Donald Trump in Arizona, February 2020. Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore Donald Trump in Arizona, February 2020. Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Lindsey German on Trump’s departure as POTUS and the reality of Starmer’s Labour party

So Trump is going – and good riddance. He has used his four years in office to fan the flames of racism, to promote far right ideas and organisations, to persecute migrants and Muslims, and to attack everyone who could be broadly described as on the left in the most vicious ways. He has heaped praise on Netanyahu and bin Salman while attacking democratically elected governments in Latin America. His foreign policy has included scuppering the Iran nuclear deal and endorsing illegal settlements and annexation in the West Bank and withdrawing from international agreements including on climate change. His defeat is also a defeat for the far right internationally and for Trump’s mini-me in Britain, Boris Johnson.

However, the facts of the election and where it leaves the left make for some sobering thought about the alternative. Because the election of Joe Biden is hardly a victory for the left. And while he won with the highest record number of votes ever, Trump also received the second highest number ever. The election reflects the defeat of Trump in narrow terms, but it would be foolish to believe that his influence and ideas will just disappear. The results demonstrate how polarised and divided US society is, and this polarisation will not be resolved by Biden.

The narrowness of the election victory, plus the near certainty of a Republican majority Senate, means that he will have to do all sorts of deals with the Republicans, will have an excuse not to appoint ministers on the left of the party, will not be able to alter the composition of the Supreme Court, and will avoid delivering policies such as raising the minimum wage.  The left of the Democrats will have little leverage with Biden who will tilt towards compromise with the Republicans. 

Four years of the kinds of policy we can expect from Biden may well open the door to another right-wing populist – and one who is less erratic and more focussed than Trump. The danger of the Democrats’ election campaign was precisely this. Left alternatives were strenuously rejected, Bernie Sanders – who supported the sorts of policy which could have attracted working class voters who went to Trump rather than Clinton in 2016 – was dumped as candidate, even though he was winning much support in the primaries, in favour of the establishment figure of former vice president Biden.

Biden was promoted as the ‘not Trump’ candidate and this was the supposed basis of his appeal. We were told that he had united the Democrats and that he was on course to win a big majority. That didn’t happen. While he has done enough to win back some states that Clinton lost, especially in the old now deindustrialised areas such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the votes have often been extremely close, and he failed to match polling expectations.

This is now being blamed on the left of the party, with the accusation from senior Democrats that is was association with socialism that cost them votes. An alternative way of looking at this is that Biden was handed a situation with an increasingly unpopular president, whose handling of the coronavirus crisis brought him widespread criticism but could not land the blows on Trump that he should have. There was little in Biden’s campaign, from his moderate policies, to his pedestrian delivery, to the dull drive-in rallies that he held, to inspire people to vote for him – other than not being Trump. And a negative appeal will only carry so far.

Trump meanwhile understood how to mobilise his base and set out to do so. Luckily he was not successful, but he had much greater success than was predicted. Sanders would have been more effective in puncturing that base and in attracting some of those who still voted for Trump.

Biden was supported by the neocons who brought us wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and by very large parts of the US and international establishment. They choose to ignore the damage that neoliberalism has wreaked on working class communities and denounce those who criticise them from left or right as ‘populists’. They will all hope that this Biden victory will take things back to ‘politics as normal’ (a view echoed with support for Keir Starmer here). But it is their policies which have been rejected by so many, and Trump’s continuing support is one dangerous echo of this.

In the traditional working-class areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania there are still far too many who look to Trump. They have seen their industry and jobs disappear, huge increases in poverty, low wages, opiate addiction, and costly health care. It is too common to write these people off as racist, stupid or ignorant, certainly among the liberals and some on the left. Some undoubtedly are, but many will not be. They have been shafted by neoliberal policies and they are rightly angry.

The key is here for socialists is trying to organise to turn this sentiment against the class enemy, not fellow working people of a different colour. That means building on the important strikes of recent years, and movements such as Black Lives Matter, but also rejecting the idea of culture wars, of people living in different ‘ecosystems’ as one commentator put it. It also means rejecting insulting epithets like ‘gammons’ or ‘Karens’ and beginning to organise around the issues that matter to working people.

This isn’t going to be easy in the US, where Trump’s presidency has given the far right a big boost. There is still the danger of a right-wing backlash on the streets over his defeat, although I suspect this will be limited. But we should build on that defeat by directly taking on the racist and fascist ideas and confronting the right where they appear. Undercutting them in the longer term however will require no reliance on Biden, or the Democrat establishment, but the building of movements and organisations which can help to channel the discontents that are so evident in US society into a confrontation with the system.

We have marched and protested against Trump in this country – an important act of opposition and solidarity with those in the US. The US left needs all our solidarity now in its task of building opposition from below.

Stay in and flight?

Jeremy Corbyn is still suspended from the Labour Party. The man who was leader less than a year ago, who has been a party member for over half a century, has been treated in the most appalling way simply for defending himself against charges which he rightly said have been exaggerated by his political enemies. Perhaps the low point of the week has been the response of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs – which eventually issued a very moderately worded letter in Jeremy’s support, but which a considerable number of its members refused to sign.

Many of these people have been helped by Corbyn and have used left credentials such as anti-war campaigning to bolster their position. But they cannot even stand up to be counted. MPs are in a very privileged position. They earn several times the average wage, are paid all sorts of extra expenses including housing subsidy and are protected from the everyday grind of work facing most of their constituents. Those on the left pay lip service to being the voice of activists and the exploited and oppressed but have failed in this most basic act of solidarity.

There are likely three or four years before an election, which means these MPs have a great deal of room to manoeuvre. Keir Starmer is not in a position to suspend them all. They should demand Corbyn’s reinstatement and if necessary resign the Labour whip and sit as an independent socialist group. This would put Starmer under real pressure and would keep left ideas and policies alive in Labour.

The alternative we are seeing is not good. There is a lot of talk about staying and fighting but very little sign of any fight. When you are faced with a witch hunt, the only way to respond is to stand up to it. If you don’t the witch hunters come for more. This is what we are now seeing with the accusations of antisemitism against Roger Mackenzie, the black anti-racist who is standing as Unison general secretary.

So the left in and outside Labour need to mobilise on this. The attacks on Corbyn from Starmer are driven by Labour’s right. They will only stop if we fight against them.   

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.