Trump’s workers’ party debunked: “What’s Left?” January 2021

It pisses me off.

In 2015 Breitbart ran a story by Lisa De Pasquale entitled “Political Punks” that détourned the famous 1976 Ramones record cover by superimposing the heads of rightwingers Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter and Gavin McInnes over the four original band members.

Blasphemy!

Joining in on the “conservatism is the new punk rock” tip, Nick Gillespie praised and requoted De Pesquale’s original sentiment in “Let Us Now Praise Political Punks!” (Reason) that:

[P]op culture is inherently anarchic, fun, and beyond the control of P.C. masters of the left and the right: ‘There is a group of conservatives and libertarians – I call them political punks – who actually have cultural credibility. They appreciate mainstream culture for the power of the parable in furthering a message of liberty. They also understand that unlike the perpetually outraged on both sides, Americans don’t view everything through politics. They are anti-authoritarian. They are punk. They go against the liberal culture scene and the conservative political scene. These punks are our best hope for engaging new audiences on the importance of liberty.’

Bullshit!

One of these days I’ll definitively put to rest the myth underlying this quote that the youth rebellions of the 1960s lost politically but won culturally. In other words, that the 60s lost the war but won the peace. That misdirection, as well as the notion that conservatism is the new punk rock, are like proclaiming the Hitlerjugend a rebellious youth movement while denouncing the Swingjugend as establishment fascists.

The tendency for Republicans, conservatives and rightwing libertarians to claim they’re one thing when they’re the opposite is nothing new. F.H. Buckley wrote in The Republican Workers Party in 2018 that Trump’s GOP is the future of American politics—socially conservative, multi-ethnic, working-class based, economically middle-of-the-road, eschewing laissez-faire for America First protectionism. Buckley’s polemic was anticipated by Graham’s “A Trumpist Workers’ Party Manifesto” (The Atlantic) and Calmes’s “They Want Trump to Make the G.O.P. A Workers’ Party” (NYT) that emphasized the same points, dismissing Matt Taibbi’s liberal panic in his Rolling Stone article “A Republican Workers’ Party?”

“Basically, large numbers of working-class voters, particularly white working-class voters, long ago abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the Republicans,” according to Taibbi. “The new Republicans would no longer be the party of ‘business and the privileged,’ but the protector of a disenfranchised working class.” He places the blame for this on the magical thinking of Reagan’s sleight-of-hand “trickle-down economics,” Clinton’s free-trade agreements, and the combined Republican/Democratic evisceration of the American middle class in the name of globalization. “Like Marxism, globalization is a borderless utopian religion. Its adherents almost by definition have to reject advocacy for the citizens of one country over another. Just as ‘Socialism in One Country’ was an anathema to classic Marxists, ‘prosperity in one country’ is an anathema to globalists, no matter what their politicians might say during election seasons.”

Polls and statistics don’t bear out the new GOP workers’ party theory. Republican support for free trade has actually increased. And while Republicans are not fans of immigration, they haven’t gone nativist either. Biden won by appealing to the middle and to independent voters. The middle-class and the suburbs, by and large, abandoned Trump this time around. Economically successful localities were not impressed by Trump’s protectionist measures, nor for that matter were localities struggling economically which suffered from Trump’s trade wars, and all these districts were ultimately dominated by Biden. Even simple demographic shifts have been trending Democratic over Republican across the country.

In 2016, Brownstein (The Atlantic) declared that “the billionaire developer is building a blue-collar foundation,” while Zitner and Chinni (WSJ) wondered about “Trump’s success in attracting white, working-class voters” for his general election strategy and Flegenheimer and Barbaro (NYT) proclaimed that Trump’s victory was “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.” But Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu (WaPo) disputed this through polling analysis: “Trump supporters were mostly affluent Republicans. […] [O]nly a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites. If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class.”

According to Jonah Goldberg: “Trump received 12 percent of the black vote, 32 percent of the Latino vote and 34 percent of the Asian American vote. In 2004, George W. Bush received 11 percent of the black vote and 44 percent of both the Latino and Asian American votes. An increase of 1 percent among black voters and a double-digit decrease among Latino and Asian voters isn’t exactly a seismic event.  [I]t’s worth noting that the average showing among union households […] for GOP presidential candidates since 2000 is about 41 percent. Trump got 40 percent in 2020, down 7 points from 2016.”

The Trump GOP workers’ party is a myth. But so is the idea that the Democratic party represents the American working class. The conversion of the Democrats from a white supremacist party of unreconstructed southerners to a national party favoring big government, civil rights and a loose coalition of single-interest groups under Franklin Delano Roosevelt is too detailed a subject for this column. Suffice it to say that the Democratic party continues to house Yellow Dog Democrats alongside social liberals and progressives in an uneasy corporatist alliance. Even at the height of FDR’s New Deal and the Kennedy/Johnson Great Society, its welfare state Keynesianism was a pale reflection of European social democratic workers’ parties with their programs of political democracy, mixed economies, state intervention and moderate nationalization.

But the decline of Marxism and the general, worldwide shift toward populism and the right means that current social democracy would be happy to settle for welfare state Keynesianism. These political changes notwithstanding, the project to build a genuine labor party in the American context is fraught from the start. That’s because there are basic differences between European parliamentary democracy and American two-party democracy. America’s 50%+1 winner-take-all electoral system virtually ensures that only two political parties dominate the political process by favoring the middle-of-the-road, thus marginalizing all other electoral contenders. Third parties like the Green Party or Libertarian Party exist, but they have little to no chance of influencing politics let alone gaining power. In turn, Europe’s parliamentary representation of minority parties has everything to do with proportional voting and recognition. And while rule by broad coalitions, left or right, tends to recreate a kind of two-party system within European democracies, there remain extant minority parties in Western parliaments—everything from monarchist and fascist to communist and green, even pagan and anarchist—with electoral options for political power.

This electoral analysis, in emphasizing American capitalist democracy’s default toward the political middle, reinforces why the theory of a Trump GOP workers’ party is crap. Is there potential for creating a viable American labor party or, barring that, transforming the Democratic party into one despite these electoral realities? Certainly everyone from Michael Moore to Gloria LaRiva spout nonstop inanities of doing just that when they’re not arguing endlessly with each other over the details. But exactly what type of workers’ party is desired?

First, start with the “hotly debated” difference drawn by Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America between democratic socialism and social democracy. To me, it’s a difference without a distinction, but the notion of taking over the Democratic party and moving it to the Left is tempting for many social liberals and progressives within the party. So is the idea of  a democratically organized, electorally based, independent workers’ party. Then there’s the Leninist vanguard party in the name of the working class, whether electorally oriented or classically revolutionary. My tradition of left communism has its own version of the workers’ party, an interventionist party as “hard as steel, clear as glass.” Finally, there are recurring calls on the Left for a “party of a new type,” labor or otherwise.

Rather than discuss these various labor party options and their potential under the dubious rubric of the “new socialist movement,” I’d like to emphasize the need for extra-electoral alternatives. Not actually as oppositional or replacement strategies to any workers’ party, but as a parallel course of action. Even as an anarchist, I never endorsed the knee-jerk reaction that “if voting could change things, it would be illegal.” I’ve always voted, but I don’t otherwise participate in electoral politics. I prefer supporting and participating in social movements—first and foremost organized labor and wildcat workers movements—to any socialist labor party in achieving socialism. The great historical social revolutions were never lead by a single workers’ party but rather were mass uprisings of numerous social movements alongside contending political parties. That’s the only real basis for a true socialism from below.

SOURCES:
(listed by date)
“The Democratic Party: How Did It Get Here?” by Ted Van Dyk (The Atlantic, 12-4-2013)
“Political Punks” by Lisa De Pasquale (Breitbart, 2/9/2015)
“Let Us Now Praise Political Punks!” by Nick Gillespie (Reason, 2/10/2015)
“The Billionaire Candidate and His Blue-Collar Following” by Ronald Brownstein and National Journal (The Atlantic, 9-11-2015)
“Rust Belt Could Be Donald Trump’s Best Route to White House” by Aaron Zitner and Dante Chinni (The Wall Street Journal, 3-6-2016)
“A Trumpist Workers’ Party Manifesto” by David Graham (The Atlantic, 5-26-2016)
“They Want Trump to Make the G.O.P. A Workers’ Party” by Jackie Calmes (New York Times, 8-5-2016)
“A Republican Workers’ Party?” by Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone, 8-6-2016)
“Donald Trump Is Elected President in Stunning Repudiation of the Establishment” by Matt Flegenheimer and Michael Barbaro (New York Times, 11-9-2016)
“It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class” by Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu (The Washington Post, 6-5-2017)
The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed by. F.H. Buckley (2018)
“The Republican Workers Party” by The New York Sun (11-6-2020)
“Is ‘Trumpism without Trump’ the GOP’s Future?” by Scott Lincicome (The Dispatch, 11-17-2020)
“Why Trumpism Is Unlikely to Endure” by Jonah Goldberg (The Dispatch, 12-10-2020)


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The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.

I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rocknroll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”

I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.

My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.

“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”

The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.

Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less than useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.

Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.

Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.

Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown

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