We have won power in Germany, now we have to win over the German people.
– Adolph Hitler, on being appointed Chancellor of Germany
Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech was a study in right wing populist demagoguery. Rejecting the politics that have enriched elites like himself and his cabinet picks and now ensconced them in power, he reiterated over and over the claim that his election was a victory for all those Americans who had been left behind by the triumph of the predatory capitalism he represents so well and by the political class that protects and promotes it.
Trump’s indictment of the ruling class and his account of the impact of their policies on ordinary Americans was certainly justified, even if partial and hypocritical. His call for an America first policy – as if American trade and foreign policy was not always about America first – and his bizarre depiction of foreign governments stealing companies and jobs from America foreshadowed a shake-up in U.S. foreign policy that in certain respects is long overdue. Whether the trade pacts he deplores are really vulnerable or the protectionism he invoked will amount to anything remains to be seen.
His notion that the U.S. must no longer pour money into building up other countries squares badly with his utter commitment to the Israeli state, the all-time top recipient of U.S. economic and military aid. And it is anybody’s guess how he intends to “eradicate Islamic terrorism” while standing behind Israel’s annexation of Palestine. But his rhetoric responds nicely to the perception of many Americans that the U.S. government does more for others abroad than for its own people and that we face existential threats “out there”.
Constitutional governments are not singularly weak before such appeals, but they have fallen time and again as determined leaders have managed to acquire power one way or another and justify their policies by appeal to popular grievances. Trump is no Hitler, no Mussolini. Though his support is as minoritarian as was theirs at the onset of their power, he has no storm troopers, no organized thuggery behind him. The “Bikers for Trump” who appeared briefly in Washington on Inauguration Day, pledging to put a wall between their president and the protesters who thronged the streets, disappeared just as quickly, with scarcely a scuffle to their credit, and appeared to be wholly self-organized.
Trump’s appeal, though decisive enough to give him the presidency, is limited. With just over 30 percent approval ratings on Inauguration Day, and a poor showing on the Mall (the 160,000 who turned out for Trump’s inauguration were a shadow of the estimated 1.8 million who filled the Mall at Obama’s inauguration, not to mention the 470,000 who came out the next day for the Women’s March), Trump has an uphill battle to win over the American people as a whole.
Minority support has rarely kept an American president from claiming a popular mandate for his policy agenda. Nor has it stood in the way of the assumption of dictatorial powers by leaders in other constitutional orders. Should Trump’s populist promises fail, as surely they will, he can be expected to fall back on the racism, xenophobia and nativism that drew such enthusiastic support at his rallies, as progressive Naomi Klein warned. And he will have behind him the tremendous power of the presidency, as conservative Peter Wehner in a recent New York Times op-ed. Between pro-Trump thugs and the well-armed police apparatus prepared against popular unrest under every president since Bill Clinton, the government of Donald Trump may well devolve into the sort of dictatorship we have seen around the world wherever capitalism and oligarchic power has found itself in crisis.
And Trump will find himself in crisis from the beginnings of his administration. Last week Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe commented that Trump will find himself eminently impeachable from the moment he is sworn in. Conflicts of interest, a willingness to flaunt the law and to exercise extra-Constitutional power, and an already galvanized opposition guarantee continuous conflict. Sanders Democrats and followers of Ralph Nader concur that organizing to block Trump’s more dangerous initiatives must go on in each Congressional District. And failed policies and popular outrage at broken promises or serious breaches of constitutional rights make it likely that Republicans will be on the defensive already by the mid-term elections. After that the outcome will be nasty, as both Trump and his opponents take the gloves off, if they hadn’t done so before then.
Behind the scenes conflict is due to erupt immediately, as thousands of federal employees find themselves confronted with a policy agenda hostile to the one they have been following sometimes throughout their careers and to which many of them have contributed. The “permanent government,” as the British call their civil service, will not give way lightly to demands for an about face on climate policy, clean air and water policy, the regulation of toxic chemicals, voting rights, gender equality, health services for women, and an enduring public education system, to name just a few of the policy areas that the Trump team has targeted. Whether we will see mass resignations – particularly likely at the senior level – or outright rebellion or obstruction, news of the battle within will leak out quickly. And, like the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago (!), forced to incorporate thousands of Tsarist officials into their administration, Trump and his “revolutionaries” will face a bureaucracy fundamentally hostile to much that the new administration stands for.
It is impossible to predict where we are heading, and difficult to give good counsel about how to approach the menace of a Trump dictatorship. There are always good reasons for non-violence, of course, but easy efficacy is not one of them. Nor is avoidance of violence. Violent responses to Trumpism will no doubt provide an excuse for state, state-sponsored and state supporting violence. But Trump and the forces aligned with him need no such excuses, nor have the forces of “law and order” needed them in dealing with protests over the last thirty years. “Resistance” in the streets, whatever form it takes, will be met with violence at some level or another, though it is heartening to note that the likes of The New York Times has finally taken notice of popular protest in its favorable coverage of the Women’s March.
More likely to make a difference is the mobilization of citizens that voices from Michael Moore to Robert Reich to Ralph Nader to Bernie Sanders have called for. The campaign 100 Days of Resistance promises to bombard lawmakers with protests against the Trumpist agenda and calls for important policy advances. Already the Trump victory seems to have galvanized dissidents within the Democratic Party to attempt to reform the party from within. Recent elections for the California Assembly District Delegates turned out record numbers of candidates and voters, many of them Bernie voters. And Nader’s Breaking Through Power (It’s Easier Than You Think) provides a roadmap to seizing power through the coming Congressional elections.
In short the Revolution has just begun. Whether it’s Trump’s, Bernie’s or something else altogether remains to be seen. And everything is at stake, including, first of all, the dictatorship of Donald Trump.