More than a year has passed since the improbable result of the 2016 presidential election catapulted Donald Trump into the White House. In many ways, the Trump administration has been every bit as horrific as anyone could have predicted. But, on the other hand, it hasn’t gotten its way on all of its reactionary plans. Meanwhile, an ongoing FBI investigation threatens to force a premature cancellation of the reality show in the White House.
For the Left, this new reality of the Trump era has produced a kind of political whiplash in which a steady stream of outrages from Trump or his administration produces shock and resistance. And just as opposition to one outrage forms, another Trump outrage follows.
Consider August to September 2017. Within the space of a few weeks, hundreds of white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one of them murders an antiracist protester. A few days later, Trump provokes a national uproar when he speculates that “good people” joined Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville. A week after Charlottesville, more than 20,000 mobilize in Boston to force the cancellation
of a white supremacist “free speech” event. Similar protests drive the Far Right back into the shadows in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Portland, Oregon. Undeterred, Trump pardons racist Arizona ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio and announces the end of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). That roughly three-week period illustrates the dynamic we’ve become used to over the last year.
Republicans in Congress and corporate America made a devil’s bargain with Trump. To get the corporate tax cuts and regulatory rewrites they wanted, they were willing to put up with chaos and corruption in the White House, and even Trump’s consorting with white supremacists. After Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments, a number of corporate chiefs resigned White House advisory councils, but that didn’t stop them or their lobbyists from working with the White House to pass a regressive corporate tax-cut bill in 2017. Nor will it stop them from working with Trump and the right-wing congressional leadership to implement step two of their plan: cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That Trump and Congress worked overtime for corporate tax cuts while allowing the Children’s Health Insurance Program to lapse tells you all you need to know about the real priorities in Washington.
GOP war on the working class
The centerpiece of the GOP legislative agenda was always the corporate tax reform bill Trump signed at the end of December 2017. Trump may have whipped up his campaign crowds with promises to build a wall along the Mexican border, to bring back thousands of industrial jobs, to pass a massive infrastructure program, and to pass health-care legislation that would be “better” than Obamacare. But the congressional GOP and their business backers had no such intentions. The tax reform permanently cuts corporate taxes while most tax cuts for individuals expire over the course of the next decade. Just about every major independent analysis of the bill’s impact concluded that most Americans will end up paying more in taxes over the next decade, when compared to the existing code. At the same time, it eliminates the “individual mandate” tax that is central to the Affordable Care Act’s funding, leading, by some estimates, as many as thirteen million people to lose access to health insurance over the next decade.
Plans to cut corporate tax rates and to bribe corporations to “repatriate” profits parked in overseas accounts were a bipartisan goal for years. President Obama repeatedly offered the Republicans a “grand bargain” that included raising taxes on the wealthy, changing the corporate tax code while restructuring entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Assuming that Obama would be a one-term president, the GOP rebuffed him. With Obama defeated, the GOP thought, it would be in a position to structure the deal so that the rich and corporations would get a tax cut, while cutting entitlements for the “47 percent” of Americans who, in their demonology, subsist on government handouts. As it turned out, their plans were only delayed by four years.
The tax reform scam showed the degree to which the Republican Party has become little more than a conveyor belt for the narrow interests of the most reactionary billionaires in the United States. In the era of Reagan and Thatcher, free-market conservatives confidently defended their ideas and won landslide victories in national elections. While today’s GOP hardly hides its open fealty to the rich and corporations, the more self-aware Republicans know that their agenda is unpopular and unable to stand up to public scrutiny. For that reason, they subverted regular parliamentary processes and ignored or delegitimized official non-partisan estimates of their bill’s impact. They even privatized the writing of the legislation, with corporate lobbyists writing provisions for their legislative lackeys to include.
The Republicans show every indication of being a party that knows it’s on borrowed time. Not only does it represent an ever narrower band of the populace—disproportionately older, whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than the population as a whole—but it also may sense that the chaos in the White House could overwhelm it. So for now, the GOP and its corporate supporters are grabbing whatever they can get. And through its speedy moves to pack the judiciary with reactionaries, to disable or disband government agencies, and to cripple public sector unionism, it’s hoping to cement its hold on policy even if it loses its congressional majorities and the presidency in 2018 and 2020.
Will Mueller save us?
Elite Washington—and particularly the Democratic Party and its acolytes in the liberal opinion-making media—hope that the Justice Department investigation, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, will put an end to the Trump nightmare. One could almost hear the glee in their voices when Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017. The provisions of Flynn’s plea bargain strongly suggested that Flynn had provided sufficient evidence to implicate more senior people in the Trump orbit, up to the president himself.
Still, in exactly what crime is the Trump team implicated? Here, the story becomes murkier. Since the fall of 2016, it’s become an article of faith in Democratic Party circles that Trump colluded with a Russian intelligence operation to “hack” the US elections. Evidence may emerge that conclusively confirms this, but for now, supposition sustains the Democrats’ faith. For elite Democrats, this is a convenient excuse. If the Russians are responsible for Trump, then there’s no need to examine the real reasons—primarily a status quo, hawkish, neoliberal agenda—why important Democratic-base constituencies deserted Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Receiving material support from non-US entities is illegal under US election law, but it’s not the first time that such charges have been alleged. A number of fundraisers for Democratic president Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 were prosecuted for what many Clinton opponents alleged was a Chinese intelligence operation to influence the election. And while it is supposed to be illegal for private citizens to conduct foreign policy independent of the official government, no one has ever been prosecuted for violating that law since its enactment more than 200 years ago. Much historical evidence suggests that candidate Nixon made back-channel deals with North Vietnam before the 1968 election, and that the incoming Reagan team did the same with the Iranian regime in 1980. So if the Trump team accepted help from a foreign power or made overtures to it before it was officially entitled to, this hardly sets it outside the mainstream of US statecraft.
According to the unanimous judgment of all Obama-era US intelligence agencies, the Russian state engaged in a multifaceted campaign to influence the US presidential election. And yet, as investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald has continued to insist, no evidence has been produced to justify that assessment. In fact, a number of media “scoops” alleging Russian hacks of state election systems, hacks of the US power grid, or direct collaboration between the Trump team and Russian intelligence have fallen apart on further scrutiny. As Greenwald notes, these “scoops” show all the hallmarks of leaks from the intelligence apparatus or from Democratic members of Congress intending to further call into question Trump’s legitimacy. As if Trump’s loss of the popular vote by almost three million wasn’t enough to delegitimize him.
Whatever ultimately proves true, it definitely appears that various members of the Trump entourage had ongoing contacts with Russian government figures that they want to conceal, though for what purpose isn’t yet known. And Trump may ultimately be more vulnerable to obstruction of justice charges for his ham-fisted attempts to shut down the investigation, starting with his firing of FBI Director James Comey.
The Trump-Russia investigation may be, in part, the national security establishment’s revenge against a leadership team whose “America First” foreign policy challenges the multilateralist, free-trade agenda that has guided the United States for decades. But the Trump-Russia affair also illustrates the deep rot in Washington’s bipartisan political class that allowed a band of grifters, incompetents, money launderers, and conspiracy theorists to end up in a position to influence US foreign policy. For US imperial strategists, it stands to reason that you can’t be a successful imperial power if you allow a second-rate adversary to penetrate your institutions and government. Yet they can’t erase the reality that US global power is waning. Trump may be “accelerating perhaps markedly, even precipitously, the US decline,” as historian Alfred McCoy said in an interview with Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill, but he’s not the cause of US hegemony’s erosion from the Middle East to Asia to Europe.
In any event, the Mueller investigation will continue to be a sword of Damocles hanging over the Trump administration. And if it does threaten Trump’s downfall, it’s likely he will move to end the investigation, provoking a constitutional crisis in the process. Elite Democrats who dream of nothing more than returning to the pre-Trump status quo hope that “the Constitution” prevails over Trump. But it’s far from clear that such a crisis will end up the way Watergate did.
The “resistance” and 2018
Amidst all of the political chaos and uncertainty of Trump’s first year, one fact stands out: Trump is the most unpopular president in the modern era. So if the laws of US politics haven’t been repealed, the Democrats should be setting themselves up for a rout of the Republicans in 2018. Many signals already point in that direction. “Generic ballot” polls indicating which party the public prefers to run Congress have given the Democrats ten- to fifteen-point leads over the GOP at the start of 2018. Since Trump’s election, Democrats have consistently “over-performed” by double digits, winning higher levels of support in elections at all levels of government. In November 2017, the Democrats swept state- and local-level elections, and in December 2017, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Trumpian theocrat and accused pedophile Roy Moore to win a US Senate seat in Alabama. The victories of a transgender Democrat in Virginia over the bigoted author of that state’s anti-trans “bathroom bill,” and a Liberian immigrant as mayor of the nearly all-white town of Helena, Montana, showed that Trumpism isn’t a magic formula for electoral success, even in fairly conservative areas.
And while the Democrats stand to be the beneficiaries of any anti-Trump backlash, it’s hard to say what that would translate into if they do succeed in, say, winning the House of Representatives. Other than being anti-Trump, it’s hard to put your finger on what they stand for. That’s one reason why they spend so much time talking about Russia. They talk about wanting to restore normality to the political process, as when Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer made clear his willingness to work with the Republicans on “bipartisan” tax reform. But they forget that for millions of people, “normal” politics is what led some of them to gamble on Trump, while many others stayed home in 2016.
The Democrats know that if Trump remains as unpopular as he now is, they don’t really have to do much to reap the political whirlwind. And the danger exists today that much of the resistance that first spilled into the streets in the largest protest in US history on the day following Trump’s inauguration will proceed on the same assumptions. Democratic Party-affiliated groups from MoveOn to Indivisible have already moved in to carve out niches in the resistance that they will channel into Democratic elections in 2018. Millions in the resistance are focused on the 2018 elections, and Democrats are more than happy that they are.
Small cores of activists in and around the Democratic Socialists of America want to use the electoral arena to forge a social-democratic alternative to Trump and neoliberal Democrats. But the majority of people who flocked to the Women’s Marches and to spring 2017 mobilizations for science and climate justice—even the thousands of “Berniecrats”—are willing to vote for just about any candidate wearing the Democrat label. Perhaps a few democratic socialists will be elected in the event, but Democrats like the former Goldman Sachs executive, Phil Murphy, who is now governor of New Jersey or the billionaire Pritzker scion who is running to become Illinois governor are more typical.
In the run-up to 2018 and 2020, prospective Democratic candidates are striking poses to appeal to their fired-up electoral base. Just about every Democrat touted as a serious presidential contender in 2020 has announced support for “Medicare for all.” But promises are easy to make. They can always be discarded, as anyone who remembers all the Democrats who promised that once they had the House majority, they would begin impeachment proceedings against Bush-administration officials who lied the United States into the Iraq war. The Democrats took the House in 2006, and impeachment was quietly shelved.
Senator Schumer’s pledges to work for bipartisan tax reform are a particularly craven illustration that no real opposition to Trumpism will come from the Democratic Party leadership. Another is the fact that almost all Senate Democrats—including 2020 presidential short-listers Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ)—voted with most Republicans to pass a $700 billion Pentagon budget that will rob future social spending. People who really want to see a genuine defeat of the Trump agenda will have to remember another lesson of Trump’s first year: that we can only rely on ourselves and our ability to mobilize.
Only the mass airport protests of January and February 2017 put a stop to Trump’s initial travel ban on Muslims. And only the mass mobilizations in Boston, the West Coast, Murfreesburo, Tennessee, and on campuses such as the University of Florida pushed back the Far Right. And protests at Republican town halls and other venues raised the costs for the GOP of directly repealing Obamacare. The late-2017 explosion of #MeToo—a reflection of millions of women’s disgust with the sexual predator in the White House—shows the potential to force social change more effectively than dozens of elections ever will.
As 2018 progresses, and the pressure on the left to support the “lesser evil” Democrats becomes ever greater, it’s important to remember these lessons. Only mass mobilization of ordinary people can defeat Trumpism. Not Robert Mueller and not the Democrats.