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Right populism after Trump
Robert Bechert, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)
Trump's election defeat, but with a significantly increased vote, has sharply posed the question of what happens next?
It is not simply about who will be the next US President. The fact that Trump's former close ally, US attorney general Barr, took the step of announcing that there was no evidence of any voting fraud that would have changed the outcome of November's election, shows that the decisive sections of the US ruling class will prevent Trump trying somehow to hang on inside the White House.
A key question is what Trump will do next? Make no mistake, Trump hopes to build upon his 74 million-plus vote. Immediately, Trump is striving to consolidate and expand his base. In the month after the election, he has raised $207.5 million, a large part of which is going towards new political campaigning.
If, as reported, Trump soon announces his intention to run again in 2024, the campaigning will step up and continue. He will aim to exploit disappointment with Biden, as Trump did with the results of the Obama presidency.
Despite his clownish aspects, Trump's policies pose real threats to working people, the environment and more. While cynically claiming to have done more for black Americans than anyone, with the "possible exception" of Lincoln, in the presidential debate he refused to condemn white supremacists and told the far-right Proud Boys militia to "stand back and stand by."
And while more serious representatives of the ruling class attempted to limit the unnecessary, from the point of view of capitalism, steps he wanted to make, they were not always successful.
Trump's post-election statement that he would send "the military in" if there was a repeat of last summer's protests after George Floyd's murder was an example of the threat that could be posed.
But Trump is not simply an isolated individual who has taken over the top of the Republican Party. There is a minority in the US ruling class that wants to go onto the offensive right now, fearful both of the relative decline of US imperialism, especially vis-a-vis China, and the growing support for socialist ideas within the US. There also are elements like Amazon owner Bezos, who is both anti-Trump and viciously anti-union.
While Trump really started his political career with support for the 'birther' campaign that Obama was not legally entitled to be president, he also deepened the Republican anti-socialist campaigning.
This built up during the Obama presidency claiming that the Democrats, a party based upon huge big business funding, were somehow 'socialists', something that spurred the current interest in, and general support for, socialism within the US.
Now Trump continually pushes this further, recently arguing in Georgia that the Democrats want "to go into a communistic form of government".
Every step Trump has taken since the election has been not simply aimed at defending his legacy and his claim that he really won, but, more fundamentally, aiming to ensure his movement continues. It is absolutely clear that, whatever happens to Trump personally, his type of right populism is not going to simply fade away.
It is rooted in the objective conditions in the US; the fall in average living standards, the loss of jobs and decline of some areas, the growing alienation of many from what are perceived as the elite and, above all, the absence of a powerful workers' movement fighting both for immediate improvements and a clear socialist alternative.
Clearly, this is not just a US phenomenon. Trump's election gave a boost to similar right-populist figures and movements internationally, like Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duterte in the Philippines. Certainly, Trump's defeat is a warning sign to such leaders, but one election defeat does not mean an end to such movements.
Other countries, such as Austria, Belgium and France, have seen right-populist or far-right parties suffer election losses, but have then recovered. In Italy, since the 1990s, we have seen a succession of such parties rise, fall back and then, to some extent, being replaced by a newer formation, most recently the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy).
In Hungary, the xenophobic far right Fidesz party, led by prime minister Victor Orban, has consolidated its authoritarian grip on the state since being first elected in 2010. There has also been the more recent election in Poland of the right-wing, clerical nationalist, Law and Justice party (PiS).
A striking feature of Trump's rise has been the inability of 'liberals' to counter the rise in his support. Indeed, their attacks have sometimes consolidated his support. One of the most infamous and well known examples was Hilary Clinton's denunciation of "half" Trump's supporters as a "basket of deplorables".
Of course, it's true that among Trump's base there are those who are, as Clinton said, "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic"; but this does not explain how Trump tapped into a vein of support that allowed him to take control of the Republicans and, after four years in office, increase his vote by over eleven million, including record numbers of people of colour voting Republican.
The political polarisation in the US gave both Trump and Biden record votes in November; while Trump scored nearly 74.2 million, the Democratic vote rose by 15.4 million to over 81.2 million.
Trump's exploitation of the widespread alienation and rejection of the old elite, summed up as the Washington 'swamp', was rooted in the experiences and disappointments of the Clinton, Bush and Obama's presidencies. All were seen to fundamentally favour the rich, often carrying out, directly or indirectly, policies which harmed or did not improve workers' living standards.
Trump sought to exploit, and twist, real issues which the Democrats had no fundamental answer to. Trump was seen by a section as standing up to the elite, not being intimidated but speaking bluntly and directly, offering a vision of a better future - "Make America Great Again" - and defending the 'nation' - "America First".
Of course, he pandered to and gathered support from prejudiced layers but, as Bernie Sanders occasionally showed, it was possible to appeal on economic and social issues to some of those drawn towards Trump. The tragedy was that Sanders' conscious strategy to work within the Democratic Party, and ultimately support Hilary Clinton in 2016, and now Biden, was not at all attractive to those pro-Trump layers who were open to him.
There are many things still open regarding Biden's presidency, but it is clear that from the start it will be under pressure from events and a polarised US.
Given Democrats' failure to even maintain the size of their majority in the House of Representatives and the open question over the outcome of the Georgia special Senate elections in early January, Biden may be faced by a Republican-controlled Senate from the outset.
Even if Biden is able to pass proposals through the Senate, there will be the potential opposition from the strengthened right-wing Supreme Court majority. This could stymie Biden's room to act, but even without this, it is clear that Biden's policies will be rooted in capitalism.
While that is not to say that the Democrats could not be pushed by events and pressure to try to undertake wider reforms, the likelihood is that they will disappoint again and thereby create opportunities both for the development of independent labour politics and renewed scope for right populism.
Generally, right populism exploits the natural anger that arises in class society against the rule of an elite, while seeking to turn this resentment away from developing into a class-conscious socialist opposition to the ruling class and capitalism itself.
Despite occasional propaganda that they are 'on the side' of 'ordinary, hard-working people' and they 'defend' the family, etc, at root, the right-populist leaders are pro-capitalist and anti-socialist.
Practically, they twist and distort anger at what are often real issues away from the fundamental causes and towards scapegoats, eg the 'lazy' unemployed, minorities, against foreign capitalism or businesses owned by ethnic or religious minorities.
Such tactics are not confined to right-populist or far-right parties. All pro-capitalist parties need an element of populism in order to gather mass support; after all, the capitalists themselves are a tiny minority of society. Even dictatorships and totalitarian regimes can deploy populist slogans alongside nationalism.
Against this, the pro-capitalist liberal critique of populism, while taking up some of the prejudices that right populism displays, fundamentally cuts no ice. This is because, with bourgeois liberals supporting capitalism, they have no answer to popular resentment that society is 'not fair', 'loaded' against 'ordinary folks' and ruled by the rich.
At best, these liberals want to improve capitalist society, when the root cause of the current popular disenchantment is capitalism in a period of crisis.
Of course, right populism can also base itself on, and tap into, conservative and religious traditions and prejudices, nationalism and racism; all elements used at different times by ruling classes to maintain their rule.
Right populism's growth since the 1980s has generally been a reflection of the failures and decline of the traditional 'left', significantly seen first in France and then rapidly in 1990s Italy.
In Belgium, the Flemish nationalist and anti-migrant Vlaams Blok (today the Vlaams Belang) began to significantly grow electorally in 1988, around the same time that the Haider-led Freedom Party did the same in Austria.
In both cases, well organised and deep-rooted social democratic parties had degenerated into almost completely pro-capitalist parties tainted with corruption and clientelism.
Since then, as the CWI has explained, this deepened with the further experience of the pro-capitalist polices, often including austerity, of social democratic and 'socialist' parties in government.
The 1990s and after saw the additional effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union which gave capitalist forces the opportunity to launch an ideological offensive to say that this 'proved' that 'socialism' had failed. Even though the Soviet Union and other similar countries had not been socialist, because there was rule by a totalitarian elite and no genuine workers' democracy, their collapse provided the occasion for a further right turn by many former social democratic, socialist and communist parties, and by many trade union leaders
Role of workers' parties
As long as there remains an absence or weakness of a genuinely socialist workers' movement, there will be scope for right populism, independently of what happens to individual right-populist parties or leaders, especially in times of deep capitalist crises, which we are experiencing today.
The challenge remains of how to deal with right populism, particularly as it can use its demagogic slogans to make inroads into some sections of the working class.
The key is the building, or rebuilding, of a combative, democratically run workers' movement that shows in practice that it is serious in struggling for better lives. This is currently missing in the US, with many union leaders involved in forms of 'business unionism', and often being utterly corrupt, as seen in the recent embezzlement convictions and jailing of former national United Auto Workers union leaders.
But Trump's period in office also saw a strikewave of teachers and education workers across the country, sometimes organised by the rank and file, many of which won some concessions.
The deepening issues within capitalist society, of widening inequality, job losses, cuts to public services, environmental concerns, and discrimination and oppressive policing of minorities, etc, are provoking opposition and fightbacks, albeit sometimes inchoate in organisation and programme at this stage.
Thus in the US, and echoed in many other countries, there were massive anti-Trump protests following his 2016 election win. There has also been the spontaneous eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement. And BLM was preceded by the tremendous global school strikes over destructive climate change.
In addition, notwithstanding Covid restrictions, there have been strikes and mass demonstrations in Brazil against Bolsonaro, general strikes against Modi in India (see page 15), and huge pro-abortion rights protests against the PiS in Poland, to name a few. These show the potential for undermining right populism.
Only by taking and fighting on the concrete issues facing the working class, minorities, the especially oppressed, and sections of the middle class, will it be possible to answer in practice the right populists.
Building movements, based around working-class unity and solidarity, is the way in which internationally support can be built for parties of the working class that will lead the struggle for a socialist transformation to end the never-ending turmoil of capitalism, and the damage it does to humanity and the world.
In The Socialist 9 December 2020:
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