The horror and the unthinkable
Could the unbelievable happen and Trump win a second term in the White House? The game changer will be the radicalisation of the protest movements, not the campaign for Biden
After four years of his bigotry, racism, climate change denial and attacks on working-class people, is it really possible that Donald Trump could be re-elected in November? To answer these questions, we have to understand the extent of political polarisation taking place in the US. In 2020 alone we have seen both the hope and horror that has defined the country at the heart of neoliberal capitalism. Let’s start with the horror. In California and Oregon wildfires have destroyed an area equivalent to the size of Wales. Apocalyptic scenes of orange skies and smoke engulfing landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge remind us that climate change is not a future challenge but a major threat today.
Trump’s predictable response is simply denying it has anything to do with climate change and that scientists “don’t know” about global warming. His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is another horror. More than anyone else, the US president has exemplified the ruling-class approach of prioritising profit over people’s lives during the pandemic. Egged on by big business demanding no lockdown, he has played up far-right conspiracy theorists such as QAnon who regard the virus as a hoax and have held protests outside state capitol buildings across the country. Trump led the charge of encouraging states to reopen businesses early and ignore lockdown advice. The grim consequences are 200,000 deaths and a dramatic spike in unemployment, with those disproportionately affected being black, Latina, migrant and working-class people.
But for many, the biggest illustration of horror has been how the ingrained racism in US society has come to the fore. Horrific police shootings of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have been coupled with the worrying development of the response of the far right. Armed vigilantes, sometimes in collusion with the police, have responded to the 'Black Lives Matter' (BLM) movement by shooting protesters, guarding statues and patrolling towns and cities. All this has been aided by Trump who has defended far-right shooters and approved Republican candidates linked to racist conspiracy groups like QAnon.
If this is the whole picture, it would be a bleak one. But it is a sign of the times that despite the morbid symptoms of modern capitalism, 2020 has also been a year of hope. The BLM movement has changed the political terrain, especially on the question of racism. New York Times research suggests BLM in 2020 is the biggest mass movement in US history, with around 26 million people joining protests so far. For context, the 'Women’s Marches' against Trump’s inauguration in 2017 mobilised five million people (with much more money and political weight behind them). The BLM protests have changed social attitudes towards racism, forcing action much more effectively than relying on politicians and legislation. The movement has also pushed into the political mainstream the radical idea of defunding or abolishing the police — until recently, a demand confined to left-wing circles.
Councils in Seattle, New York and Minneapolis have been pressured into voting to take action on the question. While the Democrat machine will no doubt attempt to manoeuvre on the issue, these are victories we should celebrate. Such radicalism has not appeared out of nowhere. Although Bernie Sanders’s campaign to win the Democratic nomination ran to ground with alarming speed in February, we have seen a boom in socialist ideas and organisation in the US. A record membership of around 60,000 for the Democratic Socialists of America, the highest number of strike days in 32 years and a growing climate movement are all important precursors to the explosion of the BLM movement.
We therefore have to understand the US as being, in many ways, at the forefront of the political polarisation we witness across the globe. Joe Biden is favourite to win the US election. But, wary of his tendency to blunder, his advisers have kept him quiet. They hope Trump’s record on Covid-19 and racism will mean his campaign implodes. There are dangers to this approach. While Biden leads polling nationally, his lead is much smaller in swing states. As Clinton showed in 2016, it is possible to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college.
More pertinently, Biden’s approach seems to be mimicking that of Clinton, focusing on a moderate message to win over ‘middle America’. Indeed, it is clear that Biden is as much of an establishment figure as Clinton. He is not learning the lessons from his predecessor, and is portraying himself as a defender of the status quo against Trump’s populist challenge. One poll found that 56 percent of Biden voters were only voting for him because he wasn’t Donald Trump. This is hardly strong ground on which to win an election, nor is it a ringing endorsement of his politics. Mainstream commentators frequently compare Trump with Richard Nixon, and sometimes with Ronald Reagan. They both championed law and order in the aftermath of the great social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and were elected on this basis, although also partly as a result of the fragmentation of these struggles.
However, Trump is going way beyond the motto of law and order. He is actively encouraging disorder. During the height of the pandemic he encouraged anti-mask, Covidconspiracy protesters to take to the streets and break lockdowns. Amid BLM protests he threatened to send army troops to violently take them on. And when questioned about Kyle Rittenhouse — the far-right shooter who killed two BLM protesters in Wisconsin — Trump argued Rittenhouse had acted in self-defence. Law and order. The consequence of this is to give confidence to far-right racists and white nationalists, pushing the boundaries of what his Republican base deems acceptable. Nixon responded to the last big wave of protests, riots and political upheaval in the 1960s by posing as the respectable face of law and order.
Conversely, Trump embraces disorder and heightens it, banking that polarisation is his best hope of victory. In doing so he coalesces around him a worrying coalition of traditionally conservative Republicans, sections of the US ruling class and elements of the far right. Even if Trump loses the election, the battle against the right will be far from over. He may well refuse to accept defeat, and may also get away with it due to the peculiarities of the US electoral system. Free from the presidency, Trump would be off the leash (although he is hardly disciplined by office at the moment). It is not difficult to imagine a situation where Biden wins and Trump calls his supporters onto the streets, possibly armed as they have been in recent weeks.
Or where he encourages counter-protests to the BLM movement. Michael Wolff, in his account of the early days of Trump’s White House, made clear that Trump did not expect to win the presidency, but used the election campaign to raise his political profile. This would lay the ground for him to hold regular political talk shows, lead protests and become a key figure of the Republican and alt-right. All in an attempt to drag the political scene further to the right. He is likely to continue with this project if he loses in November. Therefore, while a Trump defeat would be worth celebrating, we need a strategy that goes beyond the election in November.
It is the strength of movements like BLM that will be crucial. There is another reason for this: what Joe Biden represents. His own record is nothing short of appalling. Biden worked with segregationists in the 1970s, authored the 1994 crime bill which reinforced mass incarceration of black Americans and was a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. Kamala Harris, with her pro-police and ‘law and order’ record as attorney general in California, hardly breaks from this mould. The two represent the conservative wing of a Democrat Party that have been, with the Republicans, architects of the inequality evident in the US today. From police racism to the economic power of Wall Street, politicians like Joe Biden have been there every step of the way to defend the interests of the US ruling class. Biden’s response to BLM speaks volumes. The initial response from himself and leading Democrats, including left figures, was that while protests have their place, the main priority is to vote in November.
Then in an attempt to match Trump, Biden denounced looting and rioting, and said real police reform would involve officers shooting people in the knee, not the chest. The historical record of the Democrats is one of acting as a shock absorber for social movements when not in office, and of managing US capitalism in the interests of the one percent when in power. The key question is therefore how to reconcile the urgency of removing Trump from the White House - with a recognition that a Biden presidency would be of little progress for working-class and black Americans. The answer lies in building the impressive struggles of the last few years, and fighting for a better politics than that of the Democrats.
That may have seemed an abstract or rather empty strategy in the past. But recent developments mean the terrain is more favourable than at any other point in the last few decades. Despite all the horror, the game changer in 2020 has been the development of a mass, radical anti-racist movement that has shaken the US establishment to its core. It is this movement, rather than Democrat manoeuvres, that has the potential to beat Trumpism and chart a different path.
This article first appeared in Socialist Review. Reproduced with permission