Trump against socialists

War on socialism

Print edition : August 30, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump and Melania Trump greet visitors at the White House on June 21. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Congresswomen whom Trump loves to hate, (from left) Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on July 15. Photo: Alex Wroblewski/AFP

U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in Detroit on July 30. Photo: /REUTERS

Trump’s tirade against “socialists” in the U.S., such as Bernie Sanders and several new Congress members advocating public education and health care, is one way of keeping his support base intact.

THE presidential election season in the United States has assumed a permanence of sorts. There is not a day when either the President who seeks re-election or his rivals are not trying to win the election that takes place every four years. Such an election cycle favours Donald Trump, the sitting President, because his entire mode of being is combative. Trump takes no prisoners. His belligerence is unyielding, painting his opponents as weak and anti-national. Trump portrays himself as the last man standing, the only person who can save the U.S. from those who otherwise hate it. His is a cultural war, his mouth his weapon, his enemies his fuel. Twitter and rallies are his battlefield. Politics has suffocated governance. The mundane work on his desk irritates him. The endless election season beckons.

There are so many reasons to believe that someone like Trump was only accidentally elected, and that he would not be given a second term. Trump offends large numbers of people and he seems to have a penchant for dangerous brinkmanship that has led to confrontations with China, Iran and other countries. “Anyone but Trump” was a popular slogan before his first election and it resonates today amongst more than half the U.S. population. There are currently about 20 Democratic Party candidates for the presidency. As almost all of them said in their first omnibus set of debates, any one of them would be a better President than Trump. But this view of inevitability is short-sighted. Trump did win the presidency, despite losing the popular vote, in 2016 and he could very well be re-elected in 2020.

The presidential election in the U.S. suffers from all the limitations of 21st-century democracy. Money has corrupted the process but so have the hard-to-understand shenanigans on the Internet. Underneath all this has been a policy to discourage people from voting, whether by demoralisation or by active mechanisms of voter suppression.

In the 2016 race, the presidential election itself cost about $2.4 billion, while the simultaneous Congressional election cost $4 billion. The Indian Lok Sabha election of 2019 cost $6.5 billion, the world record holder. This kind of money sways the election towards political parties and candidates that are favoured by big money. Candidates from the Left are disqualified at the bank even before the ballot box.

While the entire episode of Russiagate, Russian interference in the U.S. elections, might end up being a sideshow, there is a real problem with the way the Internet has become a weapon in elections. Using money power, massive troll farms are set up to micro-target voters with highly objectionable messages and to inspire them to bring their friends and family to vote.

Racist and homophobic messages have been commonplace, not only in the U.S. election but also in the elections in Brazil and India.

The U.S. has a long history of voter suppression. Laws and procedures sought to prevent women and African Americans (as well as other minorities) from being able to vote. The civil rights movement of the 20th century was geared towards the vote, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally giving people the right to vote and have mechanisms in place to protect voting. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the most important parts of this Act in 2013, which meant that the presidential election that voted in Trump was the first one since 1965 that was conducted without the protection of the right to vote. Large numbers of African Americans and Latinos were disenfranchised in key U.S. States.

Trump’s team realised that in order to win the 2016 election he had to produce a base that was loyal to him. By January 2016, months before the election, Trump confidently told his supporters in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

A combination of racism and machismo, as well as old-fashioned nativism and right-wing nationalism, fuelled Trump’s campaign. He reached out to the wealthy sections of the population, who almost totally supported him, and to white-collar workers, who had seen substantial job losses as a consequence of business process outsourcing (BPO). What was visible was his blue-collar support base, the workers from factories and mines that had been closed down. Trump’s culture war appealed to a section of the U.S. population that felt it had been “left behind” by globalisation. This was at the core of the “Make America Great Again” campaign. But behind this was an elite, eager for more tax cuts and more full-throated capitalism. That Trump’s base was contradictory did not bother anyone. The details were irrelevant. The slogan was everything.

Mobilise the base

Trump never stopped mobilising his base. The attacks on China and on immigrants were key. Trump said to the unemployed part of his base, both white and blue-collar, that he was going to revive a faltering U.S. economy. And for them, and the very rich, he said that he would prevent socialism in the U.S. In March 2019, Trump’s economic advisers released the “Economic Report of the President”. The sections on the trade war against China and on the increase of mechanisation were interesting but limited. Much discussion could have taken place around these topics. But these were met with silence. Everyone focussed on Chapter Eight—Markets Versus Socialism.

It seemed anachronistic. Why would the U.S. government need to make the case against socialism in 2019? In the 2018 U.S. House of Representatives election, the Democrats defeated the Republicans. Amongst their ranks were not only liberals but also socialists. This was the first time in several generations that open socialists had won office to the U.S. Congress. At the same time, one of the key candidates for the U.S. presidency is Bernie Sanders, another socialist. Bernie, as he is known, has galvanised millions of people in the U.S. towards his agenda of public education and public health care, key planks of a social democratic programme. Polls at the start of 2019 showed that 40 per cent of the people in the U.S. favoured socialism, and the Democratic Socialists of America saw their ranks increase to 60,000 members. Socialism has made a comeback in the U.S.

But socialism has polarised the electorate. Amongst Republicans, 84 per cent have a negative view of socialism. Trump’s animosity to the Bolivarian government in Venezuela has to do with their socialist policies. He has railed against the Bolivarian government and the Cuban Revolution, vowing to bring them down in the name of his war against socialism. It has a dynamic effect on his base, the core of his voters that need to stand firm in this permanent election cycle.

Socialism as camouflage

Standing against socialism does impact Trump’s base. But this is not enough. Trump has cleverly made “socialism” a code word for advancement of women and racial minorities. To attack socialism is to attack the entry of women and non-whites into positions of power. That is why Trump has been so vicious against four members of the U.S. Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Two of these women (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar) are open about their socialism. All four women are non-white, two are Muslim, one was a refugee, and one is Palestinian. Their bodies condense all that Trump wants to attack—socialists, refugees, women, Palestinians, racial minorities. He goes after them for their socialism but is, in fact, going after them for all these other parts of themselves.

In mid July, Trump assaulted these four women, who are known as the Squad, on Twitter. Two tweets in particular sharpened his attack. One tweet said that these women are “anti-Israel, pro Al-Qaeda”, and that these “Radical Left Democrats want Open Borders, which means drugs, crime, human trafficking, and much more”. The other tweet said: “We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!” At one of his rallies, a chant broke out, “Send her back”, referring in particular to Ilhan Omar, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia. The other three women were born in the U.S. Trump fed the racist idea that non-white people were foreigners, a xenophobic attitude with deep roots in U.S. history.

These four women have set the terms for bravery. Ilhan Omar continued to call for Trump’s impeachment while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that Trump was “angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us”. None of these women had been in the U.S. Congress before. They are a product of the anti-Trump sentiment and they embody the deep resistance to Trump. In August 2016, Trump came to Detroit to campaign. Rashida Tlaib, who provided free legal support for women at the Sugar Law Center, interrupted Trump’s speech. As she was led out by the police, Trump called her an “animal” and told her to “get a job”. She did. She won a seat to the U.S. Congress.

The trouble of running for President

The two social democratic standard-bearers for the U.S. presidency are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both are Senators and both argue for public education and public health. They have come under fire from the establishment for their proposals for a public health system. The Washington Post, for instance, wrote an editorial that said policies must be “grounded in mathematical and political reality”. A marginal candidate for the Democratic ticket, John Delaney, challenged Elizabeth Warren and Sanders during the omnibus debates. Neither Elizabeth Warren nor Sanders attacked each other. They have decided to stand firm against the attack on social democracy. Elizabeth Warren’s answer to Delaney was firm. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the Squad, seem to understand that politics is not about reaching for the middle but about strengthening the base and allowing the base of support to go out and drive an agenda. That was Trump’s method, and it worked. It might work again. Particularly if the Democratic Party’s establishment flinches from Trump’s attack on socialism and if it takes cover in a “moderate” programme. Democracy in these times has no room for moderate agendas or nuance. The atmosphere of politics feeds off a sense that too much is at stake for incremental policies. Bold ideas are needed. Trump understands that. So do Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and the Squad. For both sides, socialism defines the debate.

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