The Extraordinary Dangers of Trump and Trumpism
[Note added Nov. 16, 2016: see also our post-election Statement in Featured article below]
[Note added Nov. 24, 2016: see also Freies Sender Kombinat's post-election podcast on this editorial. Anne Jaclard and Andrew Kliman spoke on behalf of MHI.]
Marxist-Humanist Initiative is thoroughly, unequivocally, opposed to Donald Trump and all that he stands for. We are aghast that part of the so-called “left” thinks that there is anything good about him, and that some “leftists” actually support Trump because he comes from outside the political establishment and trash-talks about it. Whether such responses are based on “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” or “better the devil you don’t know than the one you do,” they are irredeemably irresponsible and unserious. They disregard Trump’s class bias, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, totalitarian inclinations, and interest in using nuclear weapons, and treat those who will suffer under Trump as “collateral damage.”
The backbone of his campaign are appeals to racism, nativism, xenophobia, and sexism. Despite Trump’s recent vague doubletalk, he has—as everyone knows–vowed to build a wall across the Mexican border and force Mexico to pay for it, and to ban Muslim immigration. Even if he is defeated on November 8, the racist, xenophobic movement he has created—Trumpism—is likely to persist and it is questionable whether the flimsy institutions of U.S. bourgeois democracy are any match for it.
The allegedly “anti-establishment” and “anti-elite” character of Trumpism doesn’t make his racism and chauvinism any less despicable or more deserving of “understanding.” Any and every discussion of Trump and Trumpism that fails to denounce their racism, sexism, and xenophobia clearly, loudly, and without qualification—without ifs, ands, or buts—is complicit with them. There are no mitigating circumstances. There is no silver lining. There is just willingness to tolerate racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
It is not “far left” to say that there is some good in Trumpism. It is just infantile posturing.
No support for Clinton
Although Trump is by far the greater evil, we do not support Clinton. (We are saying this repeatedly for the benefit of the dialectically challenged, who have trouble getting their heads around the fact that condemning one candidate does not equal supporting the other.) We have no expectation that she would be much different from all recent presidents, Democrats or Republicans. Like them, she is anti-worker, anti-poor, imperialistic—in sum, a functionary in the capitalist system.
Furthermore, Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party are corrupt, self-interested, and cut off from and disdainful of working people and minorities. They have neither the will nor the ability to build the kind of mass movement that will be needed to crush Trumpism.
But we do not draw a false equivalence between Trump and Clinton just for the sake of making clear that we don’t support either of them. To falsely equate Trump and Clinton is to ignore the grave threat to our civil liberties and lives that Trump represents. He and Clinton are not “basically the same,” as we detail below. We are quite able to distinguish between them without supporting one over the other. We reject the presupposition that we have to choose between them–or to choose some candidate to support. We put no faith in the electoral system within this society.
But neither do we simply say “a plague on both your houses” while remaining aloof from a real and unprecedented danger. That position is like refusing to take sides in the U.S. Civil War on the grounds one is opposed to all slavery, whether chattel slavery or wage-slavery. In contrast, although Marx strongly opposed both wage- and chattel-slavery, he fervently supported the North in the war, while criticizing it for not making abolition of slavery central to the war from the start. We urge the left, workers, people of color and other minorities, women and youth to oppose Trump by all means possible, and to hew out an altogether different path to change, independent of the entire capitalist class and its parties and politicians.
Reject the ruling-class’ choices. Create alternative choices.
We can create alternatives to the choices presented by the ruling class—not by means of wishful thinking, but by means of serious theoretical and practical work. First, we have to clear our heads. That is, first we have to face “with sober senses” the danger of Trump and Trumpism, give up all illusions that he will not be even worse than Clinton or actually good for the working class, and reject the idea that unless we choose between the candidates, we can have nothing to say. Only when we break out of the confines of the choices that the rulers hand us, and are guided instead by the pull of a future socialist society, can we work out a fourth alternative—one that doesn’t support Trump, doesn’t support Clinton, and isn’t passive resignation. For an example, see our editorial five years ago on the Libya crisis. We opposed both Qaddafi and U.S./NATO intervention, searching for an independent proletarian path to aid the Libyan people, and being guided by a vision of a future society based on freely associated labor and new human relations:
If we allow the immediate situation to determine our response for us, then another path, independent of all capitalist powers and solutions, never has the opportunity to develop, since the “episodic danger[s]” are never-ending. And so we become bystanders to history. And much worse, we recommend that potentially revolutionary forces also become bystanders, taking sides from among that which is immediately given to them, i.e., the sides that others, capitalist powers and forces, have constructed as “the sides.”
So we decry Trump and Trumpism as an especially horrendous danger, and we condemn a flaccid left that is unwilling or unable to escape a false dichotomy between Clinton and Trump and unwilling to hew out an independent perspective—grounded in self-activity from below as guided by a philosophy of human liberation. Such an independent perspective can help defeat Trumpism (not just Trump’s electoral hopes), and aid in the overthrow of the existing social-economic system and the creation of a new, human society.
What Trump stands for, and what he could do
A Trump victory would threaten the whole human race. As President, his power to unleash a nuclear attack or counter-attack would essentially be absolute and unlimited.
We frequently hear that Trump’s powers would be constrained by the “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” that characterize the U.S. political system. It is imperative that everyone understand that these things do not apply to a decision to unleash nuclear weapons. The president makes a unilateral decision that no one else is entitled to veto or even review. Only the general to whom he gives the order stands between him and the launching of nukes, and the general is not entitled to use his own judgment. The president’s decision
must be obeyed as long as it is constitutional—i.e., the president as commander in chief believes he or she is acting to protect and defend the nation against an actual or imminent attack.
… there is no wiggle room for evasion or defiance of the president’s orders. … It does not even matter if the commander in chief simply orders the use of nuclear weapons on an ordinary day for reasons unknown to all but him or her. [Bruce Blair, Politico, emphasis added]
John Noonan, a former nuclear launch officer and national security advisor to Republican politicians, has stated that, if the president had ordered him to use nuclear weapons, “I would have done my duty and I can damn near guarantee everyone on alert right now wouldn’t blink either.” He opposes giving Trump the power to launch nuclear weapons.
Of course, other candidates for President–such as Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein—would have the same power if they were elected. The crucial difference is that none of them is Trump. His track record has made clear that he is exceedingly thin-skinned and hot-headed, a vindictive bully, and proudly “unpredictable.” Furthermore, Trump is abysmally ignorant of the “deterrence” doctrine that stands at the center of U.S. nuclear strategy; he has asked, repeatedly, “if we have [nuclear weapons], why can’t we use them?” This combination of traits makes nuclear weaponry in the hands of President Donald J. Trump an enormous danger.
In addition to the distinct possibility that he would decimate humanity, Trump would certainly bring on and enforce extreme repression against racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, workers, and leftists. Separation of powers would not stop this; all three branches of government would be reshaped in the image of his repressive authoritarianism.
Once Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, House Speaker Paul Ryan and almost all of the rest of the formerly anti-Trump Republican establishment quickly capitulated to him, in a pitiful and humiliating fashion. So there is no reason to think that the legislative branch would exercise any serious countervailing power to Trump if he became President. He would remake the judicial branch, appointing the next several Supreme Court judges as well as large numbers of lower-level federal judges. In the executive branch, which stands directly under the President’s control, he would appoint the members of the National Labor Relations Board that make the rules about workplace and union rights. He would staff the executive agencies that make and enforce rules about the environment, health, food and drugs, education, and more. He would staff the Justice Department, which is responsible for enforcement of voting rights and many other “good” laws. Action by the Justice Department has been the only hope for “justice” and imposition of reforms when police murder African-American youth.
As head of the executive branch of government, Trump would have enormous power. He could issue all manner of wide-reaching executive decrees without consulting Congress. He could overturn, at will, democratic precedents regarding the way the executive branch functions that are not explicitly written in statutes. He would also have the ability to influence the judiciary by instigating challenges to existing law. Those who think that the U.S. has “checks and balances” that would prevent Trump from doing what he wants greatly underestimate how much unilateral power is directly in the hands of the U.S. chief executive and commander-in-chief of the military. They misinterpret previous presidents’ (partial) adherence to democratic traditions and the rule of law as actual limits on the powers of the president.
Although civil liberties, freedom of the press, and separation of powers are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, Trump has indicated, in word and deed, his intent to change them. He has barred numerous publications from his press conferences and rallies and has threatened to change the libel laws. He has already attacked the independence of the judicial branch, declaring that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is biased against him and therefore should not be allowed to preside over the lawsuit against Trump’s phony “university.” Trump suggested that the “bias” stems from the fact that Curiel is of Mexican heritage, while Trump plans to make Mexico pay for his wall across the Mexican border.
Trump has also incited violence against protesters at his rallies, and even against Clinton if she is elected. Roger Stone, a key Trump adviser, has promised that a “bloodbath” will ensue if the Democrats “steal” the election—that is, if Clinton’s share of the vote in certain precincts substantially exceeds her share in preference polls. For Marxist-Humanists, the violence and repression that Trumpism promises is particularly ominous. It would severely restrict our ability to struggle inside the U.S. against capitalism, racism, xenophobia, and sexism.
Thus, the upcoming election is fundamentally a referendum on civil liberties, freedom of the press, and separation of powers in the U.S. government. A Trump victory would be a decisive victory for those who regard these rights as expendable; and they will be expendable. The fact that the authoritarian strongman who rules over us came to power “democratically,” and the fact that a majority of voters effectively endorsed his plans, would be used to legitimize the abrogation of more than two centuries of bourgeois democratic rights.
Not a conservative or mainstream Republican
Some self-styled leftists have portrayed Trump as a moderate, or moderately conservative, on the grounds that some of his “policy positions” are “to the left of” Clinton’s. This preposterous line of “reasoning” leads directly to the conclusion that Hitler was also a moderate or moderately conservative. As the Political Compass team has pointed out, “Hitler, on an economic scale, was not an extreme right-winger. His economic policies were broadly Keynesian, and to the left of some of today’s Labour parties.” The truth is that the standard left-right political continuum is unable to come to grips with fascism and proto-fascism. “Policy positions” notwithstanding, these are retrogressive, reactionary phenomena.
We have also encountered efforts to portray Trump as just another conservative or mainstream Republican, and to discount what he says as mere electoral rhetoric. These efforts often come from people outside the U.S., who do not read and hear about Trump 24/7. In fact, his nomination constitutes a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. It is no longer the party of free-market economics, religious and social conservatism, and neo-conservative warmongering. That veneer has been stripped off; the underlying white nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and hatred now stand in front of us, naked and brazen.
Far from being an ordinary Republican, Trump is an outsider, a billionaire businessman who befriended politicians for favors but was never in politics until recently. He used to give contributions to both major parties. He decided to run for President as a Republican because of his enormous ego, his hunger for power, and the fact that he had widespread name recognition as a “reality”-TV star. But he also saw a new opportunity. There was a void in the Party, which has been torn apart in recent years by ideological battles and which has ever-diminishing shots at winning Presidential elections as the nation’s demographics shift against it. Trump sensed the chance to take over the Party’s base with a naked appeal to it, an appeal not covered in free-market, social-conservative, religious-conservative, or neo-conservative drapery.
He became the Party’s nominee partly because there were so many other primary candidates in the running. The majority of Republican voters were anti-Trump, but their voting power dissipated as it was split up among more than a dozen barely-distinguishable candidates. Furthermore, in many states, independents and even registered Democrats were allowed to vote in the Republican primaries; Trump did disproportionately well in those states. The Republican establishment (and independent conservatives) tried again and again to stop Trump, but failed because they were bound by the election rules they had previously made and because they feared that the party’s base would exact retribution.
The unique danger that Trump poses should not be downplayed by pointing to superficial similarities between him and figures such as Sarah Palin or Bernie Sanders. The all-important difference between Trump and Palin is that she was only a candidate for Vice-President, and thus not an independent player in the presidential race. And to lump together Sanders (who we also do not support) and Trump as expressions of a “populist” upsurge is facile. It shows only that the concept of “populism” is about form, not substance. In a concrete political analysis, it can play only a minor, subsidiary role.
The myth of Trump’s working-class support
Many people erroneously think that Trump is supported by a majority of the working class. Nothing could be further from the truth. To arrive at this conclusion, one first has to exclude from the working class all African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, immigrants (undocumented and documented) who lack the right to vote, and the tens of millions of workers who have college degrees. What gets reported are figures that supposedly reflect the attitudes of the “white working class,” a category that has no real existence in the U.S., where Blacks, Latinos, and immigrants are a much larger share of the working class than they are of the population as a whole.
Second, it is not even true that Trump’s strongest support is among white workers or even white male workers. A massive study by a Gallup researcher has found that Trump supporters have “relative[ly] high household incomes,” and that “living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support,” even after controlling for other factors such as race, gender, age, and education.
Recent polls reinforce the conclusion that Trump’s strongest support comes from higher-income people. Earlier this month, a Washington Post / ABC poll found that only 34% of lower-income registered voters prefer Trump—which is less than the 38% share of the lower-income vote that Mitt Romney received in the 2012 election—while 46% of middle-income and 48% of high-income voters prefer Trump. And a Monmouth University poll found that only 29% of the lower-income group, but 35% and 36% of the middle-income and higher-income groups, respectively, intend to vote for Trump or are leaning in that direction. In addition, several recent polls indicate that Trump is in fourth place among African-Americans, and support for Trump among Latinos, Asian-Americans, and youth is also strikingly low.
Ironically, the same leftists who buy into the illusion that Trump enjoys especially strong working-class support–perhaps because they want to believe that Trumpism represents the emergence of a new proletarian movement–are also willing to ignore the lack of minority and youth and women’s support for Trump. They cling to a pre-World War II image of workers as white males, whom they regard as the “real” workers, while overlooking the majority of the U.S. working class, which does not fit their model.
No to “leftist” accommodation to Trumpism
We are greatly disturbed to see a segment of the left, and not only in the US, taking the position that Trump is not so bad. Some suggest, without any evidence, that he will not do what he has vowed to do if he becomes president. Others refuse to consider probabilities and thus ignore the evidence—Trump’s stated intentions—as they bizarrely pretend that all possibilities are equally likely. Trump’s recent supposed modification of his position on immigration lacks all credibility, coming after a year of incessant immigrant-bashing, promises to build a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico, and commitment to deport 11 million undocumented residents.
Even worse, some regard him as a positive alternative to well-known establishment oppressors like Clinton, etc., since he is an outsider and, supposedly, less belligerent to foreign powers (as if vowing to build a wall along the border with Mexico and make the Mexican government pay for it were not an act of extreme belligerence). We suspect that such blindness to realities, and nonchalance about the dangers of Trumpism that have not yet materialized–since he is not yet president–are largely fueled by a knee-jerk “anti-imperialist” attitude that is not actually anti-imperialist. It does not constitute consistent, principled opposition to imperial expansion by all capitalist state powers (which include Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, etc.). It is anti-Americanism in leftist garb. In all too many cases, such “anti-imperialists” not only oppose U.S. foreign policy, but disdain the American people and their culture as well as civil liberties, a free press, and rule of law.
Once such “niceties,” and the well-being of the American people, are considered collateral damage in the struggle against U.S. imperialism, perhaps Trump can be regarded as not so bad or even as the lesser evil. It is time to eradicate this kind of “anti-imperialism.” The left needs once again to stand for freedom and human rights for all.
The positive element here is that the soft-on-Trump left is being decisively repudiated on the ground by the actual left in the U.S.–Blacks, Latinos, youth, women, and others who understand quite well the threat to their well-being that Trump and Trumpism represent. Many of them have engaged in nearly continuous protests at Trump’s rallies. They are not allowing his “right” to hold “private” rallies interfere with their right to speak freely in order to challenge the torrent of filth and hate he spews forth. It is this left that we stand with and are part of. It needs to grow and develop to the point where it can defeat Trump and Trumpism. This is no time to trust the Democrats. We cannot trust them to win the election. Much less can we trust them to continue to fight Trumpism if they need to make peace with it in order to preserve U.S. capitalism, or even their own career prospects.
Some of the left’s softness on Trump seems to draw on the narrative that he has wide support among the working class—as if that by itself means that he isn’t so bad. This is false, as we discussed above. But Marxist-Humanist Initiative would oppose Trump implacably even if he had a lot more support among working people than he actually has. We will never countenance racism, chauvinism, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. no matter how popular they might be. Anti-racism is a principle that exists not only in the form of an ultimate aim, but also as a guide to immediate practice here and now.
We stand for emancipatory self-activity from below. There is no greater obstacle to this than figures such as Trump, who use racism, sexism, etc. to pit working people against one another, in order to divide and conquer them and have them fall in behind the great leader who tells them that “I alone can fix it.”
Betting markets and election forecasts currently indicate that Trump has about a one-in-four or one-in-five chance of becoming the next president. But even if he loses, we face the prospect of serious retrogression, now that he has made racism and xenophobia somewhat respectable. Trump may go off and play golf, but Trumpism is much more likely to be an ongoing threat. The damage it can do has already begun. We may be witnessing the start of a “red-brown” alliance between parts of the left and the proto-fascist right that we may have to contend with for decades. The dominant discourse has already moved substantially to the right—including the “alt-right.” Extremely reactionary positions are being treated as serious alternatives, and open expressions of racism, sexism, xenophobia and the rest are becoming socially acceptable once again. Children are learning the lesson that Trump’s hateful speech is normal.
The political-economic roots of Trumpism
One pillar of Trump’s success thus far is his ability to appeal to the Republican base on its own terms—that is, with a racist, white-nationalist, authoritarian message freed from the trappings of economic-, religious-, social-, and neo-conservatism. A second pillar is the existence of a large base that finds this message appealing. This has little to do with “neoliberal” trends such as “globalization” and the much-exaggerated rise in inequality. In truth, this base has existed for many decades–if not longer. It existed during the 1950s and 1960s, when it fought civil rights for Blacks tooth and nail. It existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Richard Nixon and George Corley Wallace appealed to “the silent majority” with anti-desegregation and law-and-order messages. It has existed ever since. But until now, the Republican establishment has been able to manipulate this base, to placate it with relatively minor concessions, and to get it to march behind the establishment’s own, rather different, aims.
The base is being manipulated again—this time to support a megalomaniacal super-rich real-estate developer in his drive for attention and power. The difference this time is that it is not being held in check, but whipped up into a frenzy. We are witnessing the beginnings of what could develop into a modern Americanized version of the Nazis’ Schutzstaffel (SS).
Why now? Part of the answer seems to be that the rise of Trumpism is due to accidents, such as the crowded Republican primary field and Trump’s pre-existing fame. Another part of the answer seems to be that his base feels increasingly demoralized and threatened in a country in which Blacks and women hold positions of power and prominence, a country that is becoming more and more cosmopolitan, less and less “traditional” and sexist, and more and more nonwhite, non-Christian, and non-native.
And part of the answer is economic. We are not referring to globalization or inequality, but to the Great Recession and its prolonged aftermath. In some respects, the U.S. economy still has not recovered from the recession. For instance, the rate of labor-force participation and the percentage of people who own their homes are still much lower than they were in 2007. And significant pockets of the country remain seriously depressed. The working class has been hit hard. But so have the middle and upper-middle classes, and it is they who experience the loss of status and economic security, and their diminished opportunities, as a shocking assault on the way things are “supposed to be.”
The Great Recession is the dirty little secret of U.S. political discourse in 2016. Bourgeois policymakers and politicians have come to realize that they cannot turn the economy around, and so none of them pinpoint the recession and its aftermath as the causes of the increase in “economic distress.” Trump does not. Clinton does not. Even politicians further to the left like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein do not.
Instead, they focus on inequality, student debt, immigrants taking jobs, capital flight abroad, and “unfair” foreign trade deals. What all of this has in common is the bourgeois politicians’ lack of confidence that the economy will turn around. They therefore put forward nostrums that will, supposedly, benefit their target audience at the expense of “the other.” Shift the income around! Shift the benefits and costs of trade around! Shift the jobs around!
In Trump’s case, “the other” is the working class in other countries, and from other countries. This is why the economic dimension of Trumpism is not progressive in the least. It is an integral part of Trump’s xenophobia, nativism, and racism. He is not giving voice to working-class grievances. He is preying on his supporters, diverting their grievances into white-nationalist channels, and pitting worker against worker.
This divide-and-rule strategy harms workers of all colors—including white. We must therefore not make any concessions to white nationalism or be “understanding” of it. We must say, as we have consistently said since 1848, that working people have no country. We must urge working people in all countries to unite.
Fighting the greater evil does not mean supporting the lesser evil
Some of those who support or are soft on Trump try to justify it by saying that his evil is “all talk,” whereas Clinton has a proven track record of evil-doing as an aide to President Bill Clinton, then a senator, then Secretary of State. There is no question that she will continue the same economic and foreign policies as Bill and the presidents who followed. But it is crazy to say that Trump is less evil because he has not yet had an opportunity to make those policies.
We have to take him at his word regarding what he would do in power, and that is what is so scary. Although he recently took back one or two of his horrendous proposals to “make American great again,” this was clearly an attempt to win the support of the ordinary Republicans who were deciding not to vote for him. There is no chance that he will suddenly become a nice liberal, nor that he will genuinely abandon his prior statements, hints and threats.
Trump has spent his entire adult life as an exploitative and bullying landlord and developer, threatening and harassing rent-regulated tenants out of his buildings, refusing to pay his workers and contractors, making money from a fake Trump University, cheating his investors, being a racist and a womanizer. After so many years of uttering racist statements, who can believe his current proclamation that “I have a great relationship with the blacks”?
The internal repression he would impose, and the increased probability of nuclear war, make Trump’s anticipated use of the presidency far worse than what Clinton is likely to do (maintain the status quo). It is simply not true, as many nihilists, including some leftist “burn-it-all-down” types, say, that things can’t get much worse. So although we don’t support the “lesser evil” candidate, we do recognize that there exists a “greater evil” candidate, and we urge people to defeat him.
There do exist lesser and greater evils. For example, bourgeois democracy is better than authoritarianism, and freedom to project Marxist-Humanism is better than being jailed or killed by vigilantes or the government. Of course there would be similar possibilities for repression under a Clinton government. But we aren’t dealing with a “possible vs. impossible” situation here. We are dealing with probabilities, and in politics one always has to assess probabilities as accurately as possible. Abstract reduction of the situation to “it’s possible whoever becomes president” is naïve and politically irresponsible.
In short, we have to recognize the existence of greater evil, because the greater evil is more likely to cause greater evil!
What to do
Most people—those who live in “safe states” for Clinton or Trump—need not vote, or can vote for another candidate. The relatively small number who live in the handful of “battleground states” should bear firmly in mind that defeating Trump is the crucial immediate task and thus vote in a way that minimizes the chance that he will be elected. This election is not about you. Your vote isn’t an act of self-expression or personal morality.
Voting is only a stopgap measure at best. Because Trumpism is likely to persist whether or not Trump wins the election, we foresee the need for protracted struggle against it. That struggle cannot rely on faith in the electoral process or bourgeois politicians and parties; they are always prepared to sell us out. We need a mass movement, independent of capitalist interests and politics, to fight Trump and Trumpism on the ground. That fight can begin now, if the protesters at Trump rallies have the perspective of gaining sufficient power and focus to make it in Trump’s interest to give up his bid for the presidency and to go hide in one of his multi-million dollar residences. It is high time that he, not the courageous protesters, be the person escorted out of his rallies.
The special role of Marxist-Humanists in this struggle is to oppose the “leftists” who are pro-Trump, soft-on-Trump, or “understanding of” Trumpism. They need to be driven out of the left. As we said above, the left needs to stand for freedom and human rights for all once again.