SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 208 May 2017

Trump down but not out

A damaged Trump administration continues to hunt for a way forward from the series of humiliating defeats it has suffered in its first months in power. The ongoing wave of mass protests since Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president has underscored the narrow mandate for his right-wing policies. The defeat of his healthcare plan (Trumpcare) and Muslim ban, as well as the departure of key cabinet appointments under pressure, have shown that the Trump agenda can be beaten back.

Trumpcare was killed on 24 March after it had been brought down to just 17% support in the polls following opposition in town halls and rallies around the country. Trump’s approval ratings followed suit, hitting a low of 35% in the days after the defeat, worse than Richard Nixon’s during the Watergate hearings. But while Trump is down, he’s not out. And there are few things more dangerous than a bully who is bruised and backed into a corner.

The situation remains contradictory and unpredictable. Some of the most right-wing and reactionary parts of Trump’s domestic agenda continue to forge ahead. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is preparing to abandon consent decrees which allow Federal government supervision of local police forces. This would let cops off the leash, reboot the war on drugs and at some point seek more decisively to criminalise political dissent.

Trump’s defeats, which have intensified the crisis in his administration, have also pushed him towards many policies more acceptable to the Republican establishment and the ruling elite, though still deeply hostile to the working class. The markets were booming after Trump’s election with the prospect of further corporate deregulation, more tax cuts for the wealthy, and handouts to weapons manufacturers. With Trump’s standing now weakened, and increased international instability, the temporary boom seems to be over, potentially paving the way for deeper economic crisis.

The divisions within the Republican Party were put on full display by the Trumpcare defeat. A section of Republicans refused to hitch their wagons to the hugely unpopular plan for fear of signing their own political obituaries. Meanwhile, the far-right wing of the party grouped around the Freedom Caucus refused to back Trumpcare on the basis that it did not go far enough in attacking working people. They demanded the elimination of minimum healthcare benefits and of the requirement for health insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions. The debate exposed the utter viciousness of the Republican agenda as even the modified, more brutal proposal failed to satisfy ultra-conservatives.

Trumpcare was also defeated by mobilised opposition. The healthcare bill became increasingly toxic as Trumpcare was shouted down at town halls and mass rallies. Marches against the bill and for single-payer healthcare were held in many cities. People got the message that tens of millions would be cut from the system, that Medicaid (which covers one in five Americans) would be gutted, and that this ‘reform’ was really a cover for a massive tax cut and transfer of wealth to the top 1%.

The defeat of the bill blew a gaping hole in the Republican Party’s budget plans and created major complications for its 2017 agenda. Republicans had structured their overall budget and their plans for ‘tax reform’ around the cost savings enabled by Trumpcare. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that $337 billion would have been freed over ten years. This would have come at a devastating cost for working people, with 24 million losing healthcare over that period.

These billions would have made space for major tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest, a 10% increase in military spending, and for an infrastructure bill at some stage. Much of this is now in disarray. The budget proposals also include deep cuts to public education, the Environmental Protection Agency, mass transit, renewable energy, public water systems, environmental cleanup, and across-the-board attacks on social services. This is not to mention the ripping up of environmental regulation by executive order. Altogether, the current Republican agenda represents one of the most vicious assaults on the US working class in modern history, as well as a declaration of all-out war on the environment.

Democratic Party leaders, after taking an initial position that Trump must be given a chance – ‘his success is our success’ – have been forced under huge grassroots pressure to oppose parts of his agenda. Yet so much of the Democrats’ opposition has centred on the Trump administration’s and election campaign’s links to Russia, rather than firmly opposing his reactionary agenda and appointments, or helping to build social movements.

While the Democratic Party leadership refused to back Trumpcare, it also failed to use the opportunity to build support for a real alternative to the dysfunctional, for-profit US health insurance system – a single-payer Medicare (state-financed health insurance) for all – just as in 2009, when the Democrats held all three branches of government. Leading Democrats focused almost exclusively on defending the deeply flawed Obamacare.

As Bernie Sanders organised rallies to defend healthcare and call for Medicare for all, Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative city councilmember in Seattle, has called repeatedly for Democratic-led state governments in Washington, Oregon and California to take the lead in creating a single-payer alternative on the West Coast. Support for this is at an all-time high. Yet key Democrats have already rejected the call, including California governor, Jerry Brown, and Washington governor, Jay Inslee.

Building a fighting movement for single-payer healthcare, along with a federal $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich to fully fund social services, and other positive demands, could play a key role in decisively defeating Trump. It could show how a radical left-wing programme can defeat right-wing populism by making a bold class appeal for programmes that would make a real difference in the day-to-day lives of working-class people.

Bernie Sanders’ talk at a West Virginia town hall in March showed again the dramatic opening for working-class politics as Republican-voting former coal miners embraced his class appeal for Medicare for all. There is the space in the US to build a new socialist party with tens of thousands of members, based on social movements and building a fighting opposition to the right wing, as a step towards a new mass party of the working class.

Trump is an imbalanced and unstable figure who, while racist, misogynist and pro-corporate, hasno clear political or ideological centre. A one-time supporter of big-business Democrats like the Clintons, he opportunistically campaigned for the presidency on a right-populist, anti-immigrant platform under the influence of figures like Stephen Bannon of the far-right Breitbart ‘news’ service.

The general direction of the administration, facing massive protests on one side and ruling class opposition on the other, is towards pulling back from some key parts of Trump’s campaign programme. Trump will remain highly unpredictable but there is a clear direction towards adopting policies more acceptable to the ruling class and more compatible with Republican orthodoxy. The removal of Bannon, previously Trump’s chief strategist, from the National Security Council, and the overall decline of his influence within the administration, points in the same direction. These are hugely significant developments which have not escaped the notice or failed to raise the ire of the far-right.

In one day alone, 12 April, Trump flipped on four major policy positions: on Nato; on an import-export bank; on Janet Yellen’s future at the Federal Reserve; and reversing his view of China as a currency manipulator. Trump has gone into near full-scale retreat on his ‘America first’ protectionist trade agenda. From calling Nafta the "worst trade deal ever" during his campaign, his administration has now offered only mild proposals for its revision. It has also backed down, at least for now, from tariff proposals regarding Mexico and more broadly. Nonetheless, Trump’s positions on trade, as elsewhere, remain highly contradictory and he is backing away from the ‘border adjustment tax’ supported by House Republicans.

As socialists, we oppose ‘free-trade’ neoliberal policies which are written to carry out a brutal anti-worker, anti-environmental agenda. But we also recognise that protectionist policies offer no way out, and would only detonate an international trade war that could trigger recession and a deepening crisis of the global economy.

Instead of budget cuts, privatisation or trade wars, we raise the need to tax the billionaires and cut the bloated Pentagon war budget in order to create union jobs through increased funding of infrastructure and social services like healthcare and education. Instead of the rampantly increasing inequality that flows from profit-driven ‘solutions’ like protectionism or rotten free-trade deals, we need democratic working-class control and management of the top 500 corporations that rule our economy and lives. With these socialist policies we could begin to fundamentally counter the environmental devastation, war and poverty generated by capitalism in crisis.

Big business is thrilled with Trump’s plans for massive tax cuts, far-reaching deregulation, attacks on the environment and public education, and across-the-board cuts to social services. The overriding concern of the ruling class was toward his protectionist proposals and foreign policy isolationism. But they are increasingly unimpressed by the chaos, lack of coherence and inability to get things done, and continue to worry about the damage Trump threatens for the authority and prestige of the presidency and US capitalism as a whole.

The Trump agenda continues to be a vicious attack on working people in the US and globally. His abandonment of isolationism has been applauded by the corporate media, and by Democratic and Republican leaders, but what it has given way to is an increasingly aggressive and militaristic foreign policy.

As Socialist Alternative has explained, stopping Trump’s right-wing agenda will require a massive and ongoing mobilisation of working people. In the run-up to his inauguration, we called for 100 days of resistance leading up to 1 May, International Workers’ Day. We saw the single largest day of protest in US history with the tremendous women’s marches on 21 January, as well as a broad wave of protests and civil disobedience, and the growing radicalisation of young people and working people searching for a way to defeat Trump.

Stopping him will require working people using their social power through strikes and mass civil disobedience to shut down business as usual. We are seeing the re-emergence of a discussion about strike action in the US – first on International Women’s Day and now in the run-up to 1 May – with hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers and others preparing to strike or protest. May Day will not be a national general strike, but is an important beginning to what can become a summer of resistance. It will raise the vital importance of the power of industrial action to hit the ruling class where it hurts by shutting down its profits.

The coming weeks will also see a series of mass protests, with the march for science on Earth Day, and the people’s climate march on 29 April. Trump’s war on the environment has not been answered by a mass protest so far, but that is about to change.

There will be ups and downs in the fight against Trump. The crisis of his administration can, on the one hand, decrease the sense of imminent danger and the need for immediate fightback. On the other hand, it can embolden the movement as it increasingly feels its own power. The mass protests that have happened so far, and those in the coming weeks, are only a beginning of a period of far greater social upheaval in the US and around the world.

What is at stake is not only a question of blocking the worst aspects of the Trump agenda or ending Republican control of Congress in 2018. Winning major reforms like a federal $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, and dismantling the racist mass incarceration system will require building a powerful movement with a socialist backbone, as well as the creation of new mass socialist and workers’ parties.

In the struggle against the right and to win progressive gains, the working class and youth will increasingly recognise that the bankrupt capitalist system cannot be transformed to meet our needs or to be made environmentally sustainable. What is needed is a fundamental, root and branch transformation of society, towards one based on solidarity, genuine democracy and equality.

Calvin Priest,

Socialist Alternative (USA)

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