What can be done about the horrors of the Trump administration and how? A big question, but before we can answer it we need to better understand why Trump was elected, then assess the current political dynamics and build an effective opposition.
Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States with an electoral college majority, thanks to his appeal to working class people in key states that used to vote Democrat. Voters were disillusioned by their declining purchasing power in an increasingly globalized economy. Not only are they underemployed, but the income they still earn does not allow them to sustain their old standards of consumption nor have any hope of improving their socio-economic status. That situation caught the Democratic Party, its candidate Hillary Clinton, and the allied military-industrial-financial sector establishment that supported her, off-guard. It should not have. The signs were there, not least in the results of the Bernie Sanders campaign during the Democratic primaries.
The Democrats failed to address the impact of their own economic policies on blue collar workers and propose effective alternative policies. They also failed to inspire the minority groups that they embraced to come out and vote in greater numbers in the same and other states, for similar class-based reasons.
Now that Trump is President, the old order is crumbling, and the establishment is very uncomfortable. Trump understands that and has responded by filling his cabinet and other key administration posts with generals and Wall Street billionaires in an effort to assuage its discomfort. As Jim Hightower aptly pointed out, there are no working class populists in key positions of the Trump administration. But how will all of that play out in the medium term?
First, we must recognize that Trump’s combative style, tough guy image, and hard line opposition to nearly everything previous administrations have done, has substantial and increasing popular support for the moment. The response must offer clear alternatives that seize the opportunities that arise from the resulting contradictions.
In a 21st Century economy, there is no way a Trump administration can bring back the jobs that have vanished, more from automation and changing market demand than from offshoring, in the steel mills and coal mines. The working class in the states that have suffered most from the decline of those industries have expectations that cannot be met. Those jobs cannot be brought back by protectionist measures.
Moreover, those same working people, who supported Trump, need reliable health care services at a reasonable cost. Trump has already undermined the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and the Republican Congress is seriously planning to repeal that law with no comparable replacement in view. As a result, insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays will increase to ensure that the insurance companies continue to profit, and then more and more people will be without health insurance. That will increase the burden on the states, a majority of them now led by Republican governors and legislatures aligned for now with Trump. All of this leads to a major crisis in health care with no serious plans to prevent or overcome it. An effective opposition will highlight these contradictions in its message and point out the efficiencies and security of a single-payer universal health care system that can negotiate costs collectively with providers and eliminate insurance company profits. But, will the opposition understand that and bring it about?
Trump, in his campaign, championed massive infrastructure investment, thus challenging the long-time niggardliness of Congressional Republican deficit hawks. Now we know that, for Trump, infrastructure means pipelines and border walls, not the public transit, high-speed trains, hospitals, and renewable energy infrastructure needed for the 21st Century nor even the bridges, airport facilities, and urban water systems that are nearing collapse. No real surprise there, but pipelines and border walls are not likely to power the US economy, make it more competitive, nor provide jobs where they are most needed, which is not only in Texas or North Dakota. This will be another source of working class disillusion.
As Trump rolls out his executive orders to limit immigration and even transit by legal immigrants, and presses Congress to implement further constraints on immigration and cross-border trade, he will quickly alienate the establishment that has tepidly and reluctantly embraced him. Congressional Republicans are already questioning or opposing those moves. The establishment needs the cheap labor that immigrants provide. Moreover, if Trump follows through on his protectionist agenda, he will generate trade wars and a major economic crisis that will seriously challenge the hegemony of corporate America in the global market and the pocket books of the consumers that sustain it. Trump has boasted of shaking up the global capitalist order and has not thought through the consequences of doing so.
Where does all of that leave the opposition forces? Trump’s weaknesses, in my opinion, are 1) his unconstrained ego and hubris, 2) his impetuous compulsion to charge ahead with his plans without proper vetting or giving due consideration to the consequences for the constituency that will be harmed by them, and 3) real or potential conflicts of interest between executive branch policies and decisions and Trump’s business activities. An effective opposition would do well to focus on those weaknesses, highlight the contradictions, and undermine Trump’s base of support. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress will have an eye on their re-election prospects in 2018, and will increasingly oppose those measures that their constituents find contrary to their interests, abhorrent in some cases. But electoral alternatives will not come close to resolving those problems.
Some of the issues will play out in the judiciary, as is already occurring with the stays on deportations and exclusions from the United States of real people with ties to the United States under Trump executive orders. The balance of power in the United States, the strength of our democracy, provides a potential for increased tension and even conflict within the U. S. political system under these circumstances. An effective opposition will play one side against the other to gain ground for a better political alternative.
More important will be the mobilization of focused opposition efforts in the streets. When the system fails to meet the needs of the people, as they are widely perceived, sooner or later the people will rise up and bring down that system. We have already seen the massive women’s march on January 21 with over a million people demonstrating worldwide, including an estimated 15,000 in Tucson. Now we see the protests of the immigration measures at the major airports in the United States. In Tucson, the Peace Center had the best turnout ever at its January 28th spaghetti dinner, a small, but significant sign. Will this continue? Probably. The question is how and to what end.
As a veteran of old left campaigns and of the ’60s anti-war movement that was then known as the New Left, I am convinced that even a unified left-of-center spectrum will not consolidate effective opposition to Trump and his plans to make America great again for the one percent of which he is a prominent member. While it has to be class-based for the most part, the opposition must transcend the traditional left-right divide, particularly as that relates to the socialist perspective, which must be a critical component. That would be seen as a failed past experiment with references to the Soviet Union that has now morphed into Putin’s corrupt capitalist Russia.
Most Trump voters are not ideological; they are insecure. They can be brought around by appealing to that insecurity with alternative proposals to Trump’s once Trump fails to honor his promises to them. A significant number of them voted for Bernie Sanders in Democratic primaries.
When Trump fails, as he will, to bring jobs and higher income to working-class families in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, those families will quickly become disillusioned and seek alternatives. As the increasing Hispanic and other minority populations attain greater electoral presence in many of the currently Republican states, they and their representatives, will begin to oppose Trump’s program more vigorously, including protests in the streets. Black Lives Matter protagonists will occupy cities and demand change. The millennial generation will see no future in continued rule by rich white men in their ’70s who don’t address their issues important to them. When Trump shakes up the world order with his xenophobic and protectionist policies, the establishment will break down along vested interest lines. The contradictions will increase geometrically.
More immediately, I expect the military-industrial-financial sector elite to pursue its own interests and bring down Trump. That situation will be a source of major instability, not only in the United States, but also globally. Whatever happens, the seeds of a major, revolutionary social transformation will be present. With the instability of the current crisis comes increased political restlessness. An astute opposition will be able to take advantage of that restlessness to bring about major social transformation.
To guide that transformation, what is needed is a new alliance between the left and the working class voters who supported populist candidate Trump. The rednecks are also working class. They are not inherently racist, sexist, or homophobic, but that have been manipulated by right-wing racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric that appeals to their insecurity. An effective opposition can overcome that manipulation with a bold new plan to advance equality and demand equal economic opportunity for all. All but the one percent are victims of the excesses of the banks, insurance companies, hedge fund managers, and corporate elite. There is no justification for CEO salaries that are more than 1,000 times greater than the minimum wage, while the bulk of the population is without adequate health care or affordable education opportunities. It will be essential to highlight these difference and forge solidarity among the 99 percent.
Such an alliance should also include key elements of the Christian right. An effective opposition can divide the Christian right, highlighting the vested interests of those who are using it to further the agenda of the one percent, as opposed to the perspectives of genuine fundamentalist Christians, who take seriously the biblical injunctions to reach out to the poor and to strangers, including immigrants.
The working class in the United States has long been divided, with blue collar workers as the underdogs, while white collar workers, better paid and long able to sustain consumer habits, have been led to believe that they are middle class and, therefore better than blue collar workers. However, as salaried workers, they are still dependent upon the owners of the businesses they work for. Now that the economy has slowed down, all workers are effectively denied the improvements in their economic condition that might support their middle class illusion.
Another sector that identifies with the so-called middle class is small business owners, who are also besieged as corporate chains are squeezing them out of the market taking advantage of greater access to investment capital and economies of scale. Thus, they are logical allies with the working class in any restructuring of political lines in support of an effective opposition to Trump and his agenda.
Ultimately, a values shift will be necessary with a progressive transition from conspicuous consumption to something approaching “good living”, as called for by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos and increasingly by indigenous organizations worldwide. But more about that another day.
I am willing to predict that the Trump presidency will not last four years. How would Trump’s downfall likely occur? There are three possibilities: a resignation; an impeachment initiative, such as those that forced Nixon’s resignation and threatened the Clinton presidency before he overcame it; or assassination, which hasn’t occurred since 1963. I believe resignation is the most likely of the three, if it is offered as an alternative to impeachment for violations of law and the Constitution that the President has sworn to uphold. In any of those three events, the result would be a Pence presidency, likely to be more popular with Congress, less so with the people, leading to further corporate greed and the social upheaval necessary to consolidate opposition victories both in the streets and in the ensuing elections.
The task of the opposition now is to find creative new ways to forge such an alliance and divide the military-industrial-financial elite to produce the downfall of Trump and his agenda. That effort will have to selectively, respectfully, and intelligently engage those elements of the establishment who will be most hurt by the Trump agenda and allow them to assist in undermining his power in the short-term, and their own longer term.
The Clinton Democrats will be uncomfortable with such an alliance, given the long-time support they have had from the military, industrial, and financial elite, but they will likely support it to spite Trump. The Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party will also fail to bring about the needed alternatives through electoral politics, but they can support them.
The opposition alliance must be consolidated quickly, before Trump can pack the courts with troglodytes, start a nuclear war, or provoke a major global depression that will be much deeper and more difficult to overcome than the one that began in 1929. Ultimately, only World War II ended that crisis, but the Roosevelt New Deal attempted mildly progressive changes in the 1930s, which helped bring about the improved conditions for the working class that are now being undermined in the global economy, leading toward the current crisis.
Whether or not such an alliance will materialize timely and bring about workable alternatives to Trump and his agenda will depend on the ability of the opposition to carefully and systematically organize it along social class lines. After all, most of the people who voted for Trump are working class. That will require bold, innovate leadership. Once the Trump administration is toppled, the opposition will also have to lead in similar fashion through the unpredictable events that follow. Will it be sufficiently astute to foster such a social transformation? Nobody can guarantee that, but I am cautiously optimistic. We have nothing to lose but our distress.
Photograph of Women’s March in Tucson on January 21, 2017 by Judy Ray