At a postgraduate seminar at the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney (6 February 2017), we discussed the outlines of a “General Theory of Trump”. Students and staff submitted 10 Talking Points Towards a General Theory of Trump as a result and here is my response, which moves from analytical points towards outlining the need for a global Progressive Alliance – of social democracy, left-liberals, greens and radical leftists.
1) Trump’s victory was triggered by an ideological crisis in neoliberal politics in the USA: that is, not primarily by a deep crisis of economics, nor by the “household recession” affecting working class families. The USA “won” the post-2008 recovery under Obama, through a combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus, currency manipulation; by exploiting the ability of its deregulated labour market to create low-paid jobs; by signing up to multilateral financial regulations (Basel III); and by shaping the planned next phase of globalisation in its favour (TTIP, TPP). However, this created a profound ideological dissonance within the corporate elite, which mirrored and drew strength from a reactionary plebeian movement.
2) The ideological crisis is driven by the mismatch between what had to be done to save the global financial system and what the neoliberal ideology said should be done. The ideology said: let banks fail, cut the deficit, impose austerity, keep the currency sound. The action required was state subsidy of the banks; a massive debt-fuelled fiscal stimulus and the Fed becoming buyer of last resort to all kinds of bond instruments. A second mismatch is between the need for the USA to remain part of the global multilateral system on climate change: the interests of big carbon (fracking, oil) coincided with the anti-scientific, reactionary theories of the religious right. Finally, the Obama administration, by focusing inward on economic recovery and (mild) social reform affected a swift and un-theorised retreat by the USA from its former position as global hyperpower: leaving the Libya crisis for the UK and France to fuck up; leaving Syria for Assad and Putin to dominate; failing to deter Russia’s annexation of Crimea; and seeking a strategic peace with Cuba. This, too, created dissonance – above all for conservative minded people who for three generations experienced unchallenged American global power; and for sections of the military and the security establishment.
3) But there is no ideological equivalent of quantitative easing. That is: once a story falls apart, people’s brains begin searching for a new story. You can keep alive an economy on thin air but not an ideology. As in music, dissonance requires resolution. Thus the story of the 2016 presidential election can be understood as the sudden collapse of neoliberal coherence, and the switch by a section of the elite, and a section of the US middle and working class, towards anti-global nationalism.
4) Yet Stan Greenberg’s thesis of the New American Majority is correct: taken together, the ethnic minorities, single women, lesbians and gays, secular households and Millennials do form 63% of the population – up from 52% in 2010. The long-term demographic journey of the USA is towards a multi-ethnic, progressive majority, with an interest in maintaining multilateral institutions, global engagement and the rule of law. Totally distinct in belief and behaviour to the small-town, white supremacist, ultra-religious plebeian right, these two demographics correspond to the “two nations” observed by political writers in the 1850s – destined to fight each other for supremacy in the USA.
5) But the New American Majority failed to back Bernie Sanders (who could have won) and failed to cohere around Hillary Clinton (who did not win because she could not mobilise turnout in key states).
6) As a result, for the first time since the Civil War, the USA is ruled not just by an ultra-conservative politicial group (as in Reagan, Bush) but a clique and a demographic dedicated to the reversal of secular, technocratic, multi-ethnic modernity. Whatever the specific asks and projects of the corporate backers of the Trump project, the demographic necessity is to destroy and disempower the liberal-minded globalist electoral majority: hence the threat to deport 11 million illegal migrants; the move towards further systemic voter exclusion, mass incarceration, and the near-inevitable return of 1960s and 1970s-style suppression of political dissent.
7) If we itemise those sections of the ruling class who have either supported Trump or quickly accommodated to him, a picture emerges of a corporate alliance of convenience against multilateral globalisation.
a) Exxon and the wider carbon lobby, above all coal, need an end to the Paris climate commitments. Exxon and the miasma of exotic finance that surrounds US carbon also need the lifting of sanctions against Russia so that it can complete its Arctic deal with Rosneft.
b) The pro-Trump banks and hedge funds want a relaxation of the Basel III accord, which they have placed high on the agenda of the Fed. They want a return to the pre-2008 position whereby the US Federal state extended implicit and unlimited guarantees to institutions like AIG, which in turn dictated an aggressive policy of financial de-regulation. For them, Obama and Clinton’s accommodation to “Wall Street” was the wrong kind of Wall Street, i.e. to the end of Wall Street that had learned to restrain complex finance as a result of 2008.
c) The military-industrial complex needs war. It needs a boost to military spending in general; but this need coincides with the desire of an “anti-Iran lobby” inside the complex. This group’s position maps closely onto the strategic interest of Russia as follows: Russia desires the end of multilateralism, the breakup of the “West” and the return to a Great Power system, where each big power recognises the other’s sphere of interest and legitimate claims. It therefore suits Putin to have a ruling security clique in Washington re-oriented to the Middle East, abandoning the peace deal with Iran; which identifies Iran, Syria and Russia as threats to be contained through a string of expensive bases, satellites and drone technologies.
d) The Cuban-American bourgeoisie/mafia needs an aggressive reversal of Obama’s reconciliation policies towards Cuba.
e) The farming lobby, above all the cattle lobby, need a reversal of taxes and regulations designed to suppress carbon and methane emissions.
f) Large corporates, particularly Silicon Valley and Wall Street, need a president who will do what Obama refused to: declare an amnesty for the $2.5 trillion of profits held offshore, awaiting a repatriation amnesty.
8) Onto this alliance of convenience is bolted the intellectual cadres of the alt-right, products of the so-called “dark enlightenment”; and the pro-Russia lobby inside the Trump coterie – Manafort, Flynn and the Trump family.
9) The question whether Trump represents a break or continuity with neoliberalism depends on whether we are discussing an objective system or an ideology. In PostCapitalism I express a preference for studying neoliberalism not just as an objective reality (i.e. not an ideology) but as a whole global system: that is, with mafia-controlled states like Russia and Kazakhstan; with freemarket borrow and spend cultures like the USA; and with mercantilist actors like Germany, China and Japan.
10) Trump is a symptom that the whole system is broken. But his victory is, simultaneously an expression of the fact that America’s traditional “bargain” within the neoliberal system – massive enrichment for a globally oriented tech and finance bourgeoisie – has lost consent. Taken at face value Trump’s programme is one of aggressive de-globalisation; an attack on multilateral institutions with the aim of fragmenting them; an attack on the rule of law; an attack on the unwritten social compacts that have underpinned the emergence of a diverse, socially progressive American demographic majority. Trump’s project, then, is for America to partly de-globalise the world in its own interest, just as it globalised the world in the 1990s.
11) The problem is, potentially, that this intent – even while it remains rhetorical – will trigger a series of reactions that repeats the rapid de-globalisation of the world that took place between 1931 and 1934. A single major act by Trump to break up the multilateral system would certainly trigger such a reaction, especially in those countries whose competitive position relies entirely on multilateralism being maintained: Germany, Japan and China. Thus the threats of retaliation by the European Commission, should Trump pull the USA out of Basel III are real. Likewise Trump’s breakup rhetoric against the EU is being interpreted as an act of economic war that will trigger defensive reactions in the EU on trade, investment and global standards.
12) However, Trump’s economic nationalism and domestic racism are compounded by the existence of a deeper project – not on the periphery of his team but in the centre of it, in the person of Steve Bannon. Bannon and the alt-right libertarian movement have a catastrophist perspective for the USA that relies on Trump triggering an even bigger domestic and global crisis. Bannon’s obsession with “Fourth Turning” Kondratiev waves etc. bespeaks a theory of history which demands traumatic collapse before there can be a return to greatness. In this scenario America’s long-simmering culture war becomes a geographically distributed low-level armed conflict – again with parallels in the Bleeding Kansas period of the 1850s; meanwhile external threats are invoked to suspend aspects of the rule of law; and then Trump seeks – or is pushed into – a major conventional armed conflict, either with Iran, North Korea or China itself. This “end of the post-1945 world” scenario then re-sets the mass psychology of the USA, empowering an authoritarian nationalist kleptocratic ruling elite.
13) Trump – at time of writing – represents a hybrid – between a conservative corporate economic nationalism and a much more radical project closer to fascism.
14) In this context, it barely matters whether he is (as alleged in the Steele Dossier) together with Flynn and Manafort, actually an “agent influence” of the Russian state, or a blackmail risk, or simply in it for the sex, power and money Putin throws his way. Functionally, Trumpism serves Putin’s global interest by fragmenting the very multilateral system that has held the Kremlin’s projects in check.
15) Trump is not fascism. However, he has empowered American fascism and the white supremacist groups around it. And in a modern society with weakened labour movements, you do not need classic fascism to achieve the goals the German and Italian ruling elites needed to achieve in the 1920s and 1930s. The similarity to Hitlerian statecraft, arises from Trump’s manifest determination to “ride” the crisis: to over-ride constitutional norms; to debase the office of the presidency into a money spinning scheme; to provoke repeated crises which then demand gestural responses, completely sidelining the technocratic mechanisms of the state; and the overt labelling of the liberal and high-quality media “enemies of the American people”. The problem is, such gestural forms of government actually demand outcomes and relentless escalation. Hitler seized the chancellorship from Hindenburg; appointed his own thugs as cops; overrode the constitution immediately and then moved to extra-judicial killings all by June 1934. Trump, by contrast, is seeing his radical right and pro-Russian supporters chipped away by constitutional mechanisms. Flynn was sidelined after leaks from within the intelligence community; Milo by executive action from Simon & Schuster. Manafort was already sidelined because of intelligence investigation into his Russian/Yanukovich links.
16) For all these reasons, any “theory of Trump” must predict a rapid and sudden change ahead. Trump, facing slow silent but relentless investigations over the Russian dossier, must provoke some kind of crisis fast.
a) The shape of the likely domestic provocation is clear: the proposed call-up of 100,000 National Guard reservists to oversee a mass roundup and deportation of up to 11 million illegal migrants. This would provoke not simply low-level unrest but conflicts with state governments, National Guard units, the courts etc., all at once.
b) The direction of the external crisis is less predictable. America’s strategic problem is that it faces multiple challenges: China, Russia and Islamist terrorism. For the alt-right, it is Islam that is enemy #1 and China #2. For the pro-Russia wing of the Trump administration all that matters is that Washington draws a series of Sykes-Picot style lines through Europe and the Middle East, accepting Russian influence beyond them. For the Saudi and Israeli influenced faction in Washington it is imperative that Iran becomes the enemy in a new regional buildup. Which of the enemies is prioritised will depend on the outcome of an internal struggle – in a bizarre and bathetic parallel with the Pacific-vs-Atlantic debate inside the Roosevelt administration in 1942.
17) For Trump, then, there is no clear answer to “what would success look like”. However, we can sketch out the likely outcome from understanding the desires of the reactionary plebeian base that voted for him:
a) US states free to limit abortion rights; reimpose a modern form of Jim Crow segregation; rampant racist policing and extra-judicial state violence;
b) The supreme court rigged to rubber stamp attacks on the liberal freedoms won since the 1960s;
c) A massive and untramelled surveillance state, off the leash in pursuit of domestic “enemies”;
d) Massive deregulation of finance, business, environmental and labour rights, empowering US corporations to “solve” the crisis of dynamism on the backs of the poor, workers and minorities (and by destroying the environment); and
e) Full or partial withdrawal from NAFTA, the Paris Climate accord, Basel III; the transformation of the WTO into an economic conflict zone; the IMF returned to its role as promoter of US financial and corporate interest; and the United Nations neutered as a multilateral institution.
18) It is possible, but not likely, that America could “win” the negative sum game created by the de-globalisation of the world – as Roosevelt’s America won the economic and military conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s. But Charles Kindleberger’s observation – that a new world order needs a rising hegemon to shoulder its responsibilities – suggests that it will more likely be China which throws off its regionalist viewpoint and imposes the next world order. However, that seems several decades ahead. And for reasons explored in my book Postcapitalism, the inner dynamism of capitalism is no longer assured.
19) In this situation Trumpism will fail – opening the way for a much more radical set of choices in the USA: between modernity and religious fundamentalism; between the rule of law and an oligarchic kleptocracy; between globalism and nationalism.
20) Trump, in the short term, has created unanticipated momentum for parallel nationalist projects in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Trump’s online networks and plebeian supporters are creating a challenging and daily-changing dynamic that the forces of socialism and liberalism in Europe have not moved fast enough to counter. In the next two months it is likely that both the PVV and the FN come first in their respective elections, only to be denied power by the electoral systems of the Netherlands and France. The AfD then will likely get into the Bundestag, destroying overnight the linguistic and behavioural conventions of German mainstream politics and bringing a new, abrasive radicalism to the discourse on immigration, terror and human rights.
21) Trump, then, allows us a glimpse of how neoliberal societies and political systems fail: as with communism, they collapse towards kleptocratic, authoritiarian racist nationalism.
22) It follows from the above that the political strategies of liberalism, large global corporations, social democracy, global NGOs, the greens and the radical left must all change. For each the question is posed: what are you going to do in war to save progressive globalisation and multi-ethnic, tolerant and open societies? As a radical social democrat, operating in the overlap between the UK Labour Party, the Scottish radical independence project and the European Left parties, here’s what I think my segment of politics has to do:
a) Make a strategic alliance with the remnants of neoliberalism to defend the rule of law, democracy and tolerance, similar to the Popular Front project sponsored by the Comintern in the 1930s.
b) Within that alliance, argue for a controlled retreat from certain aspects of globalisation – for example permanently nixing TTIP, TPP – and the promotion of clear social justice goals in the developed world which over-ride certain aspects of globalisation. For example, the urgent and radical reform of the Lisbon Treaty, scrapping the fiscal compact and politicising the ECB to launch a major economic stimulus to the whole European economy.
c) Insofar as the traditional parties of the neoliberal right run scared of Trump, and compromise with racism and rival economic nationalisms, the project of a Red-Red-Green (RRG) government should emerge. In Germany, where this is a possibility after the 2017 election, the difficult dynamics of RRG are already being explored. In Spain it would effectively mean Red-Red-Catalan-Basque; in Britain – where Labour is already an uneasy and factious “Red-Red” alliance it would mean a Progressive Alliance project with the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, with the promise of urgent electoral reform.
d) Finally what does this mean for mass, networked social movements, progressive NGOs and the left intelligentsia? Trump is the price we paid for the “refusal of power” strategy adopted by most thinkers and activists during the Occupy period; and for dissolving our activities into too many diverse and ineffective spheres. Many have worked their way from this into positions where they were able to influence traditional parties to the left: Sanders in the USA, Corbyn in Britain, Hammon in France. In other jurisdictions it has been possible for new, radical left parties to emerge out of the mass movements and challenge for power- as with Syriza, Sinn Fein and Podemos.
e) Yet all these points of resistance to Trumpism lack global co-ordination; the neoliberal old guard effectively co-ordinates through Davos, Jackson Hole, the Munich Security Conference etc. The global left – the incipient Red-Red-Green alliance – may need several co-ordinating centres, at first, but there is a pressing need for some central clearing house of intelligence, ideas and best practice. In the banned Soviet movie The Commissar, Vasily Grossman’s anti-hero, the Jewish blacksmith Magazanik uses a phrase that might describe what we need to build: “The International of Kindness”.