With the eruption of physical conflict inside and outside rallies of billionaire Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, actively encouraged by the candidate himself, American politics has reached a critical turning point.
The consequences of the explosive social tensions within the United States, combined with unending war abroad, are emerging on the surface of political life. For the first time in the United States, a candidate with a distinctly fascistic and authoritarian program, who openly declares that a large portion of the American population must be suppressed, is on the verge of capturing the candidacy of the Republican Party.
Trump—with his massive fortune accumulated through finance, real estate operations and outright criminality—is the political personification the oligarchic character of American society, in which a small elite with massive wealth at its disposal presides over unprecedented levels of social inequality. His campaign represents a pre-emptive move by this oligarchy, which is well aware of the growth of working-class militancy, to develop new and more openly authoritarian methods of rule.
Trump’s particular role is to tap into deep social anger produced by a political system that is hostile and indifferent to the problems of mass unemployment, declining wages and economic decay effecting millions of people. He seeks to channel this anger along reactionary lines, combining populist denunciations of “disloyal” corporations that export jobs with racist and xenophobic attacks on immigrants, Muslims and foreign countries.
The Trump phenomenon emerges out of a definite political and social climate. The very fact that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, his main Republican rival, is being presented as a “moderate” alternative demonstrates how far to the right the American political system has gone. Cruz is arguably as reactionary and dangerous as Trump himself, advocating military escalation in the Middle East, huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and the erection of a semi-theocratic state in America.
The Democratic Party in itself is riven by crisis. Hillary Clinton, its official front-runner, is the personification of the political status quo. She has presented her campaign as the continuation of the Obama administration, embracing the very government whose policies—bailing out Wall Street at the expense of working people, expanding the wars of the Bush administration, building up the powers of the military-police apparatus—have created the conditions for the rise of Trump.
Clinton is justly among the most despised figures in American politics, her campaign built on a mass of lies and hypocrisy. She and her husband, the former president, have leveraged their positions in the political machine to acquire immense personal wealth.
The campaign of Clinton’s rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has attracted mass support largely on the basis of his self-identification as a “democratic socialist.” The broad sections of workers and youth who have propelled Sanders into a serious contender for the Democratic nomination are supporting him because they are seeking decisive political and social change.
However, there is an immense chasm between what Sanders is perceived to be and what he is. His campaign is itself an attempt by the ruling elite to pre-empt a mass radicalization of the working class and youth by corralling them back within the confines of the Democratic Party, one of the two political instruments through which the financial aristocracy has controlled American political life for more than a century.
While Trump is deadly serious about his program of extreme reaction, Sanders’ “socialism” is no more than a phrase, devoid of any genuinely anti-capitalist content. As the campaign progresses, his program and rhetoric are acquiring an increasingly conventional character. In a certain parallel to the rhetoric of Trump, Sanders is pitching his appeal ever more directly along the lines of poisonous economic nationalism, denouncing not the capitalist system but various trade agreements that have enabled China and Mexico to “steal American jobs.”
There have been numerous comparisons between the present election campaign and the 1968 election, which saw the racist demagogy of George Wallace, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the police reign of terror at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This occurred under conditions of a growing movement against the Vietnam War, massive urban uprisings throughout the country and militant strikes by the working class.
The Democratic Party, compromised and discredited by the Vietnam War, ultimately ceded power in 1968, which marked the beginning of the end of New Deal liberalism. The election was followed by the steady evolution of the Democratic Party to the right. It has increasingly utilized various forms of identity politics to develop a base in more privileged sections of the middle class for war abroad and an escalating assault on the working class at home, culminating in the Obama administration. It is this that has allowed a reactionary demagogue like Trump to find support among significant sections of lower-income Americans.
Comparisons to the 1968 elections are certainly appropriate. However, there is another American election campaign to call to mind: that of 1860, when the sectional and class conflicts within the United States exploded into open civil war. That conflict was driven by the impossibility of reconciling slavery and free labor. Underlying the crisis of 2016 is the emerging and irrepressible conflict between the working class and capitalist class.
However legitimate the anger and revulsion they express, nothing will be resolved in confrontations with Trump supporters at his rallies. Such actions only provide the opportunity for state repression, and Trump’s own response is developing as a fusion between his paid thugs and the existing police forces.
The drastic shift to the right in official American politics must be combatted through the methods of the class struggle. The first step in this struggle is to recognize that working people and youth must break out of the straitjacket of the Democratic Party, uniting all sections of the working class in a mass political movement directed against the capitalist system.
The working class must put forward its own independent class strategy to defend jobs, living standards and democratic rights, and to fight the growing danger of an imperialist world war. This means the fight for a socialist program, based on the nationalization of the banks and basic industry under democratic control, to put an end to the domination of society by a tiny handful of the super-rich.
The same issues are posed to the working class in every country. The effort of the ruling elite to stoke extreme nationalism and chauvinism, to divide workers against each other, is aimed at creating the conditions for the escalation of imperialist war and social reaction. It must be countered through the fight to unify all workers everywhere on the basis of their common class interests.
The decisive question is the building of a revolutionary leadership in the working class and among young people. It is necessary, as we wrote in a perspective earlier this month, to get off the sidelines and fight to build this leadership. We urge all working people and youth who want an alternative to the decay of world capitalism to make the decision to join and build the Socialist Equality Party.