Know your enemy: Left strategy in the post-Trump (?) era
In this March 5, 2021, photo protesters supporting former President Donald Trump march down Fifth Avenue on their way towards Times Square in New York. | John Minchillo / AP

This is the first part of a commentary by veteran organizer Max Elbaum on the strategy and tactics needed now.

Sun Tzu’s famous dictum about how to prevail in war applies to politics too. We have to know our enemy and know ourselves.

For the know-our-enemy part, understanding the underlying system we are up against is essential. But it is only a starting point. On the terrain of politics, partisans of social justice do not fight capitalism as such. Rather, we contend with specific political actors who have agendas different from ours. First and foremost, we square off against whatever specific bloc constitutes the biggest obstacle to winning the democratic and socio-economic gains that are the flashpoints of contention in any given period.

To “know” that enemy, we need to grasp its essential character, strengths, and vulnerabilities.

That translates today into getting the clearest possible picture of the racist and authoritarian coalition that has “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on its banner.

“The GOP is a party-for-dictatorship”

The MAGA bloc has many features, but its core is identified in a recent article by Bill Fletcher, Jr: The MAGA movement has captured the Republican Party and turned it “from being a hard right-wing party to becoming a party-for-dictatorship.”

Today’s GOP disdains democracy and aims to impose long-term rule by a minority of the population. Republicans’ unanimous support for voter suppression is the clearest example. As the Washington Post put it:

“The GOP’s national push to enact hundreds of new election restrictions could strain every available method of voting for tens of millions of Americans, potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Black men.”

The classic authoritarian weapon, the Big Lie, fuels the GOP’s campaign to prevent millions from voting. Despite copious evidence to the contrary,  60% of Republicans say the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. And as Trump continues to push this fictional justification for voter suppression, 81% of Republicans maintain a favorable opinion of him. The GOP Senate leadership gave him their newly created Champion of Freedom Award.

The passionate loyalty to facts-be-damned thinking in the core of the MAGA bloc is rooted in racism. Even the racist bullhorns that replaced earlier dog whistles are no longer enough for top MAGA spokespeople: Fox News star Tucker Carlson, whose name has been floated as a possible Trump-backed 2024 presidential candidate, now overtly links the curtailment of voting rights with the “Great Replacement” theory.

According to Carlson, “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”

Carlson’s remarks were too much even for groups as backward as the Anti-Defamation League. ADL head Joseph Greenblatt noted the Replacement Theory’s roots in the fever swamps of racist and anti-Semitic hate-mongers and called for Carlson’s resignation. Fox News defended Carlson, Republican leaders stayed silent, and Media Matters reports that since Carlson opened the door, the Replacement Theory is “all over” Fox News.

Who is a “real American”?

The GOP’s transformation into a party of racist authoritarianism did not start with Donald Trump. It’s been underway since the backlash against the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s began five decades ago. But the Great Recession following the 2008 financial crisis and the way the election of the first Black president catapulted demographic change onto the consciousness of racially anxious whites created a tipping point.

Though Trump and the GOP undoubtedly have a substantial working-class base, primarily among whites, the biggest part of his support comes from the wealthy and upper classes. This ‘Trump parade’ in Jacksonville, Fla., in June 2020 featured hundreds of yachts and party boats. | AP

Trump succeeded because he was willing to burst through previous “norms” and make sentiments that had been cultivated among Republicans for decades the centerpiece of his drive for power. Those sentiments—which define who is a “real American” in a very particular way—are rooted in how white supremacy was structured into U.S. society from its inception. Finian O’Toole in the New York Review of Books explains:

“It is not wrong to call the allegations of a rigged election the “big lie” of Trumpism…But it’s a lie that was already there.…  it is both old and mass-produced, made by fusing the idea of entitlement to privilege—which is being stolen from white Americans by traitors, Blacks, immigrants, and socialists—with the absolute distinction between real and unreal Americans. The concern is not, at heart, that there are bogus votes, but that there are bogus voters, that much of the U.S. is inhabited by people who are, politically speaking, counterfeit citizens.”

Despite endless punditry about Trump’s base in the working class, the forces driving the Trumpist project are predominantly from the middle and upper classes. A cohort of right-wing billionaires and chieftains in the fossil fuel industry have bankrolled Trumpism’s ascent from the Tea Party through “Birtherism” to the presidency. The owners and leading figures in the right-wing media machine (Fox News, One America News NetworkNewsmax, Sinclair Broadcasting, Talk Radio) are swimming in dollars.

The social layer that is most committed to turning out when their cult leader issues the call is revealed by a recent study of the January 6 “insurrectionists”:

“Most of the people who took part in the assault came from places…that were awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture….  You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.’”

Large numbers of workers who are white also have gathered under the Trumpist banner. All too many have embraced its most racist and conspiracy-mongering aspects. And many others are vulnerable to endlessly repeated GOP arguments. But except in the rhetoric used by some of its pitchmen, MAGA is not a movement driven by a workers’ upsurge from below.

A rigged system

The “survival-of-white-Christian-America-is-at-stake” belief that permeates today’s Republican Party is a powerful force. And it doesn’t act only in the electoral arena. The MAGA core has an armed wing: a combination of non-state militias and members of police forces, ICE, and the military under its influence. Throughout U.S. history, denying the vote to people of color and repression via state and non-state violence has been the combination of choice for defenders of white supremacy and capitalism.

But for the next four years and likely longer, the outcome of the electoral battle will determine whether the country descends into dictatorship or takes a path toward multiracial democracy and economic transformation.

The electoral terrain we are forced to fight on is rigged in the GOP’s favor. The structure of both the Electoral College and the Senate favors small-population states that are overwhelmingly white. The Electoral College skew allowed Trump to win in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by three million. If in 2020 fewer than 100,000 votes had switched columns in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, Trump would have won re-election despite losing the popular vote by double that amount. The Senate is split 50-50, but the 50 Republican senators represent 41 million fewer people than the 50 Democratic senators.

A federal system that gives considerable power to state governments likewise favors the GOP. Gerrymandering gives the GOP extra power in a society where Democratic and progressive voters are concentrated in compact urban areas while rural and exurban areas are largely Republican. This increases GOP representation in the House and tilts state legislatures in their direction. Today’s epidemic of state-level attacks on voting rights and moves to criminalize protest movements of all types is the result.

But even in a system rigged in their favor, the MAGA core falls short of what it takes to ensure dominance through electoral means. With only 35-40% of the electorate, they need to win additional constituencies to vote their way. The GOP leadership has all but given up on gaining a popular majority nationwide. But they aim to win enough support from wavering sectors that—combined with suppressing the votes of others—can assure them control of every branch of the federal government.

Key GOP operatives use sophisticated means and messaging to accomplish this goal.

Latino voters have long been a particular target. Libre, an arm of the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity” effort, has been working for a decade to bring Latino voters into the Republican column. Well-funded, with an extensive field operation and systematic cultivation of small business owners and churchgoers, Libre claims credit for Trump’s better-than-(some)-expected showing among Latinos in 2020, especially in Texas and Florida.

With demographic change clearly not in Republicans’ favor, the party has made voter suppression a key part of its electoral strategy. Black voters, like this woman casting her ballot on Oct. 19, 2020, during early voting in Georgia, are a major target. | John Bazemore / AP

Methodical work in specific geographic areas—impoverished rural communities, “rust-belt” cities—is also a GOP staple. Where once-strong trade unions or Democratic Party organizations have atrophied or disappeared, the GOP has moved in. For many residents, mainly but not only whites, mega-churches linked via their ministers to right-wing politics are the only civic organizations available. Voting for the GOP is not an on-ramp requirement, but after being in the fold for some time, it can simply become another feature of belonging to that community.

MAGA strategists and media stars have mastered the art of spreading disinformation and fanning people’s fears. Niche efforts are aimed at Black men saying that immigrants are taking their jobs. Campaigns are focused on specific Asian or Latino nationalities casting the GOP as their defenders against a repeat of what many feel were traumatic and oppressive experiences under left-led governments.

The latter build on decades of messaging from both major parties that equates socialism and communism with dictatorship. The current campaign to demonize China is only the latest iteration of this longstanding pattern. Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns dented the power of that prejudice somewhat. But there remain millions of Americans of all races and nationalities who support specific programs advocated by the left but still regard socialists as dangerous and power-hungry.

GOP leaders also excel at coordinating their tactics in Congress with their long-range drive for political power: Obstruct every step that might benefit working and poor people; starve and undermine government programs and services that do anything for the public good; and then use the failures of those under-resourced programs to promote privatization and demonize Democrats or progressives who support social programs. It is also the GOP’s lockstep commitment to obstructing everything that gives undue leverage to the most backward Democratic congresspeople (such as Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema), yielding the GOP both policy and political gains.

Chinks in the GOP armor

For every MAGA move to expand their base, though, there is a corresponding vulnerability. There is a tension between supplying enough racist red meat to keep the diehard MAGA core happy and keeping needed sectors of peoples of color in the GOP tent.

It is risky to rely on demonizing the Biden administration to win votes when a significant proportion of the GOP base supports its legislative initiatives. (About 40% of Republicans supported the American Rescue Plan.)

A party that places its biggest electoral bet on a shrinking demographic sector (older white people) while giving less attention to growing sectors of the population and youth tends to be on an unstable footing for the medium and long run.

Obstructing every step that might give even a small measure of economic benefit to working and poor people while fighting for tax cuts for rich people is not easily squared with Republicans’ current attempt to rebrand themselves as the party of working-class America. U.S. history includes moments when the combination of hardship and contact with organizers who work for the liberation of all has spurred many whites to question pre-existing prejudices and turn in the direction of cross-racial solidarity. The number of people today grappling with how to repeat them with even greater strength and durability is larger than at any time since the 1960s.

Developing a battle plan to neutralize the MAGA movement’s strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses—and then successfully implementing it—is a big challenge. It is further complicated because, among those opposed to Trumpism, the progressive and left forces are only one contingent and not (yet) the strongest one at that. Therefore, to formulate the outline of a winning strategy requires an assessment of the balance of forces among those who are fighting authoritarianism as well as between the “party-for-dictatorship” and all those against it.

So the next installment of this column will take a look at ourselves.

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As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Max Elbaum
Max Elbaum

Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board, and the author of "Revolution in the Air," reissued by Verso Books. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of "Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections" (OR Books, 2022).