by Seth Morris
The relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it marches together with them against the faction which it aims at overthrowing, it opposes them in everything whereby they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests.
… Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence.
—Karl Marx, “Address to the Communist League,” March 1850
The recent criminal indictment of former president Donald Trump in New York, by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, is the first of the state-level investigations into Trump to actually charge him with crimes, a legally unprecedented event for Trump and for any current or former US president. What does this indictment mean for the continued resistance to Trumpism?
I argue that a coherent left politics must defend liberal democratic rights and the rule of law, not only against the political right, but also against the infiltration of reactionary politics into the left. We cannot understand Trump’s political insurgency against liberal democracy without recognizing his organized, concentrated attacks on the rule of law at its constitutional foundations. Left resistance to Trumpism must debunk and discredit the common notion that leftists must be, at best, ambivalent toward liberal democracy—that is, toward “a democratic system of government in which individual rights and freedoms are officially recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by rule of law.”
Popular opinion across the spectrum of US politics takes the myth that Karl Marx promoted “Left-First” anti-liberalism to be a historical fact. Marxist-Humanism has fought and must continue to fight this mischaracterization of Marx’s Marxism, while communicating and developing Marx’s philosophy of liberation here and now.
Trump’s Allies on the Left
In Jacobin magazine, anti-Ukraine polemicist Branko Marcetic asks rhetorically, “Is [Alvin Bragg’s indictment] the best way to prosecute Trump?” What does Marcetic know that Bragg does not?
Marcetic disputes whether Trump’s actions in this case should qualify as felony charges, instead of more modest misdemeanor charges. The legal basis for the felony charges is that Trump’s falsification of business records related to his hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, which would otherwise be a misdemeanor, constitutes a felony because he falsified the records in pursuit of another crime. (We still don’t know exactly how Bragg will connect Trump’s hush-money payments to other crimes, because he is making his case to judges and jurors, not media personalities. It would be a mistake for Bragg to publicly disclose too much information ahead of trial procedure, especially considering Trump’s unpredictable and defamatory behavior as a civil and criminal defendant.)
By Marcetic’s anti-liberal logic, the indictment “probably will open a Pandora’s box that will see Republicans similarly prosecuting Democratic politicians.” That will be easy for Republicans, “given the corruption and criminality that pervades all of Washington.” Marcetic is arguing that liberals do not have the moral standing to accuse Trump of criminality, because there are bad people on both sides. However, he refuses to differentiate totalitarian show trials and political purges from the constitutional, democratic process of ensuring legal checks and balances on political power. Marcetic’s mythological belief that liberal politicians are existentially evil prevents him from respecting any distinction between liberal rule of law and fascist “law and order.”
In Compact magazine, a right-wing publication, Christian Parenti goes even further to defend Trump against accountability. He writes, “The Trump arrest is an act of sheer desperation …. Alvin Bragg’s prosecution is part and parcel of a multifront war waged against the former president by the entire US establishment and its institutions.”
The notion that the entire US state opposes Trump implies total political control by the Democratic Party, which is an insult to Trump-appointed judges, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan, and other fascist activists who hold public office thanks to Trump. And why does Parenti side with Trump and against the state? Because “to the frustration of those who benefit from it, Trump worked to unwind the American empire.”
What is Parenti’s damning evidence of Democrat imperialism? He mentions Trump’s lie that, if he’s not running the country, the US would start a war in Ukraine. Trump, Parenti, and those of their ilk believe that Joe Biden, or the Democratic Party, or the neoliberal “deep state” made Putin invade Ukraine, as obscene as that sounds.
In addition, Parenti, like Trumpists, pushes the “Twitter Files” hoax. (This hoax was fabricated by Elon Musk, who argues that Twitter’s removal of nude pictures of someone, posted without their consent, is more political than Musk’s hiring of Tucker Carlson, to rescue his career as leading Trumpist demagogue after being fired for extremism by Fox News.) Parenti contends that Democrats are “politicizing the judiciary” to get away with their (fictional) corruption, an allegation commonly made by Republicans to deflect focus away from the Trump movement’s criminal activity. Each of Parenti’s conspiratorial, post-truth arguments about Trump vs. the Democrats is well-represented in Trumpworld, from Fox News to Breitbart to Stormfront.
The end of the article clearly demonstrates Parenti’s complete misunderstanding of the rule of law:
For better or worse, American presidents have been shielded from prosecution …. The American judiciary, for all its faults, is often the last protection people have against the overreach of permanent state bureaucracies and corporate power. With the Trump arrest, we have crossed a dangerous threshold.
This statement, as absurd as it is, demonstrates the central problem that Trumpists have with the Bragg prosecution, with all the other Trump investigations (beginning with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election), and with the rule of law itself. Parenti is arguing that the state should protect the president (or former president) from the rule of law. The executive power of the state should stand above the law. This is the opposite of liberal democracy, in which the rule of law protects the people against tyranny through enforcing equal rights and equal accountability.
Credit: National Urban League
How Trumpism is a Threat to Liberal Democracy and the Rule of Law
While Trump has contempt for the rule of law as outlined in the US Constitution, he weaponizes the rhetoric of “law and order” to motivate and agitate his voting base. What is so appealing about the words “law and order”? “Law and order” implies the sovereignty of the leader over constitutional law; it is the rhetoric of a state of emergency, when martial law is declared and troops are deployed against the domestic population (but only if they’re protesting, or seem suspicious, or just happen to be Black). “Law and order” has been a dog-whistle for militarized white supremacy since at least George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. The dictator is the law, and the police are the order, while intolerance and intolerant behavior dominate civil society.
A list of “law and order” behaviors relating to Trumpism would include the Charlottesville rally; the January 6 coup attempt; hate crimes; extralegal detention; human trafficking of immigrants by ICE officers and Republican governors; terrorist intimidation, attacks, mass shootings …. Even with Trump currently out of office, the lives of Black people and women are attacked daily by kangaroo courts initiated by Republican congressmembers, the conservative tyranny over the Supreme Court, vigilante murderers like Kyle Rittenhouse and Derek Chauvin, and the fascistic weaponization of local and state law by Republicans. Within the federal judicial system, 226 judges appointed by Trump still hold their seats, including especially the three Supreme Court justices he appointed (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett), who initiated a conservative supermajority and overturned Roe v. Wade.
What is intolerable about Donald Trump’s behavior often seems unbelievable. In recent speeches and interviews, he expresses grim and feverish obsession with nuclear war: the implications of nuclear war, others’ reluctance to discuss and act on America’s nuclear capabilities, the need for his unhindered ability to deploy America’s nuclear capabilities, and so on. Given the past warnings, from Trump’s own generals, about his willingness to incite nuclear war, the threat of nuclear war could be even greater than it has been if Trump is given a second chance at the presidency.
What Can the Left Do?
We must strengthen our fight for Black lives, for immigrant rights, for women and LGBTQ+ rights, for all our lives, whether or not Trump is effectively leading the American fascist movement that has become indistinguishable from mainstream Republican politics. It should be noted that the three District Attorneys leading criminal investigations against Trump are Black (Alvin Bragg and Laetitia James of New York, Fani Willis of Georgia), and that they are already being targeted and threatened, by pro-Trump white supremacists operating online (like on Trump’s own Truth Social account) and by Republican politicians like Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are trying to establish kangaroo courts against the people of New York City and Fulton County, GA.
I believe it is crucial, especially for leftists in the Resistance, to recognize the import of anti-liberal rhetoric. The reactionary right consistently weaponizes anti-liberal rhetoric to build ideological support for totalitarianism, fascism, and militarized violence. In adopting or accommodating anti-liberal rhetoric and beliefs, leftists undermine the principles and practices of freedom movements of any kind, reinforcing myths that serve the right within public opinion.
I argue that Marxist-Humanism must demand the advancement of liberal democracy and the enforcement of equal limits on political power through the rule of law. It is not enough to reluctantly agree that bourgeois rights are relatively preferable to a complete lack of rights under totalitarianism. Liberal democracy materially promotes independent movement toward human freedom by safeguarding life and liberty against the state, through the state. Voices from below, freedom movements of all kinds have shaped the advancement of bourgeois rights, not for sectarian power over the state, but for the political implementation of liberatory and necessary demands. I agree with the article On What Grounds Should We Defend Liberal Democracy? that the “development of human powers [is] an end in itself,” as Marx put it, and thus that liberal democracy is justified on its own grounds, not just as a lesser “evil.” Without the right to vote or the freedom to redress grievances through rule of law, subjects of a state have no legal recourse to protect themselves against it. This is a fact which Trump (at least intuitively) knows and has tried his best to exploit.
Marx repeatedly condemned the notion that political decisions are the cause of and solution to all social and economic problems. Marxist-Humanist Initiative calls this fallacy “political determinism.” In the “Neoliberalism as a Political Project” section of Part III of Resisting Trumpist Reaction (and Left Accommodation), page 31, we wrote,
To blame individuals or neoliberal philosophy for the secular tendencies of global capitalism over the last 40 years is to ascribe superhuman powers to individuals—the power to impose their will on a mode of production that has its own autonomous laws that operate behind the backs of producers and politicians.
This is true for the Resistance, and it is also true for Trump. Pundits and politicians selectively present Trump as an “economic populist.” What does Trump understand about economics? Trump railed about NAFTA and the offshoring of US jobs because he was applying his perverse logic that “I alone can fix it,” which he probably believes. Trump claims that he can fix “globalism” or “the Great Replacement” or “American carnage,” and this transparently fascist rhetoric motivates his supporters.
Marx vs. Anti-liberalism: Politics in Bonapartist France
How can one oppose anti-liberalism as a Marxist, and not as a liberal? The apparent difficulty of imagining how to organize for proletarian revolution while living under the political dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was a subject that Marx wrote about throughout his life. In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx discussed the specific executive power of Louis Napoleon, “with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its vast and ingenious state machinery, … [an] appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society and chokes all its pores.”
Even after the fall of Louis Napoleon, Marx condemned
apostles of political indifferentism, [who] attempt to deny to the working class any real means of struggle. For all arms with which to fight must be drawn from society as it is and the fatal conditions of this struggle have the misfortune of not being easily adapted to the idealistic fantasies which [utopian] doctors in social science have exalted as divinities, under the names Freedom, Autonomy, Anarchy.
I would say that the legal protection of fundamental rights and freedoms cannot be easily adapted to widespread, idealistic fantasies that are mislabeled as “socialism,” “revolution,” and “anti-imperialism” today.
Trump’s authoritarianism is more extreme than Louis Napoleon’s was. His genocidal worldview is closer to those of Hitler and Mussolini, a fact which should suffice to demonstrate why we need continued Resistance. Despite that, anti-neoliberal leftists promote indifference to Trumpism by mocking “Russiagate” as a hoax or by claiming that Hilary Clinton was just as corrupt and dangerous as Trump, if not more so. Many anti-neoliberal leftists still have not reckoned with their complicity in myths that motivate people to accept indifference, myths that reinforce the irrational feeling that Trump is not “the real problem” and is thus ultimately not worth resisting. Similarly, Michael Flynn and Tucker Carlson champion ideas like the “Deep State” and the “neoliberal establishment” because these new, spin-friendly buzzwords are effective in propagating their fascist disinformation.
Minimization of the threat of Trump and Trumpism can lead to accommodation to or even outright endorsement of Trumpist politics on the anti-liberal left. It is against any genuine leftist’s interest to minimize this threat. Trumpists and left accommodators both demonize liberals by lying about how doomed we are if left to a multicultural, egalitarian, representative-democratic, feminist status quo.
Left accommodators often divert attention from the Trumpist threat by railing against private property. Although many of them call themselves Marxists, their rhetorical sucker punches against private property have nothing theoretically in common with Marx’s many, extensive critiques of the social and economic relations of private property and how they can or cannot be “abolished.”
For example, Stalinist-planning advocate Paul Cockshott tweets, “LGBT ideology is the corresponding ideological apparatus of post productive finance capitalism.” Slavoj Zizek, in Compact magazine, uses improv psychology (call it pseudoscience) to communicate his xenophobia and transphobia, attributing the perceived problem to “interest-group agitation and the compulsions of capital.” These are essentially the same arguments that Tucker Carlson has made for years. Although the cultural milieus of America-First fascism and the anti-neoliberal left seem to lie at opposite sides of the political spectrum, they have started to get along disturbingly well (see their opinions on Ukraine and the “international, rules-based order”).
It’s a theoretical contradiction to consider reactionary propaganda to be any kind of left politics, but there’s a long, undeniable history of propagandists of every stripe blurring sensible distinctions between left and right. Logic, evidence, and truth don’t seem to matter to leftists who dismiss any criticism as “imperialist propaganda,” Democrat shilling, or worse.
But it is more important to strategize how the real resistance movement can dry up the influence of influential contrarians and denialists than to worry about “getting through to” them. The future of the left depends on its ability to overcome this recurring problem of appropriating, accommodating, or associating with reactionary politics. How we fight reactionary politics is a test of our commitment to freedom. Who today would deny that the legal precedents set by events such as the limitation of the working day, women’s suffrage, the Nuremburg Trials, and the US Civil Rights Act were historical contributions to the advancement of human freedom?
The impeachment hearings, the January 6 committee, and the Bragg indictment have been slow, sometimes boring, sometimes frustratingly cautious, processes. That is partly because of the unprecedented and extremely important nature of these investigations. But it is also partly because Trumpists in recent years have mounted an attack on the legal process itself. Because the Supreme Court has been captured by Republicans, it cannot be depended upon to preserve any rule of law. Attacking the rule of law and packing the courts gets results for Trumpists, despite how little they understand legal procedures.
Credit: Cartoon by Patrick Chappatte, republished from the Urban Lawyers website.
Conclusion and Call to Action
We must continually resist Trumpism in all its forms, while fighting both political indifference and anti-liberal agitation within the resistance movement and within the ‘actually existing’ left. This includes standing with
- Black Americans and movements for Black lives, Black rights, and self-determination.
- All people who depend on effective access to abortion, to make free abortion on demand a legally protected human right.
- All people who face racist, misogynist, heteronormative, ableist, and anti-human bigotry.
- Freedom struggles where we live, by engaging with freedom struggles around the world. No one movement can solve every problem on its own.
When confronting the anti-liberal bias of much left politics and refuting its common or influential myths, we don’t have to start from scratch. It is ongoing work. It must be done for its own sake, not just to win passive endorsement for any person’s or group’s views. I believe that exposing the false promises of anti-liberalism is central to an effective and coherent left Resistance to Trumpism, a democratic, liberatory, self-organizing, and self-critical mass movement capable of suppressing the long-term threat of fascism.
Left accommodators can and should be recognized for what they are: not only anti-liberals, but anti-leftists. Consider their relation to liberation struggles that are independent of the capitalist state—a workers’ movement, civil rights movement, women’s liberation movement, etc. A liberal-democratic state will not repress such liberation struggles; a state that represses them does so by breaking the rules of liberal democracy. In contrast, totalitarianism (whether fascist or Stalinist) actively suppresses liberation movements independent of the capitalist state through whatever illiberal and unjust means it can.
Marxist-Humanism is not ambivalent about the individual rights and freedoms that we must defend in our daily lives. Because it isn’t weighed down by that ambivalence, it is able to concretize a liberatory alternative to both status-quo bourgeois politics and the false promises of anti-liberal leftism.
Presidential overreach beyond the rule of law did not begin with Trump, but the January 6th insurrection attempt alone is proof of how Trump’s commitment to destroying liberal democracy is unprecedented. Even if Trump is, in an ideal world, convicted of his many crimes and barred from further interference in US democracy, the threat of fascism and totalitarianism will persist as long as there is political demand for anti-liberalism.
The next year and a half will decide the future of Trumpism in ways that are difficult to predict. Our struggle requires the vote, but the vote is not a given. In the US, youth, Black people, LGBTQ people, workers, women, immigrant rights advocates, and ethnic and religious minorities can actively determine their own freedom beyond the voting booth, but not without it. Their independent struggles show possibilities for advancing human freedom in the present, under a bourgeois nation-state.
 Definition from Lexico.com, quoted in Andrew Kliman, “On What Grounds Should We Defend Liberal Democracy?,” With Sober Senses, Jan. 17, 2022.
 The concept of a “Left First” orientation is developed in Part V, section B, of Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s perspectives thesis for 2018, Resisting Trumpist Reaction (and Left Accommodation).
 The Resistance movement against Trump and Trumpism is not exclusively leftist. Centrists, anti-Trump Republicans, bourgeois Democrats, and others have their own valid reasons for never wanting to see Trump anywhere near the White House ever again
 The charge that Trump is a fascist is true, but I don’t mean to imply that this fact should be taken for granted. Understanding of the Holocaust among US youth, to take one example, is in critical need of intervention, because no one is born with that knowledge and educational institutions have not adequately addressed the problem. In 2020, 11,000 Americans aged 18–39 were surveyed for their knowledge of the Holocaust: more than half believed that fewer than two million people were murdered, and about half reported seeing Holocaust-denial or misinformation posts on the internet.