By Patrick Stall
The palace intrigue around Donald Trump’s ties to Russia stewing since before last year’s election is crescendoing at a rapid pace. Mainstream news outlets bombard us daily with the latest revelations in an endless saga of allegations and denials of collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. A small but growing chorus, mostly of Democratic Party officials and liberal media correspondents, but also some activists on the ground, is now openly calling for the President’s impeachment. How should socialists react to these calls?
Trump is a reprehensible man who espouses and practices racist, sexist, and neoliberal politics. His policies are already having devastating effects on undocumented immigrants and refugees, which adds to the urgency of resisting and removing the President. Of course, this urgency has been translated into words and action. There was a start-up movement to convince members of the Electoral College to not vote for Trump in December 2016, even before the spectacular Women’s March and airport protests this January. Moreover, there is an open debate on the Left on whether or not to throw our weight behind the Russia investigations and proto-movement to impeach the President.
But while the impulse that motivates cries of Russian interference and calls for impeachment comes from a laudable place—revulsion to Trump’s brand of reaction—attempts to impeach Trump or inflate the “Russian interference” narrative are both wrong-headed strategically and counterproductive for the Left generally.
First, even if this effort succeeds completely, even if liberals and their congressional Democratic allies manage to unearth evidence of collusion between Trump and Russian agents, even if the worst of the allegations against Donald Trump are true, and enough moderate congressional Republicans are moved to impeach Trump, what will then have been accomplished? Trump will leave, but he will be immediately be replaced, as the Constitution stipulates, by Vice President Pence. In a 20 May In These Times opinion piece, Kate Aranoff argues that this development would be a net positive for the Left: Trump’s authoritarian impulses would be rebuked and progressives well-positioned for the 2020 elections; plus, Pence just isn’t as bad as Trump.
But this analysis misses the mark. A Pence presidency could well be worse than Trump’s administration, pointing the way toward a disastrous defeat for the Left. As Jeff Alson detailed in his own 16 May In These Times article, while Donald Trump is an incompetent politician whose administration has been generally characterized by failure to institute its policies and constant internal infighting and cabinet shuffling, Pence is a veteran statesman, ruthlessly efficient in accomplishing his policy goals. A Pence presidency might have less nasty rhetoric than a Trump presidency, but Pence, a religious fundamentalist and reactionary who once signed into law a bill requiring women to attend funerals for their aborted or miscarried fetuses, knows how to build legislative coalitions and put policies into law. A Pence presidency would likely result in the awful policies Trump is too inept to enact becoming law at a lightning rate—not a victory any of us should want a part of.
Second, and just as important, the ‘Russian interference’ narrative is a script that only has roles only for elites. The Women’s March, Travel Ban Airport protests, and Women’s strike witnessed record numbers of everyday people taking the streets to demonstrate, but the Russian media narrative, congressional testimonies concerning it, and any impeachment trial that might come of it grants agency (the ability to meaningfully have an impact on events) to political and media elites. Impeachment hearings, congressional testimonies, and information leaks are palace intrigues that only a select few can affect, leaving the rest of us spectators to our own political fates.
And the elites discussing this “Russian interference” have good reason to push this particular narrative. Neoliberal Democrats, unable to accept responsibility for their unpopular policies and candidates that lost them major electoral ground in November, want to shift the blame onto a favorite old foe, Russia. Instead of democratizing the Democratic Party and forcing the introspection that should’ve followed the 2016 loss, blaming the Russians allows establishment Democrats to maintain their current policy positions and pretend nothing is wrong, all the while creating a new foreign enemy to wage bloody proxy wars with. Blaming Russia strengthens the establishment Democrats and their corporate agenda, while raising a nationalistic narrative that we should be wary of. Blaming foreigners and foreign agents for our own problems is a reactionary strategy, and will leave progressives in a weaker position both inside and outside the Democratic Party, not “on stronger footing”, as Kate Aronoff suggested.
Finally, and most important, all of the emphasis on Trump’s personage and removing him individually from office ignores the fact that Trump is only the face of the problem, not the problem itself. While he might be the most openly capitalist, racist, and sexist politician on the US national stage in a long time, the deeper problems that gave rise to such a vile figurehead—capitalism, racism, and sexism—will outlast him, even if he is removed by impeachment. The vast majority of American politicians (including many of those calling for impeachment) are first and foremost representatives of capital and act in its interests, whether by promoting militarism, attacking the social safety net, or fighting back against the limited power of organized labor. A proper resistance to Trump and all that he represents will resist the systems responsible for Trump whether he is in office or not, and will be wary of politicians who have spent years endorsing a neoliberal, militaristic politics of which Trump is the logical outcome. If the best the #Resistance to Trump can do is parrot Nancy Pelosi and other elites pushing the “Russian interference” narrative, our chances for resisting the deeper and more troubling trends responsible for the present crisis are negligible.
Luckily, as a series of massive, nation-wide demonstrations against Trump and his policies have demonstrated, we can do much better than Nancy Pelosi and Anderson Cooper. Millions of Americans, many for the first time, are hitting the streets in protest and are ripe for organizing. Though Trump’s election may have brought out the worst of the Presidency, it has brought out the best of the American people, and the Left ought to seize this opportunity to create powerful, long-term organizations, rather than follow centrist Democratic talking points. We can and should resist Trump—by demonstrating, holding meetings, organizing on the job and in the street. But don’t think the palace intrigue around Trump and Russia is a viable political struggle. That’s not resistance—that’s just repackaged nationalism.
Patrick Stall is a member of Des Moines DSA.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.