We present the interview of Ashley Smith, socialist militant and author of the DSA and Tempest collective carried out by our comrade Alejandro Bodart on the November 12 edition of International Panorama.
Alejandro Bodart: Last Saturday Biden was finally declared the winner of the election. What is your initial analysis of the results?
Ashley Smith: Well, it’s wonderful to wake up in the United States and know that Donald Trump will not be president, beginning in January. I think that for most people in the United States, that is a tremendous sigh of relief, especially for working class people and people of color. That said, the election of Biden really shouldn’t cheer anybody up. Because what we had in the election is a classic lesser evil election between an “American First” far right nationalist in Donald Trump, and a neoliberal restorationist in the form of Joe Biden. Despite those unappealing alternatives, there was a massive turnout in the election, a record number of people voting. Still large numbers of people not voting. And the bizarre thing of American politics for people around the world, the person who gets the most votes isn’t guaranteed to win. So even though Joe Biden is going to get probably seven to 8 million more votes than Donald Trump, Biden is only narrowly going to win through the electoral college based on a few swing states that went in his direction. So he will be the president based on the victory in the Electoral College. But the democrats did quite poorly in the congressional elections in the House and in the Senate. In the house they lost several seats, so they have a slimmer majority. And in the Senate, it’s still undecided (depending on two Senate races in Georgia) who will be the majority party in the Senate. The Senate could easily be under the control of the Republican Party when Biden comes to office.
So that would produce, if that’s the most likely scenario, that will produce a deeply divided government, with a Biden administration that has a very weak mandate, and a republican party that still got well over 70 million votes. Probably Trump will get 74, 75, 76 million votes, and trumpism will be alive and well. And that will position the Republican Party to block a lot of things that Biden might otherwise want to do. So he will not get left wing cabinet appointees, which were probably always not going to happen. He is likely to appoint right wing cabinet members from the Republican Party. And Biden has already signaled this in his victory speech, promising bipartisanship, that he will be a president for all Americans. That is he will do what Bill Clinton did, classic triangulation: move to the right to steal the thunder from the right but adopt their policies in the process. So that will leave a situation of a profoundly polarized United States society, and a divided government that is absolutely paralyzed and will deliver very little, for the vast majority.
All of this will continue to stoke the rise of the right. We are going to see Trump likely go out of office not conceding that he lost, and saying that it was a stolen election, and ramping up either through media channels that he’s going to start, or through Fox, a new kind of Tea Party with a much more dangerous far right component that is increasingly militarized. So far from being the end of trumpism, we are going to see trumpism in a new out of office form that will likely take the form of much larger protests. There could be a protest at the inauguration of Biden itself, led not by the left, but potentially by the right so we are not headed to the end of polarization, but the deepening of polarization. The question is, will the left be a pole of attraction in that? Or will it continue to be a subordinate part of the Democratic Party?
A.B: Biden won by a smaller margin than many had predicted. And Trump got, as you said, more than 70 million votes. What can we expect of Trump and trumpism? And what do you think can happen in the Republican Party?
A.S: Yeah, I think that we have to recognize how deeply transformed the Republican Party is. Trump really has consolidated a new set of politics, which is a radicalization of a trajectory that the Republican Party was already on, of a kind of right wing nationalism. But Trump has done different things and appealed to, especially the middle class, small business owners and sections of the working class that have been hammered by globalization. So Trump has transformed the Republican Party, from what has been the historic party of American capital, into a party that’s increasingly focused on mobilizing radicalized petty bourgeoisie and sections of the alienated working class on a program of far right nationalism, with all the xenophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry that go along with that.
I think that what is surprising in the election results is that Trump has actually expanded his base through the course of the election. This is a much larger vote than he got in 2016. And he also made gains amongst the Latino population, and especially among Black men, and increased support from sections of the middle class in different ways. So we have a complicated, far right block that has cohered under Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party. He has a real base, and trumpism has a real base.
It’s hard to know what Donald Trump will actually do. He faces criminal charges, he could easily end up in jail. He has massive debts, as we’ve all found out from his tax returns that he owes, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars to creditors, especially German banks, that are probably tied to various oligarchs in Russia. So he faces both criminal charges and a real debt problem. So he’s faced with a situation of fight or flight. That is he will be tempted to leave. But his character, as he’s shown for several decades, is really to fight in that circumstance. I think he could easily start his own media channel, become a Fox personality, and continue to stoke the right. He also could become the figurehead of a new Tea Party, like I said, with an armed component that does rallies to stop any changes that Biden might want to make when he comes into office.So I think that Trump will see what he does.
Trumpism, regardless of what Trump becomes, is here to stay. Just like all around the world, far right nationalism is a growing phenomenon. It is not unique to Trump or the United States. It is expressed from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Viktor Orban to you name the figure, all around the world, who’s galvanized discontent with the crisis in our society, based on a far right xenophobic kind of nationalism. So that’s an international phenomenon and trumpism is its incarnation in the United States. And that is certainly here to stay.
I think inside the GOP, there will be a fight between the more traditional centrists like we’ve seen George Bush, a war criminal, congratulate Joe Biden on his victory. So the kind of Bush, I mean, it’s hard to talk this way, but Bush is now a centrist in the Republican Party, which is obscene because Bush is a war criminal. So we’ve got Bush, who’s the center, the classic center of the republican party now. They will try and lead a fight to tame down the kind of Trumpite right wing and Mitt Romney’s wanting incarnation of that, but I think that wing is quite weak. The problem for the Trumpite wing of the GOP is they don’t have a charismatic figure that can easily step in to galvanize what Trump has done. Trump’s spawn, his children, are pretty unconvincing. And I don’t think they’re the likely players. But there will be a battle between the centrist wing and the new Trumpite wing for the hearts and minds of this massive base on the right that Trump has created. So I expect the Republican Party to remain a far right party, and I expect it to actually make gains in the upcoming midterm elections, as Joe Biden is unable to deliver anything, save superficial changes that restore the status quo ante, to address the crisis in people’s lives. So we could see, even though the Trumpite Republican Party has suffered a defeat, they could make serious gains in the upcoming 2022 election. So the Trumpification of the Republican Party, I think, is very deep, it’s here to stay, there will be a battle about who’s going to be the kind of charismatic leader to galvanize that base, but it’s there to be galvanized.
A.B: What are the main characteristics that we can expect from the Biden administration?
A.S: I think the Biden administration is likely to be the third term of the Obama administration. And it will not be a radical departure from that legacy. That is, it will be an administration of neoliberal and imperial restoration, that will be the aim of it, we’ll see how much they’re able to actually do. Because Biden will come in with no mandate, he will be in a weak position as a president. He’s a very old man, personally. He’s probably going to be a one term president. He’s going to be facing a Senate that is likely going to be under the control of the republicans and Mitch McConnell. And they will block every major change that he might want to make, from his cabinet to any policy changes. So at best, they’re going to cut deals that both the Democrats and the Republicans can agree on. And that will be maintenance of neoliberalism. And I’ll talk about in a second, I think, an increasingly aggressive American imperialism, which I think is the most dangerous outcome of the election of Biden.
What Biden will do domestically is he will repeal the worst excesses of the Trump administration through executive orders, he’ll rejoin the WHO amidst the pandemic, he will join the Paris Climate accords, he will repeal the Muslim ban. He will do all of those kinds of things, which he can do through executive orders, which basically would restore things to the way they were under Obama, which was wretched, for the vast majority of people: poverty, racism, growing inequality, immigrant deportation on a massive scale. So the restoration through executive orders of the status quo ante will be completely insufficient to meet the needs of the vast majority of people in the United States. There will be no major reforms, any illusions that the left has that Biden will somehow discover that he needs to implement “Medicare for all”, “Green New Deal”, that is out of the picture, that is not going to happen. Maybe he will get some minor liberal things through. But I think that’s very unlikely in the event of a divided government. So he’s going to cut deals with the GOP on domestic politics on grounds that are acceptable to Mitch McConnell, who is a reactionary. So I think we’re going to get very little for regular people on the domestic front.
On the international front, I think we face a more dangerous situation, because on international politics, there is an imperial consensus of a need to stand up and confront China and Russia. So the great power rivalry rhetoric that we’ve seen develop in a kind of chaotic, irrational way under Trump is actually an expression of a deeper consensus that Biden is very clear about. If you read his articles in Foreign Policy, which people call the “imperial brain trust”, the Journal of the foreign policy establishment. He made it very clear, along with Hillary Clinton, what their plan is. They would like to retool the US economy to be increasingly competitive with China. On 5G, they know they need to rebuild US infrastructure so that it enters the 21st century. Because the US in terms of infrastructure is a decaying wreckage, and they also need to compete on other fronts of high tech. And they will develop, or Biden aims to develop, an industrial policy to cohere that domestically. And the aim of that is to compete with China, in the high tech race, and also on the military front, because the US dominance in Asia is threatened by some of some of the developments of the Chinese military. So we’re going to see, I think, on an international front, a program of Imperial restoration that’s tied with the transformation or attempted transformation of the US economy so that it’s more competitive with China. Biden will do that not in the “America First” kind of way, but through the classic strategy of what they call “liberal internationalism”, that is the US gathering together its Imperial allies to form a block against China’s rise and against Russia. So I think the most dangerous result of the Biden victory is that Imperial restoration, which has not been discussed at all, in the US election. It’s like the world stopped functioning and all people talked about was domestic politics. The most dangerous thing that is now developing is the Imperial reassertion through Biden, which the GOP agrees with, with minor tactical differences. We’ll see what happens. But you can already see the points of agreement. Marco Rubio, the Florida Senator is for industrial policy, he is making a bid for the Trump wing of the Republican Party. So he agrees with Biden on this retooling of the US economy to make it fit to compete with China. So I think that’s the most likely and dangerous result, which is this policy of Imperial restoration where there is a consensus deep in the Washington establishment.
A.B: Moving on to the debates in the left. There have been many debates with regard to the elections. An important segment of the left called for a Biden vote, arguing the need to defeat the possibility of a coup and Trimps strive towards authoritarianism. What is your overall balance sheet of these debates? And what debates on socialist strategy provided the basis for the different positions towards the elections?
A.S: I think the debate on the left was essentially between a classic lesser-evillist position, (which is you vote for the lesser evil to stop the greater evil) which has been the dominant position on the US left for 80 years, and a minority position, which I agree with, that you can’t stop evil by voting for lesser evils. In fact, it backfires, usually strengthening the hand of the greater evil, because the lesser evil will cut a deal with the greater evil, move to the right and implement much of its policies. And if it does, it alienates its voters, and then the right stands to gain in the next election. So this has been the classic failure of lesser evilism for four generations.
I think we have to be honest about the Left in the United States. It is a very small force. And it is in a process of rebuilding its forces after decades of defeat and retreat. And so in the actual election, I think the left played a marginal role in influencing the outcome. The forces that really controlled this election were the Democratic Party establishment and the various liberal formations that are attached to the Democratic Party. And the Left including DSA had no impact really, on the outcome of the election. And that’s important to recognize, because I think a lot of people had an inflated sense of their own significance that supporting Biden would make a material difference in the election outcome. And I think that was always an exaggeration, and an exaggeration that led to political compromises that could, if not reversed, weaken the left in the US. Because the reality is, as I just said, you’re not going to be able to stop Trump nor trumpism by voting for a neoliberal restorationist like Joe Biden. And the biggest danger now is that after having supported Biden, that people will either give him a honeymoon or defend him when he comes under attack from the right, which will happen right away. And this is a self defeating position, because what that does is guarantee that the only two options available to people are the right wing in the form of Trump and the GOP and the neoliberal center of the Democratic Party. And that will produce a situation where it’s very easy to imagine that the left plays no independent role in any of the debates, that would be a tragedy. Because I think in the context of the polarization that we’re in right now, with some of the episodic struggles that we’ve seen explode in the US over the last several years, there is a chance to build the left as an independent pole that can, over time challenge both the right in the form of the Republican Party and the capitalist establishment in terms of the Democratic Party. So I think that we have to have a real debate and assessment coming out of the election about which way forward for building the left as an independent pole.
On the coup, I think the coup was always an exaggerated and overhyped assessment of what was going on, which was mainly driven by a desire to turn out the vote for Joe Biden, because in reality, there was no coup ever going to happen. The Trump administration was not backed by the American capitalist class in the main, the capitalist class was overwhelmingly behind Biden. The State bureaucracy that runs the US government was not in support of Donald Trump and would not support a coup. The US military made it very clear that it would not support a coup. The only elements where Trump had any support for a seizure of state power was in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and in the Police Departments. But they don’t play and don’t have the same social weight as the military state bureaucracy and capitalist class. And the Republican establishment also opposed Trump’s threat of ignoring the results of the election and remaining in power. So all the hype about a coup ended up in the event being a mirage, it was not going to happen. And I think it was used (and I know this from working with lots of organizations that were preparing election protests in defense of the results), they were mainly using it to turn out the vote for Joe Biden. So I think it was a classic liberal argument that we’ve got to stop fascism by voting for the Democratic Party. Trump in reality is not a fascist, couldn’t bring about a coup if he dreamed of it. And the vote ended up the way it was. And what the Republican Party has done is merely challenged things in legal channels, which it has been doing for generations. This is classic behavior of the Republican Party when it loses elections.
So I think all of this leads to what I referred to: we’ve got to have a debate on the left. I think lesser evilism, yet again, is going to prove itself a failed strategy. We’ve gotten rid of Trump, but we won’t get rid of Trumpism. Biden will not get much done, he will adapt to the right, he could lose, the democrats could lose the midterm elections. And that will produce a revitalization and emboldening of the right in the United States.
And the left has got to get out of this trap of lesser evilism and begin to position itself as an independent force. I think in two ways, one, by really starting to declare political independence. And two, by running candidates on our own ballot lines and challenging both the Republicans and the Democrats, especially in one party cities like New York where Republicans basically don’t run so it can be socialists against the Democrats. Even if we lose the elections, we start to position ourselves as an independent voice to both the right and the Democratic Party. But more importantly than that, we need to orient and reorient the whole left on building struggle: Black Lives Matter, abortion rights struggle, workers struggle. Because that’s going to be the only mechanism to win change under the Biden administration, which is going to be caught in this paralyzed position of a divided government unable to do anything, even if it wished to do, something which it doesn’t in terms of major reforms that would answer the demands of the vast majority of people in the US. So I think we need a major reorientation of the left.
A.B: The final question, you addressed some of this already. What challenges does the socialist left have in this new moment? And in what condition does it stand to face them? In your opinion, what are the main tasks for the DSA? And what should its orientation be?
A.S: Yeah, well, I think we have to step back and think about where we are in global and US capitalism. Right now, we are in a long term crisis, multiple crises that are all the result of the way capitalism on a global scale and in the United States, operates. That is, we have a pandemic that’s rooted in the internationalization of agribusiness, we have a deep economic crisis that was triggered, but not caused by the pandemic. And that shows no signs of abating, we’re going to see it. We’re in the midst of a global recession, we have a climate crisis, we have an international war on immigrants, we have an epidemic of racial oppression and oppression of minority groups throughout the world system. And we have, for the world’s majority, increasing challenges of meeting our basic needs. I live in Vermont, which is the home of Bernie Sanders. And I just read in today’s newspaper, that a quarter of the population faces food insecurity right now. So we are in very dire conditions. And that is what’s driven the rise of the right and is driving the rise of a new left in the United States.
In many ways, I think we’re in the early stages of the development of the new socialist left in the US. And it faces major challenges, but also enormous opportunities. The fact that we have had elections of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Sanders getting a hearing in his two electoral runs for presidency is a sign of the deep radicalization that’s developing in the country. I think that the challenge for the new socialist left is thinking that we are going to really win change through the electoral arena. Because that, I think, has mainly been the focus for the last four or five years on the US left. Through the runs for Congress, local elections, and especially Sanders run inside the Democratic Party. And I think most people in DSA still think of that, and also see the importance of struggle. And I think we need to have a debate within DSA and the whole new socialist left about a reorientation from the predominant focus on elections to the organization of popular struggle. That said, I don’t think anyone should oppose running people for office, I think we should run people for office, but on independent ballot lines of our own, so we can carve out a position that’s a socialist, one, uncontaminated by the reactionary policies of the Democratic Party. But we have to recognize the limits of getting elected to office because of the conditions that I described at the start of the answer to this question. That is, we have a divided government. Because of the economic crisis anybody who gets elected is going to be facing an enormous budgetary crisis, that is, massive spending to relieve the conditions of the economic crisis and the pandemic, which means then they’re going to have to do budget cuts either immediately at the state and local level or down the line. And especially the republicans are going to push very hard for fiscal austerity. So getting a few socialists in office at whatever level is going to face not only the political barriers of a GOP and Democratic Party consensus against what socialist wants, but also the structural impasse of getting elected to a state amidst inaction, economic and budgetary crisis in which austerity is the logic of the situation. So that means anybody elected is going to be in a very weak position. That’s why I think it’s in the interest of the new socialist movement to reorient its energies on building up rank and file organization in the unions, building up class struggle, in workplaces, there are going to be strikes against the conditions that are growing, we’ve already seen them amidst the pandemic, they will break out. And we need to have socialists embedded more deeply in those workers’ struggles. And also in the social movements. We just had the largest uprising in the history of this country, the Black Lives Matter uprising. And for the most part, DSA and the socialist left more broadly, was not an independent player in those struggles. And as a result, those struggles were diverted from Black Lives Matter uprising to Black votes matter behind the Democratic Party. And so I think it underscores the importance of getting ourselves more deeply implanted in the social struggles and in the class struggle.
One thing that stands out most importantly for me, is the women’s rights struggle. If you think about it, we had this massive series of women’s marches, and then the “Me Too” movement, and somehow, predictably actually, the Democratic Party was able to corral that behind somebody who’s been charged with rape, I mean, has rape allegations against them in the form of Joe Biden. So I think now that women’s movement is going to be faced with Biden in office, very little room to protect abortion rights and a Supreme Court that is stacked with reactionaries who have their eyes on attacking reproductive rights, and in particular abortion rights and Roe vs. Wade. So we have to have in that circumstance, when there’s no electoral way to defend what we want to defend in abortion rights, we have to have an electoral mass movement to protect abortion rights and women’s rights more broadly.
So I think we need that massive reorientation on struggle, class and social struggle, as well as on independent politics. I think DSA faces this enormous debate about where our time, money and energy should be spent. And that debate will be playing out in the assessment of what’s going on in this election, and in the run up to the DSA National Convention, which will happen next summer. And I think one of the things that we need to underscore and I meant to say this earlier, is who the Democratic Party is blaming for their poor showing, they are blaming the left. And that is a sign that we are unwelcome in the bosses B team, or actually, it’s A team now, its main Party, which is the Democratic Party. They are going after AO, they are going after Bernie Sanders, they are going after “Medicare for all”, they’re going after the “Green New Deal” as the main reason why the democrats did poorly in the congressional and Senate election. That shows just how right wing the Democratic Party is and how much they despise socialists. They’re welcome to have socialists in their midst as a co-opted ineffective force, but they will use them as scapegoats to explain away their failure to defeat the right. So, in that circumstance, I think we’ve got to win an argument inside DSA for independent politics, social struggle and positioning the new socialist movement as a pole of attraction. That’s an alternative, both to the right and to the Democratic Party, the neoliberal center of the system.
A.B: What role can a project like Tempest play in the face of these challenges?
A.S: I think Tempest is a modest project. And it’s just in its beginning stages. But I think it’s begun to position itself as a critical voice that assesses the weakness of this predominant electoral strategy that DSA in the new Socialist Movement has had, and makes an argument positively for this reorientation on mass struggle and independent politics. So, hopefully, Tempest and other forces inside and outside DSA can increasingly pose a united front of forces on the left that are for this reorientation toward class and social struggle and the building of an independent party of our own, a new Socialist Party. Nominally, almost everybody in DSA agrees with that as a goal. The question is how, and when we’re going to do that. Most people in DSA and its predominant wings, either see taking over the Democratic Party as the end, which I think you can see from their response to the left and this election is a dead end, or a long march through the Democratic Party getting increasing numbers of people elected. And some people say 20, 50 years. We will not have a habitable society in 20 or 50 years. New York City is going to be underwater with global climate change. So we need a much more aggressive argument on the left, that we have to start laying the foundations to build a new party of our own. That’s not going to come through Tempest. It’s not going to come through any particular organization or publication on the left. It’s got to be a front of people on the left arguing in that common direction, and winning that argument inside DSA through patient comradely debate and discussion, and most importantly, collaboration in struggle, where we can build up the trust and have the debate at the same time. Because I think we’re at a turning point, especially in DSA´s convention coming up this summer where we desperately need a reorientation of the socialist left on independence and struggle.