Note, Nov. 29, 2023: This article was written at the end of October. It therefore does not include discussion of Donald Trump’s recent “vermin” speech or of commentary on the Trumpites’ plans for a second Trump presidency that this speech triggered.
The Still-Unfinished American Revolution and the Threat of Trumpism
The threat of Trumpism that we continue to face, three years after Trump was soundly “defeated at the ballot box”—a phrase from a bygone era when political victory and defeat could be measured in ballot-box terms—is rooted in what American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (ACOT) refers to as the “still-unfinished” American revolution (see its Part II). Although Trumpism cannot be reduced to racism and white supremacism, they are inextricable from it and part of its core.
What ACOT calls the “first” American revolution, the War of Independence, was “unfinished” or partial because the new nation failed to abolish slavery. The “second” American revolution—the North’s victory in the Civil War—resulted in Amendment 13 to the US Constitution, which did abolish slavery. This was soon followed by Amendments 14 and 15, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved Black people and gave them the right to vote. When Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation that prefigured the abolition of slavery, Marx recognized its revolutionary character. He called the Proclamation “the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.”
However, the American revolution remained unfinished, because the brief period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War was terminated abruptly. It was not in the interests of either the Southern landowners or the Northern industrial and financial capitalists to allow it to continue. Former slaves never obtained the means of production (“forty acres and a mule”) that would have freed them economically from the landowners. Even their civil and political rights were soon rolled back in the Jim Crow era of reaction against Reconstruction. In ACOT, which was written in 1963, Raya Dunayevskaya said that “the much-maligned Reconstruction period … gave the South the only democracy it has ever known—and has since forgotten” (Part II).
The political situation changed markedly shortly after ACOT was published. The Civil Rights Act became law in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965.
But, once again, progress triggered white-supremacist reaction. After he signed the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson said to Bill Moyers, “Well, I think we may have lost the south for your lifetime—and mine.’” Johnson was right. At the time, Moyers was 30 years old; he is now 89. The Democrats have been losing the South, more and more, throughout almost the whole of the intervening six decades. “The South” is no longer only a geographical designation. It is a state of mind that is present throughout the country (as are Confederate flags). US politics has undergone a thorough realignment along the axis of race and racism. Racist and white-nationalist voters have increasingly flocked to the Republican Party, and the Party has increasingly become the center, and face, of white nationalism. (See Identity Crisis and Andrew Kliman’s review-essay on it.)
The realignment began almost immediately; Republicans started “playing the race card” during the 1964 presidential election campaign of Barry Goldwater. He lost in a landslide, but Richard Nixon was elected four years later, partly by co-opting George Wallace’s “law and order” messaging. During the next several decades, realignment continued; the “establishment” Republican Party’s use of racist “dog whistles” and adoption of racist positions, in order to maintain its electoral competitiveness, became a regular feature. Realignment then accelerated after Barack Obama became president, such that it is now nearly complete. Obama’s election set off a new wave of white-supremacist reaction: the Tea Party, birtherism, Trumpism, and the MAGA movement.
In short, the history of the United States, from its founding to the present, is a history of failures, and unwillingness, to fully defeat and root out white supremacy. It persists as an ideology, as do its economic and political manifestations. Racial (and other) progress has been met, time and again, with flare-ups of reaction that have never been extinguished after they flare up. Thus, they flare up again. This has brought us to the crisis we now face.
The problem is not that white supremacy is winning. To the contrary, white-supremacist forces now feel themselves to have been on the losing side, again and again, as a result of Civil Rights-era laws, court decisions, cultural changes, and demographic trends (including immigration), and they have become more and more desperate. During the last several years, their desperation and grievances have increasingly become intertwined with those of Trump himself, who now faces the threat of imprisonment and the dismantling of his business “empire.” He is the personification of their desperation and their grievances, and he cultivates that persona. As he regularly reminds his white-nationalist base, the “attacks” (defensive measures) against him are in fact “attacks” (defensive measures) against them. The more desperate he and they become, the more extreme are the measures he and they are willing to employ to “take back our country.”
Because the threats we face are increasingly extreme—including the threat of authoritarian one-man rule and the threat that the already-intolerable violence perpetrated by Trumpite insurrectionists and vigilantes will escalate—now is the time to finally finish the unfinished American Revolution, the time to defeat and root out white supremacy once and for all. We may not get another chance.
Trump’s “Final Battle” Against Liberal Democracy: Fascism American-Style
Liz Cheney, former Republican congresswoman and vice-chair of the House of Representatives’ January 6 committee, recently warned that
[Trump] cannot be the next president, because, if he is, all of the things that he attempted to do, but was stopped from doing by responsible people around him at the Department of Justice, at the White House Counsel’s Office, all of those things, he will do.
There will be no guardrails. And everyone has been left warned. After January 6, after our investigation, after all of the evidence that we laid out about all of the steps in his multipart plan to overturn the election, there can be no question that he will unravel the institutions of our democracy. [Oct. 22, 2023 interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper (unedited transcript).]
David Axelrod, who served as Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist, issued a similar warning in September: “Trump 2.0 would be the Delta variant of democracy. It would be a thousand times more virulent and harder to control.”
This is not Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling, and it’s not a scare tactic. Trump is loudly proclaiming what he intends to do if he takes power again—institute one-man rule and take revenge against his enemies, including the Left. He will have a lot of help. A massive operation is already underway to make sure that his intentions will be carried out.
The main operation, Project 2025, is a coalition of more than 70 right-wing organizations, headed by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative (and now Trumpified) right-wing thinktank, and staffed by former Trump administration personnel. (Unless otherwise indicated, facts and quotations in the remainder of this section come from pieces by journalists Lisa Mascaro, Bess Levin, and Doyle McManus, or are common knowledge.)
When Trump was president, his efforts to turn the US into an authoritarian hellhole were often thwarted by laws, regulations, and norms; non-political federal government employees; institutionalists within his administration; (some of) the courts; Democrats (and some Republicans) in Congress; and Trump’s incompetence, laziness, inexperience, and focus on self-enriching scams and personal vendettas. The aim of Project 2025 and related efforts is to change all that—to establish now, well before the next election, the infrastructure that will allow Trump (or a Trump-wannabee like De Santis or Ramaswamy) to charge out of the starting gate and rapidly turn the country into an authoritarian hellhole, starting on Inauguration Day.
One key pillar of the overall blueprint to demolish liberal democracy is the plan to gut the civil service (the so-called “deep state”). Project 2025’s Russ Vought, who headed the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, has said that “The president Day One will be a wrecking ball for the administrative state.”
Trump would reclassify tens of thousands of non-political federal government workers as “Schedule F employees,” thereby eliminating the employment and union protections that prevent them from being fired arbitrarily. They would have to do what Trump orders, irrespective of its legality (not to mention morality), or risk being replaced by stooges who will. In addition, the Trumpites plan to intimidate even civil servants who cannot be reclassified as Schedule F employees, to force them to submit as well. As Jim Jordan explained, “Fire everyone you’re allowed to fire. And fire a few people you’re not supposed to, so that they have to sue you and you send the message.” A third facet of the plan is to recruit, ahead of time, as many as 10,000 Trump stooges to fill these positions, so that they will be ready and waiting to replace civil servants who are fired or quit.
Other parts of the blueprint focus on the White House, the Cabinet, and the Justice Department and FBI:
Currently, the White House counsel serves to represent the legal interests of “the office of the Presidency” rather than the interests of the sitting president. This impeded Trump when he was president. (A prime example is the consistent warnings from White House lawyers that his efforts to overturn the 2020 election were unlawful, which make it very hard for Trump to defend himself now, in the DC and Georgia criminal cases, by claiming that he was acting on advice of counsel or that he acted without criminal intent.) The Trumpites want to insure that, next time, the White House counsel will be someone strongly committed to Trump’s agenda. Stephen Miller has been drawing up a list of potential general counsels “who will aggressively implement Trump’s orders and skeptically interrogate any career government attorney who tells them their plans are unlawful or cannot be done.” Bess Levin notes that this is “another way of saying apparently he’s looking for people who will help Trump break the law.”
Nominees to fill Cabinet positions and other top administration positions must be confirmed by the Senate. When Trump was in power, he often had difficulty getting his picks confirmed. Instead of withdrawing their nominations and proposing more acceptable people (the normal procedure), he took to leaving the positions open and installing lackeys who served as “acting” (not-yet-confirmed) Cabinet secretaries and other top officials. Project 2025 now proposes that this be standard procedure in a second Trump term.
It also proposes a “top to bottom overhaul” of the Department of Justice in order to curb its independence from the president and politics. And it calls for an end to the FBI’s fight against the spread of misinformation.
Because these plans are mostly about how the federal government will function, not what it will do, it may be hard for some people to understand how harmful the plans would be. Their purpose is to turn the federal government into an instrument that will do what Trump wants done. Thus, to understand the harm that the plans will cause, we have to look at what Trump intends to do:
Revenge. During a speech in the suburbs of Detroit in late June, Trump stated:
these radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections by using law enforcement. It’s totally corrupt, and we will never let it happen. This is the final battle with you at my side. We will demolish the deep state. We will expel the warmongers from our government. We will drive out the globalists. We will cast out the communists, Marxists, and fascists, and we will throw off the sick political class that hates our country. We will rout the fake news media, and we will defeat crooked Joe Biden. We will liberate America from these villains once and for all.
He vows to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” President Biden, “the entire Biden crime family,” and “all others involved with the destruction of our elections, borders, & country itself!” Asked whether he would “lock people up” if he became president again, he said that there is no other choice, “because they’re doing it to us.”
A former Justice Department official who spoke to New York magazine noted that Trump’s interest in revenge is nothing new. The new danger is the prospect that, in a second Trump term, the Justice Department will do his bidding:
During the first administration, the president talked a lot about pursuing political enemies. He spoke about it during the campaign, he spoke about it while he was president, but the Justice Department did not act on it …. My concern is in a second term. … I think the president would be very focused on finding people who would act on his desire to retaliate against political opponents.
Trump has also promised to pardon a large percentage of the January 6 insurrectionists who have been convicted, and to issue an apology to many of them.
Climate Change. The 2025 Project has developed a plan that “would block the expansion of the electrical grid for wind and solar energy; slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office; shutter the Energy Department’s renewable energy offices; prevent states from adopting California’s car pollution standards; and delegate more regulation of polluting industries to Republican state officials.” Officials who served under Trump—Bernard McNamee, on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Mandy Gunasekara, the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of staff—wrote sections of this plan.
Abortion. Trump knows which way the political wind is blowing, so he has said little to indicate that he would continue to eliminate abortion rights and access to abortion. But he regularly brags about his role in overturning Roe v. Wade, and he recently said that he wants the federal government to restrict or ban late-term abortions. Project 2025 calls for “stepped-up prosecution of anyone providing or distributing abortion pills by mail.” So, it is clear that the erosion of abortion rights and access would continue, and probably accelerate, under a second Trump presidency.
Immigration. Trump intends to “carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American History”; to expand his travel ban that prevented people from some Muslim countries from entering the US; to send thousands of troops to the Mexican border; and to issue an executive order terminating the citizenship rights of children of undocumented immigrants born in the US. He has also refused to rule out resumption of his infamous policy of separating immigrant families (i.e., ripping kids from their parents), and he is reportedly intending to restrict legal immigration.
Crime. “In cities where there has been a complete breakdown of public safety,” Trump has vowed to “send in federal assets including the National Guard until law and order is restored.” He proposes that the “federal government … take over control and management of Washington, DC. I wouldn’t even call the mayor.” He would require police departments to implement “stop-and-frisk” practices, which were ruled unconstitutional a decade ago.
Trans Rights. Trump vows to ask Congress to pass a nationwide ban on gender-affirming health care for minors, and he has threatened to punish doctors and hospitals who provide it and people who help minors receive it. He promises to sign a law declaring that there are only two genders. He would ban transgender women from participating in women’s sports.
Education. Trump wants to abolish the Department of Education, cut federal funding for schools that allegedly teach “critical race theory” or “transgender insanity,” and re-establish his “1776 Commission” in order to promote “patriotic” education (i.e., ideological indoctrination of students).
Sensible, Moderate Insanity
The Democratic Party is not unaware of the dangers we face. Lack of awareness is not the reason it is failing to come to grips with the enormity of the problem. For instance, Simon Rosenberg—a leading centrist Democratic strategist who has decades of experience, extending back to his work on the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton—said earlier this year that “[t]here’s still a lot of power and potency in MAGA, even if they don’t win this next election.” He also said that Democrats should “not accept this unbelievably precarious place that we’re in” and that he wants to “defeat MAGA in such a definitive and declarative way that Republicans move on to a different kind of politics.”
The problem is that, when it comes to defeating MAGA in “a definitive and declarative way,” the Democrats have precious little to offer. Rosenberg is working on a project called “Get to 55.” Its goal is “to grow the current Democratic coalition from Biden’s 51.4% in 2020 to 55% in 2024 and keep it there for a while,” largely by getting out the vote of people younger than 45.
A 3.6 percentage-point uptick in the Democrats’ vote share isn’t nothing. But it hardly rises to the challenge of defeating MAGA definitively.
First and foremost, Rosenberg’s (unstated) premise is that his political opponents will acknowledge and accept election results. He proceeds as if he has not heard of the January 6 insurrection, the several other illegal efforts to overturn the 2020 election that Trump and his co-conspirators are now being prosecuted for, or the “stolen election” conspiracy theorizing that has continued unrelentingly and taken root since then. According to a CNN poll conducted in July, nearly 70% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters claim to believe that Biden’s victory was not legitimate. Other recent polls find that only about 20% of them even acknowledge that Trump tried to overturn the election.
There are other serious flaws in Rosenberg’s solution. First, third-party candidacies can always destabilize even a 55% majority and thereby allow Trump or another MAGA candidate to win, particularly if Republicans, Putin, No Labels, and/or others abet the third-party effort. (Remember Jill Stein?) Second, given the peculiarities of the US electoral system, a 55% nationwide average might not be sufficient to prevail where it counts, in the Electoral College. Third, even when it is sufficient, the Supreme Court right-wing supermajority can intervene and cook the books. (Remember Bush v. Gore?)
Fourth are the myriad vote-suppression measures, including “strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls,” as well as reducing the number of polling places, prohibiting people from giving food or beverages to voters standing in line and waiting hours to vote, putting out false information about election dates and poll locations, and intimidation of voters (sometimes disguised as poll watching). The current degree of vote suppression may be factored into Rosenberg’s “Get to 55” goal, but efforts to suppress the vote further are ongoing and sure to intensify if the Democrats “get to 55” or even get close.
Fifth are the election-subversion efforts. As Andrew Kliman noted last year (in an unpublished report),
Taking a page from Trump’s auto-coup playbook, the goal of the election subverters is to gain control of the machinery of state government in “swing states.” If a state’s voters reject the Republican presidential candidate, election subverters intend to use their control of the state government to throw out the popular vote and appoint Republicans to cast the state’s votes in the Electoral College, or to “find” nonexistent votes for the Republican, as Trump tried to strong-arm Georgia officials into doing.
Sixth, to the extent that further vote suppression and election subversion are currently illegal, the right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court can do what it has already done regarding other matters: ignore precedent, facts, logic, and legal reasoning, and make the law say whatever they want it to say.
Seventh, shit happens.
In normal times, of course, if your side doesn’t prevail in this election, there’s always the next election to look forward to. But we are not living in normal times. If Trump (or another Trumpite) manages to win in 2024, that election may well be the last “free and fair” one. Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College, has said,
If Trump, or someone like him, wins election in 2024, I would expect to see the end of American democracy. If that sounds apocalyptic, it’s worth remembering that we have had just such a scenario in the United States before, in the American South between 1880 and 1965.
Alternatively, as we noted above, Trump might lose but secure power by other means (a Supreme Court verdict, election subversion, insurrection, etc.), in which case the 2020 election will have been the last “free and fair” presidential election.
In light of all this, Rosenberg’s “sensible” and “moderate” proposal to “defeat MAGA in … a definitive and declarative way,” by boosting the Democrats’ vote share by a few percentage points, turns out instead to meet the standard definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” But the insanity here is not a psychological problem. Nor is there any reason to think it stems from a failure by Rosenberg to recognize the shaky foundations on which the “Get to 55” strategy rests. His familiarity with the current political situation is undoubtedly superior to ours. The root of the insanity is instead structural.
It is baked into the structure of the Democratic Party, which is a purely electoral party, without even a base of rank-and-file members. Democratic politicians campaign to win elections; strategists like Rosenberg help them; they and people close to the party try to turn out the vote. This is what they do and all they do, and this structure dictates the limits of their vision and their proposals. They are not revolutionaries and they are not grassroots activists. They don’t even think about lending concerted assistance to the spontaneous efforts—the Resistance, Me Too, the Black Lives Matter uprising, March for Our Lives—that have been striving in various ways to create the mass movement that could stop Trumpism by such means as are necessary. It just isn’t part of the job description.
This situation is not going to change. As we wrote in an editorial prior to the 2020 election, “[w]ishing the Democratic Party would become something that it is not, is futile.”
Those who call themselves “the Left” also lack the perspective of encouraging the development of the grassroots antifascist movement that could stop Trumpism. Their priorities—above all, their goal of building “the Left” (i.e., their own organizations and projects)—are different. From the start, as we discussed at length in Resisting Trumpist Reaction (and Left Accommodation), many of them have been soft on Trumpism and hostile to forces that have risen up spontaneously to oppose it.
Pseudo-Democratic Rhetoric vs. the Rule of Law
Senator Lindsey Graham knows full well that Trump is a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot” and “the world’s biggest jackass.” Despite this, or because of it, Graham is one of Trump’s key henchmen. He recently condemned the prosecutions against Trump, saying that
[t]he American people can decide whether they want him to be president or not. … This should be decided at the ballot box, not a bunch of liberal jurisdictions trying to put the man in jail. … They’re weaponizing the law in this country. … They’re trying to take Donald Trump down. And this is setting a bad precedent.
Bartiromo, Beer, and Unfreedom
This rhetoric about letting the “American people” decide at the ballot box may seem oh-so-democratic, but it is actually a repudiation of the rule of law as well as thoroughly hypocritical.
To see the hypocrisy, note the partial and one-sided character of the appeal to have things decided at the ballot box. Where are the calls to decide at the ballot box whether the Trump Organization should be dismantled, or which methods of enhanced interrogation to use in order to extract truthful testimony from Trump, or how exactly “the American people” want a death sentence against him to be carried out? The “decide at the ballot box” slogan is invoked only insofar as it serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card for Trump, not with respect to the many ways in which treating legal matters as matters of political preference could be used to make him pay for his crimes.
That Graham is repudiating the rule of law is plain as day. While “[t]he American people can decide whether they want him to be president or not,” that is simply not what is being decided in the several criminal and civil cases against Trump. What is at issue in these cases are the many crimes and other violations of the law he has committed. There are facts to determine and judgments to be made on the basis of the facts and the laws. This is just not what elections do or can do. Voters’ choices are based on whatever they want to base them on—self-interest, candidates’ “likeability,” party identification, desire for an authoritarian strongman to replace the rule of law, and so on. Letting “the American people” (i.e., a minority of voters barely sufficient to eke out an Electoral-College victory) nullify the law and the force of facts is a recipe for rule through demagogic manipulation of mob sentiment. That is what Graham and Trump himself want. It is the standard Trumpist M.O.
Yet Trumpites are by no means the only ones who tell us that we should allow voters to decide Trump’s fate. It’s quite a widespread refrain. Never-Trump conservatives like Tom Nichols and David Frum, middle-of-the-road political commentators like Steven V. Roberts, and even Democrats like Jason Nichols (a former local party chair in Oklahoma) have been saying the same thing.
The arguments put forward by such writers are varied. To some extent, they echo the peculiar notion that letting voters nullify the law is the democratic thing to do. To some extent, they are concerned about tat-for-tat use of the law as a political tool. The idea that defeating Trump at the ballot box is the only practical option that remains—and that pursuing other ways of defeating him are thus harmful distractions—also looms large. Writers who argue in this manner have concluded that the legal system will not succeed in holding Trump accountable, at least not prior to the 2024 election, and that attempts to invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution—that is, to disqualify Trump from running for office, due to his insurrectionist activity—will also fail.
In addition, fear of further escalation of already-escalating Trumpite violence pervades the whole “let voters decide” refrain. For example, Jason Nichols asks, “Why even pursue disqualification” if it won’t succeed, but “will fuel the anger and fear of people who already have more than enough of those emotions to go around?” And David Frum asks, “How in the world are Republicans likely to react” if Biden wins re-election because some states disqualified Trump from the ballot? “Will any of them regard such a victory as legitimate? The rage and chaos that would follow are beyond imagining.”
Such fears are not exaggerated in the least. The problem is rather that these writers have accepted the idea that Trump is above the law and have capitulated to it. If stopping him by means of legal prosecutions and/or the 14th Amendment will not work but will instead just set off even greater Trumpite violence, then he is above the law. These writers are telling us, in effect, that we should accept that this is a done deal and try to stop Trump in the only way that still remains—beating him in a competition driven by persuasion and popularity, no longer constrained by his Constitutional ineligibility to hold office.
There are several problems with this “solution.” First, as discussed above, defeating Trump at the ballot box may well not work, either. Tom Nichols’ conclusion that “[t]he only sure way to stop Trump is with a resounding and undeniable defeat at the ballot box” is at best a wild exaggeration. Yes, he refers to undeniable defeat, but the Trumpites have been denying undeniable defeat for three years. Second, if we treat Trump as an opponent to beat in an election, we accept the legitimacy of a candidate who has perpetrated multiple serious crimes against the people and who is an imminent threat to liberal democracy. What does this say about our own morality and respect for the rule of law?
Third, these writers’ capitulation to the idea that Trump is above the law is premature. Although there is certainly no guarantee that legal prosecutions or attempts to invoke the 14th Amendment will prevent Trump from retaking power, neither are they guaranteed to fail.
It is too early to tell, partly because some prosecutors and judges have been working like speed demons, and cleverly, to bring him to justice before the next election. The adage that “you get as much due process as you can afford” is no longer working like a charm for Trump. And invocation of the 14th Amendment is not a crazy idea. A wide swath of legal theorists, conservative as well as liberal, regards the Constitutional grounds for disqualifying Trump from office as very strong. Those in the know say that attempts to invoke the 14th Amendment are nonetheless unlikely to succeed, for practical reasons, but a lawsuit to keep Trump off of the ballot in Colorado has recently survived several legal challenges, defying expectations.
The prosecutions and attempts to invoke the 14th Amendment are deserving of support because there is some chance that they will succeed and because, even if they do not, support for them communicates that we continue to uphold and fight for the rule of law.
This does not exhaust the options that remain. Like the Democratic Party politicians and operatives discussed above, the writers in question do not think “outside the box.” They are not grassroots activists, much less revolutionaries. A sustained grassroots movement against Trumpism, a mass antifascist movement, could still do a world of good to stop Trump from retaking power, or from exercising it if he does become president again. It could also do a world of good by influencing juries’ and judges’ decisions in the legal cases against Trump; Supreme Court rulings (regarding invocation of the 14th Amendment, election laws, and so forth); and the willingness of potential insurrectionists and vigilantes to take back their country. The tragedy is that so few people are encouraging and aiding the development of such a movement—not the Democrats, not the writers in question, not “the Left.”
And ultimately, there is the revolutionary option. We may be living in a moment when, somewhat paradoxically, the preservation of liberal democracy requires social revolution.
Editor’s Note, Dec. 16, 2023: Typos in this article have been fixed.
Editor’s Note, Dec. 17, 2023: This article is now an official MHI statement. Accordingly, authorship and attributions related to authorship have been amended.