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Chris Nineham assesses the varied interpretations of Trump in this year’s Socialist Register, pointing out the opportunities for the left

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The World Turned Upside Down: Socialist Register 2019, ed. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (2018 Merlin Press), xii, 372pp.

Left commentators have very different takes on Trump. As Doug Henwood writes here, some have seen him as a Putin character or even a Hitler figure, others stress continuity, arguing that he is little different from Obama (p.101). 'The authors featured in this volume draw varied conclusions, though in general they share Panitch and Gindin’s ‘dark sense of foreboding’ (p.22). Some of their contributions are presented in an overly academic style, but amongst other things provide much useful material to make sense of the Trump regime and of modern populism in general.

The rhetoric

There is no doubt Trump is breaking new ground in presidential communication. Previous presidents have made provocative and racist comments (Nixon, Reagan, and Bush junior come to mind). But by and large they were kept in check by advisors and, whatever their personal views, they weren’t seeking to self-present as white supremacists. Trump is an unfiltered and unashamed bigot and provocateur regularly airing explicitly racist and misogynistic views in a way designed to whip up hatred.

This isn’t just a matter of talking tough. Trump wants Americans to believe he is transformative. He has led a vicious crackdown on immigrants, and he promotes a politics that is systematically inflected by race. As Adam Hanieh puts it here in a study of the politics of migration, ‘Trump’s heavily racialized discourse has steadfastly vilified migrants as the root cause of numerous ills - poverty, crime, terrorism, low wages and unemployment.’ His twitter tirades against immigrants have claimed ‘our country is being stolen’ and degraded immigrants as ‘animals’ (p.50). He also promises a break with free-market globalisation. As Ray Kiely outlines, his anti-globalisation discourse ‘promises to lock (American) capital down’ in an effort to return to a golden age of investment in the US (p.143). In particular, Trump has signalled a new approach to the Chinese who he claims are ‘stealing our jobs, they’re beating us at everything, they’re winning, we are losing’ (p.138).

On foreign policy, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin argue in Trumping the Empire that Trump represents a real challenge to the American’s Empire international role ‘in the making of global capitalism’ (p.3). His early foreign-policy rhetoric certainly suggested this. During the election he signalled opposition to the recent history of military interventionism and war. In office, the talk has changed, and the approach has become more complicated, not to say unpredictable. At times he has been as belligerent as the most rabid neo-cons, at others he has reached out to traditional enemies like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un in ways that have shocked traditionalists. Here Trump is showing all the signs of a man responding to conflicting pressures. He reached peak indecision over Iran in July when he green lighted missile attacks and cancelled them ten minutes later.

More straightforward is Trump’s declaration of war on the ‘liberal elites’. He links them to privilege, hypocrisy, fake news, foreign wars and all sorts of political correctness, but also to government interference, bureaucracy and the big state, which he regards as not just as wasteful but also unamerican.

The record

Trump’s racism has alarming real-world consequences. He has tightened immigration rules, leading to the proliferation of detention camps, the systematic break up of families and abuse of migrant children. These measures and his racist outbursts have helped poison the political culture. As Hanieh points out, one of the most worrying effects of his rhetoric has been to encourage white-supremacist and openly fascist organisations across the US (p.50).

However, as Hanieh also says, the administration’s immigration practice, for all its brutality, hasn’t quite matched the rhetoric, ‘the annual rates of migrant deportation and arrests in the first three years of Obama’s first term were more than double of that of Trump’s first year’ (p.51). The new wall hasn’t been completed and Mexico hasn’t been forced to pay for the clampdown on migrants as promised. As Hanieh suggests, all this is a product of contradictions in the complex role of borders in neoliberal capitalism. Most sections of US capital require new labour, and the importance of borders is not so much to stem as to filter the flow, including ‘the actual creation of illegality’ as a means of generating pools of cheap and vulnerable labour (p.63).

Economically, at home at least, for all the talk about putting jobs and investment first, Trump has been a model neoliberal. He has accelerated deregulation and cut taxes for the rich. As a number of contributors to this volume point out, this is one explanation for the fact that there has been so little opposition to Trump from within the Republican establishment and from the capitalists. There have been new trends, though, most obviously an increase in tariffs, in particular as part of the ongoing trade standoff with China. In general, this policy is unpopular with big capital, and is causing real concern in elite circles.

There is disagreement about the extent to which Trump will follow through. Aschoff believes that Trump’s tariff war is ‘gathering steam’ (p.312). For Ray Kiely, protectionism has been ‘more limited’ than Trump’s rhetoric suggested (p.137), while Panitch and Gindin talk of a ‘seismic shock’ to the global capitalist order created by Trump’s disruptions. They go on to quote the Economist’s view that ‘bosses reckon that the value of tax cuts, deregulation and potential trade concessions from China outweigh the hazy costs of weaker institutions and trade wars’ (p.16). A glance at the financial papers since shows that even now western elites are unsure just how far Trump is prepared to push his confrontation with China. Some time ago, stock markets bounced when a US/China trade deal appeared to head off a new round of tariffs. A few weeks later, nervousness returned when the follow through on the deal wasn’t forthcoming.

On wider foreign policy, Trump has learnt that isolationism is simply not an option for the world’s number one superpower. In a highly globalised and contested world still deeply structured by US capital, ‘America First’, like it or not, demands global power projection. The moment of his accession was a highly contradictory one marked by popular war weariness on the one hand, and on the other an elite perception that both the neo-con adventures and Obama’s somewhat lower-key interventions both made the US look weak. The outcome in foreign-policy circles has been a growing focus on state rivals, especially China, and a revival in the fortunes of the neoconservatives and associated hawks. Hence John Bolton and Mike Pompeo heading up the team. Trump may be unusually disruptive and antagonistic to global institutions, but US foreign policy has never been a simple combination of freeing markets and supporting a globalised international order. Organisations like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO have served for decades to impose and sustain US influence. However, when they cease to do so, the US has always been prepared to be antagonistic. It has been engaged in an effective boycott of the WTO arbitration system for years now, and it was after all Bush junior who pulled out of the Kyoto agreement on climate change. If there is nervousness within the US ruling class about a trade war with China, there is definite significant support for a policy of threats of sanctions, aggressive counter espionage and a ramping up of US military presence to force China to accept US global military preponderance.

Rabid nationalism never finds it hard to embrace foreign war and Trump has made the journey from isolationist to potential warmonger look effortless. He has sharply increased arms spending and now seems to revel in confrontations. He may be targeted in his efforts, and his disruptive, taboo breaking instincts allow him to make some unorthodox deals, but what marks his foreign policy more than anything is the return of the idea that the US can and must still shape the world.

As we shall see, he is pulled in different directions by competing pressures, but if there is a consistent theme to his foreign policy it is what Adam Tooze elsewhere calls ‘stress testing’. In a situation of growing global tension, he is seeking out new pressure points for allies and enemies alike. Whether he is prepared to follow through militarily, as the neo-cons hope, is another question. What is in no doubt is that this foreign-policy approach is undermining US soft power. In their assessment of the state of US empire, Panitch and Gindin underplay the extent to which China represents a challenge to US global influence, but they are surely right to argue that Trumpism ‘is palpably tarnishing the informal US empire’s ideological hegemony amidst the political crisis that hyper-nationalism has brought to global capitalism’ (p.19).

Trump has undoubtedly played fast and loose with domestic convention too. In her careful assessment of the scale and nature of the US’s crisis, Nicolle Aschoff quotes two Harvard professors, Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, arguing that unlike any previous Presidents, Trump ‘meets the markers for authoritarianism’. She cites a wider literature suggesting that his policy of leaving some key administration posts unfilled, and placing radical outsiders into others, amounts to an assault on US democracy and the emergence of a right-wing nationalist regime (p.316).

It’s clear that Trump has both expressed and accelerated dangerous dynamics in US society. His leadership is the product of a long-term rightward trend in the Republican Party, most clearly signposted by John McCain’s adoption of tea-party outsider, Sarah Palin, as running mate in the 2008 election. The Republican majority’s attitude to democratic process is contemptuous, and the core of their support base is increasingly radicalised. Trump’s demagogic outbursts often borrow from the fascist phrasebook.

They have not just have boosted the far right in general but, as Alexandra Octavio Cortez has documented, they have given a huge boost to right-wing elements within the state apparatus. In her investigation into the border detention camps she found nearly ten thousand – half the total - current and former Texas border patrol officers were involved in a secret, violently racist and sexist Facebook group, and that top management knew about it and did nothing. Trump has also been remarkably successful at appointing new federal judges at ‘a record setting pace’ according to one leading professor of law. The result has been a sharp swing to the right amongst a group of people with strong powers to police federal legislation on abortion, LGBTQ rights, environmental protections and healthcare reform. Forces are being fomented in the US that could at some stage lead drastic institutional change. But as Aschoff implies, however threatening the situation, Trump hasn’t so far re-engineered core US institutions or US capitalism in ways that block the limited democratic process that exists in the US (p.318).

What’s driving Donald?

There are lots of useful insights into Trump’s makeup and motivation in this edition of Socialist Register. Ray Kiely convincingly Locates Trump’s narcissism, authoritarian instincts and political incompetence in his crude, ‘business-centric view of the world’ (p.144), something which also helps to explain his hostility to state bureaucracy. In his essay on ‘Trump and the new billionaire class’, Doug Henwood goes deeper into his background and traces his disruptive behaviour and sense of being an outsider partly to his failure as someone from a newly rich, Brooklyn background, to make it into high-end Manhattan society. As he puts it, ‘Trump was able to transform his outer Borough resentment of the Manhattan establishment into an anti-elite pseudo populism’ (p.104).

More significantly, Henwood also points to the significance of the particular network of capitalists Trump is connected to. They are mainly owners of private as opposed to public companies, often involved in relatively new, ‘dirty’ industries like fracking, and on the finance side in ‘alternative investment’ hedge funds, and private equity as opposed to big Wall Street banks or major venture capital firms (p.119). As Henwood says, the climate denialism and financial recklessness of Trumpism are no accident as this is ‘government of the asset strippers … live for today, tomorrow is someone else’s problem’ (p.121).

It is also in this particular capitalist milieu that radical libertarian or alt-right politics have flourished most. The alt-right’s biggest billionaire patrons are the Koch brothers, major players in the tar-sands industry, and central to the attempt to push US politics to the right in the last few decades. No shock then that on his surprise election, Trump, or at least some of those around him, turned to the Koch network for help and advice in staffing the new administration (p.116).

Such details help us to understand the idiosyncrasies of this most peculiar and unpleasant of presidents. But they also point to the defining paradox of Trump’s presidency. Trump is the electoral product of deep discontent with a toxic neoliberal regime. He is, however, dedicated not just to prolonging it but intensifying it. As Ray Kieley puts it, Trump was elected to break the mould, but his promise to restore a US golden age is not feasible ‘when one considers the way in which Trump represents not only continuity with, but in some respects the culmination of, neoliberalism: namely that he will supposedly Make America Great Again by running the country as if it was a business’ (p.143).

It is this contradiction that explains much of Trump’s behaviour. It is a pattern that creates problems for populists elsewhere. As Panitch and Gindin set out in the first essay here, internationally, states have been deeply involved in facilitating neoliberalism, and short of a sharp change of direction, using them as platforms for populist nationalism comes with lots of problems that can easily generate crises (p.1). The core of Trump’s base is radical. The xenophobia, the taboo breaking insults, the barrage of contempt for immigrants, and constant criticism of the liberal elites are necessary in order to keep them happy. Instinctively he may want to go beyond words to deeds, and he has some backing for radical action in the capitalist circles closest to him. These, however, are relatively marginal voices. He is now heading up the state of the whole of US capital. Few amongst the financial or corporate elites share the desire for a change of direction.  

He is in theory capable of taking advantage of his loyal political base and charting a course at a tangent to that demanded by the bulk of big capital. But to do this at the level of policy with any conviction would require a coherent socio-economic project. Past incarnations of populism have often involved attempts to reorganise economies. As Boffo, Saad-Filho and Fine argue in ‘Neoliberal capitalism: The authoritarian turn’, statist regimes that emerged in the 1930s were able to take some control of the economy as levels of international trade were falling dramatically (p.265). Trump has identified and channelled real economic discontent, but pro-business blather, deregulation and threatening tariffs on competitors don’t constitute a new plan. He has got lucky with the economy so far, but there is nothing economically transformative about Trumpism and no reason to believe he will be able even to begin to resolve the basic problems that got him to the White House in the first place.

Openings?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that he will be easily beaten in the short term, or that things won’t get worse. As a disrupter, Trump is unusually concerned with the mood of his base. If he wins a second term, he will be even less inhibited than in his first. Foreign policy is where his xenophobic instincts most closely correspond with wider Washington sentiment, and the risks of war are likely to increase. Nor does it mean that disappointment with Trumpism won’t express itself through the channels of racism and hatred that he has worked so hard to construct.

What it does mean is that Trumpism - short termism writ large - is unstable and will ultimately be unsatisfying. It also means that Trump is very vulnerable to the accusation that in fact he is the one defending the status quo. The argument should be simple: he is pursuing a super charged neoliberal agenda, he is doing everything possible to trash remaining workers’ rights, he has allowed the neo-con warmongers back to the policy table, and he is demonstrably close to some of the most rapacious corporations on the planet.

There is general agreement here with the authors of ‘Neoliberal capitalism: The authoritarian turn’ that ‘neoliberalism has never been so unstable, and its hegemony never so brittle’ (p.266). Most contributors accept in general too, the authors’ opinion that the authoritarian turn ‘cannot deliver stability’. But they also on the whole tend to agree that it will be the right that benefits from the situation, including ‘new forms of fascism’ which are apparently ‘bound to prosper as neoliberal economies face continuing volatility and mounting political instability’ (p.264). This degree of certainty is puzzling. For all the very real difficulties, the limits of Trump’s populism suggested in at least some of these essays should create an opening for a real struggle against the right.

Some of the contributors ascribe superpowers to neoliberal ideology. For Ray Kiely, neoliberalism is a hall of mirrors; ‘Neoliberals can always point to the promise of the pristine market … the neoliberal explanation for failure is that some people and interests cheat on this promise’ (p.131). However, this falsified blame game presumably depends for its success on the absence of a convincing left assault on the real source of the problems.

Another issue problem is that for some of the authors here racism appears so embedded in the US system as to be virtually unchallengeable. Aijaz Ahmed, for example, argues that ‘imperialist nationalism as a permanent fixture of American political life’ is for the long term, and that in the short term, ‘the pitch of a fundamentally fascist hysteria is only going to rise’ (pp.46-5). The tie up between racism and US imperialism is clear. But one of the themes of this volume is the crisis of the imperial project, complex though its expression is.

As many of the chapters here stress, to have any chance of success a left needs to be developed that is prepared to mount a clear challenge to the neoliberal status quo. From such a radical vantage point, racism could presumably be taken on in a way that could begin to resonate with people desperation for change. It could be exposed as a means to try an justify foreign wars and as a way to divide and weaken ordinary people, a means of keeping things the way they already are.

The general sense of trepidation in this volume is reinforced by many of its authors’ assumption that the left in the US and elsewhere just isn’t capable of rising to the challenge. But in such turbulent times this fatalism is surely misplaced. As Alan Carfruny argues in a chapter on the left in Europe, progressive projects have had moments of breakthrough in the last few years and have often appeared to come from nowhere to make rapid progress (p.341). US radicals undoubtedly face enormous challenges, not least the difficult problem of how to break the hold of the Democratic Party over so much of the left. But a confident socialist project should be able to exploit the limits of Trump’s populism. Judging from the polls showing record levels of support for socialism, the appeal of Sanders’ anti-corporate politics, the growth of left-wing organisation and the limited but real return of rank-and-file workers’ struggles reported by Aschoff, the conditions exist in the US for just such an project.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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