Summary: Open misogyny, Islamophobia, and especially the attack on aspects of neoliberalism distinguish Trump from previous US conservatives who have played to racism and nativism. This calls for a rethinking even by those on the Left who have targeted class and neoliberalism — Editors
Here’s one way to think about the shock of Trump’s victory. By last summer, it was clear that he had stirred up some dangerous forces in US society, and that even if he lost, this poisonous legacy was now out there facing us. But at the time it seemed more like a longterm challenge, that the wolf was over the next mountain. It turned out that the wolf was much closer, and has now broken into our home. We have no choice but to fight.
What We Face Now
Let’s start with some very specific examples, to “stare negativity in the face,” as old Hegel admonishes us to do.
- Donald Trump will have his hand on the nuclear button, with power to blow up the world, that decision entirely his own.
- Trump will have the power to issue executive orders reversing Obama’s mild immigration reforms and possibly to order mass deportations, again without consulting anyone.
- Trump has already designated a neofascist, Steve Bannon, as his chief political strategist, based in the White House, something he can do unilaterally.
- Trump has already designated Islamophobe General Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, which he can also do unilaterally.
- Trump will nominate the virulently anti-immigrant senator from Alabama, Jefferson Sessions, as Attorney General, a man who was denied a federal judgeship because of his viciously anti-Black words and actions.
- Trump has announced that he will defund Planned Parenthood and take other measures against women’s rights, something the Republicans, who will now control both the House and the Senate, have been itching to do for years.
- Trump has announced he will put the environment-destroying Keystone Pipeline back on track, something he can do by the stroke of a pen.
- Trump and the Senate will be able to place their person on the Supreme Court, likely for decades to come.
Protesting Trump’s Victory
Since Nov. 9, large and angry protest demonstrations have occurred from coast to coast. Some of the U.S.’s most oppressed and marginalized youth, Latin@ high school students in East Los Angeles, staged a walkout this week, with thousands marching on downtown LA. In those same days and at the other end of the socioeconomic scale, the actors and the audience at the very pricey Broadway play “Hamilton” staged a protest against Vice President elect Mike Pence when he attended a performance.
Some are emphasizing that Hillary Clinton may have won nearly 2 million votes more than Trump, but that the eighteenth-century US Constitution allows totals to be tallied state by state in a way that thwarts majority rule. While that is true, it will not prevent Trump and the Republicans from moving forward very quickly on their agenda. Recall that for most of US history, until 1965, the Black population of the South was enslaved and then, after the brief Reconstruction period after the Civil War, forcibly disenfranchised. Don’t forget that Southern Democrats, of the same ilk as Republicans today, did not hesitate to use “legal” means to restrict Black voting and thus achieve their own domination, sometimes in states with substantial Black majorities like Mississippi.
However, the fact that Trump decisively lost the popular vote could be a significant mobilizing tool against him. It will call more attention to the undemocratic and authoritarian character of his impending administration.
Reasons Behind Trump’s Victory: Racism, Misogyny, and Nativism
How could a man who publicly degrades Latin@s and women, especially his opponents, who expresses open contempt for Black people, who denies global warming, and who is a blatant Islamophobe have been elected, even under the rigged Electoral College system?
Some have argued that Trump’s election signifies most importantly the pendulum swinging toward reaction, similarly to other times after Blacks had made significant social progress, as seen in the post-Reconstruction politics of the 1880s or the reaction to the 1960s exemplified by the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. There are two flaws in this argument. One is the assumption that significant progress for African Americans occurred under the Obama administration. In fact, the Obama period saw more symbolic than real gains for African Americans. Blacks continued to suffer disproportionately from the aftermath of the Great Recession. Nor were African Americans imprisoned at significantly lower rates. And most of all, the murders of Black people that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement saw no abatement under Obama.
The second flaw revolves around the assumption that Trump stirred up atavistic hatreds among white people, especially white workers, thus bringing about Clinton’s defeat, in short, that racism works. But this belies the fact that the Republican Party has been race baiting for 5 decades, even as the population has shifted, becoming less white, and lost decisively in the two previous presidential elections for its trouble, even though by 2012 it had added immigrant bashing to its repertoire. Therefore, race baiting was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for Trump’s win.
Trump of course took race baiting and immigrant bashing to new heights, but few are recalling that the “moderate” Mitt Romney won his nomination in 2012 by outflanking someone as reactionary as Newt Gingrich in the field of immigrant bashing (“self-deport,” etc.). What Trump added to that mix besides the open rather than veiled appeals to such hatreds — those Mexican “rapists” and “criminals” coming across the border, allowing his crowds to beat up Black protestors — were two new elements: (1) He employed a virulent Islamophobia, which he tied to the immigration issue in new ways, as in the bizarre notion of banning Muslims from coming to the US. This, as opposed to immigrant bashing at a more general level, was certainly something new. (2) Trump exhibited an equally virulent and open misogyny, directed primarily at Clinton, the first woman candidate of a major political party. This too was not entirely new for Republicans, except for the virulence, at least at the presidential level. And this too may have garnered him some success, despite the ways in which it outraged large sectors of the population, both women and men, especially the youth.
The End of Neoliberalism?
But the entirely new and probably decisive factor in Trump’s victory, and the aspect of his politics that is therefore the most dangerous for the future in terms of its widening of the appeal of reactionary politics, concerns his nationalist, isolationist, “America First” politics. Attacking “free trade” deals like NAFTA, he posed as a champion of workers in the relatively high wage coal mining, auto, and steel sectors. Also, unlike previous Republican candidates going all the way back to Reagan, he generally declined to attack the minimum wage and he also promised not to touch core elements of the social safety net like Social Security and Medicare. This drew a wedge into the Democrats’ already weak support base among industrial workers and others in areas that were or had been centers of high-wage industry. This assumed not only the form of votes for Trump, but also stoked low turnout among Clinton’s supporters. While tacking slightly to the left compared to her earlier politics, Clinton did things like holding fundraisers with wealthy bankers and Hollywood people, even as Trump was class-angling his appeal with demagogic promises to bring back the U.S. coal industry. It did not help either that she and Obama campaigned, like Herbert Hoover, on the notion that the economy was basically sound, when tens of millions of working people have seen their incomes stagnate or decline while wealth concentrates ever more at the top. (None of this succeeded in generating a very high turnout among people of color either, a process abetted by the Republicans’ racist voter suppression laws.)
It is this economic populist element, which went beyond earlier Republicn support from white rural working people, that made Trump’s Electoral College win something entirely new. At least at a political level, it seems to signal nothing less than the end of the neoliberal era, certainly in terms of political rhetoric and ideology. This becomes even clearer when Trump’s surprising victory is seen alongside the vote for Brexit in the UK, the Orban regime in Hungary, and the increasing popularity of other rightwing populist movements in Europe and elsewhere.
And of course, all of these movements express their anti-neoliberalism in racist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and sometimes in misogynist terms as well. As Peter Hudis wrote in his analysis of the election that has been voted a Statement of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, “Trump’s victory clearly shows that rightwing opponents of neoliberalism have found a way to speak to disaffected segments of the working class by draping their critique of neoliberalism in racist and misogynist terms.” (See his “Trump’s Election: Capitalism’s Dangerous Turn Toward Open Racism and Misogyny,” International Marxist-Humanist, Nov. 10, 2016 http://www.internationalmarxisthumanist.org )
What Is to Be Done?
Where does this leave the left? As also noted by Hudis in our Statement, this means that the left, which has concentrated on the opposition to neoliberalism for the past two decades, has been outflanked on the right. To the IMHO, this means that we need to rethink our opposition to capitalism and how we pose it in order to make clearer than ever that we are targeting capitalism as such, not only neoliberalism.
As part of that, we on the left need to find ways to reach out to white workers, but without any concessions on issues like Black Lives Matter, revolutionary feminism, LGBT issues, environmental justice, defense of immigrants, and opposition to Islamophobia. This is not impossible, but it is a hard road nonetheless. At several turning points in our history, U.S. working people have in fact united across racial lines in sustained movements for radical change, among them the leftwing Populist Movement of the 1890s in the southern states, the industrial union movement of the 1930s, or the rank-and-file auto workers strikes and plant occupations of the 1970s, which had been preceded by a Black workers movement.
One thing we don’t want to do as we battle Trump is to fall into the mistake of Clinton: bashing Trump for good reason, but without offering a positive, humanist, and yet possible vision for the future. This problem is not limited to liberals. It has been endemic to the Left as well, and for decades. As Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., wrote in the aftermath of the 1960s: “Without such a vision of new revolutions, a new individual, a new universal, a new society, new human relations,” and “without a philosophy of revolution, activism spends itself in mere anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, without ever revealing what it is for” (See her Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p. 194).
Thus, while we need as Marxist-Humanists to push the Left and the opposition to Trump to move from anti-neoliberalism to anti-capitalism, even a principled anti-capitalism that makes no concessions to racism, sexism, and nationalism will not be enough, without a positive and possible vision of the future. And elaborating that vision has to start with Marx, with his concept of society free of exploitation alienation, one of free and associated labor in an economy based upon production for use, not value production, and aiming over time at the lofty goal: from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs. (On this point, see especially Hudis’s Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism.) In his last years, as he developed those ideas more concretely, the models Marx was looking at included both the modern working class communism of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the indigenous communism of the Iroquois Nation. (On the latter, see my Marx at the Margins, Ch. 6.)
First presented at panel on “Trump: A New Form of Authoritarian Capitalism Targeting Immigrants, People of Color, Women, and the Environment,” at the L.A. Peace Center.