The implausibility of inheritance braggart and aspiring demagogue Donald Trump leading a ‘people’s revolution’ against the forces of insider deals and social cohesion tells a peculiarly American story. In the tradition of measuring political and economic acuity by the size of one’s bank account, Mr. Trump inherited a real estate fortune and used repeated trips to bankruptcy court to screw those foolish enough to lend him money out of all they were worth. As fortune smiles upon those who help themselves, wealth and position provide the residual of divine origin in the American imagination, the quality of grace bestowed. That these same bankruptcy courts treat Mr. Trump’s supporters of limited means as shirkers misusing ‘the system’ to fraudulently discharge moral obligations written in the blood of the prophets is further testament to this divine origin.
The initial panic from establishment Republicans and liberals over Donald Trump’s political ascendance is due to what he makes explicit about American politics. Nativist and racist demagoguery is the fallback position of American political rhetoric. Ronald Reagan began his first winning run for the Presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi to signal that restoration of White privilege, as if it had ever gone away, aligns with neo-corporatist ascendance. Bill Clinton ‘ended welfare as we know it’ and implemented the racist and regressive carceral policies of ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ mass incarceration and demonization of the poor and people of color through the barely veiled cry of ‘personal responsibility.’ Donald Trump may be more explicit than his recent predecessors, but he is no more of an opportunist.
With official sentiment now turning from panic to envy— awe at the winning strategy that Mr. Trump has recovered combined with self-recrimination for not having thought of it first, racist and nativist rhetoric is in ascendance. As with the fights, mayhem and shootings that accompany store openings on Black Friday, the people have been primed and they are ready to buy something, anything, which signals an end to the existing order. Recovery of barely concealed subtexts has long been standard operating procedure in the political fashion industry. Manufactured social divisions distract attention from the more fitting targets of public disapprobation. ‘Hope and change’ was last season’s slogan with no more thought given to its consequences than to nativist demagoguery in the present.
For those who slept through the early years of Democrat Barack Obama’s first term, not since the early-mid twentieth century has such an explicit class dynamic been recreated in circumstances of widespread economic dispossession. The liberal Obama sided with bankers, Wall Street, various and sundry corporatists and the neo-liberal, neo-conservative Washington establishment with only a political strategist’s interest in the declining circumstances of the overwhelming majority of citizens. Mr. Obama’s ‘mortgage relief’ programs taunted desperate citizens with promises of help when their intent was to slow foreclosures for the exclusive benefit of corrupt bankers. The automaker bailouts restored dysfunctional corporate management while institutionalizing the lower pay and benefits of newer auto workers. A more cynical and feckless formula for political disillusion has rarely been conceived.
American politics has long been interplay between the explicit and the implicit, between the naked self-interest of connected insiders who play the electorate against one another with nativist and thinly-veiled racist chatter and the liberal class who use the corporate credo of ‘don’t piss off your customers’ to sell corporate and ruling class interests to their political ‘consumers.’ Left unarticulated, and largely hidden through these nominally differentiated strategies, is their co-dependence. Inclusive economic policies tend to preclude the appeal of nativist and racist rhetoric and nominal citizens understand the power relations at work in liberal support for bank bailouts, for-profit health insurance sales schemes and corporate-friendly ‘trade’ agreements.
It is the fiction of distinct realms of economics and politics that supports the American illusion of oppositional politics. The central difference between liberal and conservative approaches to governance is in the framing of the issues under consideration and not in actual policies. Republicans use anti-government rhetoric and Democrats proclaim government’s relevance while both hand the levers of political control to corporations and the connected capitalists who own them. The bi-partisan trade agreements being pursued by establishment politicians are politics by other means through the transfer of political control to business interests. The rapidly growing swath of dispossessed doesn’t need to understand the particulars of their dispossession to object to the process. Liberals now objecting to nativist rhetoric need to revisit the economic policies they have spent the last four decades promoting to understand its economic roots.
Much of current anti-immigrant sentiment grew from trade policies that put the poor and working classes in direct competition with low-wage labor overseas for the benefit of corporate executives who pay themselves more by paying workers less. Anger is deflected from where it belongs through nativist demagoguery. And the politicians selling trade deals are themselves the proverbial ‘limousine’ liberals who pay lip service to the victims of the circumstances they create as they drive by them on their way to meetings with ‘important’ people. The Republican ability capture class resentment, as Donald Trump has, depends on this approximately accurate depiction of Democrat duplicity. The improbability of inheritance baby Trump being the voice of working class resentment is a direct result of bourgeois liberals hiding behind the pose of acting in ‘the people’s’ interests when they clearly aren’t.
The practice of posing effects as causes works for as long as it is plausible. Barack Obama encountered a reformer’s circumstance when he entered office in the midst of crisis in 2009. Repudiation of the late-capitalist project that had run from the mid-1970s to crisis in 2008 in some measure explained Mr. Obama’s election. In Democrat apparatchik fashion it quickly became apparent that Mr. Obama had been properly vetted by the powers that be and that he clearly understood his role as restorer-in-chief of the predatory, dysfunctional order that had led to crisis. With the same ambition of ‘resume-enhancement’ that Donald Trump now pursues the Presidency; Mr. Obama is of the insular and well-insulated order that considers self-interest first and perceives the public interest as a public relations problem.
Fear that Mr. Trump is a nascent fascist assumes that he has actual political interests rather than a blowhard’s interest in self-promotion. Twentieth century German fascists, Nazis, spent two decades instantiating themselves into the fabric of regional governance before rising to power. And they had a political program. As Mr. Obama and his recent predecessors have demonstrated, modern American governance is more a business to be milked by insiders. It is hardly an accident that government employment has fallen under Mr. Obama for the first time in decades under the corporate rationale of economic ‘efficiency.’ But other than restoration and perpetuation of the existing order official Washington isn’t that ambitious. This isn’t to suggest that it isn’t dangerous— the embedded government, broadly considered, is in the business of creating global chaos and destruction. But the motives are different from explicit fascism.
Donald Trump is frightening for the place in history that his ascendance represents and not for who he is. In 2009 Democrats had the opportunity to change the course of history by redirecting political economy to support the people who comprise it. Seven years of bank bailouts, scam public interest programs, abusive ‘trade’ deals, domestic surveillance and racist / classist police repression later and they are the face of everything wrong with late-stage capitalism. And here is the kicker— this was very easy to predict. Even a few liberals made the point that inadequate economic policies would discredit the idea that governments can resolve economic crises. Left out of the liberal frame was class analysis that explained why it was unlikely that Democrats could even serve their own long-term political interests by acting in the broader public interest.
The current political season is the grimmest in modern history. Democrats frightened by Donald Trump’s rhetoric likely don’t know much about Hillary Clinton’s actual policies— those that she has acted on in official capacities and not the empty blather that she puts forward to win votes. The danger of motivated and empowered racists and nativists is real and it precedes the rise of Donald Trump. Ms. Clinton and the Democrat establishment bear as much responsibility as Republicans for creating the economic circumstances that support manufactured social divisions. The eternal Democrat motivation of lesser-evilism is so much empty chatter in the face of actual Democrat policies over the last thirty years. Obama administration policies were intended to deliver political power to Donald Trump and his class-mates in plutocracy. To now complain about how they are using it is both pathetic and less than well-considered.