Progressives today must mobilize against Trumpism while articulating an alternative
political and economic analysis.
The rift within the Democratic Party was on full display at the California Democratic Party Convention on May 19 in Sacramento, California. Progressives joined members of National Nurses United, protesting the Democratic Party establishment’s refusal to support [a] single payer health care system. Rather than follow through with Democratic rhetoric that health care is a human right, establishment Democrats have responded to voters by scolding and attacking them.
— Michael Sainato, “Tom Perez Bombs Speech, California Dem Chair Tells Protesters ‘Shut the F* Up,’” Observer, May 20, 2017.
The new Trump administration is embroiled in a series of crises, with new ones emerging on almost a daily basis. The president is bombastic, ill-informed, and narcissistic. In response to his critics he engages in dangerous and unconventional efforts to transform the dominant narrative about his incompetence. He has authorized ruthless bombings in Syria and Afghanistan and threatened war against enemies such as North Korea.
More recently, in his diplomatic trip to the Middle East and Europe, he has reached a deal to sell $110 billion in weaponry to a Saudi Arabian regime which supports terrorism throughout the Middle East and a devastating bombing campaign against Yemen. And at home he has appointed cabinet members and advisors with long histories of white supremacy and anti-Semitism (almost in defiance of accepted minimal qualifications for public office).
Trump’s core constituency all along has been sectors of finance capital, insurance, real estate, the military/industrial complex, and drug companies whose profits have come from domestic investments or sales and speculation overseas. It also includes portions of small- and medium-sized businesses whose viability has been threatened, not by big government, but by the further monopolization of the economy.
Some workers displaced by the underside of neoliberalism have supported Trump.
In addition, some workers displaced by the underside of neoliberalism, including capital flight, automation, and trade, have supported Trump because they saw no positive economic future in a Clinton presidency. Finally, the Trump constituency includes a percentage of voters who are ideological legatees of white supremacy.
Therefore, the Trump coalition consists of fractions of capital who will gain from a more muscular and economically nationalist policy agenda, marginalized portions of the so-called “middle class,” sectors of the working class, and portions of all of these whose political learning has centered on the history and consciousness of white supremacy. (“Make America great again.”)
Trump’s major adversaries come from a core sector of the ruling class that has dominated the policy process at least since the 1980s, the neoliberal globalists. In response to the squeeze on profits of the 1970s, the capitalist elites began to promote a dramatic shift in the character of the economy in the direction of “neoliberalism.”
Drawing upon an economic ideology with a long history from Adam Smith, to Milton Friedman, to mainstream neoclassical economists of the late twentieth century, every administration from Carter to Trump has engaged in deregulation of economic life, reducing government programs that help the poor and working classes, reducing the rights of unions, and privatizing virtually all public institutions.
They “went global,” that is developing a network of economic ties via trade agreements, the globalization of production, and integrating corporate boards. Capitalist elites from every continent began to develop common approaches to national policy via such informal organizations as the Trilateral Commission, meetings of the G7 countries, and the annual World Economic forum.
Debt-poor countries were the first to be forced to embrace neoliberal policies, followed by the former Socialist Bloc countries, then the Western European social democracies, and finally the United States. A significant portion of this qualitative change in the way capitalism works has involved increased financial speculation (as a proportion of the total gross domestic product), dramatic increases in global inequality in wealth and income, and increasing economic marginalization of workers, particularly women, people of color, and immigrants.
Candidate Trump orchestrated a campaign against the neoliberal globalists.
Candidate Donald Trump orchestrated a campaign against the neoliberal globalists who dominated the political process in the United States since the 1980s. While he epitomized finance capital, albeit domestic as well as foreign, and represents the less than one percent who rule the world, he presented himself as a spokesperson of the economically marginalized. He attacked the capitalist class of which he is a member. In addition, he blamed the marginalization of the vast majority on some of their own; people of color, women, and immigrants.
Resistance, May 2017
Since the November 2016 election masses of people have been mobilizing in a variety of ways against the threatened agenda of the newly-elected president. The women’s marches and rallies of January 21, 2017, and International Women’s Day on March 8 were historic in size and global reach. There have been huge mobilizations to reduce the use of fossil fuels and prevent climate disaster, to support immigrant rights, and to provide basic health care.
Many of these manifestations of outrage and fear have occurred as planned events but also there have been numerous spontaneous acts at congressional town hall meetings and even in airports challenging Trump directives to refuse people entry into the United States.
A multiplicity of groups have formed or increased in size since January: former Bernie Sanders supporters; anti-racist campaigns; those calling for sanctuary cities and defending the human rights of immigrants; progressive Democratic organizations; and women’s mobilizations. Traditional left organizations, such as the Democratic Socialists of America, benefiting from the Sanders campaign, tripled in size. And organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have reported large increases in financial contributions. The mobilization of millions of people has bolstered the spirits of progressives everywhere. They feel that at this point in history a new progressivism is about to be born. But the story is made complicated by the nature of the opposition to Trumpism.
Opposition to Trumpism: Neoliberal and progressive
Paradoxically, while this is a teachable moment as well as a movement-building moment, progressive forces are struggling to be organized. In and around the Democratic Party there is a conflict over the vision and the politics it ought to embrace at this time and in the coming period. The Sanders supporters, inside and outside the Democratic Party, have marshaled much support for a progressive agenda: single-payer health care, a green jobs agenda, protecting the environment, tax reform, building not destroying immigrant rights, defending women’s rights, and cutting military spending.
Progressive democrats are struggling to articulate a program to challenge Trumpism.
With the brutal policies advocated and already instituted by the new Trump administration, progressive democrats and their allies on the left are struggling mightily to articulate a program, and create some organizational unity to challenge Trumpism.
However, on almost a daily basis stories have appeared in the mainstream media about Trump’s incompetence and irrational and ill-informed statements. Most important, allegations of the connection between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian spying, have dominated the news.
As a result, the neoliberal globalist Democrats, activists in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and leaders of the Democratic Party, have consciously embraced the Trump/Russia connection as the real reason why their candidate lost the election. By implication, they deny that there was anything perceived negatively about mainstream Democratic Party policies on trade, health care, mass incarceration, bank regulation, jobs and wages, and other neoliberal approaches to policy in the years when Democrats were in the White House. Clearly, Hillary Clinton was identified with this neoliberal agenda. But understanding the election outcome through the lens of Russiagate is a recipe for disaster.
The dilemma for progressives is that opposition to Trumpism and all it stands for has been and must be a key component of reigniting a progressive majority. But if it does not address the fundamental failures of the neoliberal agenda, including challenging neoliberal globalization, the current stage of capitalism, Trump’s grassroots support will continue. Working people who ordinarily would vote for more liberal candidates for public office need to believe that future candidates are prepared to address the issues, often economic, that concern them.
Therefore, the fundamental project for progressives today includes mobilizing against Trumpism while articulating an alternative political and economic analysis of the current state of capitalist development. In concrete terms, this approach means challenging the legitimacy of the Trump administration and its allies in Congress while articulating the perspective that mainstream Democrats, the neoliberal globalists, are part of the problem, not the solution.
This alternative analysis requires a bold challenge inside the electoral arena and in the streets that calls for radical reforms: single-payer health care; cutting the military-budget; creating government programs to put people to work on living wage jobs in infrastructure, social services, and public education; addressing climate change; and fiscal and regulatory policies that reduce the grotesque inequality of wealth and income which has increased since the 1980s.
The tasks are challenging but another world is possible.
[Harry Targ teaches United States foreign policy at Purdue University. He is a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]