Democrats committed to the indefinite extension of neoliberalism are also committed, whether they grasp it or not, to making Trumpism a permanent feature of the political landscape.
It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Trump will win the 2020 election. That doesn’t mean he won’t try to find a way to keep his grip on power one way or another—through some combination of legal and illegal means. Neither should we rule out the possibility of another 2016-style upset in which Trump loses the popular vote by a sizable margin but still manages to secure more electoral votes. As I write this, it is anything but certain that Trump will be ousted from the White House in the coming weeks and months.
But there is considerable evidence mounting that disfavors Trump’s chances. For starters, unemployment remains extremely high and the death toll of the pandemic totals more than 225,000 and could top 400,000 by the end of the year. He’s no longer an insurgent outsider promising to shake things up. This time around, he’s an incumbent with the full backing of the GOP establishment. Although his opponent inspires no one, he also doesn’t elicit the misogynistic ire from right-wingers that Hillary Clinton did. Despite Trump’s big promises to bring back manufacturing and rebuild infrastructure that were crucial to his close wins in the rustbelt in 2016, these parts of the country have continued to decline under the President’s watch. We can surmise that this context helps explain why Trump trails Biden by double-digit margins in national polls.
My goal here isn’t to speculate about what will happen on November 3rd, however. I want to think about something else entirely: regardless of what happens to Trump on election day, what will become of Trumpism? What, in other words, is going to happen to the putrid ferment of violent racism, xenophobia, white nationalism, and patriarchal authoritarianism that Trump has so deftly tapped into and cultivated as president? I’m talking about the increasingly paranoid, conspiracy-theory obsessed, mass delusion that coheres much of Trump’s hardcore base of support. I’m talking about the millions of people who tune in to watch Fox News anchors like Tucker Carlson insist that the NBA is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (joined in an unholy alliance with Black Lives Matter and antifa) in a bid to brainwash liberals and take over the United States.
Will Trump’s Base Grow?
The group gripped by this madness probably numbers between about a quarter and a third of the population. But in absolute terms that’s still tens of millions of people—and, what’s more, this layer has the capacity to grow and influence adjacent layers of the population who are, for reasons we should study closely, especially likely to be open to elements of the Trumpist worldview.
My question, then, is what’s going to happen to this cancer in the body politic? A Trump victory would no doubt catalyze a frenzied mestatization of this social pathology. But what about if Biden wins? I get the sense that the Democratic establishment’s hope is that, if they win the White House, increase majorities in the House, and perhaps even a majority in the Senate, that the Trump nightmare will quietly fade away. At that point, the mode of governance and public relations familiar during the Bush and Obama years will resume and everything can safely return to “normal.” A narrative popular in the last days of the Obama era—that demographic shifts alone will gradually make the Republican Party obsolete and unelectable—may well become common sense among liberal pundits once more.
But, in this scenario, will Trumpism have left us? Hardly. A Biden victory will radicalize the Trumpist right. We have to remember that this social layer subscribes to a worldview rooted in a deep sense of victimhood, which defines itself not in terms of any positive values per se but simply in opposition to people and ideas that elicit visceral hatred. Despite his resolutely centrist credentials, a Biden win will set off the right’s alarm bells, confirming all of their twisted conspiracy theories, sending them into frenzy. Trump, of course, will do everything humanly possible to fan the flames of this collective hysteria.
We’ve been here before, however. Remember 2010, when the Tea Party exploded onto the scene and the Republicans took back Congress? Let’s review what happened then, because the events of 2008-2010 hold the key to seeing how Trump won the White House in 2016.
From Obama’s Victory to the 2010 Midterms
After the Democrats won huge in 2008—boasting control of the White House, crushing majorities in the House, and a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate—nothing much changed. The keynotes of the Bush era continued without interruption: the unpopular bank bailouts went on, not a single one of the culprits in finance responsible for bringing the world economy to its knees were prosecuted for a crime, foreign policy and infringements on civil liberties remained more or less exactly as they had been under the previous administration. Meanwhile the Obama cabinet was loaded with personnel from Wall Street.
Apologists for the Democratic leadership will retort that the narrative above ignores the stimulus bill and health care reform—both of which, according to this argument, provoked a right-wing backlash against liberal reformism that cost the Democrats control of Congress. This argument, however, simply doesn’t hold water. First of all, the Republican victories in 2010 were due to a collapse in Democratic turnout; Republicans did not significantly expand their base of support between the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Second of all, the stimulus and Affordable Care Act (ACA) were anything but liberal or reformist—both bills were garden variety examples of corporate neoliberalism. Indeed, as a stalwart defender of the Democratic leadership put it in 2012, Obama’s “platform consists of Mitt Romney’s health-care bill, Newt Gingrich’s environmental policies, John McCain’s deficit-financed payroll tax cuts, George W. Bush’s bailouts of failing banks and corporations, and a mixture of the Bush and Clinton tax rate.”
It’s worth getting into some of the details for a moment. The single largest component of Obama’s stimulus bill was tax cuts—just as it would have been under a Republican president—and, meanwhile, cash-strapped state governments were not given any cheap credit or bailouts that might have enabled them to forestall punishing cutbacks and mass layoffs. In Chicago, where I live, the period after 2008 was one in which state and municipal-level austerity reached a fever pitch, resulting in mass school closures, layoffs, and service cuts to public transit. This wasn’t inevitable—indeed, in most other periods of the twentieth century even a Republican-controlled federal government would likely have been moved to do something to help state budgets and prevent large-scale contractions in public expenditure.
The ACA is a similar story. To be sure, it did do some good—it modestly expanded Medicaid and made some of the insurance industry’s worst, most cruel practices illegal (like denying certain claims on the basis of so-called pre-existing conditions.) But in exchange for these gains it promised a huge bonanza for the private insurance corporations who dominate the medical system in the United States. And, as you’d expect of a bill literally written by a health insurance insider (Elizabeth Fowler) in conjunction with the largest Senate recipient of insurance industry campaign contributions (Democrat Max Baucus), the ACA contained no public option that might threaten insurers with “unfair competition.” As Perry Anderson observed at the time, the ACA guaranteed “the pharmaceutical corporations and their over-priced drugs a state-subsidized market” and expanded “by state ordinance . . . the quantity of over-charged customers” at the mercy “of the insurance companies. . . . In theory a universal health-care system compelling every solvent adult under 65 to take out private insurance,” in practice the ACA “is mainly an extension of Medicaid, but one that will still leave about 30 million Americans uninsured, and the rest bewildered in a system of yet more complexity and opacity than before—the bill enacting it is 900 pages long.” It is little wonder, then, that “enthusiasm for the reform has been so tepid, suspicion so widespread,” even among Democratic voters.
Why the Democrats Lost in 2010
On the eve of the 2010 midterms, there was a widely noted “enthusiasm gap” haunting Democratic candidates. Translation: masses of voters who turned out to elect Obama and vote in big Democrat majorities in 2008 felt betrayed and demoralized by the fact that the Democratic politicians used up their political capital to more or less maintain the Bush-era status quo. To the extent that Obama campaigned at all to maintain his majorities in Congress, his strategy was to discipline voters and blame them for their own dissatisfaction: if you don’t like what the Democrats did with power in the last two years, it can only be because you have unreasonable expectations and cling to political purism. Unsurprisingly, this scolding didn’t spark a mad rush to the polls on the part of the coalition that put Obama in office in 2008.
(Rather than try to sell the stimulus and ACA on their merits, some Democrat loyalists rewrite history and claim that Obama was prevented from passing genuinely progressive legislation at every turn by Republican obstructionism. The problem with this line of argument is that the Democrats had the White House, huge majorities in the House, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, and loads of political momentum. They had the power to do whatever they wanted—and one of the things key Democrats did was use the opportunity to attack reproductive freedom.)
Long story short: big promises of reform followed by a continuation of neoliberal policies yielded a precipitous drop in turnout for Democratic candidates in 2010 compared to 2008—and Republicans, whose share of the eligible electorate remained unchanged, capitalized on the difference. A small but insurgent hard right was radicalized—let us not forget the open carry protests of white Tea Partiers at the health care town halls, not to speak of Trump’s gleeful participation in the “Birther” movement—but the base of the Democratic Party was demoralized by Democrat-backed neoliberal policies that enriched the ruling class at the expense of workers.
A Redux of 2010?
Fast-forward to the present. After four years of Trump, pure lesser-evilism may well be enough to oust him from office and secure a Biden victory on November 3rd. Since 2016, Trump has done little to expand his base of support and his net approval rating has consistently remained underwater, with his positive numbers rarely rising above 42 percent. Indeed, Trump is the most unpopular president in modern polling history. So, perhaps anti-Trumpism will be sufficient to produce a blue wave in November—or, for any number of reasons, perhaps it won’t.
Regardless of what happens, however, Trumpism isn’t going away on its own. And if Biden wins, it’s only a matter of time before we return to a 2010-style scenario in which establishment Democrats, utterly committed to defending a broken status quo, have to face down a radicalized right-wing in search of revenge. This is exactly the balance of forces that produced Trump in the first place.
How, then, do we break this cycle once and for all?
Instead of finding short-term ways to treat superficial symptoms, we need a diagnosis that identifies the root causes of Trumpism. And there’s no way around the fact that neoliberal centrism—of the sort exemplified by the Democratic leadership—is a crucial part of what fuels this disease. Those committed to an indefinite extension of a neoliberal worldview are thereby committed, whether they grasp it or not, to making Trumpism a permanent feature of the political landscape.
Breaking the Cycle
Bernie Sanders’s campaigns gave us a glimpse of what an exit route might look like. Whatever his faults, and there were plenty of them to be sure, Sanders was unrivaled when it came to persistently staying on message and hammering away at a basic truth: the vast majority of the population believes that the richest 1 percent has far too much economic and political power. This simple truth explodes the entire Trumpist worldview in a way that no amount of mealy-mouthed neoliberal palliatives ever could. Trump himself, of course, is part of the richest 1 percent—or, at least, he pretends to be and profits from presenting himself as such. He opposes popular reforms that follow from this obvious truth: for example, that medical care should be a right rather than a privilege, that college should be free for working-class kids and financed by taxing the ruling class, that redistributive measures should be taken to address the massive gap between the wealthy few and the working-class majority, etc.
Trump’s favored strategy when confronted with genuine class analysis is to try to change the subject as quickly as possible, which in practice means blathering about “radical leftists” and “socialism” on the one hand and on the other pivoting back to racist, nationalistic themes that get the ruling class off the hook by focusing public anger on a menacing, external Other—China, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, BLM, antifa, and so on.
The centrist line on this is it plays into Trump’s hands to confront him with socialist politics. But this falls flat for several reasons. First, socialism is more popular today than it has been in generations—so it’s not obvious that it’s the political kiss of death it once was. In fact, there’s a big audience for unapologetic class analysis. Second, Trump has a habit of calling all Democrats socialists, radical leftists, and the like. So, it can’t be an objection to class analysis to say that it leaves Trump the option of whining about socialism. He does this regardless of who his opponent is. The question, then, is how best to respond to a right-wing offensive that defines itself in terms of hatred of the left generally and socialism in particular.
In his first debate with Trump, Biden’s response was to agree with the right-wing premise—socialism is really bad, what Trump says about the left is true—but to deny that it constitutes a problem for a thoroughly neoliberal, pro-capitalist party such as the Democrats. In the short-run, this response might strike many as wise realpolitik—everyone knows that Biden is a right-leaning Democrat with a conservative record, so Trump’s arguments about leftist radicalism miss their mark and probably appear desperate to the average voter. But the long-run effect is damaging: it confirms a central piece of Trumpist ideology, namely that creeping socialism is a genuine problem that must be decisively combatted in order to protect the nation. Moreover joining Trump in dumping on socialism is a slap in the face to the masses of people for whom socialism is seen as a positively good thing.
Is there a mass audience for Trump’s rabidly anti-socialist paranoia? Of course. The key question is whether greater numbers of people can be mobilized behind a pro-socialist agenda. But that is not a question the Democratic Party has any interest in testing out in practice—in fact, the party is opposed at a fundamental, existential level to ever testing it out in earnest. That’s because the Democratic Party is not really a political party per se, but a corporate fundraising operation with a public relations arm meant to engage voters when it’s election time. (The same is true of the Republican Party, though its donor base and method of engaging voters differs from that of the Democrats.) Mobilizing the masses of the population behind a pro-redistributive, pro-worker (i.e. socialist) program would pose an existential threat to the corporate donors who constitute the core constituency of the Democrats, so this option is permanently off the table so far as the party’s official leadership is concerned. It’s a nonstarter.
Where Do We Go From Here?
What this means is that the Democratic Party as such is fundamentally opposed to doing what needs to be done to thwart Trumpism and address the myriad crises we face. Its high-ranking personnel will not ever be persuaded to change their minds and, indeed, they see their role as doing everything they can to ruthlessly stop the socialist left dead in its tracks. And, right now, they’re winning.
How, then, should the socialist left proceed? I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to this pressing question. My thoughts on the matter are scattered and derive largely from a sense of what hasn’t worked thus far. Here’s what I’ve got:
1. We need clarity about how class power is woven through the Democratic Party as an institution. That means grasping that the Democratic Party’s leadership, personnel, and elected officials are, with a few notable exceptions such as AOC and a handful of others, the sworn enemies of the working class. People like Pete Buttigieg, for example, aren’t allies with whom we have minor disagreements about strategy and tactics. Buttigieg, like every single other person who sought the nomination for president save for Bernie Sanders, wants a career in the Democratic Party such as it is. People like Buttigieg want to court the corporate donors who bankroll the party and cultivate a slick, made-for-TV public relations brand that reduces substantive politics to the performance of focus group–tested personality traits. Once in office, they will pass laws that benefit the donor class and sell out the rest of us. That makes them enemies in the sense that their chosen vocation is fundamentally incompatible with challenging the social forces who profit from exploiting, oppressing, and dividing workers.
2. Coalitions with Democratic elected officials and other liberal forces to our right should not be ruled out; but we must enter into such coalitions with a ruthless attitude, free of any illusions that people like Pelosi and Schumer are on our side or care about the same things. Moreover, coalitions must be seen as temporary and strategic, and rooted in nothing more than the achievement of certain well-defined, short-run goals that socialists have reason to endorse independently of what the Democratic leadership desires. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and a Red Deal would be examples of reforms socialists ought to fight for. In fighting for these reforms, however, we must see our primary audience as the masses, not Democratic Party leaders or their apologists in the media and the liberal NGOs. We need to mobilize the anger of the masses, channel it and aim it directly at the ruling class—and this will put Democratic politicians and their boosters in the awkward position of being caught in the middle, forced to either acquiesce to our side or out themselves as naked supporters of the rich. So, by winning masses of people to our position, we will generate leverage to force the hand of people—like Schumer or Pelosi—who will never be won over by argument, who are militantly opposed to the demands we seek. We should want to win the demands for two reasons: because they materially improve the lives of workers and the oppressed, first and foremost, but also because winning these demands can raise the expectations and political confidence of the masses and lay the groundwork for more such victories and a bigger organized left.
3. We therefore need a medium-term strategy for how to break from the Democratic Party. Indefinitely postponing the moment of rupture works to the advantage of those who wish to preserve the status quo. If a “dirty break” is what we should aim for, we need to be talking about it now and actively work to make it happen. Openly showing one’s cards on this score carries risks if one is an elected official, to be sure. But being nice to folks like Pelosi and the DNC isn’t what’s protecting people like AOC from being cast out of politics—the Democratic leadership knows all too well how popular she is and how much support there is for the policies she champions. Thus, the goal shouldn’t be to feign cooperation for the sake of not being marginalized by the leaders of the DNC—they’re going to try to marginalize us anyway, and our only means of defense is winning public arguments and garnering enough organic mass support to make it too costly for them to cross us publicly without damaging their own credibility. It was a great thing when AOC said that she and Biden wouldn’t be in the same party in most other countries. We need a lot more of that and a lot less of the “we’re bringing the Democratic Party home” or “we need to return to the days of FDR.” To summarize: it’s not that socialists using the ballot line need to constantly talk publicly about their desire to break from the party. It’s that they need to take concrete actions to build up our organized forces and prepare to win a public political conflict with party leadership that will, substantively and not merely rhetorically, make a real break possible.
4. We should use whatever means available to us, including Democratic ballot lines where that makes sense, to make a strong, public case for socialist politics and back it up with boots-on-the-ground organizing that aims to train new activists and reach new layers of people hitherto disillusioned with formal politics. To the greatest extent possible, these campaigns should be openly socialist and uncompromising in their attack on neoliberalism. But we should do this only to the extent that it brings us closer to our medium-term to long-term goals; socialists should not be committed to renewing or realigning the democratic party. This means that where possible we should also run independent campaigns that seek to build more of a bridge between the DSA-backed candidates who identify as Democrats and socialists outside the party’s orbit. So, too, must electoral organizing efforts be more closely tied to extra-electoral movement building and protest.
5. Socialists need to earn a public reputation as being the most committed fighters against all forms of oppression, especially racism. They must do this by actually doing the work—in the streets, in workplaces and communities, in schools—of organizing mass resistance against every manifestation of racism. The working class in the United States has long been divided against itself in ways favorable to the maintenance of racial oppression as well as class inequality. There is no way to even begin building a serious working-class movement in this country that doesn’t see racism as a scourge to be rooted out and destroyed. One fruitful avenue for building a bigger, more united socialist movement would be to bring together various forms of abolitionism—police abolitionism, prison abolitionism, and so on—together with currents in the labor movement and the growing roster of DSA elected officials. We must oppose every attempt by self-avowed leftists to brand anti-racism or feminism as neoliberal or antithetical to class politics. We must also relentlessly point out the rank hypocrisy of neoliberal centrists who wish to claim for themselves the mantle of woke when it comes to matters of race and gender. These are people who, for example, covered for Joe Biden when Tara Reade made a credible accusation of sexual assault against him. We cannot allow them to cynically and opportunistically siphon off (and then dissipate) energy generated from real, mass resistance to oppression, particularly when there are organized forces on the right who want to smash #MeToo and turn the clock back to the 1950s.
6. It follows from this last point especially (and from many other arguments advanced above) that socialists must take the threat posed by the growth of the far right seriously. By “far right” I have in mind forces that openly advance white supremacist demands. Some of these forces are committed to using existing institutions (e.g. conservative media platforms, the Republican Party) to further their cause, whereas others favor street brawls, targeted physical attacks, and other acts of violence. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away—but neither will a single-minded focus on the surface-level symptoms treat the underlying ailment or stop it from spreading. Part of the reason the right has an audience right now is due to the absence of a mass, organized socialist left able to offer a clear alternative to neoliberalism in its center-left or center-right variants. So, to some extent, the surest way to defeat the far right is to build a bigger, more attractive socialist movement, to build much greater support for the idea that the ruling class is to blame for the myriad social crises unfolding before us, not some of the most marginalized sections of the international working class such as undocumented immigrants or Chinese manufacturing workers. But we’ve also got to find ways to exploit the fact that the existing far right in the United States is still relatively small and isolated as of right now—and one effective way to do that is to mobilize much larger numbers of people than they can muster to oppose them wherever they rear their heads. This public isolation and humiliation demoralizes far right activists and, more importantly, the conservative “normies” who are far right adjacent. And when far right organizations are isolated and made to feel small, they have a much harder time recruiting and building broader support for their movement. We have much to learn from the history of twentieth-century fascism, but the question of whether current experiences reinstantiate dimensions of that history is far less pressing than the question of what works (i.e. defeats the far right) here and now.
7. Organizing against the far right must also take into account the deep levels of support the far right enjoys within the state’s repressive apparatus—especially in police departments, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in the Department of Homeland Security, and so on. This is yet another reason why socialists should fully endorse the demand to defund the police and abolish ICE. It boggles the mind to think that a self-identified socialist might actually see their role today as demanding *more* funding for an agency filled with far right personnel whose basic function is to repress social movements, bust up strikes, and keep racially oppressed groups “in their place.”
8. We need to fight to renew the labor movement and shift the political center of gravity within it. At the risk of oversimplifying, we need two things: (1) far greater strength and membership density in core industries of the US economy, and (2) a more independent political perspective that is less obsessed with removing Republican lawmakers and more focused on forcing politicians in power to pass specific, concrete pro-worker reforms. In short: economically, labor needs more disruptive mass power at the point of production, whereas politically it needs to be more focused on winning pro-worker reforms and less on “turning Congress blue” or “taking back the Senate,” as if labor were nothing more than a permanent lackey of the Democratic establishment. Socialists have a key role to play in making these goals a reality.
9. Socialists must try, wherever possible, to resist any push to de-link race, class, and gender. Neoliberals who have no serious interest in overturning racial oppression in all its symbolic and material richness cannot be allowed to claim antiracism as their own. It was never theirs to begin with and the left should fight tooth and nail to refute both class-blind neoliberal “antiracism” as well as color-blind class reductionism wherever it appears.
I sincerely hope Trump is decisively thrown out of office on November 3rd, though I confess that I am haunted by the anxiety that he will, despite trailing by double-digits in polls for weeks, find a way to keep his grip on power. But regardless of what happens in the election, the socialist left has to think further ahead than the next few weeks.
Tyler Zimmer is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the co-chair of the Chicago DSA Anti-Racist Working Group. He is also a member of the Rampant editorial collective.