Trumpism is still alive and the left must recognise the centrality of class in order to organise against it, argues Yonas Makoni
A ‘battle for the soul of a nation’ rang out as Joe Biden’s final rallying call a few days before the presidential election. It didn’t matter whether you liked the Democratic challenger or not; this vote, he argued, was about the thin line separating civilisation from barbarism and decency from indecency. According to Obama, it was about going back to a time when you could just ignore politics, confident that the people running things knew what they were doing and had your best interests at heart. “It just won’t be so exhausting”, he said. With language like that, it is no wonder that even some liberals are now starting to doubt Biden’s ability to heal the nation’s divisions.
Despite Trump losing, the ‘blue wave’ landslide many predicted for Biden didn’t materialise. Biden clinched it in the end, but this is still an embarrassment for the Democrats, who will be quick to pass the blame: to the left, to Russia, and to the entire people for being too stupid to know what’s good for them. It is also certain that ‘Trumpism’, far from being a temporary glitch, is alive and well and will remain a fixture of American politics for years to come.
Unfortunately for Biden and Obama, there is no going back to the blissful pre-crash nineties and noughties. The financial crash itself was the point-of-no-return, but at the same time only hastened the crisis of neoliberal rule. For anyone committed to democratic ideals, now is the time to start seriously questioning the viability of this kind of politics and its ability to defeat the far right.
The first step is to admit the complicity of the neoliberal establishment in fostering the ideas that underpin Trumpism. Contrary to what both his supporters and detractors claim, Trump is a product of the American political system, rather than an outsider. For Obama, Trump is unbearable because of his lack of manners. In most matters of substance, however, his politics have been a continuation and radicalisation of deep-rooted trends. Warmongering, climate change denialism, Wall Street clientelism, racist anti-migrant policies and police brutality have long histories in American politics.
Trump may be more brazenly racist but, as we have seen from Macron’s recent propagation of anti-immigration rhetoric and Islamophobia, centrist politicians rarely oppose sowing racial divisions when it suits their agendas. And is it surprising that Trump appeals to people’s sense of national superiority and racial belonging, when those values are inculcated in every American from cradle to grave by the state’s ideological institutions?
So, what is the crucial difference between Biden and Trump? Trump has championed the right wing pole in a polarising society, while Biden clings on to the collapsing centre. While Biden represents the free market politics that have hurt the working class, Trump has mobilised the growing distrust of political institutions and contempt for the elite by presenting an opposition to middle-class liberals, the media and professionals politicians. Even though he is rooted in the same class and in reality maintained their interests. This formula, a kind of substitute class analysis, is becoming more and more effective with non-white voters, also sick of the patronising hypocrisy of the political class.
This mobilisation has proven to be one of the most dangerous elements of Trump’s presidency. It must be remembered that Trump first gained popularity by making material promises to his base of ‘deplorables’. He vowed to ‘drain the swamp’ of establishment politicians and bring back coal and steel manufacturing – promises that he, of course, was unable to fulfil. Opposition to globalisation, which has gone hand in hand with deindustrialisation and outsourcing, allowed Trump to tap into the anger over declining living standards in rural, post-industrial America, and to scapegoat migrants and appeal to xenophobic prejudices.
The fact that Trump’s success was so dependent on harnessing this popular rage indicates that there is a space for a left platform in the US that unites sections of his base with the more progressive sections of the working class. More importantly, if the left doesn’t organise around these class-based questions, it will only allow the right to capitalise on the polarisation, and the next Trump will be more sophisticated and more dangerous.
This struggle is only just beginning. Biden has already appealed to a sense of bipartisanship and a return to 'normal', 'sensible' politics. The chance of a left electoral pole with Bernie Sanders that was not just ‘not Trump’ but offered to materially improve the conditions for working people has been twice sabotaged by the Democrat establishment, and they’re already blaming the left for their poor election performance. Being tied to a purely electoral strategy and led by the Democrats will do little to challenge Trumpism. The need for building a bottom-up socialist political culture, rooted in workplace and community struggles rather than official politics, has never been clearer.
Apart from a few relatively small protests, Trump’s supporters, some of which include organised and armed fascists, haven’t really mobilised as he might have hoped. But as his denial of the results continues, this could change, and if it does then the priority for the left will be to push back. In the long run, however, a Biden presidency will only exacerbate the country’s divisions and provide a breeding ground for far-right movements. The Democratic machine has no interest in addressing the conditions that produce these movements – in order to do that, we need real change.