Win or lose, Donald Trump has upended the politics of the United States. Liberal opinion worldwide dismissed his victory in November 2016 as an act of theft, made possible thanks to Russian meddling.
The 2020 presidential election offered a perfect opportunity to correct this anomaly. For weeks the mainstream neoliberal establishment—what Tariq Ali called the “extreme centre” —was confidently predicting a “blowout” victory for their candidate, the lacklustre Democratic machine politician Joe Biden. The Democrats even hoped to wrest control of the Senate from the Republicans and end the packing of federal courts with right-wing judges.
But in a few hours on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning these hopes evaporated. Trump’s strategy of relentlessly polarising the electorate on the basis of race, jobs, and law and order allowed him to consolidate and even to widen his popular base. He won enough support among Latinos to stop Biden taking Florida or Texas.
This may not be enough to keep Trump in the White House. But the Republicans have reduced the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, in all likelihood hung onto the Senate, and strengthened their hold on state legislatures and governorships. The liberal Democrat economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman lamented:
“What a terrible election … will Biden be able to govern? … He’ll probably face a Republican Senate, which also means a rigged Supreme Court; and everything we know says that they’ll be ruthless about sabotaging everything he does … America will look more and more like a failed state.”
And Trump has transformed the Republicans. The New York Times acknowledged grudgingly: “If he is forced to vacate the White House on Jan. 20, Mr. Trump is likely to prove more resilient than expected and almost surely will remain a powerful and disruptive force in American life. He received at least 68 million votes, or five million more than he did in 2016, and commanded about 48 percent of the popular vote, meaning he retained the support of nearly half of the public despite four years of scandal, setbacks, impeachment, and the brutal coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 233,000 Americans”.
Edward Luce of the Financial Times writes: “The Republican party is Trumpian for the foreseeable future. ‘We are a working class party now. That’s the future,’ tweeted Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator who has 2024 presidential aspirations.”
Of course it’s nonsense that the Republicans are “a working class party”. Trump’s protectionism and polarising rhetoric may have alienated the big banks and transnational corporations who have profited from neoliberal globalisation. But his class base is what the Marxist historian Mike Davis memorably calls the “lumpen billionaires”—superrich outsiders like him—and the propertied classes of small-town America.
Trump has exploited his celebrity and outsider status to play on the discontent of mainly white Americans who believe they have lost out in the neoliberal era. This worked again on Tuesday. Exit polls show that the biggest issue for voters was the economy and not, as the Democrats hoped, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biden was, like Hillary Clinton in 2016, the continuity candidate. The Democrats remain locked into the strategy that she and Bill Clinton devised in the 1990s and that Barack Obama continued of being efficient but supposedly more humane managers of neoliberal capitalism. Bernie Sanders’ left-wing challenge was crushed.
The 2020 presidential election, like the twin shocks of 2016—the Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory—is further evidence that the neoliberal ideological and political hegemony forged by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s is cracking apart. It was strong enough to contain discontent during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-9 and its immediate aftermath.
But the price ordinary people paid then in lost jobs and homes, falling incomes, reduced public services has created an enormous well of anger. The successes of Trump and the Republicans, as well as Boris Johnson’s pursuit of Brexit, have pushed the political system out of alignment with the interests of big capital.
This is what Krugman really means when he fears the US becoming a “failed state”—though this can be exaggerated. Under either Biden or Trump US imperialism will continue to resist China’s rise and flex its military and financial muscle globally.
Unfortunately so far, this crisis of hegemony has mainly benefited the far right. But there are of course lessons for the radical left as well. In Britain, the Labour Party since Keir Starmer has moved sharply back to the extreme centre—back, that is, towards the politics of New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Jeremy Corbyn’s outrageous suspension symbolises this shift.
But the Biden candidacy represents the Custer’s Last Stand of this politics. Even if he makes it to the Oval Office it will be a hollow victory. We’ll have to see how this plays out within the Democratic Party, when the “Squad” of left-wing Congresswomen headed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were re-elected. Luce warns: “A Biden presidency risks being caught between two irreconcilable forces — a stubbornly entrenched Trumpian right and an embittered Democratic left.”
Starmer is incapable of learning from this setback. But the Labour left face a dilemma. The treatment of Corbyn—and the threat of disciplinary action that hangs over anyone who contests it—indicates that Labour Party socialists won’t be allowed the space to argue and agitate that they enjoyed even under Blair.
Do they accept being silenced in the name of “party unity” (really survival)? This would be a betrayal of the hundreds of thousands who joined Labour under Corbyn. Or do they take the path of defiance? This course means facing expulsion.
In the past the Labour left have been able to evade this kind of choice. The scale of mass opposition to the Iraq War offered them protection. They don’t have this now. They should be preparing to break with the bankrupt politics of the extreme centre that is being forcibly reimposed on Labour and form a new socialist party.
This party will have to learn the lessons not just of the Corbyn era but also of recent “new left” parties in Europe such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish state. These gave priority to winning elections and ended up implementing neoliberal policies.
Corbyn’s leadership made concession after concession to the Labour right in order to hold the party and achieve electoral victory. Similarly, the bulk of the US left lined up behind Biden’s hollow candidacy in the hope of beating Trump and what is now the hopeless task of getting reforms through a Congress where the Republicans remain entrenched.
A new socialist party would need to give priority to building struggles rather than winning elections. Only mass movements fighting to improve the material conditions of working people and to combat racism can hope to halt and reverse the advance of the far right. This is as true in the US as here in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Within this broader left we need a stronger organised revolutionary pole. The successes of the far right in the US and Britain have exposed the limits of reformist politics pursuing the will-o-the-wisp of electoral success to transform society.
We need to build the Socialist Workers Party and its counterparts elsewhere, which understand that only workers’ struggles from below can rid the world of capitalism and imperialism and all the oppressions they support. Joining the SWP is a vital first step in rebuilding the left.