Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. Source: Gage Skidmore - Wikipedia / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 3.0

Trump’s trials show a faltering establishment barely able to hold back reactionary forces, but the real answer lies in mass mobilisation for a socialist alternative, argues John Clarke

Writing at a time of great international crisis that was marked by the rise of the far right, Antonio Gramsci famously observed that the ‘crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

Without doubt, Donald Trump qualifies as an outstandingly morbid symptom. He both personifies and inspires an ugly mood of reactionary rage that this volatile period has unleashed and he stands at the centre of an unprecedented political disturbance that speaks to the growing instability of the institutions of government in the United States.

Conspiracy charges

The New York Times expresses very well the shock and horror that US liberalism feels in the face of Trump’s attacks on the system of political representation. Its analysis of the decisive third indictment facing the former president provides a clear outline of the charges and points to deeper issues that underlie the prosecution.

An article in the Times, on 1 August, dramatically asserts that in ‘the long annals of the republic, the White House has seen its share of perfidy and scandal … But not since the framers emerged from Independence Hall on that clear, cool day in Philadelphia 236 years ago has any president who was voted out of office been accused of plotting to hold onto power in an elaborate scheme of deception and intimidation that would lead to violence in the halls of Congress.’

The article argues that previous charges laid against Trump on ‘hush money’ and classified documents are serious but that the third indictment ‘gets to the heart of the matter, the issue that will define the future of American democracy.’ With regard to Trump’s efforts to spread false allegations of election rigging, it poses a valid question that has yet to be resolved. ‘Can a sitting president spread lies about an election and try to employ the authority of the government to overturn the will of the voters without consequence?’

Jack Smith, the special counsel who brought the case, suggests that Trump knowingly spread false allegations to ‘create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger and erode public faith in the administration of the election.’ The Times characterises Smith’s case as one that charges ‘Mr. Trump with one of the most sensational frauds in the history of the United States, one “fueled by lies” and animated by the basest of motives, the thirst for power.’

In legal terms, the ‘question is whether the facts add up to crimes as alleged by a federal grand jury at Mr. Smith’s behest.’ This is far from a clear cut matter since ‘no president ever tried to reverse his defeat at the ballot box before, no prosecutor has brought charges for doing so, meaning there is no precedent for applying the statutes on the books to such a circumstance.’

The facts of the case aren’t in dispute, precisely because Trump ‘was astonishingly open at the time in declaring that he wanted to overturn the election. Since leaving office, he has even called for the “termination” of the Constitution to reinstall him in the White House immediately.’

Trump will doubtless argue that he pursued his legitimate options in challenging election results, but a serious case against him has been set in motion, involving four charges to which he and six co-accused must answer. There is one count of seeking to defraud the United States by overturning the election result, two counts of seeking to obstruct voter certification and one count of conspiracy to violate civil rights by overturning legitimate election results.

Even as the third indictment against Trump plays out, a fourth criminal case against him, this one in the state of Georgia, is about to come to a head. ‘Nearly 20 people are known to have been told that they could face charges as a result of the investigation’ and Fani T. Willis, a district attorney in Georgia, ‘has signalled that she would seek indictments from a grand jury in the first half of August.’

This case will involve various allegations, including Trump’s efforts ‘to pressure local officials’ that even involved a direct appeal to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, ‘to “find” nearly 12,000 votes, or enough to reverse his loss.’ If Trump were to win the next presidential election, he would have the power to pardon himself on the federal charges, but no such option would be open to him if he were convicted at the state level in Georgia.

Though the legal net is being drawn around Trump, he is very far from defenceless and has by no means been pushed to the political margins. About 40-45% of Republican voters can be regarded as core Trump supporters and, in early August, support for his bid for the party’s presidential nomination stood at 53%, with his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, trailing at a mere 16%.

If Trump seems virtually invincible in terms of Republican support, he is also no outsider when it comes to an electoral contest with Joe Biden. A New York Times poll that was released at the beginning of this month found the two rivals had equal support among general voters, standing at 43%. An examination of the opinions of undecided voters suggests an advantage for Biden, but he can only be viewed as a ‘modest favourite’, at best. ‘Anybody who assumes that the 2024 outcome is sure to repeat the 2020 outcome — even in a rematch campaign — is making a mistake.’

Crisis of legitimacy

There is no question that, during his term of office, Trump was seen as an erratic and dangerous figure by the bulk of the US establishment. However, his efforts to retain the presidency in the face of an unfavourable electoral outcome, including his role in the Capitol Riot, of 6 January, 2021, won him some bitter enemies in high places, as the string of charges against him shows.

Trump’s efforts to stay in power challenged the system of representative government that those who originally drafted the US constitution had in mind and that has served US capitalism well. ‘The framers considered the peaceful transfer of power fundamental to the new form of government they were devising’ and Trump, to say the least, certainly didn’t go gracefully.

When Biden took office, his presidency was very deliberately promoted as a restoration. The trappings of social consensus within the US were to be restored and US imperialism’s dominant position would again be presented in terms of responsible and ‘democratic’ global leadership. Yet another election now looms, with US hegemony continuing to weaken and a global cost-of-living crisis in full swing. The promises of Build Back Better have lost their glow and Biden’s ‘enthusiasm problem’, even with Democratic voters, is notorious.

The situation where a former president and likely presidential candidate faces a high placed effort to convict him as a criminal conspirator who sought to overturn the results of an election is certainly extraordinary and fraught with implications for the US system of government. However, it is striking that the fundamental factors driving this situation aren’t unique to the United States. In a range of countries, we see volatile social and economic conditions producing a deeply reactionary mood within the base of support for mainstream conservative parties that is pushing them to the right. Right-wing populist figures are often replacing the more moderate and sedate elements within the leadership of those parties.

Figures like Trump reflect an impatience with the limitations of liberal democracy and a desire to move towards more authoritarian forms of rule. The sharp lines they draw and the dangerous social forces they bring around them create a great deal of nervousness in the corridors of power. The dominant business interests and most of their political representatives aren’t ready at this stage to support such political directions and the attempt to neutralise Trump is entirely serious.

At the same time, however, the space for relative social compromise continues to shrink. The political centre holds off the right with increasing difficulty, suffering a crisis of legitimacy and able to present itself only as a lesser evil. By definition, the capacity of a discredited political mainstream to pose any convincing alternative to the hateful ‘solutions’ coming from the right is severely limited.

The indictments being hurled at Trump are hugely significant and they take the whole US system of government into uncharted waters. At the same time, Trump is not some inexplicable ogre that came from nowhere and he must indeed be understood as a ‘morbid symptom’ of a much deeper problem.

The conditions of social volatility and political instability that have produced Donald Trump can’t be solved by grand juries, district attorneys, or more ‘moderate’ capitalist politicians. The very real threat that comes from the right must be met by working-class mobilisation and powerful movements of social resistance that pose a real alternative.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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