The Donald Can Happen Here: Trumpenstein’s Neo-Weimar Creators

shutterstock_353101061Joseph Sohm /

What are we to make of the arch-authoritarian, white-nationalist Donald Trump phenomenon? We should not fool ourselves about its dangerous nature. As the New York Times opinion writer Roger Cohen recently noted in a column titled “Trump’s Il Duce Routine”:

“…Trump retweets to his six million followers a quote attributed to Mussolini: ‘It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep’…Trump refuses to condemn David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who has expressed support for him…Violence is woven into Trump’s language as indelibly as the snarl woven into his features — the talk of shooting somebody or punching a protester in the face, the insulting of the disabled, the macho mockery of women, the anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican tirades….[all evoking]echoes…of times when the skies darkened [over Europe].. after lost wars, in times of fear and anger and economic hardship, when the pouting demagogue appears with his pageantry and promises.”

I’m not a fan of Cohen or the Times, but that’s very well stated. He’s right.

“The Republican Party’s Frankenstein”

Now that Trump is under attack from a fair part of the Republican establishment, it is worth remembering that much of Trump’s noxious shtick is consistent with the longstanding GOP playbook. Trump may be breaking new ground, going beyond Sarah Palin when it comes to incivility, crudity, and sheer white nationalist idiocy, but the racism, nativism, sexism, and macho militarism he’s throwing out at his rallies runs in deep and ugly grooves dug by Republicans since the 1960s. The Republican Party has spent decades stirring the pot of white Amerikanner hatred and hurling the terrible brew at women, Blacks, immigrants, gays, liberals, Muslims, intellectuals, week-kneed liberals and civil libertarians and socialists both real and (like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, actually, Bernie Sanders) imagine.) In doing so, it has endeavored to misdirect white working class anger away from capitalist plutocrats and Big Business on to less powerful and more vulnerable soft-targets like Black “welfare mothers” and “illegal immigrants.” Read Thomas Frank’s once bestselling book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004). In that sense the Democratic US Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-AZ) is right to call Trump “the Republican Party’s Frankenstein.”

The Real Reason Republican Elites Hate Trump

What makes The Donald anathema to many in the Republican establishment? Part of it is certainly the extreme coarseness and crudity, and narcissistic buffoonery of The Donald. Trump’s antics and viciousness cross the boundaries of respectability, earning him extremely high disapproval ratings. Sensitive Republicans like the conservative civility champion David Brooks are appalled by all that.

Trump also threatens to help crash the GOP, already badly damaged as a functioning political party (it maintains its hold over Congress and state governments through a nasty combination of voter-suppression, gerrymandering, and Koch Brother money), in the November elections. He strikes the party elite as excessively independent – and of course he is largely self-funded. Plus, he has a nasty habit of questioning the brains and guts of current and past top Republicans like John McCain, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and the recently dismissed Jeb Bush.

Beyond all that, however, there’s something very different that pinstriped GOP elites don’t like about The Donald. It has to do with how and why he could win (with a lot of Independent and Democratic cross-over votes) the general election, not with how he could lose. This other and, I think, deeper Trump problem is captured very well in a recent Matt Taibbi essay at Rolling Stone. “Reporters have focused quite a lot on the crazy/race-baiting/nativist themes in Trump’s campaign,” Taibbi notes, “but these comprise a very small part of his usual presentation. His speeches increasingly are strikingly populist in their content.”

Trump spends a lot of time bashing “free trade” and talking about the need to pass tariffs to protect “American jobs.” (“We’ve got to do something to bring jobs back,” one Trump fan told Taibbi “when asked why tariffs are suddenly a good idea.”) He denounces corporations that shut down American factories to set up operations in other, cheaper-labor countries like Mexico. He has said that single-payer national health insurance (removing private insurance companies from health coverage) would have been the best way to go. He rails against the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by the insurance companies and notes that those parasitic syndicates “would rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding.” He condemns the stranglehold that Big Pharma as over both parties, so strong that the federal government absurdly bars itself from negotiating Medicare drug prices in bulk. He notes that the nation’s politicians are bought and sold by the highest corporate and financial bidders. “The system is broken,” Trump observes.

It’s populist, working class-pleasing rhetoric like that has elite Republicans rushing to block Trump, not the foul white nationalism, nativism, sexism, and authoritarianism.

Trump’s campaign populism might seem to jibe poorly with his spectacular wealth and his self-admitted history as an influence peddling plutocrat. But it fits, actually. “His pitch,” Taibbi notes, “is: He’s rich, he won’t owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won’t do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people.”

Exactly: Trump’s “gonna be his own man,” one Trumpenproletarian told Taibbi in New Hampshire. Somebody’s gotta stand up to these bastards and the Donald is rich enough to do it!

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A Weimar Analogy: Resentment Abhors a Vacuum

But if Trump is “the Republican Party’s Frankenstein,” the Democrats are no less responsible for the monster’s rise. Make no mistake he’s the dismal neoliberal Democrats’ Frankenstein too.

I am reminded of a talk Noam Chomsky gave in Madison, Wisconsin in the spring of 2010, as the right wing, arch- authoritarian Tea Party Republican phenomenon was gearing up for its historic victories in Congressional and state elections later that year. “I’m just old enough to have heard a number of Hitler’s speeches on the radio,” Chomsky said, “and I have a memory of the texture and the tone of the cheering mobs, and I have the dread sense of the dark clouds of fascism gathering” here at home. “Ridiculing the tea party shenanigans is a serious error,” Chomsky said. Their attitudes “are understandable,” he said. “For over 30 years, real incomes have stagnated or declined. This is in large part the consequence of the decision in the 1970s to financialize the economy.” There is class resentment, he noted. “The bankers, who are primarily responsible for the crisis, are now reveling in record bonuses while official unemployment is around 10 percent and unemployment in the manufacturing sector is at Depression-era levels.”

And Barack Obama was linked to the bankers, Chomsky explained. “The financial industry preferred Obama to McCain,” he said. “They expected to be rewarded and they were. Then Obama began to criticize greedy bankers and proposed measures to regulate them. And the punishment for this was very swift: They were going to shift their money to the Republicans. So Obama said bankers are ‘fine guys’ and assured the business world: ‘I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.’ People see that and are not happy about it.”

Chomsky reflected that “the colossal toll of the institutional crimes of state capitalism” was driving “the indignation and rage of those cast aside…People want some answers” and “They are hearing answers from only one place: Fox, talk radio, and Sarah Palin.”

Chomsky invoked Germany during the Weimar Republic, and drew a chilling parallel between it and the United States under Obama. “The Weimar Republic was the peak of Western civilization and was regarded as a model of democracy,” he said. And it unraveled with great speed. “In 1928 the Nazis had less than 2 percent of the vote,” he said. “Two years later, millions supported them. The public got tired of the incessant wrangling, and the service to the powerful, and the failure of those in power to deal with their grievances.” The German people fell prey to appeals to “the greatness of the nation, and defending it against threats, and carrying out the will of eternal providence.” When farmers, the petit bourgeoisie, and Christian churches linked arms with National Socialism, “the center very quickly collapsed,” Chomsky said. “No analogy is perfect,” he added but the echoes of fascism were “reverberating today…These are lessons to keep in mind.”

Let me pull out and repeat a key sentence in Chomsky’s talk: “The public got tired of the incessant wrangling, and the service to the powerful, and the failure of those in power to deal with their grievances.” And a key phrase: “the greatness of the nation”

That’s no small part of Trump’s appeal: he promises to sweep in and smash all that dysfunctional bickering with a big many hammer on behalf the working man and the nation state – to “Make America [the Nation] Great Again.”

Resentment abhors a vacuum.

Obama’s Frankenstein: Taking Care of Finance

If anything, Chomsky understated Barack Trans-Pacific Obama (BTO)’s connection to the financial masters. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”

The “dollar value” of Obama to his record-setting Wall Street funders turned out to be damn near priceless. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind told a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown in the period since Silverstein’s essay was published – and millions knew it. Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at the financial “elite’s” staggering malfeasance, BTO called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob” (emphasis added)

The massive taxpayer bailout of the super fat cats would continue, along with numerous other forms of corporate welfare for the super-rich, powerful, and parasitic. This state-capitalist largesse was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate their conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from their homes and jobs by the not-so invisible hand of the marketplace. No wonder 95 percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1% during BTO’s first term. It’s called “Taking Care of Business,” to steal the title of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s (BTO’s) childish 1974 hit song.

It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S. As the aforementioned Thomas Frank observed on Salon last year, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority— something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.” (One of the many perverse things about the Obama experience is the significant extent to which it bred its own excuse with the Tea Party elections of 2010 and 2014.)

But no such policy initiatives issued from the BTO White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.” Americans also watched as BTO moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 percenter Mitt Romney. Not long thereafter, the American people watched BTO offer the Teapublicans he’d empowered bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis.

“Make Me Do It”

It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics. We will never know how far Occupy might have gone since it was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012. Eight months prior to the crushing of Occupy, BTO could not bring himself to offer a word of support for the great public worker rebellion and movement that rose up against the anti-union policies of the arch-right-wing Koch-snorting governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin.

The repression of Occupy was a profound rebuke to the silly and bamboozled progressives who told us from privileged perches at places like The Nation that Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt in the early middle 1930s, wanted grassroots pressure from workers and citizens to “make me do it” – that is, to make him undertake progressive and social-democratic policies. Well, the young Americans who took over city parks on behalf of “the 99%” made BTO and Democratic city governments do it, alright, if “it” means crush popular protest.

The Clintons’ Frankenstein

Obama’s populism-betraying presidency has (as irrelevantly predicted by the present writer) been consistent with the savagely corporate-neoliberal, Wall Street-pleasing Clinton administration of the 1990s, which helped grease the skids for the late Bush II meltdown and the Bush42-Obama43Paulsen-Geithner-Bernake bailouts by dutifully advancing the financial de-regulatory agenda of Robert Rubin and Goldman Sachs.

Donald Trump is the Clintons’ Frankenstein too. Surely Hillary’s standard Democratic campaign pose as a populist does not wash with millions of middle and working class. She has received untold millions of millions of dollars in campaign funding and speaking fees from the financial elite and corporate America. She sat for years on the Board of Directors of the abysmally exploitative low-wage retailer and giant Chinese import platform Wal-Mart – a company she repeatedly and absurdly praised for its commitment to working people.

In a recent Guardian column arguing that nominal socialist Bernie Sanders’ majority support among Democratic voters below the age of 50 shows that the United States is entering a new progressive politico-ideological phase, the liberal French economist Thomas Piketty notes that “Hillary Clinton… appears today as if she is defending the status quo, just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.” She appears like that because she is like that. For Hillary as for her NAFTA-signing husband and Trans Pacific Obama, there’s a useful translation for “a progressive who knows how to get things done”: a corporate neoliberal who manipulates populist and liberal sentiments in dutiful service to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. And, as The Donald loves to point out, Mrs. Clinton is among the large group of politicians who could not resist the pull of his own, self-interested election investments. There’s a photo online of the Trumps and the Clintons arm in arm at a tuxedo gathering greased by the sleaze of the organized bribery that is U.S. campaign finance.

The Media’s Frankenstein: Trumping The Bern with The Donald

Let us not forget that Donald Trump is the corporate media’s Frankenstein too. The clownish Donald became a household name thanks to his outlandish, capitalism-trumpeting (or mocking) antics on network television years ago. This campaign season, the “pathologically polite” (Taibbi) Bernie Sanders has done his nominally socialist best to capture the nation’s widespread and legitimate populist rage and channel it progressively through the deadening, dollar-drenched Democratic Party. Contrary to conventional punditry, there’s nothing surprising about the success Sanders has achieved in the primaries. He’s a social-democratically inclined liberal Democrat whose barrel-chested rhetoric about reducing inequality and “the billionaire class’s” control of the nation’s politics more properly matches the savagely plutocratic times. He’s much closer than Hillary to what a Democrat is supposed to be in the populism-manipulating rhetoric their party still rolls out for each long quadrennial electoral extravaganza. His platform is largely consistent with longstanding majority-progressive and social-democratic sentiments. He’s also a much better and angrier, more convincingly populist campaigner than the wooden and lackluster Hillary, whose wealth, world view, and record stand well to the right of public opinion. That’s to Sanders’ advantage with a Democratic electorate that has shifted to the liberal and “very liberal” left since 2008.

The so-called mainstream media, however, has made sure to play a central role in making it likely that the fascist-lite Trump and not the leftish liberal Sanders will become as the only electorally viable alternative to a third corporate-neoliberal Democratic presidential term in the Clinton-Obama-Goldman Sachs-Citigroup-NAFTA-Trans Pacific Partnership-Neoliberal-Fake-Progressive mode. It has hung on every preposterous word and gesture of its own noxious creation, Donald Trump, while regularly downplaying the giant turnouts at his rallies, generally under-covering his campaign, and failing to expose the abject corporate Wall Street-coziness of Hillary Clinton (among other Clinton problems). Could Sanders have successfully tapped enough of the popular resentment that the Tea Party and Trump have been exploiting in accord with venerable Republican Southern Strategy and “What’s the Matter with Kansas” precepts to succeed in a general election? One of the reasons we’ll probably never know (though Sanders’ Michigan victory is interesting, nothing is impossible, and it isn’t over until it’s over) is the corporate media’s predictable preference for a potential “Berlusconi with nukes” (Cohen’s amusing description of a President Trump) over a wannabe Mitterand (at leftmost) who would like Americans to take their policy advice from Denmark, Sweden and the Michigander Europe-fan Michael Moore.

What Democracy?

In his aforementioned Times column on Trump, Roger Cohen notes that “Europe is alarmed by Americans’ embrace of a latter-day Mussolini” – namely Donald Trump. “Europe knows that democracies can collapse,” Cohen writes, adding that “Once lost, the cost of recovery is high”

But what “democracy” is it exactly that might die in the United States? The United States’ unelected and interrelated “deep state” dictatorships of money and empire go back long before Trump came on the scene as a serious presidential candidate. They have always given a cold response to such popular sentiments: So what? Who cares? Public opinion is pitilessly mocked by harshly lopsided socioeconomic realities and coldly plutocratic politics and policy in the U.S. America is mired in a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject financial corporatocracy so extreme that the top 1 percent owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth along with an outsized portion of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Over the past three plus decades, the leading mainstream U.S. political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported in the fall of 2014, the U.S. political system had functioned as “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S., what Noam Chomsky called “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked,’” with the “liberal” Democrat Barack Obama in the White House.

A story about story about Gilens and Page’s research in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM)in the spring of 2014 bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” But when was the U.S. ever a democracy? It’s an honest and serious question. Actual popular self-government and sovereignty were the aristo-republican U.S. Founding Fathers’ ultimate nightmare and the governmental structure and political rules they etched in Constitutional stone were carefully crafted to keep the nightmare at bay and to make sure that, in the words of leading Founder John Jay, “the people who own the country run it.” Eighty-five years ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.” That’s private control that Bernie Sanders wishes to keep intact, by the way: he has announced that (contrary to both Karl Marx and Webster’s Dictionary) his vision of “socialism” does not include the public taking over the means of production any more than it requires to run outside the corporatized Democratic Party,  I can hear John Jay and the leading plutocrats of Dewey’s day laughing in the distance as the November U.S. presidential election is “shaping up to be a race between the two most hated people in America” (Diana Johnstone). Think about that, Thanks to all the personal and institutional culprits discussed in this essay, It, well, the Donald, Can Happen Here.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).