Much of the United States breathed a collective sigh of relief on Saturday 7 November as Donald Trump’s electoral defeat became clear. People posted reactions on social media immediately after the results were announced. In New York City, as in other Democrat-voting areas, people took to their balconies and windows as waves of celebration erupted across all the boroughs. People cheered and banged pots above the streets, while the cars below rhythmically honked to pedestrians who held their fists in the air. People danced in Times Square, celebrating the end of a nightmare. Some commented that it felt like we were living through the fall of a dictator.
The end of Trump’s tenure in the White House is a blow to racists and the far right in the US and beyond. He is only the fifth president in the past century to fail to secure a second term. This article will argue that the outgoing president’s defeat is a result of his catastrophic four years in office and the movements that fought relentlessly against Trumpism during this time. It will suggest that the future for the radical left lies in engaging with and developing such struggles. They hold the hope of posing an alternative to both the radical right, which is far from contained in the US, and the neoliberal centre-ground represented by the president-elect, Joe Biden.
The “Blue Wave” that never crested
Trump lost in large part because of his disastrous handling of the pandemic. A Pew Research Center study found that Biden voters tended to rate healthcare and the pandemic as their highest concerns; on the other hand, Trump voters overwhelmingly prioritised the economy, with less than a third rating the pandemic as “very important”.1 Counterposing the economy to saving lives may have worked for Trump among some voters, especially in rural areas and small towns, but was less effective among people living in urban centres that have witnessed the devastation caused by Covid-19. Trump also suffered in these areas because of the radicalisation produced by the struggles of the past four years, most importantly the 2020 Black Lives Matter rebellion.
Although Joe Biden, vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party won the election, little credit for Trump’s loss should go to them. His defeat was the result of poor people, working-class people and people of colour coming out to vote against him in numbers not seen for over a century.2 This was astonishing, given how uninspiring Biden’s campaign was. The Democrats should have beaten Trump by a landslide, and yet for several days after the vote the results were still neck and neck. A record 81 million people voted for Biden in spite of his lacklustre campaign, but turnout for Trump was also alarmingly high. Trump spent his term riling up his racist and right-wing base and was able to secure 74 million votes, the second highest number ever won by a presidential candidate after Biden and the highest number ever won by a losing candidate.3 Beyond the presidential race, the Democrats underperformed in the House of Representatives, Senate and state elections held the same day. Despite nearly doubling their campaign spending compared with 2016, the Democrats actually lost seats in the House, although they still control it.4 They did not flip a single state legislature and, unless the Democrats win two Senate run-off races in the state of Georgia in Janaury 2021, Republicans will retain control of the Senate.5
Trump’s racism and authoritarianism, as well as his threat not to accept the election result if he lost, all contributed to the large turnout for Biden. However, unlike socialist senator Bernie Sanders’s vibrant but ultimately unsuccessful campaigns to secure the Democratic Party nomination in 2016 and 2020, Biden failed to inspire people with bold, progressive policy proposals. When Trump and his media loyalists’ attacked the Democrats as “socialists”, this reinforced the rightward turn of the Democratic Party even further. The Democrat leadership bent over backwards to distance itself from any progressive agenda. The Biden-Harris ticket and the wider Democartic Party machine refused to tack left; instead, they invited Republicans to speak at their national convention in August, parading their willingness to “reach across the aisle”. The party establishment’s strategy was to appeal to the centre-ground and capture the votes of dissatisfied Republicans, rather than pursuing the millions who supported Sanders, a Green New Deal and universal healthcare. These and other such policies were considered too much of a liability in battleground states.
The right wing of the Democrats has wasted no time in blaming the left for their electoral failures, particularly at the state and local level.6 However, in reality Democrats who campaigned on left-wing policies were often successful. The Medicare for All proposal, which would replace the country’s catastrophic for-profit healthcare system with universal coverage funded by taxes rather than bloated insurance premiums, is in fact extremely popular. Every Democrat who ran on a platform for Medicare for All in the election retained their seat.7 Some 72 percent of voters support socialising the US healthcare system. As left-wing journalist Luke Savage put it, “If you actively campaign against majority opinion on healthcare during a pandemic, don’t be surprised that voters don’t like it!”8
The election in Florida was another case in point. Trump won the state decisively, but Floridians also voted in a referendum held on the same day to increase the minimum wage to $15. The legislation was more popular than either presidential candidate and its passage marks the first move by a Southern state towards a $15 minimum wage. Biden quietly endorsed the measure, but the activists who fought and won the referendum argue that their bold, loud and left-wing campaign was the key to success. Richie Floyd, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the country’s largest socialist organisation, in Florida’s Pinellas County explains:
The presidential election was largely about defeating Trump and not what Joe Biden would do for working people… This strategy completely failed as we can see from the results out of Miami-Dade [an area of Florida where Biden lost votes compared with Hilary Clinton’s ill-fated 2016 campaign]… If the Florida and national Democratic Parties want to be successful here, then they need to realise that focusing on the economic plight of the multi-racial working class is the only way forward… To win, we have to focus on the needs of the working class, and not the donor class.9
The Black Lives Matter rebellion mobilised up to 26 million people in the US this summer, but building on this was not seen as an electoral priority either.10 Biden did install Harris as his running mate, a progressive Democrat from California who is both a woman and a person of colour. Yet in truth this was an attempt to have it both ways: appealing to the right in policy terms, but simultaenously attempting to co-opt the anti-racist movement into the Democratic Party. Harris is the first woman, black and South Asian person to hold the position of vice president—not insignificant in a US context. However, the Democratic Party is less concerned with representation and more with taming Black Lives Matter. Harris said openly that she opposes defunding the police, a key radical demand emerging from the Black Lives Matter protests. This was entirely consistent with her record as a district attorney in San Francisco, where she built a career by increasing the felony conviction rate from 52 percent in 2003 to 67 percent in 2006. Convictions for drug-related offences increased from 56 percent to 74 percent over the same period. As California’s attorney general, Harris continued a similar “tough-on-crime” trajectory. She opposed, for instance, a federal inquiry into California prisons that were so overcrowded that even the Supreme Court believed they inflicted cruel and unusual punishment.
The election results were thus, as Marxist economist Michael Roberts has suggested, the product of a decisive rejection of Trump that was based overwhelmingly on those in urban centres and city suburbs—especially women, the young, the poor and people of colour. These groups voted for Biden in large numbers, knowing all too well what a second Trump term would mean for them. There has been some consternation about Trump’s increased support among black and Latinx voters this election, but as Roberts argues:
The evidence for this is dubious and, even if true, the shift is tiny. According to the Edison exit poll, there was a fall-off in support among white men for Trump compared to 2012 from 62 percent to 57 percent, and a small rise among white women from 52 percent to 54 percent. The supposed rise in support for Trump among black men was 13 percent to 17 percent and among black women was from 4 percent to 8 percent. But considering that white voters were 75 percent of the vote and black voters were only 11 percent, the supposed shift to Trump from black voters is less than half the loss by Trump from white voters. More Hispanic voters backed Trump this time, it is claimed, but still around two-thirds did not.11
Nevertheless, this shift does warrant analysis. Even after four years of Trump’s barrage of racism and attacks on immigrant communities, Biden still did slightly worse than Hilary Clinton among voters of colour across the board.12 This reflects the Democrats’ failed strategy more than support for Trump as such. It is true that in Florida right-wing Cubans and Venezuelans, whose families fled redistribution of land and wealth, helped hand Trump victory in the state. However the story is more complex in Texas, for instance, where Biden won the Latinx vote in urban centres, but not in southern communities on the US-Mexico border. Here, unlike in Florida, migration patterns do not offer obvious answers; it seems, rather, that socially conservative Mexican Americans, who traditionally vote Democrat, were decisive in Texas. For instance, in Hidalgo county, resident Barbara Ocañas told an interviewer that she ended up voting Trump because she felt that Democrats focussed too much on semantics, character and moral outrage toward the president, rather than actual policy.13 Zapata county, a 93 percent Latinx border community in South Texas, had been solidly Democrat for over a century until Biden lost it in 2020; Trump voter Joe Gutierrez chalks this to the Democrats’ neglect of an electorate they took for granted.14 Similarly, Jessica Cisneros, a former Democrat primary candidate in South Texas, commented:
In this area, people have been voting Democrat for so long that if they feel neglected, they might be interested in what other candidates have to offer… I think people wonder, “Well, maybe I should just try and vote for the Republican Party since I’ve been voting Democrat for so long and nothing changes.15
The racist claims Trump has made about them is not the only political issue for these voters. Unemployment and poverty matter to them too, and Biden failed to speak to their needs.16 The Democrats ignored their traditional base among communities of colour and took their votes for granted, believing that these voters have no political alternative.
Alongside these demographic trends in Southern states such as Florida and Texas, the electoral experience in the “rust belt” of the Midwestern states is also telling. In 2016 Hilary Clinton lost much of the working-class vote that Barack Obama had secured there for his 2008 victory. Clinton’s career and campaign as a representative of the status quo contributed to voters abstaining or even voting for Trump. The fact that Biden’s results in the rust belt were only slightly better than Clinton’s underscores the conservative choice the Democratic Party made by picking Biden.
What to expect from Biden and Harris
When Biden and Harris take office in January 2021 they will be unable to offer solutions to the pressing issues such as climate change, institutional racism and the lack of access to healthcare faced by millions. Instead we will see increased collaboration with the Republicans around a neoliberal, pro-capitalist agenda. Biden’s cabinet is expected to include a range of establishment figures, many of whom have strong links to US corporations, and even some Republican politicans.
According to Moody’s Analytics, the policies Biden ran on included over $7 trillion in additional government spending over the next ten years, which outstrip Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s plans when they entered office.17 He also promised to repeal some of Trump’s worst tax breaks for the rich. In the context of the pandemic and economic crisis, this kind of Keynesian package would bring the US closer to what the International Monetary Fund currently advocates and to the practice of many European governments. However, it remains to be seen how much of even this package can be implemented by Biden; a Republican-controlled Senate will give him an easy excuse to avoid pushing progressive legislation and making cabinet appointments from the left of the Democrats.18 Already Biden has shown his willingness to reach across the aisle, inviting Mitt Romney to head the Department of Health and Human Services. One of Trump’s parting gifts was to nominate right-wing zealot Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and Biden has made clear that he is against packing the court with more liberal judges to counter this. With abortion and the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”) on the chopping block, a Supreme Court dominated by the right could be another obstacle for Biden—and a useful excuse for dissatisfaction with his administration.
A return to Obama-era neoliberalism may satisfy the Democratic Party establishment and big US corporations, whose leaders overwhelmingly backed Biden, but it will mean a continuation of misery for millions of people. This is reinforced by the deeply damaged US economy that Biden and Harris will inherit. The US has never fully recovered from the 2008 crash, and wealth inequality has increased to even more dizzying levels during the Covid-19 pandemic.19 These problems are reflected in the world economy, which experienced a weak recovery after 2008, even before being hammered by the pandemic. As Joseph Choonara wrote in 2018:
No region of the world is experiencing consistent growth at the rate enjoyed prior to 2008—even the more successful large economies of the Global South, some of which saw rapid growth prior to the crisis, have had to lower their expectations. For the established economies of the Global North, average growth rates of over 3 percent, as experienced in the 1960-80 period, now seem like a receding dream. Estimates of growth in 2016 put the US figure at 1.6 percent, the euro area at 1.8 percent and Japan at 1.1 percent.20
This has led in turn to low levels of investment, including in the US. A Green New Deal would have offered some meaningful reform, moving the US toward the creation of green jobs and a more sustainable economy. However, Biden has already ruled out the version of this policy long advocated by prominent left-wing Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known as AOC). At best, we can expect the US to return to the Paris climate agreement, which the ecological movement has long criticised as inadequate to addressing the urgent threat of catastrophic global warming.
The situation for foreign policy is volatile and hard to predict. Nevertheless, Biden’s career to date suggests a return to a more traditional model of US imperialism, with the US reasserting itself in relation to Russia and, in particular, China. However, the isolationism of the Trump administration and the trade war with China mean that Biden will find the US increasingly isolated in Asia. One of Trump’s first moves in office was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge trade deal developed under the Obama administration in order to isolate China. In the absence of this, China has just announced the creation of the largest free trade area in the world, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This pulls together 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region including long-term US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.21 Restoring US hegemony in the region will not be straightforward.22 In the Middle East a similar picture emerges. The US has lost ground to Iran and Russia in Syria. Meanwhile, much of Afghanistan is back under Taliban control. Amid this instability it is worth noting that Biden voted for the disastrous 2003 US invasion of Iraq and that he has surrounded himself with advocates of US interventionism since the election.23
The limitations of the Democratic Party left
In the wake of the election, the party establishment sought to blame the Black Lives Matter movement, the Green New Deal and the left for its failures. This was all too predictable; the Democratic Party has consistently seen moving to the right as the best method for winning elections. Its long-term strategy has been to appeal to Republican voters and conservatives, while taking for granted the support of the left, progressives and oppressed groups. AOC, the de facto leader of the left inside the party, was interviewed by the New York Times and pointed out the obvious foolishness of this approach. If the Democratic Party only barely won this was precisely a consequence of its right-wing campaign and because it alienated young voters who had embraced the calls for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. She also noted that left-wing activists mobilised millions of voters in decisive states such as Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania. These places were the key to getting Biden elected, and yet the Democratic Party will have few compunctions about selling out these same organisers once he takes office.24
AOC is right to criticise Biden’s strategy but her solutions are less convincing. She argues that Democrats need to fund more campaigns like the one that took place in Georgia and engage in outreach among particular demographics. The problem with the AOC approach is that there are structural limitations that result from the left working inside the Democratic Party. Rather than using elections as a tactic to develop class struggle and strengthen social movements, elections become an end unto themselves, dragging left-wing activists into the party machine. Much has been written on this subject already, and it continues to be a live discussion across the left—particularly within the DSA, which has now grown into an organisation of over 80,000 members. As one of us argued in an earlier issue of International Socialism, the Democratic Party does not function like the British Labour Party and social democratic parties elsewhere. These parties have all kinds of limitations of their own, but they are at least membership-based, organically connected to trade unions and have contested political leaderships. This is not so with the Democrats:
The Democratic Party is not a membership organisation; a person becomes a Democrat by registering as one in time to cast a ballot during a primary election. There is a party platform, but no accountability mechanisms or requirements for people who run as Democrats to campaign on or pursue policies consistent with that platform. There is also no elected or accountable party leadership other than the presidential candidate themselves and some congressional officials.25
For this reason, much of the US revolutionary left argues for a break from the Democratic Party and the formation of a new working-class party. However, the strategy that AOC and many in the DSA argue for is to elect more progressive Democrats at the state and local level—again reinforcing an electoral logic.
The challenges of operating in the context of the US electoral system are immense. In some places there is earnest discussion about how to break from the Democrats and form a new working-class party. Yet we must remember that social democratic parties in Europe were the result of broader processes of class struggle; they were not the fruit of a handful of far-left groups coming together and declaring a new party. A better strategy for the revolutionary left today lies in looking to the movements from below, rather than a singular focus on electoral politics. Even in the darkest days of Trumpism, people in the US have fought back. Struggle offers a way forward for building up independent working class activity and creating the context in which a political party with a revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective can develop. The remainder of this article will consider this perspective.
Crisis and polarisation
The Trump era has been one of polarisation, crisis and, above all, mass resistance. To mention only Trumpism and the growth of the far right would be to offer a mistaken and pessimistic assessment of the past four years. Trump faced protests from the moment he took office. A 2018 poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five people had been involved in political protests during the Trump administration. This is all the more astonishing because the poll was conducted before the marches against gun violence after the Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Florida in 2018 and the Black Lives Matter rebellion in 2020.26
Resistance to Trump was almost immediate. The 2017 women’s marches that followed his inauguration were the largest mobilisation in the country since the movement against the Vietnam War. Millions marched across the country in defiance of Trump, who had won despite soundbites circulating of him gloating about his long history of sexual violence.27 Next came a wave of teachers’ strikes, which won increases to salaries, school budgets, healthcare coverage and support staff, as well as striking a blow against privatisation. The rebellion began in West Virginia in February 2018, quickly spreading to other Republican-controlled states and finally extending to California in early 2019.28 Other workers in the school system took inspiration, with a strike among school bus drivers in Georgia, for instance, and smaller protests were held by school staff in Kentucky, North Carolina and Colorado, often supported by the teachers themselves. Victories for this heavily feminised workforce—in many places composed mostly of women of colour—in states regarded as “Trump country” set the tone for later eruptions.
These movements suggest encouraging starting points for potential struggles under Biden. However, struggle will not emerge automatically. The choices that the left makes in the coming months and years about what it prioritises, who it is willing to criticise and what kind of power it builds will be decisive.
Racism, fascism, and resistance
Under Trump’s reign we have seen far-right and fascist groups emboldened by the racism coming from the top of society and the support Trump has repeatedly offered them. These groups have come a long way from the relatively disorganised mass of racists who participated in the anti-Obama “birther” movement and echoed Trump’s “Build the Wall” slogan during the 2016 election.29 Now we are beginning to see a large and organised fascist presence in the country for the first time in a long time. This may prove to be Trump’s most enduring legacy.30
Trump’s strategists, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, both of whom have links to white supremacist groups, worked from within the White House early in his administration to implement Executive Order 13769, the “Muslim ban”. It blocked entry into the US for all refugees for 120 days, and Syrian refugees were blocked indefinitely. Also barred were citizens and green card holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. Within hours of the ban’s announcement, thousands of people across the country had rushed to airports to stage anti-racist pickets and demonstrations. Coming days after the gigantic women’s marches, this was the first confrontation between the anti-racist movement and the Trump administration. At John F Kennedy International Airport in New York 7,000 people protested, holding signs with slogans such as “No Ban, No Wall” and “Let Them In”. Protests spread to airports in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Indianapolis, Boston, Denver, Albuquerque, Hartford, Las Vegas, Orlando, Greenville and Philadelphia. Although some of those detained under the executive order were deported, many were freed under pressure from the movement. In some instances, riot police had to be called in to airports to disperse demonstrators.
Later came Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which ripped apart families by separating children and infants from their parents. Children were placed under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, while parents were detained in federal prisons or deported. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 4,368 children were separated from their families, and more than 500 are yet to be reunited. However, although this was one of the most hated anti-immigrant policies of the Trump era, it must be remembered that practices such as sealing the borders near San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas, took effect under Bill Clinton’s Democrat administration. Its aim was to force refugees and migrants to take the dangerous journey through the desert, where death was more likely due to heat and dehydration. Later Obama deported three million immigrants, and he is still referred to in the immigrant rights movement as the “deporter-in-chief”. Trump may have separated the families, but Obama and Biden built the cages. The novel feature of Trump’s immigration regime was not the policies themselves, but rather how aggressively Trump implemented his version of them and how blatantly he mobilised the racism of his political base to cultivate support for them. Open support for racist groups was one of the many taboos that he broke and was part of a deliberate attempt to solidify his radicalised right-wing base into a more coherent political bloc.
During Trump’s presidency, our organisation, Marx21, argued that Trump was not a fascist and that full-blown fascism had not descended on the US.31 Instead, the immediate threat was, and remains, Trump’s use of racism to solidify his far-right base and his open support for fascists and far-right organisations such as the Proud Boys. At the debate with Biden, not only did he refuse to denounce fascists but he openly appealed to them to “stand down and stand by”. There remains an urgent need for a united front, mobilising all those working-class forces threatened by fascism, to prevent fascist organisations from further expanding their activities and support. No matter what happens between now and January, when Biden is set to be inaugurated, anti-racism and anti-fascism have never been more urgent.
Here too it is important to recognise the resistance that took place under Trump and offers hope for the future. As early as August 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia at a “Unite the Right” demonstration. Pictures emerged of torch-bearing crowds marching through the night, chanting the slogans “Jews Will not Replace Us” and “Blood and Soil”, invoking imagery straight out of Nazi Germany. Over the course of two days clashes erupted with anti-fascist demonstrators and a white supremacist drove his car into counter-protesters, killing trade unionist Heather Heyer and seriously injuring others. Trump’s subsequent claim that there were “good people” on both sides was not a slip but a calculated political response orchestrated by Bannon.32 Yet it fed outrage and further anti-fascist demonstrations erupted across the country.33 The protest in Boston, Massachusetts was a watershed moment, with 25,000 demonstrators completely surrounding a small number of fascists who were trying to hold a rally.34 These protests helped pave the way for a series of later struggles, culminating with the Black Lives Matter rebellion.
The immediate post-election period has shown that the threat of the far-right remains. On 14 November, thousands of Trump supporters descended on Washington DC, running amok and stabbing three people. There is a large political space for the far right in the US today, framed by the QAnon conspiracy movement and far-right media personalities such as Alex Jones, and populated by Trump supporters mobilised under the slogan “Make America Great Again”. This is the space that fascist groups—the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, American Guard and others—are seeking to exploit in order to grow and organise.
Class struggle under Covid-19
Another crisis that will not resolve as soon as Trump leaves the White House is, of course, the pandemic. Trump continually dismissed the threat of Covid-19, labelling it a hoax or referring to it as the “China virus”. New York was the first US city to be hit hard by the novel coronavirus. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, were engaged in a political pissing contest at the start of the crisis, bickering about who would decide when schools would close and if there would even be a lockdown at all. They put profit before lives by prioritising the smooth functioning of the economy, and this criminal lack of action contributed to thousands of deaths. Ultimately, it fell to teaching unions to force the closure of schools in New York.35
A series of strikes and other actions by workers began in March 2020, and this has lead to struggles that are still ongoing at the time of writing. Nurses protested the lack of personal protective equipment. Then, as cases of Covid-19 were reported in Amazon logistical hubs (known as “fulfillment centers”), workers staged wildcat strikes along with protests at Amazon warehouses in New York. Waves of workers took similar actions, often on a small scale but still hugely significant. On 19-20 March, for instance, auto workers in Fraser, Michigan, refused to go to work and forced the plant to close after learning of an infection in their workplace. These are encouraging signs, even though this kind of activity is yet to be generalised across workplaces and industries.36
Due to Trump’s criminal neglect, Democrat governors such as Cuomo continue to be seen as heroes. Yet during the initial peak of the pandemic in New York, it was found that the state was lacking an additional 20,000 hospital beds that would have been needed to deal with the sick—roughly the number of beds slashed over the past 20 years by Democrat state governments. Cuomo is responsible for much of this, and, incredibly, he continued to implement Medicaid cuts at the height of the pandemic.37 No doubt Biden’s pandemic response will be better than Trump’s non-response, but the fight to protect lives rather than the economy—along with the broader underlying crisis driven by our for-profit medical system—will continue in 2021.
Black Lives Matter
An assessment of the resistance that developed under Trump would not be complete without looking at the vast social movement that developed under the banner of Black Lives Matter. On 25 May, the brutal murder of George Floyd by cop Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was captured in its entirety on video by horrified bystanders. Protests rapidly developed in Minneapolis, leading to clashes between hundreds of protesters and the police. Police cars were attacked and three days later a police station near the site where Floyd was murdered was set on fire. Demonstrations then spread across the country, with clashes in Portland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Columbus and New York.
Workers responded to the brutal murder of George Floyd by joining the rebellion. Hundreds of postal workers in Minneapolis marched with a banner that read: “Postal Workers Demand Justice for George Floyd”.38 In New York bus drivers refused to collaborate with the police in the transfer of arrested protestors to the police precincts. Nurses in New York joined the anti-racist rebellion, with one placard stating: “We Fought Covid, Now we Will Fight the Police”. In the wake of this movement from below, the SEIU service workers union, followed by others, responded to a call for action in support of Black Lives Matter. This was a tremendous step in the right direction, in spite of the limitations of a union bureaucracy that is often enmeshed in Democratic Party’s electoralism.
Trump sought to split the movement by attacking Antifa, a loose network of anti-fascist organisations, but this was actually an attack on the entire anti-racist rebellion. Dismissing local authorities as soft in dealing with the uprising, he threatened to call in the military and the National Guard. This met with immediate resistance from the rank and file of these bodies as troops and guardsmen expressed their unwillingness to go and fight against protestors. Trump was also denounced by some generals. The attack on Antifa signaled an increasingly open ideological attack on the left from Trump, uncomfortably reminiscent of fascistic rhetoric of the past. At one conference in the wake of Black Lives Matter he argued, “Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy… Far-left demonstrators have chanted the words, ‘America Was Never Great’.” He linked this to the penetration of left-wing ideas into the US education system, singling out the late Marxist historian Howard Zinn and left-wing academic currents such as Critical Race Theory:
Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed.39
In line with his threats, Trump deployed federal agents in Portland, Oregon, but ultimately he was forced to withdraw them in the face of mass opposition.40 Parents came onto the streets to defend their children against thuggish attacks by federal forces, and the Proud Boys failed to gain any ground in the city. Many reluctant (and even some enthusiastic) Biden voters were part of this rebellion. There can be no place in such a movement for exclusion of activists based on whether or not they cast their ballot for the Democrats—the broadest possible unity is needed in the streets. However, this needs to be combined with a clear argument that neither Biden nor the Democratic Party can provide a solution to the social and political crisis in the US; instead, they are part of the problem. An attempt to restore the neoliberal centre-ground politics represented by the Clintons and Obama will simply lead to further polarisation and deepening discontent. The goal of socialists in this context cannot be to shore up the centre-ground. Instead, it has to combine forging unity in pursuit of its immediate goals, such as beating back the insurgent far-right, with a longer-term goal of winning broader forces to an anti-capitalist politics focused on working-class struggle.41
This article has emphasised the limits to Biden’s campaign but also the enormous potential created by recent struggles in the US amid the horror of Trump’s presidency. It is through an orientation on these struggles that the socialist left can best prepare to confront the incoming Biden administration and counter the far-right and fascist forces that have entrenched themselves in US politics during the Trump years.
However, in the context of these ongoing struggles, it is also necessary to offer an anti-capitalist politics that seeks a more fundamental transformation of society. This cannot be focused on the existing electoral terrain, accepting that the outer limits of radical politics should be the less repugnant of two pro-capitalist parties. Social movements should not be corralled into the task of bolstering the left in the Democratic Party, dissipating their vitality in the process. The two Sanders campaigns, the growth of the DSA and the rise of figures such as AOC have demonstrated the resonance of socialist ideas in the US, but they have not yet offered a clear means of escaping the gravitational pull of the Democrats. If a break with two-party politics is to happen, it will not come through clever organisational manoeuvres or a rearrangement of the existing radical left, but rather through mass struggle that draws millions of workers into activity and into contact with socialist ideas. That is why the socialist left must place itself at the heart of those struggles.
Iannis Delatolas is a socialist and member of Marx21 in New York.
Clare Lemlich is a socialist in the United States and a member of Marx21.
1 Dunn, 2020.
2 Lauter and Hook, 2020.
3 Bryant, 2020; Riccardi, 2020.
4 Schwartz, 2020.
5 Nilson, 2020.
6 Broadwater and Fandos, 2020; Dixon and Fineout, 2020.
7 Marcertic, 2020. The author notes that “the only exceptions were lawmakers who retired, died, gave up their seats or were unseated in primaries.”
8 Stancil, 2020.
9 Schueler, 2020.
10 Buchanan, Bui and Patel, 2020.
11 Roberts, 2020. Exit polls also probably exaggerate any swing towards Trump among particular groups because they do not include postal votes.
12 Wolf, Merril and Wolfe, 2020.
13 Villarreal, 2020.
14 Burnett, 2020.
15 Cardena, 2020. Indeed, the neglect that Latinx Texans describe from the Democrats was also a factor in Florida, where Biden campaign staffers warned that their Latinx outreach was lacking. As a result, it was not just ideologically committed communities of Cuban and Venezuelan emigres that voted for Trump there, but also networks of socially conservative Puerto Ricans—see Padró Ocasio and Wieder, 2020.
16 Cardena, 2020.
17 Zandi and Yaros, 2020.
18 Luce, 2020.
19 Fretz, 2020.
20 Choonara, 2018.
21 Salmon, 2020.
22 Callinicos, 2018.
23 Callinicos, 2020a.
24 Herndon, 2020.
25 Lemlich, 2020. For a more detailed history of the Democrats, see Selfa, 2012.
26 Stewart, 2018.
27 Trump now stands accused of 26 incidents of unwanted sexual contact and 43 instances of inappropriate behaviour—Mindock, 2020.
28 Blanc, 2020.
29 Birthers advocate the conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside the US and therefore was ineligible to be president. Such theories were often tinged with Islamophobia, with claims that Obama is secretly a Muslim and has a political relationship to Islamism.
30 Wilson, 2020.
31 Marx21 is the affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency in the US and a sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.
32 Kirk, 2020.
33 Ruder, 2017.
34 Roche, 2017.
35 Hummel, 2020.
36 Marx21 US, 2020.
37 Ferré-Sadurní and McKinley, 2020.
38 Cumming, 2020.
39 Callinicos, 2020b.
40 Cumming and Bacon, 2020.
41 Despite its modest numbers, Marx21 is seeking to do this—combining activity within the various struggles with an attempt to rebuild a socialist and anti-capitalist current in the US. Members are active in United Against Racism and Fascism (UARF) in New York City, where, for instance, the recent attempt of the Proud Boys to drive a car convoy to Trump Tower in Manhattan was derailed by anti-fascists. Members in California are involved in the movement for immigrant rights. In Portland, members were part of the protests against the Proud Boys and organise among unemployed workers.