The Trump Presidency is finished, but the American far right are not. They and their radicalised ilk the world over, from Orban, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Alternativ für Deutschland, Wilders, to the people behind Brexit, continue to push their nationalist demagoguery with the support of many rich and powerful people, and millions ready to commit to violence on the streets.
Meanwhile, the US and UK under “Britain Trump” Johnson lead the world in Covid death rates and total deaths. And for all the relief of Biden taking the White House, the problems of inequality, deregulation, right-wing nationalism and democratic failure that helped Trump win are still prevalent, while catastrophic climate change escalates.
What does the Biden presidency mean – for the American people, for the American left, for the world? What next for Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders’ supporters? And how should we – left-wing internationalists and progressives – respond?
These and other questions were discussed in a meeting organised by Another Europe is Possible, with activists from both sides of the Atlantic, including Shaista Aziz of the Stop Trump Coalition UK, Paul Garver of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ndindi Kitonga, a Los Angeles-based academic and activist for Black Lives Matter (BLM), and Nick Dearden, from Global Justice Now. The event was hosted by Alena Ivanova.
Ndindi opened the discussion with a bold truth about what she and others have had to face in the US: “We’re counter-protesting right-wingers who show up with guns, there’s palpable fear … We’re afraid of losing our lives.” Hate crime has gone up, hate crime towards Chinese, and Asians is at an all-time high. “Even the FBI is saying there’s a rise in right-wing rhetoric and violence.”
“Every time they make a statement, even just go out being who they are, they’re in fear for their lives,” Alena notes, adding that “privilege” has meant many only see hate online, but “others are dealing with threats daily”, from the far-right, from Trump supporters. But who are they?
“By no means are all Trump supporters Qanon conspiracy believers, or are white nationalists,” Ndindi says. “Many are conservatives who got caught with the flow of a hijacked party. The “pervasive narrative” that Trumpets are poor dispossessed people is not the case: “Actually they’re bourgeoisie, small businessmen, franchisers, boat owners.”
Paul Garver concurs, “the virulent neo-Nazis are not working-class people, they’re small businessmen, they’re scum, people who’ve lost their moorings.”
Both Ndindi and Paul were shocked but not surprised by the violence at the Capitol on January 6. Paul points to the flags seen on the day: The ‘don’t tread on me’ yellow flag, the Gadsden flag of the Tea Party, the Confederate flag denoting white supremacy and stop slave emancipation, all covering themes ‘very prevalent’ in the right-wing and Republican party, the ranks filled out by anti-abortionists, deluded Jesus followers thinking Trump is Christian, all under the ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) umbrella.
Trump nationalised, legitimised, and became the standard bearer for a fringe movement, Paul notes, adding: “He’s gone – but they’re not.” Indeed, some 74 million Americans, including the majority of white voters, voted Trump, far beyond Trump’s personal cult following. Around 80% of Republicans thought Biden stole the election, and 80% believe Biden is a socialist (sadly untrue). Even Paul’s own younger brother in Pennsylvania backs Trump, having been long in thrall to Rush Limbaugh-like radio shows. “I can’t talk to him; he lives in a different universe.”
And so while the right are imploding to an extent, it will be “hard to pick that apart”, Paul notes, adding that Trump is desperate to claw back into power and may set up a third party to do so, incorporating these militias and many of the millions who voted for him. “This is scary and will not go away,” indeed, “he [Trump] could come back rearmed and ready to shoot in 2022, if the Democrats fail to reform or address the crises in the US.”
Realising the revival of the great dream, America as a City on a Hill, where immigrants could find freedom, Paul says, ”we can’t do that playing games with Republicans.” They are not interested in addressing the inequalities, racist policing, mass incarceration.
But – all these issues were as much perpetrated under the Democrats. Biden was the neo-liberal Democrat who “collaborated” on anti-black laws, mass incarceration, and Democrats have been as bad regarding hostility to immigrants as the GOP.*
And the Democrats and the Left have played their part in allowing this situation to arise, having neglected small-town America, the farms, the backwaters, Paul notes, adding that even Sanders, whose base had been built in rural Vermont, has neglected their material and psychological needs (although the Obamacare that Sanders supported has been a great help).
Paul has personally seen workers he knew in Pennsylvania flip from being two-thirds Democrat to two-thirds Republicans, feeling the Democrats and Unions had abandoned them in the face of “neoliberal capitalist wet-dream” trade deals under Obama.
“We all had a tear in our eye” watching the Biden inauguration and the “great orange balloon float away”, and for all the wonderful poetry, and putting ordinary people first, even “just normalcy felt good”, Paul reflects. But – “the workers were not portrayed as unionised,” and J-Lo’s rendition of ‘This Land is your Land’ lacked the trenchancy of its origin in 1940. To wit, the symbolism of 2021 was “almost a replay” and may prove as empty as that with Obama in 2009, who turned out to be “not a great president”.
Covid has not brought people together but has “in fact laid bare the inequities in society, as seen with the vaccine roll-out”. That, the racist murders of black folks, “the idea that certain people are relegated to death is what’s fuelled the resistance we see.”
Thus far, the Biden administration has made only “lacklustre proposals” from what is still a neoliberal clique, under which fascist creep and right-wing authoritarianism will continue. “That is what needs confronting,” Ndindi says, demanding a critique as to how neo-liberalism facilitates fascism. So while Biden has reversed some of Trump’s more hateful laws, as Paul says, has he changed that much? Can he change that much in the face of a greater, structural problem affecting the world? Paul remarked on his two decades as an aid worker, working in 40 countries, that how each trip to Kenya he saw more and more desperate people on the streets, really struggling, selling apples to get by: “Revolutionaries taking hotel jobs to make a living”.
This global political economy incompatible with democracy, dominated by Big Capital that played upon and revived the centuries of racial injustice in the US to deliver Trump, has manifest in the UK with Boris Johnson – “Britain Trump” – even the same haircut, and backing the same populist capitalism, as also seen in Brazil, India, and parts of Europe, says Nick Dearden. For him, Johnson and his Vote Leave cronies always sought the “awful deregulatory push” in breaking away from standards and rights delivering better working conditions, better food, the environment, all fought for over decades, and now undermining the NHS and public services. This will leave the UK even more exposed and vulnerable to the market, à la Johnson’s “dream society” of the US, where Capital runs amok, codified in a terrible trade deal with the US that Trump sought to personally profit from.
Biden is less keen on the deal, but Nick notes that the same forces of Big Business, Big Pharma, Big Tech behind Trump will lobby Biden too and make the precise same demands in any deal as seen already.
Worldwide resistance to Trump was almost immediate. Nick notes how the ‘Stop Trump’ campaign was set up four years ago, offering what solidarity they could, while congratulating Ndindi and Paul “and all who got rid of the appalling orange man”, the “kingpin” figurehead and focus for financing for the international far-right.
“The fight was yours and thank you for not giving up and getting to this point,” remarking with glee how greatly upset Trump was by the blimp.
“It damaged that narcissist Trump,” Shaista recalled, amazed at how triggered were Trump, a “grotesque symbol” and his coterie of “strong men” worldwide, like Johnson, Putin, and Bolsonaro. Journalists from all over the world reported on its inflation in Parliament Square, leading a protest of a quarter of a million people into London in July 2018, with steel workers from the North, mothers with children, all congregated on a week day.
It was Trump’s caging of children on the Mexican border that saw the protest take on a life of its own, against sustained attack, indeed: “Right-wing journalists interviewed us across the media. They couldn’t defend it, and so they spoke to us,” whereas previously, and since, the media had led the attacks on their movement. The organisers were “mocked”, accused of “working to prevent a good Brexit deal”, decried as being “not patriotic enough”, Shaista recalls, adding: “I was compared to an ISIS supporter based on my identity. These attacks were in mainstream millionaire papers. We can’t forget this!” In the US, BLM activists and supporters have also been called “terrorists” and “enemies of the state”, for demanding the right to be treated as human beings and not be murdered by police, Ndindi adds.
The state will not discriminate in its retaliation.
The redirecting of exported violence back into the US should make the State nervous, Ndindi says, fuelling hope the Biden administration may address the right-wing threat more seriously. However, there are serious concerns, with the surveillance state being expanded and “the language of terrorism being weaponised against everyone,” including the Left. “Any new laws would likely disproportionately affect people of colour, and will left-wing organising be put in the same frame as right-wing plotting, even though right-wing politics are about “resentment and death, whereas we embrace life? We’re not the same!”
Shaista agrees, though casts doubt on Biden and Harris being able to solve all the US problems, however: “We need to find ways to amplify changes and get behind those changes … and reverse the politics of negative in the Left.
“The politics of tearing us down, who gets to speak, we have to unite around a vision of what we want to see, see how the world is,” noting how her forebears from parts of the world the British Empire colonised by divide-and-rule. “It is this tearing each other down that means in the UK the Left isn’t working.”
If not the world, says Paul. “If it’s not a global movement it’s not going to happen.”
What’s been achieved? What can be achieved?
So a “nicer man” in the White House will not suffice to deliver lasting change, true justice, in the US or elsewhere, Nick says. “We need something far more radical, Grassroots radicals in the US must make that happen,” as Ndindi says, they already have.
Local victories for BLM and its allies have included the partial defunding of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), “the most murderous of all police departments”, as Ndindi terms it, with money moved to social funds. LA’s district attorney has been replaced with one “who knows he works for us”, brooking investigations into how the police are run, their unions, and expanding the remit to scrutinise the courts, the surveillance state, child welfare services and school curricula.
One noted loss though was the passing of Proposition 22 in California, preventing gig workers from unionising and getting welfare benefits, a law that Big Tech spent $2.5m pushing to pass.
The Covid crisis has also lain bare inequities, Ndindi says, but has also expanded the reach of the welfare state, and demand for it. “There is a great appetite now for such things.”
And in the American South, the victories of a young Jewish man and a black pastor in the Georgian Senate races represents a “different America”, Paul notes, and whose victories give control of the Senate to Biden and make it possible to get sweeping legislation through Congress. “But, to make it happen, it needs the Left.”
Further afield, Shaista points to the feminists in Argentina fighting back against abortion laws, also in Pakistan. The revolt of students in the UK, locked into their halls during the pandemic, breaking out and demanding their rights. British Gas workers, food delivery drivers have all been on strike. A Zoom meeting by teachers’ unions had 400,000 attendees online, real activism that the media’s focus on the pandemic is masking.
The pandemic itself has also been extremely draining. “My mental health is drained. I am exhausted. Friends telling me of all the people they know who’ve died of Covid, people under 40. It’s going to be harder than ever to organise and get out of bed,” Shaista says.
“I inhaled plumes of tear gas, resisting crisis after crisis, it took up so much energy” Ndindi, but adds: “At least the Biden administration ad gives us a chance to breathe, to think, to come back to truth and facts.”
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Still, half a million people in the UK and US have died and will continue to die, “unless we force change, and we need politicians and pharmaceutical companies to be accountable,” Shaista urges.
Nick has seen runs counter to the positive support he has seen for a more equitable distribution of vaccines, the fear that the British people would demand to be served first and foremost, and “stuff everyone else” has not been borne out. “We still get such positive takes on these stories, even people who’ve been bereaved. Same for the climate.” Shaista agrees, recalling her own pride that the scientists in her hometown of Oxford insisted the vaccine be available to all, in the face of political and corporate directives.
But those directives exist and have palpable knock-on effects. The UK government’s decision to put British lives above those in the Global South, “we’ll buy it all up, to Hell with everyone else”, as Nick put it, sees South Africa having to pay 2.5 times the price for vaccines against what Europe pays, as it is desperately tries to vaccinate frontline healthcare staff.
By that, it is “no accident” that the most dehumanised, the most marginalised people, often people of colour, are always the victims of major disasters, Shaista notes, reflecting on how media images showing how the pandemic disproportionately affects people of colour are starkly redolent of the images of the Grenfell Tower victims.
Trump is a “loud, crass, grotesque caricature of a man”, who even made the warmonger George W Bush somehow represent “the good old days”, Shaista notes ironically, the brazenness of Trump’s failings will not be repeated: “We must watch out. The next guy will be slick, sophisticated, come in a suit, like he means business!” Similarly, the flag-waving thugs around Trump are easy to spot, but what about the networks of rich and powerful individuals and corporations who backed Trump? Who now with time-honoured “rank hypocrisy” are all walking away.
“It will not be forgotten that Britain stood so unapologetically with Trump, as per its history of standing with other monsters, like apartheid South Africa. “Incredibly powerful people” will push back, she warns.
“If we don’t, we’ll be in a worse place in four years,” Nick warns, “the stakes are incredibly high. And not just in the US.” Indeed, the elephant in the room being climate change. “We blundered away five years,” Paul laments, “We have to do so much in so little time.” Unless they deliver for working people there will be fascist reaction as soon as 2022, giving the Left little time to turn things around.
Ndindi puts great store in the BLM, positing it as a multi-racial, multi-faceted, working class movement inclusive of sexual minorities that have been dealing with rising violence against minorities and the movement itself, and fighting to counter issues regarding immigration, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, mental health.
“The Sunrise movement is great, it’s like Occupy but doing stuff, not just sitting in cafes,” says Paul. And there are the young. “I feel revitalised and more hope at 80 than in a long time. The BLM protest has been very consistent, very impressive, staging the longest protests in history. People have been coming back despite police violence, despite what they were called, and many were white.” He expressed again his delight with the results in Georgia: “I didn’t expect that, maybe one would win but not both.”
The ugly face of America, “Fortress America of ageing white men” seen the last few years obscured a younger, much more open-minded, multi-racial, Millennial America who may look past overcome the divisions of class and see it as a generational conflict.
“We’re good at pointing at the far right, but what about us?”, Shaista noted, “‘there’s another old white man – he’ll change our lives.’ It’s ridiculous. We know what we need to do as human beings.”
For Nick the main aim for activists in the UK over the next four or five years will be to redefine who we are as a country, and our role in the world. Part of that will be addressing how, as much as the language of terrorism may be used against the Left, the Left must reclaim other concepts.
“The Left needs to reclaim the ideas of liberty and freedom – ideas forged in the crucible of the French and English revolutions – back from the Right. “It makes my blood boil,” says Nick, that “the Right uses them, to bomb and shoot anyone in the world.”
“Human rights, it’s not a dirty word, despite what the British state says,” Shaista concurs, citing the need to reclaim concepts like dignity and compassion: “You can only belong if you are treated as a human being, valued, loved, cherished.”
Ndindi is equally wary, of the definitions of abolition and liberty captured by liberals or the state, using them as surface gloss to mask nefarious, oppressive undertakings.
The future: what is to be done?
“This is a moment of hope, Trump has left office, but this moment was based on pain and misery, delivered with the blood, sweat and tears of American people, principally black women, ‘trans’ people, LGBT, refugees, all of those that the Trump administration targeted,” Shaista says. The pandemic, having claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans and 100,000 British already, is far from over.
In the short term, the Left and the Centre in the US must “move in the same direction” for six months, then the Left should follow Sanders and the Squad. “They’re doing it very well, much better than the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).” That Sanders will chair the Senate budgetary committee and a majority; that will enable an enormous extension of healthcare and the ability to pay for it out of the ashes of the pandemic. That and combating climate change will require the “absolute commitment” to creating jobs in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure towards climate resilience, jobs that will also go to Trump supporters, and need to.
The promise lies with improving people’s material lives. “We see aid work as important. Mutual aid by Ruth Gillmore mutual aid pending revolution which is undermines relations under capitalism,” Ndindi says.
“We need to build on our collective internationalism, we need to talk to folks in the global south and look there for solutions, not the global north.” Liberation means looking to those who’ve rejected dehumanisation, to people of colour, LBTQ, to those building a new day but those with robust ideas. And be positive: “We have to be people of ‘yes’, not just what we ‘don’t want.”
Nick recalls how in the early 1990s protests led by the “incredibly poor” peasants of southern Mexico gave birth to the global movement challenging the neoliberal hegemony, to the point that no meeting of the G7, the WTO, the World Economic Forum, could occur without being besieged by protests. “That gives me hope.” He also sees many of those who were lied to about Brexit being easily convinced to join us in opposing this US-UK trade deal, spanning the right-wing Brexit project in the process.
That means going back to the roots, going local, with the pandemic seeing an incredible uptake in community organising that will not evaporate.
However, “internationalism doesn’t mean much to those who are struggling, nor those who are benefitting,” and expound on how poverty, wars, our failed foreign policy, the costs in material and lives of the War on Terror, “see how it’s all connected”.
Learn from social fora about moving on. “We’re too sporadic at the moment,” while Shaista argues, “we need to get out of our echo chambers; working in silos doesn’t work.”
The effects of trauma are psychological and spiritual as well, and the Left must take seriously its greater impact on people of colour, Ndindi concurs.
For all the exhaustion, the mass trauma, that black people and minorities acutely experience daily, Shaista is confident there is an opportunity, but: “We must campaign to win, believe we can win, deploy our own UK Squad. It may take a generation, but we must crack on,” Shaista concludes, “We must find ways to do it and will only do that by standing with each other and not shying away. We must stand up for all. We need to stand for solidarity.”
The removal of Trump has created a hole in the far-right’s project, Nick says. “’Cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. Let’s use that light to guide us to a better world.”
Alena closed the discussion thus: “As long as we have a convincing idea to work towards. The future will be ours. We can all agree on that.”
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