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Left Strategy After Charlottesville

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People at a rally holding a yellow banner that says Reject Trump Agenda and End White Supremacy

“Everything we are seeing stems almost inevitably from the decisions the country made, collectively, last November. We elected a president driven by white racial grievance. That is the fulcrum and driving force of his politics. It’s no surprise that a big outbreak of white supremacist violence would lead us to a moment like this. We also elected a president who is an abuser and a predator…As things get worse, as more people turn against him, Trump gets more wild and unbridled…”

– Josh Marshall, The Bomb Bursts: It Will Keep Happening, Talking Points Memo

The white supremacist violence In Charlottesville – and Trump’s embrace of the ‘very fine people’ who marched and murdered under Confederate and Nazi banners – did more than sharpen the intense polarization already underlying U.S. politics.

It spotlighted the dangerous role white nationalism plays in galvanizing Trump’s racially anxious white social base while energizing the anti-racist and democratic-minded forces who have the potential to overcome it.

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But realizing that potential is going to require the resistance – especially its radical wing – to up our game. This essay offers a strategic perspective toward that end. It is anchored in five key points:

1. The over-arching priority of the current period is to break the grip on power of Trump and the white nationalist bloc that is the driving force of the right’s overall anti-democratic and anti-working class agenda.

2. Direct action and street protest make up indispensable components of the resistance, crucial to keep focus and pressure on white nationalism and its conciliators. At least one show of force on the scale of the Women’s March this fall would be a stark reminder that the resistance will not leave it to intra-elite maneuvers to determine Trump’s fate and what comes after. Further, energy from direct mass action needs to be carried into the 2018 and 2020 elections, which will be the decisive battlefronts measuring and altering the relative strength of the contending forces and which provide the only avenues to actually remove the white nationalist right from power.

3. In order to bring together a sufficient bloc of social forces to defeat Trump and the GOP, and also to give progressives much-strengthened initiative if and when Trump is ousted, the left needs to engage the fight within the Democratic Party over message, candidates, allocation of resources and institutional clout. There is a key parallel here with the dynamic of the 2016 campaign. Almost all sectors of the left grew as the election polarized the country, but the ones that grew the most (DSA, Labor for Bernie) were those that plunged into Bernie Sanders’ campaign, not those who criticized it for being insufficiently radical or dismissed it because it fought on the terrain of the Democratic Party and ultimately supported voting for Clinton to defeat Trump..

4. The struggle for a working class program of economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice – and peace – within the Democratic Party and society in general will be conducted beyond the next two or three election cycles. We should have confidence that the kind of program advocated by by Bernie Sanders or Rev. William Barber can at some point gain majority support in the country and decisively shape the national agenda. But we also need to strategize based on hard-headed realism about how far we have to go in addressing the unevenness and fragmentation of the broad progressive movement and the still relatively marginalized anti-capitalist left.

5. Because of the character of the Trump regime and the weaknesses in race-class analysis and practice in the resistance movement, the issues moved front and center by Charlottesville – race, racism and the true history of integral role people of color have played in the very heart of the U.S. working class from 1620 to the present day – are likely to stand out as determinants of whether or not the resistance continues to mature. If Trump follows through on threats to end DACA, this will be even more the case.

In shorthand: this essay is an argument for the left to interact with the post-Charlottesville surge of resistance by pursuing a strategy that is anti-right, anti-racist, gender-inclusive, grounded in the interests of the working class and oriented toward working both inside and outside of the Democratic Party.

The resistance has come a long way

The resistance has come a long way since Trump’s gloating inauguration. The aggressive edge of the white nationalist bloc – the Nazis, Klan and their ilk – is now exposed and condemned almost across the board. Trump’s insistence that “both sides” were to blame in the Charlottesville confrontation between a Nazi/Klan contingent and those who protested it alienated major sections of the political class that had played footsie with him up to now.

With corporate leaders fleeing his show-piece councils, the top military brass issuing statements contradicting his views, and the president feuding with congressional leaders of his own party, Trump’s governing coalition is significantly narrower than it was in January. The section of the elite that was already trying to bring Trump down because they believe he is an unreliable steward of empire has also been strengthened. (Meanwhile their preferred reason for doing so – electoral collaboration with Russia – is at least for the moment eclipsed by his racism). Public opinion polls show Trump’s approval rating for the first time dipping below 38%.

Still, most of Trump’s core base is sticking with him. Republicans approve his post-Charlottesville remarks by more than a 3-1 margin and 87% oppose taking down Confederate monuments. Leading Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, as well as some sections of the left, have argued that Trump won the election largely by speaking to the economic concerns of working class whites, not because of racial resentment. Charlottesville should end that debate: clearly for Trump’s base the two are thoroughly interconnected.

Trump’s sub 38% approval rating is a dismal minority of the country but still constitutes a big majority of Republicans, so GOP electeds defy Trump at the peril of a primary challenge. GOP officials have increasingly taken their private “concerns” about Trump public, but not a single administration figure, GOP Congress member, state level elected official or even congressional staffer has yet resigned in protest. Their calculations are changing daily, but as of this writing GOP Congress members still see alignment with Trump as necessary to implement their shared agenda of crushing the labor movement, rolling back women’s and LGBTQ rights, stonewalling action against climate change, and transferring even more wealth into the pockets of the already rich.

Our side is the majority, and we also have the moral high ground. But favorable polling numbers and moral suasion are not enough. This fight will be decided by power. The right will not be effectively divided and forced into retreat until the open advocates of white supremacy, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and unrestrained patriarchy are demoralized by being out-numbered 100 to one every time they show their face. And it will take the energy in the streets translating into an anti-GOP, anti-Trump tsunami in the voting booths to break their grip on power.

Only when Trump and his allies no longer control both the legislative and executive branches of government at the federal level and in 25 states can the country’s majority move to a new and more favorable stage of class struggle.

Danger of underestimating Trump-GOP power

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, a post-Trump environment can be glimpsed for the first time since November 2016. But we won’t get there if the left underestimates the Trump-led GOP as many did in 2016.

Fear-mongering and war-making are longstanding tools of besieged presidents. In the wake of Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threats to wipe out millions of North Koreans and his eagerness to dump the Iran nuclear agreement, all complacency about what Trump might do on this front should be dispensed with immediately. Integrating anti-militarism into the heart and soul of the entire resistance remains a vital but challenging task. If a major terrorist attack happens within the U.S., or if Mueller’s investigation appears ready to indict members of Trump’s family or Trump himself, an unprecedented constitutional crisis or globe-threatening dose of military adventurism cannot be ruled out.

Even short of such scenarios, the president and his GOP enablers have numerous tools to frustrate majority will. The militarization of police and pattern of ultra-harsh charges coming down on protesters are weapons already being used to weaken the opposition. Executive branch actions that threaten the operations of key sectors of the anti-Trump coalition – the labor movement, Planned Parenthood – take a daily toll. The GOP’s commitment to voter suppression, gerrymandering, the racist skew built in to the electoral college and the possibility of widespread voter intimidation by right-wing goons combine to make it an uphill battle to end GOP control of the House and Senate in 2018 and the White House in 2020.

U.S. history and Trump’s ascent to the White House

U.S.-style racism came into being in the midst of struggles over land, property, power, and political rights in the 17th century. Slavery, along with the genocide of Native Americans, is accurately termed the country’s ‘original sin.’

Among the manifestations of this deeply rooted component of U.S. political economy is a recurring pattern: in response to movements that advance or threaten to advance the interests of people of color, especially African Americans – and because those movements also drive forward progress for all workers and democracy in general – there is a fierce backlash. That backlash involves building a cross-class white united front which advances the economic program of the most reactionary wing of ruling class; enlists all who can be mobilized to defend white power and privilege; and is aided by the passive allegiance of others who believe that they can advance their own narrow interests by connecting with this bloc.

At different times the mix of specific forces in that front – and the relative clout of each – has varied. But whenever that backlash bloc has held part or all of governing power (as after the rollback of Reconstruction) it has inflicted the most severe repression against people of color and, with racism as the wedge, restricted democratic rights and women’s rights and weakened the working class as a whole. Backlash coalitions have also been a center of gravity of militarism and imperial expansion.

The way that pattern has unfolded in the last five decades starting with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” has been written about widely. It built up steam through the 1970s and took a leap forward when it helped Reagan get elected and the “neo-liberal model” of privatization, de-regulation, tax “reform” favoring the very rich and a withering offensive against unions became entrenched.

But the last few years saw an unprecedented twist. The balance within the backlash bloc shifted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis; the resulting recession and sharp rise in economic inequality and anxiety; demographic changes, and the election of first Black president. Leadership was ripped from the GOP establishment and seized by a demagogue who rode birtherism, anti-immigrant hysteria and blatant Islamophobia to the nomination and then the Presidency.

Trump and his core supporters – those for whom the bottom line is ‘racial and imperial revenge’ – were now in the driver’s seat. The rest of the GOP, including the party establishment (with minor exceptions), fell in line behind the Trump/Bannon juggernaut.  Conservative intellectual Avik Roy explained why: “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism – philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republic Party is white nationalism.” And enough people who were not themselves motivated primarily by racism decided to give Trump’s racism a pass in hopes that other aspects of his program would change things for the better.

Right wing goal: A racialized authoritarian state

Because of the differences among the GOP legislators and tension between GOP Congress members and the president, the right is having a hard time getting what it wants through Congress. But while the media is focused on those failures and Trump’s Twitter outrages, an extremely dangerous agenda is being steadily implemented via executive branch actions, with a Gorsuch Supreme court expected to affirm each one.

This agenda aims to establish a racialized authoritarian state. Given the unpopularity of their actual economic program and the fact that demographic changes are not working in their favor, the right sees that kind of state as needed to implement their full program of fossil fuel-driven, no-limits capitalism and permanent U.S. global hegemony. This is not classical fascism. But it is an arrangement more like the U.S. during the height of Jim Crow or today’s Israel than the bourgeois democracy the U.S. has had since legalized discrimination was abolished in the 1960s.

Bottom line, Trumpism in power is not just a ‘more conservative’ version of business-as-usual. It is a concerted drive for a substantial shift away from the capitalist democracy we have lived under since the mid-1960s toward a new kind of repressive regime.

Mass resistance, political muscle

Resistance to Trump and his agenda has come from all quarters, including from within the government, the judiciary, the media and the military. The ruling class is today more divided than any time since at least the 1930s and more likely since the Civil War.

From election night on, however, the driving force of the resistance has been action from the grassroots. From the Women’s March and the surge of energy into new formations like Indivisible and Our Revolution to the expansion of pre-existing community and issue-oriented organizations, direct action protests and raucous town halls have kept the anti-Trump wheels turning. And after the events in Charlottesville, another wave of mass action has begun. With the pardon of anti-Latino thug Joe Arpaio, and DACA under immediate threat as this essay goes to press, more protests lie just ahead. These will put Trump even more on the defensive and heighten already intense pressure on vacillating figures and groups to get off the fence.

There is now less middle ground than ever in U.S. politics. The country is polarized along a Trump vs. anti-Trump axis. This polarization affects the dynamics surrounding every issue from health care and climate change to transgender rights, abortion, and student debt. But race and racism are at the pivot.

It is all but certain that this polarization would continue even if (via Russia-gate or some other means) Trump is forced out of office before his term is up. The GOP has traveled so far down the road of embracing white identity and a repressive, anti-working class agenda that it would remain in place under Pence or any other Republican president. But if Trump was ousted the resistance would celebrate that victory and press even harder for major change while the GOP would be embroiled in bitter divisions and recriminations. How such a shake-up would play out long-term is impossible to predict. But in the short term, the fissures that Charlottesville in particular have opened within the GOP are both a mark of the resistance’s growth and a source of further strength.

Crucial role for the left

The anti-capitalist left does not (yet) match other components of the resistance in size or influence. But we do bring a distinct systemic analysis to the fray. We have no crystal ball to tell us exactly what the future holds, yet somewhere down the road we do expect the central polarization in mass politics to be around capitalism as such. And we work today to bring that moment closer. But in determining strategy, we cannot let our anti-capitalist ideological stance substitute for a concrete analysis of what is actually moving millions and shaping today’s front-burner battles. Today’s reality is a massive polarization whose axis is support or opposition to the white nationalist-driven GOP agenda. The road to maximizing chances of defeating Trump and growing the anti-capitalist left in the process is to throw ourselves into the battle as it is unfolding.

In doing so, the left has a distinct and crucial role to play.

Part of that role is keeping a stress on mass action: getting people out in the streets, onto the picket lines and into town halls; fighting for the organizations that mobilize people to develop and maintain a democratic, participatory character; doing all we can to sustain and deepen political discussion alongside mobilization and protest.

The realm of mass action is the left’s natural habitat. There we can often be the catalyst that taps into sentiment extending far beyond the immediate reach of organized left groups. That is the case at present with issues like Single Payer, where a combination of years of work and ripe conditions has pushed the demand into the mainstream. The left also has a vital role to play in mass actions and educational campaigns around demands which are still on the edges of U.S. politics. A prime example today is support for Palestinian national and human rights by promoting the BDS campaign and fighting for a drastic change in U.S. policy.

The electoral battlefield

The left also has a vital role to play in the electoral arena. Again, we will do best if our starting point is what is actually emerging on the ground rather than abstract formulas.

The large-scale resistance to Trump includes a surge of energy into the electoral arena. Trump took office – and the GOP won control of the House, Senate and numerous state legislatures – by winning elections. These GOP victories were, in large part, the result of a highly successful, long-term right-wing electoral strategy. It is hardly surprising, then, that most people opposed to Trump, seeing that they constitute a majority of the country, have concluded that the way to defeat Trump and the GOP is by voting them out of office. Hence the flood of newly politicized individuals considering runs for office and the surge of volunteers into special elections or ongoing organizations working to defeat the GOP. And it is no surprise that the overwhelming bulk of that energy is flowing in the direction of what is now the only alternative to the GOP, that is, the Democratic Party ballot line.

All the energy moving “from protest to politics” is a good thing. But the fact that it is flowing onto Democratic Party terrain poses many dilemmas and challenges. It is here where left’s stance will make the most difference.

Because beating Trump is the immediate and over-riding priority, engagement alongside the vast majority of anti-Trump forces in the only vehicle that can do so makes complete sense. The trick is to do so in a way that maximizes chances of an anti-Trump victory while building progressive clout, consolidating independent vehicles for long-term struggle and expanding the ranks of the anti-capitalist left. A major challenge is finding the right mix of directing fire at the main enemy – the racist right as represented by Trump and the GOP – while contending with the corporate politicians, funders and flaks who control the Democratic Party apparatus.

The lessons most social justice advocates have drawn from 2016 are a good starting point. The main take-away is that Democratic candidates need a message and program beyond ‘we aren’t Trump’ or ‘let’s go back to the way things were before.” Rather, a program of economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice and peace has to permeate through Democratic campaigns at all levels. Only such a message can inspire and turn out the active mass Democratic constituencies and those who stayed home in 2016 or voted third party – as well as Trump voters who now realize that the president is a con-man. A closely related take-away is that the road to victory runs through campaigns aimed at communities of color, the working class, women, the LGBTQ community and millennials (the key sectors in the 2008 and 2012 “Obama Coalition”), not through moving to the right in order to chase either better-off white suburbanites who might be turned off by the crudeness of Trump’s bigotry or the sectors of Trump’s working class base most invested in white identity.

The fight in the Democratic Party for this kind of program and orientation is already raging. Among the key fights so far have been the Perez-Ellison contest for DNC chair and the Bauman-Ellis fight in the California Democratic Party. Battles over potential candidates’ stands on Single Payer/Medicare for All are underway right now.

Engage and bring our politics

The anti-capitalist left will advance both its short-term and long-term goals by throwing ourselves fully into these battles. This maximizes our chances of defeating the GOP and simultaneously attracting the maximum number of newly politicized people to the left, mirroring the dynamic of the Sanders campaign.

Yet this will only work if the left brings more than our bodies to the fray. We need to bring a compelling political perspective and galvanizing narrative as well:

First, we must keep reminding ourselves and others not to underestimate the Trump regime or the high stakes in the 2018 and 2020 balloting. If the GOP isn’t soundly defeated in the 2018 congressional and state races, the forces of reaction in general and white supremacy in particular will be emboldened and Trump’s position will be strengthened. Just about everyone in the GOP or within its reach will conclude that appeals to racism are political winners and will act accordingly. Conversely, a crushing victory over the GOP will divide and demoralize the enemy camp and give the forces who spearheaded that victory tremendous momentum. It could even lead to Trump’s impeachment or forced resignation.

Second, the fight over message and which voters to prioritize will come down to specifics district-by-district and state-by-state. One-size-fits-all ideological formulas will not cut it. In ‘solidly blue’ areas we can and should aim for candidates that are rock steady behind a progressive program and have roots especially in working class and people of color constituencies (which of course overlap). In other districts, because of their socio-economic profiles or because progressives have not yet developed strong grassroots organization or potential candidates, we have to settle for less.

Given our overall initiative within the country we should be able to pressure more “moderate” candidates to strongly advocate of at least one of our key positions and to devote resources to door-to-door campaigning rather than spend it all on TV spots. Then support for that candidate both adds to the chances to hit the GOP and lays the groundwork for growing our strength for the next time around. Practicing “unity and struggle’ (in old left parlance) within the anti-right front is never simple. But the simplistic route of planting our own flag and standing aside from a fight in which the vast majority of our potential base accurately sees immense stakes is a formula for marginalization.

Third, the left bears the responsibility of being an anchor force regarding the ways race and class are interlinked. Only a multi-racial, class conscious force of millions has any chance of winning lasting victories over the world’s most powerful racist ruling class. Throughout U.S. history the Achilles heel of efforts to construct that force has been the susceptibility of its white component to view the non-white sector as something other than class brothers and sisters where “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Playing this anchor role not only means battling Trump and his white nationalist crew, but playing an advanced role practically, theoretically and polemically within the anti-Trump front, the Democratic Party and even the progressive movement itself. For further elaboration of how such battles are unfolding at the current moment, see Linda Burnham, No Plans to Abandon Our Freedom Dreams; Steve Phillips, The Democratic Party’s Billion Dollar Mistake and Democracy in Color’s Return of the Majority‘ and Mid-Year Progress Report June 2017.)

Last, the consolidation of a grassroots-based, independent political formation that can fight both inside and outside of the electoral arena and the Democratic Party is absolutely crucial for making sure a victory against Trumpism translates into momentum for radical change. The building blocks of such a form have become visible. There is increasing political alignment between such groups as Our Revolution, Labor for Our Revolution, MoveOn, Color of Change, the Working Families Party, Climate Hawks Vote, the various national and state-based community organizing formations,, Planned Parenthood, NOW and many others. The left has a key role to play in working to increase that alignment and, over time, turning it into a solid alliance or even a single united form, perhaps a 21st century version of the 1980s Rainbow Coalition that has the Rainbow’s strengths without the weaknesses.

Strategic patience as well as today’s sense of urgency will be needed. Building a base in the multiracial working class, reviving the labor movement, constructing a unified, independent organizational vehicle on the basis of a progressive agenda cannot be accomplished in one election cycle. These tasks are likely to unfold unevenly, developing state by state and locality by locality as well as nationally.

And this strategic task will be orders of magnitude harder, if not impossible, if we have to attempt it for seven more years with the GOP holding power. That fundamental reality is the reason we need to take a different stance toward the corporate and centrist elements who are opposed to Trump than to the Trump/GOP camp. The path to a more advanced stage of the class struggle runs through using the divisions in the ruling class to our advantage; fighting full-out against all our class enemies at the same time is a dead-end road.

In it for the long haul

Today the anti-capitalist left is experiencing a period of rapid growth. The next few years will determine whether that can be translated into the construction of a U.S. left that is a relevant nationwide force for the first time in decades.

The strategy of building the broadest possible front against Trump/GOP while fighting for maximum leverage within that front will give the left the maximum possible strength and initiative if and when the right’s grip on power is broken. It is the forces that actually contribute to beating the right that will emerge from this fight with the most influence and credibility among all those who have had a stake in that fight. A left that is in the thick of the battle, that galvanizes a base that others cannot or will not reach, and that helps keep diverse forces focused on the main immediate enemy – that kind of left will emerge from victory in a far stronger position than one that has stood on the sidelines or restricted its role to only pockets of the battlefield where it feels the most comfortable.