Trump’s imperial presidency

A storm led by women grows among his “subjects”

March 6, 2018 — Striking teachers and staff celebrate after West Virginia politicians agree to 5 percent raises for all state workers. PHOTO: Craig Hudson / Charleston Gazette-Mail
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From the beginning, Donald Trump’s presidency has resembled the rule of a monarch who believes he has the right to do whatever he pleases just because he is the king. Also from the start, the “commoners” have expressed their displeasure in massive numbers.

Many progressives see Trump’s imperial regime as an aberration that can be fixed with an election or two. But Trump is no accident of history, and neither is the resistance he is facing.

Presidency gone wild. Trump has done his best to circumvent the “normal” ways of ruling since his first day in office, when he signed an executive order meant to repeal the individual mandate that is part of Obamacare, passed by a vote of Congress.

Trump’s impulsive Twitter presidency takes to a scary extreme an already existing tendency toward unaccountable and bloated power in the White House. For example, his reliance on unilateral executive orders follows in the footsteps of his predecessors. Obama issued 276 of these presidential fiats, Bill Clinton 364, and Ronald Reagan 381. (George Washington managed with eight and John Adams with one.)

But a president’s most destructive power is the one held as commander-in-chief: to make war. By law, the Constitution gives the authority to declare war to Congress. Just as, in theory, the three branches of government provide checks and balances on each other. More and more, however, these supposed norms of capitalist democracy are fiction, not reality.

The cost at home and abroad. One of the most appalling examples of Trump’s highhandedness is the U.S. air assault on Syria in April, ordered without legislative approval, popular debate, or international sanction (the participation of France and Britain notwithstanding). He did not even give Congress advance notice!

Again, however, Trump is not the first chief executive to order the Pentagon into action without any democratic decision-making. In fact, the last time Congress actually voted to go to war was after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Korea and Vietnam were labeled “police actions” to avoid public debate. George H.W. Bush asked the legislature for limited authorization to attack Iraq and got it, launching the first Persian Gulf War.

With or without declarations of war, Congress also bears major culpability for these imperialist ventures. Bipartisan support for war is expressed through continual votes in favor of budgets swollen with Pentagon spending and through repeated passage of Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF). A 2001 AUMF provided the legal cover for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Though it was supposed to be restricted to the battle against al-Qaeda, successive presidential administrations have cited it as justification for most “anti-terror” actions since.

The 21st-century wars and occupations initiated or backed by Washington have created humanitarian crises in nation after nation. More than 110,000 Afghans have been killed in the conflict in their country, with possibly 360,000 more perishing from indirect causes related to the war. More than 2,200 U.S. troops have also died.

At home, the cost in dollars of military operations since 2001 is more than $4.5 trillion, with $32.8 million spent every hour. These are figures well worth remembering when politicians claim “there is no money” for government-funded healthcare, or housing, or childcare, or jobs programs and training to gain full employment, or quality public education.

And there is another cost. As the use of constitutional checks and balances dwindles, so does even the appearance of democratic rule.

Genesis of the new autocracy. It has gotten to the point where presidents seem to believe, like notorious French monarch Louis XIV, that “l’état, c’est moi” — I am the state. And this is not by chance. Something fundamental is behind it.

Everything in existence is born, blossoms, peaks, declines, and dies. So it is with capitalism. There are social and economic contradictions built into the profit system, like the tension between social production and private profit or between nationalism and globalization. These oppositions inevitably sharpen over time. Crises of all types, from economics to politics to the environment, become more frequent and more dire.

When this happens, the normal functioning of healthy capitalism has to be sacrificed, as Marxist thinker George Novack explains in his book Democracy and Revolution. Civil liberties are cut back, the right to unionize comes under attack, protest is monitored and suppressed, freedoms like reproductive rights and voting rights are lost. And the chief executive increasingly gains power at the expense of the other branches of government — and of democracy.

All this backsliding is not a reflection of capitalist strength. It is a symptom of its weakness as it becomes unsustainable.

Working women: the face of the resistance. One of capitalism’s fatal antagonisms is between the workers and those who exploit their labor. Marx expressed this by saying that the system produces its own gravediggers.

Protests against Trump’s rule began the moment his victory was announced. But people are making it clear that they are fed up not only with their new lord and master, but with decades of inequality, brutality of many kinds, stagnant wages, anxiety about the future, and more. And, time and again, the majority of faces we see in demonstrations, on the picket lines, and crowding the capitols are female faces — nurses, “red state” strikers, restaurant employees, immigrants, queer women, youth and seniors demanding reproductive justice and old-age security.

This is reasonable, because women, especially women of color, have the most to gain from change and the least to lose in fighting for it. They are the majority in the lowest paid, least respected, and most demanding occupations. Seventy-five percent of healthcare workers are female, for example, and 77 percent of teachers. Like the teachers, many women workers are in public jobs that are being starved of funds while billionaires gorge on tax cuts and the Pentagon binges on war appropriations.

The chaos of Trump’s reign may yet turn enough of the ruling class against him to bring him down. But whether it is through the ballot box, the militant action of his subjects, or the aggravation of bankers and billionaires with his unpredictability, the king will fall. The hope lies in the resistance that he has done so much to provoke. Will it outlast him, move forward, and create a new system that is sustainable?

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