The coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s denialism, the retraction of the U.S. and global economies, and the resurgence of class struggle — with huge mobilizations against racism and police brutality, the largest in U.S. history — frame this election. Traditionally, the U.S. regime has been characterized by strong partisan divisions on national affairs, both in Congress and between the federal government and the states. That continues. But beyond domestic issues, there is ruling-class alarm. In the international arena, there has historically been a greater consensus, but this is being challenged by the deepening decline of U.S. hegemony globally and the rise of China as an economic and technological powerhouse.
The strengthening of white supremacism and right-wing protests, as well as China’s emergence as a capitalist power that can defy U.S. imperialist hegemony, are factors that will not be resolved simply by a change in command.
The United States is losing more and more ground in trade and technology, and this, with the pandemic itself, has accelerated the conflict with China. The “Chinese virus” rhetoric expresses not only xenophobia but also the alarm over curbing Chinese exports of health supplies, the desire to beat China in the race for a vaccine, and anxiety over winning the economic recovery. China, having contained the pandemic in its territory, reported nearly 5 percent annual growth from June to September 2020. This growth, though, carries the weight of the severe economic contraction and business closures that China suffered after the global explosion of Covid-19. For 30 years, China had sustained economic growth, driven mainly by the low labor costs of overexploited workers with which China reinserted itself into global capitalism — making it a pole of attraction for international capital. At the beginning of 2020, that was broken.
Foreign trade dominates the current Chinese economic recovery. Exports and imports have increased 10 and 13 percent, respectively, since the pandemic began. It is unlikely that the trade war with the United States will be resolved; rather, it will deepen. High levels of fiscal stimulus have also contributed to growth, but this may result in deficits. Fiscal aid, tourism, and the reopening services and street commerce are part of a bid to revive China’s domestic market as authorities push to regain lost economic ground, even as the coronavirus surges again in many parts of the world.
U.S commercial, technological, and geopolitical confrontations with China will deepen regardless of who wins the election. While Trump’s trade war with China escalated the strategic battle, imperialism was already concerned about the threat of growing Chinese influence during the Obama administration. That is why Obama promoted the so-called pivot to Asia to reinforce the U.S. military presence and strengthen diplomatic ties in the region. Now, in debates and speeches, Trump and Biden accuse each other of not being harsh enough in their China policies.
Biden’s own advisers say his administration would continue aggressive policies such as tariff increases and would amplify the race for technological innovation, although it would seek greater collaboration in production and trade than Trump. But the fundamental issue — imperialist domination of the world — cannot be resolved by a more traditional government alone. This strategic battle goes beyond who is president; there is no prospect for a peaceful dispute over world hegemony.
U.S. influence in other regions is also ebbing. Latin America, U.S. imperialism’s historic “backyard,” is an important case. Aside from trade agreements such as the one signed with Mexico, the Trump administration has not regained its regional hegemony but has instead lost economic ground to China, which has become an important trading partner for several Latin American countries. Moreover, it was defeated in Juan Guaidó’s failed coup attempt in Venezuela, and suffered a resounding failure in Bolivia — after the CIA-orchestrated coup that put the self-proclaimed Jeanine Añez in government — when those coup leaders were defeated in the elections by the MAS. Trump has taken to highlighting agreements in the Middle East to show some foreign policy success.
The economy, Trump’s main reelection argument, has collapsed not only because of the coronavirus, but also from the contradictions in the model and the weakness of the international economy, now in sharp decline. Except in China, GDP is not expected to grow in any of the world’s major economies. Trump claims to have brought the U.S. economy to its highest level ever, but pre-2020 annual growth was actually similar to that of most of the Obama years — 2.5 percent, on average — and far lower than China’s. The numbers are nowhere near the high points of U.S. growth after World War II, and do not even exceed those of the 1990s and 2000s.
Pointing to growth, Trump highlights increases in the stock market, which has benefited tremendously under his administration thanks to deregulation, interest rates, tax cuts for the wealthiest sectors, and the huge stimulus packages approved by Congress before and since the pandemic. The president boasts that the Dow Jones index has reached historic levels under his administration, which is true, but it also suffered its sharpest fall this year, having been subjected to world economic uncertainty and mistrust of his pandemic management. Prioritizing gains in the financial markets has affected industrial sectors, trade, and agriculture.
Trump’s promise was that “forgotten” Americans “will be forgotten no more.” This rhetoric appealed (and continues to appeal) to Rust Belt workers, farmers, and owners of small businesses. Raising tariffs on imported goods to favor industry has aided the recovery of only very specific industrial sectors, such as steel, while harming consumers as well as other industrial sectors because of other countries’ retaliatory tariffs. These include the automotive, the household appliances, computer, and lumber industries, as well as the production of fertilizers and agrochemicals, pesticides, and leather, with the consequent impact on agriculture and livestock. Meanwhile, the pandemic has accelerated U.S. industrial decline, and the blue-collar Trump voters of 2016 have seen unemployment rise and factories close. Unemployment in August exceeded 10 percent in industrial areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Working-class families in these areas have lost loved ones to the virus.
How the Rust Belt may vote depends on the specific area: some areas continue to support Trump, while in others there will be a return to the Democratic vote, which historically characterized this region. In Pennsylvania’s “Slate Belt,” for example, Trump leads in polls, while Biden leads in urban steel centers such as Easton and Bethlehem. Hillary Clinton lost these sectors by 15 points, and Biden has significantly closed that gap. Because of their Electoral College importance, if Biden wins key states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, he will likely be the victor.
Trump won these areas in 2016 because of the economy; this time, he may lose them for the same reason — combined with discontent over systemic racism. In recent years, there have been major demographic shifts that explain the racial tensions and immigration debates Trump exacerbated with his right-wing agenda. From 2000 to 2015, the non-U.S.-born population of the Midwest grew by more than 35 percent, changing the region’s historically white demographic. There has been a greater influx of college students who traditionally migrated to other states. All this has changed the demographics and boosted the economy of the Great Lakes region.
Areas with the most ruined economies are also, in some cases, Trump’s base of support. He is seen as the one who can address the pandemic’s economic effects. It is in these industrial areas where the presence of white supremacist groups is greatest, precisely because this is where racial segregation is the greatest and political and racial polarization is deepest.
Trump says he is “the president who has done the most for African Americans, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.” This claim is based on the unemployment rate of people of color during his administration: it was 3.5 percent in 2019, the lowest in 50 years. But jobs in communities of color are low-wage and precarious, as has been evident in the pandemic. It took only a few months for this low unemployment rate to grow by more than 10 points among Black and Latinx workers, mainly employed in hotels, restaurants, tourism, delivery, supermarkets, other services, and as domestic staff. These jobs also exposed them the most to the virus. Everything indicates that people of color will be the pandemic’s big losers and that the recovery — far from the “V-shape” Trump predicts — will deepen inequality. Some economists speak of a “K-shaped” recovery, with the wealthiest sectors increasing their profits (as throughout the pandemic) and the lower echelons seeing even worse income. Already, lower-income workers have seen a 47-percent drop, while the decrease for higher-income workers has been only 13 percent on average.
Stimulus packages, unemployment insurance, and federal payments have helped mitigate the economic impacts, but large parts of the working class have little to lose. Capitalist companies will not be willing to forgo the benefits of low wages and flexibility they’ve imposed during the pandemic, and even in a Biden government that claims to prioritize workers and especially people of color, the working class will have to fight not to pay for the consequences of the crisis. A precarious working class of color that was also part of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests led many of the labor struggles of 2020 (which diminished as with the fiscal stimulus policies).
Among farmers, support for Trump persists, even though they have been hit hardest by the trade war with China, the main buyer of U.S. agricultural products. Farmers even staged protests, throwing food in their fields to highlight low prices due to the pandemic. But they have also benefited from $28 billion in stimulus, which repurchased their support for Trump. Farmers see China as an unfair, speculative competitor; most support the tariffs, despite their negative short-term impact.
Rural areas also account for a large share of the evangelical vote: in polls, these communities continue to support Trump by an overwhelming 80 percent — which is why Trump has made the fight against reproductive rights one of his main banners, signing international declarations and, above all, appointing Amy Coney Barret to the Supreme Court. Alignment with Israel also reaps strong support among evangelicals.
Changes in support for the Republican Party express the historical tension between the party’s traditional support for more open trade and those sectors of the bourgeoisie focused more on the internal market and that advocate protectionism and being more aggressive in the international arena. The Trump administration has failed to achieve his promised return of U.S. companies, job growth, and trade protection, revealing the limits of protectionism when U.S. capital prefers cheap labor over nationalism and financial speculation over production, and when it cannot escape the internationalization of a world economy in which it is the main debtor.
But the Republican Party crisis goes much further. The Never-Trumpers are working strenuously for a Biden win. Some have already received nods from the Democratic candidate to be part of his cabinet. Many have questioned the lack of a new party platform and the president’s cult of personality, which exploits his profile as “outside” the political establishment. They see Trump as subverting traditional Republican values and fear he will destroy the party forever. Meanwhile, as Democrats exploit the discussions of racial and gender equality or freedom of expression, within the Republican Party itself the alt-right has grown, and has established links internationally — creating high instability for the party regime. Trump has leaned heavily into the alt-right, betting on polarizing the electorate and mobilizing rightists for his interests. The party regime is showing its exhaustion with this, as well as with growing social tensions.
The Democratic Party had turbulent presidential primaries. In early February 2020, it seemed Vermont senator Bernie Sanders even had a chance to defeat the Democratic establishment. But he could not. Democratic leaders made a risky decision: the party would remain faithful to hegemonic capital by disciplining its insurgent wing, thus betraying the expectations of hundreds of thousands of Sanders supporters.
In 2016, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had put great resources into preventing Sanders from becoming the Democratic nominee. In hindsight, they did so without too much political cost. This time, Sanders played his part, endorsing Biden enthusiastically — signaling to his young, low-income, multiethnic supporters that party unity comes first. He didn’t even demand that the Biden platform include any of his promised reforms. The support of Sanders gave the establishment the space needed to turn the party’s agenda to the right, with Biden as the candidate for capitalist stability.
Many consider the presidential election, just days away, a referendum on the Trump government, and Biden leads significantly in polls. The violent hit of the pandemic has made this possible. Trump’s poor management and the economic crisis that promises to become a long recession has given the Democratic Party new life. In May, after three months of quarantine and the big rise in unemployment, the masses entered the scene. The racist murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shocked the country and awoke a second chapter of the massive BLM movement.
For the Democrats, the uprising exposes a contradiction. On the one hand, hatred of Trump — a millionaire despot — broadened and deepened. As polls seem to indicate, new sectors of voters have mobilized to get rid of the authoritarian clown after four years. But on the other hand, the BLM movement confronted the Democratic Party with a problem: it turned the situation to the left, put systemic racism on the national agenda, and dealt a severe blow to the legitimacy of one of the pillars of the state: police departments. The movement left a young voting base fed up with the two big parties of capital and structural racism. A vanguard of young people and workers is breaking with the illusions that the Democratic and Republican agendas are significantly different and that reforms can be won by voting for progressive candidates — illusions the Democratic Party’s left wing continue to push. This expanding radicalization will not necessarily affect this election — many are holding their noses to vote for Biden as the “lesser evil” — and the emergence of this vanguard could be prologue to a profound process of rupture with the Democrats in the context of what is already a historic crisis of the party’s relationship with the mass movement.
The Democrats face profound contradictions. They’ve managed to divert the BLM movement to the polls for now — helped by labor’s failing to use its strength in solidarity with BLM, the refusal of the union bureaucracy to expel police unions from the labor movement, and the lack of a clear strategy for BLM to develop in a revolutionary way — but BLM has not been defeated. Whatever strength the Democrats have gained cannot be explained outside the party’s left wing, which has promoted “progressive” candidates — especially people of color such as congressional candidate Cori Bush in Missouri — at the zenith of the struggle in the streets against racist violence. When these candidates win, it indicates a leftward shift in the Democratic Party base, while at the same time strengthening a capitalist party. But it has been the movement in the streets — even as it is co-opted — that has changed the electoral arena in favor of the Democrats.
A President Biden will have to navigate between the economic crisis, political delegitimization, commitments to capital, and the need to keep the mass movement under control — all with an ongoing health crisis and a long recession to come.
For its part, the bourgeoisie is divided. Fear that the results will delegitimize electoral institutions and produce a weak government has driven hegemonic capital to close ranks behind Biden. As disruptive as the Trump administration has been, incumbents typically win, which is why Wall Street continued to back Trump until recently. As Biden edged toward capturing the Democratic nomination, Wall Street executives were concerned that a Trump loss would mean taxes going back up. It was no secret that Wall Street was happy with Trump. According to analyst Steven Pearlstein in July, the financial lobby felt sheltered.
Investors have also been lulled into complacency over the past three decades in which Americans came to embrace the idea that the only way to keep the economy competitive and growing was to put investor interests above those of everyone else. It is hardly a coincidence that as business norms and public policy adapted to the idea that businesses exist to maximize value for shareholders, the share of national income going to holders of capital investments rose by more than five percentage points. This trillion-dollar-a-year redistribution from workers to investors has become so normal that few in the business world even question it.
But now, contributions to the Biden campaign are almost four times those to Trump. “Investors may have initially feared a Blue Wave, but a delayed or contested election outcome is even more unsettling,” analysts at UBS said in a recent note. Bank of America’s survey of fund managers shows that 61 percent of investors polled believe the results will be contested — and thus destabilize the markets. The oil and construction industries remain largely against Trump.
Pearlstein leaves out that during these decades of savage neoliberalism, both Democratic and Republican administrations used every lever possible to guarantee that “trillion-dollar-a-year redistribution from workers to investors.” Democrats and Republicans alike are the architects of an economy based on finance capital, one that in every crisis crushes small savers. During Obama’s presidency, it was Wall Street that received a major bailout after the 2008 market collapse. But this doesn’t mean everything is good between the Democratic Party and Wall Street. There are genuine divisions among the Democrats regarding how to deal with the economic crisis. What Wall Street fears most is tighter financial regulation, followed by Biden’s labor agenda — concerns shared by other sectors of the bourgeoisie.
Biden is promoting the Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), the most important labor reform in recent U.S. history. It strengthens federal labor law to give private-sector workers more protections and a greater ability to organize. It increases penalties when bosses violate workers’ rights, prohibits employer interference in union elections, and requires new dispute resolution mechanisms to settle contract negotiations. Biden also supports nationwide adoption of the “ABC” test that prevents workers from being classified as independent contractors and thus denied employment protections and benefits. He has promised unions that he will expand the prevailing wage for federal contractors, which would require that they pay workers much higher wages. The anti-labor right is already counterattacking, even with outright lies that the PRO Act gives public-sector unions the right to organize in states that now bar that (which it does not).
It’s beyond disingenuous to consider Joe Biden “moderate” on labor policy. His campaign platform looks more like a union’s wish list than anything that would ever be seriously considered “middle of the road.” Voters should see his plans for what they really are: A radical transformation of the American economy. Is that really what voters want?
Labor leaders are campaigning for Biden as the candidate of the labor movement, pro-union and pro-working class. His pro-union rhetoric is one of the reasons Obama chose him as his running mate. But Democrats make promises like these all the time as an electoral ploy. They won’t become a reality unless there is class struggle and capitalist profit-making is challenged. The Democrats didn’t pass the PRO Act during Obama’s administration despite having majorities in both houses of Congress. They govern for the bosses. Even attorneys from union-busting law firms such as Jackson Lewis are enthusiastic Biden campaign donors.
Biden’s actual record is not pro-worker. In 1977–78, during a big union push for labor law reform, he hesitated for months and sabotaged the proposal with public criticism. He wrote the 2005 bankruptcy bill that rewarded creditors and punished debtors. Worse yet, he was one of the main legislative architects of the mass incarceration that has devastated the heavily policed and punished U.S. working class.
Biden proposes to limit the advance of the neoliberal offensive against labor in order to “get back to where we were.” But a Democratic administration will have to manage the crisis and the long-expected recession if capitalism is to be rescued, and capital expects its candidate to impose the required austerity plans. In boom times, the Democrats do little or nothing for the working class; in times of crisis, they prepare for the workers to bear the burden. Biden’s gestures are aimed at restoring the relationship between the Democratic Party and unionized workers after the organized labor movement was divided in 2016 with Trump’s emergence.
There is also a huge sector of workers who are unorganized because the union bureaucracy was complicit with capitalism’s efforts to liquidate unions and refused to unionize the most oppressed workers. The bureaucracy’s most recent betrayal is its refusal to mobilize the unions in solidarity with the BLM movement, coupled with its opposition to disaffiliating cop unions and failure to organize the unemployed, undocumented workers, or immigrants at a time when the pandemic has ravaged these sectors. In fact, the union bureaucracy played a key role in preventing the BLM movement from challenging not just the Trump administration but the bipartisan regime as a whole.
One of the most dynamic aspects of the developing organic crisis in the United States can be seen within the two traditional parties of imperialist capital and their own crises. As former Hillary Clinton speechwriter Stephen Metcalf wrote in the New Yorker, addressing Vox founder Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized:
The Democratic and Republican parties once performed, internally, the work of liberalism. They moderated passions, forced dissimilar people to coexist, and settled differences with compromise. As Ezra Klein explains, they also formed a duopoly committed to moral complacency, especially on the issue of race. Then, in the nineteen-sixties, the Democrats passed major civil-rights legislation, and the American electorate began a great re-sorting. As black voters gravitated toward the Democrats, white voters fled toward the Republicans. Over time, the effects registered more broadly. Voting patterns are now highly correlated with religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and neighborhood. In the Trump era, each party has a worldview that is internally coherent, and those worldviews are mutually exclusive and hostile to each other. Our social and partisan selves have all but merged.
The Republican Party’s crisis is existential. Its “worldview,” according to Klein, is incompatible with the last two decades’ changing demography and ideology. New, racially diverse generations have been shaped by the two great capitalist crises of the 21st century, in 2008 and now 2020. Working-class youth and educated middle-class youth alike no longer have any expectations that the system can create good lives for them. These young people are informed by social media. In their families, they are bridging several generations: whether working or in school, they may play a role helping economically and modifying the culture. We see the ideological changes in the Latino community:
It might be easy to assume Latinos are single-issue voters focused on immigration, but Kumar’s group has found something else. “Everything is about health care in the Latino community,” she said. Latinos are often part of the “sandwich generation” at a much younger age than the average American, responsible for caring for older parents and younger kids. And with Covid hitting Latino Americans hard, health care is especially important in 2020.
Latinx youth are pushing their community to adopt an agenda that clashes with Republican Party conservatism. The same can be said of middle-class white youth who, with many family sacrifices, manage to make it through college at the cost of lifelong debt. To the material conditions of the so-called Millennials and Gen Z, one must add that they are anti-racist, anti-oppression, and fully aware of the threat of climate change. It is no accident that from this youth a sector has emerged that is increasingly aware that capitalism has nothing to offer.
But as with any polarization, the radicalization is not only to the left. Many of those impoverished and disadvantaged by neoliberalism in suburban America and the small cities, and those in the working class that saw their living conditions decline in the Obama era, stopped believing in the establishment and embraced Trump’s variant of right-wing populism.
Today, the traditional party of American conservatism lacks leadership and strategic vision. It is at a crossroads: submit to its intensely reactionary wing or “reinvent” itself. It is a problem noted by bourgeois analysts inside and outside the party:
The Republican Party has been employing a rearguard strategy, using wedge issues to resist the ticking clock of a changing America. The strategy has helped the GOP to win elections but has been remarkably shortsighted. Time is catching up with the GOP. Its loyal voters are declining in number and yet have locked the party in place. It cannot reinvent itself without risking their support and, in any event, it couldn’t reinvent itself in a convincing enough way for a quick turnaround. Republicans have traded the party’s future for yesterday’s America.
In the land of Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March, #MeToo, and BLM there are expectations and rejection of the reactionary Republican agenda. At the same time, giving up the racist, anti-choice, and anti-immigrant agenda could alienate hardline Republican voters. The conservative agenda carries some significant weight in the country, as evidenced by the nationwide anti-quarantine demonstrations that gave Trump the social backing to reopen the economy prematurely. What is worrying is not the size of such mobilizations, which generally represent a small minority, but the enthusiastic support Wall Street offered. That major hegemonic sectors have now abandoned Trump for Biden is only because they see him as what’s needed to pacify the mass movement and advance the imperialist agenda. However, Trump's supporters are an important minority who will not remain silent in the face of possible defeat. Social and political polarization will continue below the surface.
The course the GOP takes after the election will depend on the depth of the economic crisis and how far the health crisis and the class struggle spread. The fact is that Trump is not some isolated madman in the White House, but represents a real wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie and a section of the disaffected masses that can be used as the base for an ultra-reactionary agenda. Whatever happens in November, Trumpism as a political phenomenon created by the organic crisis is here to stay.
For its part, the Democratic Party hopes to recapture the White House and perhaps the Senate. It will have to deal with the aspirations of its social base (strongly rooted in the traditional labor movement, the middle classes of the large and medium-size cities, as well as Black communities) and the needs of hegemonic capital created by the current crisis. Those who bet the Biden government will fulfill its campaign promises and implement radical reforms (like much of the Left, including the DSA) are burying their heads in the sand. U.S. imperialism is in no position to give concessions to the mass movement, both because of the internal crisis and because of its weak global hegemony, and the Democrats will have to implement the imperialist agenda that Biden’s donors dictate.
Biden’s strategy is to create a new political center, a new bourgeois consensus that will allow the United States to overcome its external and internal crisis. But it seems very unlikely that he will succeed given current conditions.
As much as everything seems to favor Biden on November 3, it is not out of the question that Trump could win. Florida and Pennsylvania, which may determine the outcome, seem up for grabs. A close margin in any state allows Trump to contest the election. If this ends up in court, the elements of organic crisis will tend to express themselves in all their magnitude. The socialist Left has to prepare for the period that would open.
The largest socialist organization in the country, the DSA, is on a rightward course with unpredictable results. After the resounding failure of Sanders to win the Democratic nomination, and with his endorsement of Biden, the DSA leadership majority close to Jacobin magazine began supporting Biden on the grounds that Trump represents fascism in America. From the call to vote for the “lesser evil,” Jacobin went straight to urging Biden to keep his campaign promises. If the bourgeois united front works and Biden wins the election, the DSA will have taken one step further in its integration into the capitalist regime via the Democratic Party.
The task right now is to prepare for a Democratic administration that, amid the pandemic, will inevitably attack workers and the masses because it also will have been given the strategic task of recovering lost ground in the world order with an aggressively imperialist agenda. For socialists, this means we must keep our hands clean of the Democrats now. We have to make clear that Biden will betray any and all expectations of the working class and the oppressed, in particular the Black community. While we have not yet seen a significant break with the Democratic Party, a Biden presidency could accelerate the experience of the vanguard. It opens the possibility that a new revolutionary socialist organization could emerge in the United States, built from the anti-racist vanguard, the vanguard of workers who have directly confronted the pandemic, and new sectors radicalizing in the heat of the crisis. If there is class struggle in the form of resistance against the austerity plans or a new awakening of the anti-racist movement, we socialists have the responsibility to deploy a revolutionary program and put forward a political alternative for those seeking a political home. Ultimately, it is not what happens in the Democratic Party that will determine whether a workers' political alternative can emerge, but rather great confrontations between the classes that will make independent historical actions by the masses possible.
If Trump contests the election outcome, it will call into question all basic democratic rights. We cannot leave defense of the vote and democratic rights to the Democrats, the same people who used all sorts of maneuvers against their own internal dissent. This scenario obliges us as socialists to prepare to intervene independently to defend unconditionally the democratic rights of the working class and the oppressed in the United States. Our perspective should be for a united front of workers in unions, unorganized workers, and BLM (or people of color) to unify the struggle to defend democratic rights, against racism, and against the austerity plans that the capitalists want to apply.
This has an international component too. Both parties are preparing for greater tensions with China and to try to restore U.S. hegemony in the world. Whether Biden or Trump is president, sanctions will continue against countries such as Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba that refuse to submit to U.S imperialism’s designs. The strategic alliance with Israel will continue. U.S. troops will remain in the Middle East. Mexico and the rest of Latin America will suffer the same extreme oppression. Whether through a return to neoliberal multilateralism or Trump’s America First approach, the decadence of the empire will make the masses of the oppressed countries suffer. The U.S. socialist Left has another urgent task: build strong opposition here to the imperial plans of the bipartisan regime.