Chaos reigns in Washington

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Images: Gage Skidmore via Flickr and WikiMedia via WXPR

As the White House lurches on in turmoil, Lewis Nielsen draws up a balance sheet of Donald Trump’s term so far, looking at the White House, Congress and movements on the streets.

The general consensus among commentators and politicos is that Trump’s first months in the White House were chaotic rather than decisive. The fact that at the time of writing, questions are seriously being asked as to whether Trump should face impeachment is an indication of this. But the rumours of underhand links and leaks to Russia are just the latest saga in a tumultuous first few months for the new president.

The array of promises made on the campaign trail remain, for the most part — thankfully — unfulfilled. At the time of writing, construction on the wall with Mexico has not started (although apparently a competition has opened to decide who will design it). The infamous Muslim ban has been stalled by the courts and mass protests. And for a candidate who was critical of US involvement in wars abroad, Trump has not held back from displays of military might, having already deployed missiles against Assad in Syria and dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in history on Afghanistan. This was all just in the first 100 days.

Since then the turmoil has continued, most notably with the sacking of FBI chief James Comey, the man responsible for leading the investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in Trump’s election campaign. This act confirmed Trump’s tendency for quickfire rash decisions, and caused an uproar, leading to days of backpedalling and fumbling statements.

So the disorder of the bigoted president’s first few months is there for all to see. What lies behind the chaos?

The media is obsessed with the personality clashes, mainly involving the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband (and Donald Trump’s adviser) Jared Kushner. But the tumultuous atmosphere in the White House stems from more profound divisions than personalities. The Trump administration is resting on an uneasy marriage of two rival camps.

The first camp hails from the traditional wing of liberal US capitalism, centred around Wall Street and what some refer to as the “deep state”, or the intelligence community. This collection of Goldman Sachs bankers, intelligence chiefs and state officials was horrified at Trump’s pre-election disdain for the pillars of US capitalism. His criticism of Nato, rants against trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and rumours of underhand collusion with Putin’s Russia are anathema to the American establishment.

This clique has done all it can to reel Trump in and ensure he doesn’t dismantle the scaffolding of American capitalism they have constructed over the past 70 years.

In competition with them are those who want to see Trump build on his election rhetoric, following a racist and nationalist line politically and a protectionist one economically. Heading this group is former Breitbart editor and current chief strategist at the White House, Steve Bannon, who has made many a speech denouncing the international order of liberal trade capitalism. Much of Trump’s base on the ground is ideologically aligned with this group, demonstrated by the Trump rally chants of “Build the wall” and the support for the Muslim ban.

The tension between these two rival camps has paralysed the White House, and has giving the first few months of the regime a chaotic air. Despite his egotistical posturing, Trump is uneasily caught between the two.

So Trump’s first budget was by no means “radical” even in his terms. It continued Republican orthodoxy by transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. His proposed tax reforms are utterly regressive. The wealthiest 0.1 percent of the population will get a tax cut equivalent to 14 percent of their income, while those with middle incomes will get a cut of 1.8 percent. He has also proposed huge cuts to taxes on corporations and scrapping the estate tax — 90 percent of which is paid by the richest 10 percent.

Trump has followed Republican presidents before him, most obviously Ronald Reagan, by shamelessly enhancing the fortunes of the rich. Yet this conflicts with Trump’s campaign promises to benefit the “ordinary American” instead of the establishment, and to bring back jobs and growth to the most deprived regions, such as the former rust belt states where his vote was decisive.

Toxic racism

In order to look like he was acting on some of his campaign promises, Trump pushed through a raft of executive orders that caused a stir. The immediate withdrawal from the TPP gained support from his base but angered large sections of big business. This was followed by toxic racism and authoritarianism, including attempts to push through the draconian Muslim ban and increasing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.

He also pandered to his Christian right supporters by attacking abortion rights and women’s services. He has enabled US states to deny funding to Planned Parenthood and other organisations that provide abortions; reinstated the “global gag rule”, which denies foreign aid to any such organisations abroad; and proposed cuts to services for victims of domestic violence.

In recent rallies Trump has reverted to his favourite themes, including promises to build the Mexico wall and to drain the “Washington swamp” he is now a part of.

So the administration appears to be an unstable mix of conflicting agendas within the right wing of the Republican Party, perhaps explaining why many of Trump’s decisions appear out of the blue and often suggest a change of course. We are likely to see many more such instances.

The question for socialists is whether the resistance to Trump can take advantage of this instability and use it to drive back against his reactionary agenda.

The Democrats have shown themselves to be completely incapable of leading effective resistance to Trump. The Democrat elite, led by its billionaire donors, seems to have learned no lessons from the catastrophe that was Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Perhaps it was to be expected that the Democrats would not give a lead to the mass protests that met Trump’s inauguration, but they have also been unable to provide an effective opposition in Congress — some achievement given Trump’s toxicity.

The airstrikes on Syria in April were met with praise from senior Democrat figures, with House Leader Chuck Schumer commending the attacks as the “right thing to do”.

Democrat capitulation was also illustrated when the Republicans were finally able to pass their American Health Care Act (AHCA) through the House of Representatives on 4 May. This act is designed to destroy even the modest gains of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare”, which was passed in 2010. The AHCA removes regulations on insurance companies that bar them from using pre-existing conditions as an excuse to deny coverage or charge outrageous prices.

Instead of proposing an alternative system that would improve Obamacare, or at least using the episode to start a debate about universal healthcare, some House Democrats were seen celebrating because they saw the vote as securing them wins in Republican seats in the 2018 mid-term elections. Their opportunism was breathtaking.

While the spinelessness of the Democrats will come as no surprise to the radical left, for supporters of the Bernie Sanders campaign important lessons are being learnt. Sanders’ campaign to win the Democrat nomination was the only good thing about last year’s election, inspiring millions in the US and around the world with his rails against Wall Street, his demands for a fairer economy and embrace of the term socialist. However, since Clinton’s defeat in November, Sanders has been struggling to provide an adequate lead to the huge numbers of mainly young people he energised.

Abortion rights

A good example of this is the recent furore when Sanders joined the campaign tour for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who has a fierce anti-choice record when it comes to abortion. In response to criticism from abortion rights groups Sanders replied, “If we’re going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need a Democrat control over the House and the Senate, and state government all over this nation.”

At a time when a misogynist in the White House is launching an assault on abortion rights, Sanders — whatever his own political strengths — showed his commitment is with the Democratic Party rather than the burgeoning women’s movement on the streets.

Sanders is of course head and shoulders above the Democrat elite who think a continuation of the kind of politics espoused by Clinton will be enough for victory in 2020, and it will be interesting to see his tour of the UK this month (even at £30 a ticket!). But ultimately his loyalty to a party controlled by corporate vested interests means he’s unable to provide a serious strategy for the millions of ordinary Americans inspired by his calls for real social change.

An interesting development has been the rise in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which since Trump came to power has seen its numbers almost triple to 20,000. The DSA effectively acts as a left wing pressure group in the Democratic Party, although its attitude to the party is not always clear — the DSA’s director recently said it doesn’t “work within the Democratic Party, but not totally outside it either”. Its main activity is endorsing left leaning candidates in Democrat elections in an attempt to pull the party to the left, but it also recognises the importance of struggles on the ground.

All of this brings us to the question of resistance to Trump. If there is one good thing to come from the Trump horror show, it’s this: it has Made America Protest Again. Hundreds of thousands joined the May Day “Day Without Immigrants” march to protest at the ICE raids, while on 30 April tens of thousands marched in Washington against climate change, joined by marches in 300 towns and cities across the country. These protests built on the millions who came out for the Women’s Marches in January.

The Muslim ban led to a wave of protests that shut down US airports and, however much the Democrats might praise the courts, were the real reason for the stalling of the ban. The movement for Sanctuary Campuses has been impressive, with students and staff at colleges across the US demanding that any deportations by ICE be resisted. These protests have all been greatly encouraging, exactly because their core message is to challenge the racism and Islamophobia at the heart of Trump’s populism.

There has been a small but significant trade union presence in these movements. The Day Without Immigrants march was supported by unions representing dockers, postal workers, electrical workers and nurses. The trade union fightback against Trump is a long way from where it needs to be, but nevertheless it gives the left something to build on when arguing for the need for class politics.

Trump is ruling with the arrogance and aggression you’d expect from a billionaire tycoon with his track record. And there is no doubt that this poses real dangers. His constant posturing towards North Korea brings back the spectre of nuclear war we thought we had left behind in the 1980s. His toxic racism has encouraged every bigot and Nazi, with “alt-right” thugs feeling confident and legitimised.

Unstable

Yet things are not going smoothly for him. His administration is unstable, with rival factions paralysing his ability to govern coherently. Whether he can deliver on his promises to improve the living standards of ordinary Americans depends on the rehabilitation of the US economy — by no means guaranteed, which is why Trump has already retreated on his wildly optimistic forecasts of 4 percent growth rates. Plus his economic protectionism could open up tariff and trade wars, the prospect of which makes big business twitchy.

Overall the picture is one of instability and chaos within his administration, combined with a potential growth of resistance from below. Since his inauguration, protests and campaigns have erupted against racism and sexism, in defence of healthcare, in the fight for $15 dollars an hour and more.

Crucially the question is whether these movements can coalesce with working class anger at economic inequality, and funnel it to the left, away from Trump’s authoritarianism and racism.

Cracks have opened in American capitalism and the US ruling class. Can these movements begin to shape the discussion about how to exploit those fissures? If they can, they offer a more worthy route out of the American nightmare than waiting for a Democrat victory in 2020.

Lewis Nielsen will be speaking at Marxism 2017. See marxismfestival.org.uk for more information