In his first few hours as US President Joe Biden put the US on the path to re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation, stopped building the Mexico border wall, made mask-wearing mandatory on federal property, announced an end to the ban on trans people serving in the military, cancelled permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, strengthened the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, added gender-neutral pronoun options to the online White House contact form, and enacted a number of other measures that would gladden the heart of any liberal or leftist.
With Democratic control of the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the Senate, Biden’s administration can do a lot of what it likes in the next four years; although he will need to work with Trump’s engineered 6:3 conservative:liberal majority in the Supreme Court. It marks a return to minimally competent, neoliberal, bourgeois government. Can Biden’s presidency go beyond that, and will it be enough to kill off Trumpism?
It’s sobering to think that the result of the presidential election, even after Trump’s dire first term, was so close: Biden, 81,268,757 (51.3%)/Trump, 74,216,722 (46.9%). Turnout was 62% of the voting age population, higher than recent elections, but given that this election was posed in make-or-break terms by both sides, a substantial proportion of Americans still does not recognise itself in either of the mainstream parties.
Who supports Trump?
The forces of Trumpism, and the movement he has allied with and fostered, include evangelicals, xenophobes, and those whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the decline of industry.
"As he accentuated divisions among Americans, Trump sewed a crazy quilt of these and other divergent groups by treating each of them differently.
"He won the support of more evangelicals by pushing the speedy approval of [anti-abortion] Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. For xenophobes, he continued to blame COVID-19 on China, and refused to condemn the white supremacist Proud Boys until severely criticized. For those hurt by the shrinking industrial economy, he prioritized the economy over fighting the pandemic.” (Ron Stagg, The Conversation , 15 November 2020)
What will it take for the Democratic Party to win over those Trump-voters or those apathetic, non-voters? And, a more substantial question: is a strengthened Democratic Party the way out of America’s grossly unequal society?
Divided politics, unequal society?
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated the glaring inequalities in US society, riven as it is along lines of race and class.
A few recent statistics illustrate the problem. The US stands 11th in the world for Covid-19 death rate (the UK 6th), and people of colour are over-represented among the 419k people who have died. By late 2020, stoked by the pandemic, unemployment stood at 13.2% for Black people, 11.2% for Latinos, and 7.9% for white people. Yet in the midst of all this suffering during the pandemic 651 billionaires have gained more than $1tn in additional wealth.
Like all – competent – governments worldwide, the US Government is currently spending vast amounts of money shoring up the economy and providing a public safety net during the pandemic. Biden is now pressing Congress to pass a US$1.9 trillion pandemic relief package to add to the US$900 billion approved already under Trump.
But what will happen once the pandemic recedes, and who will be asked to pay back the extra debt? Will it be the rich, or the poor and middle class?
Biden is in the centre in terms of the politics of the pro-business Democratic Party, and he was Vice-President to Barack Obama during his underwhelming presidency that failed to deliver on its promise of great change (yes, we can; but no, we didn’t). Biden will not steer Democratic government to the left and will enact no substantial political or social reforms to address US inequality in the longer term.
And what of Vice-President Kamala Harris? If Biden does not run for a second term, Harris would be in a good position to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2024. But she is not on the left of the Democratic Party, and critics say that in her law career, including as California attorney general, she was not, as she claims to have been, a “progressive prosecutor.” The fanfare around her promotion to the highest office held by any woman/woman of colour says more about the poor state of women’s and Black people’s representation in the US than it does about Harris as a feminist icon.
What is the threat?
The storming of the Capitol on January 6 shocked most Americans, Republican Party supporters included, and many feared this was the start of an insurrectionary wave. But the many threatened demonstrations on the day of Biden’s inauguration didn’t happen. The organisers seem to have been deterred by arrests of those taking part in the 6 January events, and the likelihood that state capitols would be heavily guarded, as the US Capitol was for Inauguration Day itself.
Has the far-right threat been exaggerated? Is the US about to fall to fascism? No, on both counts. Trump’s four years in office massively emboldened the far-right, and Trump has given them respectability: they now appear as the ’out-there’ wing of the conservative coalition but no longer beyond the pale. Many Republican Party politicians think so too, as they refused to join in condemnation of Trump in the aftermath of 6 January for fear of alienating the Trumpist electorate. Trumpism continues to be a substantial force in the Republican Party.
If Biden’s presidency fails to deliver to his voters and alienates still more of those attracted to Trumpism, the 2024 election could see another far-right Republican returned to the White House, in a context where the far-right is becoming more organised and emboldened. Moreover, the Covid-19 crisis makes a Biden failure and growing political disenchantment harder to avoid.
The main socialist organisation, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), grew dramatically around Bernie Sanders’ bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020: it went from around 5,000 in 2015 to 66,000 today. A number of its members are high-profile members of the House of Representatives, elected on the Democratic ticket, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
The DSA was torn during the 2020 election: they did not officially endorse Biden, but many of their members criticised this and campaigned for Biden in order to stop Trump, while the trade union movement overwhelmingly backed Biden. The AWL supported a third candidate in the presidential election, Howie Hawkins.
There is a substantial force to the left of Biden. Trade unionists and leftists, and campaigners for equal rights for all Americans, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, will need to step up their campaigns and struggles to ensure that Trumpism does not bounce back from Trump’s defeat. They must keep campaigning on the social issues that can win part of Trump’s base to an orientation to the labour movement, as well as represent those working-class Americans who do not see themselves reflected in the political system. They must build an independent pole to the pro-business, machine politics of the Democratic Party which offers US workers little genuine hope for the future.