Trump gives Proud Boys, a white supremacist, anti-Semitic militia group, more than a shout out. It was an appeal to ready themselves to disrupt the elections over the next several weeks, on election day, and in the days and weeks that follow. It was an incitement to violence.
Trump’s performance in the presidential debate was an expression of his weakness and desperation as well as a danger to democracy.
Trump has been breaking democratic norms and institutions since he entered the White House. Earlier this week he continued this behavior in turning the presidential debate into a sh-t show.
As Trump and the Republican Party take a deep dive into the sinkhole of virulent racism, indifference to human life, voter suppression, and authoritarianism, as the spectre of democracy’s death and dictatorial rule hangs over the outcome of the elections, the Democratic Party and its candidates are tacking in another direction. But to cross the finish line victorious on Election Day will take a vigorous and timely response to the main lines of the racist and rabid attack of Trump and the entire right wing apparatus, while offering at the same time a vision and proposals that address the quintuplets of our time: the coronavirus, racial reckoning, economic insecurity and crisis, cross border migration, and climate disruption. No easy dance, but Democrats and a larger democratic coalition seem prepared to meet these challenges.
This isn’t to say that every demand of a progressive nature finds support across the full length of the Democratic Party and its candidates. They don’t. But many of the demands do, and even the most advanced aren’t peremptorily dismissed, especially now as multiple crises disrupt the lives of millions in a way no one could have imagined. Most Democrats, for example, haven’t embraced the slogan, “Defund the police,” but many agree with much of the substance behind it. Likewise for “Medicare for all,” and a “Green New Deal.”
The party platform is the most progressive in history, prompting Bernie Sanders to say that if Joe Biden makes it his star to steer by, he would be the most progressive president since FDR.
Said differently, the contemporary Democratic Party isn’t the party of Bill Clinton. Nor is it in the tight grip of neoliberalism and triangulation. And it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as the other political arm of the capitalist class, barely distinguishable from its Republican counterpart. Many on the left subscribed to this point of view and, as a consequence, sat on the sidelines as the extreme right steadily ascended to power by means of the ballot, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan. (Even as late as the 2016 presidential campaign where the choice was stark and the stakes exceedingly high, too many radicals were onlookers, doing nothing to get the vote out for the “neoliberal” Hillary Clinton.)
Reducing the Democratic Party to a neoliberal wing on the one hand and an insurgent wing on the other may titillate some, but it doesn’t correspond to today’s reality. The party is more diverse and complicated than this binary representation. It contains multiple tendencies that are fluid, permeable, and intermingle depending on the issues and circumstances of the moment. Only by collapsing moderates, liberals, and even some progressives into the neoliberal camp or by declaiming that anyone who embraces anything less the demands of the “insurgent wing” of the Democratic Party is a neoliberal can a case be made that neoliberalism retains anywhere near the same influence that it did two decades ago. Not only is this a faulty conflation, but, if embraced by too many, will lead to a politics that doesn’t match the moment, too static when it should be fluid, too narrow when it should be expansive, too retro when it should be forward looking. And with the most important election in the country’s history in its final lap, who needs that?
In short, as even a brief look at its program, public figures, emerging leaders and composition shows, the current Democratic Party is different from its earlier iterations. In fact, if the center of political gravity in the Democratic Party (as well as the larger democratic coalition) was leaning in a liberal/progressive direction 6 months ago, the lean has only become more pronounced as an unforeseen and deadly pandemic, an imploding economy, the racist police violence seen on video around the world with the deliberate killing of George Floyd, and the fascistic shadings of the Trump administration and his base have enveloped the country and exacted a heavy price in lost lives and the well being of tens of millions.
Wall Street is still in the game, but “the street” doesn’t carry the same influence and weight in the Democratic Party as it did decades ago, when financialization and unfettered globalization were the talk of the town. In his endorsement of Joe Biden, the former president, Barack Obama, made this point:
“To meet the moment, the Democratic Party will have to be bold. I could not be prouder of the incredible progress that we made together during my presidency. But if I were running today, I wouldn’t run the same race or have the same platform as I did in 2008. The world is different. There’s too much unfinished business for us to just look backwards. We have to look to the future.”
He went on to argue that ideas of Bernie Sanders and his supporters’ enthusiasm would be critical in November. Students, he said, need student debt relief that does “more than just tinker around the edges,” and all Americans need health care access that goes beyond the Affordable Care Act, climate policies bolder than the Paris Agreement, and policies to address “the vast inequalities created by the new economy” — inequalities that he acknowledged had been evident long before now. The old playbook, in other words, doesn’t measure up to the moment. Biden and Kamala Harris – not to mention significant sections of the Democratic Party officeholders and rank and file – get it too.
Of course, the immediate challenge for Biden, Harris and down-ticket Democrats is to win in November. Anything less would sound the death knell for democracy and social progress and the dawn of dictatorial rule. It is in this sobering context that democratic and social activists and organizations should situate themselves. Any other posture, such as support for a third party candidacy or not voting at all, doesn’t make any political-strategic sense, none whatsoever. If it was a bad idea in the past, it’s a much worse idea now.
For most of my political life I held out the hope of the eventual formation of an independent people’s party that would compete with the two parties of capitalism. A half century later such a party hasn’t appeared and it isn’t on the horizon, at least on my horizon. Moreover, it can’t be willed into existence. AOC some months back said that if she lived in a different country she wouldn’t be in the same party as Joe Biden. But she is. And there is little reason to think that will change anytime soon. And that’s good. A fractured party wouldn’t stand a chance on Election Day against Trump and GOP extremism.
What’s behind the new profile, new dynamics, and new politics of the Democratic Party (and the democratic coalition) is a profound shift in thinking and feeling across significant sections of the American people.
Its material roots lie in the rise of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization and the accompanying spike in income inequality, growing social and geographic divides, cross border migration, a surge in monopoly power and political predation, and lopsided and unsustainable growth. It is also a product of the prosecution of unwinnable wars of conquest in distant lands, the Great Recession of 2008, and the racist backlash that followed the election of President Obama.
The new dynamics are closely connected as well to the persistence of police and vigilante violence against people of color, a narrowing of job opportunities and precariousness of life for young people, and accelerating climate disruption.
And, not least, it springs from the new conjuncture that we are living through that lays bare the deep class and racial inequalities (including mortality and morbidity rates) embedded in the political economy of U.S. society and the insufficiencies of the public sector and public goods.
Out of this material substratum comes not only a surge of struggles stretching back a decade, the rise of new political actors, such as Black Lives Matter, the greatly expanded footprint of women in politics, the revival of mass climate politics, and the two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, but also a Democratic Party loosened from its past moorings and trending in a progressive direction.
That Biden won the nomination may seem on its face to go against the grain of these changing dynamics. But on closer inspection it isn’t so inexplicable. First of all, the progressive/insurgent wing of the party, while growing, isn’t the singular voice nor is it yet hegemonic. Second, Biden had the support of President Obama and no other voice in the Democratic Party has remotely the same influence as he does. Finally, Joe Biden was the first choice of African American voters, which, once the primaries moved from Iowa and New Hampshire, gave him a leg up over the other contenders for the nomination. If South Carolina changed the dynamics of the presidential primary in Biden’s favor, the vote in Michigan and across the Midwest a week or so later sealed the deal.
Biden wasn’t my first choice. Elizabeth Warren was, but she, like Bernie, didn’t enjoy the support of the party’s most powerful and loyal constituencies. And it was these constituencies that crowned Joe Biden the party’s nominee. They believed Biden was best suited to beat Trump and, if elected, to enact a robust reform agenda. Voters don’t want a “political revolution,” but they don’t want to stand still either. And in their calculus Joe Biden is best equipped to negotiate this tension.
I know many young people and social activists aren’t excited by Biden. I understand their sentiments, even if I don’t agree with them. I didn’t like Hubert Humphrey, the party’s presidential nominee in 1968, and I, along with many other young radicals at the time, didn’t vote for him. But what we got was Nixon and the intensification of the bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia, the prolongation of an unjust and cruel war, and criminal behavior in the White House.
In November, I would argue, not voting for Biden, Harris, and other Democrats down-ticket would be even more shortsighted and infinitely more disastrous than our decision not to vote for Humphrey in 1968.
I would add that Biden has shown that he isn’t the Biden of 25 years ago, or even 12 years ago when he partnered with our first African American president. Like most of us, he’s changed and evolved. And in a good way. And a wise movement will allow space for people to change.
Since he won the nomination, he has reached out to the entire party, worked closely with Bernie, and, as mentioned earlier, signed on to the most progressive platform in the party’s history. Whether he is capable of a new dance like Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson were when they and the country faced profound challenges, whether he has the wherewithal to evolve into a transformative president, can’t be answered at this juncture. But there are, nevertheless, grounds to think he can.
If elected, Biden would walk into the White House at a moment unprecedented in our history. He would find himself governing in a conjunctural crisis whose templates are a deadly pandemic, a crisis-ridden national and global economy, a racial reckoning, and a worldwide climate emergency that cry out for solution. Standing still isn’t an option. Nor is a return to the pre-Trump normal, whatever that was. And I believe he, Kamala Harris, and most Democrats realize this.
Moreover, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson, he would feel the pulls, pressures, and desires of an electorate as well as a coalition that carried him over the finish line on Election Day. No doubt, both voters and activists would expect an agenda that includes immediate relief, a science-driven plan to attack the coronavirus, the enactment of progressive reforms in line with the crises gripping the country, a reckoning with policing and systemic racism, and, not least, the democratization of voting laws and the political system.
Such an agenda would not only resonate with tens of millions feeling the crushing weight of the present times, but it might well register with some of Trump’s base too. It’s progressive policies and legislation not discourse that will begin to fracture that retrograde coalition.
Speaking of Trump, while he would be out of the White House and no longer able to employ the executive power of the office, his authoritarian movement and likely Trump himself would be squarely a part of the political landscape and up to no good. To believe otherwise would be naive. The defeated South didn’t roll over at the end of the Civil War. Nor did the anti-New-Dealers in the 1930s. And by the late 60s, a right wing backlash came quick on the heels of the civil rights revolution. In our time, the election of the first African American president triggered fierce opposition.
Thus, the democratic and progressive coalition that powered the victory would have to remained engaged and mobilized not only to bend the needle in a progressive and social democratic direction, but also to keep the right at bay. While differences and struggle over the scope and pace of reform would inevitably surface, the accent across the Democratic Party and democratic coalition should still remain on unity and united action. Any idea that the various currents in the Democratic Party and the democratic coalition should turn into warring factions on the day after the elections with each one vying for dominance over the other would amount to a self inflicted wound, while providing space for a revival of a defeated Republican Party and white nationalist authoritarianism.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The immediate challenge is, first of all, to further assemble a grand coalition of voters, stretching from Colin Powell and the Lincoln Project to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Angela Davis. We don’t need small-circle thinking at this dangerous political juncture.
Second, a special approach to the young and people of color as well as the battleground states is imperative. And no segment of voters should be taken for granted. The tent has to be as big as the answers to today’s multiple crises have to be bold.
Third, contest Trump’s core campaign message of racism and law and order.
Fourth, mobilize, protect, and prevent the suppression of the vote.
Fifth, guarantee a full count of the vote. And urge people to vote in person, if they can. But also, insist that the high volume of mail-in ballots be counted before any final results are announced.
Sixth, resist and block any attempt by Trump to claim victory before the vote is fully counted. According to most experts, it could appear on election night that Trump is the winner, even though he is actually the loser when all the votes are counted.
Finally, be ready to march. In view of Trump’s recent behavior, it isn’t out of the question that he may lose the election, but refuse (with a lot of help from his friends) to concede defeat. In this event, an aroused people peacefully marching for democracy and demanding the honoring of the election’s results is absolutely imperative. And even if he does concede the election, Trump will still hold presidential power and the Republicans a Senate majority until Inauguration Day in late January. This interregnum has the potential to be volatile, destabilizing, and dangerous. Here too millions should be prepared for any eventuality and ready to act accordingly to defend democracy, the rule of law, and the election results.
A Tale of Two Candidates and Parties (Part 1)
In only a few months the status of Trump’s presidency has changed more than it had in the previous three years. Since his election, I thought that it was only a matter of time before people would catch onto the poisonous nature of his presidency. And there have been moments when it seemed the jig was up. But each time I ended up disappointed.
Charlottesville, the Mueller investigation and report, unabashed collaboration with Putin, the caging of infants and children at the border, and the impeachment hearings and subsequent impeachment were moments in Trump’s presidency that, I thought, would greatly weaken if not doom him. But to my surprise each time these moments came and went with negligible movement in public opinion polls and left him sturdy in the White House.
When the House impeached him in mid January, there was blowback, but not so much that he found himself on the ropes and struggling to survive. In fact, when Senate Republicans stood by their man and acquitted him of any wrongdoing, he began a revenge tour. A purge of career government employees and inspector generals critical of him followed.
I found this exasperating and worrisome. What made it worse was the accepted wisdom, according to some, that Trump, notwithstanding his outrageous rhetoric and dictatorial behavior, could ride to a second term on the strength of the economy, voter suppression, an unmatchable war chest, the daily deployment of racism and white grievance politics, and, not least, a hyper-energized base.
Talk about depressing!
That was late January. But then unexpectedly, seemingly out of the blue, the world shifted as a coronavirus that Trump said would disappear and wasn’t that lethal turned into a deadly global pandemic. As of this writing, over 190,000 people have died and over 6 million people have been infected in the U.S.
And no easing is in sight as the virus, like a ping pong ball, bounces from city to city, state to state and region to region. And nearly everyone outside of the White House, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and rabid Trumpers worries about a second wave this fall.
As the coronavirus spreads, the economy froze up, unemployment soared, the public square (from schools to sports events to churches to restaurants) emptied, and people found themselves quarantined in their homes and isolated from friends, loved ones and their communities.
In the middle of this catastrophe, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a white cop with three other cops looking on indifferently at this cruel execution and modern day lynching. But thanks to a young African American woman with a smartphone, tens of millions watched this heinous act almost in real time and heard George Floyd desperately and despairingly plead, “I can’t breathe.”
Almost instantly, the streets filled with protesters, first in Minneapolis, and then in big cities and small towns across the country and worldwide. In 1789 it took the people of Seville, Spain, six weeks to learn of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, but it took no more than a few seconds for people across the globe to see with their own eyes the assassination of an innocent Black man by an “upholder of the law.”
While millions, especially the young, marched in the streets, even more people watched at home and were similarly shocked by the death of George Floyd as well as the rioting of police that followed in the guise of protecting property.
If this rogue policing wasn’t bad enough, Trump took his autocratic behavior to a new level with his (and Attorney General William Barr’s) decision to use federal troops to forcefully clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters in order to stage a photo op of Trump with a bible in hand (upside down) in front of one of the capital’s oldest churches.
Trump hoped this staged spectacle and show of force would allow him to reassert his power and regain the narrative that he had been losing since the outbreak of the coronavirus. But much to his dismay, it did neither. It only made things worse.
The blowback from the American people was immediate and severe. It came from many quarters, including a number of well respected retired generals and admirals, former presidents, and corporate executives. The most damning was the statement of Gen. James Mattis, former Defense Secretary in Trump’s cabinet, who assailed Trump’s judgment and commitment to constitutional norms.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” wrote Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander in chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
These rebukes and the negative fallout from the coronavirus and its companion, a cratering economy, left Trump lashing out at his critics and falling behind Joe Biden in the polls as summer pushed out spring. No matter how you slice it, this isn’t a good place to be if you’re running for reelection in the fall.
It could have been different. Trump could have showed empathy for the victims of the virus and George Floyd and his family. He could have spoken truth to the country. He could have appealed for unity. He could have followed the advice of scientists, like Anthony Fauci. He could have reached across the aisle. He could have brought the full weight of the federal government to bear on these interlocking crises. He could have, in a nutshell, acted “presidential.”
But he didn’t. And he won’t. Because he can’t.
Instead, he doubled down and went dark. He provoked racial discord. He rushed to “open up” the economy and country. He did nothing to move along a second stimulus package through Congress. He peddled quack solutions to the coronavirus, while acting as if it was behind us. And he lied, shopped conspiracy theories, and blamed everybody else for this unmitigated disaster and flood of human suffering and sorrow.
He also floated the idea of postponing the election until the virus receded. Then he hinted that he might not vacate the White House even in the event that he loses the election.
Trump’s daily twitter messages, even now in the midst of so much suffering, and mourning, are rhetorical flame-throwers designed to heighten tensions, exacerbate divisions, and encourage thuggery. If anybody else made such inflammatory statements while on the job, they would have been fired and their mental stability questioned.
This behavior, as outrageous, anti-democratic, authoritarian, and over the top as it is, elicits barely a word of protest from Republican leaders. They are, as they have been, on the same page and operate from the same playbook as Trump. If they have any differences, they are differences of style and tone, not substance.
The present day Republican Party long ago stopped being the party of Eisenhower or Gerald Ford or Nelson Rockefeller, who look moderate compared to what we see today. Even Nixon might feel out of place in its current iteration. In a process that began in the 1960s and reached a new level with the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the Republican Party was taken over and colonized by its extreme right wing. While zealous extremists in Congress and on right wing media – and, of course, Trump himself – may dominate the news, quietly at the apex and firmly in control of this formidable movement is a far-right section of the billionaire class. Not only do these billionaires have deep pockets, but they also control an expansive network of organizations and think tanks that set the agenda and frame the politics of the Republican Party in accord with their interests. Indeed, they give proof to the adage that “whoever pays the fiddler calls the tune.”
Trump may seem like an outlier, an out of control rogue, a committee of one, and he is, to a degree. But any examination of the policies of the Trump administration, and even Trump’s politics of white resentment, racism, and election rigging, reveals not so much a break, but a continuation, albeit in exceedingly dangerous and brazen forms, of this authoritarian political movement. If you don’t believe me, check out “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Equality,” written by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.
But here’s the rub.
While Trump tweets, his poll numbers are dropping. Seniors and suburban women are breaking with him. His much touted election rally in Tulsa was a bust. His appeals for law and order haven’t registered with the majority of people so far. His suggestion that the election might have to be postponed finds few supporters. And his hollowing out of the Postal Service is meeting stiff opposition, including from some Republicans.
Even John Roberts’ Supreme Court has ruled against him on a few occasions.
It is fair to ask if Trump’s complete failure to lead the country in these trying times has landed him in a governing and reelection crisis? Is he an emperor without clothes to the vast majority of Americans? Is he in a zone of unpopularity, where, except for his zealous supporters, everything he says sounds hollow, insincere, duplicitous, self-serving?
Unfortunately, the simple answer is no. Thanks to his loyal base, a supportive right wing media, a supine Republican Party, his control of agencies of repression, and the resonance of racism among white people, Trump still is a formidable force. His status and standing is diminished for sure, but he still remains an existential danger, and a path to his reelection, as narrow as it might be, exists.
It was the hope of Trump’s image makers that the recent Republican Party convention would make Trump more palatable to white women, suburban voters, and seniors. But that was a difficult needle to thread when the main story of the convention was Trump the “law and order candidate,” the vanquisher of looting in the streets and riots in “Democrat” cities, the heroic knight slaying the forces of chaos and darkness that if given a chance would overrun the country. Meanwhile Biden was cast as weak on crime, slow at the switch, and in the pocket of Bernie and AOC.
In fact, Trump has become more strident, more dangerous, more unhinged in the convention’s wake. Racism and conspiracy theories ooze from his mouth, like poison from a viper’s fangs. The pandemic and imploding economy have disappeared from his vocabulary. And he is quick to sic his paramilitary dogs on peaceful protesters.
We saw this in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. In Kenosha, Jacob Blake, a young African American man – in a recurring story – was shot seven times in the back by police and left paralyzed. In the shooting’s aftermath, Trump expressed not a word of sympathy to the hospitalized Blake or his grieving family, while unapologetically defending a 17-year-old white vigilante killer who shot with a high powered AR-15 rifle and stole the lives of two, noble minded protesters, not yet out of their 20s.
We should expect more provocations of this kind by Trump in the next two months. What other option does he have? He understands that the only way to change the election math that isn’t on his side is to encourage and then exploit to his advantage violent confrontations between BLM and peaceful protesters on one side and right wing, paramilitary thugs on the other. In short, his aim is to activate and heighten racial fears of white people to the point where they, even reluctantly, vote for him, the self-proclaimed law and order candidate.
This hyper racialization of politics combines with a systematic campaign to suppress the vote. To this end, Trump’s latest betes noire is the U.S. Postal Service. His battle against one of the most essential and popular institutions in our national life is more than rhetorical. He’s taking steps to dismantle it in the hope of crippling voting by mail in the coming election.
Well aware that tens of millions want to fill in their election ballot in the safety of their own home and that more Democrats than Republicans will likely vote by mail, his obvious aim is to disrupt and incapacitate the very institution that makes this possible. And in doing so, give him an advantage over Biden. Meanwhile, he claims, with not a scintilla of evidence, that voting by mail would result in a fraudulent outcome, whose results he couldn’t accept.
This assault on the post office is of a piece with a larger effort to suppress the vote, especially in the battleground states. In the calculus of Trump and his acolytes, they have no chance of winning the popular vote. But they believe that the overperformance of Trump’s base supporters – especially high school educated white workers – on election day compared to 2016 on the one hand and the suppression of the vote for Biden-Harris on the other is his pathway to a second term. Trump and the modern day Republican Party, in effect, understand that they can no longer hope to win the support of a majority of voters. Only by rigging the elections and taking advantage of an anti-democratic and outdated feature of the Constitution – the electoral college – do they stand any chance of winning in November and consolidating their version of white nationalist authoritarian rule.
In the meantime, as Trump and the Republican Party take a deep dive into the sinkhole of virulent racism, indifference to human life, voter suppression, and authoritarianism, as the spectre of democracy’s death and dictatorial rule hangs over the country were Trump to win in November, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democratic Party, and the larger democratic coalition are tacking in a positive direction. But to cross the finish line the winners will take an even more vigorous and in real-time response to the main lines of attack of Trump and the entire right wing apparatus, while offering a vision and proposals that address the triplets of our time, racial reckoning, the coronavirus, economic insecurity, and climate change. But more about that in Part 2.