One year after Trump’s victory: The US bourgeoisie struggles to manage the political turbulence

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This article, written by a close sympathiser of the ICC in the US, is a further contribution to our effort to follow the evolution of the situation in the US after the election of Trump. It follows on from an article written by the same comrade in April[1]

One year after the shocking election of Donald Trump as President, the US bourgeoisie continues to struggle with a new constellation of political forces that threatens to undermine both major political parties and the traditional left-right division of ideological labor between them. The political tremors unleashed during the Presidential campaign of 2016 continue to reverberate under the Trump administration with the US political “establishment” now forced to deal with a rogue outsider occupying the highest office in the land, entrusted with the nuclear codes.[2]

In previous articles, we have argued that Trump’s election—along with similar political events in other countries, such as the 2016 Brexit Referendum in the UK—marks a qualitative step forward in the process of social decomposition, in which the historic crisis of global capitalism is exerting a centrifugal effect on the political apparatus of the bourgeois state—especially its “democratic” apparatus in those states that employ them. The evolution of the political situation in the year since Trump’s election has in our view confirmed this analysis and revealed a deepening crisis of bourgeois governance that the establishment, or main factions of the bourgeoisie, have yet to bring under control. The crisis is particularly pronounced in the US, where Trump was able to win the White House due to a complex set of circumstances including the effects of the antiquated Electoral College and the inability of an already compromised Republican Party to contain its more extreme factions, but also the degradation of the Democratic Party itself, which in an apparent act of hubris nominated a particularly ill-suited establishment candidate with ethical, legal and political challenges (Clinton) to face Trump, against the more popular Bernie Sanders or other more electable candidates.

Therefore, Trump’s victory, while an “accident” in the sense of occurring against the wishes of the main factions of the bourgeoisie, did not come from nowhere. It was prepared by a process of political degeneration that has its origin at least as far back as the contested election of 2000, when George W. Bush won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, but only after the intervention of the Supreme Court. While the eight years of the ensuing Obama Presidency initially did much to repair the “democratic” image of the US state, underneath the glowing approval of the bourgeois media the Obama years were marked by political and social fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. The  working class would pay heavily for this in the form of layoffs, protracted unemployed, evictions and the repossession of their homes, exploding student debt and the expansion of various forms of “precarious” employment, while the Wall Street “Banksters”—who most saw as responsible for the disaster—escaped any serious repercussions. The period 2008-2016 witnessed a growing anger in the population about the overall state of the economy, the lack of stable jobs and the declining life opportunities for the younger generations. At the same time, in certain sectors of the populace—especially the so-called “white working class”[3]—there was increasing concern about the pace of social and cultural change brought about by the forces of so-called “neo-liberalism” or “globalization,” which many saw Obama’s Presidency symbolizing. Consequently, the growing anger in the population took multiple and diverse forms and was influenced by both left and right bourgeois ideology.

While Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party appeared to share few ideological features, they nevertheless each manifested a growing “grassroots” frustration with the establishment parties and even the institutions of the state itself. On the left, there was a growing realization that establishment Democratic politicians like Obama—whatever their progressive image—would never adequately address the deepening economic troubles of the younger generations, while on the right elements associated with the Tea Party began to turn their anger against establishment Republican politicians, who they felt would always sell them out on issues like immigration, global trade deals, etc. While emanating from different ideological places and reflecting different social constituencies, there was nevertheless a broader “populist” fervor bubbling up during the Obama years that exploded in unpredictable ways during the 2016 Presidential campaign, fueling the candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Trump.

Now that Trump is President, the main factions of the US bourgeoisie have had a very difficult time figuring out how to respond to the reality that the social and political upheaval unleashed by their favoured approach to managing capitalism’s historic crisis (neo-liberal globalization) has led to the election of a rogue element to the Presidency whose commitment to this consensus, as well as to the imperialist strategy of the main factions of the bourgeois class, is still not entirely clear.

The Democrats’ dilemma and the problems of the “Resistance.”

The Democrats, the faction of the bourgeoisie that one would expect to lead a political campaign of opposition to Trump and Trumpism, have in fact launched a fierce “resistance” effort, unleashing an intense political and media barrage around the President’s ties to Russia, and the possibility that his campaign colluded with the Russian state to manipulate the election results. They have also vigorously denounced the President’s flirtation with extreme right-wing and racist elements, especially in the aftermath of the turmoil in Charlottesville around the “alt-right”/neo-Nazi march that resulted in the killing of an anti-fascist counter-protestor[4].

However, despite the fervor of these campaigns, the Democrats are not in a particularly strong institutional or ideological position to oppose Trump at this juncture. Despite holding the Presidency for eight years under Obama, and Clinton actually having won the popular vote against Trump, the Democrats are at their lowest point in terms of number of elected offices nationwide since 1928, i.e. the last Presidential election before Roosevelt’s victory in 1932 would usher in the  “New Deal.” They control no part of the federal government (save for perhaps elements of the “permanent bureaucracy” and the so-called “deep state”) and most state governments are under Republican control. With the Republicans’ blocking of Obama’s appointment of the moderate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and Trump’s subsequent successful insertion of the conservative Neil Gorsuch to the high court, the Democrats cannot confidently rely on the judiciary’s court of final say to back them up, should they take the legal route to obstruct Trump’s agenda.

Moreover, the Democrats are themselves experiencing a profound inner turmoil in the aftermath of the Bernie Sanders insurgency, which nearly upended the establishment’s choice for President even before the general election. The establishment neo-liberal factions in the Democratic Party are thus having to fight a two-front battle: on the one hand to oppose Trump and the other to not give up too much ground to the leftist insurgent forces in their own party, who openly call the neo-liberal consensus into question. Many establishment Democrats (including Hillary herself) continue to blame Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign against Clinton for Trump’s subsequent victory. They often disparage Sanders’ supporters as juvenile idealists on the one hand, while at the same time they imply that many of his white working-class supporters are really Trumpian racists and xenophobes at heart.

The reality of the division of the Democratic Party between establishment neo-liberals—heavily backed by Wall Street—who are committed to a version of the status quo—and the “Sandernistas” who eschew corporate funding and increasingly adopt a kind of populist intransigence in their political rhetoric, complicates the ability of the Democratic Party to operate as an effective opposition to Trump. The massive levels of distrust between the establishment Democrats—who see the Sanders faction as irresponsible populists not much different from the Trumpists—and the “progressive” wing of the party who accuse their establishment foes of having “sold out the working class” to court Wall Street money, have rendered the Democrats a divided force, with an incoherent message and competing loyalties to different social constituencies. Where the establishment Democrats have their electoral base in the so-called “professional managerial class” and (older) minority voters, the progressives around Sanders court the younger generations and elements of the white working class who have not succumbed to Trumpism. While Obama, with his rock star like demographic appeal, was able to cement these diverse constituencies into a winning electoral coalition, Clinton was not—hemorrhaging white working class voters by seemingly referring to them as “deplorables” and alienating younger voters with a political track record that stunk of entitlement, opportunism and broken promises.

In the months since Trump’s election, the Democratic Party’s institutions—including the newly reconstituted Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the party’s elected officials on Capitol Hill—have mostly avoided going in a populist direction and have instead decided to focus their opposition to Trump on his supposed collusion with Russia and the threat the President poses for US national security. At times, the rhetoric around Trump’s Russian connections have reached such a level of intensity that the Democrats have themselves fallen into a kind of anti-Russian xenophobic mania, seeing Vladimir Putin as a puppet master manipulating the US democratic apparatus for his own ends. The meme of Trump as a Kremlin puppet—whatever his actual connections to Russian interests—represents an ideological attack on the legitimacy of President (and the Presidency itself) many times more severe than the so-called “birther” conspiracy theories that some Republicans floated against Obama.

In their zeal to push the Russia narrative and to paint themselves as the party of American sovereignty and the national (imperialist) interest, the Democrats increasingly abandon their traditional ideological position as the party of liberal internationalism, rational diplomacy and respect for the US’s democratic institutions. While much of their campaign about Russian interference in the election is carried out in the name of restoring the integrity of American democracy, the result of this exercise is to call into question the intelligence of the American voters, many of whom they suggest can’t tell the difference between real campaign information and Russian propagated “fake news.” For the Democrats, it is not far from this conclusion to flirtation with the idea of censoring the internet. For the defeated Democrats, who purport to speak in the name of democracy itself, voters’ choices only appears to count when they make the right choice and ratify the main factions of the bourgeoisie’s preferred candidates (in  2016, Clinton), not when they choose an outsider who questions the prevailing consensus in Washington. In their eyes, Trump’s election must therefore be illegitimate and should possibly be overturned. It is in this sense that the Russia narrative undercuts the very democratic ideology the Democratic Party purportedly seeks to defend.

In choosing to focus their opposition to Trump around the theme of Russian interference, the Democrats have themselves called into question the US’s democratic image. The very meaning of democracy itself becomes unclear for large swathes of the population, not limited to Trump’s base voters. Part of this attack is actually aimed not at Trump, but at Sanders’ supporters, many of whom were supposedly duped into foolishly not voting for Clinton by an aggressive left-themed Russian backed propaganda campaign on social media and the Russia Today (RT) network that painted Clinton as a neo-liberal hag no better than Trump. For the establishment Democrats, it is not just Trumpian “deplorables” who cannot be trusted with the democratic franchise, but also the so-called “Bernie bros” and like-minded fellow-travelers whose juvenile purity ethic led many to irresponsibly risk a Trump victory by abstaining from the vote or supporting some destined- to- lose third party candidate.

Whether they realize it or not, the Democrats’ seemingly incessant campaigns about Russian interference in the election paint a picture of “democracy” as something like a technical process, whereby voters merely ratify the rational consensus choice of the main factions of the bourgeoisie. Any other outcome is by its very nature flawed and therefore illegitimate. This attitude only fuels the populist suspicion of the establishment elites who purport to know what is in the voters’ real interests, even more so than the voters themselves!

While the Russia campaigns may have stoked a certain fervor among constituencies already loyal to the Democratic Party, they likely haven’t helped the party mitigate the appeal of populism, whether from the left or the right. To many of Trump’s voters the campaigns look like an undemocratic attempt to overturn a legitimate election result. They fuel speculation about so-called “deep state” conspiracies against Trump and reinforce the image of the Democrats—and the political establishment as a whole—as dismissive and judgmental, as out of touch with the values and ethics of the “common man.”

For many of Sanders’ supporters, the Russia campaigns have only increased their alienation from the Democratic Party’s institutions. They view these campaigns as a sleight of hand to distract from the Democrats’ (and the Clinton campaign in particular) failure to connect with the working class and the economically distressed younger generations by offering real policy alternatives to the neo-liberal status quo. They are also seen as a dangerous rhetoric which threatens to escalate the US’s very real tensions with Russia to the brink of war—by proxy or otherwise. In this sense, the Democrats’ Russia campaigns, while somewhat effective in constraining Trump’s ability to maneuver on the terrain of foreign policy and preventing whatever rapprochement the Trumpists had planned with Putin from taking full shape, have nevertheless only served to deepen a certain populist contempt for the Democrats among wide swaths of the electorate.

Of course, it is also the case that the concerns over Russian interference in the election are not entirely motivated by an ideological need to delegitimize Trump. The main factions of the bourgeoisie from both major parties are understandably infuriated by what does appear to be some very real attempts by the Russian state to engage in an “active measures” campaign to either increase support for Trump or drive down Clinton’s vote (probably mostly the latter). From the point of view of the main factions of the US bourgeoisie, this interference by a foreign state in its “democratic” apparatus is wholly unacceptable. It is for this reason that many establishment Republicans have joined the Democrats in pushing the Russia narrative and calling for retaliation against Putin. John McCain, Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham have all called out the Russian interference, while McCain has often been more vociferous in his denunciations of Trump than even the Democrats.

In any event, the unanimity among the main factions of the bourgeoisie on the question of Russian interference in the election underscores the near universal contempt for Trump and what he represents among key figures from both parties, even if the Republicans are more politically constrained in their ability to connect Trump personally to the interference. While the claims by some of the more radical Democratic back-benchers that Trump is a “Russian hoax” or “Putin’s Puppet” may be irresponsible from the point of view of maintaining the democratic façade and the legitimacy of the existing institutions, there is nevertheless a consensus among the main factions of the bourgeoisie that Trump represents a dangerous and unpredictable element whose loyalty to the consensus goals of US imperialist policy cannot be assumed.

Ideological disintegration and the fight to control the media

But more than this general concern about Russian interference in the election, the entire controversy about “fake news”—which is not limited to Russian planted stories online, but has as many American authors as foreign ones—reveals a growing panic in the bourgeoisie that it is increasingly losing its ability to control the political media narrative and therefore manipulate the outcome of its electoral process to ensure its consensus candidates win elections. The growth of the Internet in recent decades, the deregulation of the media and the spread of new social media technologies have in retrospect not been positive on these accounts. More and more, the populace is separated from any common media driven political narrative—getting their news and information from a variety of online sources, the veracity and responsibility of which cannot be guaranteed or easily vetted.

For the bourgeoisie, it was already a problem when the sources of these competing narrative “bubbles” were mostly domestic (Fox News, right-wing radio, conspiracy websites, leftist alternative media, etc.), but it has become a full-blown national security crisis now that foreign intelligence agencies are able to penetrate the online space and exert some level of influence on US public opinion. While it is likely that the actual import of the Russian “active measures” campaign in the 2016 US election has been grossly exaggerated (the toxic effects of home grown media buffoonery, probably put Russian fake news to shame), it is clear that from the point of view of the US bourgeoisie any foreign influence is simply unacceptable. The problem for the main factions of the bourgeoisie is that the technological development of various Internet and social media technologies have reached such a point that any attempt to rein in the forces of ideological disintegration they foster would likely require some kind of state censorship—something which would further put into question the American “democratic” façade.

While the state appears to have won some cooperation from entities like Facebook and Twitter in cracking down on suspected Russian backed or other fake news sites, this has already been denounced by civil liberties and free speech advocates as counter to the spirit of US democratic values—and tough questions are beginning to be posed about the relationship of the Internet (still dominated by private companies) and the integrity of the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere that democratic societies are supposedly based upon. For now, the US bourgeoisie appears to prefer not to open the Pandora’s Box on this subject, instead attempting to override the ideological splintering of society with a new patriotic campaign against Russian interference, carried out primarily through the mechanisms of the Democratic Party. However, the dangers that such a campaign will itself get out of control and further discredit the US democratic apparatus remain real and it is in the end unlikely to prevent further questioning about the reality of American “democracy” from emerging. In fact, it may only accelerate this process.

Trump’s flirtations with the alt-right and the perils of “identity politics”

The second prong of the Democratic Party’s resistance to Trump focuses around a campaign to denounce his flirtations with some of the more extreme right-wing and racist forces in US society. This campaign reached a certain apex in the aftermath of the Charlottesville demonstrations when Trump rather ham-fistedly blamed the violence on “both sides,” drawing a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and “alt-right” elements that marched in defense of Confederate statues and the anti-fascist and anti-racist protestors who opposed them.

While the Democrats are on stronger ground in terms of public opinion with this line of attack against Trump, the fervor with which the Democrats have in recent times become the “party of minorities and immigrants” nevertheless now functions as a double-edged sword in electoral politics. While much of the population and nearly the entire bourgeoisie was incensed by Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville (including many prominent Republicans—even some associated with the Tea Party) and loudly denounced the President’s bumbling false equivalencies around the responsibility for the violence, the same level of unanimity does not exist in regards to the ideologically intransigent position of most Democrats about removing the Confederate statues, with most polls showing a majority of the population against removing these symbols of “southern pride.”

But beyond the specific issues of the Confederate statutes, this episode highlights another key dilemma facing the Democratic Party going forward. Buoyed by Obama’s successful campaigns, the Democrats have increasingly relied on the so-called “demographic strategy” to win elections, banking on assembling a coalition of professionals with progressive social values, younger voters, minorities and immigrants to defeat a Republican party whose demographic base among downscale whites was supposedly doomed to shrink with the increasing “browning of America.” On one level, this strategy only recognizes the reality of powerful historical, social and demographic trends resulting from the neo-liberal globalization of capitalism, but when the Democrats take the next step and are seen openly “cheerleading” this process (with even one Washington Post columnist recently seeming to root for white working class communities to die)[5], they run afoul of a white working-class “backlash.”

While this backlash was not yet powerful enough to pose problems for Obama’s re-election in 2012, it has nevertheless had disastrous effects for Democrats in congressional, state and local elections, where during Obama’s Presidency the Democrats racked up loss after loss in election after election. While some of this is clearly due to the incompetent management of the party under the reign of disgraced former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, it is also the case that the so-called demographic strategy is much less effective in lower turnout elections, which are usually dominated by demographics less favorable to the Democrats’ increasingly open attempts to court minority and immigrant voters. Losing elections in off years might be acceptable as long as Democrats could retain control of the Presidency by assembling the “Obama coalition” once every four years.  However, it apparently never occurred to anyone of strategic import in the Democratic Party that in the absence of a rock-star candidate on the ticket the demographic strategy could fail in a Presidential election as well.[6] The triumph of the Obama campaigns, in which the Democrats were constructed as the political vehicle of the dawning of a new age of historical progress and social/racial justice, crashed down to earth in the disaster of the Clinton campaign, where speaking for the interests of minorities and immigrants often came off more like opportunist pandering than genuine concern for their condition.[7]

Having sworn off the white working class to appeal to minorities and immigrants, the Democrats have now given themselves very little room for political maneuvering. In the absence of demographic change delivering them a permanent electoral majority in the near future, the Democratic Party appears to have no real political strategy other than to point out that  they are not Trump. While it is possible they may be able to ride popular disgust with Trump to victory in the 2018 midterms and/or 2020 Presidential election, it seems likely that the problems associated with pursuing minorities and immigrants as an electoral base will not attenuate anytime soon and will continue to complicate the Democratic Party’s ability to function as an effective party of either opposition or future governance.[8]

Of course, all of these problems facing the establishment Democrats would only seem to open the door for some kind of “progressive” make-over of the party under the forces associated with Bernie Sanders. If the establishment Democrats are now too closely tied with Wall Street donors, too compromised by their support for the neo-liberal consensus than it seems only logical that the main factions of the bourgeoisie would see the necessity to give the supposed “left” party in their political apparatus a new appearance by legitimating the Sanders’ wing and refashioning the Democrats’ message around the economic plight of the working class and the younger generations. Nevertheless, several barriers appear to stand in the way of this happening at this juncture.

First, although the Bernie Sanders campaign captured the imagination of much of the younger generation and Sanders’ own social democratic vision, which includes such ambitious projects as establishing a universal single payer healthcare system and tuition-free college, is popular with the public, Sanders himself is an aging political figure who would be 78 years old at the next Presidential election. Moreover, although his campaign appeared to find a successful new model of financing that eschewed corporate donors in favor of Internet based small donations, this has not translated well into institutional politics in the post-electoral period. Sanders’ own pick to head the DNC, Keith Ellison, was defeated in an internal party election by a more centrist figure, Tom Perez, who was essentially parachuted into the campaign late in the season by Obama and his loyalists to make sure the controversial Ellison did not win. While Perez initially promised unity with Ellison, there are recent reports of an internal party purge that saw several Sanders’ supporters lose their seats at the DNC table. [9]

While Sanders remains a very popular political figure nationwide, a reality that has prevented establishment Democrats from completely snubbing him, his supporters have not yet figured out how to unseat entrenched establishment figures from internal party positions. Moreover, as an “outsider” figure, Sanders has won few friends in the Washington based consultant-pundit-media complex, who remain more or less openly hostile to him and his supporters, seeking to discredit them as part of the same populist forces represented by Trump. Simply put, the Democratic establishment does not want to relinquish control of the party to the Sanders forces, who may put the neo-liberal consensus into question and whose commitment to consensus imperialist goals is as questionable as Trump’s. They would rather lose elections than give over the party to these “populists.”

Nevertheless, the Sanders movement faces other problems based on its own internal political contradictions. On the one hand, Sanders’ political base is clearly in the younger generations, who are attracted to his unabashed critique of neo-liberalism and Wall Street and are generally sympathetic to his old-school social democratic policy commitments. But to the extent to which the Sanders movement has to construct itself as a political as opposed to a demographic movement, it must seek support outside of this base. In the 2016 campaign, this took the form of appealing to those downscale whites still registered as Democrats and thus able to vote in Democratic primaries (or registered as independents in states with open primaries) in rustbelt and otherwise predominantly white states. It was no secret that Sanders performed rather poorly among minority voters, whose votes mostly went to Hillary Clinton. The electoral coalition that would be necessary to transform the Sanders movement from an opposition campaign to a real contender for power would be very difficult to assemble in a stable fashion. Any attempt to appeal to white working class voters by compromising on issues of race and immigration would alienate many of Sanders’ younger supporters, while conversely placating his millennial base on identity issues risks driving white working class voters further into the Trumpist orbit.

Already, Sanders has come in for attack on just this point from the Democratic establishment who have always suspected that deep down the left-wing populist has harbored anti-immigrant sentiment and never really understood issues of racial oppression. Sanders’ past flirtations with a kind of nationalist-protectionism (he even appeared on the Lou Dobbs show once to denounce an immigration reform proposal, because in his words it would create a class of “slave laborers”) has already been used by establishment Democrats to drive down his credibility among minority voters. Moreover, Sanders’ post-election criticism of “identity politics” and his endorsement of a red-state “progressive” politician with a questionable history on abortion rights have all given ammunition to the establishment Democrats’ suspicions that he is not really a social progressive and will sell out minorities and immigrants to court the white working class. In other words, for establishment Democrats, Sanders is really just Trump in disguise.

While such accusations are certainly overstated, they nevertheless highlight the problems facing the Democratic Party in the current period. On the one hand, it has increasingly been discredited as a party of the working class at precisely the time when the interests of the national capital call for an effective opposition party to keep Trump in check. However, any attempt to change the image of the Democrats from a party of monied elites who cow tow to minorities for electoral purposes to a more traditional party of the working class would seem likely to flounder on the rocks of American racial and identity politics in the era of neo-liberal globalization.[10]

If Jeremy Corbyn has momentarily rescued the UK Labour Party from a similar dilemma[11], the chances of a “Sandersization” of the Democratic Party in the US seem more remote. Nevertheless, this only fuels the instability in the political system as a whole and furthers the possibility that the Democrats will eventually split (against the counsel of Sanders himself perhaps) at some point in the future, as it will prove incapable of containing the increasingly anti-neo-liberal (when not outright anti-capitalist) sentiments of the millennial generations within its ranks.[12] In this sense, it is possible that the “demographic strategy” the establishment Democrats are banking on will backfire on them, as the divisions of race, ethnicity and immigrant status are not as strong among the younger generations and they are not as easily manipulated by racist ideology and are more and more able to recognize identity politics as a distraction from underlying structural-economic problems with the capitalist economy as a whole. [13]

The Republican Party unravels under the pressure of decomposition

If the Democratic Party is racked by what appear to be some rather insoluble contradictions, the Republican Party has for all intents and purposes already come apart. This may sound ironic given that Republicans control nearly the entire federal government and a majority of the states, but in reality this apparent strength mask an underlying disintegration that prevents the Republicans from serving as an effective party of national governance.

In previous articles, we have already done much to analyze the origins of the Republican Party’s degeneration from a party of governance under Regan and the first Bush to an increasingly ideologically driven force more and more incapable of acting in the overall interest of the national capital.  While the origins of the Republicans’ transition from a rational business-friendly party and capable defender of the US imperialist interests in the Cold War to the extremist right-wing force it is today go back at least to the Civil Rights movement and Nixon’s adoption of the so-called “Southern Strategy,” the current trend appeared to start during the first Clinton administration. Having ended 12 years of Republican hegemony under Regan-Bush1, mostly by moving the Democratic Party to the right on social issues and endorsing the neo-liberal economic consensus, Clinton effectively pushed the Republicans even further to the right, as they sought to outdo the “Great Triangulator” by “drowning the government baby in the bathtub.”

Clinton’s Presidency infuriated many Republicans, who were incensed that the cool and affable Southern good old boy was able to build what was increasingly looking like an unassailable electoral coalition of minorities and many downscale whites (The media often referred to Clinton as the first “Black President,” at the same time he was affectionately known by many downscale whites as “Bubba.”) Still, the Republicans were able to gain control of Congress in 1994 by exploiting the failure of the Clinton administration’s overreach on healthcare reform (“Hillarycare”) and general concern about the growth of federal government power. Under the direction of increasingly hostile and belligerent elements like Newt Gingrich, they quickly went to work irresponsibly shutting down the government—a political disaster for them they compounded with the bizarre decision to impeach Clinton ostensibly for lying to a grand jury about his sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky.

At the end of the Clinton Presidency, the Republicans looked a spent force, with Al Gore predicted to succeed to the Presidency over the intellectually inferior Republican nominee George W. Bush.  Nevertheless, public disgust with Clinton’s personal antics and a rather poor campaign by Gore allowed Bush to get within striking distance. A contested outcome in Florida threw the election to the Supreme Court, which decided in Bush’s favor, at which time Gore—in the interests of the national capital to avoid any further threats of a “constitutional crisis”—conceded.

The ensuing eight years of the Bush Presidency were nothing short of a total disaster for the US national capital. While his administration exploited the 9/11 terrorist attacks to launch a major imperialist offensive in the Middle East, his decision to invade Iraq a second time, turned global opinion against the United States squandering the international political capital it had gained out of sympathy for the victims on 9/11. Domestically, the Bush administration’s embrace of the so-called “Casino economy” (which had actually begun under Clinton) to prop up growth led to a major economic catastrophe at the end of his Presidency in 2007, when the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market nearly tanked the entire global economy. Forced by circumstances to adopt a positively Keynesian trajectory, Bush acquiesced to a giant bailout of Wall Street on the taxpayers’ dime—earning the ire of many of the free market ideologues and libertarians in his own party, as well as much of the populace disgusted that the “Banksters” were going to get bailed out while their homes values plummeted, credit ratings were ruined and mortgage default and eviction loomed. In the years ahead, many of the right wing ideologues under the Republican Party banner would blame Bush’s penchant for “crony capitalism” (symbolized by his bailing out of the Wall Street financiers) as much for the problems facing the country as his successor’s supposed “socialism.”

Nevertheless, while the Republican Party had been going through a process of ideological degeneration for some time prior to Obama’s election in 2008, it was really under his Presidency that the GOP took a turn towards the abyss. Whatever the media’s triumphalism about the election of the first African-American President, something that would supposedly usher in a new “post-racial” society where meritocracy was perfected, a dark reaction was taking shape within the bosom of the Republican Party. The emergence of the Tea Party in the first two years of Obama’s Presidency signaled a qualitative step forward in the unraveling of the GOP. Partly an “Astroturf” phenomenon funded by vulgar corporate interests like the Koch Brothers to further their deregulatory agenda, but also in part a grassroots backlash reaction to the first African-American President, changing demographics and mass immigration, the Tea Party phenomenon grouped together a diverse—often incoherent—set of grievances against establishment Washington.

In the 2010 mid-term elections, a new crop of right-wing extremist Republican candidates rode the backlash fervor to control of the House Representatives, where they set about not only obstructing Obama’s agenda, but also making life incredibly miserable for establishment Republicans like Speaker of the Houser John Boehner. A vicious cycle emerged, in which fear of a primary challenge from a Tea Party opponent, pushed the Republican party ever further to the right, as more responsible members of the GOP struggled to maintain control of their caucus. The process reached something of a climax in the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, in which Tea Party back-benchers came close to provoking another major economic catastrophe by threatening to refuse service on the ever-increasing national debt.[14]

Although Obama easily won re-election in 2012, mostly by successfully painting his Republican opponent Mitt Romney as a greedy agent of the one-percent, the Republicans would maintain control of Congress for the rest of his Presidency, winning control of the Senate in the 2014 mid-term elections. Nevertheless, now trusted with a “share in governance”, the Republican Party fell flat on its face. In an effort to demonstrate that their party could act like adults and actually help solve pressing national issues, several establishment Republicans in the Senate attempted to craft a comprehensive immigration reform package with Democrats. However, this effort was stymied in the House of Representatives as Tea Party Republicans, together with their allies in conservative media, led a vicious campaign to block any attempt at granting “amnesty” to illegal aliens. Eventually, the turmoil within the Republican caucus would force House Speaker John Boehner to resign, replaced by Romney’s 2012 running mate and intellectual heavyweight of the conservative movement Paul Ryan. Nevertheless, even Ryan himself was regarded with suspicion by many Tea Party activists as too close to the establishment with soft views on immigration.

Such was the state of the Republican Party at the opening of the 2016 Presidential campaign. It had long since ceased to be a unified conservative movement, split into several competing, but still somewhat loosely defined ideological currents: business-friendly establishment Republicans looking to rehabilitate the image of the party as a contender for national governance, Christian fundamentalists, free market libertarian-extremists and a somewhat new and still not fully politically articulated “nation-state populist” wing that was becoming increasingly energized around opposition to immigration and the establishment wing of the Republican Party’s seeming willingness to compromise on this issue.

If for much of the Obama years, this latter faction was subsumed under a broader anti-establishment Tea Party movement, it would become clear in the context of the 2016 presidential election that it was not quite the same thing. In storming the Republican primaries to win the GOP’s nomination for Presidency in 2016, the insurgent outsider Donald Trump exploited this difference to build an electoral juggernaut that saw him take down all the establishment Republican candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, as well as vanquish Tea Party stalwart Ted Cruz, all in convincing fashion.

Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 Republican primary revealed that grassroots electoral support for the Tea Party in prior elections was somewhat of a proxy for a deeper populist revulsion at establishment Washington. Trump did not run a campaign based on conservative economic principles. While he exploited popular resentment at mass immigration, demographic change and shifting cultural values, he also defended Social Security and Medicare, denounced crony capitalism (the fact that Trump himself was a master crony capitalist notwithstanding), signaled his support for socialized medicine and denounced the Iraq War. While there was space for Trump to make common cause with some Republican factions on cultural issues, his economic policies and views on foreign affairs were wholly outside the Republican fold—indeed outside the purview of the main factions of the bourgeoisie itself.

The fact that the main factions of the bourgeoisie—including many establishment Republicans—viewed Trump as a clear and present danger to the interests of the national capital, spawning a last-ditch ”Never Trump” movement in advance of the Republican convention, did not stop him from winning the Republican nomination. Republicans realized the bind they now found themselves in: having stoked popular anger over immigration and disdain for establishment Washington in pursuing their short-term electoral interests, they now found themselves the target of the very forces they had encouraged. They could not deny Trump the nomination, without angering his millions of supporters, openly splitting the Republican Party and shattering the democratic illusion by overturning the will of the Republican voters with backroom party machinations.[15] It wasn’t worth completely dooming one of the nation’s major political parties, when everyone expected Trump to lose to Clinton in the general election anyway.

In effect, Trump had executed a kind of coup in the Republican Party, elevating the nascent “nation-state” populist currents in the Republican base into a distinct and now dominant faction separate from the “movement-conservatism’ to which it was previously subsumed. Under Trump, the Republican Party had been transformed from a peculiarly American form of conservatism to something more akin to a European populist party preaching something resembling their “welfare chauvinism,” symbolized when he elevated the incisive Steve Bannon— the populist editor of Breitbart News—to his chief campaign strategist and then special advisor once arriving in the White House. 

On the eve of the 2016 Presidential Election, the Republican Party was an entity in complete chaos. Nobody expected Trump to win and one got the sense that most establishment Republicans were actually rooting for him to lose. Nobody had any idea how the Republican Party would reconstitute itself in the wake of the crushing defeat it was expected to suffer. Even in defeat, “Trumpism” would have emerged as a distinct and powerful current in its own right that all Republicans would have to respect and fear, even if many of its precepts went against their principles and instincts. When Trump shocked the world by winning the Presidency against the odds, some Republicans shouted triumphantly about an era of “united Republican government” ahead, but underneath these public pronouncements fears mounted about what a Trump presidency would mean for the party and the national interest itself.

In the year since Trump’s victory, it is clear that while the Republican Party survives as an institutional edifice, it has for all intents of purposes ceased to function as a coherent political expression. While the Trumpists find themselves sitting in the oval office and they possess a powerful electoral base with which to threaten establishment Republican candidates (a base Trump continues to stoke with campaign like rallies on something like a monthly basis), they have not been able to consolidate institutional power in Washington. In addition to facing intense push back from the structures of the so-called “deep state” in the intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies who are mostly aligned with centrist Democrats, the Trumpists face dissensions within their own party over their alleged ties to Russia and the overall tone and trajectory of public discourse and policy under Trump. Establishment Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have all at one time or another loudly denounced the President, with John McCain even casting the decisive vote in derailing Trump’s attempts to claim a legislative victory in his quest to acquiesce to Republican talking points about “repealing and replacing” Obamacare.

Moreover, the Trumpists face opposition within their own party not only from establishment Republicans concerned about Trump’s erosion of “democratic norms,” but also from movement-conservatives and the rump of the Tea Party now organized as the so-called “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives[16] that held up the Republican healthcare repeal proposal because the austerity it imposed was not dramatic enough! While the Republican party seems more united on the issue of pending tax reform legislation, similar complications could emerge either from establishment Republicans who worry about the political optics of its disproportionate benefits for the rich or from Freedom Caucus members concerned about the possible expansion of the national deficit (or some combination thereof).

It has been said that the worst thing that can happen for a populist movement is to actually win power, as it is then subject to the necessities of governing. We can already see the effects of this paradox on the Trump administration. Having run an unabashedly populist campaign, almost one year into his Presidency Trump has been unable to deliver on any of his major campaign promises. Forced to deal with the realities of institutional Washington, Trump has had to toe a more traditional Republican line focusing on repealing Obamacare (a near total failure) and cutting taxes. There has been no massive remaking of the institutional environment or the culture of Washington. Having run on “draining the swamp” in DC, each day that passes reveals Trump and his cronies to be themselves immersed in it.

Similarly, Trump has failed to deliver on most of his ethno-nationalist promises: While there has been some uptick in deportations of “non-criminal aliens” from the interior of the country and Trump has tried time and again to fashion some kind of travel ban against citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries that passes court muster, there have been no mass deportations of millions of immigrants in cattle cars as some feared and others hoped for. Moreover, the architect of much of Trump’s nation-state populist ideology, Steve Bannon, has already been forced to resign and Trump appears to be relying on his entourage of retired generals to formulate most of his foreign policy agenda, while domestically he has been forced by political reality to stay rather close to the Republican Party.[17] Whatever his ties to Russian interests and his kind words for Putin, there has as yet been no open rapprochement with the Russian state (often portrayed by Trumpists as a strong state committed to the defense of Western-Christian civilization from Islamic radicalism). Trump has even attempted to make a deal with Democrats on immigration by signaling he would agree to allow childhood arrivals (the so-called “Dreamers”) to stay in the country in exchange for tougher border security (if not the actual wall he promised his base). Revelations of this deal moved Bannon’s Breitbart News to label Trump “Amnesty Don,” signaling that his populist base will not take any attempt to sell them out on amnesty for illegal immigrants lightly.

While for the moment Trump retains the support of his fervent base, there are signs that even that is beginning to slip away. Trump now enjoys the lowest approval ratings of any modern President after his first year in office.[18] While the Republican Party may enjoy the advantage of gerrymandered districts in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, there is nevertheless growing concern that Trump will hopelessly compromise the Republican brand going forward and that a “wave election” similar to 2006 when the public was fed-up with Bush’s war follies in Iraq, might just sweep the Republicans from power in Congress regardless—something which would open the door for the Democrats to possibly impeach the President.[19]

At this stage, it is not possible to say what the future direction of the Republican Party will take, but it is clearly unfavorable for the erstwhile establishment factions to retain control of the party’s political direction. Even if they maintain a hold on certain Republican Party institutions (or regain them once Trump is swept from power) Trumpism has nevertheless emerged as a powerful force that must be acknowledged and either conceded to or managed politically. The specter of a “Trump minus the baggage” type figure emerging in the future remains a constant concern for the entire political establishment of both parties. [20]

In any event, the Republicans—like the Democrats—remain a house divided, racked by internal contradictions, reflecting the centrifugal forces of social decomposition resulting from the bourgeoisie’s inability to solve the historic crisis of capitalism and the increasing difficulty of a two-party political system to contain the ideological and political fall-out. The perspective ahead then is not for the return of some kind of stable two-party normalcy, but increasing political turbulence as the bourgeois political apparatus attempts to adapt (perhaps unsuccessfully?) to the new social, political and ideological landscape created by social decomposition and their own neo-liberal mode of regulating capitalism’s historic crisis.

The ideological campaigns around the defense of democracy

Today, bourgeois officialdom is quite concerned about Trump’s ascendancy to the Presidency and the social and political forces this represents. There are many facets to the Trump phenomenon for them to be concerned about: his lack of a commitment to the consensus goals of US imperialism, his putting into question consensus neo-liberal policies, his vulgar and offensive rhetoric and personality that compromises US prestige around the world. There are even possibly legitimate concerns about his mental health. However, perhaps the most threatening aspect of Trump’s Presidency for the main factions of the bourgeoisie is his attacks on so-called “democratic norms”—his aggressive rhetoric flouting the courts, his attacks on the press, his lack of a commitment to the basic and fundamental rights of democratic citizenship, etc. It is therefore not a coincidence that the main theme of the so-called resistance to Trump has not been a traditional “left in opposition” campaign around economic issues, but has instead focused around the defense of democratic norms and democratic institutions in the face of the neo-barbarian assault on them launched by the forces of Trumpism.

From the point of view of revolutionaries, we have to reject any call to join in such campaigns as a gross diversion from the goal of intervening in the class struggle of the proletariat on its own class terrain to defend its living and working conditions under threat from capitalism’s crisis and the politicians of all political parties. We do not subscribe to the view that bourgeois democracy has always been “fake” or “staged” as some leftist and conspiracy-obsessed groups do. On the contrary, the development of democratic institutions in the period of capitalism’s ascendance was something the working class could take advantage of in that period:  by putting pressure on these institutions  the workers’ parties of the period won important structural reforms from the capitalists allowing the proletariat to consolidate itself as a class.

Nevertheless, in our view bourgeois democracy experienced a qualitative change with the entry of capitalism into its period of historical decadence early in the last century. Since then, with no truly durable reforms possible to win from a decadent capitalism, the entry of the working class into the parliamentary terrain could only lead to distraction, diversion and political defeat on the terrain of the enemy class. Moreover, in the period of decadence—marked by the progressive statification of society and the decline of the public sphere—bourgeois elections themselves progressively changed from real campaign contests to affairs of state managed by the state’s media apparatus to ensure the victory of a consensus favorite candidate. While electoral mistakes were still possible, it was generally the case over the course of the 20th century that elections were structured such that even the less preferred candidate/party would still pursue the consensus policies of the main factions of the bourgeoisie if they won.

If the forces unleashed in the last several decades by social decomposition have made this process of political management less effective and have returned some level of reality to electoral contests as open campaigns where the winner is uncertain before the votes are actually counted, we do not think that this means we are back in a period when the working class can advance its interests through the electoral arena. On the contrary, the putrefaction of the entire bourgeois political apparatus renders elections an even greater trap for the proletariat today. This is true even when there are “New Left” candidates on offer, such as Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, who—whatever their sincerity—are nevertheless bourgeois politicians like any other. As the experience of Syriza in Greece (and even to some extent Trump in the US) show, should they ever win power (by accident or design) the necessities of bourgeois governance will tend to override their policy commitments very quickly.

Therefore, revolutionaries and the working class more broadly should reject the call to join in the grand coalition to defend “democratic norms” and values against Trump’s transgressions and instead work to locate their specific class interests and develop their own independent struggles against capitalism’s attacks on their working and living conditions. If the concept of “democratic norms” retains some value for certain factions of the bourgeoisie today as a set of principles for regulating that class’s own internal conflicts, we must be clear that the working class—a class that depends on developing a unity of consciousness regarding its distinct class interests—has no position to take in internal bourgeois conflicts today.

Taking the road of searching for the working class’ own autonomous organs will, in our view, necessitate identifying forms of struggle outside of the bourgeoisie’s electoral arena. In pursuing this path, we can look back in history at the struggles of the period of 1917-1927 when the working class developed its own class organs—the workers’ councils—that embodied a spirit of class-consciousness and collective action truly distinct from that of the isolated monad who pulls the lever in the booth on Election Day. We can also look back more recently to the struggles of the period of 2010-2012, when the working class began to take steps to recover this more distant past, albeit imperfectly, during the mobilizations in Wisconsin and the Occupy Movement in the US and the Indignados protests in Spain. It is in taking these examples to their logical conclusion in a proletarian revolution that a future beyond the deprivations and injuries of capitalism in all its forms lies.




[2] A reality that has led to much discussion and punditry about whether or not senior military officers would refuse to obey Trump’s order to launch a careless nuclear attack on a whim.

[3] We are aware of the pitfalls of the construction “white working class” and have analyzed these in some depth elsewhere (See: The Election of Donald Trump and the Degradation of the Capitalist Political Apparatus ). In this article, we use the concept in an analytical sense of describing the various social constituencies the bourgeoisie mobilizes to manufacture electoral coalitions for their various candidates in the context of its “democratic” apparatus. As Marxists, our position is that the working-class is an international class that must reject the bourgeoisie’s attempts to divide it up along ethnic, racial, linguistic or national lines to achieve the class consciousness necessary to overthrow capitalism. Nevertheless, to the extent that the working class continues to participate in bourgeois elections, it is necessary to make an honest and accurate assessment of how the bourgeoisie uses these divisions to enroll it into the electoral circus.

[4] For the ICC’s position on these events see here.

[5]  See: The phrase used is “political hospice care” taken from an interview with Jonathan Gest, author of the book, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, which appears to be endorsed by Post columnist and arch Bernie Sanders foe Johnathan Capehart. Here is the quote (Capehart quoting Gest approvingly): “’The only way of addressing their plight is a form of political hospice care,’ he said. ‘These are communities that are on the paths to death. And the question is: How can we make that as comfortable as possible?’” Capehart appears to endorse such a conclusion, but one wonders if the uncomfortable similarities of such discourse with eugenics ever occurred to him or did he just not care?

[6] The question for 2020 will be if having an anti-rock star on the opposing ticket in Trump will be enough to revive this coalition after the failure of 2016 or if the Democrats will have to take steps to appear to offer a real substantive alternative to the neo-liberal status quo?

[7] A famous example of this was Hillary’s appearance on urban radio, where she delighted in telling the host that she carries hot sauce in her purse. Of course, this was the same Hillary who years earlier during her husbands’ administration seemingly referred to black youth as “super predators,” something that earned her the permanent distrust/disdain of groups like Black Lives Matter.

[8] Already, there are some voices emerging within the Democratic Party questioning the “demographic strategy” and calling into question the party’s “absolutism” on immigration. Figures such as Fareed Zakaria, Peter Beinart and erstwhile Bush-era Neocon—subsequently rehabilitated as a rational centrist—David Frum have protested that the Democrats’ increasingly totalistic views on immigration and immigrant rights fuel the backlash politics and leave the field open for Trump and other dangerous elements to exploit the populace’s increasing anxiety over the “loss of nationhood” for their advantage. In Frum’s words, “When liberals insist only fascists will defend the borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals won’t do.” Still, these voices remain a minority within the Democratic Party. Of course, it should be pointed out that whatever their political rhetoric in favor of immigrants, Democrats in power have usually not lived up to their absolutist pronouncements. We need only remember that it was Obama himself who set a record for deportations, earning him the nickname “Deporter in Chief” in immigrant communities, something that almost certainly drove down turnout for his appointed successor Clinton. Beinart and Frum’s pieces can all be found in The Atlantic—an esteemed journal of liberal opinion making. For Zakaria, see:


[10] This problem is not unique to the United States. Across the advanced countries ostensibly left-wing parties have been faced with the contradiction of keeping up the appearance as the party of the working-class, while hemorrhaging “white working class” voters to right-wing populists able to mobilize their anxiety over immigration and other demographic changes.

[11] We should be careful not to overstate Corbyn’s position as he continues to face much skepticism and even disdain from the neo-liberal wing of his own party.

[12] As of this writing, the list of candidates to replace the aging Sanders as the voice of the left in the Democratic Party is short. Senator Elizabeth Warren is the person most often touted as next in line to assume the left populist mantle, but Warren lacks Sanders grumpy grandpa charm and likely comes off as too much of an uppity “Taxachussettes” liberal in the heartland. Others, such as the forty-something Ohio representative Tim Ryan (who led an unsuccessful campaign to replace Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House Democrats in early 2017) seems better placed, but his rust belt protectionism is not particularly well suited to appeal to millennials. Similarly, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is often painted in a populist mode, but he faces a tough reelection campaign next year in a state Trump won handily and will face pressure to move right on issues like immigration to keep his seat. Establishment favorites like California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker (both African-Americans) are already viewed with deep suspicion by progressives as too close to corporate interests.

[13] Of course, even if younger voters are less likely to see “identity politics” as sufficient on their own, it is nevertheless still the case that many are deeply concerned about identity issues, something which potentially puts them at odds with other working class electoral constituencies.

[14] See our article, The Debt Ceiling Crisis: Political Wrangling While the Global Economy Burns, for our analysis of this critical juncture.

[15]Ironically, it would be left to the Democrats to do that with the Wikileaks revelations on the eve of their convention that the DNC was basically in the bag for Hillary from the start and conspired to undermine Sanders’ campaign. This was given further credence last week, when Donna Brazille, an establishment Democrat par excellence who took over as interim DNC chief when Wasserman-Schultz was forced to resign in shame, released a book chronicling how the Clinton campaign had been given de facto financial control over the DNC as early as 2015. Of course the response of the Clinton camp to Brazille’s revelations was to paint her with the McCarthyite brush of “buying into Russian propaganda.” 

[16] Often aligned with Senators Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, depending on the particular issue.

[17] Two recent political episodes highlight the continuing rifts in the Republican Party: In the special election for Alabama Senator to replace Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump endorsed the establishment candidate, while Bannon campaigned hard for his opponent former Alabama Supreme Court Judge and iconoclastic hard right ideologue Roy Moore. Moore won handily, dealing a severe political blow to Trump—but not from Democrats, from the lunatic right-wing fringe of his own party at the urging of his own former chief advisor! Moreover, in the campaign for Virginia Governor, the establishment Republican, former Bush confidant and RNC head Ed Gillespie—having fended off a difficult Trumpist primary challenger—nevertheless went into full Trump mode himself in the general election campaign, basing his message on the defense of Confederate statues and on the threat posed to the state by Hispanic gangs and liberal attempts to coddle them in “sanctuary cities”—despite the fact that there are none in Virginia. In an interesting development, the media have been in full saturation mode in recent weeks with  allegations that Moore is a serial child sexual predator—an allegation that initially caused an uproar among establishment Republicans in Washington with threats of a write-in campaign, ethics investigations and possible expulsion from the Senate should he win the election. However, this has been tempered in recent days by allegations of sexual impropriety against several key Democratic legislators, giving Republicans the opportunity to mute their criticism of Moore in the hopes that the public will not single them out as the party of sexual misconduct and conclude instead that both parties are equally guilty. Still, the nature of the allegations against Moore are of a different order than many of these other cases, and they could be a major factor in coming national elections if the Democrats can successfully paint their rivals as the party that protects “child predators” in order to maintain a Senate seat. For establishment Republicans’ part, it is clear that this threat has to be balanced against the possibility of angering the Trumpist base, who see the allegations against Moore as part of a Washington conspiracy to keep a “maverick” out of the Senate. Trump has now thrown his full weight behind Moore, even publicly attacking some of his accusers.

[18]To be fair, the Democrats’ approval ratings are nothing to write home about either. See:

[19]Republican Gillespie was soundly defeated by his Democratic opponent in the Virginia Governor’s race—something the media is taking as a sign of a coming disaster for Republicans in 2018. Whether or not this result in a state that “demographic change” has now made more or less reliably blue is an accurate predictor of what will happen in 2018 or 2020 is unclear, but the result is nonetheless contributing to much anxiety among national Republicans.

[20] Some have suggested Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton might be one such figure.