A year has passed since Donald Trump took office as president of the United States. We talked to author and socialist activist John Catalinotto* to get an idea of where the Trump administration is going and how a progressive alternative can be built. We discuss the need to build an anti-war movement, the opposition organized by the Democratic Party and beyond, the resistance against (racist) police violence and US foreign policy under Trump.
One year ago, you had expressed serious doubts about the idea that US foreign policy would become less aggressive. Instead we have seen a multiplication of explicit threats against Venezuela, Iran or North Korea. This confirms your assessment…
Right now the Pentagon is firmly in the White House. Three generals are running the show. The generals may not be able to control what Trump tweets, but they have carte blanche in making military policy without consulting the civilians.
They have stepped up the troop count in Afghanistan and the active military intervention in Africa, and besides what you mentioned, they support Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Trump’s job is to sell U.S.-made weapons to Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
The threat carried by US imperialism stresses the need to build an anti-war movement, like we have seen in other historical contexts like the 1960s. How is this developing? What are the main obstacles?
Rather than being anti-war, the anti-Trump movement is still much more oriented toward resisting his racism, his misogyny, his anti-immigrant policies and lately his broad attacks on the working class – this includes the failed attack on “Obamacare” and a new tax plan that aids the super-rich and promises to deplete services for poor people.
Anti-war forces have been organizing, have held demonstrations and called conferences. They oppose the threats against People’s Korea, Venezuela and Iran. A demonstration in the streets on these issues awakens little opposition but also little interest from the masses. In the broad anti-Trump movement I described earlier, there is much less activity on the anti-imperialist front. They fear what Trump might do, fear he might tweet his way into a nuclear war. But they are not poised to protest against this potential war in the streets, not yet anyway.
One obstacle is that – Trump’s more violent statements aside – the U.S. ruling class supports Washington’s imperialist adventures. The Democratic Party is as pro-imperialist as the Republicans; the Democrats just claim their interventions are “humanitarian.”
How do you analyze the current media hysteria about the alleged links between members of the Trump administration and Russia?
For the sector of the ruling class here that opposes Trump and wants to push him aside or at least control his administration, attacking him on the basis of real or alleged ties with Russia is the perfect issue. It allows them to mobilize forces against Trump without taking a progressive stand. If they mobilized against racism or in defense of a higher minimum wage, they might tap into a mass movement that would cause trouble for ruling-class interests.
Instead they tap into the Cold War mentality that was nourished by the U.S.’s class confrontation with the USSR and which still motivates sections of the State Department and the Pentagon, even though current-day Russia is a capitalist rival and not a socialist enemy.
I’m not surprised the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Democratic Party politicians push the Russia connection. Their position was always anti-USSR and they want a Russian government that is completely subservient to U.S. imperialism, like Yeltsin’s was.
So the media are recycling their own cock-and-bull stories against the Russians. How should we react to this propaganda?
What is a problem for us on the left is when the more social-democratic mass opposition to Trump attacks Trump for wanting to cut a deal with Russia. What it should do is battle him over racism, his attacks on women, on Mexicans, on Muslims or his attacks on the working class in general.
Protests during Trump’s inauguration
Where are progressive forces currently standing?
First let’s define what we mean by progressive forces. I’m going to divide these forces into two groups. They were roughly defined by the two demonstrations at the time of Trump’s inauguration. On January 20, a radical movement made up of anti-fascist forces, both anarchist-oriented and communist-oriented, fought in the streets of Washington and were attacked by police. On January 21, the women’s march was much larger and broader, but its politics were much closer to the Democratic Party.
This broader group, even though it was mainly women, was probably closer to Bernie Sanders in its politics than to Hillary Clinton. I would guess that millions of people have become politically active to work against Trump. It is a new phenomenon in the United States. They half-jokingly call themselves “the Resistance,” as much of their work is confined to getting Democrats elected and replacing Republicans in Congress and in state and local offices.
Beyond the limitations of the Democratic party, are these groups able to play a significant role on the key issues?
Yes they are. Actually they also hold actions independent of the Democratic Party, for example, defending the rights of immigrants that the government is trying to expel from the country. They were also very active supporting the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and helped prevent severe cuts to health care from being passed by Congress. Some of these forces are led astray by those who focus on the alleged Russian intervention in the U.S. elections as a legal weapon against Trump.
Although this broad anti-Trump group has something like what in Europe would be considered social-democratic politics (that is, before all the European “Socialist” parties became identified with neo-liberal economics), their continued activity creates a big space for more radical intervention in the struggle because they feed the anger against the president. This anger can be turned against the ruling class in its entirety. Trump, after all, does represent this ruling class, but does it in a blatant way that any decent person in the U.S. who isn’t racist can see through clearly.
The bad side of Trump being a monster is that by expressing his racism, chauvinism and misogyny openly, he has opened a space for openly white supremacist and fascist elements to speak and mobilize publicly. We saw this on the weekend of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. In response, the more radical wing of the anti-Trump forces has begun to confront the fascists, to battle the fascists in the streets. Among these are many who have become anti-capitalist and a smaller number who are pro-socialist, pro-communist, who begin to read Marx and Lenin and look for a revolutionary answer.
“Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville
Will they be able to build an alternative?
I’ll give you an example with my own party, Workers World Party. For most of the 26 years since the disappearance of the USSR, we were hardly able to recruit new young comrades. In the past two years we have doubled in size, with most of the young people having been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, in the anti-fascist movement and all opposing Trump.
This growth is happening among all political tendencies to the left of Sanders. The revolutionary left is still unable to play a steady role in the broader anti-Trump movement I described before. That’s not because it would be wrong to do so, but because we are still too small to influence this movement, except at key moments.
For example, in Boston in August some fascist types pretending to be “alt-right” tried to hold a public rally and tens of thousands of people marched and stopped them. People from Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ movements led the march.
There is a considerable number of Latin American people in the US. Trump made very hostile statements against latino workers and vowed to expel them to the other side of the border…These statements had the goal of mobilizing one group of workers against another, based on ethnic make up. Has it worked?
Trump was elected on the basis of racism and misogyny, along with growing disenchantment with establishment politicians. Although he has continued to lose overall support in the current political atmosphere – his poll ratings are 38 percent – most of the investigations claim that the people who were enthusiastically for him when they voted for him would vote for him again. To me, if that it true, it means he maintains control of the racist elements in his base support.
When he insults Mexicans, attacks immigrants and is insulting toward Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens), he is reinforcing the racism of his political base and using racism to reinforce their support of him. The same is true when he attacks Muslims or bars immigration from mostly Muslim countries. From a diplomatic point of view it seems stupid. It does nothing to stop “terrorism,” as U.S.-born people, mostly white men, commit most of the mass murders in the U.S.
One year ago you mentioned that there was a noticeable upsurge in police violence against black communities. How has this evolved after the Obama years?
Police violence has continued at the same pace even as the resistance has continued. The police see Trump as an ally. The Black community and the radical resistance see him as an enemy.
Racism in the U.S. is closely associated with skin color due to the history of slavery and the continued oppression of African Americans. So when Trump tweets attacks on the athletes who “take a knee” during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality, he is making a direct play to those infected with racist ideology. In effect, he polarizes U.S. society by trying to keep the racists mobilized behind him.
In the 2017 elections, so-called “off-year” elections because few are for important posts, Democrats won the governor’s seat in Virginia and New Jersey. There were a few other elections that showed a modest shift away from Trump.
Black Lives Matter rally
Let’s return to foreign policy. The “bad example” that Venezuela represents in the US “backyard” has made it a central target for the US, mainly through support for certain “NGOs”. After chavismo’s success in recent elections, and the Venezuelan opposition being weaker than ever, we have also seen a more blatant approach with Trump even suggesting a possible military intervention. What strategy can we expect from the Trump administration in the future?
I can’t predict any specific steps by the Trump administration regarding Venezuela that are different from what every prior administration had already done. The strategists of U.S. imperialism see the Bolivarian government as their enemy and have been trying varying tactics to remove it. So far these tactics have relied mainly on the pro-imperialist opposition in Venezuela and the U.S. client state in Colombia. The NGOs are only effective if there exists an opposition. With the right-wing opposition in disarray, Washington may step up direct intervention. To the extent we can, we will demonstrate solidarity with Bolivarian Venezuela.
The UN vote regarding the US blockade against Cuba delivered a near unanimous rejection from the entire world, with the exception of the US and Israel. How important are the anti-Cuban groups and their lobbying among the Trump administration? Do you think the normalization of US-Cuba relations is in danger?
Regarding Cuba, it is somewhat clearer. Trump has begun to reverse the steps Barack Obama took in opening up relations with Cuba with his Dec. 17, 2014 speech. Trump is playing to the most reactionary section of the Cuban-American community, the original “gusanos” – counter-revolutionary terrorists and gangsters — who have been trying and failing to overthrown the Cuban Revolution since 1959. Obama recognized that this policy was a failure from Washington’s point of view.
Trump aims to disrupt relations with Cuba. He has problems with that. One is that the majority of the Cuban-Americans prefer a normalization of relations with Cuba – they want to visit their relatives, send money. Another is that there are U.S. businesses that can profit from economic relations with Cuba.
* John Catalinotto has been active in anti-imperialist politics since the October Missile Crisis in 1962. From 1967 to 1970 he was the political organizer for Workers World Party in the staff of the American Servicemen’s Union. Since 1982, he has been managing editor of Workers World, the last pro-communist newspaper still published weekly in print in the USA. He was a co-organizer of the Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal in New York in June 2000 and the Iraq War Crimes Tribunal in New York in 2004, both with the International Action Center, a U.S.-based organization founded by Human Rights activist Ramsey Clark. Before Turn the Guns Around he had edited and contributed to two books, Metal of Dishonor (about depleted uranium) and Hidden Agenda: the U.S.-NATO Takeover of Yugoslavia. He is a member of Tlaxcala.