White House of horrors

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A protest against the new Supreme Court member. Pic: mobili/Flickr

Yet another book about the chaotic nature of Donald Trump’s administration, Fear by Bob Woodward, came this autumn. Lewis Nielsen looks at what it tells us about the opposition to the chaos.

It’s easy to get tired of the scandals emanating from the White House after two years of seemingly constant coverage of Trump breaking establishment norms. The hiring and firing of staff, links with the Russians, the late night tweeting — we have heard it all before. Nevertheless Bob Woodward’s book Fear is an interesting addition to the chorus of voices revealing the chaos of Trump.

Woodward, who did much to expose president Richard Nixon in the run up to the Watergate scandal, attempts a similar job on Trump. The portrait painted of the president is what you might expect — bigoted, brash, moronic. Yet it is the actions of government officials that gained the book most attention. There are stories not just of key White House figures denouncing Trump behind his back, but of them sabotaging his plans by removing policy papers from his desk before he can sign them, knowing he would forget.

These actions hint at a section of the US ruling class who are frustrated with Trump’s erratic nature. The narrative in Fear echoes the view of much of liberal America — that the real resistance to Trump is “unsung heroes in and around the White House,” as an anonymous official wrote in the New York Times. Yet it would be a mistake to view this layer as a genuine defence against Trump’s reactionary agenda.

The state officials, GOP grandees and advisers who are united against the president are more concerned with his style than with substance. They may complain about Trump in cowardly anonymous quotes in private, but in public they back him to the hilt. And it’s easy to see why. Trump is pushing through the right wing agenda they agree with — corporate tax cuts, cuts to environmental legislation and workers’ rights, attacks on migrant rights.

So what about the Democrats? Two years on, has the movement around Bernie Sanders been able to shift the party into posing a genuine threat to Trump?

The midterm elections failed to deliver the “blue wave” that had been promised — in the end it was barely a trickle. The election of figures such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez — a supporter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — to the House of Representatives illustrated there can be polarisation to the left as well.

But the dominant Democrat narrative of the midterms was that of arch establishment figure Nancy Pelosi, who used her victory speech to call for a “bipartisan marketplace of ideas that makes our democracy strong. We have all had enough with division.”

The last thing needed to resist Trump is bipartisanship. Immediately after the midterms Trump made clear he won’t back down, firing his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with whom he’s long been wrangling over the Russia investigation, picking a fight with CNN and reinforcing his attacks on the migrant caravan as an “invasion”.

The increasingly boisterous Trump rallies suggest he has brought a confident and aggressive Republican base to its feet. The more division with Trump, the better.

All this has led to an important discussion opening up on the socialist left in America about how to build the movement against Trump, and how socialists should relate to the Democrats. The DSA now claims a membership of 52,000 — an immensely positive development that represents one of the big shifts on the American left in decades.

Yet the ambiguity on the question of the Democrats means that for the most part, the DSA is focused on trying to pull one of the two big parties of US capitalism to the left. So in a recent article Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, can write that he is “sceptical” about transforming the party but at the same time argue to focus on running candidates within the Democrats and setting up a socialist caucus by 2023.

But a focus on electoral politics, especially within the Democrats, will limit and blunt the real potential to stop his reactionary agenda. Solidarity with the migrant caravan, resisting deportations, opposing the alt-right, building on the recent teachers’ strikes and opposing the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh point to a path that builds a genuine movement against Trumpism in the US.

If we are to move beyond the narrative that White House officials or the Democrat establishment are the only way to stop Trump, the crucial question is whether these movements can be strengthened. The central focus should be on building these movements and fighting for stronger socialist organisation within them.