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Trumpism as capitalism’s default option

Although he represents the growth of ‘anti-elite’ feeling in the masses, the US president is a ruling-class response to a ruling-class crisis, writes ZOLTAN ZIGEDY

Happily, many on the US left are beginning to see the intense, ongoing battle between Trump and his defenders and the self-described “resistance” as reflective of a “split in the ruling class.”

This is a welcome development because it removes some of the confusions fostered by the Democratic Party leadership and the childish sensationalism and witless simplicity of the capitalist media. With little more than Russians-under-every-bed to rouse the electorate, the Democrats sell a narrative of Trump-as-Traitor, Trump-as-Defiler-in-Chief and Trump-as-Fascist.

Nancy Pelosi, the billionaire face of the Democratic Party parliamentary contingent, declared three priorities, should the Democrats win the interim election, three pieces of battered, rusty liberal boilerplate: lowering health costs and med prices (always promised, never delivered nor deliverable under a private system), higher wages and improved infrastructure (unrealised for nearly half a century and a teaser to the labour movement), and “cleaning up corruption” (which means continuing the bizarre Mueller witch hunt). No mention of overturning the Trump administration’s tax cuts for the rich.

It is a step out of the weeds of political posturing and shallow cable news analysis to now see a real, fierce battle between different groups of the wealthiest and most powerful, a conflict that gives some deeper meaning to the bizarre antics of the Trump era.

Behind the lurid and illusory imagery of a corrupted vulgarian (Trump) resisted by the “heroic” protectors of freedom and security (the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, et cetera) lies an actual contest over ideas, interests, and destiny.

So it is a good thing that not everyone has been seduced by the cartoon-like political circus constructed by the capitalist media. It is a good thing that more are seeing a contest between the rich and powerful, contesting different visions of the future of capitalism: “a split in the ruling class.”

For much of the last two years, I have written often of the emergence of a ruling-class alternative to the conventional wisdom of market fundamentalism — so-called “neoliberalism” and “globalisation.”

I have written of the growth of economic nationalism in the “advanced” economies as the expression of that alternative. I have postulated its increasing ruling-class popularity as grounded in the damage to globalisation — deceleration of trade, slow growth, financial imbalances, popular discontent and so on — in the wake of the global crisis that began in 2007.

The intensifying competition in the politics of energy are offered as materially symptomatic of economic nationalism, as is the disinterest in maintaining a relatively peaceful backdrop to securing and promoting trade. The US for example is more interested in selling arms than in resolving its many wars (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is said to have convinced those in the Trump administration publicly shamed by the slaughter in Yemen not to cut off support for Saudi Arabia because of the possible loss of $2 billion in weapons sales).

Therefore, a recent commentary (The Dividends of Wrath, September 3 2018) by the influential senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, Joshua Green, counts as recognition of the shifting political terrain triggered by the crisis and its direct consequence in “Making America Great Again” the slogan of Trump’s economic nationalism. The subtitle of Green’s think-piece clearly identifies that theme: how anger over the financial bailout gives us the Trump presidency.

Through reminiscences of an interview with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Green takes us back to the aftermath of the financial collapse, where a resigned Geithner expressed a profound fear of the populace seeking “Old Testament justice” for Obama’s bailout of the banks and the coddling of the banksters.

Green reminds us of Obama’s infamous White House meeting with the CEOs of the major banks where he candidly told them, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

Reflecting on Obama’s words, Green comments:
“Ten years after the crisis, it’s clear Obama was foolish to think public sentiment could be negated or held at bay… Millions of people lost their job, their home, their retirement account — or all three — and fell out of the middle class. Many more live with a gnawing anxiety that they still could. Wages were stagnant when the crisis hit and have remained so throughout the recovery. Recently the Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that US workers’ share of non-farm income has fallen close to a post-World War II low.”

This unusually harsh mainstream indictment of post-apocalyptic capitalism captures the conditions that have stoked fear of dusted-off pitchforks well. And make no mistake, those who rule the major capitalist centres pay attention to the anger: not to answer it, but to deflect it.

Green continues: “…the pitchfork-wielding masses will eventually make themselves heard. The story of American politics over the last decade is the story of how the forces Obama and Geithner failed to contain reshaped the world… unleashing partisan energies on the left (Occupy Wall Street) and the right (the Tea Party)… The critical massing of conditions that led to Donald Trump had their genesis in the backlash…”

While it may be emotionally satisfying to blame Obama and Geithner and go no further, it is more revealing to locate the cause of Trump in the failure of market fundamentalism and the unsettling consequences for capitalism if no alternative were found. Trump and “Make America Great Again” may be a crude response to dangers unleashed by market fundamentalism run amok, but response it is.

Insightfully, Green locates the first stirring of an alternative to the reigning politico-economic paradigm in Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to dissociate the Republicans from the Obama bailouts — in his words to “…keep our fingerprints off these proposals” (the Troubled Asset Relief Programme or Tarp funding of the banks).”

But it wasn’t until Trump that anyone crafted a strategy that successfully harnessed the mass anger into political success. “By the time Trump declares his candidacy in 2015, Americans of every persuasion had soured on the ‘elites’ running both parties, something his Republican opponents didn’t understand until far too late,” Green notes.

Trump was able to cobble together a campaign based on responding to the anger with a measure of economic nationalism, patriotism, and, paradoxically, partisanship for the working class.

Green explains: “Today, his campaign is remembered as having been driven mostly by anti-immigrant animosity. But… Trump spent loads of time attacking Wall Street on behalf of the forgotten little guy and fanning the suspicion that a cabal of political and financial eminences was screwing ordinary people.

“When I interviewed Trump just after he’d locked up the Republican nomination, he told me that he intended to transform the GOP into ‘a workers’ party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry’.”

His closing message in the campaign consciously evoked the disgust so many people had come to feel toward Wall Street and Washington. His final ad on the eve of the election flashed images of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and sought to implicate them, and Hillary Clinton, in what Trump called “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of large corporations and political entities…” It’s no surprise that this message struck a chord: what is Trump if not the embodiment of a balled fist and a vow to deliver Old Testament justice?

Of course the idea that Trump is building a workers’ party is ridiculous, and Green knows it. But that is not the point.

The point is that Trump is not merely the anomaly, the Elmer Gantry figure, bent on capitalising solely on his cynicism, his vulgarity, his hypocrisy to cheat his way to the pinnacle of power. He is not simply the cartoon-like character of orange hue, small hands, and a Mussolini-like pout. Instead, he represents a section of the ruling class’s alternative to the now nearly 30-year unopposed reign of market fundamentalism.

But it is most important to stress that he is a ruling class answer to the failings of a ruling class-dictated era of the universal worship of private property exclusively, of US-policed globalisation, and of lubricated trade.

The latter ideology has not surrendered and the ideology of economic nationalism has yet to dominate. In no way does the struggle between the two roads promise to advance the interests of the working class — both are dead ends for working people. And Green confidently reminds us that the damage wrought by the economic crash “…makes it all but certain that the next presidential election, and Trump’s possible successor, will be shaped by it, too.”

Green, with his earnest, liberal hopes, believes that there is a chance that the otherwise disinterested Democrats will take up the cause of those wielding the pitchforks. He sees that opportunity in Elizabeth Warren. Others see it in Bernie Sanders or the ripples of DSA progressivism on the surface of the Democratic Party.

With the Democrats delivering no qualitatively meaningful reforms for the US working class since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, that likelihood has moved from hope to groundless faith.

Taking sides in this struggle over how best to serve capitalism will only further set back the cause of working people. And looking for a road away from serving capitalism within the Democratic Party is a futile repeat of old illusions.

Only a concerted effort to create or nurture a truly independent, anti-capitalist movement addressing the real and urgent needs of working people makes sense today, when the bourgeois parties willingly sacrifice the interests of workers to the Moloch of capitalism. Only a movement with revolutionary purpose can divert the working class from the false prophets of inward-looking demagogy, tribalism, and Spencerian Survival of the Fittest.

Zoltan Zigedy’s commentaries on current events, political economy, and the Communist movement can be found at


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