In the days leading up to his centennial mark in office, Donald Trump’s White House pumped out a stream of laudatory spin. His first hundred days were “historic,” the most successful since Franklin Roosevelt’s fabled opening. Speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania last weekend, Trump bragged of his early accomplishments and celebrated the “incredible journey” along the way.
So how much devastation has Trump wreaked in his first one hundred days? How well has the Left responded? And what is our task going forward?
We asked four Jacobin contributors to weigh in:
- Paul Heideman is a PhD student in sociology at New York University.
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor at Princeton University and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.
- Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor at Brown University and the author of From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth.
- Nicole M. Aschoff is an editor at Jacobin and the author of The New Prophets of Capital.
Surely the most striking aspect of Donald Trump’s first one hundred days in office is the continuity between his administration and his predecessor’s.
While his candidacy and election produced a flood of reporting proclaiming seemingly every element of his political career “unprecedented,” his administration has, thus far, differed only in degree, and not in kind, from Barack Obama’s. At the broadest level, his presidency has so far confirmed what the political sociologist Richard Lachmann has called American politics’ descent from consensus to paralysis.
Like Obama for much of his administration, Trump has faced a legislative gridlock that has compelled him to govern largely through executive order and bureaucratic decree. It might be thought that such a position would free Trump up to pursue his own idiosyncratic policy choices, as promised on the campaign. Yet Trump has, in three short months, done far more to conform to the basic mold of American politics than to break from it.
This has been most obvious on foreign policy. NATO, proclaimed “obsolete” on the campaign trail, is, despite any change on its part whatsoever, “no longer obsolete.” China, the target of so much of his ire this time last year, is now a valuable strategic partner in the urgent task of confronting North Korea. And finally, in the Middle East, Trump has followed his predecessor’s policy of wantonly bombing Syria and Iraq in the name of combating ISIS, while continuing to regard the persistence of the Assad government as the least bad outcome on the table in the Syrian civil war.
Domestically, the continuities are not so glaring, though any investigation beyond the superficial will reveal them here as well. The defeat of the Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare illustrated not only the deep divides that remain in the GOP, but also how quickly the Affordable Care Act has become part of the status quo of American politics, an institutional setting with its own powerful constituencies waiting at veto points to thwart attempts to change it. Now, Trump is gearing up to radically reform the tax code, an endeavor that recalls nothing so much as David Stockman’s quixotic crusade during the Reagan administration to accomplish the same task.
Over time, of course, sharper differences will begin to emerge. Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department promises to withdraw even the negligible surveillance the Obama administration placed on local police departments, encouraging their most brutal and bloodthirsty practices. Similarly, as Trump begins to make his mark on the National Labor Relations Board, decisions that the body made under Obama offering at least the hope of breathing space for unions will no doubt be reversed.
Trump’s inability thus far to carve out a distinctive political trajectory undoubtedly owes something to the staggering incompetence of him and his team. Beneath the slapstick routine, however, are a deeper set of constraints acting to discipline his administration, just as they did Obama’s.
Despite the liberals forecasting a Trumpian gleichschaltung of American state and civil society beginning on January 21, the political situation the American left confronts remains more similar than different. The work that was required then, of patiently rebuilding the fighting organizations of the Left that can, through their disruptive capacity, impose real costs on those in power, is the same work we must undertake today.
The first thing that comes to mind about Trump’s first one hundred days is that we have survived.
I don’t say that lightly. Few will ever forget the palpable fear and revulsion that overwhelmed millions of people around the world on election night. For more than a year we were all witness to this billionaire cretin whipping up racism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and vile Islamophobia on his political journey. Trump’s rise to the presidency has not tempered any of his racism or xenophobia; in fact, it has emboldened scores of white supremacists formerly relegated to the margins of society.
Trump the president has proven to be as monstrous as his candidacy suggested. His immediate acts to expand the powers of law enforcement, from local police to federal immigration agents, have brazenly signaled to cops that they can do as they please. His kooky climate change denials have now become the official policy of the Environmental Protection Agency. He authorized fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missile strikes in Syria and dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal in Afghanistan. He has filled his cabinet with an array of billionaires and millionaires who intend to strip away any pretense of state regulation and protections while allowing the capitalist class to profit with unfettered abandon.
And we are only at the beginning.
At the same time, his presidency has not been a seamless coronation for a right-wing rising. Instead, the US remains deeply polarized between an ascendant and confident right and an inchoate but real left. Even though a broad organizational expression of the Left has yet to emerge, the first one hundred days of Trump’s presidency have been marked by a brilliant eruption of protest and struggle.
The day after Trump’s inauguration, somewhere between three and four million people clogged the streets of cities across the US to oppose the menace in the White House. Since the Women’s March, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have participated in protests and marches for science, environmental protection, abortion rights, and immigrant rights. Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed “democratic socialist” is the most popular elected official in the US, and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have grown to over twenty thousand members.
The prospects for building a multiracial, democratic, left-wing movement have never been better in our lifetimes. But there are still significant challenges that we must confront and ultimately overcome.
Most importantly, we must avoid centering our efforts solely around opposing Trump. Resisting Trump is critical, but a single-minded focus on him as an individual makes it impossible to see the ways in which his administration simultaneously represents a continuation of, and departure from, his predecessors’. We need a broad movement that sets its sights not just on changing parties or administrations, but changing a political order rooted in free-market capitalism.
And the Democratic Party is a fundamental obstacle to that goal.
Liberal activists and writers continue to imagine the Democratic Party as the rightful inheritor of the votes and support of the Trump opposition. But within the party itself, the leadership seems content to sit back and let Trump self-destruct. That type of passivity will fail, just as it did in the general election. You can’t just be against Trump — at some point, you must be for something.
Yet rather than try to assess or understand what happened in November, the party has become obsessed with perceived or real Russian interference, allowing it to sidestep more pressing questions about how it will relate to ordinary workers. This isn’t about opening up the absurd “class versus race” debate, but about whether the Democratic Party can respond to the stagnation and deteriorating conditions that the entire working class is experiencing.
The Democratic establishment’s actions in Trump’s first one hundred days show they aren’t up to the task. From the election of Tom Perez as Democratic National Committee chair to the party’s invisibility on key political issues (including war, immigration, policing, and the budget), the Democrats have decisively demonstrated their commitment to the status quo.
To be sure, there are other challenges as well: the continued absence of the organized labor movement and the deeply fractured left — evidenced again by several, separate May Day actions as opposed to united actions.
We need a broad opposition movement and an independent left that doesn’t have to yoke itself to a clearly inept Democratic Party.
Trump has been remarkably unsuccessful so far, but just about none of his failures have to do with the Left. He has lost major advisers to scandal and been defeated or stymied on the immigration ban, health care repeal, the border wall, the border adjustment tax, budget reductions, staff appointments — and that’s for starters.
The major reason for these defeats has been his incompetence mixed with the divisions within the Republican Party that Trump has brought to the fore. These divisions have appeared in Trump’s face-off with the House Freedom Caucus, in Republican politicians’ confrontations with hostile constituents, in the battles among free-traders and protectionists, in the Kremlin-lite intrigue among Bannon, Priebus, Kushner, Gorka, and Flynn. The minor reason for Trump’s setbacks is the courts combined with some moderate obstruction by the Democrats and, in one or two cases, the general air of protest.
Two things have to be said about these protests and their relation to Trump’s first one hundred days. First, they might have had a real effect in steeling the resolve of the judiciary in its initial response to the immigration ban and in stiffening the spines of some Democrats. Second, the protests have had an inverse and exponential relation to the Left’s role in organizing them.
Far and away the largest protest was the Women’s March. It was an exciting and fleeting letting off of steam by millions of predominantly discontented Clinton voters. The other large-ish protests have been the March for Science (April 22), the Climate March (April 30), and the Day Without Immigrants (February 16), which saw tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands in a number of major cities. For instance, the March for Science reported a turnout of about 150,000 in Washington, DC; the Day Without Immigrants closed hundreds, possibly thousands, of restaurants and businesses, and saw tens of thousands of marchers across the country.
These were not left-directed affairs, with the Science and Climate marches pitched as big-tent affairs, dominated by professionals. The Day Without Immigrants was a more decentralized, social-media-led event that reports say caught even some immigrant rights organizers by surprise. The Left has of course been at these marches — we’ve seen each other there. But the Left could not credibly own any of them.
Far and away the smallest protests were the so-called General Strike of February 27, which had nothing general about it, and the Women’s Strike of March 8, which maxed out at a few thousand in New York, and only some hundreds elsewhere. The Women’s Strike closed three school districts.
Both of those events were explicitly left-wing affairs, called for by socialist and/or anarchist organizations, with big lefty aspirations. May Day looked only marginally better, largely because of the participation of some groups already mobilized by the more popular marches. Given that it was an international workers’ day, a turnout in the tens of thousands can only be considered disappointing.
The unpleasant conclusion is that, as meandering, battered, and confused as Trump is, the Left is no more successful at winning the public. It is enjoyable to watch Trump flounder and to see the Republicans confused. But the biggest beneficiaries of Trump’s first one hundred days are likely to be the Democrats, in 2018, not the Left.
Until we have an answer for our own unpopularity, we remain active observers of a political drama we barely influence.
Trump’s victory had pundits slamming the panic button. This tangerine tabula rasa had weaseled his way into the Oval Office — flanked by a neofascist and a son in law — on promises that he’d tear up the decades-old, Third Way status quo and dump anything that hurt America: NAFTA, NATO, a freeloading China, footloose corporations, immigrants.
Trump’s impossible victory gave him credibility. It seemed like he might actually turn rhetoric into reality — that by the time the last Easter egg was plucked from the White House lawn America would be well on its way to being “great again.”
Two stymied immigration bans, a failed Obamacare overhaul, some heart to hearts with foreign leaders, and a bunch of really big bombs later, and centrists are breathing a collective sigh of relief. After one hundred days it seems like the status quo might be safe with the Donald: NAFTA will stay, NATO has been reaffirmed, and America’s relationship with China has settled back to that cozy spot between awkward and uncomfortable.
What are we to make of Trump’s rhetorical about-face? In some respects it’s easy to shrug off. That the real estate mogul discovered politics is hard isn’t exactly surprising. But Trump’s newfound quiescence also raises questions about the next three-plus years.
If Trump remains permanently winded — a distinct possibility at this point — what will happen to Trumpism? Will his minions head back to the drawing board and build Trump 2.0 for 2020? Or, alternatively, will Trump’s readiness to throw in the towel on challenging neoliberalism with right populism be enough to solve, or at least permanently displace, capitalism’s current legitimacy crisis? Will we finally get it through our thick skulls that there is no alternative?
To answer these questions it’s helpful to redirect our gaze, away from our petulant president to the broader processes shaping the present moment. Trump’s victory was a stale chex mix of dumb luck, canny opportunism, data manipulation, and willful ignorance by mainstream politicians. But the crisis that spawned his successful candidacy runs much deeper. It springs from a well of popular anger at the neoliberal policy consensus that has dominated US and global governance for the past three decades.
Elites don’t care that capital’s bounty has come at the expense of justice and security for working people or that it’s making the planet uninhabitable for millions of poor people. Globalism has become an epithet, and the politics of hate and fear polls increasingly well. Companies aren’t creating good jobs and the US government has shunned responsibility for providing a decent life. In short, neoliberalism’s legitimacy crisis and Trumpism aren’t going anywhere.
Whatever Trump does in the next hundred days, or thousand days, this crisis will remain. But crisis is not just a time for moping and doping, to borrow a Seussism. It’s also a time for change. The millions of Americans who’ve taken to the streets since Trump’s election — and are in no small part responsible for his reality check — are ready for change.
It’s up to the Left to give it to them.