May 20, 2017

Trump, Trumpism and the Resistance


[This article was written for publication in an upcoming issue of Gnist (which means Spark), a Norwegian magazine affiliated with Rødt, the Red Party there. It is published here at Fire On The Mountain with the kind permission of the editorial staff (redaksjon is the delightful Norwegian word--red action!) of Gnist, which should be credited by anyone wanting to spread this around.
Dennis O'Neil]



Greetings again from the Belly of the Beast. I wrote a couple of articles last year for Gnist’s predecessor publication Rødt, on the US elections. Now I am requested to report on the first four months of the Trump regime and Trumpism.

The biggest question I hear from European friends is “Just what the hell is going on over there? Please explain Donald Trump to us.”

We in the US feel precisely the same way, only worse. In the last three months we have experienced a daily barrage of blatant lies, reports of incompetence and stupidity, constant leaks from infighting insiders, massive graft, 180 degree policy shifts, Trump Twitter storms, threats of war, trashing of governmental norms, vicious gossip from insiders. Not only is it extremely stressful to live through, but it’s so intense that following any particular trend or development becomes nearly impossible, even for well-resourced newspapers and websites, let alone for individuals.

Is Trump simply doing the thing he was placed in office to do: Head up what Marx called “the general staff of the bourgeoisie,” the state? Not in any discernible way so far. Individual capitals or sectors of capital may approve particular policies—especially cutting down on regulations that constrict profits and more generally the promise of lightening taxes on corporations and the ultra-rich. Overall though, the ruling class needs a stable economic and political environment in which to maximize profits and they haven’t got that. 80% of the top positions in the federal government have still not been filled! Increasingly, the bourgeois media is calling for Trumps’s ouster, through impeachment or other, unnamed mechanisms.

There is of course the related issue of whether Trump is a puppet of the government of the Russian Federation—out of admiration for Putin, as payback for help in winning the US election, in response to blackmail. There is more evidence for heavy Russian influence than there is against it. As I write this article, the desperate attempts of the Trump regime to derail or crush any investigation of his campaign’s channels to Russia and his administration’s contacts with them since are causing a crisis of governance in the US.

Which brings us to the broadest question: is Trump a fascist? I still answer
that with a qualified “No.” He has some overt fascists in his core of advisors and cabinet members—most notably his senior counsel Steve Bannon, a “white nationalist” former investment banker turned central figure of Breitbart, a rightwing website, who likes to call himself a Leninist (by which he means “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”)

And Trump’s Make America Great Again echoes earlier fascist moments in the US. But overall, he does not have a coherent fascist program and he mobilizes his reactionary white base mainly for occasional local rallies where he can bask in their applause. There is nothing like brownshirts yet.

So how do we understand Trump? Well, for one thing, he is cray-cray, current US slang for crazy. To be more precise he appears to be a textbook example of what psychologists call “malignant narcissism.” Extreme self-regard, little to no impulse control, inability to have empathy with others, aggression, bottomless thirst for praise—this certainly describes Trump.

And, of course, he is profoundly ignorant and incurious. Add to all this a decline in speaking ability and focus that suggests the onset of dementia.

There is another factor which has not been widely observed. As I pointed out in one of those earlier articles, part of Trump’s electoral success was due to his presence on a “reality television” show called The Apprentice, which was seen by millions of Americans every week. That shaped many Americans’ view of Trump--the ultra-wealthy, successful businessman with loyal family members who did what had to be done and got the best people by ruthlessly ditching the losers.

The thing is that this show was the main and most consistent activity in his life for the 13 years before he declared his Presidential candidacy. He totally believes its premise, too, and it has governed his approach to running the US government.  He is the decisive figure who makes all the decisions based on his brilliant intellect and unerring gut feelings, with the assistance of a handful of loyal aides. The small teams of contestants he put through the ropes every season were there to highlight his brilliance, to be pitted against each other and brutally dismissed at his whim.

(The hundreds of people who actually made the show happen—electricians, writers, directors, camera crews, janitors, lawyers, publicists, sound engineers, makeup people and more and more—barely exist for him. They were just setting the stage for his star role. This helps explain why Trump has done almost nothing to fill hundreds and hundreds of top level vacancies within his administration, in important parts of government like the State Department.)

TRUMP’S BASE AND TRUMPISM


At the same time as caution should be used before throwing around the term “fascism,” there is something that could be called Trumpism. It is less a worked-out ideology than a set of simplistic and retrograde beliefs about how things are and how they ought to be, held by a significant section of the white population of the US.

As that suggests, racism is at the core of Trump’s appeal. He was the choice of a majority of white voters. These are people of all classes—and a majority of women went for him too—who have been convinced by right-wing media and social media, that white people are the oppressed and victimized in the US. There is a geographic component of this base, which is strongest in rural and especially suburban areas of poorer states.

Those who have had their privileges challenged since the 1960s—white folks and straight white men in particular—are ready to target the Other, especially people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and feminists and other uppity women. “I want my country back” or, as Trump puts it, Make America Great Again, is the cry of those who want to return to the 1950s.

Many observers of Trump’s base have focused on white workers and argue that the economic pain they suffer in a declining economy, with manufacturing having shifted to the Third World and unions at a fraction of their traditional strength, is why they turned to Trump. While this is doubtless an element, recent rigorous studies of electoral and polling data show that the cultural clash is considerably more important than economic distress.

It is also important to recognize that folks in his base have their views constantly reinforced. There is a whole media ecosystem of Fox news, ranting right wing talk radio shows, and reactionary blogs and websites which comprise a bubble where they are cradled and spoonfed reaction and assured of their victimization and their specialness. 

To say that Trump is not a classical fascist is not to say that he doesn’t pose unique dangers to the people of the US and of the world. There are some in the small and relatively disorganized left in the United States who argue that in essence there is no difference, between Trump and the neo-liberals like Obama and Clinton, who are the dominant force in the Democratic Party. Neither have the interests of the masses at heart, both support repressive measures against immigrants, both are funded by donations from corporations and the ultra rich, the neo-liberals are generally more interventionist in world affairs, etc.

Most of us, however, feel that Trump and Trumpism must be resisted and stopped. His regime’s determination to roll back gains of people’s struggles over the last half century and more, to actively promote racism, to drive immigrants out of the country, to gut the social safety net and privatize governmental functions, to transfer billions of dollars from the average taxpayer to corporations and the ultra-rich, to deny climate change and savage the environment are all far more brutal and wide-reaching than the neo-liberal administrations we have had for decades now. His erratic functioning makes for an unsettling day-to-day life for those he rules—doctors report record high stress levels in their patients.

Many millions of ordinary, everyday Americans also sense the danger posted by the Trump regime and Trumpism, and have shown it by launching themselves into the largest and most promising wave of struggle this country has seen in decades.

THE RESISTANCE BEGINS

While there were demonstrations across the US as soon as Trump won the election, the Resistance was really launched on the day after his inauguration. January 21 with the Women’s March.

I want to emphasize how important it was that this major mobilization on the first full day of the Trump regime was a women’s march. It had been called initially online by one lawyer from Hawai’i and organized on the fly with a handful of experienced staffers from different NGOs.


Resources for the big March in Washington DC came from some mainstream women’s groups but it wound up putting well over 2 million people into the streets, not just in Washington but in hundreds of largely spontaneous actions in cities, towns and villages around the country. (Millions more around the globe took part in protests as well, out of solidarity with folks in the US and out of concern for their own futures.)

Of all the possible constituencies for a big march, women made up the broadest, especially when one adds in the male partners, friends and supporters who wanted to join in. Estimates, including published ones using samples and interviews, suggest that more than one third of the marchers were attending their first protest ever!

Because it was not around a particular cause—global warming, health care, immigrants rights, Black Lives matter—advocates for all of those issues were able to take part on an equal footing. And because it spoke to people’s fears and showed the possibility of mass resistance at a critical time, it set the pace for the period we are now in in a way that, say, a big pro-public education march could not have.

There have been countless demonstrations since then, local ones, nationally coordinated ones, some near spontaneous, like the many thousands who headed for airports when Trump first ordered a ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Islamic nations. More recently, a week apart, a Science March and a Climate March took place in Washington at the end of April, each drawing national crowds in the six figures.

However the main forms that the resistance has taken so far is through the US political system. This has several fronts.

Within the state apparatus itself
Trump’s team set out to shut down or totally replace the staffing in many parts of the government. The response was immediate, from dedicated government employees who believe in what they are doing. As the Trump crew started censoring websites and Twitter feeds of agencies, staffers set up their own versions, like staffers at government agencies like the National Park Service, NASA, and the U.S. Forest Service started setting up their own rogue Twitter accounts. 

At the National Space and Aeronautics Agency, scientists organized a global crowd-sourced project for people concerned about the environment to download and mirror all the data available on climate change to preserve it in case efforts were made to shut it down. Every attack, every change of policy, every wave of layoffs is leaked to the media as soon as it is discussed and some have been blocked by public outrage.

There has been a lot of attention to the “Deep State,” which can mean the permanent bureaucracy like the cases I mentioned above, but usually refers, in particular, to the civil and military intelligence agencies of the government. Alienated by Trump’s arrogant declaration that he knows more than they do and his refusal to listen to their briefings or read their reports, they have been leaking information to the media like a sieve. Most of the material on Russian intervention in the US election and on Trump’s corporate ties to Putin and Russian capital have come from within these circles. Now Trump has ousted the head of the FBI, James Comey for failing to kill the investigations. This has provoked massive anger in the ranks of the country’s secret police, an obvious strategic misjudgment on Trump’s part.


The court system in the US has proved another roadblock to Trump’s plans to remake the country’s policies and government in accordance with his whims. The best example of this is the response to his efforts to keep a key campaign promise, to implement “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” A presidential order to put this into effect on weeks after Trump took office met immediate and massive protests from tens of thousands of people--and immediate and decisive rulings by federal judges that this order violated Constitutional guarantees against discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds.

Trump did not help his legal appeal to higher courts of this decision by tweets referring to a “so-called judge” who issued that ruling. Judges are notoriously jealous of their prerogatives and tend to react badly to bullying by elected officials, especially those who are blatantly ignorant of the law. 


Along with the executive branch (the state apparatus) and the judiciary branch (the courts) the third leg of the triad through which bourgeois rule is exercised is in the US is the legislative. Trump enjoys a relatively rare occurrence in US politics: both the House of Representatives and the Senate are in the hands of the same party, his party, the Republicans.

This has not, so far, created a law-passing juggernaut. For one thing, the Republicans are divided between heavily-funded rightwing ideologues in “safe districts” and moderates—slightly less loony right-wingers--who fear both being challenged and defeated in a Republican primary election by a rightwing lunatic and having to answer for Trump and his policies in a general election in a split district.

Indivisible


A group of left liberal congressional staffers wrote a paper after the election entitled “Indivisible.” The name comes from the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag which calls the US one nation “indivisible” with liberty and justice for all. (It is a word that hardly ever comes up in normal conversation, so the association with patriotic ritual is very powerful.)

Indivisible’s authors focused on organizing those who oppose Trump around a project of having citizens call, write or visit their elected officials, and especially turn up en masse when the politicians come home from Washington to hold “town meetings” or other forums. (In some ways it replicated the billionaire-funded Tea Party upsurge of conservatives and libertarians right after Barack Obama’s 2009 first inauguration.)

This has, in fact, been the main form that the Resistance has taken so far. There are hundred of groups calling themselves “Indivisible” in every state in the union. Other, previously-existing liberal groups like MoveOn.org and the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution have adopted the strategic approach and tactics of bombarding Republican congresspersons and wavering Democrats. They meet in small groups for encouragement and summation and continue to bombard their elected representatives. In keeping with the historic role of the Women’s March, a significant majority of those involved in these activities and circles are apparently women.

It has been very effective in the early stages of Trump’s presidency. Many Republicans, even in safe districts, have not held traditional meetings for their constituents, or have held one and promptly decided not to do it again. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, has turned off the telephones and email accounts in his office, making it nearly impossible for his constituents to reach him.

The main focus up until now has been the struggle to keep the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, which has provided health insurance to 10s of millions of US residents who did not have it before. Because it was opposed from the start by Republicans, because it was Obama’s largest single accomplishment as president and because ending it will free up billions of dollars in the budget for tax cuts for the rich, repealing the ACA was Trump’s Goal #1 upon taking office.

He may still be able to do it, but massive opposition has twice stalled his drive. People who will die or be bankrupted if they lose their coverage in the only large industrial nation without guaranteed healthcare for all are a powerful force, it turns out. And the pure callousness of Trump’s political allies who say “Too bad about your sick kid, but I have no obligation to pay for her,” have made getting a bill that can pass as a replacement for Obamacare through Congress more difficult.
An obvious conclusion that flows from the Indivisible approach is that the next step has to be to follow through on the implicit threat to Republican elected officials. They cannot be moved by logic or shame, as showed by their continued support of the human dumpster fire they supported for President and the fact that they have not turned away from him over the last three catastrophic months. Thus, they must be voted out, and the only way to do that, under the current system is to elect Democrats. Driven by opposition to Trump and his party, thousands of people, most of them young, are applying for candidate training programs so they can run for local office and perhaps prepare for higher position.

Furthermore, the Republican Party on a national scale is engaged in a determined voter suppression offensive, a longstanding racist bid to disenfranchise non-white voters, which has been kicked into overdrive by Trump’s election. He has set up a
Presidential Commission on Election Integrity to combat “voter fraud” (he claims as many as five million people voted illegally in 2016, depriving him of the popular vote victory) and appointed a notorious racist to run it. As the demographics of the United States become more colorful, let’s say, year by year, the only way for white nationalists and the reactionaries they appeal to stay dominant is by denying the vote and even nominal political power to people of color.
 

THE RESISTANCE


The Resistance is the name that many have adopted for the movement against Trump and his regime. It evokes old black and white movies about World War 2 partisans operating under the noses of the Nazi occupation and its quislings.

Its heavy electoral and legalistic flavor is not the only way the Resistance differs from those historic forebears. There is no central command. There is no commonly agreed upon set of rules for belonging to it.

It is a classic united front—that is, an objective bloc of differing and shifting class and social forces with a common target. It is not an alliance of organizations, though some of the organized forces within it have developed formal ties and informal working relationships. None, however, are strong enough to dominate.

And some of the forces in it are in fact enemies of the masses in more normal times. Think Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang, with whom the Chinese Communist Party united during China’s War of Resistance to Japanese invasion and occupation.

Thus, we find unsettling phenomena like Hillary Clinton suddenly declaring herself part of the Resistance and announcing that her role will be collecting huge amounts of cash (much in the form of “dark money,” very large contributions which don’t legally have to be reported) to distribute to groups already organizing against Trump.

Combined with the solicitation of funds for Democratic Party candidates, already underway, in next year’s midterm elections, there is a real danger that many people will be convinced that the best way to resist Trump and Trumpism is not active protest, but rather the donation of as much money as they can afford.


But this is a battle for the future of the Resistance, not a done deal. There are several important and encouraging developments within the Resistance as well, even beyond the simple fact of its growth in size and impact, which is why Clinton has to try and brand herself with its banner.

One such development is the breakdown of the structural walls within big social movements and especially between them. This is particularly true when for the last three decades at least most progressive activism in the US has tended to be flow into NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). These are structurally silo-ized, constrained by the need to act respectable, woo funders, issue mission statements and press releases, hold conferences, and lobby elected officials and government bureaucrats. Now there is a very real and very menacing common enemy, and the need for cooperation is pretty clear.
 
Another positive development is that the surging interest in socialism that cropped up so surprisingly in the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination is still going strong. First, the idea of universal health care (or even widely available low cost health insurance) has been denounced as socialism by Republican politicians intent on destroying Obamacare. With millions now threatened with having no access to health care, because of a set of ideological values that says “I’ve got mine, you parasite. Drop dead,” socialism seems pretty attractive.

More concretely, one organization, Democratic Socialists of America has enjoyed a dramatic growth spurt in recent months. It is an old line social democratic group which has added thousands of new members in recent months, reaching a formal membership of 20,000. Many are young and new to politics while others are veteran fighters who feel a strong need for organizational affiliation again.

DSA’s particular strength is its approach of seeing electoral politics as an essential part of any fight to end capitalism and build socialism and that in this period that means doing work within the Democratic party as well as outside of it where that seems more appropriate. Not only is this in keeping with the spirit of The Resistance, but it serves as a barrier against entryist efforts by various Trotskyist, anarchist and other ultra-left groups to whom work in the Democratic party is anathema. DSA is overwhelming young and lacks the infrastructure to take full advantage of its rapid growth, but is already the most promising development on the mass socialist left in a long time.

A third positive development is that various groups and individuals are starting to look at what it means to sustain and build on the anti-Trump upsurge for the future. One example of this is an alliance built to organize for May Day this year in the US. Beyond The Moment is the name, and it was convened by the Movement for Black Lives, a group which grew out of the heart of the Black Lives Matter upsurge and knows some things about building organization for the long haul. The groups, mainly people of color, mainly community-based, that they pulled into Beyond The Moment included 350.org, the most militant of the big climate change groups, immigrants rights groups like United We Dream, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the organizers of Women’s March, to name just a few.

Their vision holds great promise: “We will go beyond moments of outrage, beyond narrow concepts of sanctuary, and beyond barriers between communities that have much at stake and so much in common. We will strike, rally and resist. Our aim is to build a mighty movement of all people dedicated to freedom. That means we don’t deny our differences, we embrace them and build a movement bold, broad and big enough to include our many realities.”

THE DAMAGE ALREADY DONE

As I finish the final draft of this paper on May 17, all hell is breaking loose in Washington DC, as FBI and other investigations cripple the White House and panic the Republican Party. The term Trexit (Trump exit) is being widely used for the first time. There are plenty of reasons to think that he won’t serve a full four years. For one thing, he’s unhappy with his new toy: “I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”

If he doesn’t quit, though, the mayhem may be drawn out for months or years. Republican politicians are caught between a rock and a hard place. Their base still supports Trump ardently and refuses to believe any “fake news” reported by the mainstream media. Everyone else is increasingly waiting for someone, somehow, to repeat the words of Gerald Ford when Richard Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace: “Our long national nightmare is over.”

In the meantime, for all the victories won so far by the Resistance and all the successes it will likely have in the future, incalculable damage is being done to the people of this country. They may be using them ineptly but Trump and his crew hold the levers of power in this country,

A couple of examples will suffice. First, he has emboldened and unleashed a wave of really ugly reactionary sentiment. Trump’s base no longer feels constrained by common decency, and so they freely use racist, sexist, anti-queer language and they accompany their words with physical bullying or worse. Reports of children attacking schoolmates because they are Latina/o or Muslim are commonplace, and all too often it turns out it is the teacher and not even the parents who are to blame.

And all the poison that is being whipped up will be reflected in—and will fuel--policies that will increase the misery of oppressed and exploited people. The last administration’s minimal efforts to seek lighter sentences and alternative treatment for non-violent drug users and sellers had begun to chip away at the disgraceful US record of being Incarceration Nation. Trump’s Attorney General has announced several policy reversals which will insure the country retains the highest percentage of people in prison of any country in the world. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have been unleashed to brutalize immigrant communities.

Second, Trump’s denial of the reality of climate change (he thinks the concept is a Chinese plot to reduce the competiveness of the US economy) and posturing as defender of coal miners and oil patch workers are hastening a catastrophe that is already changing our planet in ways that we barely can sense today. This damage is global in scale and is unlikely to be reversed in our lifetimes.

Similar points could be made about education, health care, job safety, and many other battlefronts. Even when we win a significant victory it is still a defensive accomplishment and we can’t fight all of them all with equal intensity.

 

TRUMP AND THE WORLD 

I have saved the most important part for last, the world situation. It is no secret that the citizens of the country I live in are appallingly ignorant about the world. Only one American in six can point to Afghanistan on a map, And Afghanistan is the site of the longest war in US history, still going on! (Estimates on how many can’t identify Norway run to upwards of 80%.)

And Trump might well be below the US average. One recent
interview demonstrated that he thought the same person had been running North Korea since World War 2, rather than the Mount Paektu Bloodline dynasty founded by Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of the current hereditary ruler, Kim Jong-un. He clearly has no idea of what the various trade treaties the US ruling class has put in place, like NAFTA, are, nor what NATO and the EEC do.

His diplomatic overtures have often been absurd. Refusing to shake Angela Merkel’s hand after she declined his “bill” for NATO membership. Announcing that the US is leaving NAFTA and then changing his mind the same day, after Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, briefed on the sly by White House insiders, called and gently encouraged him to rethink and Mexican officials called and told him to go ahead, they wouldn’t negotiate under threat.

His fondness for dictators—whether Putin in Russia,
Erdoğan in Turkey, or Duterte in the Philippines---may be based on affinity or admiration. It has certainly given them the idea that they can do what they want to their own people and even to their neighbors without worrying about consequences from the US—or from international bodies where the US has a say, like human rights organizations.

Upon taking office, he asked for the resignation of all US ambassadors. So far he has replaced only one! Similarly, lower lever slots in the State Department have not been filled. What this means is that increasingly the US has no real everyday government-to-government contact with much of the world.

Most worrisome is his approach to using the military. Some on the left here initially argued that he would be better than Obama and Clinton, without the neo-liberal drive to project US military power everywhere. That theory certainly hasn’t held up well.

For starters he has proposed a $54 billion increase in the US military budget this year. (For comparison purposes the whole Russian Federation military budget is about $65 billion.) He displays an unhealthy fascination with nuclear weapons, especially since he doesn’t grasp the conception of deterrence and has pledged to make sure the US is “the top of the pack” in nuclear weapons. This is not a good thing, considering that he controls 7,500 warheads.

Fortunately, his military initiatives so far have been erratic bits of showing off: A missile attack on one of 50-some Syrian government airfields, several hours after warning Assad’s Russian sponsors that it was coming. The dropping of a single over-hyped “Mother Of All Bombs” on an ISIS bunker in Afghanistanwhere ISIS is not the main force fighting US occupation. The big announcement of an aircraft carrier strike group being dispatched toward North Korea, a strike group photographed three days later in the Sunda Strait of Indonesia, headed for the Indian Ocean.

Still, even little actions like these, especially when they are barely thought out and part of no discernible strategy, have the potential to erupt in major crises or war. Worse still, they suggest that in case of any crisis, including those from other causes whether natural or political, the Trump regime might easily respond in a way that would throw kerosene on the fire.

There is a great deal of concern about this in US ruling circles. Commenters generally seem to hope that the military high command will keep Trump reined in. Still many are feeling what the journal Foreign Policy, the base-line must-read US publication for foreign affairs professionals and policy wonks, said in a recent message from the editor:

This activity is not lost on the rest of the world. They see an America unlike any they can recall and a leader who is clearly not fit for office. Said one diplomat from a close ally in this hemisphere, “We often have discussions at home as to whether Trump is crazy. We think he is. We have had experience with leaders like this in South America. But I never expected to see it in Washington.” It is a sentiment I have heard in one form or another often in the past few weeks.

America looks like a country it has never been. Trump is a laughingstock in the best of circumstances, a disgrace based on his known behavior to date, and a threat to global order and security with each action he takes.

He discredits the office he holds and the government he leads.

In other words, if you aren’t worried, look closer!



2 comments:

Alan Compagnon said...

An excellent summary of Trumpism and the resulting resistance, along with the very real dangers Trump poses for the U.S. and the rest of the world.

samia hussain said...

nice post