with your family. According to insiders, “Mr. Trump has had little interest in the minutiae of his transition, saying it was ‘bad karma’ to get too involved . . . At one point, he wanted to halt the planning altogether, out of superstition. ‘In 21 years of covering the State Department and in eight years of serving there, I’ve seen rocky transitions and experienced what feels like a hostile takeover, but I’ve never seen anything like this,’ said Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution.”
Instability, protectionism, and “deglobalization”
In the post-WWII epoch, capitalism temporarily and partially overcame the “natural” limits of the nation-state and the market through the process of “globalization.” Just as credit can expand the market beyond its “natural” limits, so too can greater economic integration. However, on a capitalist basis, this has inherent limits, and the process has now been thrown into reverse. While the root cause of this negative spiral is the objective crisis of the system, the subjective actions of individuals can have a reciprocal effect on the overall process. This, in turn, has a multiplier effect on the consciousness of all classes and individuals.
The capitalists of the entire planet are nervous about what Trump represents and what he will do. IMF chief Christine Lagarde is foremost among those with deep reservations about the future. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, she told the World Economic Forum (WEF)—the mouthpiece of the “billionaire class,” which meets each winter in Davos, Switzerland—that she fears global economic instability due to his protectionist policies.
The fragility of the world economy is clearly evident when a single tweet or press conference by Trump can lead to wild gyrations of the stock market. Not only has he threatened a trade war with China, but also with Germany, not to mention his threat to impose tariffs on Mexico and fines on American companies that manufacture overseas. The 45th President of the United States has promised to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
This is understandably popular among ex-industrial workers, who blame globalization for their plummeting standard of living. However, free trade is favored by most large corporations, which benefit from these agreements at the expense of workers and smaller businesses. This puts Trump directly at odds with a wide swathe of the ruling class, whose interests he ultimately represents.
The WEF is extremely concerned about the choppy waters ahead. In their latest Global Risks Report, we find the following assessment: “Some people question whether the West has reached a tipping point and might now embark on a period of deglobalization.”
Trump’s “America First” outlook, outlined in his protectionist and xenophobic inaugural address, means that everyone else must come dead last. As he unequivocally stated: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only ‘America first! America first!’” He continued, “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.”
His aim seems simple enough: revive past American “greatness” by exporting crisis and unemployment to anyone and everyone other than the United States. However, in doing so, he threatens to unravel the postwar order painstakingly created by generations of his predecessors.
After World War II, and especially after the collapse of Stalinism, the US was the world’s unquestioned superpower, an unprecedented economic, military, and imperialist powerhouse. In 1945, with much of the world in shambles, the US accounted for 50% of world GDP. Now it stands at less than half of that. This is still higher than its 4.4% share of the world’s population, but represents a dramatic fall from the overwhelming supremacy of the past.
This economic decline is necessarily expressed in world relations. US imperialism is a shadow of its former self. Its humiliations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and the encroachment of various regional imperialist powers in its former spheres of influence are all clear examples.
The difference between the Trump wing of the ruling class, and Obama, Clinton, and a majority of the rest of the capitalists is that the latter seek to maintain a world and domestic status quo that has lost its economic footing. Trump’s outlook is the refracted recognition that the epoch of US hegemony over the world is dead and buried. This is not due to his greater insight or sophistication, but rather, for the same crude reason that a stopped clock is right twice a day.
However, this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of capitalist economics. It is naïvely utopian to think the US economy can decouple from the rest of the world or initiate trade or currency wars without retaliation or consequences. Although Trump’s ego-fueled willpower is stronger than most, the US cannot defy the laws of capitalist economic gravity forever. He, too, is constrained by the parameters of a system in terminal crisis.
Transforming the economy is not a matter of subjective will, but of fundamental social and economic relationships. Private ownership of the means of production and the nation state have built-in limitations that can only be overcome by international socialism. This is the great contradiction that humanity must resolve in the historical period ahead.
Despite his pro-worker demagogy, Donald Trump is not about to nationalize the means of production under democratic workers’ control. On the contrary, he seeks to minimize the role of government at a time when only state intervention can possibly prop up the faltering system.
The “Trump Bump”
Within Trump’s first 100 days we can expect a whirlwind of executive orders and pressure on the Republican congressional majority to ram through his policies. Although many of these moves may cosmetically appeal to those working-class voters who swallowed his populist rhetoric, buyer’s remorse will set in sooner rather than later. His plan to create 25 million jobs may sound tremendous on paper, but under capitalism, it is pure fantasy.
Between 1948 and 2016, the unemployment rate averaged 5.8%. Today it stands at 4.7%. Marxists understand that while this grossly understates the true state of un- and underemployment, it means that there is little scope for a massive expansion of jobs. This is about as good as it gets under capitalism.
Though it is by no means guaranteed, Trump's protectionism, loosening of regulations on the financial and energy sectors, and some kind of program of public works may lead to the creation of a few million jobs. But a “Trump Bump” cannot last indefinitely and will not bring back the millions of quality union jobs decimated since the 1970s.
The serious capitalist economists recognize that it is not China, but technology, that represents the biggest threat to quality manufacturing jobs. Again, from the WEF: “It is no coincidence that challenges to social cohesion and policymakers’ legitimacy are coinciding with a highly disruptive phase of technological change.”
More accurately, it is technological innovation within the for-profit constraints of capitalism that prevents us from using these wonders to reduce the workweek to a minimum. The US presently has the highest manufacturing output in its history. However, this volume can be now produced by far fewer workers than in the past. Research by Ball State University found that only 13% of manufacturing job losses over the last few decades were due to trade, with the rest lost to improved productivity and automation. A study conducted by the American Economic Review found that between 1962 and 2005, the steel industry shed 400,000 jobs—75% of the total. And yet, steel production did not decline over that period.
Trump explicitly blamed Washington and the politicians for globalization, offshoring, and social decomposition. The country’s capital is undoubtedly a political cesspool swarming with creatures doing the bidding of big business. But the politicians and lobbyists are bit players in a much greater human tragedy. It is Wall Street that calls real shots in society. It is the Fortune 500 that ultimately determines who has a job, who gets access to housing, healthcare, and education.
Capitalists are not “job creators”—they are profit makers. In their relentless quest to satisfy their shareholders’ appetites, they scour the globe to find the cheapest raw materials and labor. When regulatory obstacles are put in their way, they will always find a loophole. Capitalist competition forces them, on pain of extinction, to continually increase productivity.
As The New York Times explained, “When Greg Hayes, the chief executive of United Technologies, agreed to invest $16 million in one of its Carrier factories as part of a Trump deal to keep some jobs in Indiana instead of moving them to Mexico, he said the money would go toward automation. ‘What that ultimately means is there will be fewer jobs,’ he said on CNBC.”
This is compounded by the fact that the capitalists are already sitting on more productive capacity than they can sell at home and on the world market.
Behind the nationalist slogan “Make America Great Again” lies the desire to go back to the idealized and unrepeatable conditions enjoyed by a substantial layer of the population during the postwar boom: relatively full employment and steadily improving quality of life, a dignified retirement, affordable housing, education, health care, and a world safe from terrorism and uncertainty. Try as he may, Trump will be unable to deliver—because he cannot square the circle of capitalism.
Political parties in turmoil
What is unfolding before our eyes is not merely a political crisis, but a crisis of the regime of American capitalism. The two-party system, the bedrock of capitalist rule since the Civil War, is fragile and vulnerable. Their grip on the masses decreases with every election. Both the rise and fall of Sanders and Trump’s eventual victory widened the fissures in this setup. Each in their own way, they gave expression to the pent-up discontent, wobbling the social and political inertia of the last few decades.
Both entered the campaign effectively as independents. However, while Sanders submitted to the pressure of his adoptive party’s leadership, Trump did not. While Sanders is moving might and main to keep things within the safe channels of the Democrats, Trump has not followed the script and is a clear and present threat to the party on whose ballot line he ran.
Although they are hypocritically grinning and glad-handing the new POTUS, most of the ruling class despise Trump. This is only in part because he is an embarrassment to a system that prefers to keep its baseness and perfidy out of public view. Above all, it is because he is unpredictable and has only his own interests in mind, not those of his class as a whole. By tenaciously sticking out the election and actually winning—albeit with millions fewer popular votes than his equally undemocratic opponent—he has exposed the farce of bourgeois democracy and forced them to swallow his win.
Furthermore, to pad his ego and win by any means necessary, he has stirred up the working class—both those who hope he is the answer to their woes, and those who already understand his thoroughly reactionary nature. His hubris, arrogance, and all-but-inevitable excess will serve as a whip of counterrevolution, accelerating the pace of the class struggle. For all of this, his class cannot forgive him.
Trump has appealed to the “forgotten Americans,” claiming that they now rule the country. But make no mistake: Trump is part of the 1% and has not forgotten what class he represents. The USA is ruled firmly by the capitalist class and the capitalist system. The working class majority will only rule when we have our own mass political party and win political and economic power for the working class.
However, just because Trump is ultimately on the same side doesn’t mean he will always act in the best interests of the team. The ruling class will work to rein in the new president, but with his own base of financial and (for now) social support, this will be easier said than done.
Trump is a vain, narcissistic, and inveterate liar. A petty and vindictive gangster, he will not forgive or forget those who have slighted him. He may try to adopt a presidential mein, but leopards do not so easily change their spots. But if the pressure of the apparatus and the muck of Washington are not enough to bring him to heel, there are always other options for the ruling class. These include impeachment and removal from power, and the time-honored American tradition of presidential assassinations under suspicious circumstances.
In hopes of remaining relevant, the Democrats are demagogically posing to the “left.” Despite their humiliating drubbing in 2016, they like their chances in future elections due to demographic changes across the country. Furthermore, the civil war within the Republican camp is merely on temporary hold and could flare up at any time. In a two-party system, the Democrats can continue to benefit from being “the other party” until the working class builds a party of its own.
In this context, the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s and other political prisoners’ sentences by Obama at the 11th hour, while welcome, is merely a sop to the left after years of harassment and persecution of activists, whistleblowers, and immigrants. They hope that alleged “progressives” likes Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, and Keith Ellison can channel the anger against Trump back into the quicksand of the Democratic Party. Despite the treatment he received during the primaries and caucuses, Bernie Sanders is at the forefront of this effort.
In the first half of 2016, Sanders showed the immense potential that exists for a mass socialist party in this country. Millions responded to his call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” But he played the Democrats’ rigged game and lost. For those who thought he was different from the rest, Bernie’s backing of Clinton was a hard lesson in the betrayal that is inherent in reformism.
Nonetheless, even now, given the yawning political vacuum that exists, he could serve as a pole of attraction to the left of the Democrats. However, he seems to have embraced the role of “Pied Piper.” The spectacle of him respectfully participating in Trump’s inauguration festivities will surely be the last straw for many of his former supporters.
With no mass labor or socialist party to turn to, American workers first tried the promise of change offered by Obama and the Democrats. While millions abstained altogether, some of them hope Trump’s demagogic promises have substance. They will once again have to learn the hard way. But they are learning.
The working class can only defeat the capitalists if we fight with our own methods and organizations, independent from the bosses and their parties. Class collaboration in the workplace and at the polls and has been an unmitigated disaster for American workers. Sooner or later, in one shape or another, a party of, by, and for the working class will be formed. The labor leaders have dragged their feet on this and done the bosses’ bidding for decades. But the pressure is building. Sanders was able to help them contain it this time around, but they will not be able to prevent a decisive break with the Democrats forever.
But political struggle alone will not be enough. The workers will also have to fight for a better world on the streets, workplaces, and campuses. Conditions determine consciousness. Isolated, atomized resistance to the bosses is futile. Only collective mass action can lead to serious struggles and victories. Eventually, the rank and file of the unions and the millions of unorganized workers will move in the direction of class struggle methods: the strike, workplace occupation, and general strike. A new stage of class struggle militancy and a leadership worthy of the class will be built. There is no alternative.
A ticking economic and social time bomb
No matter what the pundits say, another economic slump is on the horizon. After a long “joyless recovery,” even a technically modest crisis can have a devastating effect on consciousness and cause millions more to break with the system. Obama was given the benefit of the doubt, as he was seen as the inheritor of a mess created by G.W. Bush. But Trump’s honeymoon is already over for the majority, and those who trusted him to turn things around will not give him the benefit of the doubt if the next crisis begins on his watch, especially given his over-the-top promises.
Even before economy declines further, the system’s most ardent defenders fear the backlash from capitalism’s rampant social inequality. Again, from their Global Risks Report: “This points to the need for reviving economic growth, but the growing mood of anti-establishment populism suggests we may have passed the stage where this alone would remedy fractures in society: reforming market capitalism must also be added to the agenda . . . The combination of economic inequality and political polarization threatens to amplify global risks, fraying the social solidarity on which the legitimacy of our economic and political systems rests.”
In other words, even substantial economic growth will not enough to cut across “fraying social solidarity”—code for “intensifying conflict between the classes.” This is what keeps them up at night.
This is not a test—this is capitalism
Elected by less than 25% of the population and loser of the popular vote, Trump enters the presidency with no mandate and one of the lowest incoming approval ratings in history. Even long-standing establishment politicians have publicly called his presidency illegitimate.
R.E.M.’s song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” has apparently enjoyed a revival in recent weeks. It is indeed the end of the world as we know it. Despite Wisconsin, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, the Obama years were the “calm before the storm” in comparison to what is yet to come. The years ahead will be filled with struggle: against austerity, racism, sexism, and xenophobia, and for jobs, healthcare, education, and basic human dignity. Life is struggle and out of struggle comes change. Through the experience of victories and defeats, the class consciousness of the workers and youth will be forged on a higher and broader basis than ever.
The pace of events is accelerating. We cannot be categorical, and we must expect the unexpected. There will be many sharp and sudden changes, and we must keep on our toes. Millions of Americans are looking for a revolutionary way out. They can feel in their bones that if we are to survive climate change, war, terrorism, and immiseration, the whole of humanity must be united and pulling in the same direction. They can see the potential for a better future all around them. But such unity is impossible as long as our species is divided into classes. Such a future is impossible under capitalism.
There is no better time than the centenary of the Russian Revolution—the first great victory of the world working class—to get involved in the struggle for socialism. The last 100 years show that without a farsighted revolutionary leadership that prepares for and fights to win political and economic power, even the most heroic struggles of the working class will go down in defeat. To win a new world, we must educate, agitate, and organize. Join the IMT and help make America and the world truly great for the first time in history—through the socialist revolution!
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