Trump Is President. What Now?

by Larry Rosenberg

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Nearly three months after the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, people on the left are still debating how and why he won, what will happen next, and how we can most effectively move forward at this uncertain and dangerous moment.

The stakes are extremely high Trump’s actions could be very harmful to millions of people in the United States and many more in the rest of the world. He may put the US on a dangerous collision course with China and could spark a possibly unprecedented level of conflict in the Middle East.

Although Trump’s presidency may be highly damaging in many ways, three possible developments merit particular concern. First, Trump could stand in the way of, and reverse, some of the actions the United States has taken to mitigate climate change.[ref]He has called climate change a hoax that benefits China and damages the US economy, has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and has nominated for his cabinet a set of individuals who have long and deep ties to oil and gas corporations and who have made clear their opposition to federal environmental regulations and government actions to rein in the production of greenhouse gases.[/ref] Second, Trump’s list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court makes clear that he intends to stay true to his campaign promise of nominating only hard-line conservatives.[ref]Since justices have lifetime appointments, Trump is in a position to ensure decades of conservative control of the Court and block one major avenue through which some progressive policies and programs have (sometimes) become settled law. In its place will be a court poised to undo past victories and ratify new, extremely damaging legislation.[/ref]And third, Trump could start a nuclear war.[ref]Any president can do this, but Trump’s thin skin, lack of judgment, and volatile personality make such a catastrophe horrifyingly conceivable. There is very little, and almost no one, that can stand in the way of Trump’s order and missiles being launched.[/ref]

Given the enormity of the situation we face, it is important to analyze and learn from what happened; assess the possible actions that the Trump administration and Congress may take; and figure out what types of message, programs, and actions would have the best chance of limiting the damage, building resistance, and creating and solidifying a movement that would allow Americans to take effective action to counter what Trump portends.

How did we get to this situation? Why did Trump win?

Before addressing this question, it is important to recognize that despite Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, the election was very close. A switch of roughly 100,000 votes spread over a few states would have led to a narrow victory by Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Clinton received nearly three million more votes than Trump.[ref]Trump did get huge majorities among non-college-educated voters, rural residents, and others whose incomes have stagnated and who quite reasonably feel cut off from the culture, values, and relatively greater economic dynamism of the areas of the country (mostly on the West Coast and in the Northeast) that voted for Clinton. Notably, however, voters did approve numerous progressive ballot proposals.[/ref] Trump does not have an electoral mandate.

Although the factors that led to Trump’s win have been exhaustively analyzed elsewhere, it is worth pointing out some that were particularly important. Many voters felt that Trump would be able to rapidly upend a hated status quo and that an “outsider” (even a rich one who had never experienced the kind of lives most people lead) would stand up for those who had lost out in the last few decades. Many were also drawn to Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, as well as his anti-abortion and anti-immigrant positions. In some crucial swing states, Trump’s stance against “free trade” agreements attracted voters in areas where factories had moved overseas, even if much of the decline in US manufacturing employment can be attributed to automation. Among Clinton’s negatives were that she has long been part of the Establishment and is close to Wall Street, that she could not be trusted to maintain various popular positions that she had only adopted to try to match Bernie Sanders (e.g., her late rejection of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)), and (for those on the left) that she has long been a military hawk.[ref]Among other issues that mattered were progressive challenger Bernie Sanders having been pushed aside by the Democratic National Committee, the lopsided media focus on the Trump phenomenon, interference by the director of the FBI, and above all, widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters. For her part, Clinton had to contend with sexism and various perceptions and allegations that had little or no legitimate basis, but that appeared to have played a large role in her defeat. [/ref]

It is evident that the longstanding actions of the Democratic Party in favor of military adventurism, fealty to Wall Street over Main Street, and ignoring the fate of millions who have been left behind leave it highly vulnerable to right-wing populism. However, a candidate like Sanders with well-articulated, consistently progressive positions might be able to defeat a politician like Trump and lead the way to a historic and lasting rearrangement of American politics.

Trump’s pre-election statements and early actions as president bode ill

Judging by the people Trump has picked for his cabinet, it’s clear that he intends to push forward rapidly with a broad right-wing agenda as if he had been given a popular mandate -- despite getting only 46% of the votes cast. Virtually all of his nominees, if approved, would pursue policies antithetical to, and obstructive of, progress in the applicable sphere: climate and other environmental concerns, public education, civil and labor rights, health insurance, and income equality.[ref]Among Trump’s chosen advisers are climate change deniers; an education nominee who has worked hard to weaken public education; a designee to run the Justice Department who has a long record of opposition to basic civil rights; a health and human services selection who seeks to roll back the partial advances that have led to 20 million individuals newly having health insurance; a would-be head of the Labor Department whose company has long violated labor laws; and a former hedge fund manager who was a partner at Goldman Sachs. Trump wants to appoint a vehemently pro-settlement ideologue as ambassador to Israel and has chosen an extreme rightist and anti-Semite as his chief strategist.[/ref]

Immediately after the inauguration, the Trump administration scrubbed the White House website of all mention of civil rights, LGBT rights, and climate change. Trump said during the campaign that he wanted to cancel the Iran nuclear agreement and withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. He has sought to ban many Muslims from entering the United States. He has threatened to undo Obama’s historic opening with Cuba. He has said that those who burn the American flag (an act recognized by the Supreme Court as protected political expression) should perhaps lose their citizenship. And he is proposing huge tax cuts and greatly relaxed regulations for corporations.

Trump’s press secretary and his “counselor to the president” have both made clear that the administration will not be bound by facts. When the media point out his and his advisers’ lies, Trump’s team simply lies more and threatens to cut off the traditional access that reporters have had to the president. Polling suggests that high numbers of his supporters believe whatever he says.

What might happen next?

Trump’s actions to date indicate that he plans to attack free speech, environmental protections, access to good education and health care, the rights of labor and minorities, and the ability of low-paid workers to get higher wages. Trump has not wavered from his stated intent to build a wall to prevent Mexicans and Central Americans from crossing the border.

Notwithstanding his involvement with Russia, Trump’s pointed call for “America First” and his pronouncement that NATO is “obsolete” suggest that, in at least some respects, he wants the United States to move in an isolationist direction. But any isolationism will clearly be only part of the story. For example, he recently encouraged the Central Intelligence Agency to step up its actions against the Islamic State.

Despite these overwhelmingly bleak developments, there are a few indications that suggest a Trump administration will not be filled entirely with yes-men ready and anxious to carry out the worst possible policies. James Mattis, confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary, favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wants to retain the Iran deal, and opposes torture – all positions that conflict with the Republican Party platform or with Trump himself. On the issue of trade, Trump definitively canceled the long-planned US signing of the TPP and wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. His unpredictability and his well-documented practice of changing his stance on issues from one day to the next mean that there could be other significant occasions on which he will deviate from orthodox conservative positions.

Trump’s weaknesses may matter. He enters his presidency with a historically low approval rating, and although Republicans control both the Senate and the House, he faces opposition from them on some of his policies. He does not have dictatorial powers and may not see completely smooth sailing for all of his programs. In addition, there are already signs that some (a minority, so far) who voted for him are beginning to realize that they may lose access to government programs they counted on and that Trump may not be their savior after all.

What should we do?

Quite logically, a large share of progressive activists in the United States are despondent about the enormity of what we face. Traditional Democrats are fearful as well. There is genuine anxiety and fear about this country’s direction, the rise of reaction, the many groups of threatened people here, and the fate of the world. With Trump, we face different, greater challenges than we were expecting with Clinton. It seems likely that the left will have to devote much of its effort to stopping things from getting worse, rather than rallying people to support progressive initiatives.  

Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success in the Democratic primaries has led some activists to work inside the Democratic Party, run for local office, and build support for candidates who would strive to significantly undermine corporate power and rein in the US predilection to wage war around the world. That is a tall order, to say the least. But we cannot ignore the astounding degree of support that Sanders garnered and the fact that millions of Americans were inspired to think that an aging socialist Jew could actually govern in their favor, instead of in the interests of the elite. Had Sanders run as an independent, he would not have received nearly as much support. Now, Sanders supporters are working to take over the Democratic Party, and they have already succeeded in doing so in California.[ref]In spite of this success, we will almost certainly need to strenuously fight against the Democratic establishment in coming years.[/ref] Conceivably, the days of the party nominating defenders of US militarism and economic policies that hurt a huge portion of people throughout the country may come to an end. A progressive populist agenda may rightly be seen as the best way to defeat right-wing populists.

The extreme importance of resisting Trump’s policies has brought about an astonishing and much-needed burst of activity by a wide array of progressive organizations. Many that have had trouble getting people active have been swamped with new volunteers. Individuals who have never been politically active are realizing they “need to do something”. The specter of Trump taking action against minorities and other groups has led to widespread organizing to resist such attacks and to much greater expressions of solidarity from those not directly affected.

Organizing, and certainly not sitting still or “giving Trump a chance”, is what we need to do. Millions of African-Americans and other minorities, Muslims, immigrants, workers, women, LGBT people, climate activists, and people from all walks of life, concerned with many issues, are saying the same thing: we must resist now. We must draw in even more people who have always sat on the sidelines. We must flood our national and state legislators with our concerns – by contacting them directly and by taking to the streets -- and make it clear that we will hold them accountable for protecting the freedoms we have, for ensuring that those freedoms are expanded in practice, for improving and ensuring the economic well-being of all, and for stopping this country’s unnecessary, counterproductive wars.

Finally, the left must look at its own record over the past few decades and plot a course toward having greater power and influence. Although we have had successes in various important arenas,[ref]Progressive movements have won victories related to women’s and LGBT rights, minimum wages, environmental protections, nuclear power, and (decades ago) ending the war in Vietnam. We have also helped to bring about significant support for free higher education, better public schools, single-payer health care, and a more restrained military.[/ref] we have generally not been able to articulate clear progressive proposals in ways that attract a majority of people. Still, we know that people often vote against their own interests, and many who are relishing Trump’s victory may not be so excited a few years from now. Detailing the principles of a progressive populism, and finding ways to make those principles and the associated policy proposals resonate with people who have been falling further behind, are key tasks for the left in the next few years.

A diverse set of constituencies will need to work hand-in-hand to strengthen our collective power. We need to create a broad-based progressive movement that can defeat Trump and fundamentally change US government actions in this country and around the world. To do this, we have to resist the onslaught of right-wing policies and actions, and explain and win support for our vision of progressive populism.

written by Larry Rosenberg (Solidarity Correspondent, Environmental Activist)