By Andy Yorke In this year’s US presidential race, a month is a long time. March saw the tensions in American politics stretched close to breaking point. The billionaire demagogue Donald Trump widened his lead, forced out the Republican establishment’s favourite, Marco Rubio, whipped up support with his racist, jingoistic campaign to “Make America Great Again” and threatened either to wreck the party or take it a quantum leap to the right.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who was expected to disappear after the 1 March “Super Tuesday” primaries, maintained his campaign and won by a mile in Wisconsin at the end of the month. There will be no easy coronation for Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the Democrat establishment.
Trump supporters have physically attacked peaceful activists attending his rallies to protest at his racist rhetoric. In Iowa, he openly encouraged his supporters to “knock the crap” out of a heckler. In response, a mass mobilisation shut down his Chicago rally, with thousands of mostly young protesters turning out to “Dump Trump”.
Sanders going “all the way”
Hillary Clinton, Washington insider and personification of the Democrat establishment, did score a series of victories in the Southern states where the Clinton machine has long dominated the old church and civil rights establishments. However, Sanders ignored calls to step down and vowed to “go all the way” to the convention. He has raised an unprecedented fighting fund for an outside candidate from five million small donors, refusing corporate donations.
To win, he needs at least 60 per cent of the vote in the remaining big primaries like California and New York where Clinton generally leads the polls, sometimes by two to one. But he has confounded predictions before, most notably in Michigan on 8 March, when he reversed a 20-point Clinton lead to win. His “democratic socialism” may be very mild; he says that “it means that if someone works forty hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty: that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage – $15 an hour over the next few years”. But it has won him the support of workers, youth and a sizeable section of Black voters, fed up with the Democrats’ broken promises. He has also given a more radical goal to his supporters: “We need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.”
Clinton does have one ace up her sleeve: her near-monopoly of the “super-delegates”, Democrat politicians and leaders who automatically get a vote at the final nominating convention this summer. However, winning the nomination that way would underline her status as the “establishment” candidate, a potential liability in the face of Trump’s anti-Washington posturing. The Democrat leadership is cynically calculating that fear of a Republican right-wing President will automatically get out the vote, leaving them plenty of space to triangulate with policies aimed at winning moderate anti-Trump Republicans. They also know that Sanders will honour his pledge to support Hillary in November to keep out any Republican candidate.
Republicans race to the right
If the Democrats have problems, the Republicans are tearing themselves apart. Trump, reviled by the Republican leadership, is still far out in the lead and over half way to clinching the nomination. Ted Cruz trails a distant second.
Top Republicans believe Trump is threatening to topple every pillar of the US imperialist order abroad, from free trade agreements to NATO, and his nakedly racist policies on migration and virulent Islamophobia are alienating the USA’s allies in key regions. So, holding their noses, they have turned to Texas Senator Cruz to cut down Trump’s vote.
The problem is that Cruz is scarcely less rightwing than Trump. He is against abortion and gay marriage, pro-death penalty and a climate change denier. He also wants to build a wall and deport illegal immigrants. He has tried to outdo Trump by escalating attacks on Muslims, calling for police to “patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods”. His foreign policy advisor, Frank Gaffney is a proponent of the “birther” theory that claims Obama was born in Africa and was thus ineligible to be President under Article Two of the Constitution.
The Republicans’ careful balancing of dogwhistle politics, to get core “constituencies” to turn out and vote without upsetting the national and international political order, has morphed into the loudmouthed reaction of Trump and Cruz. The Party establishment sees a victory for either of them as a lunatic taking over the asylum. If necessary, they will manoeuvre within the convention to choose someone other than Trump or Cruz.
That could be a hollow victory. Trump has threatened to run independently if he is not “treated fairly” and many high-profile Republican officials say they would rather lose the White House than support him, so there is the real possibility of a split. That could create the prospect of Trump leading a US equivalent of France’s Front National.
The fundamental problem facing Bernie Sanders’ young supporters, including the more radical trade unionists and Black Lives Matter activists who have rallied to his campaign, is not just the reformism of his policies but that, for all his denunciation of the Democratic Party establishment, he does not envisage any sort of break from them. He has promised to back Clinton if (and when) she wins the nomination.
The layer of activists and the new forces inspired by the Sanders campaign should not follow his lead on this. On the contrary, they should give real content to developing that “political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class” by turning it into a campaign for a new, explicitly working class, socialist party.
That means fighting for a lot more than the living minimum wage, free university or college tuition and a Medicare-for-all, single payer health care system around which Sanders built his movement. It means fighting for a systematically anti-capitalist action programme that will remove the power of the ruling class by expropriating their wealth and placing it under the control of the democratically organised working class and its allies.
The 2016 campaign has clearly revealed the potential for a major upheaval in America’s political system. All the class contradictions stored up since the 2008 meltdown, and heightened by the years of poverty and cuts, are now breaking out into the open. At a deeper level, this is also the result of the shifting relationships of the global economy and the relative decline of the US. Together they show how corroded and brittle the US electoral system and its byzantine network of firebreaks and pressure valves has become. Whatever happens in November, a longer-term crisis in the two party system is looming, along with the prospect of a rising struggle outside it and against it.