A Left Strategy for Breaking the Power of Trump and His White-Supremacist Base

It’s time for the anti-capitalist Left to bring the fight to the electoral arena.

Max Elbaum

Thousands of immigrants and supporters join the Defend DACA March to oppose the President Trump order to end DACA on September 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A longer ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared on Orga­niz­ing Upgrade.

The consolidation of a grassroots-based, independent political formation that can fight both inside and outside of the electoral arena and the Democratic Party is crucial for translating a victory over Trumpism into momentum for radical change.

The white-suprema­cist vio­lence In Char­lottesville — and Don­ald Trump’s embrace of the very fine peo­ple” who marched and mur­dered under Con­fed­er­ate and Nazi ban­ners — did more than sharp­en the intense polar­iza­tion already under­ly­ing U.S. politics.

It spot­light­ed the dan­ger­ous role white nation­al­ism plays in gal­va­niz­ing Trump’s racial­ly anx­ious white social base, while ener­giz­ing the anti-racist and demo­c­ra­t­ic-mind­ed forces that have the poten­tial to over­come it.

Real­iz­ing that poten­tial is going to require the resis­tance — espe­cial­ly its rad­i­cal wing — to up our game. This esca­la­tion must be anchored in five key points:

1. The over-arch­ing pri­or­i­ty of the cur­rent peri­od is to break the pow­er of Trump, and the white nation­al­ist bloc, that togeth­er dri­ve the Right’s anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and anti-work­ing-class agenda.

2. Direct action and street protest make up indis­pens­able com­po­nents of the resis­tance. At least one show of force on the scale of the Wom­en’s March would be a reminder that the pop­u­lar major­i­ty will not leave it to intra-elite maneu­vers to deter­mine Trump’s fate. Ener­gy from mass action needs to be car­ried into the 2018 and 2020 elec­tions, which pro­vide the only avenues to remove the white-nation­al­ist Right from power.

3. To bring togeth­er suf­fi­cient social forces to defeat Trump and the GOP, and strength­en pro­gres­sive ini­tia­tives if and when Trump is oust­ed, the Left needs to engage the fight with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty over mes­sage, can­di­dates and allo­ca­tion of resources. There is a par­al­lel here with the 2016 cam­paign. Almost all sec­tors of the Left grew as that elec­tion polar­ized the coun­try. But the ones that grew the most — Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and Labor for Bernie — were those that plunged into Sanders’ cam­paign, not those who crit­i­cized it for being insuf­fi­cient­ly rad­i­cal or dis­missed it because it fought on the ter­rain of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party. 

4. The strug­gle for a work­ing-class pro­gram of eco­nom­ic, racial, gen­der and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice—and peace—will be con­duct­ed beyond the next few elec­tion cycles. We should have con­fi­dence that the kind of pro­gram advo­cat­ed by Bernie Sanders or Rev. William Bar­ber can, at some point, gain major­i­ty sup­port and shape the nation­al agen­da. But we also need to strate­gize based on hard-head­ed real­ism about how far we have to go to address the frag­men­ta­tion of the pro­gres­sive move­ment and the rel­a­tive­ly mar­gin­al­ized anti-cap­i­tal­ist Left.

5. The issues front-and-cen­ter in Char­lottesville — and under­scored by Trump’s end­ing DACA — are race, racism and the inte­gral role peo­ple of col­or have always played in the very heart of the U.S. work­ing class. Because of the char­ac­ter of the Trump régime, and the weak­ness­es in race-class analy­sis and prac­tice in the resis­tance, these fac­tors stand out as deter­mi­nants of whether or not the resis­tance con­tin­ues to mature.

In short­hand: The Left must inter­act with the post-Char­lottesville upsurge by pur­su­ing a strat­e­gy that is anti-Right, anti-racist, gen­der-inclu­sive, ground­ed in the inter­ests of the work­ing class and ori­ent­ed toward work­ing inside and out­side of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

The resis­tance has come a long way

The resis­tance has come a long way since Trump’s gloat­ing inau­gu­ra­tion. Trump’s insis­tence that both sides” were to blame in Char­lottesville alien­at­ed major sec­tions of the polit­i­cal class. With cor­po­rate lead­ers flee­ing his show-piece coun­cils, the top mil­i­tary brass issu­ing state­ments con­tra­dict­ing his views, and open feud­ing with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers of his own par­ty, Trump’s gov­ern­ing coali­tion is sig­nif­i­cant­ly nar­row­er than it was in Jan­u­ary. His pop­u­lar approval rat­ing is at a record low of 38 per­cent.

Still, that 38 per­cent con­sti­tutes a big major­i­ty of Repub­li­cans. So GOP elect­eds defy Trump at the per­il of a pri­ma­ry chal­lenge. Their cal­cu­la­tions are chang­ing dai­ly, but GOP mem­bers of Con­gress still see align­ment with Trump as nec­es­sary to imple­ment their shared agen­da of crush­ing the labor move­ment, rolling back the rights of women and LGBTQ peo­ple, stonewalling action against cli­mate change and trans­fer­ring even more wealth into the pock­ets of the already rich.

Our side is the major­i­ty, and we also have the moral high ground. But these are not enough. This fight will be decid­ed by pow­er. The Right will not be divid­ed and forced into retreat until the open advo­cates of white suprema­cy, Islam­o­pho­bia, anti-Semi­tism and unre­strained patri­archy are demor­al­ized by being out-num­bered 100 to one every time they show their faces. And it will take the ener­gy in the streets trans­lat­ing into an anti-GOP, anti-Trump tsuna­mi in the vot­ing booths to break their grip on power.

Right-wing goal: a racial­ized, author­i­tar­i­an state

U.S.-style racism came into being in the midst of strug­gles over land, prop­er­ty, pow­er, and polit­i­cal rights in the 17th cen­tu­ry. Slav­ery, along with the geno­cide of Native Amer­i­cans, is accu­rate­ly termed the coun­try’s orig­i­nal sin.”

Among the man­i­fes­ta­tions of this deeply root­ed racism is a recur­ring pat­tern. In response to move­ments that advance the inter­ests of peo­ple of col­or, espe­cial­ly African Amer­i­cans, there is a fierce back­lash — even as these move­ments expand democ­ra­cy for all peo­ple. That back­lash involves build­ing a cross-class, white unit­ed front which advances the eco­nom­ic pro­gram of the most reac­tionary wing of the rul­ing class. The back­lash enlists all who can be mobi­lized to defend white pow­er and priv­i­lege, and it is aid­ed by the pas­sive alle­giance of oth­ers who believe that they can advance their own nar­row inter­ests by con­nect­ing with this bloc.

This pat­tern began with Nixon’s South­ern Strat­e­gy.” It took a leap for­ward with Rea­gan’s elec­tion and the entrench­ment of the neo-lib­er­al mod­el” of pri­va­ti­za­tion, de-reg­u­la­tion, pro-1-per­cent tax reform” and a with­er­ing offen­sive against unions.

In the wake of the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis and reces­sion, we saw a sharp rise in eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and anx­i­ety, demo­graph­ic changes and the elec­tion of first Black pres­i­dent. The back­lash bloc expe­ri­enced an unprece­dent­ed twist: Lead­er­ship was ripped from the GOP estab­lish­ment. It was seized by a dem­a­gogue who rode birtherism, anti-immi­grant hys­te­ria and bla­tant Islam­o­pho­bia to the White House. 

Trump and his core sup­port­ers — forces bent on racial and impe­r­i­al revenge’—now sat in the dri­ver’s seat. The rest of the GOP fell in line, with minor excep­tions. Con­ser­v­a­tive intel­lec­tu­al Avik Roy explained why: We’ve had this view that the vot­ers were with us on con­ser­vatism — philo­soph­i­cal, eco­nom­ic con­ser­vatism. In real­i­ty, the grav­i­ta­tion­al cen­ter of the Repub­lic Par­ty is white nationalism.”

The Right’s goal is to estab­lish a racial­ized, author­i­tar­i­an state. Giv­en the unpop­u­lar­i­ty of their eco­nom­ic agen­da, and demo­graph­ic changes not work­ing in their favor, the Right sees that kind of state as need­ed to imple­ment their full pro­gram of fos­sil fuel-dri­ven cap­i­tal­ism and per­ma­nent glob­al hege­mo­ny. This is not clas­si­cal fas­cism: It more close­ly resem­bles the Unit­ed States dur­ing the height of Jim Crow, or Israel today, than the bour­geois democ­ra­cy that has defined the Unit­ed States since legal­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion was abol­ished in the 1960s.

The Left’s cru­cial role

The U.S. major­i­ty is against this shift, and the coun­try has become polar­ized along a Trump vs. anti-Trump axis. The road to max­i­miz­ing chances of defeat­ing Trump and grow­ing the anti-cap­i­tal­ist Left in the process is for the Left to bring our­selves and our pol­i­tics to the bat­tle as it is actu­al­ly unfolding.

The Left can play a cru­cial role in keep­ing a stress on mass action by get­ting peo­ple out in the streets, onto the pick­et lines and into town halls. We can fight for the orga­ni­za­tions that mobi­lize peo­ple to devel­op and main­tain a demo­c­ra­t­ic, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry char­ac­ter and do all we can to sus­tain and deep­en polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion along­side mobi­liza­tion and protest.

Regard­ing the elec­toral are­na, Trump and the GOP attained pow­er by win­ning elec­tions. It is hard­ly sur­pris­ing, then, that most peo­ple opposed to Trump, know­ing they con­sti­tute a major­i­ty, have con­clud­ed that the key task is beat Trump and the GOP at the bal­lot box. This has led to a surge of ener­gy in the direc­tion of what is now the only prac­ti­cal alter­na­tive, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty bal­lot line.

All the ener­gy mov­ing from protest to pol­i­tics” is a good thing. But giv­en that it is flow­ing onto Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty ter­rain, there are many chal­lenges. The trick is to engage the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in a way that max­i­mizes chances of an anti-Trump vic­to­ry while build­ing pro­gres­sive clout, con­sol­i­dat­ing inde­pen­dent vehi­cles for long-term strug­gle and expand­ing the ranks of the anti-cap­i­tal­ist Left.

No repeat of 2016

The lessons drawn from 2016 are a good start­ing point. Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates need a mes­sage beyond, We aren’t Trump.” A pro­gram of eco­nom­ic, racial, gen­der and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and peace has to per­me­ate through Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paigns at all lev­els. Only such a mes­sage can inspire the mass Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­stituen­cies, those who stayed home in 2016 or vot­ed third par­ty, as well as Trump vot­ers who now real­ize that the pres­i­dent is a con man.

The Left also must keep remind­ing our­selves and oth­ers not to under­es­ti­mate the Trump régime or the stakes in the 2018 and 2020 bal­lot­ing. If the GOP isn’t sound­ly defeat­ed, every­one in the GOP (and too many Democ­rats) will con­clude that appeals to racism are polit­i­cal win­ners and will act accord­ing­ly. Con­verse­ly, a crush­ing vic­to­ry over the GOP will divide and demor­al­ize the ene­my camp and give the forces who spear­head­ed that vic­to­ry tremen­dous momentum. 

We also bear the respon­si­bil­i­ty of being an anchor force regard­ing the ways race and class are inter­linked. Only a mul­ti-racial, class-con­scious force of mil­lions has any chance of win­ning last­ing vic­to­ries over the world’s most pow­er­ful, racist rul­ing class. Through­out U.S. his­to­ry, the Achilles heel of efforts to con­struct that force has been the sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty of its white com­po­nent to view the non-white sec­tor as some­thing oth­er than class broth­ers and sisters. 

The con­sol­i­da­tion of a grass­roots-based, inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal for­ma­tion that can fight both inside and out­side of the elec­toral are­na and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is cru­cial for trans­lat­ing a vic­to­ry over Trump­ism into momen­tum for rad­i­cal change. The build­ing blocks of such a form have become vis­i­ble. The task is to fur­ther increase the bud­ding polit­i­cal align­ment between such groups as Our Rev­o­lu­tion, Labor for Our Rev­o­lu­tion, MoveOn, Col­or of Change, the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, the var­i­ous nation­al and state-based com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing for­ma­tions, 350​.org, Planned Par­ent­hood and many others.

We need strate­gic patience, as well as a sense of urgency. Build­ing a base in the mul­ti-racial work­ing class, reviv­ing the labor move­ment and con­struct­ing a uni­fied, inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion­al vehi­cle can­not be accom­plished in one elec­tion cycle. These tasks will unfold uneven­ly — devel­op­ing state by state and local­i­ty by local­i­ty, as well as nationally.

But these tasks will be orders of mag­ni­tude hard­er, if not impos­si­ble, if we have to attempt them for sev­en more years with the GOP hold­ing power.

Max Elbaum has been active in peace, anti-racist and rad­i­cal move­ments since the 1960s. Most recent­ly, he was part of a team that pre­pared a three-part 2016 Elec­tion Cur­ricu­lum, The U.S. Elec­toral Sys­tem and Pro­gres­sive Elec­toral Strat­e­gy,” and a fol­low-up Post-Elec­tion Dis­cus­sion Guide Changed Ter­rain Demands a New Orientation.”
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