Donald Trump and Joe Biden Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Photos: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0, licence linked at bottom of article

Ahead of the US elections, John Clarke considers the balance of forces, the dangers of a second Trump term and the intensifying crisis whatever the outcome

Recalling his stay in New York City, in 1917, Leon Trotsky referred to that great financial centre of the US as ‘the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.’ The global importance of economic developments and political struggles in the United States is even greater today than when Trotsky was writing. The country is edging towards a presidential election, torn by a series of deep and interrelated crises and beset by sharp and intensifying social conflicts.

As Donald Trump seeks a second term in office it is worth noting that his presidency has been extraordinary from the outset and very much a sign of the times.  He isn’t one of the career politicians that normally find their way into the White House. He ran for office expressing the most reactionary perspectives and by cultivating a base of support among disgruntled sections of the population captivated by the right wing populism he advanced. That base-building has also involved a readiness to endorse and embolden openly fascist and overtly racist elements.

In power, tensions and discord notwithstanding, Trump has been able to avoid ruinous open rifts with elected Republican politicians. Predictably, he has pursued a harshly xenophobic and deeply reactionary course, though it has not been without twists and turns, as changing priorities and internal conflicts inside the White House have left their mark. Trump has implemented brutal tax cuts for the rich, while attacking social supports for the poor, and gutted regulations that protected consumers and the environment. He has embraced climate denial and pulled the US out of the Paris accord. His ‘America first’ anti-globalism has led to tensions with other G7 powers and he even threatened to pull out of Nato at one point.

Trump’s anti-immigrant direction has been shocking. His wall along the Mexican border may not have come to pass but the frenzy of hatred he has whipped up in the process has been enormously serious. His immigration raids and detentions haven’t, in fact, represented a fundamental break with what came before him but he has gone about things in such a way as to wilfully fan the flames of racism to an unprecedented degree.

‘Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,’ Trump declared shortly after capturing the Republican nomination. Predictably, this has involved a brutal effort to advance the dominant and exploitative role of the US on a global scale. A critic of the invasion of Iraq, Trump’s arrival on the scene was seen as a defeat for the ‘neocons’ within the Republican Party. Yet, he has drawn on the services of this layer in his attacks on Iran, Venezuela and Bolivia. The infamous war criminal, Elliot Abrams, was appointed as Iran envoy just last month. Trump has also, of course, supported without reservation, the unrestrained drive to complete the Zionist colonial project and to subdue Palestinian resistance to it.

Trump and the pandemic

The Trump presidency has been deeply impacted by the onset of the global pandemic and the deep economic crisis that it has intensified. As the grim milestone of 200,000 Covid-19 deaths is reached in the US, the failure of the Trump Administration to act decisively to prevent this tragedy is irrefutable. Behind Trump’s bluster and empty promises of a vaccine, lies the stark truth that he represents the interests of the most greedy and reckless sections of the capitalist class and that he is ready to let people die in order to protect the flow of profits. As winter approaches, the toll of this ‘business as usual’ strategy will become even more deadly. The harsh truth, moreover, it has utterly failed on its own terms, as the economic recovery Trump promised has stalled and the hardship of the downturn intensifies.

The elements of the crisis in the US, however, are not limited to Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and the downturn in the economy. His administration and the entire US establishment have been thrown into crisis by the upsurge of social resistance that was set in motion by the racist police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The scale and intensity of the Black Lives Matter resurgence and the mobilisation against police brutality has been astounding. Its demands for the defunding and abolition of the police and the determined struggle taken up in the face of state repression have been far more than those in power bargained for.

This upsurge has deepened the dangerously reactionary nature of the Trump presidency.  It has also galvanised the most vicious elements of his base of support and set its stamp on the electoral race that is unfolding. Trump has always been ready to support and embolden fascists and racists. His infamous reference to ‘some very fine people on both sides,’ in response the white supremacist mobilisation in Charlottesville, in 2017, made that abundantly clear. However, those comments seem measured and restrained by comparison to his recent interventions. 

Quite remarkably, Trump has taken a position of open support for the fascist street army that, with the support of the police, has unleashed deadly violence on those challenging police racism in US cities. When far right vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, gunned down two protesters in Kenosha, Trump asserted of the killer that, “He was trying to get away from them, I guess … and he fell. And then they very violently attacked him.” When, on the other hand, the police carried out the veritable extra-judicial execution of anti-fascist, Michael Forest Reinoehl, Trump declared, “This guy was a violent criminal, and the US Marshals killed him. And I will tell you something—that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.”

As the November election draws closer, Trump makes it clear that he will win or lose on the basis of a clear cut appeal to racist sentiment. He has declared a counter attack on the mythical ‘left wing indoctrination’ of school students in the US, that he claims has fuelled the protest movement. He insists that ‘the left is attempting to divide Americans by race in the service of political power’ and that this ‘toxic propaganda’, if not defeated, ‘will destroy our country.’ To leave no doubt as to the base he is consolidating, he told supporters last week that, “You have good genes, you know that, right? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”

Neoliberal mainstream

It is clear that the election will be decided on the basis of support or opposition for the politics of Donald Trump. If the Democratic alternative, Joe Biden, wins, it won’t be because of any great enthusiasm for his candidacy. The Democratic establishment ensured that Biden would be the contender because they want to represent the neoliberal mainstream and would rather lose to Trump than see their party express the politics of Bernie Sanders. With ‘career prosecutor,’ Kamala Harris, as Vice-Presidential running mate, there can be no doubt that the Democrats have fielded a team dedicated to the good stewardship of US capitalism and its global empire.

While Biden is certainly not the harbinger of radical change that Trump suggests, it would be absurd to suggest that the electoral outcome is irrelevant. There is no doubt that Trump represents some enormously dangerous directions at a time of deep economic, social and political crisis. A second term would intensify his reactionary policy directions, take a far more authoritarian course than up until now, embolden the right wing street army and seek to crush movements of social resistance.

In recognising the threat posed by Trump, however, it would be wrong to disregard the dangers of a Biden presidency.  Hopes that Biden would be influenced by a left grouping within the Democratic Party, as was recently suggested by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are wishful thinking. Biden is actually favoured by the dominant section of the capitalist class and political establishment, who view Trump as too erratic and volatile. We may be sure that a Biden Administration in the White House would seek to impose the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of working class people. We can be equally confident that it would continue the drive to endless war abroad and do whatever was necessary to contain social resistance and the struggle for racial justice domestically. The calculation in high places is that this would all be done more effectively under Biden.

As the election draws nearer, the crisis conditions shaping US political life will not abate. The pandemic will be taking an even more dreadful toll. The economic crisis and the hardship it has caused will intensify. Trump’s provocative political manoeuvres will be taken to ever more extreme levels. The Trump base and his far right street army of admirers will pose even more of a threat. We may also expect that the Black Lives Matter protests and other forms of social resistance will intensify in response to escalating attacks and worsening conditions.

The electoral result, on November 3, will be highly significant but neither outcome will mean that the  intensifying crisis will abate. Polls suggest a Biden victory is more likely than not but, in these volatile times, firm predictions are impossible. It has been suggested that Trump may not be ready to concede if he loses. It’s unlikely that he would be in a position to defy a decisive result but he could certainly deepen the social conflict simply by being an ungracious loser. It’s not hard to imagine his political base responding on the streets to allegations of fake election results. Tellingly, his supporters have actually tried to disrupt early voting.

In the end, however, it’s necessary to recognise that the US presidential election is really a matter of deciding who will be in charge of imposing the burden of the crisis on working class people. A Trump win poses very real dangers and a Biden victory, while it means a more measured approach, leads in the same direction. Worsening conditions of economic hardship and the deeply racist brutality of US institutions, particularly the police forces, have produced a wave of social resistance that has cast its shadow over the political life of the country. After November 3, that movement will confront different challenges, based on the electoral result but, in either case, the need for growing working class resistance will be utterly vital. Based on the power and resilience of the struggle in recent months, there is every reason to look forward with optimism.

American Carnage: US elections, the crisis and the left – Tuesday 6 September, 6:30pm BST

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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.