Joe Biden beating Donald Trump in the race for the White House shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, his opponent was an incompetent reality TV star presiding over a devastated economy and an uncontrolled pandemic. Just a few months earlier, the Commander in Chief had been forced to hide in a bunker in the face of the most massive protest movement in the country’s history. What is surprising is that the result was ever anything but a foregone conclusion.
Biden may have won a record 80.9 million popular votes (a 4.4% margin), but it was hardly the blowout many liberal pundits expected. Despite everything, Trump received over 74 million votes—the highest-ever total for an incumbent president or a Republican. There was no “blue wave” and no Democratic sweep of Congress. The Democrats actually lost seats in the House of Representatives, and it is not yet clear who will control the Senate. Trump may have been defeated personally, but Trumpism is alive and kicking.
How can we explain this? What does this mean for the future of the class struggle? As we will see, the essence and persistence of Trumpism—as expressed by the deep divisions within the American working class—can only be properly understood if we take a class perspective.
Wall Street’s candidate
With Trump on his way out of the White House, millions of people understandably feel as though a long and surreal nightmare has ended. But nearly as many millions of others feel as though the nightmare is just beginning. The emotional response on both sides of the electoral divide is driven by deep anxiety, fear, depression, illness, debt, unemployment, and desperation for real change. But capitalism cannot provide meaningful relief from these miseries because it cannot provide quality jobs, healthcare, education, safety, and dignity for all. The bitter truth is that in the long run, the systemic nightmare of capitalism is only going to get worse for the vast majority of workers, no matter who they voted for.
Biden’s program essentially boiled down to the following: “I am not Donald Trump, and I will take the country back to the ‘good old days’ under Obama.” But it was those very same “good old days” that laid the basis for Trump in the first place. Trump may be the most unpopular president in US history, but as a life-long establishment stalwart, Biden is also profoundly disliked. He came in 4th in the Iowa caucuses and 5th in the New Hampshire primaries. This is the real measure of just how popular he is with rank-and-file Democrats. Millions of people voted “against Trump” instead of “for” Biden.
A majority of the US ruling class despises Trump for being such an unpredictable and destabilizing factor. Pre-election polls of top CEOs and the trail of big money donations showed that Biden was clearly Wall Street’s candidate. The billionaires invested big in getting their man into the White House, with small donations accounting for less than a quarter of total contributions.
As a result, the 2020 presidential election was by far the most expensive in US history. An estimated $14 billion was spent—more than the previous two presidential elections combined—and Democrats outspent Republicans by nearly double. Despite this massive spending advantage, Biden barely squeaked by with the same Electoral College margin as Trump received in 2016. Nonetheless, in the days after the former Vice President was elected, the stock market soared to record levels despite the still-raging coronavirus, massive economic dislocation, and looming tsunami of evictions and homelessness.
Trump has “shattered the guardrails” of the presidency. Biden’s task is to relegitimize the institution and the system as a whole, on behalf of the ruling class. But he will preside over a deeply divided country and has inherited an unprecedented convergence of catastrophes.
Despite the record number of votes against him, Biden claims to have been given a mandate to establish a government of “reconciliation,” “healing,” and “national unity.” Even if this is a message millions of people want to hear, we must be clear that this is code for subordinating the workers’ interests to the interests of the capitalists. Such unity is impossible in a society divided into exploiters and exploited.
The new president may well implement short-term relief measures for the poor, the unemployed, and small businesses. But the main thrust of his policies will be to prop up Wall Street. One way or another, the working class will eventually be made to pay for the crisis of capitalism, either through direct or indirect austerity, inflationary pressures, or some other combination of attacks on wages and conditions.
So even if there are a few cosmetic adjustments that seem to lighten the chains a bit in the short-term, even bigger disappointments are in store for those with illusions that real change can come through the Democratic Party. If what followed Obama seemed unimaginable, the hangover from the School of the Democrats 2.0 will be even harsher. Unless and until capitalism’s structures, institutions, and parties are overthrown, things can always get worse—much worse.
The lack of a viable mass working-class political party is an objective factor that weighs heavily on the subjective outlook of the workers. As a result, society’s extreme polarization is refracted through the cracked prism of the two main capitalist parties.
After four very uncomfortable years, the liberals want a return to what they see as normalcy. With a few executive orders, they will try to paper over the Trump era as if it never happened. But Trumpism did happen, and it happened for a reason.
The fault lines fracturing the working class first began to crystallize in 2016, as evidenced by Clinton’s defeat in the rust belt. After eight years of failed “hope” and “change” and Bernie Sanders’s capitulation to the DNC establishment, many workers looking for radical solutions opted to give a brash and bold outsider a chance. The election of an anti-worker billionaire named Donald J. Trump was the result.
The blame for the confusion and division tearing apart the working class lies squarely with the labor leaders, whose guiding principle is “what is good for the boss is good for the worker.” But what is good for the bosses is not good for the workers—in fact, our interests are irreconcilable.
These people stand at the head of millions of organized workers across dozens of essential industries. Not only do they have the power to shut down the economy, but they also have the means to mobilize their members and resources behind an effort to build a new mass party on a new class basis. Instead, they collaborate, conciliate, and compromise with the bosses at the workplace and at the polls, which has led to a downward spiral of worsening real wages, conditions, and benefits. The absence of a fighting class-independent leadership has left a vacuum that Trump and his cronies have identified and filled, often using bold, pro-worker rhetoric.
As a result, the union leaders have started to lose control over the rank and file. Biden may have won 57% among union voters, with just 40% voting for Trump. But once upon a time, these were reliable Democratic voting blocs—it’s not so clear-cut anymore. Those in the service and public sector unions still tend to vote Democrat, while many in industrial unions, and not surprisingly, the police associations, overwhelmingly support Trump. Although he overstates the case, it’s not for nothing that Trump declared that the “Republicans have become the party of the American worker.”
Without a doubt, among his supporters are the scum of society: the unapologetic racists, white supremacists, Proud Boys, and so on. These elements are being whipped into a frenzy. They are “standing by” to be mobilized as an ideological and physical battering ram against the left and the workers at a certain stage. But it is not only the enraged petty bourgeoisie and declassed elements that support him. His base also includes millions of angry and desperate workers.
It is true that on the current political spectrum, these workers have shifted further to the right. But this is only because there are only right-wing political options available. Many of them support Trump for the same reason they supported Obama and the Democrats in the past—because there is no viable, class-independent alternative. It was only after the failure of the so-called left boot of capitalism that they decided to give the right boot a chance. More than a lurch to the right, it represents a frantic search for a way out of the impasse.
At root, their anger and frustration at the liberal elite is distorted class anger, which is being cynically manipulated by Trump and the Republicans. For most of his term, Trump was lucky when it came to the economy, and he claimed full credit for it. This gave him a lot of credibility among workers. Given his personal authority and the lack of trust in the liberal media, he succeeded in scapegoating China and the coronavirus for his economic woes.
For several decades, due to presidents like FDR and Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats were assumed to be the more “worker-friendly” party or the “lesser evil.” But after decades of failures and betrayals, millions of workers have shifted their political allegiance. The Democrats can no longer count on a layer of workers they could more or less take for granted in the past: a section of the unionized white working class, and above all, those in the rust belt and rural areas.
Although he is a bourgeois himself, Trump has successfully tapped into the raw anger at the status quo, and the Republican Party is now beholden to him because by harnessing that anger, he has given the party another lease on life. This explains their seemingly inexplicable fawning over his every ridiculous word and proclamation.
Trump’s emphasis on reopening the economy and getting people back to work no matter the risk resonated with millions of people living paycheck to paycheck and imbued with a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” work ethic. He skillfully painted the Democrats as a bunch of whiny liberals who could afford to wait out the pandemic in comfort—while everyone else is out there risking their lives, struggling to make ends meet.
When workers in distressed regions of the country hear a slogan like “Make America Great Again,” they don’t think of chauvinist nationalism and imperialism. They sincerely believe that Trump will bring back the quality jobs that allowed their parents and grandparents to have a relatively decent quality of life during the postwar boom. Of course, you can’t simply will the 1950s back into existence—many political and economic factors made that possible—and not everyone benefited.
It is true that Trump failed to deliver on his promise to rebuild the country and create hundreds of thousands of coal mining and manufacturing jobs. Nonetheless, his message resonates with workers in places where being a manager at Walmart or McDonald’s or joining the military is the best you can aspire to. There are regions in this country where entire cities and counties have been stamped into the mud by capitalist globalization and outsourcing, replaced only with the humiliation of mass unemployment and poverty—not to mention the opioid, obesity, and mental health epidemics.
At his mass rallies—which are reminiscent of Christian revivalist meetings—Trump unapologetically promises to rain hellfire and damnation on those who brought this upon them. It is a profoundly contradictory phenomenon because, although he is the sitting president, he can still portray himself as an outsider. And while attacking the status quo, he promises a return to a different kind of status quo—one in which white industrial workers were given a few more crumbs to get them to buy into the concept of partnership with the bosses.
When there is scarcity and competition over jobs, housing, and even basic human dignity, desperation leads to tunnel vision. This makes people receptive to the messianic message of someone like Trump. He promises them the world and whips them into a frenzy—with a hefty dose of fear-mongering, racism, and xenophobia added for good measure. Scapegoating and blaming other layers of the working class for the system’s many crises is a classic divide-and-rule tactic intended to divert attention from the class enemy.
Never mind that the lunatics have taken over the Republican Party asylum. People want something different, and this is most definitely not the same old same old. People are looking for answers, a way out of the impasse, and above all, a fighting leadership. Trump is a piece of human garbage and a mortal enemy of the working class. But he’s scrappy and defiant—and that’s a lot more than the union leaders or liberals can offer.
So if we’re going to explain and fight Trumpism, we must first understand it. We must start by exposing it for what it is: yet another cross-class alliance in which one sector of the ruling class leans on a sector of the working class to further its interests. We must separate the rational from the irrational in the Trump phenomenon. There is a lot that’s irrational—perhaps most of it. But buried deep inside that working-class discontent is a tiny kernel of potential Bolshevism—not ideologically, but in its fundamental class essence. This is the “dark matter” of Trumpism that so confounds the liberals.
As for the left in these elections, most of it caved to the pressure and stampeded to support the alleged “lesser evil,” either directly or indirectly. This only served to sow illusions in the Democrats as a potential vehicle for real change. However, the role of genuine socialists is not to give left cover to the capitalists’ oldest party but to help the working class overthrow and replace it.
The reformists accuse the Marxists of being “unrealistic”—when they are the ones who harbor the absurd illusion that capitalism can be meaningfully reformed and that its existing parties and institutions can somehow be made to serve another master. All those organizations and individuals who called for a vote for Biden in any way, shape, or form are complicit and must take responsibility for whatever comes during his administration.
The root of their cowardice is that they have no confidence in the working class and have no coherent ideology to guide them. Marxists, on the other hand, understand that the colossal power of the working class is ultimately on our side. We are armed with ideas and a method that allows us to cut through the fog and confusion while keeping our eye on the big picture and long-view of history at all times. This isn’t to say that our strategy will be easy to achieve. But at least it is based on a scientific analysis of how society and history move and how truly fundamental change can happen.
We must ask: how exactly does the left plan to “put Biden’s feet to the fire,” “hold him accountable,” and “push him to the left"? The Democrats are not an empty vessel that can be filled with a different class content through “pressure.” They are filled to the brim with capitalist content, and while they can change their outer form to give the impression of change, the core content remains.
Far from pushing the Democrats to the left, all self-declared socialists who have tried have been sucked ever further to the right. And the same will happen to every single self-declared socialist who tries to change that party from within. This is precisely what happened to Bernie Sanders, who has now lost credibility with millions.
Since being elected, Biden has made it crystal clear that he will rule from the “center”—which in capitalist terms means from the right. And under pressure from the extreme right, he will ultimately tack further in that direction. The intra-party assault on the words “socialism” and even “progressive” has already begun. Even milquetoast right-reformist defenders of capitalism like Sanders and Warren have been shunted aside. They are no longer in the running for cabinet positions as they are considered “too far to the left.” This is the thanks these people get for successfully playing Pied Piper in this year’s quadrennial “bait and switch.”
To be sure, millions of people have honest illusions that the police can be made “kinder and gentler” and that the so-called Green New Deal can stop the climate catastrophe. Their first instinct is to try to find a solution within the system through parties and leaders they are familiar with. This is a normal and natural part of the process of radicalization and developing class consciousness.
While engaging positively with those who have such illusions, the task of Marxists is to draw out the deeper issues and contradictions and explain that to end the systemic crisis, we need systemic change. And to achieve such far-reaching change, the working class needs to get organized politically to tackle the bosses’ parties head on.
The Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same capitalist coin. We reject the idea that they are polar opposites. The only polarization we encourage, applaud, and push for is class polarization.
As we’ve seen, millions of people voted “against” Trump, not “for” Biden. And for millions of others, a vote “for” Trump was really a vote “for” better jobs and wages, not necessarily “for” Trump and everything he represents. Tens of millions of others didn’t vote for either party or anyone at all. And roughly half of all Americans—including a significant majority among the youth—say they would vote for a socialist president or party. And let’s not forget that fully 10% of Americans hit the streets in the middle of a pandemic this past summer to protest the police murder of George Floyd. This was an extraordinary development full of revolutionary implications for the future.
This is the objective basis for a new majority party, a party of, by, and for the working class—a mass socialist party based on the unions. A genuine workers’ party and workers’ government, armed with policies that tackle society’s problems on a class basis, could win the support of millions who currently vote for the existing parties or don’t bother voting at all. Socialism in deeds—not liberalism masquerading as socialism—would slice across the ruling class’s divide-and-rule tactics. Out of sheer pragmatism, millions of ordinary Americans would eventually support policies that concretely benefit them and their families—whether they're labeled socialist or not.
The workers are the majority and will eventually be forced to take up building a political vehicle of their own. We cannot know the exact combination of forces, form, or timing such a party will take. But once sufficient numbers of workers embark on this course, it will surely be taken up with energy and determination. The Marxists will be right there with them, patiently arguing for consistently class-independent policies and structures.
In volatile times such as these, tremendous leaps in consciousness are implicit in the situation. In the short-term, the poisonous divisions are likely to continue and even worsen. It will take some time and plenty of bitter experience to untangle the convoluted contradictions. But we must be confident that eventually, the class question will come to the fore. This is the perspective the left as a whole should be fighting for.
Fight for socialist revolution!
There is much more to analyze when it comes to the Biden presidency: from his cabinet’s composition to his foreign policy to his relationship with the labor movement and Black Lives Matter, the public health crisis, and more. We will explore all of this in future articles and editorials.
But this much is crystal clear: constant instability and uncertainty is the new norm, and the back-and-forth ping-pong of the two-party system cannot continue indefinitely. Nothing lasts forever, and we must draw the necessary political, organizational, and even psychological conclusions.
Following on the consciousness-shaking events of 2008 and 2016, 2020 marks yet another nodal point on the road to the American socialist revolution. The events of the last twelve months have been a massive stress test for the system—and even heavier stresses are yet to come. Everything eventually turns into its opposite. The most stable country in the world has become the most unstable, and at a particular stage, the most reactionary power on earth will become the most revolutionary.
For Marxists, there is much more to politics than bourgeois elections. Voting once every few years is not enough to change society. All fundamental problems are ultimately decided in struggle, in the workplaces, streets, and barracks, not merely at the ballot box. As Lenin famously explained, politics is concentrated economics. It’s the generalized struggle for better wages and conditions, and ultimately, the struggle to change the fundamental economic relations of society.
Despite its contorted nature, the sharpening polarization is ultimately a prelude to revolution—perhaps not next week, but much sooner than most people might think. We must be prepared for sharp and sudden changes and the rise and fall of accidental events, figures, and movements. With this in mind, Trotsky once said that: “The Marxists, especially those claiming the right to leadership, must be capable not of astonishment but of foresight.”
We can see precisely what is coming if a mass working-class alternative isn’t built in the next period. We shouldn’t be shocked or surprised if Trump himself or someone even-more reactionary is back in the White House in 2024 or 2028. We must persistently explain that if you don’t build a class-independent alternative to the Democrats, the so-called greater evil will be back—greater and more evil than ever.
The US can be a confounding and stupefying country. The journalist Paul Krugman recently said that if all this were all happening anywhere else, it would be considered a failed state. But the key thing is this: the laws of the class struggle apply here as well, and its fundamentals are reasonably straightforward. It all starts with an understanding that the interests of the workers and the capitalists are diametrically opposed and that class independence must be maintained and fought for at all times.
The Marxist tendency represents the historical memory of the working class. We must learn and transmit the lessons of the international class struggle to the American working class, applying these lessons with dialectical nuance to the concrete conditions we are living and working in today. Our immediate task is to connect with the advanced layers, winning the ones and twos to Marxism and the IMT while agitating for a break with the bosses’ parties and the need to build a mass working-class socialist party.
Trump may have been beaten at the polls this time around, but Trumpism and the system he and the Democrats defend are far from finished. We said it in 2016, and we say it once again: only socialism defeats Trump—and Trumpism!
Editorial for issue 24 of Socialist Revolution magazine. Subscribe now to get your copy!