Scaffolding for an assessment of the correlation of forces after the battles from Trump’s inauguration through the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare, and what the next year may hold in store.
Note added April 7: This piece was finalized just before Trump’s air strike in Syria. For updates on that extremely dangerous escalation, see the links added to the paragraph terming this “an aggressively militarist, war presidency” below.
This assessment argues four main points:
1. The Trump administration has already pushed through numerous components of its racist and reactionary program, though it has not been able to establish the level of dominance and momentum required to roll over the remarkably wide, deep and sustained opposition. Via executive actions and winning approval for atrocious cabinet appointments, the White House has already green-lighted the Dakota Access Pipeline, ramped up anti-immigrant enforcement, gutted regulations combatting climate change, eliminated important workers’ rights protections, begun escalating U.S. wars, moved toward shifting resources from social programs to the Pentagon and more. Trump has launched a blistering propaganda assault on the mainstream media which poses a grave threat to fact-based debate and political democracy. All this while retaining the support of Trump’s mass base and the GOP coalition for the Trump-Bannon program of “racial and imperial revenge.” At the same time, the White House has suffered some important defeats (a blocked Muslim travel ban, failure to repeal ACA) due to Trump’s own mis-steps (lying, off-message outbursts, etc.); policy divisions within the GOP, and, above all, the breadth, depth and perseverance of the resistance (see next point). But the Trump-led GOP still holds the commanding heights of governmental power; it still sets the national agenda, and it remains bent on all-round implementation of its racist, give-big-business-a-free-hand, authoritarian program.
2. Resistance to Trump/Trumpism has been broad, determined and sustained enough to chalk up important accomplishments. Resistance has surged not only from the communities most immediately in the Trump-Bannon gunsights but from layers of the federal bureaucracy, the judiciary, the media, scientists and even a small layer of anti-Trump Republican intellectuals. It can claim several achievements: preventing the ‘normalization’ of Trump’s presidency; etching in the national consciousness the fact that Trump lost the popular vote; blocking several administration initiatives; and forcing many Democratic Party elected officials (and other waverers) to take a much stronger opposition stance than they were initially tempted to do. These accomplishments are to be celebrated and built upon. But the resistance remains in a fundamentally defensive posture with an uphill fight ahead.
3. Within the broad resistance front, progressive and left forces have played a crucial role and grown both in numbers and political maturity. New members, donors and supporters have gravitated toward organizations from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood to Democratic Socialists of America. Important organizations and circles of activists have traversed a steep learning curve to break out of “silo” thinking; move toward meshing the fight against economic inequality with struggles for racial and gender justice; and grasp the importance of the electoral arena both to defeating Trump and building progressive political power long term. This growth has enabled various progressives to play an outsize role so far in the broad resistance front: issuing most of the calls for mass action; showing the way in defending all communities under attack; keeping the spotlight on the “white nationalist” glue that holds so much of the Trumpist coalition together; building on Bernie’s campaign to establish a much stronger foothold for progressives for the crucial battles taking place within the Democratic Party. While energized and strengthened in all these ways, the progressive forces have yet to build sufficient unity, institutional strength and strategic clarity (or find ways to effectively incorporate into our ranks the tens of thousands stepping forward) to lead the broad coalition that is required to defeat Trumpism, much less go it alone.
4. The next year of battle will be difficult, complicated and likely decisive for the campaign to make Trump a one term President and firmly establish a progressive pole in mainstream politics. The level of turnout and spirit at the next round of mass actions (April 4 anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Breaking Silence’ speech through the Peoples Climate March to the May 1 strike) will indicate whether or not a mass protest, take-to-the-streets flow can be sustained. Key battles will take place that we are less likely to win than the GOP’s first shot at ACA repeal: the Gorsuch nomination seemingly being rammed through this week; a corporate tax cut; stopping horrible executive branch actions on climate change, sanctuary cities and the rollback of (minimal) progress toward curbing racist police practices. These – as well as the heightening crackdown on all protest – will test the ability of the resistance to persevere through an even rougher patch than we’ve faced so far. The capacity of various progressive groups and ‘tables’ to roll out a set of large-scale, coordinated initiatives for the 2018 balloting would have a huge multi-leveled impact: a major breakthrough here would substantially increase the prospects for large voter turnout in communities of color and other key “Obama Coalition” sectors. This could lead to gains against the GOP at the federal, state and local levels; a leftward shift in the overall message and content of numerous Democratic 2018 campaigns, and lay the basis for progressives to have a major say in what candidate and program will oppose Trump/Trumpism in 2020.
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A few key specifics and additional notes on each of the points above:
On #1 – Trump and the Trump Coalition:
*Steve Bannon quickly emerged as the most powerful person in the administration after Trump, cementing alt-right white nationalism as both the driving force of White House policy and key glue of the Trumpist coalition.
*Trump’s administration is ramping up military action in existing war theaters (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan); quietly expanding Washington’s military presence in new places (Somalia); embracing repressive dictatorships (Egypt, Bahrain); threatening massive escalation on the Korean peninsula; giving a wink-and-nod okay to more Israeli colonial settlements, and proposing a $54 billion increase in the military budget. This is an aggressively militarist, war presidency that is woefully ignorant of international affairs, impulsive and amateurish. The potential for disastrous miscalculation is ever-present. (April 7 addition: for updates on Trump’s escalation in Syria, go here, here, here and here.)
*Trump’s lies; his installation of the most financially corrupt, kleptocratic administration in memory; his undisciplined off-message tweets and his general volatility have led to a lot of GOP worry and private grumbling about his capacity to lead. Even a recent Wall Street Journal editorial slammed him for lacking credibility. But all significant factions of his coalition calculate that they will get important benefits from his presidency (or fear his wrath) and continue to defend him. At the base, polls show 85%-plus of GOP voters approve of Trump’s performance so far, and only a handful of Trump voters have been located who publicly express ‘buyer’s remorse’ despite intense media efforts to find and publicize people in that category. This gives Trump the leverage to implement more elements of his reactionary program regarding budget priorities, financial and internet regulations, police practices, immigration, foreign policy, stacking the federal judiciary with reactionary judges and more.
*The health care repeal debacle has shifted the balance of forces within the Trump Coalition. The ‘Establishment GOP’ (Ryan and the remnant figures from the Bush/Romney/McCain period) is further weakened relative to the extreme conservative ideologues (Freedom Caucus), Christian Right and Alt-Right.
*Trump’s drive to substantially shift the pattern of alliances that has long anchored U.S. foreign policy and his constant blasting of U.S. government departments (intelligence agencies especially) led to most Neocon intellectuals and important sections of the government bureaucracy opposing him even before the election. It seems clear now that at least some key people within and outside of government are seriously working to bring Trump down via the “Russia-Gate” scandal. (See the appendix below with details on U.S.-Russia relations, Putin and “Russia-Gate.”)
On #2 – The Broad Resistance Front
*The Women’s March set the tone. It was very important that women of color moved central and established anti-racism and intersectionality as a cornerstone of anti-Trump feminism. Also crucial: the experience of people from different issues/sectors, from labor to trans rights to Palestine solidarity and Black Lives Matter, all marching together. This was a huge cultural-psychological push toward mutual solidarity and a holistic spirit permeating the resistance in general. Immediately following the March, the large and militant airport protests were crucial for keeping the momentum going and reinforcing the movement’s determination to stay united in defense of the most vulnerable sectors. It is noteworthy that women make up a disproportionate share of those stepping forward in the outpouring of mass actions against Trump.
*There is substantial unevenness in the level of activity, breadth and organizational strength of resistance initiatives across sectors and regions. The antiwar component is one of the weakest, and every day that underscores how much Trump is a war-making, militarist president indicates the urgency of incorporating peace and anti-militarist politics into the outlook and work of the resistance forces. The labor movement will come under even more pressure at the federal level and in many states, and, though still the largest institution of workers in the U.S., has not yet found an effective strategy to fight back. (Labor’s task is further complicated because some unions are inclined to compromise with or even support Trump in response to his promises of job creation via his hyped but hollow infrastructure rebuilding plan.) And potential for energizing broad layers of the African American community – the most progressive sector in the country and absolutely central to any successful and durable progressive coalition – is very far from being realized, as is the potential for a tremendous Latino mobilization. These are absolutely crucial tasks.
*All forms of resistance face the prospect of heightened state repression and non-state right-wing attacks going forward. Reduced scrutiny of police, increased law enforcement violence against protesters, more surveillance and infiltration of opposition groups, orchestrated smear campaigns, death threats and physical assaults targeting dissident journalists and activists are all in the mix. These will accompany intensified attempts at voter intimidation and suppression in the Trump era. Developing approaches to defend against these while continuing to seek the broadest possible participation in direct action and electoral engagement will be a new challenge facing the anti-Trump camp.
On #3 – Progressive and Left Forces
*There is increasing dialogue, interaction and proposals for cooperation among the progressive and left forces who have gravitated toward a strategy of fighting and trying to build power both inside and outside of the electoral arena and the Democratic Party. Turning those steps into an aligned set of concrete initiatives and strong institutions while the resistance has such momentum and in time to be a major force in the 2018 elections is the prime immediate challenge now facing activists in that camp.
*Some others on the left are prone to overestimate the strength of the resistance while underestimating how deeply the white nationalist right is entrenched in positions of power and/or how dangerous it is. This mis-assessment contributes to ultra-left (divorced from real conditions) views that argue either (1) elections are relatively unimportant compared to street protests; or (2) the Democratic Party is either just as bad as Trump or at best an obstacle to defeating Trumpism, so the Democrats should be shunned completely in favor of building a third party immediately; or (3) we should be involved in the Democratic Party only to work for a rapid 100% take over, which can succeed because the centrist neoliberal Democrats are “on their last legs” and can be easily ousted if only we have the will power.
*The Ellison-Perez contest for DNC Chair was an important test of strength between different forces contending for influence in the Democratic Party. The progressives behind Ellison were not able to prevail. But Ellison came close; and Perez – though backed by the party’s corporate wing to stop Ellison – was one of the most progressive figures in the Obama administration. Combined with Perez immediately appointing Ellison as co-chair, these factors indicate that a progressive agenda now has a measure of initiative even within the Democratic apparatus. At the base, meanwhile, the surge of support for new initiatives like Indivisible, Flippable and Swing Left, on top of the continuing work of Our Revolution, Moveon, Color of Change, the Working Families Party and other national or state-based progressive groups, gives the broad left tremendous opportunities to gain a level of influence not attained since the height of the Rainbow Coalition/Jackson insurgency in the 1980s.
On #4 – Now through Early 2018
*We should expect the administration’s appeals to racism and xenophobia to be ramped up each time they experience a setback. This is their default mode to gin up their base and keep the loyalty of a coalition whose main glue is white nationalism. We already see this pattern in operation: in the first daily press briefing after the GOP’s debacle on ACA, Attorney General Sessions took the stage to bash sanctuary cities; the White House has responded to “Russia-Gate” by updating their racist hate-Obama formula with accusations that the former President (and now Susan Rice too) are the real criminals. Such gin-up-the-base rhetoric is sure to escalate between now and the next election. The chair of the GOP Congressional Committee has already made clear the other prong of their 2018 strategy: “Raise a shit-ton of money.”
*Last, given Trump’s impulsive personality and Bannon’s many statements that “there is no doubt” the U.S. will go to war in the South China Sea and/or Middle East in the next decade, the constant wild card today is the potential for an incident somewhere to rapidly escalate into war or even a Cuban-missile-crisis-type confrontation. And one accompanied by threats of intense domestic repression. It is not possible to plan for such a scenario other than to recognize that we may need to get every single person possible into public squares across the country to oppose any slide toward catastrophe – hundreds of Tahrir Square protest/occupations in cities and towns across the land.
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Appendix: A Note on Trump, Russia and ‘Russia-Gate’
Trump’s Russia connections and the charge that the Trump campaign collaborated in Russia’s messing with the election (“Russia-Gate”) have become a major controversy in mainstream politics. It is a complicated issue for progressives to deal with.
First, everything happening between Trump, Washington and Moscow is against a background of the U.S. expanding NATO almost to Russia’s borders over the last two decades-plus, as well as supporting anti-Russian movements in countries close to Russia. Russia understandably regards this as a threat and betrayal of promises made by Washington not to push NATO east. It is in progressives’ interest to reduce tensions with Russia and we should recognize that Washington, not Moscow, has been the main source of increased tension since the end of (as well as during) the Cold War.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would reduce tensions with Russia and criticized Hillary’s hawkish approach to U.S.-Russian relations. This got him the opposition of most of the foreign policy establishment which held on to the Cold War view that Russia was an enemy to be confronted and weakened. (It also snookered some people on the left who started to think of Trump as a ‘peace candidate’.)
But even at the time – and especially in light of all the verified reports that have come to light since November – it was clear that Trump’s ‘be-nicer-to-Russia’ strategy had nothing to do with peace. Rather, it is due to his sharing a common vision of reorganizing global politics with Russian leader Vladimir Putin (and to the longstanding financial-business ties between Trump and Russian oligarchs tied to Putin as well). Both Trump and Putin envision a U.S.-Russia alliance in defense of white Christendom and ‘traditional values’ (anti-feminism and homophobia in particular), under authoritarian strongmen, confronting Islam in a ‘clash of civilizations’ battle and generally dominating the world. Putin has been working with, and subsidizing, right-wing parties across Europe and elsewhere in a bid to build global support for this kind of alignment, and to break up the EU in particular.
While reduced tensions with Russia are in the interest of progressives, this global strategy absolutely is not. We are opposed to retaining a Cold War approach to Russia. But we also oppose enmeshing the U.S. in a global right-wing Islamophobic “war of civilizations” alliance.
In pursuit of such an alliance, it seems virtually certain that the Russian government tried to influence the U.S. election to favor Trump. (Just as the U.S. has long meddled in other countries’ elections, including Russia’s.) What is unclear is how much, if at all, people in the Trump camp went beyond sharing a broad vision with Putin and having financial dealings with Russian oligarchs to outright collaboration to influence the election. Should that have occurred, it would indeed be an assault on U.S. democracy, and an almost unprecedented one at that. (Only “almost” because the Israeli government has been meddling in U.S. elections in collusion with U.S. elected officials for decades.) This makes “Russia-Gate” so volatile and important, even if the foreign policy programs of the elite players on both sides are not to our liking.
Max Elbaum has been active in peace, anti-racist and radical movements since the 1960s. Most recently was part of a team that prepared a three-part 2016 Election Curriculum, “The U.S. Electoral System and Progressive Electoral Strategy,” and a follow-up Post-Election Discussion Guide “Changed Terrain Demands a New Orientation,” both still available for download from Organizing Upgrade.