The shape of US politics

The year opened with an air of chaos that has become all too normal in the Trump era. When the ISR went to press, a Trump-forced shutdown of the federal government left more than 800,000 federal workers without paychecks. Trump was using the lives of federal workers and the broader services of the federal government—from air traffic control to food safety—as bargaining chips to win congressional support for his racist border wall along the US-Mexico border.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department investigation of possible collusion between the Trump team and Russian operatives during the 2016 election has netted prosecutions and guilty pleas from Trump’s campaign manager and deputy manager, the national security advisor, Trump’s chief legal fixer, and a host of minor players, all of whom have ratted out (or will rat out) their boss.

In fact, on the same weekend that the federal government shutdown became the longest ever, the New York Times and Washington Post reported that in 2017 the FBI had opened an investigation specifically aimed at establishing whether Trump was a Russian agent. It’s extraordinary even to contemplate the idea that

sections of the US state suspect the president of being an agent of a foreign power with which the United States has an adversarial relationship. And yet, that’s where we are at the beginning of 2019.

With the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives following a landslide victory in the 2018 midterm elections, the White House and administrative agencies will face a flurry of subpoenas that will tie up its personnel with multiple document requests, congressional hearings, and crushing legal bills. Disclosures of more corruption and self-dealing in the administration are likely to surface.

Until now, the conventional wisdom has assumed that Trump will be able to ride out the storm to face reelection in 2020. First, even if House Democrats impeached him, Senate Republicans wouldn’t vote to remove him from office. Second, internal Justice Department memos drawn up during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s suggest that a sitting president can’t be indicted. If Mueller and the Trump Justice Department hold to that policy, then Trump has every incentive to hang on to the presidency. Finally, Democrats, having seen how effective Trump is in rallying the Democratic base, have every incentive not to see him removed from office.

But Trump’s standing in Washington has been weakened by the 2018 election. Add to this the other signs of chaos, from the plunging stock market to high-level resignations, and the prospect of impeachment seems more probable.

What is unknowable at this point is whether Trump will actually be the 2020 Republican nominee. Given all of the corruption, scandal, law breaking and chaos surrounding him, the chances increase that he may be forced into Richard Nixon’s 1974 choice: resign or be impeached and removed from office.

Whatever official Washington thought about the Trump administration’s scandals and outrages, it tended to want to look the other way. But something appeared to change in December 2018, when Trump announced a pullout of US forces from Syria. This action prompted (or coincided with) the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-Islamic State alliance in Syria.

Suddenly, the bipartisan war party in Washington was warning of dire consequences and expressing concerns that Trump had gone too far. Even those who had stood by Trump when he refused to criticize white supremacists in Charlottesville, forced the separation of migrant families at the US-Mexico border, or tried to take away health care coverage from millions discovered that Trump now posed a threat to the republic. They treated Mattis’s resignation letter, where he chided Trump for disrespecting allies and for having illusions in “malign actors” (i.e., Russia) and “strategic competitors” (i.e., China), as a historical document of US statecraft akin to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Trump’s “America First” policies of trade protectionism, anti-immigration and transactional bilateral relations with both “allied” (Canada, Britain, France) and adversarial (China, Russia) countries clashes with the world view of sections of big business and the foreign policy establishment. This is why Trump’s announced pullout from Syria and Mattis’s resignation touched off a freak-out across official Washington.

Trump may not know what he’s doing, but his administration’s actions have consequences that are unsettling to bipartisan guardians of the status quo. So far, these consequences haven’t played out in such a way as to break the partisan polarization that has kept Trump afloat despite consistent and historically low levels of public support. In late December, Trump’s popularity fell to the level last seen when he was making excuses for neo-Nazis in 2017. All of this is taking place before a major recession hits, before Mueller has delivered his final report, and before Democrats have geared up the congressional investigation machine.

If key elite supporters of the Republican Party, from the Pentagon brass to leaders of the major banks, begin to conclude that Trump is a liability to US economic and military power, then elected GOP politicians will start to distance themselves from him. At that point, Trump’s strategy of avoiding removal from office if only a few more than half of Senate Republicans support him, may fall apart. Trump, of course, will not go quietly.

We may not yet be at that point. But it may be upon us before this new year ends.

US politics after the midterms

Trump faces a new situation in Washington with the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives. The November 2018 midterm election delivered the largest swing to the Democratic Party since 1974, with a forty-seat “pickup” in the House of Representatives. While Democrats lost a net of two US Senate seats, they were also facing the most unfavorable lineup of senate seats since the direct election of senators more than 100 years ago. The midterm turnout was the highest since 1914, the last midterm national election before women gained the right to vote. In fact, the total Democratic vote for House candidates was more than 60 million votes; just 3 million short of the votes Trump won in 2016! Democratic House candidates netted almost 10 million more votes than did Republican candidates, producing the largest percentage point gap between the two parties (8.6 percent—53.4 percent to 44.8 percent) ever recorded. In fact, more people voted to restore voting rights to felons in Florida in 2018 then for voted for Trump in 2016 in the state.

Without prejudging any future developments about what the Democrats will do with their newfound power in Washington, it’s important to recognize that their victory represented a huge mobilization of voters, candidates, volunteers, and (quite significantly) money that propelled them to victory. In fact, the midterm result has been telegraphed from the first day of the Trump administration, with the massive turnout at the Women’s March in 2017. The analysis of David Finkel, posted in the online edition of Against the Current is fundamentally correct:

To begin with, let’s imagine the scenario if the 2016 election hadn’t produced the rather fluky Electoral College victory of Donald Trump. In that case, following two years of the stagnant neoliberalism of an unpopular Hillary Clinton presidency, we’d likely have been looking at a massive “red wave” of Republicans consolidating very large Congressional and state house majorities (especially with over two dozen Democratic Senate seats on the line).

Instead, the key factor this November was certainly mass revulsion against the grotesque performance of the Trump regime—a show that his base loves, but repels pretty much everyone else. It’s important that the African American and Latinx voter turnout expanded, reacting against racist voter suppression and Trump’s anti-immigrant atrocities, along with an impressive youth turnout that holds progressive potential for the future. The Republicans’ plans to “reform” (destroy) Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and wipe out what remains of health care protections under Obamacare were obvious huge factors in their defeat.

Judged by the surveys of voters, 54 percent of the midterm electorate held an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and 38 percent of all voters said they saw their vote as a vote against Trump (compared to 26 percent who said they wanted to vote to support Trump). So the results largely represented a repudiation of Trump, rather than a solid vote “for” policies like health care reform or for more radical demands like free college.

That is even clearer when one considers that the majority of new Democratic representatives and senators arriving in Washington are fairly mainstream, pro-business, “centrist” politicians who have little interest in using their platforms to promote social democratic policies. This is despite the fact that they embody unprecedented diversity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and religion. In fact, as a report in the Intercept noted, wealthy Republican donors worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to identify “pro-business” candidates to promote, and corporate lobbying groups funneled millions in “dark money” through various “centrist” nonprofits to pro-business Democrats. As the newly elected conservative Democrats advance their pro-business and “bipartisan” bills (defended as the price to pay to hold on to suburban swing districts that had, until recently, been Republican strongholds), party leaders and donors will reinforce their pro-business positions.

The House Progressive Caucus will expand, but given the overall increase in Democratic seats, its proportional representation among the Democratic caucus (about 40 percent) will remain unchanged. As a result, the collection of pro-business Democratic caucuses (the Blue Dogs, Problem Solvers, and New Democrats) will just about match the numbers in the Progressive Caucus (96 for the progressives, 90 for the centrists). The Progressive Caucus was one of the chief backers of the reelection of mainstream liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

The two congress members from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), both self-identified socialists, have attracted a lot of attention. They have used social media to promote their agenda, and Tlaib’s announcement of support for BDS (along with newly elected non-DSA Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar) and for a trip to Palestine was a first. Ocasio-Cortez’s presence on Twitter is second only to Trump’s.

Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has used her platform to bring to national prominence issues like the “Green New Deal” and taxing the rich––proposals that socialists welcome. But she has also been caught in the devil’s bargain that all progressives who don’t want to be pigeonholed as “gadflies” become entangled when they seek a working relationship with colleagues to their political right. The first vote both democratic socialists took was in support of the Pelosi leadership’s plan to send Trump a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security without the $5.7 billion Trump had demanded for his racist wall. The problem, however, was that this included support at current funding levels for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) that both AOC and Tlaib had promised to abolish, as ISR contributor Justin Akers Chacón explained:

This bill was part of a Democratic strategy to outflank Trump in a bid to get the federal government reopened––to provide “border security” without funding Trump’s wall. This is a quick and shameful about-face from the “Abolish ICE” position that these left Democrats campaigned on.

If both the racist and xenophobic right, rallying behind Trump’s thuggish stand on the expansion of the border wall, and liberals and “progressives” in the Democratic Party accept the premise of militarized enforcement by different means, there is little chance for resistance to develop within Washington to the further slide to the right on immigration politics.

At the same time, AOC (but not Tlaib) joined only two other Democrats in voting against the House “rules,” governing legislation in the new Congress. AOC rightly objected to the austerity-inducing “pay as you go,” provisions, which many of her House Progressive Caucus colleagues supported. As Mike Allen, the editor of Axios, put it: “Look for Pelosi to give a ton of space to her vocal, activist freshmen—as long as she doesn’t think they’re hurting overall caucus efforts, or doing anything that could make it harder to keep the majority.”

Given that legislation that passes the Democratic House will have little chance of becoming law, it’s possible that Democrats could try to pass progressive demonstration bills as a way to excite the Democratic base for the 2020 election. Pelosi has already announced that the House leadership will allow hearings on “Medicare for All,” a plan to create a government-funded system of providing health care for all as a right. The centrists will resist these efforts. In the end, it may turn out that both sides of this divide land on a different formula: focusing on the Russia investigation, Trump’s corruption, and the like. While liberals may be satisfied with this, it will have the effect of sidelining action on issues such as health care or abortion rights.

For most people in the broad “resistance,” the midterm elections were the first act of a two-act play, where Act 2 is the 2020 presidential election to get rid of Trump (assuming Trump is still in office in November 2020). The entire 2020 Democratic primary season, whose “invisible primary” has already begun, will be oriented around how to get rid of Trump. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Democrats will nominate some “safe” establishment choice like Joe Biden, but it does mean that they will try to nominate someone they think will beat Trump. And that candidate (with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris being the early frontrunners) will probably position herself as a “progressive” in the Democratic primaries.

What does that mean for the prospect of Senator Bernie Sanders taking a second run for the Democratic nomination? Unlike in 2016, Sanders will not have the field to himself. There are likely to be as many as twenty candidates, including many neoliberals who are posturing as progressives. Large numbers of activists and the new socialist left will be enthusiastic supporters for Bernie 2020. Unless Sanders actually wins the nomination (which is certainly not ruled out), those activists who are committed to promoting Sanders as a tribune of socialism will be faced with a choice of supporting another liberal or centrist Democrat lest they be accused of being indifferent to allowing the “fascist” Trump a second term.

The task of those committed to socialism from below is to position ourselves to work alongside newly-radicalizing layers sympathetic to socialism and increasingly hostile to the logic of capitalism; to engage with them in struggles, from teachers’ strikes to women’s marches, from anti-police brutality to immigrant rights campaigns; and explain that, first, what is most important, as Howard Zinn famously said,

There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.

Second, through the use of well-chosen local independent socialist and left election campaigns, and through patient argument, we must argue that working and oppressed people need our own, independent political movements, organizations, and parties to advance political agendas that reflect our interests. Those committed to building an independent left-wing political alternative outside the Democratic Party, as the ISR is, will continue to make that case during the primaries and general election period.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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