Last night, President Trump dropped a bombshell. After weeks of hair splitting on a new coronavirus stimulus package, he posted a ranting four-minute Twitter video in which he called the $900 billion bill just passed by Congress a “disgrace” and called instead for $2,000 payments to individuals and $4,000 to couples that file taxes jointly — a proposal originally put forth by Bernie Sanders in March. Trump raised the specter of a veto if this demand is not met. On the one hand, this is complete demagoguery from Trump, who has sent the working class to die for capitalist profits, with almost no aid, and who passed a previous relief bill that included massive handouts to corporations. But Trump’s rebuke of this newest aid package is in stark contrast to the overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill, including from Bernie Sanders who said, “it’s a good start,” and from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who joined nearly all of the Democratic Party in voting for it.
Trump said a few things that were true, especially that the $600 payments in the bill are not even close to enough. And he spelled out a litany of provisions in the nearly 6,000-page bill — which no one in Congress, and much less the public, has actually read — that have nothing to do with Covid relief, like $566 million for construction projects at the FBI.
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Trump’s rant came on the same day that he pardoned the four Blackwater contractors sentenced for murdering civilians in Iraq. But what may appear to be a progressive speech in many ways was nothing of the sort. It was dangerous, America-First, right-wing populism. Trump focused his attention on the bill’s aid to “foreign countries” and attacked the paltry financial help it would give to a small percentage of undocumented immigrants. This was meant to stoke xenophobic nationalism. He spoke out against minimal funding for the arts, as if it were a major element of the bill’s funding. And he ended the speech with the spectre of remaining in office: “I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items of this legislation and to send me a suitable bill or else the next administration will have to deliver a Covid relief package, and maybe that administration will be me. And we’ll get it done.”
The Democratic Party jumped on this immediately, cheerleading Trump’s speech. Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “Let’s do it!” Of course, she didn’t say this when Sanders proposed $2,000, because when something comes from the more progressive wing of her party, Pelosi is against it. But now that has Trump said it, she is for it. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who voted for the very bill Trump denounced, and Rashida Tlaib, who had voted against the legislation, introduced an amendment to raise the payments after Trump’s speech.
But there was no unity in the Democratic Party. Amy Kloubachar, for instance, called Trump’s statement “an attack on every American,” and called for Congress to override his veto.
Among Republicans, Trumpists such as Lindsay Graham publicly supported Trump. But behind the scenes, this is a huge blow to the Republican Party, and even for Trump’s own team. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who helped negotiate the agreement with Congress, had applauded the passage of the bill and specifically thanked Trump for his leadership on it — only to be undermined less than 24 hours later. Mitch McConell, who whipped votes for the bill and managed to build only a fragile Republican consensus to get it passed, is likely fuming.
The Washington Post claims, “The video landed like a sonic boom in Washington. [Trump’s] own aides were stunned. Congressional aides were stunned. Stock market futures quickly slumped on the prospect that the economic aid could be in doubt.”
If Trump refuses to sign the bill, the government will shut down on December 29. The $900 billion will be frozen. And it’s not the only bill Trump is threatening. He’s spoken out against the $740 billion Pentagon budget — prompting McConnell to call the Senate back from recess on December 29 to override a potential Trump veto.
A Populist Trap
With the progressive wing of the Democratic Party welcoming Trump’s tweet and many working-class people across the country applauding his demand that they be given more financial help, it’s easy to ignore that this is classic America-First, anti-establishment right-wing populism.
After all, in his brief remarks, Trump railed against “foreign aid,” one of his familiar tropes about how the United States is somehow a victim of the current geopolitical configuration. He perpetuated the myth that the United States just keeps giving to the rest of the world without ever getting anything back. But we need to be clear: U.S. “foreign aid” is nothing more than a cover for imperialist interests — like the “foreign aid” the United States uses in an effort to organize a coup against Venezuelan President Maduro. U.S. “aid” — like direct military intervention — is just another mechanism to maintain U.S. imperialist domination over the globe and to ensure that U.S. corporations come out on top.
He said, “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it. It wasn’t their fault, it was China’s fault. Not their fault.” Of course, he is right that the virus is not the American people’s fault, although the working class has had to bear the brunt of the problem. But the responsibility for Covid deaths lies squarely with the Trump administration and the bipartisan U.S. government; it lies with the decades of neoliberalism which have decimated the healthcare system.
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Trump denounced the minimal provisions for undocumented immigrants included in the bill, stating that it allows “family members of illegal aliens” to get stimulus relief up to $1,800 dollars — adding that this is “more than the Americans.” Of course, this is categorically false: a small percentage of undocumented family members would now be eligible for the stimulus checks that were cruelly denied them in the stimulus package earlier this year: $1,200 then plus $600 now. It’s not more than “Americans” at all.
Trump’s message is clear: “foreigners” are stealing “our” money, whether they are immigrants here or in other countries. His speech explicitly pit U.S. workers against undocumented people and people abroad. What’s worse is that the new “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party is cheerleading him and this speech. And individual progressives across the country are following their lead, applauding this as if it were a victory for the working class.
It’s not. This is right-wing populism — and it’s dangerous. Some leftists may overlook Trump’s nationalist denunciations of “foreign aid” knowing that it is just an imperialist ploy. But Trump’s denunciation of foreign funds has nothing in common with anti-imperialism. He is preparing the way for a dangerous, more volatile nationalism, with brutal imperialist interventions like we saw throughout the Trump administration. But the more common response on the Left is to completely ignore Trump’s xenophobia.
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Some on the Left are already cherry-picking the speech, focusing exclusively on the $2,000 promise without a critical word about the dangerous “America First”-rhetoric. Jacobin magazine wasted no time, publishing “We Need $2,000 and Real Covid-19 Relief” the morning after Trump’s remarks. The article advises the Democratic Party on how to get that passed, explaining what Pelosi and Schumer could do. But the reason that the Democratic Party didn’t pass a shitty bill is not because they are inept — it’s because they agree with the general principle of giving the working class crumbs. Jacobin itself spells this out: “The entire situation shows that Joe Biden and Democratic congressional leaders either could have driven a much tougher bargain in their negotiations over new Covid-19 relief legislation with Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — or they actually deliberately prioritized austerity and didn’t want a bigger spending package in the first place.”
The Democratic Party is a party of capital. It’s the party that bailed out the banks instead of the working class in 2008. It’s obvious that the Democrats chose austerity.
This is Very Dangerous
President Trump is already hinting that he might run for president again in four years. Regardless of that decision, Trump is clearly positioning himself to be a central political player once he leaves the White House — and an increasingly dangerous one at that.
Trump has always used right-wing populist rhetoric. He has always pretended to be on the side of the American worker against foreign countries and immigrants. It’s his promise to fight for the (white) American working class that won him just enough votes in 2016 to squeak out an Electoral College victory. As president, however, Trump has governed at times as a neoliberal with populist quirks. To some extent, he was able to exert hegemony over his party and even bring the “never Trumpers” — at least those actually holding seats in Congress — in line. Of course, Trump’s reaction to the coronavirus and to the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted after the murder of George Floyd challenged his precarious alliance with establishment Republicans. Now that he’s lost the election but continues to maintain his delusional façade that he actually won, those connections have become even more precarious.
Trump is back to being “anti-establishment” and acting like a warrior for the working class — an act that many believe. On his way out of the White House, he’s breaking with the Republican “swamp” and rebranding himself as anti-establishment. He’s back to acting like an outsider, positioning himself as the pragmatist freed from any attachments to both rotten parties. It’s one of the last punches of a weak Bonapartist President.
Millions of people are angry at the paltry relief package, and he’s working hard to make it seem that Donald Trump is coming to the rescue, that it’s Trump who is fighting for the little guy. In other words, this is a politics that could, in fact, expand Trump’s base, especially under a Biden administration where “nothing will fundamentally change” — as Biden himself has promised.
Trump can use the rhetoric and populism emergent on the Left to build his own right-wing base. Isn’t that what he was doing in the campaign ads that called Biden a racist, or when he asked Biden who built the cages?
This time, unlike in 2016, Donald Trump has a much bigger and much more radicalized base — after all, he received 10 million more votes than he did in 2016. This base includes the half of Republicans who believe the election was rigged. It also includes small but violent groups that ran over and beat Black Lives Matter protesters— and even killed them, as Kyle Rittenhouse did with two protesters in Wisconsin. It includes the armed right-wingers who just yesterday stormed the Oregon capitol building, breaking windows and assaulting journalists in a protest against the very mild Covid restrictions currently in place.
Trump’s radical right-wing rhetoric and false claim to fight for American workers may be attractive to millions of people who are legitimately disgusted by the fact that the working class has been given such little support during the pandemic. Entire sectors of the working class are disgusted with the two-party system swamp — the real Washington — and may be attracted to a Trump who is increasingly distanced from the Republican Party.
It is exceedingly clear that we need a leftist alternative, one that fights for the working class and makes clear that it is not undocumented people and the international working class that are the enemies of workers here, but the massive Pentagon budget and the entire capitalist class . Sometimes it seems like people such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez play this role, but then she turns around and votes for the budget, falling in line with her Democratic Party just about every time — including campaigning for Joe Biden. It may seem that the DSA could play this role, but like AOC, many in the DSA ended up supporting Biden and the same old capitalist Democratic Party. It may seem as if Jacobin could play this role, but it has been positioning itself as a Left adviser to a Democratic Party that clearly wants to go back to “normal” neoliberal attacks on the working class. What we need is a clear class break to highlight that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent the interests of the working class.
Donald Trump is building a right-wing anti-establishment populism, increasingly armed and dangerous. The Democrats not only can’t fight it — they will feed it. The Left that is aligned with the Democratic Party likewise can’t fight it; it’s too busy fostering illusions in the Democrats. The need for an independent, working-class party is urgent. We need our own party to fight the Right, to show how a genuine Left responds to the urgent needs of the working class. Only an independent, working-class socialist organization can dethrone Trumpism and unmask Trump’s faux support for workers.