The state and counterrevolution: Democracy in the era of Trump
Storm clouds gather over the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. | Office of the Architect of the Capitol

Our country is in the midst of a profound governmental crisis. This crisis is revealing itself deep within the bourgeois state, that hallowed body of legislators, lawyers, and corporate lobbyists vaunted by some as the apogee of modern civilization. There are overlapping crises in the White House, in the executive as a whole, and between the presidency and the federal judiciary. Fault lines also lie in the relationship between the presidency and Congress with regard to traditional checks and balances and consent for judicial nominees. Congress itself is not immune, as witnessed by the subversion of the traditional filibuster rule. Here, GOP partisanship is pursued to the exclusion of all else. In the period before the election, the vacillation and caving of neoliberal Democrats was also to blame.

The crisis is expressing itself in most severe forms in the war among White House factions, in the discontent evident among officials in both U.S. intelligence apparatus and the Department of Justice, and in a series of judicial checks on presidential overreach that carry implications of a constitutional crisis.

Branches of the executive are in apparent contest with one another, with roles traditionally attributed to the State Department and Pentagon being challenged by the intelligence agencies. Neo-fascist conspiracy theories about conflicts within the “deep state” abound on all sides, repeated by the president himself.

The State Department itself seems to be in deep crisis as positions go unfilled due to turf wars regarding hiring, while its responsibility for foreign policy gets replaced in some cases by Trump family members.

People are asking, “What’s it all about?” and “How will it affect me?” These are important questions on the minds of a broad public more than a little overwhelmed and perplexed by Trump’s crisis-a-week style of governing. The implications of unchecked minority party rule both in Congress and in the executive, exacerbated by presidential mendacity on a scale never seen before, are becoming ever more apparent.

The crisis of the American state

On one level, the crisis is sparked by a self-declared war by a faction within the White House on the “administrative state,” i.e., the various departments that comprise the executive branch of government. The aim of this assault is to undo the protections and services government provides, things like workplace safety guidelines or warnings about lead in the drinking water. Such measures are a nuisance, if not anathema, to a ruling class in pursuit of maximum profits.

At work here is not only the dismantling of the federal bureaucracy but also an undoing of an idea that underlies it – the concept that the purpose of government is to serve the people. This notion is the lynchpin, the very basis, of the U.S. social contract since the days of the New Deal. In this regard, Trump is the fullest realization of the neoliberalism elaborated in FDR’s shadow.

Trump’s presidency has exposed the crisis facing the American state, but it goes much deeper than one man. | Olivier Matthys / AP

On another level, the crisis has broader implications. Not only is the structure of the state being reimagined, so too are its ends and the means by which they’re achieved. In this regard, is Trumpism an attempt to normalize non-democratic decision making? Some seem to think so, including many Republicans, as evidenced by House support for an amendment offered by Rep. Barbara Lee challenging the president’s authority to make war.

The implications here go not only to the decision-making process itself – in other words, democracy – but to the very concept of the country itself as a nation-state. The U.S. is extremely polarized, with powerful centrifugal forces pulling at its seams.

Consider that the U.S. nation, like other capitalist democracies born in the 19th century, is still in formation. Some argue, for instance, that its bourgeois democratic revolution was only recently completed with the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. Among the reasons for the delay have been the ongoing influences of racism and nationalism, influences that historically are at work in every land.

In fact, Lenin once observed that this is an objective process and that in every country, as well as internationally, two tendencies are at work: separation and integration. Here he was speaking of what Marxists call the “national question,” the formation of nation-states during the imperialist stage of capitalism. In Lenin’s view, the process of production itself determined that the trend towards integration was primary.

However, today it is difficult to say with any certainty for how long the dominant trend, integration, will hold sway. In light of the breakup of the Soviet Union, or more recently the ascendance of separatist trends in Europe and the passing of initiatives to withdraw from the European Union, scenarios unimaginable a few years ago are today’s political realities.

With “white nationalism” and the proposition that an oppressed white nation is fighting for its place in the American sun part of the everyday discourse among the Breitbart encampment of Trump’s coalition, can the re-emergence of such Confederate forces be completely ruled out?

Clearly, the crisis of late stage state monopoly capitalism is giving rise to unpredictable consequences.

Here a mix of two schools of bourgeois political economy and governance, Keynesian and neoliberal, are at play and battling for influence in union halls, university campuses, corporate boardrooms, city councils, state legislatures, and into the courts and halls of Congress, pitting workers, immigrants, races, genders, and identities against each other in a uniquely American white nativist “us” versus a multinational, multicultural “them”.

But curiously, both schools have reached their nadir, with Keynesian methods long ago running their course and austerity now too meeting the same fate. Hence, we get Trump’s curious mix of economic nationalism, austerity, and privatization alongside plans for business-funded infrastructure investment and (in all likelihood false) promises to stay the course on some entitlements in a desperate attempt to maintain his base and find economic solutions, even if only temporarily.

Trump and the counterrevolution

And it is precisely here that the greatest danger lies, and it’s an ominous one at that. To achieve these ends, Trump has, for reasons of both ideological predilection and necessity, allied the traditional Republican coalition with the so-called alt-right and its mass base in the lower middle class and among some sections of white workers, particularly in small towns and rural areas, potential shock troops in the battles to come.

Already hamstrung by the mass resistance to his policies and, in particular, by the aftermath of his firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump – in keeping with Roy Cohn’s schooling – increasingly skirts along the edges of the law.

In relation to Comey, the Commander-in-chief seems to have actively interfered in the law enforcement process not only by attempting to get the former director to drop the Flynn case but also by approaching Dan Coats and NSA Director Michael Rogers with the same directive. And so far, Trump’s allies in Congress have refused to side with federal law enforcement or the intelligence community in checking this abuse of power.

Here the issue of how Trump’s surrogates responded is key. Did the attorney general or White House chief of staff challenge his overtures, or were they silent? In a White House and Republican Party dominated by a rash and authoritarian president and surrounded by loyal family insiders, did government officials find the courage to uphold the legal and political rules of the game, or did they ignore them? As one legal scholar put it: “The institutional defenses against the breakdown of basic norms begin with an understanding among the key personnel of the government that their roles require them to cooperate in upholding these norms.”

If they didn’t uphold them, the country’s already in deep trouble. Indeed, the crisis in the state consists precisely in the degree to which these norms of government broke down.

In this regard, the whole reaction by the administration to the Russia investigation suggests a definite step in the direction of lawlessness, with all the danger that this implies.

A breakdown in the norms of governance also pertains to the relationship between the presidency and the Fourth Estate. Trump, in Nixonian fashion, has labeled the capitalist press “the enemy of the people,” and purveyors of fake news. To be fair, there has long been a contentious relationship between the White House and the press but never a sustained wholesale assault on truth, facts, and the pushing of alternative narratives and “realities” lending an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy to the institutions of both state and civil society.

The point here is that Trump and company, as a political force, represent something new, a break, a rupture with past norms and bourgeois democratic practices. Other administrations have broken the law and attempted to dismantle the EPA or the Department of Education, but never has there been such a sustained assault on the foundations of government married to an alliance with neo-fascists and supported by an apparent foreign interference in the electoral process. The country appears to be in the first stages of veritable counterrevolution aimed at imposing a new form of capitalist rule.

At this juncture, the crisis is occurring within the upper echelons of the ruling class itself as different sections contend for influence: Big Oil and Wall Street demanding deregulation and tax relief; Silicon Valley pursuing more free trade, and the military-industrial complex pushing for foreign intervention and a bigger share of federal spending.

In the White House, there’s the appearance of a truce between alt-right neo fascists and Wall Street bankers on the one side and more traditional conservative Republicans, represented by the Trump’s chief of staff, on the other. Support for the president among the various GOP factions in Congress remains, though Trump is taking no chances, returning again and again to the GOP base to shore up support.

Moving beyond resistance

How then will the crisis be resolved, and what does it portend for the future? Clearly, the special counsel’s probe and Congress’s investigation must proceed along parallel lines, but just as clearly, they cannot be left to themselves.

Notwithstanding the current skirmish with Trump, the FBI is hardly a bastion of democracy, and both chambers of Congress are dominated by the GOP. Hence the need for ongoing mass public pressure. Here, both a generalized form of broad public pressure (popular front) and a class-based one emphasizing the socialist solutions that have burst onto the agenda as a result of the Sanders campaign are necessary. Both must be carried on in tandem without mechanically placing one against the other, with the Communist Party always bringing the interests of the working class to the fore.

Communist Party members march on May Day 2017 in Los Angeles. | CPUSA

But the question arises as to what degree in the short term the crisis is resolvable, given that the forces in play have permanent class interests and long-term resources for realizing them. In other words, the underlying causes of the crisis are to no small degree independent of the present actors and, short of addressing these causes, the symptoms are likely to reproduce themselves again and again.

The state, democracy, and their related institutions are strained and in crisis because the conditions in which they function are strained and in crisis. The rate of profit continues to fall. Wages are stagnant. Debt, both personal and public, is sky-high. Life as it was once lived is disappearing, never to return. In these circumstances, promises of change are broken, repeatedly. Class, racial, and cultural resentments abound. Government is not trusted, the news media is not believed, and voting is seen by half the population as a waste of time.

And yet, the country is in the midst of the largest and most sustained mass movement for democracy in its history. Initiated by women in the aftermath of the inauguration and joined by millions in cities across the country, this movement has engaged the Trump administration at every turn, particularly on health care. It has already set the midterm elections in its sights, recruiting thousands of candidates. Shouldn’t communists take their place among them?

And it is here that hope lies. It is a new, inexperienced movement. As of yet, its working-class component lacks full involvement, focus, or an agenda balancing the demands of the left and center along with the equality imperatives of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and the disabled. Still, it is the country’s best and only chance to move beyond resistance to a new advanced democratic dawn.

Thanks to John Bachtell, Scott Hiley, Joel Wendland, and C.J. Atkins for copyedits and comments.


Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.