This issue of the ISR coincides with the ritual evaluation of the “first 100 days” of the new US president that the media have performed since the 1930s. In almost every other modern administration, that “100 days” report card would include a balance sheet of wins and losses, with the proviso that the administration is only just taking shape. It’s harder to apply those conventional yardsticks to the first 100 days of the Trump administration, which, in many ways, have been unprecedented in the post- World War II era.
At the time of writing in March 2017, Trump remains the most unpopular president at the beginning of his term since the dawn of public opinion polling. Presidents are usually at their most popular when their terms begin. That’s because they retain the support of the majority of voters who voted for them, and they receive a certain “benefit of the doubt” from those who didn’t vote for them. Trump, on the other hand, lost the popular vote by almost three million and took the oath of office as the most polarizing figure in US politics. His administration appears determined not to overcome that polarization, but to exacerbate it at every turn.
This polarization also manifested in huge mobilizations against Trump. Only one day after he took the oath of office, the Women’s March dwarfed the turnout at Trump’s inauguration. Originating as a Facebook call for protest in the days after the November 2016 election, the march became the single largest day of political protest in US history. Estimates indicate that more than one out of every 100 US residents took to the streets of Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and hundreds of other cities and towns around the country on January 21. A week later, thousands of protesters laid siege to the nation’s airports in protest of a Trump executive order barring all refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
To describe Trump’s transition into office as “disruptive” is an understatement. His dark and divisive inauguration speech clearly tried to draw a line between his and previous administrations, which, he said, served a “small group in our nation’s Capital [that] has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” No longer, insisted Trump:
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body—and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.
With these words, Trump laid out his vision of a US that—rather from being the chief beneficiary from the global trading system that it erected after World War II—is actually a victim. His talk of “American workers and American families” gave a “populist” gloss to his economic nationalism.
From globalization to economic nationalism
That government policy should serve its US constituents may sound like common sense. But anyone with a political memory that reaches back as far as the 1930s will recognize in Trump’s “America First” rhetoric similarities to the rhetoric of anti-Semites and fascist sympathizers of that era. While Trump invokes these tropes, the core of his economic nationalist message challenges key precepts of the establishment consensus in foreign economic policy. But it remains to be seen if—or by how much—the Trump administration can upend the cornerstones of US economic, military, and diplomatic policy. One of these cornerstones has been the idea that global trade and international organizations, like NATO and the European Union, are essential to peace and prosperity. In the neoliberal era of the last generation, globalization has been treated as akin to a force of nature.
This notion of globalization as operating outside the influence of the world’s most powerful government was always false. Washington policy undergirded the bipartisan regime of free trade and US global military projection. As that purveyor of “flat-world” banalities Thomas Friedman once put it, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas” (the largest military contractor in the world before its 1997 merger with Boeing). If Trump’s tumultuous first week showed anything, it showed just how much governmental action can shift the terms of engagement and debate on these questions. Even while courts blocked his Muslim ban, Trump set in motion more repressive immigration enforcement policies that are terrorizing immigrant communities.
Trump’s economic nationalism is a response to four main developments in the recent era. First, the depth of the 2007–2009 Great Recession gave way to the subsequent weakest recovery since the 1930s. Second, as a result of globalization, the biggest US multinational corporations have prospered while middle-sized companies have been unable to adapt. Third, the United States has been unable to contain the economic and military rise of China as a global power. And finally, decades of free-market policies and austerity have heightened the desperation in broad sections of the US working class over the long decline of living standards and job security.
While these interlocking phenomena might explain how Trump was able to win with an economic nationalist appeal, it’s far from clear if corporate America and its political servants are willing to follow it. Given that decades of corporate, governmental, and institutional practices are invested in the neoliberal regime, it remains to be seen whether any or all of Trump’s actions will be sustained as new policies for the long run. Trump’s victory was “an expression of a crisis of ruling-class leadership,” but Trump’s attempt to push through a “fundamentally incoherent” program will exacerbate that crisis, possibly igniting “hard-fought struggles within the dominant class.”1
As an inexperienced group trying to carry out the agenda of a minority faction in the US ruling class, the Trump White House will have to maneuver around obstacles and take big political risks to enact its economic agenda. In the early days of the administration, it is difficult to distinguish its initiatives between what is audacious and what reflects simple incompetence.
Trump has one argument that resonates with at least a section of the foreign policy and military establishment: that is, the United States cannot be the dominant military power if it continues to outsource its industry and technology to other countries. China currently produces 95 percent of the world’s rare earth metals that are essential components of everything from consumer electronics, to “green” battery technologies and Pentagon weapons systems. The US Congress has raised concerns about access to these rare metals, especially as they relate to US military technology.2 And it’s no coincidence that Pentagon strategists see China as Washington’s main rival for global dominance in the twenty-first century. But to actually implement the kind of shift in the US industrial economy that this policy implies—almost to create US-supplied industries where none3 exist—would require a major upheaval in the way corporate America does business. Trump would have to take on, and defeat, a corporate elite whose power and wealth is based on global supply chains built up over a generation.
That is one contradiction among many in Trump’s economic policy. Essentially, he aims to fuse the effort to reindustrialize the United States with a project to build a working-class and middle-class constituency for right-wing, nationalist, pro-imperialist, and anti-immigrant politics. The Trump clique believes it can pressure the Republican Congress to enact this program by appealing over members’ heads directly to its voting base. Further, the Trump White House may attempt to win business backing for government deficit spending for infrastructure and the creation of manufacturing jobs by offering big tax cuts and deregulation.
The problem for Trump is that capital—through its front men and women in Congress—is most likely to grab the tax cuts and deregulation but balk on infrastructure spending. Capital would be more likely to play along if the plan involves privatization of public infrastructure that then allows businesses to profit at the public expense. Moreover, while Trump pledged to protect Medicare and Social Security during his campaign, House Speaker Paul Ryan has other ideas. Ryan has for years been preparing a frontal attack on social spending, acting on behalf of the most retrograde sections of the US capitalist class that want to eliminate the remnants of the 1930s New Deal and 1960s Great Society programs.
For Trump to truly bend capital in the direction he wants to go, he would have to reassert the traditional role of the US state as the disciplinary and centralizing element of the US capitalist class. This was a basic feature of US politics from the Great Depression of the 1930s through the collapse of the USSR in 1991. For decades, the US ruling class was disciplined both by pressure from below—as in the 1930s labor upsurge and the social movements of the 1960s—and from abroad, from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the 1930s, and then from the USSR. In the last quarter century, absent those pressures, US capitalists have oriented on globalization, while China has become a serious economic competitor and, possibly, a future military rival. It’s unclear whether Trump has the capability or interest in using state power to discipline the capitalist class.
Conservative opportunity society
Trump’s unlikely election coincides with Republican majorities in Congress, a heavy conservative tilt in the federal judiciary, and Republican Party dominance at the state level. For conservatives, this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. During the election campaign, the majority of Republicans who opposed Trump did so because they opposed his program or because they thought he would lose. But once the Trump administration started taking over the levers of power in Washington, most Republicans decided that they’d hitch their wagons to the Trump train. They largely fell in line, giving him the cabinet of billionaires, generals, rogues, and reactionaries he asked for. And they’re prepared to pass a budget that will increase military spending by $54 billion, cut taxes for the rich, and reduce or eliminate just about every other federal program that benefits ordinary people.
The “white nationalist” core of Trump’s advisers—people like his chief adviser Stephen Bannon and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—have even talked about limiting legal immigration. The subtext there is not hard to discern. A younger, more multiracial and more tolerant country is one that is inhospitable to what conservatism has become in the twenty-first century. In this respect, Trumpism has the feel of a last stand for a bygone era. But that doesn’t make it any less dangerous, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents tear families apart, and far-right elements mount hate crimes against Muslims, Latinos, Jews, Asians, and trans people.
Despite their shared interests in pushing the country rightward, Trump, congressional Republicans, and Republican-leaning business groups aren’t necessarily united. Even though Trump’s “populism” was and is completely phony, it set expectations for administration policies that are not on the wish lists of standard-issue conservatives. Bannon touted plans for a $1 trillion infrastructure jobs program that congressional Republicans have very little interest in passing.
For years, all Republicans dedicated themselves to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, even though its main outlines were drawn from the conservative health reform Mitt Romney pushed as Massachusetts governor in the early 2000s. But numerous studies—including one from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office—have shown that the people who stand to lose the most from Obamacare’s repeal and replacement with a GOP-sponsored “free market” solution are those rural, white, and poor voters who were thought to be Trump’s base. As it turned out, these realities combined with demands from the Republican right to go even further in slashing away at spending on US health care, to scuttle the GOP’s “repeal and replace” legislation in March 2017.
The Obamacare repeal fiasco was the biggest defeat for Trump and the congressional Republicans in the early months of the new administration, and it led a raft of pundits to proclaim the administration in crisis. “No administration has ever been off to a worse 100-day start,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt told the New York Times.4 Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley described Trump’s early administration as “the most failed 100 days of any president . . . I don’t know how it can get much worse.”5
The GOP’s dominance across the government has now made it the focus of all opposition in the country. Any change for the worse—from millions losing Medicaid coverage to wartime debacles—will land on its doorstep. This has opened up divisions within the Republican Party about how far, and how fast, to push its right-wing agenda. While this has initially slowed down its drive to “make America great again,” the Right will score plenty of victories over the next period. And despite the amateurishness and chaos that pervades a White House that had barely begun to staff the executive branch months into its term, Trump has already shown what the US executive branch can accomplish. Immigration agents are targeting undocumented immigration activists, and environmental regulations are being eviscerated. Even in the face of mass opposition, this new regime has created a climate where long-held political and societal assumptions are being challenged.
Nevertheless, the Trump program will not overcome the long-term problems of the world economy—essentially, overproduction of goods and the factories that produce them, putting a downward pressure on growth and profits. A short-term boom—even a very strong one—is entirely possible. But the overall result will be to exacerbate problems through direct trade wars or indirect currency wars.
The resistance and the state
What of the resistance that the new regime has called into the streets? Certainly, the mass turnouts on January 21, the rallies at airports, the Planned Parenthood clinic defenses, and a spring offensive of demonstrations for climate justice, for science, and in defense of immigrants and the working class on May 1, are hopeful signs. Perhaps what Karl Marx once called the “whip of reaction” has drawn thousands—maybe millions—into political activity for the first time. Our battles will be largely defensive in the near term, but from them a new left may emerge that could begin to turn that tide.
But to build the kind of activist movement and left that can win future battles, it will have to learn key lessons in the skirmishes today. The first of these is that the existing institutions of this society can’t be relied on to stand up for our rights. The mass airport demonstrations pushed US courts from Brooklyn to Hawaii to halt Trump’s outrageous “Muslim ban.” Many more attempts to fight the Trump agenda in the courts will be advanced. There is nothing wrong with these plans to throw sand in the gears of the Trump machine. But it’s a dangerous illusion to think that the courts will side with justice and freedom absent mass pressure from below. The long history of US jurisprudence that once upheld slavery, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment should prove that. So the key to the resistance is to resist, not to craft more novel legal briefs.
It’s an even more dangerous illusion, echoed in some liberal circles, to think that certain parts of the military or security apparatus will tame Trump’s excesses. It may be true that the generals in his cabinet—from John Kelly at Homeland Security to James Mattis at Defense—are the “adults in the room” compared with the manchild president. But that’s hardly comforting, given that they are products of the post-9/11 national security state that brought US torture to Guantánamo and disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are products of a Washington where “war has become tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible.”6
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, all seventeen US intelligence agencies issued a report asserting that Russian intelligence was behind hacking of Democratic Party e-mails whose public release was designed to “interfere with the US election process.” And in March 2017, FBI Director James Comey—whose “October surprise” announcement of a possible investigation involving Hillary Clinton many Democrats blame for her loss—confirmed that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian intelligence. The US intelligence apparatus may even have claimed a casualty in forcing Trump’s first national security adviser to resign.7
Liberals who hope that revelations of Russia-Trump ties will bring down the administration in a Watergate-like scandal may be vindicated. But they could also be wrong. At this stage, little evidence—besides assertions from US intelligence agencies—has been produced in support of these allegations. Journalists like Glenn Greenwald (The Intercept) and Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone Magazine) have raised serious questions about whether Russian intelligence colluded with Team Trump.8 What liberals hope to reveal as evidence of Trump-Putin collusion may simply be a case of sleazy business deals and grifting political advisers. Still, an FBI investigation will be a major millstone for the administration, even if it does end up clearing Trump or his cronies.
But for Democrats, the focus on Russia is consistent with their view that “but for” a series of accidents or unexpected events, Clinton would have been a shoo-in to win. And yet, the real failure of Clinton and the Democrats is that the 2016 election was close enough—at least in some critical states—for Trump to win. To explain that, the Democrats would have to explain why their base abandoned them—either voting for Trump or a third party, or not voting at all—in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
So instead of challenging their commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy—of which Clinton was the prime exemplar—it’s easier for the Democrats to blame Trump’s election on the Russians. It takes their focus away from what should really delegitimize Trump in the public’s eyes: that he won even with almost three million fewer votes than Clinton, due to racist disenfranchisement and an electoral college system that is a relic of slavery. But challenging Trump’s “victory” in this way takes them in directions the status quo Democrats don’t want to go—to challenging the undemocratic constitutional order that has cost them two national elections in the last sixteen years alone.
Nor do they want to admit that they have no real answers for the working-class majority. In fact, it’s not even clear that they think there is a problem. After former Labor Secretary Robert Reich held recent discussions with former administration officials, Washington political pros, and Congress members from both major parties, he reported:
Many people asked, bewilderedly, “How did this [Trump] happen?” When I suggest it had a lot to do with the 35-year-long decline of incomes of the bottom 60 percent; the growing sense, ever since the Wall Street bailout, that the game is rigged; and the utter failure of both Republicans and Democrats to reverse these trends — they give me blank stares.9
The Trump-Republican budget introduced in early 2017 will certainly exacerbate these trends. But it’s unclear what the Democrats will offer beyond the Obama-Clinton status quo that helped elect Trump in the first place.
The return of the lesser evil?
The Democrats are banking on one of the oldest features of two-party American politics—that the party that doesn’t hold the White House usually gains seats in Congress—to bring them back from a nadir of institutional power not seen since the 1920s. This “iron law” of US politics will probably work to the Democrats’ advantage. But it will do nothing to address the deeper structures of the US political economy that have resulted in a fairly consistent shift of official US politics to the right, even while decades of public opinion evidence suggests that the attitudes of most Americans have shifted to the left. The popularity of Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary run showed that a significant segment of the public would vote even for a self-proclaimed socialist. But the Democrats made sure the presidential electorate didn’t get that chance. Today, opinion polls show that Sanders is the most popular politician in the United States, while professional Democrats continue to shun him.10
One could hear the echoes of Democratic self-delusion in the race to elect a new chair of the Democratic National Committee. The ultimate winner was former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, recruited by President Barack Obama to pose an alternative to the early favorite, the Sanders-aligned Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). Ellison had promised grassroots mobilization in all fifty states for a Sanders-like program. But Perez and his backers didn’t think the DNC needed to be shaken up. After all, the chatter in the corridors noted, their candidate actually won the popular vote, and the Democrats had even won a number of upscale Republican areas like California’s Orange County. As Perry Anderson pointedly noted,
But given how narrowly the party lost in 2016 even with such a deficient candidate, and how brittle the incumbent regime looks, the same kind of common sense suggests that little more need be changed. Assuming that in the interim Trump, unable to deliver better jobs or faster growth, has stumbled all over the place, any half-way decent standard-bearer of a traditional stamp should be able to romp home. Such, at least, is the calculation of the Democratic establishment. Not all sympathizers agree. It underestimated Trump once; for some, it risks doing so again.11
That’s a challenge the resistance to Trump faces, especially as the 2018 midterm elections loom. As thousands turn out at town hall meetings to confront Republican members of Congress, Democrats are drawing up “target lists” of “red” districts they hope to turn “blue.” Some savvier Democrats have even turned up at pro-immigration protests at airports and ICE offices. The party establishment is happy to associate itself with the burst of political energy and outrage that Trump’s administration is producing. But there’s very little evidence that the Democrats plan to offer anything that can qualify as an alternative vision or set of priorities that will motivate people to vote for them. Yet, the pressure will be on for activists for immigrant rights, abortion rights, labor, and other liberal constituencies to vote for Democrats, despite the Democrats’ unwillingness to pledge support for any of these constituencies’ most heartfelt demands.
We’ve been down this road before, and the current anti-Trump resistance would be well-served to ponder the ruts it puts in our path. In 2006 and 2008, two consecutive Democratic electoral sweeps put Democrats in a position to reorder American politics in the face of obvious crises in the economy and the military. As Aziz Rana explained that conjuncture,
At a moment when the country faced convulsive social crises, and more and more of his supporters called for a fundamental reconstruction of American institutions, Obama marshaled his personal story and oratorical gifts to defend hollow tenets: the righteousness of American primacy, the legitimacy of global market liberalism, the need for incremental reform, the danger of large-scale structural overhaul. The consequence—intensified by a virulent right—was that fundamental problems continued to fester and became harder to ignore: mass incarceration and structural racism, dramatic class disparities in power and opportunity, interventionism abroad, and national-security abuses at home.
The price of Obama’s defense of these “hollow tenets” and the Democrats’ “suspicion of politics formed through mass democratic mobilization”12 was demoralization and despair that led eventually to the Trump disaster.
An honest assessment of the Obama years would also note the myriad ways—from championing austerity politics to education privatization to building a machine that deported more than two million undocumented immigrants—that Obama paved the way for Trump’s policies. It will do us no good, in our anger and alarm at Trump’s attacks, to whitewash the past.
For a minority of activists, whether newly radicalized or not, empowering the next generation of Democratic Party “centrists” is not their idea of political transformation. It’s with these activists that socialists will have to engage. We need real discussions about what kind of left, and left organizations, we need to build. What kind of principles it should fight for. And what kind of class and social struggles we need to actually shift politics in our direction. Many indications point to the highest interest in socialist politics since the late 1960s to early 1970s.13
The trajectory of struggle over the next period is difficult to predict. The infrastructure of the broad left—from trade unions to socialist organizations—is still weak. Given the brazenness of the Trump attack, and GOP support for it, much of it will succeed. As a result, waves of protest can give way to bouts of demoralization. So we need to have a long-term vision and strategy. However the next period unfolds, it will be crucial to socialists who want to build a durable socialism for the twenty-first century.
- Dylan Riley, “American Brumaire,” New Left Review 103 (January-February, 2017), 21–32.
- See Rachel Tang, “China’s Steel Industry and Its Impact on the United States: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, September 21, 2010. This report was prepared under the Democratic-controlled 2009–2010 Congress.
- For example, the last plant producing ‘rare earth elements’ in the US closed down in 2016. See “Rare Earth Elements and their Uses,” Geology.com, http://geology.com/articles/rare-earth-e....
- Michael D. Shear, “Trump’s Biggest Obstacle to Policy Goals? His Own Missteps,” New York Times, March 25, 2017.
- Brad Reed, “Douglas Brinkley Puts Trump’s Disastrous 100 Days in Perspective” Alternet, March 21, 2017, http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politic....
- Andrew J. Bacevich, “The Never-Ending War in Afghanistan,” New York Times, March 13, 2017.
- Normally secret wiretaps, leaked to the Washington Post and New York Times from sources in the surveillance state, exposed Gen. Michael Flynn’s lies about his contacts with Russian government officials during the transition from the Obama administration.
- See, for example, Greenwald’s “Key Democratic Officials Now Warning Base Not to Expect Evidence of Trump/Russia Collusion,” The Intercept, March 16, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/03/16/key-....
- See Reich’s Twitter feed, https://twitter.com/RBReich/status/
- Trevor Timm, “Everyone Loves Bernie Sanders. Except, It Seems, The Democratic Party.” The Guardian, March 17, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfre....
- Perry Anderson, “Passing the Baton,” New Left Review 103 (January-February, 2017), 41–64.
- Aziz Rana, “Decolonizing Obama: What Happened to the Third-World Left?” N+1 27, Winter 2017, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-27/politic....
- See Lance Selfa, “Sanders and the Left: Where Do We Go From Here?” ISR 104, http://isreview.org/issue/104/sanders-an... or Jennifer Swann, “How Democratic Socialists Are Building on Bernie’s Example,” Rolling Stone, February 8, 2017, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-27/politics/decolonizing-obama/, for example.