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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

What We Said Then...

A few days after the 2016 US Presidential elections, the editorial board of Marxism-Leninism Today constructed an early, preliminary assessment of the widely unexpected Trump victory. We collected our impressions and distilled our thoughts and posted our first analysis on November 15, 2016.

The Meaning of the 2016 US Presidential Election stands up well as a first take on the events that had rocked the media on the morning of November 9, 2016. In fact, while going against the then-prevalent grain, it captures succinctly how such an unlikely, unworthy character could attain the highest office in the most powerful country in the history of the world. We suggested that:

...much of the liberal and left commentary has focused on President-elect Donald Trump, and the danger that his ascension to the White House portends.

 While that is a matter of great and serious concern, it should not overshadow the meaning of the election — what the election says about the two-party system and the mood of the electorate. Without a class analysis, without an understanding of what the vote expresses… future results will be even more disappointing.

Four years later, that forecast is not at all off the mark. We are, as Matt Taibbi noted recently, “...arriving where we might have four years ago…”-- with a Trumpian entr’acte. 

While the left within the Democratic Party has made notable gains with the public, its influence within the Party is no greater today. Bernie Sanders, a popular left icon, and others left of the party’s center worked diligently to elect Biden and the ticket, but they have garnered no concessions from the Democratic establishment. 

The Democratic Party, despite some electoral successes by its small progressive component, has lost further congressional ground in the interim election and in 2020, even with Biden’s close victory.

We noted in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was clearly the favored candidate of the ruling class: “It is important to note that nearly 85% of those super PAC contributions went to Hillary Clinton’s campaign… Nearly every major newspaper endorsed her. And Wikileaks revealed the widespread collusion between media figures and political operatives working in her favor. Like most of monopoly capital, most of the vast news and entertainment empires favored Hillary Clinton.”

“Among the big losers in the November 8 US federal elections were the commentators, the media, the electoral consultants, the pollsters, and the two major political parties.”

We saw Trump overcoming the Democratic Party advantage with his false promises of deep and radical change: “The Democrats lost because they refused to address the issues that mattered most to the electorate. By nearly twice the number of the next most popular trait, voters sought a candidate who ‘can bring needed change.’ Instead, Clinton offered experience and continuity.”

Alternatively, Trump postured as a faux-populist, intent on “draining the swamp” of cynicism, corruption, and apathy. We characterized Trump’s campaign as an exercise in right-wing populism, “...a contradictory ideology, combin[ing] attacks on socially oppressed groups with distorted forms of anti-elitism based on scapegoating. Trump’s populism represented an amalgam of white racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, isolationism, anti-intellectualism, American nationalism, nostalgia for a golden past (Make America Great Again!) and hostility to ‘establishment’ elites.”

We were careful to distinguish right-wing populism from home grown fascism, as so much of the left failed to do: “Though the Trump movement has certainly attracted fascistic elements of the so-called ‘alt-right’... and could conceivably morph in a fascist direction, as of now it lacks, except in embryonic form, most of the classic elements associated with fascism...”

“And of course, unlike Germany in the early 1930s… there is no existential political crisis in which the US ruling class feels threatened enough by revolution to turn away from normal bourgeois democratic methods of rule.”

We warned that “[I]t would be a mistake not to see the economic distress, frustration, and anti-elitist anger as the central force in the Democratic Party defeat. Many key, if not most, predominantly white, working class areas that abandoned the Democrats in 2016 backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. And they backed Obama, not necessarily from racial identity, but from a thirst for change. They voted for Trump — a corrupted, wind bag businessman — for the same reason.”

In the immediate wake of the election, the MLT collective anticipated that: “Democratic Party operatives are working feverishly to channel the anti-Trump sentiment into nothing more than a fresh campaign of uncritical support for Democrats… They assiduously avoid any remedies to the inequalities, declining living standards, and indebtedness that plague working people. Instead, they rail against Trump’s personal failings and vulgarity, but make no demands on his administration.”

This was to become the persistent theme of Democrats and the liberal media for the next four years. While anticipating distractions, we no doubt underestimated how the Democratic Party would obsess over bogus Russia connections and assorted conspiracies rather than address issues important to US citizens. Politics were reduced to reality-show drama, while urgent needs went unaddressed. Though Democratic officialdom and a compliant media tirelessly and tiresomely intrigued against and mocked the Trump administration, it became clear that, at the same time, they sought to delegitimize the 2016 election with charges of foreign collusion and domestic chicanery.

It is a bitter irony that questioning the 2016 election results served as a prelude to Trump’s own Quixotic campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the subsequent election results in 2020.

In summary, we sized up the 2016 election results as follows: “For the people, this election marks a further deterioration, a deepening crisis, of the US two-party system. The distance between the interests of the masses and the actions of elected public officials are, today, virtually unbridgeable. The working class loses again, as it would have if the Democratic Party candidate had won.”

And now a lackluster, center-right Democrat has eked out a narrow victory over a proven mediocrity, and we are, as Matt Taibbi put it, “arriving where we might have four years ago.”

We placed hope, perhaps somewhat misplaced, that while: “...after Clinton’s nomination, many were shepherded back into the Democratic Party fold by the Party’s cry of impending doom, still others saw clearly the corruption and corporate-complicity of the Democratic leadership. They recognized the impossibility of securing real change through the vehicle of the Democratic Party. They give hope to the emergence of a truly independent movement, one that understands the need to replace capitalism with people’s power — socialism. This election could well mark an important step in that direction.”

We remain hopeful that even more people will be drawn away from witting or unwitting obeisance to the Democratic Party. The lure of funding, the fear of being marginalized, the seduction of access to seats of power, and unbridled opportunism hold many within the party’s orbit. Yet more and more grow frustrated with the complacency and detachment of elected Democrats, an affliction that has historically infected even the party’s most progressive figures.

Nonetheless, we are encouraged by the growing interest and support our website has enjoyed, especially in the last few years.

The Force the Vote movement for shaming the Democratic leadership toward a floor vote on Medicare For All is a welcome, early, and healthy sign. Rising over a month before Biden’s inauguration, it shows that there exists a militant, independent left determined to be neither servile nor compliant, an encouraging omen for the future. In the face of resistance from weak-spined “progressive” Democrats, it has spurred some, even Bernie Sanders, to pledge to hold up the obscene military budget in order to secure spending on a more humane pandemic response. Still others now join the fight, seeking to leverage advanced, progressive issues against Speaker Pelosi-- the symbol, in the House of Representatives, of all that corporate ownership of the Democratic Party buys. These engagements portend other battles brewing in the coming year.

Four years after Marxism-Leninism Today’s early analysis of Trump’s ascension, it is satisfying to revisit the document. It shows the usefulness and sagacity of “a class analysis,” of the science of Marxism-Leninism over the fog of distortion spread by the capitalist scribes.

Greg Godels

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Is Trumpism Dead?

Donald Trump appeared large on the national political scene five years ago and soon he will be gone. Or will he?

Joseph Biden will take the Presidential Oath of Office on January 20 and assume the Presidency. Despite all the media noise about disrupting the election and mounting a coup, there was never any real danger of Trump holding onto the office. Certainly, anyone who followed Trump’s career would know that his exit will be a circus, likely ending with his leaving the White House to play golf a few days before the inauguration and never returning (there are reputable accounts that he is planning a rally to compete with the inauguration). That’s Trump.

The noise from the media and its enabling punditry was merely a distraction from the President-elect’s awful choices for posts in his administration. Extracting the last bit of Trump-fear, corporate Democrats and their loyal megaphones sought to divert the Party’s left from the shafting they were receiving from Biden’s team.

But the question lingers: have the liberals driven a stake into the evil heart of Trump or will he, or someone like him, rise again?

The answer depends, of course, on what constitutes Trumpism. Is it a vulgar, outlandish personality; a crude bullying of women and minorities; a pandering to the fringe right; or a set of dissident policies aimed at seducing the working class and re-energizing what looks to many to be a declining or, at least, challenged empire?

The simple answer is that Trumpism is all of the above. But the more interesting and useful response is that Trump is the product of the failures of a broken political system, disabled by corruption, corporate dominance, opportunism, and cynicism. Trump nested in the presidency because the two-party system offered no options that measured up to the demands of a growing share of the electorate. For millions, the disinvestment in manufacturing, the emigration of jobs, the immigration of cheap labor, the loss of community, a growing chasm between the government and the governed, value relativism, and a coarsened everyday life spoke to the desire for a political change of course.

We know this phenomenon from forty years ago, when another outlier won the Presidential election with a “...strange mixture of business conservatism, economic populism, militant chauvinism, and moral and religious traditionalism…” in the words of a collective of Soviet historians. Ronald Reagan, as these same historians recounted, promised to “put a stop to ‘the decline of America,’ strengthen its economy and military capability and ‘move the nation’ again… The Democrats were pictured as ‘the chief architects of our decline’ and the Republicans as the party of national revival…”-- an earlier version of “Make America Great Again.”

Contrary to the liberal denunciation of Trump as the “worst President in history,” his administration cannot hold a candle to the destruction wrought by this previous President. Reagan gutted social programs, empowered the extreme right, stirred racism, induced a deep recession, and exploded the size of the military budget. 

But he didn’t stop the decline in US living standards, overseeing the painful deindustrialization of the 1980s.

Since then, other politicians met growing dissatisfaction with promised change. No candidate in recent years capitalized on the sentiment for change more than Barack Obama. His mantras of “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can” promised to satisfy this thirst for the new, after a devastating, unprecedented-in-our-lifetime economic collapse.  

Looking back, we see that that promise was unrealized, but a significant number of those seduced by it turned to Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, many see the shift of Obama’s voters to Trump as an important, if not decisive, element in Trump’s victory in several states.

Such an unusual ideological shift from Obama to Trump underscores the desperate search for an alternative to the two-party norm, a rejection of business-as-usual. Moreover, this anomaly further reflects the profound crisis festering as a result of the ruling class’s growing economic, social, and political distance from the people. Antonio Gramsci’s often-quoted comment in the Prison Notebooks seems singularly appropriate to 2020 US politics:

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this period a great deal of morbid symptoms appear. (p. 275-276, my emphasis)

While the ruling class may still “lead” in many ways, there is no question that decadence is setting in and we have seen “morbid symptoms” emerge more strikingly with the Trump administration.

But morbidity and its discontents are not features peculiar to the US political crisis. It clearly exhibits a pattern throughout the capitalist world: From Boris Johnson in the UK to Bolsonaro in Brazil, from Modi in India to Viktor Orb├ín in Hungary, from Duterte in the Philippines to Duda in Poland, popular dissatisfaction has birthed new political mutations professing few allegiances to the traditional political parties sharing power since World War II. 

If there is a recent template for this mutation, it might be found in the political rise of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Like Trump, he was a super-rich vulgarian with the appearance of a measure of independence from the traditional parties. He, too, offered the aura of change to an electorate anxious for relief from political malignancy. But Berlusconi’s reign, like Trump’s today, was a nightmarish opera buffa of hot air and bluster.

It should not go unnoticed by those who are celebrating Trump’s demise that, while Berlusconi is now gone from Italian politics, his legacy has brought even more disorder to the political stage: unelected governments, a popular, extreme right wing, xenophobic party and a party founded by a popular comedian-- a far more dangerous extremist, Matteo Salvini, and a far more ludicrous movement, the Five Star Movement.

Before beginning a love-fest with Trump’s successors, the US broad, unanchored left should consider the Italian precedent. Is the Biden government more than a caretaker before the next wave of “morbid symptoms”?

A Marxism-Leninism Today comrade has argued convincingly that Trump and his ilk should best be understood as right-wing populists, a faux-populism posturing to fill the void in countries suffering from an undeveloped left, a fractured left, an opportunist left or no left at all. Right-wing populism cynically trades on the dissatisfactions of populations neglected by traditional parties, but with no realistic leftwing recourse. The false promises, failures, corruption, and hypocrisies of the previously powerful social democratic left has cleared the space for reactionary faux-populism. 

The electoral successes of right-wing populism have prompted some in the Republican Party to envision their party as a haven for, even a future bastion for the working class. They hope to exploit the continued irrelevance of an ideologically backward, splintered, and defensive US left.

Republican prospects for 2022 and 2024 are in inverse proportion to how the Biden administration adopts left, pro-working class policies, a possibility that is very unlikely. In other words, it would not be surprising to see a clone of Trumpism make a strong return as a consequence of a hollow Biden Presidency.

Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto of the early immature stages of struggle by the working class:  

At this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies… Thus, the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.

Exiting this backward stage is long overdue for the US working class. The widely expressed joy among liberals of a return to “normalcy” marks a victory for the bourgeois Democratic Party. We must recognize that defeating Trumpism in the 2020 election, though a worthwhile victory, is still a victory for bourgeois rule. Whether it is a final victory over rightwing populism is far from determined by Biden’s success.

A final defeat against Trumpism and its kind and the transcendence of business-as-usual politics are one and the same thing. A left anchored in Marxism-Leninism could spark the movement toward authentic working class politics. Only a left dedicated to advancing the cause of the working class over the interests of the bourgeoisie can drive a stake into Trumpism and its mutations once and for all.

Greg Godels