America has entered a new age of extremes. The extreme right has become more powerful than it has been in modern American history with the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. At the same time, a monumental outpouring of dissent against his nascent administration has begun to take shape, as anyone who saw the Jan. 21 women’s marches across the nation can see. As much as it is exhilarating to see a huge, grassroots fightback against the darkness that Trump represents take shape, the unstable power dynamic between the protesters and Trump, and the weakening of democratic institutions marks a grave danger.
The Trump administration is in both a position of strength and weakness. Trump is the president and wields enormous power, especially given that he apparently has no inclination to work with his hands tied by the constraints of the law. Beyond that, he has a Republican Senate and an even more compliant Republican Congress. At the same time, Trump, elected by a minority of voters, has by far the lowest approval ratings of any president going into office in modern history. Without having taken any action as president at all, he has already galvanized massive outpourings of resistance.
While Trump has been able to keep up support amongst his most hardcore followers through racist dog whistling and promises to bring back jobs, he will not be able to make good on his promises to fix the economy (or to bring back jobs, etc.) while actually governing, and he’ll have no one to place the blame for these failures onto. As this happens, and as discontent mounts, the Trump administration will face a crisis.
With previous presidential administrations, crisis led to impeachment, as was the case with Nixon, or simply to a lame duck president serving out the remainder of his term without any hope of reelection. Trump, however, is a different case. Both because of his personal disposition and because of the coalition of forces that brought him to power, it seems likely that a flailing administration will lash out instead of give up.
People have suggested that the Bush administration engineered 9/11 to justify war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to crack down on dissent at home. These people are completely insane, and politically unhinged. Aside from all the technical evidence, the idea that George W. Bush would have wrought havoc on the American people for political gain is preposterous, as has been the case for all previous presidents. Others say that Bush cynically used the horrors of 9/11 to start wars and push an agenda. Though I marched to protest the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, I don’t believe that W. was acting that way. Bush, it seems, believed that he was working in the interests of peace and democracy, buying into the neoconservative belief that simply toppling the Taliban and Saddam would lead to a flowering of democracy, and the beliefs of much of the security community, which was that Iraq was aligned with al-Qaeda.
However, the political situation has changed. After 9/11, the Republican president made a speech urging Americans not to treat Muslims as enemies; now, we have a president who is considering banning them from entering the country, and adding the ones who are here on a registry. It is no longer unthinkable that a person like Trump actually could carry out his own provocation – an American Reichstag fire.
On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag, seat of the German parliament, burnt to the ground. The fire was ruled an act of arson, and was blamed on the communists. Hitler, who had been sworn in as chancellor less than a month before, on January 30, 1933 – amidst large demonstrations – urged the government to pass a decree to suspend basic rights and civil liberties and to fight the German Communist Party. The decree was past, the CP was fought and decimated, and the Nazis took over parliament, allowing for Hitler’s totalitarian rule.
There were three theories about who started the fire: a lone wolf, the Communist Party, or the Nazis themselves. Virtually no one believes the Nazi line, which was that the CP played a role in starting the fire. What is still up for debate is whether the Reichstag was burnt by a lone wolf or by the Nazis, in order to blame the Communists, have an excuse to eliminated, them, and seize total control. Whether a lone wolf arsonist or the Nazis themselves, the result was the same: destruction of liberal democracy and the rise of some of the worst brutalities inflicted by any state in history.
The Nazis’ need for a provocation, whether manufactured from air or hyped up from the actions of one man, wasn’t based on their strength, but on their weakness and desire for more power. It was based on the strength of the anti-Nazi movement. And such could be the case with a flailing Trump administration. In America, we should both do everything we can to prevent a provocation from happening, and brace ourselves for one should it happen.
Many consider Trump a fascist, and many are worried that fascism is on Trump’s agenda. That might be the case. But the way to defeat fascism is not to retreat into the underground; instead, the answer is to build a huge movement against the extreme- (or alt-) right danger. That movement has to include not simply those on the left, but it needs to include everyone who has some desire or interest in Trump’s defeat, and that includes some forces who are far from being “left.”
All of the above means strengthening the people’s movement against Trump, and better organizing it and disciplining it. Now, more than ever, it will be important to denounce any senseless violence that takes place, and to resist any attempts at political purity that reject compromise. It’s worth keeping in mind the potential of provocations, even on a grand scale, carried out by the Trump administration or its supporters themselves. First, the center-left has to be big enough and strong enough to win the battle of ideas, that is, to fight against the notion that whatever might happen is justification for some sort of emergency rule or special grant of powers for President Trump. It would be up to the democratic forces to keep enough Democrats, and to pull a few Republicans, from granting any special powers. Hitler wasn’t able to simply seize power after the Reichstag burnt; he had to convince parliament, including the center forces, to vote to give him power. The democratic forces in Germany were outmaneuvered because they were divided: The socialists were scared of the Communists (these were the two largest parties at the time), and the Communists thought the Social Democrats were sellouts (sound familiar?). We have to make sure that we are not outmaneuvered here.
The movement exists in embryonic form now, but it needs more organization, and the squabbles that the left regularly engages in have to be quieted, as does any narrowing or sectarianism that will alienate centrists or moderate, anti-Trump conservatives. The bickering between organizers of the women’s march, just like the bickering that took place between the various factions in the buildup to every peace demonstration of the Iraq War period only serve to narrow the political space and alienate other members of the left and, most importantly, those in the center. The center has to be moved and organized if Trump is to be resisted. The success of the women’s march happened because so many people are outraged by Trump’s agenda and rhetoric, and this overcame the sectarian squabbles that could have harmed the women’s march. We can’t count on that dynamic to exist forever.
Every argument, every contentious issue that the left engages in needs to be, at least for now, subordinated to the task of building a huge movement that can vie for power. It goes without saying that the vehicle for this movement can only be the Democratic Party and the groups in its orbit, including the labor movement. The alternately silly and sinister Green Party, as well as the sort of politics that surround it, simply will not pass muster. Rebuilding and/or defending the machinery of the Democratic Party is vital to making up for the decline of its organic networks, especially organized labor. It also has to continue to be the home of people fighting for economic justice and against racism, sexism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and so on. (These things can’t be put in contradiction to each other, as the Trump camp does, nor can one be subordinated to the other, as is the case with, for example, Sanders’ economic reductionism.)
America is in a dangerous situation. We have a ruler who has shown that he’s not above anything, and who is happy to chip away at the basic institutions of democracy. We also have seen a movement born that wants to fight him, but it is as yet not strong enough or organized enough to really defeat him. It is certainly not yet politically mature enough to really engage in sustained political fightback at the grassroots and legislative levels. In this period, of strong but disorganized and politically immature fightback, the threat from the Trump administration is the worst: it is worried about its legitimacy, but it still has the upper hand. We’re likely to see it lash out in some ways, either through continuing lies and repression, or through open intimidation, or even through an attempt to fundamentally shift the political atmosphere through a Reichstag-like provocation. We have to be wary, and we have build urgently a center-left fightback.
I plan to write more on who has to be brought together, who the coalition for a full restoration of democratic norms has to include. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the Democratic Party and the often-maligned Democratic establishment, have to be a huge part of this coalition.