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To Stop Trump, We Need Much More Democracy, Not Less

Democrats have been trying to kick Trump off the ballot as an “insurrectionist.” Liberals say we have to restrict democracy in order to save it. As socialists, we think they have it backwards: to beat the Far Right, we need a mass movement fighting for radical democracy.

Nathaniel Flakin

March 18, 2024
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Former president Donald Trump standing at a podium in front of American flags.

With just nine months left until the U.S. presidential elections, Donald Trump is ahead in the polls, and Democrats are panicking. The obvious solution would be to drop unpopular policies (abetting genocide in Gaza doesn’t poll well!) or, at the very least, replace their visibly senile candidate. Yet Democrats refuse. Instead, Democratic officials across the country have been looking for ways to keep Trump off the ballot. They are arguing that with the riots at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump engaged in “insurrection,” and is thus ineligible to hold office according to the 14th amendment to the constitution. That amendment was passed in 1868, after the Civil War, to prevent former Confederates from being elected.

Trump stands in opposition to the most basic principles of democracy. He assumed the presidency in 2016 with three million fewer votes than his opponent. In 2020, he was seven million votes short, and he organized lawsuits, media campaigns, and an armed mob in an attempt to stay in power. Trump has a long record of attacking democratic rights. The idea that he stands for democracy is absurd. Yet does that mean that socialists should support these calls to invoke the 14th amendment?

Before it was rejected by the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision, the argument for disqualifying Trump had been pushed by both constitutional scholars and political pundits. David French is both, and while not technically a Democrat, as a Never Trumper speaking from a liberal pulpit at the New York Times, he’s basically the Democrats’ Republican. French has dived into the legal theories that would bar Trump from running, for example in conversation with Ezra Klein.

French concedes that barring the candidate preferred by tens of millions of U.S. citizens would undermine democracy: “Yes, it is undemocratic, exactly as it was intended to be,” he writes. In his view, “many of the Constitution’s provisions are intentionally antidemocratic,” making the country a “democracy with guardrails.” Excluding this one candidate, in French’s eyes, is the least “destabilizing” option for the U.S. regime — it’s the “lesser evil.”

There is a certain logic to this: why allow someone to compete for votes if they state clearly that they will not accept the results, and might even summon a violent mob again to secure victory? As Jamelle Bouie, another Times columnist, argues: “There is no rule that says democracies must give endless and unlimited grace to those who used the public trust to conspire, for all the world to see, against them.”

As socialists, we will certainly not be campaigning for Trump to remain on the ballot. But we understand that anti-democratic measures by courts or election officials cannot beat the Far Right. While French argues that we need to restrict democracy in order to save it, we would make the opposite case: Trump’s power rests precisely on the least democratic elements of the U.S. regime. To defeat him, we need a mass movement fighting for radical democracy.

Undemocratic Institutions

In 2020, Trump was seven million votes behind his opponent, yet due to the arcane rules of the U.S. election system, he came within tens of thousands of votes of the presidency. He had already “won” with fewer votes in 2016. In U.S. “democracy,” the winner isn’t picked by the majority of voters, but rather by completely unknown delegates selected in thousands of jurisdictions, each run according to their own rules. The fundamental impenetrability of the system forms the basis for endless conspiracy theories. If George W. Bush legitimately won the 2000 elections despite getting far fewer votes, then for many Trump voters it’s perfectly plausible that their candidate “won” as well. Answers are only provided by competing experts.

French and many liberals argue that all the anti-democratic mechanisms in the U.S. constitution are “guardrails” designed to protect both majority rule and minority rights. Yet the framers said explicitly that the goal was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” in the words of James Madison. These “guardrails” are to protect the rich. The only minority that the constitution protects against “mob rule” is the oligarchy of landowners, enslavers, and capitalists. 

The least democratic elected body in the U.S. system is the Senate, in which each resident of Wyoming gets 45 times more votes than each resident of California. Since the allocation of seats in the Senate affects the composition of the Electoral College, each Wyoming voter has about four times as much weight in the presidential election as each California voter. It is no coincidence that citizens in white, rural areas have greater representation than their non-white, urban compatriots. When certain people are told that the “god-given,” “natural” order of things grants them greater rights than others, they will have a hard time accepting that their preferred candidate lost. 

Trump survived impeachment due to the undemocratic nature of the Senate. He is currently trying to avoid criminal prosecution by appealing to the least democratic institution of the U.S. regime, the Supreme Court. The only reason Trump ever held any power was due to the undemocratic features of the constitution. Further weakening democratic principles, as French and many Democrats are arguing, will only strengthen Trump — or Trump-like figures down the road.

Balance of Forces

Over more than two centuries, the U.S. constitution has become more democratic, both in its text and in its interpretation. This has only ever happened as the result of mass mobilizations. The 14th amendment is not some mysterious text that can only be interpreted by sage scholars. Rather, it is a written expression of a particular balance of forces in the class struggle at the time it was passed. The question is not the precise legal definition of the word “insurrection,” nor who is allowed to adjudicate that. (Trump’s trials are partially revolving around whether the President is an “officer of the United States.”)

The 14th amendment reflected the fact that by 1868, millions of formerly enslaved people had secured arms and won their liberation in a civil war. The amendment was the result of a mass mobilization to disempower the enslavers. When the Northern bourgeoisie subsequently amnestied the former enslavers and allowed them to reimpose racial discrimination via Jim Crow, the amendment became meaningless, even if the text remained the same. It never was and it never will be the courts who protected democracy — only working-class and oppressed people, organized and armed, can do that. “Democracy” does not exist as an abstract concept, but only as a stage in the class struggle when the subaltern classes have won certain rights. 

This applies today as well: only a mass mobilization against the Far Right can defeat Trumpism. But Democrats, as the party of the liberal bourgeoisie, are determined to hold back protests — they fear working people in the streets far more than they fear Trump. They channel all social discontent into NGOs and similar bureaucracies of the social movements. Faced with the threat of another Trump presidency, their only idea is to impose “guardrails.” If liberals really wanted to defeat Trump, they could grant voting rights to everyone living in the United States, including the undocumented and the incarcerated. Yet liberal capitalists, just like their conservative siblings, live off the super-exploitation of migrant labor that is denied basic rights. They are far more afraid of the working class uniting than they are of Trump.

The Problem Is Capitalism

Around the world, far-right forces are on the rise, and attacking basic democratic rights. Even in countries with constitutions far more democratic than the United States — with proportional representation, for example — are not immune. That is because every bourgeois democracy suffers from the same basic deficiency: all economic power is concentrated in the hands of a vanishingly small minority. To declare that the people are in power, while all of society’s wealth is controlled by a handful of parasites, is an insurmountable contradiction. With their billions, the capitalists control the press directly, and all democratic institutions indirectly. Thus, no progressive reform of the U.S. constitution could ever make it democratic.

Trump only exists as a billionaire due to the fundamentally undemocratic nature of capitalism. His wealth is based on the fact that housing in New York City is controlled by rapacious speculators, even if they all work with public subsidies. The Trump family gained power by profiteering with a basic good that everyone needs: urban housing. If we were to put real estate under democratic control, Trump as a capitalist would simply disappear. 

Similarly, it was billionaire media moguls who gave Trump a political platform. If the majority controlled the media — both the traditional kind and the social variants — democratically, then Trump would never have reached a mass audience.

In summary, liberals have been arguing that we need to restrict democracy in order to beat Trump. But the indictments against Trump, and the willingness of some parts of the judiciary to move against him, are an attempt to defend capitalist stability at a time when no wing of the ruling class is able to establish its hegemony. As socialists, we put no faith in the bourgeois state apparatus in order to beat Trump. Only a vast expansion of democracy — more than capitalist society has ever known or could ever grant — will ensure that far-right politics remain marginal. Expanding democratic rights is not a question of haggling over constitutional formulations, but rather mobilizing the working class and the oppressed.

Marxists have always fought for democratic rights within the capitalist system. We do not believe that this system can ever be democratic — we want a “democracy of a different class.” But this doesn’t mean that we are unconcerned with democratic questions. By fighting for the most radical version of democracy, the working class can overcome its illusions in the current regime and gather forces for its assault against the bourgeoisie’s power.

As socialists, we aim to abolish all the antidemocratic “checks and balances” of the U.S. regime, like the Senate and the Supreme Court. For anything like democracy to exist, power must be in the hands of directly elected representatives. We think that housing, the media, and the rest of the economy needs to be under the democratic control of workers.

Only socialism — the rule of the working class — will guarantee true democracy. Every person will have an equal say in how we organize everyone’s labor. This kind of radical democracy, as practiced by the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Russian Soviets of 1917, would ensure that billionaires like Trump have no social basis.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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