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Trump and after: Letters from North America
March 7, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Unity — One of the most important areas of work for socialists in Europe in the period of Trump will be to establish ongoing working political relationships with comrades in the US and Canada. To that end Left Unity will increase our coverage of politics across the pond. We will begin with a new ‘letter from North America’ courtesy of Ernie Tate. Ernie is a lifelong revolutionary who emigrated to Canada from Northern Ireland as a young man. In the 1960s working in Britain he was one of the most important activists of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. He has recently produced a two volume memoir of that period, “Revolutionary Activism of the 1950s and 1960s”, published by Resistance Books. Now at the age of 82 and living in Toronto he is still active and an acute observer of the political scene. Ernie will send us his thoughts twice monthly. Below are the first two instalment written to Phil Hearse his longtime friend and comrade.
February 8, 2017 — Thanks, Phil. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. A very good statement! I like it very much. You synthesize the general trends very well. It’s important to highlight, as you do, the scale of the shift and its international dimensions and the dangers we face. It will be invaluable in laying the basis for a good discussion, and just as importantly, help us to get a handle on what’s going on. At least the radical left should be alerted that it cannot be business as usual and we must find ways to confront the new danger. Consider this note – rather long — as a contribution to the discussion.
Humanity has certainly entered an alarmingly dangerous time and we should all be fearful for the future, but not only because of the Trump ascendancy and the rise of hard right around the globe but because of how the U.S. has been arming itself over the past period. In his last defense budget, for example, Obama, without much public notice being taken of it, assigned $1.2 trillion to “improve” their nuclear weapons and missile system, an unimaginable amount by any standard. And now within a couple of weeks of the election more than half the country – and the world – is on a war footing!
The total madness of it all was brought home to us recently when we were in Miami and switched on the T.V. to hear the panelists on various news channels talking about “how better our missiles and nukes are compared to theirs” and how “our defense system can stop theirs”, and such like. One high-level military figure even warned that the danger of war has never been higher. I think we’ve been so preoccupied with the environmental crises we’ve tended to forget this kind of threat and it’s clearly the more immediate danger. Significantly The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has adjusted the hands on its clock to two and a half minutes before midnight, the closest it has been in several decades. This should tell us something about the dangers we face.
It’s been amazing what’s been happening in the U.S. since the Trump insurgency, really a hard-right-coup inside the Republican Party. The political crisis continues as the party hierarchy try to get him back on track and it is playing out on T.V. every day. The Trump gang are on a mission to remake the party to incorporate the new right-wing elements that the election campaign coalesced across the country. Steve Bannon, cynically and ironically enough, talks about this as being a new movement of “working people”. We can be sure it won’t be movement “for” working people. Whether they need such a movement or whether it will ever get off the ground is another question however. Does the ruling class really require it at this stage? They’ve been very successful with their existing two-party system. It has worked very well. In addition, they must be aware that once you induce that kind of crises, there are high risks to their rule. Recent weeks have shown that there’s massive, if relatively unorganized, opposition everywhere and the serious possibility of new radical forces entering the political arena, although the unions still, despite everything, appear very quiescent. But it’s certainly an opening for the left as political issues can be avoided in the broader society.
It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. It’s a political crisis, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time. And every time you switch on the T.V. you see it. The media in their majority, as far as I can see, are extremely nervous about their new president. He’s so unpredictable. But it’s quite unlike the time of the Joe McCarthy witch-hunt, the last time there was this kind of shift to the right when the liberals ran for cover almost immediately he made his appearance. And it’s not just the radicals in the streets who are protesting. Hollywood, which in its time was on board with McCarthy, now seems to be in total opposition to Trump. Every awards ceremony sees major actors taking the stage to denounce the regime.
The political mood in the United States has changed dramatically over the course of the past year. It has all come upon us very quickly. Traditionally, at least up until this year, election times and for a period after, have usually been difficult period for the left to attention. In normal times, we’ve found in the past, it usually takes a while for people to recover to get back to political activity. But this year it has been very, very, different. The mobilization of women in Washington and all over the country on January 21st was truly incredible – of historic proportions and quite spontaneous, with millions participating, in cities and small towns everywhere, even in remote areas. They were larger than the largest demonstrations at the time of the Vietnam War, and involving whole new layers who have clearly never been on the streets before.
The mobilizations have been virtually continuous since the inauguration and have found their expression all over the world, according to the press. And we’ve experienced it here in Toronto. We were taken completely by surprise, pleasantly so, as was most of the left, by a mobilization of over 40,000 by our estimate (the press claimed 60,000!), made up of mainly young women, in solidarity with the Washington action. We later found out it had been organized on very short notice – mainly through social media — by a handful of women who were as surprised as everyone else by its success: they had only applied for a permit for 2,000 participants! And this past Saturday we attended another one again, against the ban on refugees – about 10,000 turned out this time on relatively short notice and on a very cold day — which is huge for here –with most of the participants again being mainly young people.
There have never been demonstrations like these for many, many years. They are truly historic. I think the mood among many young people that underlay the initial appearance of the Occupy movement was never fully extinguished. For sure it found its expression in the Sanders campaign. We seem to be entering a new period when the left, despite the difficulties, can grow but only if it can get its act together. At the minimum, there are certainly tens of thousands of new people in North America who are now ready to listen to what it has to say. It’s certainly a better time than we’ve had in a long while to win new adherents to our ideas.
February 24, 2017 — It’s been an incredible month of protests in this part of the world, and it’s worth describing them to give you some idea of the political change that seems to be underway. We haven’t seen anything like them in many decades and it is yet more dramatic evidence of a growing politicization of what has been until now, one of the most politically back-ward working classes in the world.
The election of Trump has certainly re-invigorated sections of the broad left. Ever since the huge women’s mobilization in Washington on January 21th, followed by the massive actions against the immigrant ban, it has been expressed in street protests, often national in scope and organized on very short notice, usually through the Internet and social media. They have become a common occurrence and are beginning to have an impact upon the broad general public. For example, newly- elected presidents normally experience a honeymoon period at the beginning of their term of high popular support, which lasts for most of the year. Obama’s polls were in the high 60% range, but not Trump’s. His are at 38%, and some polls have him even trending lower.
Trump’s ban against people from the seven Muslim majority countries, was the beginning of the current surge of protests, and they haven’t let up since. So totally unexpected and so wide- sweeping in its effects, it shocked the country as hundreds of travellers were detained at airports as they came off the planes. Thousands of angry protesters, placards in hand, swarmed airports, staying all night and demanding their release. Some of those held in custody, it turned out were returning residents who had only temporarily left the U.S. to visit the now banned countries, some were families, students, researchers, professors, including those holding green cards (which gave them to right to work in the United States). Revealing the depth and breadth of the opposition, hundreds of lawyers – north and south of the Canadian border– and mainly young, it would appear from the television coverage – could be seen standing in groups holding placards offering free legal assistance to anyone who may have been a victim of the ban. And buoyed by the decision of the courts to place a temporary stay on the hated decree, it’s highly likely that the protests will continue and even broaden, because Trump has now issued new decrees to side-step the legal challenges by seven states to the previous one.
And the popular unrest is taking new forms. One striking example can be seen in the uproar that is occurring at town-hall meetings in key Republican states during this current recess of the Congress. Thousands of constituents are storming them to protest Trump’s policies, so many they are unable to gain entrance. Among their concerns are the Republican proposals to collapse the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare”, as it is known. Those who depend on it for their medical care are demanding to know what will replace it. It’s been a remarkable spectacle. Despite the packing of front rows of seats with Republican supporters, wheeled out for the occasion, these meetings have erupted into a chaotic mess, near-riots, a spectacle in front of the television cameras and broadcast across the nation, as hundreds voice their outrage, often succeeding in closing them down entirely. Frightened out of their wits, many Republican Senators, who are up for re-election in 2018, have refused to hold any town-hall meetings whatsoever, sparking activists in California for example, to initiate “Where’s Waldo?” campaigns to locate their “missing” representatives, who can’t be found anywhere. So numerous have been the phone complaints, the Senate phone system has collapsed several times and protest groups have been springing up all over the place.
I have no doubt that the Democratic Party political operatives are behind a lot of this kind of activity and we shouldn’t be surprised by that. It is to be expected as the powerful and resourceful Democratic Party machine attempts to recover from its humiliating loss and works hard to keep working class unrest within the ambit of the capitalist two-party system, which until now has worked very well for them. But at this stage, the general opposition is much broader than the Democrats, with many in it having no political affiliations whatsoever and some being very critical of that party. The New York Times reports that most of the opposition has been made up of independents, many of whom were at a town-hall meeting for the first time. Masses of working people are certainly getting a valuable political lesson as they go through this experience.
Commentators have likened these interventions to similar activities by the right-wing Tea Party in previous years after the Obama administration was elected, and no doubt there is an element of copying here, but it has been noted by the media that the Tea Party disruptions took place many months after Obama’s first inauguration. Even sections of the ruling class have expressed criticism of the new regime, especially over Trump’s proposals for more tariffs on trade. The Ford Motor Company, Microsoft and many other large Silicon Valley companies have expressed their unhappiness about this.
The latest outpouring against Trump came Monday, February 20th, on a national holiday, officially titled, “Presidents Day”, but was renamed by the protestors as, “Not My President Day”. Thousands poured into the centres of major cities such as New York and Chicago, blocking main thoroughfares and stopping the movement of traffic.
That was preceded the previous week by the Hispanic and Latino community, which is solidly working class and makes up 17% of the U.S. population, and which in recent years has a history of taking to the streets to protest against discrimination, declaring a national strike against Trump’s enforcement of regulations which had been originally put in place by Barack Obama. “Deporter in chief”, as Obama was known as, because he deported close to three million undocumented immigrants during his time in office.
A “Day Without Immigrants”, the Hispanic and Latino strike was called. “Let’s see them do without us for a day!” the strikers shouted. “It’s like an Arab Spring”, stated Manuel Castro of NICE, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, which works primarily with Latino immigrants in Queens, New York. In the centre of many cities from coast to coast, the New York Times reports, it was difficult to even get a coffee, to find a shop open or to even get a meal in a restaurant, “as many cooks, carpenters, plumbers and grocery store owners”, decided to answer the strike call. Thousands left their jobs in factories, construction sites and restaurants that day to join the strike.
Hispanics and Latinos, and many others, have been galvanized into action by the sight of the authorities throughout the country, armed in military fashion, sweeping up hundreds of undocumented workers often on the flimsiest pretexts – an unpaid parking ticket, for example — for immediate deportation. Those seized, it turned out, were often a mother or father of a family that had been in the country for decades.
Conjuring up horrible images of Nazi Germany and the persecution of Jews in the nineteen thirties, many immigrants have now been forced into a life underground. “No going to church, no going to the store,” the Toronto Star reports. “No doctor’s appointments for some, no schools for others. No driving period—not when a broken tail light could deliver the driver to Immigration and Customs enforcement.”
Everyone who has a grievance against the government is planning a future action for the period ahead. Planned Parenthood, whose funding by the government was an issue in the election, is organizing a mass rally in Minneapolis to challenge Republican Speaker Paul Ryan.
He’s proposing a draft bill to strip the organization of millions of dollars of their funding. And in recent weeks, abortion rights activists—concerned by the threat to roll back Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees abortion rights, have begun to turn out in high numbers to counter the anti-abortion activists, most of whom have been loyal supporters of the Republicans and who have had the streets to themselves for this past while.
What we might be seeing in all these protests — even though the trade unions have yet to make an appearance — is the beginnings of a political consciousness in the American working class, which with all its contradictions these early days, might at long last develop to where it will break with the two-party system, break from the two capitalist parties and enter the political arena in its own name. Such a move would be truly radical, and in that light the current protests are truly historic.