Making sense of the Trump presidency is impossible without a systematic understanding of the forces of reaction and capitalism which paved his way, argues David Bush
Situating Trump within this context allows us to see him not simply as “a fucking moron” as Rex Tillerson described him, nor as an unstoppable authoritarian force. He is best understood as a dangerous yet vulnerable vehicle for political reaction that has arisen out of the broken neoliberal order. Rather than an anomaly or an electoral freak accident, Trump is a product of a political and economic system which is riddled with contradictions and crises.
Trump’s rise to power
When Trump first entered into the Republican primary he was seen as a long-shot candidate, a mere distraction from more serious contenders like Jeb Bush or John Kasich. The Clinton campaign viewed him as the Pied Piper candidate, the easiest to beat. What the Clinton camp and his Republican primary opponents all missed was that Trump’s outsider message resonated with significant parts of the electorate who have long felt shut out from the political system.
To some it remains a mystery how a scion of a real estate mogul who transformed himself into a celebrity icon of the millionaire class with the catchphrase “you’re fired” could be become a voice for the outsider. But in one of many remarkable exchanges in the Republican primary debates of 2015, Trump showed how he could use his position of wealth in power to demonstrate that political system is rigged for the rich: “I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”
Trump further distinguished himself from the Republican party mainstream by taking positions critical of the Iraq War, free trade and Wall Street. Trump tapped into the anger and despair created by years of neoliberal policies pushed by both parties and he channelled it towards deeply xenophobic and racist nationalist ends. Running against an establishment candidate like Clinton, Trump was able to hold on to the Republican base while making just enough inroads into rustbelt states hit hard by job-killing policies. Clinton’s politically anaemic campaign turned off much of Democratic Party’s working-class base, while allowing Trump to set the pace and terms of the campaign. Where traditionally working-class Democratic areas were susceptible to Trump’s economic arguments about free trade, the Clinton campaign arrogantly assumed these voters were in the bag and focused instead on winning lily-white higher-income Republican suburbanites.
Trump’s election did not signal a sea-change in American politics to the right so much as it showcased the limitations of the neoliberal political consensus.
Stoking the reaction
Trump’s election and his first year in the presidency has been a cacophony of confusing and dangerous pronouncements and actions. It has been easy for many political commentators to get lost in the white noise of scandal, lies, and communication-chaos emanating from the White House.
But there should be no doubt that Trump’s use of the bully pulpit for reactionary purposes is down right dangerous. His subtle and not so subtle support for white nationalists and the far-right world-wide and his use of executive orders to attack Muslims and immigrants should trouble all of us.
Every bigot, big and small, feels more empowered with Trump as President. He has at every turn stoked the flames of hatred and emboldened far-right organizations to crawl out from under their rocks. The far-right networks have been busy organizing marches, conferences and gobbling up air-time along the way.
Trumpism bumps up against reality
With fascists in the street and Trump in office it is easy to see Trumpism as an unstoppable force. However, Trump since assuming the office has been deeply unpopular and the objective political and economic conditions his presidency faces means he will likely remain highly beatable.
For instance, the healthcare crisis in the United States has been decades in the making and short of a universal single payer system there is no quick policy fix to rising prices and low coverage, which the Republicans and Democrats have both found out the hard way.
Likewise, the economy has been stuck in low-growth cycle, which reflects systemic challenges of global capitalism. Since 2005 productivity in the United States and most Western countries has been growing at the slowest rate since World War Two, business investment remains low, while share prices have been growing in no small part due to stock buy-back schemes corporations engage in. Trump and his supporters have no better idea about how to tackle these problems than politicians who have parroted the neoliberal consensus.
Trump’s tax “reform” bill is his singular piece of major legislation that his administration has been able to push through, despite controlling legislative and executive branches and having a majority of conservative leaning judges on the Supreme Court. The Trump tax bill is a monstrous mess which ushers a huge tax cut for the rich and is likely to cause economic chaos for years to come. It will require a titanic class struggle to reverse the tax cuts, not to mention the also unjust George W. Bush tax cuts that were extended by Obama.
Trump’s reign however, far from demonstrating a hegemonic rightwing shows the limitations of American power and the fractures within the ruling elite. Trump himself has caused innumerable problems within his own camp; the turnover of senior officials in his administration and the nearly unending series of gaffs and miscues has contributed both to his unpopularity and the sense that his leadership is an albatross for the ruling elite.
In the immediate wake of Trump’s election there was a wave of protests across the United States. These often spontaneous demonstrations rejecting the Trump agenda were followed by a large national Fight for $15 day of action, taking place in the 340 cities, on November 29. The Women’s March in January, one of the largest day of protest ever in the United States, saw millions take to the streets across the globe to reject not only Trump but the sexism and bigotry he stands for. When Trump tried to pass his first iteration of the Muslim ban, protesters across the United States flocked to airports across the country.
When fascists, emboldened by Trump, have marched and organized they have been regularly met by large counter-demonstrations. In Boston and Vancouver massive rallies swamped and demoralized the far-right.
The massive resistance that met Trump in the street helped to cement his deep unpopularity and put his administration on the defensive. It also created a ferment that has seen socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America grow from 7,000 to 40,000 members.
However, the liberal wing of the resistance and the Democratic Party establishment have been actively trying to pull the resistance to Trump out of the streets and into the corridors of power. The almost singular focus of the mainstream media and the Democratic Party on the Russian investigation has bred all sorts of wild conspiracy theories and flights of fancy. Whether Trump and his team are guilty of collusion with the Russian regime (and that is a big if) Russiagate has only served to quell active resistance to Trump and pump a liberal version of hyper nationalism.
The liberal narrative developing around Trump and Brexit is try to present a false choice of between neoliberal global capitalism and reactionary nationalism. For instance, in Canada free trade deals like NAFTA, despite political support from all three major political parties, was far from popular. NAFTA now is being presented by Trudeau and the political establishment as a bulwark against Trumpism. NAFTA, the European Union and other structures and policies that have perpetuated and accelerated the conditions of inequality, racism and sexism of global capitalism cannot do anything other than create fertile ground for Trumpism to really take root and spread.
Trump and Trumpism can be defeated, but this means a continued focus on building mass movements and seizing the opportunity they create to win ever wider layers of workers away from a politics hemmed in by the neoliberal order.
The stakes are raised
What makes Trump so dangerous is not just his erratic personality, but the fact that we live in extremely dangerous times. Multiple inter-related crises, wars, and conflicts continue to rage across the Middle-East, and very few easy answers are on offer for the American ruling class. Trump, meanwhile, is only pouring gasoline on the situation by stating the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Add to this the crisis on the Korean peninsula, Ukraine and the deepening military involvement of the U.S. on the African continent and what emerges is a world system that is far from stable.
Trump sits atop the greatest war machine ever created, and it was built by liberals and conservatives alike. There is a significant chance that Trump will increasingly rely on military measures to achieve foreign policy ends and shore up his sagging popularity at home.
There is little doubt that Trump must be defeated, but the question remains how and on what terms? Greeting Trump with protests at home and abroad, making him and his agenda unpopular at every turn must go hand in hand with building mass movements against war, racism and policies that favour the rich. Pining for the mythical halcyon days of a softer gentler neoliberal capitalism is a road to ruin, not just for the left, but for the planet. There is no going backwards, the political polarization that gave rise to Trumpism also points in another direction, the possibility of building socialism in the 21st century. These are the stakes, let us hope we are up to the task.