Max Elbaum

Left Strategy After Charlottesville, by Max Elbaum

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We need consistent and deep strategic dialogue among left organizers if we are going to forge a path to power through these dangerious times.     To meet that need, Organizing Upgrade will be re-launching with regular pieces in late September.  Keep an eye out!

“Everything we are seeing stems almost inevitably from the decisions the country made, collectively, last November. We elected a president driven by white racial grievance. That is the fulcrum and driving force of his politics. It’s no surprise that a big outbreak of white supremacist violence would lead us to a moment like this. We also elected a president who is an abuser and a predator…As things get worse, as more people turn against him, Trump gets more wild and unbridled…”

– Josh Marshall, The Bomb Bursts: It Will Keep Happening, Talking Points Memo

The white supremacist violence In Charlottesville – and Trump’s embrace of the ‘very fine people’ who marched and murdered under Confederate and Nazi banners – did more than sharpen the intense polarization already underlying U.S. politics.

It spotlighted the dangerous role white nationalism plays in galvanizing Trump’s racially anxious white social base while energizing the anti-racist and democratic-minded forces who have the potential to overcome it.

But realizing that potential is going to require the resistance – especially its radical wing – to up our game. This essay offers a strategic perspective toward that end. It is anchored in five key points:

1. The over-arching priority of the current period is to break the grip on power of Trump and the white nationalist bloc that is the driving force of the right’s overall anti-democratic and anti-working class agenda.

2. Direct action and street protest make up indispensable components of the resistance, crucial to keep focus and pressure on white nationalism and its conciliators. At least one show of force on the scale of the Women’s March this fall would be a stark reminder that the resistance will not leave it to intra-elite maneuvers to determine Trump’s fate and what comes after. Further, energy from direct mass action needs to be carried into the 2018 and 2020 elections, which will be the decisive battlefronts measuring and altering the relative strength of the contending forces and which provide the only avenues to actually remove the white nationalist right from power.

3. In order to bring together a sufficient bloc of social forces to defeat Trump and the GOP, and also to give progressives much-strengthened initiative if and when Trump is ousted, the left needs to engage the fight within the Democratic Party over message, candidates, allocation of resources and institutional clout. There is a key parallel here with the dynamic of the 2016 campaign. Almost all sectors of the left grew as the election polarized the country, but the ones that grew the most (DSA, Labor for Bernie) were those that plunged into Bernie Sanders’ campaign, not those who criticized it for being insufficiently radical or dismissed it because it fought on the terrain of the Democratic Party and ultimately supported voting for Clinton to defeat Trump..

4. The struggle for a working class program of economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice – and peace – within the Democratic Party and society in general will be conducted beyond the next two or three election cycles. We should have confidence that the kind of program advocated by by Bernie Sanders or Rev. William Barber can at some point gain majority support in the country and decisively shape the national agenda. But we also need to strategize based on hard-headed realism about how far we have to go in addressing the unevenness and fragmentation of the broad progressive movement and the still relatively marginalized anti-capitalist left.

5. Because of the character of the Trump regime and the weaknesses in race-class analysis and practice in the resistance movement, the issues moved front and center by Charlottesville – race, racism and the true history of integral role people of color have played in the very heart of the U.S. working class from 1620 to the present day – are likely to stand out as determinants of whether or not the resistance continues to mature. If Trump follows through on threats to end DACA, this will be even more the case.

In shorthand: this essay is an argument for the left to interact with the post-Charlottesville surge of resistance by pursuing a strategy that is anti-right, anti-racist, gender-inclusive, grounded in the interests of the working class and oriented toward working both inside and outside of the Democratic Party.

THE RESISTANCE HAS COME A LONG WAY

The resistance has come a long way since Trump’s gloating inauguration. The aggressive edge of the white nationalist bloc – the Nazis, Klan and their ilk – is now exposed and condemned almost across the board. Trump’s insistence that “both sides” were to blame in the Charlottesville confrontation between a Nazi/Klan contingent and those who protested it alienated major sections of the political class that had played footsie with him up to now.

With corporate leaders fleeing his show-piece councils, the top military brass issuing statements contradicting his views, and the president feuding with congressional leaders of his own party, Trump’s governing coalition is significantly narrower than it was in January. The section of the elite that was already trying to bring Trump down because they believe he is an unreliable steward of empire has also been strengthened. (Meanwhile their preferred reason for doing so – electoral collaboration with Russia – is at least for the moment eclipsed by his racism). Public opinion polls show Trump’s approval rating for the first time dipping below 38%.

Still, most of Trump’s core base is sticking with him. Republicans approve his post-Charlottesville remarks by more than a 3-1 margin and 87% oppose taking down Confederate monuments. Leading Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, as well as some sections of the left, have argued that Trump won the election largely by speaking to the economic concerns of working class whites, not because of racial resentment. Charlottesville should end that debate: clearly for Trump’s base the two are thoroughly interconnected.

Trump’s sub 38% approval rating is a dismal minority of the country but still constitutes a big majority of Republicans, so GOP electeds defy Trump at the peril of a primary challenge. GOP officials have increasingly taken their private “concerns” about Trump public, but not a single administration figure, GOP Congress member, state level elected official or even congressional staffer has yet resigned in protest. Their calculations are changing daily, but as of this writing GOP Congress members still see alignment with Trump as necessary to implement their shared agenda of crushing the labor movement, rolling back women’s and LGBTQ rights, stonewalling action against climate change, and transferring even more wealth into the pockets of the already rich.

Our side is the majority, and we also have the moral high ground. But favorable polling numbers and moral suasion are not enough. This fight will be decided by power. The right will not be effectively divided and forced into retreat until the open advocates of white supremacy, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and unrestrained patriarchy are demoralized by being out-numbered 100 to one every time they show their face. And it will take the energy in the streets translating into an anti-GOP, anti-Trump tsunami in the voting booths to break their grip on power.

Only when Trump and his allies no longer control both the legislative and executive branches of government at the federal level and in 25 states can the country’s majority move to a new and more favorable stage of class struggle.

DANGER OF UNDERESTIMATING TRUMP-GOP POWER

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, a post-Trump environment can be glimpsed for the first time since November 2016. But we won’t get there if the left underestimates the Trump-led GOP as many did in 2016.

Fear-mongering and war-making are longstanding tools of besieged presidents. In the wake of Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threats to wipe out millions of North Koreans and his eagerness to dump the Iran nuclear agreement, all complacency about what Trump might do on this front should be dispensed with immediately. Integrating anti-militarism into the heart and soul of the entire resistance remains a vital but challenging task. If a major terrorist attack happens within the U.S., or if Mueller’s investigation appears ready to indict members of Trump’s family or Trump himself, an unprecedented constitutional crisis or globe-threatening dose of military adventurism cannot be ruled out.

Even short of such scenarios, the president and his GOP enablers have numerous tools to frustrate majority will. The militarization of police and pattern of ultra-harsh charges coming down on protesters are weapons already being used to weaken the opposition. Executive branch actions that threaten the operations of key sectors of the anti-Trump coalition – the labor movement, Planned Parenthood – take a daily toll. The GOP’s commitment to voter suppression, gerrymandering, the racist skew built in to the electoral college and the possibility of widespread voter intimidation by right-wing goons combine to make it an uphill battle to end GOP control of the House and Senate in 2018 and the White House in 2020.

U.S. HISTORY AND TRUMP’S ASCENT TO THE WHITE HOUSE

U.S.-style racism came into being in the midst of struggles over land, property, power, and political rights in the 17th century. Slavery, along with the genocide of Native Americans, is accurately termed the country’s ‘original sin.’

Among the manifestations of this deeply rooted component of U.S. political economy is a recurring pattern: in response to movements that advance or threaten to advance the interests of people of color, especially African Americans – and because those movements also drive forward progress for all workers and democracy in general – there is a fierce backlash. That backlash involves building a cross-class white united front which advances the economic program of the most reactionary wing of ruling class; enlists all who can be mobilized to defend white power and privilege; and is aided by the passive allegiance of others who believe that they can advance their own narrow interests by connecting with this bloc.

At different times the mix of specific forces in that front – and the relative clout of each – has varied. But whenever that backlash bloc has held part or all of governing power (as after the rollback of Reconstruction) it has inflicted the most severe repression against people of color and, with racism as the wedge, restricted democratic rights and women’s rights and weakened the working class as a whole. Backlash coalitions have also been a center of gravity of militarism and imperial expansion.

The way that pattern has unfolded in the last five decades starting with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” has been written about widely. It built up steam through the 1970s and took a leap forward when it helped Reagan get elected and the “neo-liberal model” of privatization, de-regulation, tax “reform” favoring the very rich and a withering offensive against unions became entrenched.

But the last few years saw an unprecedented twist. The balance within the backlash bloc shifted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis; the resulting recession and sharp rise in economic inequality and anxiety; demographic changes, and the election of first Black president. Leadership was ripped from the GOP establishment and seized by a demagogue who rode birtherism, anti-immigrant hysteria and blatant Islamophobia to the nomination and then the Presidency.

Trump and his core supporters – those for whom the bottom line is ‘racial and imperial revenge’ – were now in the driver’s seat. The rest of the GOP, including the party establishment (with minor exceptions), fell in line behind the Trump/Bannon juggernaut.  Conservative intellectual Avik Roy explained why: “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism – philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republic Party is white nationalism.” And enough people who were not themselves motivated primarily by racism decided to give Trump’s racism a pass in hopes that other aspects of his program would change things for the better.

RIGHT WING GOAL: A RACIALIZED AUTHORITARIAN STATE

Because of the differences among the GOP legislators and tension between GOP Congress members and the president, the right is having a hard time getting what it wants through Congress. But while the media is focused on those failures and Trump’s Twitter outrages, an extremely dangerous agenda is being steadily implemented via executive branch actions, with a Gorsuch Supreme court expected to affirm each one.

This agenda aims to establish a racialized authoritarian state. Given the unpopularity of their actual economic program and the fact that demographic changes are not working in their favor, the right sees that kind of state as needed to implement their full program of fossil fuel-driven, no-limits ca

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