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An Election in Turmoil, a Regime in Decline

Lenin once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” In recent US political life, every week has felt like a decade. The biggest imperialist power in the world is experiencing a crisis on multiple fronts, with Donald Trump playing a central destabilizing role. What does this mean for the 2020 election and the fight for socialism?

Tatiana Cozzarelli

October 5, 2020
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Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photos: Getty Images

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The United States is in a deep overall crisis that affects all aspects of society. We have the pandemic, an economic recession, an ecological crisis, a distrust of the political parties, and a crisis of legitimacy of essentially all institutions. With among the worst coronavirus track records of any country in the world, an uprising against police brutality, and now the same president who spent the last few months playing down Covid-19 now hospitalized with the virus — all while actively undermining the legitimacy of the upcoming election — every day adds more crisis to the political, economic, and social situation. 

Trump would have us believe that the country is on the up and up and that a recovery from the pandemic will be swift and has already begun, but the last few days have demonstrated in the most stark manner that this is false. The U.S. political system has been thrown into disarray because Donald Trump, much of his inner circle, and several Republican members of Congress have contracted Covid-19. It turns out that despite Trump’s campaign strategy of pretending the virus is behind us and better days are ahead, we’ll spend the next 14 days discussing the virus and its effect on the President’s health. Further, the Senate is now in recess for two more weeks as a result of the slew of members who also have the coronavirus. 

The dangerous nature of the culture war Trump attempted to stoke around mask-wearing and the seriousness of the virus has never been clearer. Meanwhile, he experiences the virus with an army of doctors at his beck and call — a far cry from the experience of the disproportionately Black and Brown working-class people who have died from Covid-19.

Trump would also have us believe that we’re going to have a V-shaped economic recovery of the economy. The numbers, though, say something different. If the country really does recover from the pandemic depression, we’re going into a recession with massive, sustained job losses and the threat of mass evictions. The combined high levels of corporate debt and low profit rate show that the Covid economic dip is just the tip of a larger problem for the capitalist economy. Of course, we cannot discount the possibility of another economic shutdown due to the pandemic, which would send the entire economy reeling once again.

In this context of uncertainty and crisis, there is a polarization to the Left and Right among the U.S. masses. We’ve seen the militant resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and an increase in workplace struggles emerge during the pandemic. The BLM movement is the largest and most widespread movement in U.S. history, representing — for a deeply racist country — a leftward shift on a mass scale. On the right, we’ve seen the advance of right-wing vigilantes, mobilized and ready to confront protesters with violence. In fact, cars running over protesters has become commonplace, occurring well more than 100 times since June. And now, with Trump in the hospital, thousands have mobilized in maskless marches to rally for their leader. This far-right is not a mass movement, but it is increasingly violent and more brazenly so. It is in league with the cops, stoked by Trump. It is at its most powerful because sectors of capital can lean on it to push through a right-wing agenda, as we saw with armed demonstrations demanding the “reopening” of states earlier this year.

Throughout his presidency, we’ve seen Trump attempt to delegitimize institutions long held sacred by the regime, from elections to the Supreme Court to the FBI. He has done the same on the world stage, retreating from global imperialist institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization. Trump’s distancing from institutions, however, does not represent a shift in the class content of rule or the end goals of capitalism; it just signals a more unilateral way of governing. Some sectors of capital reject Trump’s brash foreign policy, watching how it has helped China elbow its way to the fore during the crisis of U.S. international hegemony. That’s why both Trump and Biden have been trying to outdo each other on who is tougher on China. The main difference is that Biden wants to use time-honored global imperialist mechanisms for this goal. 

Liberals and some leftists are wringing their hands at Trump’s erosion of the institutions that prop up the American capitalist system, seeking desperately to restore them to their former standing. They hope Biden will rebuild the legitimacy of these institutions. That is precisely why capital is vastly favoring Biden, whose campaign is drawing significantly more donations from billionaires and Wall Street. The question at hand for the capitalist class is:Who will best implement austerity in the coming period? In this context, while Trump attempts to stoke the rising Right and lean on it, Biden’s role is to tame the left polarization.  

In this context, it is essential that the Left fight against the rising Right and attacks on the democratic rights the working class has won. At the same time, it’s essential that we highlight that the institutions that Trump has thrown into the spotlight — the courts, the FBI, and the undemocratic election process itself — are all weapons of capital used against the working class. The trouble isn’t just Trump; it’s the system that produced him. 

Donald Trump and the Right

Trump has made clear that he plans to sow enough doubt about mail-in ballots to be able to contest the election in the Supreme Court if he needs to; and he has been explicit that he wants a new Supreme Court justice who will take his side in such an event. He also said very clearly in the debate, he wants his white supremacist, right-wing base to “stand-by” and mobilize to “poll watch,” a move that is reminiscent of voter intimidation efforts during the era of Jim Crow. 

This far Right should be taken seriously. The United States has a long tradition of armed paramilitary right-wing sectors playing a role to derail democratic rights and terrorize working-class people and people of color, such as the Ku Klux Klan did beginning in the post-Reconstruction era. Right-wing groups proliferated during the Obama administration and have found representation in Donald Trump, who bolsters the movement and supports it — from his refusal to condemn David Duke in 2016 to his “good people on both sides” comment about Charlottesville. This support has only escalated. As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown in  popularity, Trump has started openly supporting armed vigilantes such as Kyle Rittenhouse and has even praised the extrajudicial killing of Michael Reinoehl as “retribution.” 

Will Trump, however, be able to rig the elections? Not on his own. And the truth is that while his right-wing base is armed and dangerous, it is still small. Will it bring about violence at some polling places on Election Day? It is certainly likely. Will that be enough to steal the election? No.Trump will have to rely on the ruling class’s own institutions of bourgeois democracy for that. 

Most analyses suggest that many more Democratic voters than Republicans will have voted by mail by November 3, and so the results of votes that will be counted from traditional polling places may well be skewed for Trump on election night. This could provide an opening for Trump to claim victory and prepare a judicial process to dispute the mail-in ballots. With federal courts all the way up to the Supreme Court packed to favor conservatives, that may be Trump’s path to victory — and all perfectly legal. 

As The Atlantic’s now infamous article “The Election That Could Break America” puts it, “Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian. He has the mouth but not the muscle to work his will with assurance … He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints. A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix his victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.” 

In other words, Trump has shown himself to be more bark than bite — even if that bark is very dangerous. 

In a Marxist sense, Trump is more of a Bonapartist than a fascist — and a weak one at that. Bonapartism refers to an authoritarian leader that emerges when different social classes are struggling against each other and different sectors of capital cannot find a way to impose a hegemonic representative. In this sense, Trump is indeed reactionary and under other conditions could certainly be a fascist, but he currently is using institutional mechanisms to implement reactionary policies, not relying on armed paramilitaries that attack the working class on a mass scale. It’s important that he has not yet broken bourgeois legality. And he is indeed weak, unable to drive through his policies, which puts a limit on his attempt to orchestrate a coup in anything but the 2000-like Supreme Court scenario that handed the election to George W. Bush.  

Trump as a Symptom and a Cause 

But this isn’t 2000. There is a pandemic, an economic crisis, four years already of Trump, and a growing left-right polarization. During his term, Trump has played a central role in delegitimizing many of the key institutions of the U.S. regime. Nothing is sacred to Donald Trump, not even the Supreme Court or election results (unless he wins). He views them as political tools for his agenda. In the midst of squabbles among the capitalists, he has lifted the veil to show that the institutions once thought of as objective are actually political tools they use against the working class and oppressed. 

The Electoral College means that whoever wins the popular vote doesn’t necessarily win the presidency. Voting by working people is suppressed overall by holding the election on a workday. More direct voter suppression, especially of communities of color, is longstanding and includes the disenfranchisement of imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people. And we already have the precedent of the Supreme Court stepping in to halt the counting of votes and deciding a presidential election. Nine unelected elites got to decide the 2000 election. They get to decide on our basic civil rights and the reproductive rights of half the people in this country. 

That is American “democracy.” 

The problem right now is not, as liberals would have us believe, that the fascist Donald Trump has come to break American institutions. He doesn’t want to break them. He wants to wield them. The problem is with the institutions themselves. There is a “crisis of democracy” because U.S. democracy, and indeed capitalism in general just isn’t democratic. Trump is both a symptom and a cause of the current crisis.

Biden’s Role

For the capitalists, the goal of this election is to restore legitimacy to those very institutions that hold up the most unequal capitalist system in the world, the world’s most brutal imperialist power. The capitalists have, by and large, chosen Joe Biden for that job. 

Biden, in the running for the least charismatic politician in recent history, is leading in most polls by 10 or more points nationally, which is an expression of just how deep anti-Trumpism runs. He is running a campaign that promises to “defend democracy” and bring back honor to U.S. institutions. Some Republican figureheads are even backing him, as is a sector of the military, because he promises to restore U.S. “legitimacy” on the world stage — meaning unquestioned imperialist influence. No wonder Biden is vastly favored by the capitalist class, raking in more than four times as much in campaign donations from Wall Street as Trump. 

This is a good gamble for the capitalists. Unstable, populist strongmen such as Donald Trump aren’t the best for business at this moment. But it’s a terrible bet for working-class people. Biden is the candidate of the establishment that oppresses us, and his platform is a return to the “normalcy” that brought us to this catastrophic point. 

Sure, Biden wears a mask — but he represents the private health insurance industry and aims to quash even the possibility of Medicare for All. The hundreds of thousands of deaths due to the pandemic are not only Trump’s responsibility, but also that of Biden and his party, which has failed to ensure we all have healthcare as a right. Biden represents the 1994 Crime Bill, which expanded the prison industrial complex — and makes him no less the “law and order” candidate than Trump. Biden represents the “normalcy” of bailing out the banks while working-class people lose their homes —-  as the Obama administration did — and the promise that he’ll tame workers enough to institute similar and worse measures when he’s president. And on the world stage, Biden wants to restore US legitimacy and participation in the United Nations and the World Health Organization, but is equally committed to imperialism, whether in the form of bombs or sanctions. 

Biden claims to defend democracy and to be the antithesis of Trump. But he is actually campaigning to restore “legitimacy” to a system whose pillars include a Supreme Court on which nine unelected justices lord over the population for life, an Electoral College that negates the popular vote, and the systematic disenfranchisement of people of color and working-class people. Biden is running for “normal” when normal is the very problem.

The Biden campaign has squashed the campaign platform of his Democratic Party primary foe, Bernie Sanders. The Biden campaign doesn’t speak in any way to the more progressive wing of the party. Biden even agrees with Trump on anti-socialist redbaiting. The fact that Biden has rejected even Sanders’ “New Deal” (not socialist) platform highlights that his is the candidacy of capitalist consensus, bringing together Republican and Democrat elites in an anti-Trump coalition. 

The Left and the Working Class

The political situation had swung to the left over the summer, with millions of people in the streets, in the biggest uprising in U.S. history. But in many respects things are now swinging to the right. The president aims to steal the election and is revving up his right-wing base to create chaos. There are pro-Trump marches in the streets of Washington, D.C., and just a few weeks ago armed neo-fascists drove through the streets of Portland and Seattle. It seems likely that there will be more Kyle Rittenhouses. 

Meanwhile, the BLM protests have receded, not in small part because of the role of Biden and the Democratic Party’s maneuvering as it plays its historical role as the “graveyard of social movements.” A large sector of what remains of the BLM movement is lining up to vote for Biden, incorrectly seeing him as a lesser evil that will allow them to continue protesting for Black lives. But how can voting for a racist who supports cop violence and increased police funding help BLM? 

Some young protesters of color are disillusioned and staying home. Others are part of a small vanguard that is being increasingly criminalized by Democrats and Republicans alike, but continues to take to the streets. The establishment is taking advantage of the movement’s current weakness. Despite an entire summer of mobilizations, documentaries, and magazine covers, Breonna Taylor’s killers were not charged for her murder.

The Left has a responsibility at this moment. We cannot create or support any illusions that Biden is some sort of bulwark against Trump and the radicalized Right. He is not. Biden is a co-leader of the ruling class, along with Trump. He is an architect of the world we live in and a spearhead of the counter revolt against the BLM uprising.

It was the failure of the neoliberal project during the Bush and Obama years that set the stage for Trump. We cannot let go of the power of our mobilizations just a few months ago. Those mobilizations shook the nation. Not all is lost. Despite the downturn in this election period, those protests laid a foundation for future mobilizations. 

Now is the time to prepare for the battles ahead. Regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins, we will have to battle the capitalists and their plan to make the working class pay for the economic crisis, just as Obama did in 2008. 

Street protests will not be enough. We will need to organize to hit the capitalists where it hurts the most. We will have to shut down production. And we will have to unite our struggles — our economic and political struggles, our struggles for Black lives, against police violence, against evictions, and against the premature and forced reopenings. We need to shut this country down and demand our rights. Organizations such as the DSA must break with the Democrats and mobilize their members to fight back on the streets and in their workplaces, whether it’s against a Trump-led or a Biden-led U.S. government and ruling class.

A vote for Joe Biden is no solution to the rising threat of the Right. To make sure Trump doesn’t steal the election, we should be organizing mass mobilizations and strikes demanding all the votes be counted, not in support of Biden but in support of our democratic rights. These same mobilizations must demand the abolition of undemocratic institutions such as the Electoral College, and Supreme Court. We need to build the strength, confidence, and structure to defend our basic democratic rights now, knowing we’ll need to fight in the next period for reproductive rights and against the capitalists forcing workers to pay for the economic crisis. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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