Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week has led to a spiralling political crisis in Washington. The sharp divisions in the political establishment and within the state apparatus have become even sharper due to Trump’s authoritarian actions. Tens of millions who completely oppose Trump’s racist, misogynist, anti-working class agenda, which has no democratic mandate, have had enough and simply want him gone.
Trump digs his own hole
There is a lot of talk in the liberal media about parallels with Watergate. And indeed, the accounts of Trump’s dinner with Comey, where the President allegedly demanded the FBI head’s “loyalty” and Trump’s Twitter threat after firing him, where Trump said that Comey better hope there are no “tapes” of their discussion, certainly sound like echoes from the Nixon-era.
Now it appears Comey kept detailed notes about all his discussions with Trump. The Washington Post and the New York Times report that these notes include Trump’s demand that Comey stop investigating Michael Flynn, the former general and national security adviser who was forced to resign in February after lying about his contacts with the Russian regime.
Technically Trump has the authority to fire the head of the FBI, but what is becoming clearer is that this was part of a ham-fisted attempt to quash the FBI investigation into Trump’s campaign’s ties with the Russian government. This is otherwise known as obstruction of justice. If Trump did make tapes, and they corroborate Comey’s notes, he will be severely damaged.
Yesterday, as the White House descended even further into crisis, the acting Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, appointed a Special Counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, with wide powers to investigate the Russia links, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation.” This ensures that the political crisis will last for months but it also means the establishment have placed a check on Trump. One can only agree with the comment of Julian Epstein, who was a counsel for the Democrats when Clinton faced impeachment: “With the appointment of Mueller, [the administration] have now totally lost control of this train and have very limited ability to manage the widening crisis around it. This will go down as one of the most inept and counterproductive efforts of damage control that we’ve ever seen in public life” (New York Times, 5/18/2017).
The Congressional Republican leadership, who up until now have loudly defended Trump through all his strange twists and turns, went suddenly quiet before quickly welcoming the appointment of the special counsel. Some of his Republican critics have become bolder, with Senator John McCain saying that Trump’s scandals have reached “Watergate scale.”
What has made Trump act this way? There are two possible explanations. He could be desperately trying to suppress the revelation of a “smoking gun” that would truly sink his presidency. On the other hand, the firing of Comey could be an act of paranoid control-freakery by a completely undisciplined, thin-skinned president who was enraged by the FBI director’s recent testimony to Congress. Both seem like plausible scenarios, at this stage. Either way, it is clear that Trump gets up every day and figures out new ways to dig his hole deeper.
From the start of this administration we pointed out that, in addition to a thoroughly reactionary agenda, Trump harbored real authoritarian tendencies. He clearly admires “strongmen” like Putin, Turkish president Erdogan, or Philippines’ president Duterte. He would like to follow Erdogan’s example and purge the state of “disloyal” elements. He has already targeted the State Department, the EPA and even the National Parks Service (which published photos of his inauguration that did not show the “record-breaking” crowds he claimed). He and his henchman Stephen Bannon (currently side-lined) called the media the “enemy of the people.”
But even though Trump’s attacks on his opponents in the state apparatus have been almost as incompetent as the roll-out of the Muslim ban or his pursuit of a wall on the Mexican border, they still must be taken seriously. Socialists absolutely oppose these attempts to concentrate more power in the already hyper-powerful “imperial presidency.” We are for the maximum democratic reforms to limit and control the capitalist state apparatus. We are against authoritarian government secrecy from both this right-wing administration and the repressive security state. We demand that the government, and the big businesses that control it, open their books for working people to have all the information necessary to draw conclusions about the crimes of the rich and powerful.
This does not mean, however, that we harbour any illusions in the capitalist state apparatus in general or the FBI, in particular, as “guardians of democracy.” The FBI has been a tool of political repression from the days of J. Edgar Hoover who targeted the left and the black freedom movement to the Bush/Obama surveillance state. Nor do we have any illusions in Comey, the “straight shooter.” While Trump’s authoritarian streak is no joke, it is frankly a bit laughable to see the Democrats and the New York Times busily defending Comey’s honour when they spent most of the past few months absurdly trying to lay the blame for Trump’s victory on Comey (and the Russians, of course).
The liberal elite and increasing numbers of Republican leaders are very worried that if Trump is not stopped he will continue to greatly undermine the credibility of US imperialism. As socialists, we do not care about the credibility of this rotten system but, like millions of others, we want this dangerous regime, which has targeted immigrants, women, poor people, people of color, and the working class, as a whole, brought down. And we should be very clear that democratic rights, including the right to protest and freedom of the press, are on the target list of Trump and his vicious Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. In fact, a Codepink supporter has just been jailed for a year simply for laughing out loud briefly during Sessions’ confirmation hearing! Trump also suggested to Comey in one of their meetings that reporters should be jailed for publishing classified information. On that basis, the Watergate break-in might never have been revealed.
Trump and the ruling class
Up until now, Wall Street has backed Trump and his billionaire cabinet because of his promises to blow up regulations and push through massive tax cuts for the super wealthy. They, and the section of the corporate elite focused narrowly on the “bottom line,” are generally prepared to put up with Trump’s incompetence and strange behaviour, as long as their agenda gets through. This is undoubtedly a short-sighted approach. But even these people have their limits, and their patience will definitely run out if Trump’s scandals continue to careen out of control and threaten their broader interests, as well as the legitimacy of their system. Likewise the Republican leadership have been prepared to put up with a great deal because of the enormous opportunity presented by controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House.
But while we want Trump and his agenda out of office, it will take a mass movement and greater revelations to force impeachment proceedings. The ruling class will look for every other avenue, including persuading Trump to leave of his own accord, however unlikely that may seem. This is because of the massive political damage to their interests that would be caused by an impeachment trial. It has even been floated in some parts of the media that Trump could be removed under the Constitution’s 25th amendment, which states that the cabinet can remove the president, if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and replace him with the vice-president. Some on the left point out that if Trump is pushed out, he will be replaced by Mike Pence, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Christian right ideologue. This is true, but the key point is that any post-Trump government would be objectively far weaker. Such a government could be put under enormous pressure from mass movements who would be empowered by Trump’s defeat.
Another important element in the situation, of course, is Trump’s base. Up until now Trump’s support remained at around 40%, the lowest for a new president in the history of polling, but still enough to keep most House Republicans in line. A lot of Trump’s working-class and middle-class supporters see the Russia accusations and the firing of Comey as a liberal witch hunt, although obstruction of justice might be another matter. What is more immediately degrading his support are anti-working class attacks like Trumpcare. But what would lead to a serious collapse in support is if Trump voters concluded that his promises on jobs were a fraud. Many will be willing to wait a while longer before drawing this conclusion because, tragically, they do not see any other credible political alternative. It certainly is not coming from the corporate-controlled Democrats.
How will Trump be brought down?
Of course we cannot exclude the possibility of major revelations or more serious self-inflicted damage leading to an implosion of the Trump regime in the relatively near future. But the White House may limp out of this phase of crisis and resume its “normal” pattern of lurching from crisis to crisis for an extended period.
During and since the presidential election, the Democrats have focused on Trump as a dupe or agent of Putin. We are completely opposed to the dictatorial and reactionary Russian regime and we agree people should know the truth about Trump’s ties (and his taxes) but we have in no way supported the Democrats’ crude attempts to whip up nationalism around this question. The focus of our opposition is Trump’s reactionary agenda and his threats to stage an authoritarian power grab.
What does history show? Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was effectively brought down by the mass movement against the Vietnam War in 1968 and forced to not run for re-election. On the surface, it seems that Richard Nixon was brought down by the Watergate break-in against the Democrats that was orchestrated by Nixon’s operatives. But that fiasco, ordered by an increasingly unhinged and paranoid Nixon, was also the indirect by-product of the massive pressure of mass movements and the radicalization of the youth.
While sections of the ruling class are, for the time being, increasingly moving against Trump to try and protect the overall interests of their system, the biggest mistake for working people and the left would be to rely on them to force Trump out. All evidence points to the timidity and cowardice of the Democratic Party leadership in opposing Trump. Their pro-capitalist agenda has greatly undermined their popular appeal and stops them from mobilizing the maximum public opposition by fighting for Medicare for all, taxing the rich, free higher education, public works programs to create millions of good paying union jobs, etc.
Take the example of Trumpcare. While the Democrats are strongly against and are working to build popular opposition, their over-riding strategic aim is winning the 2018 and 2020 elections. There is no doubt that the millions vehemently opposed to Trump’s agenda will seek to make the Republicans pay the maximum political price in the 2018 and 2020 elections. But we do not need to limit ourselves to only that. Even more important is to build our own power as working people, from below. We can defeat Trumpcare now by building a powerful mass movement now. This would require a strategy of mass education, town halls, and mass rallies across the country. In turn, this could lay the basis for more widespread workplace action, including strikes starting with healthcare workers, and building for a “million person march” ending with a mass occupation of Washington, DC. Yet the Democratic Party leaders, and their billionaire backers, are utterly opposed to such an approach.
The most important task is for working people, and all those oppressed by capitalism, to build our own independent organization and movements based on our own social interests. This is the most effective guarantee against Trump and the best way to check his attacks. The resistance against Trump’s economic, social, and undemocratic agenda needs to be linked to fighting to drive him from power and preventing his successor from attempting to continue Trump’s policies. This will require a sustained movement on a massive scale, amounting to a popular revolt (as we saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s).
Such a development would also very likely force big sections of the establishment to seek to impeach Trump, or bring him down through other means, precisely to cut across and damp down a growing social upheaval. It is true that our movements are currently far from that point, despite their size, given their weak level of organization and leadership, but the depth of the crisis that Trump’s regime has unleashed is preparing the ground for exactly those kinds of explosions.
We need to make this a summer of struggle. As Kshama Sawant, socialist Seattle city councilmember recently said on Democracy Now: “We cannot wait for whether or not there will be a smoking gun that will be found in the investigations, which, of course, should go forward. The question is: What do we do now? And I think that right now the time is ripe to really build social movements” (5/11/2017). Critically, through mass mobilizations, we can defeat Trumpcare in the coming weeks. Such a victory would be a decisive blow to the right wing agenda and would be an important step in helping build the movement of working people and youth that can challenge the 1% (Republican and Democrat) and create our own force that can change society.