Stay focused on the real fightback: the defeat of Trumpism will not come at the ballot box

John B. Cannon

Posted October 2, 2020

Proud Boys gather in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. (Photo: John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The 2020 election is shaping up as something more than merely a regular transfer of power election between the two major parties. Trump has leaned into overt racism at a time when many people thought these views were relegated to the dustbin of history; in a moment in which Black Lives Matter mass protests are met with white supremacist violence, he has aligned himself with far right street thugs, militias, and stochastically organized paramilitary forces; he is now threatening to muddy the waters of the election so much that there is no clear outcome, so that he can stay in power.

Racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-communism, and misogyny have been mobilized by erstwhile liberals, centrists, and mainstream conservatives, including by Joe Biden and the Democratic Leadership Committee wing of the Democratic Party he represents. Voter suppression, particularly of Black and Brown communities and “irregular” strata of the working class is nothing new. But the mobilization of this by a right-wing nationalist leader with demagogic pretensions threatens to turn quantity into quality, exacerbating the dangers of low-level civil strife and moves towards an authoritarian consolidation. The danger is not really Trump’s abstract “ideology,” which is mostly a variation on the theme of Reaganism along with some elements reminiscent of the French National Front, but this leaning into open racism coupled with “law and order” revanchism, his winks and nods to open fascists, and his tendency to run roughshod over democratic practices.

On the flip side, of course, Trump is a relatively weak authoritarian. It seems unlikely that he could consolidate a fascistic or authoritarian regime without vestiges of democratic checks, since neither the military nor most of the bourgeoisie support him. The wing of the bourgeoisie that does support him is calling for calm, saying that normal, democratic practices will be observed. However, under Trump’s leadership, part of the Republican Party is blurring the line between fascism and right-wing nationalist, authoritarian aspirations, and Republican elected leaders are increasingly unable to operate independently of Trump’s personalistic command. In sum, the politics of fascism are very much at hand, even if the immediate possibility of a fascist consolidation (which I take to mean here mainly getting rid of vestiges of democratic practices – not anything about the “extremism” of the ideology) is not.

We should not take too much comfort in Trump’s evident low level of support among the military and intelligence services. It is true that this makes unlikely some of the more fanciful scenarios in which Trump clearly loses an election, both in terms of popular vote and the Electoral College, and refuses to leave office. However, these scenarios do not represent the more likely possibilities which Trump is telegraphing: that he will mobilize his power as the leader of the Republican Party to weaponize every legislature, Republican governor, and secretary of state in close states, creating a fog of chaos which casts the results into doubt or prevents clear results from ever emerging.

The discourse among comrades with a long history in the Trotskyist, post-Trotskyist, and generally anti-Stalinist far left has been for years and still tends to be about all of the ways in which the current moment is distinct from historical fascism. To be sure, this is a reasonable counter-weight to the chorus of liberal and “popular front” voices every four years saying that this is the most important election in our lives, as if we are amnesiacs. In 2020, a number of experienced political people who cannot be so easily dismissed have come over to thinking that we are in the midst of a crisis which puts us on the brink of something dangerous – whether that be full-fledged fascism, civil war, or an escalating series of conflicts which tend more and more in those directions.

Is this a pivotal moment?

What’s a brink, and how do you know you are on it? How about a brink that feeds into a deeper crisis that then leads to the more obvious brink? How many years can it last? Does electing a weak neoliberal provide any reprieve at all? How many times are you on the brink, only to dodge back into “safety,” only to find yourself once again on the brink? If I described a historical process, changing enough of the details that you didn’t know the outcome, how would you recognize the “real” dangerous fascist and the “real” brink as opposed to all of the false ones that didn’t quite pan out?

The claims that we are obviously not on the brink of fascism often seem to amount to an argument that we are not on the edge of a shift into a suspension of democratic forms and the possibility of vigorous opposition, a la 1933 in Germany. But this is something of a straw man with respect to a serious analysis of the current situation. If we are sticking with Germany, the better analogy seems to be with the very late 1920s: escalating crisis threatening the livelihood of the majority, the decay of an old political order, street battles between the left, various right-wing forces, and the police. To be sure, late 1920s Germany had a strong, organized Communist Party, while today’s BLM is heterogeneous; antifa is half organized resistance and half specter conjured up by the right; and today’s rising but still weak and lightly rooted socialist forces have struggled to reorient themselves almost 90 degrees from the social-democratic hopes of the Sanders campaign to the BLM upsurge.

Voting for Joe Biden in the midst of a crisis which has put neoliberalism to the test is an incredibly weak bulwark against any of this – so much so that it should be pretty quickly dismissed as a serious line of defense. Even a Biden win might not provide any reprieve in the long term, if the really dangerous fascist leader turns out to be not Trump, but a less disorganized protégé down the road. One problem with the Nazi analogies is thinking that we know who the dangerous figure is – “it is Hitler, it is all solidified in the person of Hitler, it was always, obviously Hitler.” Reading a bit lately about the late Weimar Republic makes me think that if we were alive, then, it would be hard to tell who the most dangerous right-wing political actors were and what the most dangerous line of developments would end up being. Nevertheless, the call to vote Trump out is certainly understandable as a minimal gesture, given that elections happen and sometimes make some differences.

What should socialists say about the election?

Given all of this context, what if anything should socialists as socialists say about the election? In my view, this election provides no “opening” for the forces we care about and would wish to cohere politically; it is all about playing defense against these authoritarian threats. The space for an independent, progressive-movement-based, third-party candidacy has been, for all meaningful purposes, suffocated – not of course by the right, but by the Democratic Party and by liberal and popular front political pressures that have been intensified 100-fold. The Green Party is getting a tremendous amount of online hate and – if polls and internet search trends are to be believed – very little in the way of grassroots interest. The suffocation is maddening, but this year, at least, the authoritarian threat is real.

We should defend the right of the Green Party and other independent political forces to ballot access. More importantly, we should throw our modest shoulder behind the wheel of a socialist vision that would contribute, along with principally BLM and other forces, to the possibility of constructing a world beyond the polar options of a decrepit neoliberalism and a resurgent nationalist authoritarianism that one must squint to distinguish from fascism. But those forces will not come together or advance in this election; the most they can achieve is a momentary breathing room – 95% of which will be achieved, or not, outside of the ballot box.

The Democratic Party is flashing signs that despite the increasing combativeness of its constituencies, it will follow in the pattern of 2000 and 2004 and do nothing to organize a real fightback, even as Trump looks to 2000 and calls for two, three, many Floridas. Socialists should stand together with social movement forces to respond on the streets to defend election integrity and marginalized communities, organize an anti-fascist fightback, and hopefully, promote a “de-Trumpification” of governing institutions – all of which the Democratic Party intends to soft-pedal so as not to offend its anti-Trump, Republican lite allies. The existence of BLM and a layer of socialist-leaning youth means that it might be possible to organize a massive street response that would get so far ahead of the Democratic Party leadership that they have little choice but to get behind it. That’s the kind of thing we may need, whatever the specific, triggering crisis may be.

I vote in a red state, where my vote at the presidential level is a mere curiosity. If I were voting in one of the plausible swing states, I would hold my nose and cast an anti-fascist vote for Biden. In past elections, I have argued for a third-party vote to protest the two-party duopoly, develop a vision of a better world, and, at best, build an electoral organization that can contribute to shaking things loose. In recent years it has seemed to me that the Green Party, with all of its weaknesses, was the best stand-in for such a vote. I don’t feel that I can make such an argument for the Green Party vote this year. I will continue to defend Green Party and other third-party voters and nonvoters against blaming and shaming attacks, but I don’t feel that it’s worth it for us to get into the weeds of an unwinnable argument. There is a crisis unfolding around us, and for left forces, the old, well-rehearsed election arguments are a distraction. To the people who are desperate to defeat Trump, we need to be saying: besides voting for Biden, what else are you ready to do? What are you willing to do to defeat Trumpism, not only for the next few weeks but after Trump is gone? That’s an urgent conversation.

John B. Cannon was a labor and education activist in California during the 2000s and early 2010s. He is currently working as a humanities teacher overseas.


2 responses to “Stay focused on the real fightback: the defeat of Trumpism will not come at the ballot box”

  1. michael dunlap Avatar
    michael dunlap

    Hooray! This the first serious article I have read coming out of the DSA discussion over what to do about Trump and the current moment of crisis. The author appears to actually study history as opposed to the usual “left” babel. I do feel that looking at the rise to power of the nazis critically is useful. Instead of imposing my particular interpretation, let me suggest folks watch the “detective” series BabylonBerlin” available on Netflix. You will be entertained, but understand that this series portraying the crumbling of the Weimar republic beginning in 1929 is based on an extensive and serious historical investigation by the author, Volker Kutscher’
    into the descent of his country into the hell of nazism. Watch and reflect. History is confusing and messy, but it is our only true guide.

  2. Rick Lerche Avatar
    Rick Lerche

    I agree with most of what the author says here. I totally disagree with him on voting for Biden yet supporting the Greens. That makes no sense to me as a socialist. I voted for Hawkins/Walker as a supporter of the progressive Green Party and it is seen as a protest vote against the duopoly of which Biden is a part of.