How does Trump survive?

Court cases and legal action won’t stop Donald Trump, argues Mark Gillespie, and Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t have the answers either

In spite of facing numerous serious charges, ranging from plotting to overturn the 2020 election result, mishandling classified documents and falsifying business records, Donald Trump remains the leading contender to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 2024.

Highly paid liberal lawyers and Democratic attorney-generals thought they could use the law to bring Trump down, but so far they have failed miserably.

Even the indignity of having his mugshot taken at the Fulton county jail has failed to dent his political appeal. Polling of Republicans in October had Trump leading overwhelmingly, with 55.9 per cent support ahead of his next rival, Ron DeSantis, on 14.7 per cent.

Not only does Trump look like winning the Republican nomination, he has a real chance of winning the presidential race.

A Marist National Poll in October had Biden narrowly leading Trump 49 per cent to 47 per cent, while other polls have them dead-even or even with Trump just ahead.

Trump hasn’t been hurt politically by the indictments because he has always promoted himself as an “outsider” loathed by the establishment. The indictments feed his claims that he is facing the “single greatest witch hunt of all time”.

Trump has used his “outsider” appeal to connect with millions of people suffering on low pay and in dead-end jobs. They too feel like outsiders abandoned by what Trump calls the “Washington swamp”.

The end of the dream

Part of Trump’s support base comes from the vast pool of alienated, disenfranchised people that has built up in the US in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s important to grasp just how deep the social crisis is.

The so-called “American Dream”, the idea that regardless of your class background you could get ahead through hard work, was always a myth. But in the three decades after the Second World War it held some truth as living standards for US workers improved year after year.

But the global post-war boom ended in the mid-1970s and both the Republican Party and the Democrats embraced neoliberal economic reform as a solution to the US’s economic woes.

This resulted in millions of well-paid, stable, usually unionised jobs being destroyed in the name of profits and market forces.

In 1979 manufacturing in the US accounted for 22 per cent of all jobs—by 2019 it was down to just 9 per cent. In 1974, the highly unionised US steel industry employed 512,000 people. By 2015 it was down to just 142,000 people.

These jobs were replaced with less secure, low-paid work predominantly in the service sector. According to a 2022 Oxfam report, more than 39 per cent of workers make less than $US15 an hour and many of them work for the federal minimum of just $US7.25 an hour.

Inequality in the US has increased massively. In 1980, the wealthiest 10 per cent earned about 34 per cent of all income; today they earn close to 50 per cent of it. If you look at assets, the divide is even starker. The richest 10 per cent of households own more than 70 per cent of wealth, the bottom half just 1.5 per cent.

The depth of the social crisis was highlighted by a 2018 Federal Reserve survey that found almost 40 per cent of American adults would have to borrow or sell something to deal with a $400 emergency.

Trump speaks to the disenfranchised poor, telling them he wants to “make America great again”, that he will bring back manufacturing by using “patriotic protectionism” and by opposing supposedly job-destroying environmental policies.

Trump has also racialised economics, telling white workers that undeserving groups are getting ahead while they are left behind.

In the 2016 election Trump surprised many pundits by winning Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All these states are considered declining “rust belt” states, hard hit by the downturn in manufacturing. It was here that Trump’s message resonated.

He combines this support from the disenfranchised with the support of the sections of the elite and the middle class that have always backed the Republicans.

As long as this massive pool of disenfranchisment remains, Trump has the potential of tapping into a deep well of discontent and misdirecting it. Even if the lawyers do manage to jail him they will just turn him into a martyr. Trumpism has to be fought politically.

Fighting Trump

Much of the left sees falling in behind the “lesser evil” of the Democrats and Joe Biden as the way to beat Trump. Biden’s commitment to ruling on behalf of corporate America, however, means he is incapable of dealing with the social crisis that is fuelling Trumpism.

During the 2020 election Biden promised big spending on infrastructure that would create millions of well-paid jobs.

While his Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was significant, it was not transformational. Only a fraction of it actually goes into projects to help improve people’s lives.

He also had an ambitious climate action platform and on his first day in office signed the US up to the Paris Agreement. But again his actions on climate change were not transformational and his commitment to corporate America was shown with his support for the highly destructive Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska that environmentalists describe as a “carbon bomb”.

He also promised to eliminate much of the $US1.7 trillion in student debt that more than 43 million Americans owe, but failed to deliver and bargained off those reforms to get spending bills through Congress.

Winning the votes of blue-collar workers in the “rust belt” states was crucial in the 2020 election and Biden built an image of himself as being pro-union and a friend of blue-collar workers.

He kicked off his campaign in a union hall in Pittsburgh and concluded it with a promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen”.

He recently became the first US president ever to address a picket line when he visited striking auto workers in Michigan.

Biden’s verbal support for unions, however, didn’t stop him from banning a national rail strike last December. Biden made the strike illegal after 400 companies and business associations wrote to Congress complaining about the prospect of major economic disruption.

Not surprisingly, Biden’s popularity has plummeted. As inflation continues to eat away at workers’ spending power, a poll in August found just 36 per cent of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of the economy, down from 60 per cent in March 2021.

Where Biden has maintained his commitment is to war and US imperialism.

When it comes to confronting China, backing Israel or ploughing money and arms into the proxy war in Ukraine against Russia, Biden is a hawk. The US is by far the biggest spender in Ukraine having spent $US46.6 billion on military aid in 2022 alone.

The left

Regardless of Biden’s poor record many on the left feel he is the only alternative.

Bernie Sanders, who ran against Biden for the Democratic Party nomination last time, has already endorsed Biden as the alternative to Trump. So too has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other left-wing Democrats.

Even Ralph Nader, the high-profile consumer advocate and environmentalist, who on numerous occasions ran as a third candidate, has backed Biden saying, “I know the difference between fascism and autocracy.”

The AFL-CIO, the US equivalent to the ACTU, has backed Biden 17 months before the election, their earliest endorsement ever.

Cornel West, a renowned left-wing African-American intellectual and activist, has announced he will run against both Trump and Biden, but is already under enormous pressure to withdraw, facing accusations he’ll help Trump by taking votes from Biden, including from Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

Supporting Biden as the “lesser evil”, however, hobbles the left. When Biden outlawed the rail strike, union leaders and left-wing Democrats were very muted in their criticisms.

If the left doesn’t offer people real hope and a genuine fight, more people will turn to Trump and his false solutions in despair.

The potential to build a fighting left alternative to the Democrats is real. During Trump’s first term he faced enormous on-the-ground resistance, beginning with the massive Women’s March and ending with the enormous Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 that mobilised between 15 and 25 million people.

Crucially, the US labour movement is showing signs of a revival. Seventy-one per cent of Americans now say they approve of unions, a 60-year high.

Between October 2021 and September 2022, the number of petitions to the National Industrial Relation Board wanting to start a union jumped 53 per cent.

More than 8000 workers at 331 Starbucks stores in at least 40 states have voted to unionise. Workers at the notoriously anti-union Amazon succeeded in unionising the warehouse in Staten Island, New York.

After 148 days of solid strikes, the Hollywood writers’ union recently concluded an agreement that goes some way to addressing their grievances. Seventy-five thousand Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers recently ended a three-day strike and are threatening more.

According to a Cornell University researcher, so far this year 453,000 workers have participated in 312 strikes. As Solidarity goes to press the 150,000-strong United Auto Workers are expanding rolling strikes against the big three American auto companies in pursuit of a decent wage rise and an end to their hated tiered wages system.

These workers have massive public support, with nearly 60 per cent supporting the strike and only 19 per cent supporting the companies. Even among Republican voters, 49 per cent support the strike, showing the potential for class struggle to eat into Trump’s support base.

To combat Trump’s politics of despair, these struggles need a clear uncompromising political voice, and that means a clean break with the stifling “lesser evil” politics and the legal manoeuvring offered by the Democrats.


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