The 2016 US Presidential Election has been marked by two insurgencies: the campaigns of Donald Trump on the Right and Bernie Sanders on the Left.
Donald Trump currently leads the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States by a large margin, and after the Indiana primaries, is almost guaranteed to clinch the prize. It is an understatement to say that the Trump insurgency has caught the Republican elite by surprise. Reactions went from entertainment to disbelief and finally resignation as the prospect of a Trump nomination became more and more certain. Nothing has stopped the juggernaut – the disapprobation of two former Presidential nominees, the NeverTrump campaign by the financial elites, and the revolt of the neocon wing. Conservative pundits appear to have come to a fatalistic acceptance of the will of the masses, tinged with contempt for their choice. Party elites have threatened a revolt; Trump has threatened riots if he is denied the nomination.
How, then, did the Trump insurgency manage to bring the Republican Party to the verge of a split, and what lies in the future? For that, we can take a brief look at the class alliances that underpin the Republican Party.
The Republican Party Structure
The modern Republican Party is a precarious arrangement between two competing class interests: much of the (white) business elite and large swathes of the white working class, particularly in rural areas. The alliance between these two natural class enemies is forged through several factors, the principal one being racism. The business elite promotes neoliberal economics and dismantles the social safety net; the Republican-voting white working class has traditionally lended support to the elite during elections, even as it watches its wages stagnate, its seniors go penniless, and its health ruined by an unforgiving healthcare industry. This arrangement is sustained through the narrative of racism – the destruction of the social safety net, while deeply unpopular with working class whites, is nevertheless rationalized by a desire to make moochers (blacks) accountable and prevent handouts which are antithetical to the idea of “American Exceptionalism”. A heavy dose of daily propaganda in the Right-wing electronic and print media, which equates free market ideology with “freedom”, constantly lionizes Ronald Reagan, and pushes the racial agenda in coded words further consolidates this pact.
The hostility of the white working class to any expansion of the social safety net is rooted in its perception that African Americans, and increasingly, “illegal immigrants”, are the primary undeserving recipients of such services. Indeed, the hostility towards the Federal government and the public sector, where blacks are more likely to be employed, has the same origin. Of course, racism is buttressed by a couple of other factors that make this unlikely class alliance possible. Principal among them is the huge socially conservative Evangelical Christian wing of the Party that maintains its grips on the working class through an agreement with the (largely socially liberal) financial elite.
The Republican Party is thus led by a tiny neoliberal/neocon elite who maintain their hold over the brutalized masses through the twin legs of racism and Christian fundamentalism. This is the basic structure of the Party. We have adopted a high-level view of the structure of the Party, which captures its most essential ideological features. A more fine grained analysis would have to account for the voting patterns of the moderate Rockefeller Republicans, the ideological Goldwater faction, as well as the Northern blue-collar Reagan Democrats.
The most striking events of American politics in the last decade have been the unravelling of this fragile class alliance. The neoliberal elite needs the masses; what the masses have gradually realized is that their nativism and fundamentalism do not need the sanction of the elite. This was first manifest in the “base versus establishment” dichotomy of the Tea Party movement, and finally brought to a crescendo with the wholesale rejection of the neoliberal elite in the Trumpian movement.
A Radical Insurgency
American politics, with its two-Party system, has traditionally been able to ward off insurgent movements both on the Right as well as the Left. In this respect, it is instructive to compare US politics with the multi-Party electoral systems of Europe, where both far-Right as well as far-Left Parties are able to carve out their niches within the voting landscape, independently of the more mainstream Parties. In American politics, far-Right or far-Left tendencies are subsumed within the power structure of the Republican or Democratic Parties (in other words, their dominant neoliberal or business wings), although a particularly virulent tendency (for example, George Wallace) can force the business interests to realign the Party’s voting bloc.
The Republican Party in recent years has been described by Norman Ornstein as a “radical insurgency” . It is an apt description. In the decades following Nixon’s Southern Strategy that consolidated the Party structure described above, the mutiny of the working class had been held in check by a well-oiled propaganda machine (emerging from policy think tanks funded by the elite) that extolled the virtues of neoliberalism and trickle-down economics, as it promoted “Biblical” morality (through the anti-abortion lobby) and racial exclusion (through the War on Drugs lobby). In so far as racial or Christian ideologues had threatened to take over leadership of the Party from time to time, they had traditionally never challenged its economic orthodoxy.
The elite has clearly been seeing the writing on the wall for quite some years now. The obscene levels of income inequality, the financial crisis and the bank bailouts, the trade deals, whose disastrous effects the white working class feels every day, have reached a breaking point. No amount of propaganda has been able to stave off the beast. In some ways, the white working class, cocooned for decades from the depradations that afflict minorities, is facing an existential threat: a recent study by Case and Deaton found that of all demographics, it is their life expectancy that has declined in the last decade . Tellingly, this decline has been driven by alcoholism and drug abuse.
In the list of radical insurgencies that have dominated Republican politics recently, the first was the Tea Party movement dating from around 2009.
It was a phenomenon driven by several factors: (i) racial anxieties following Barack Obama’s 2008 victory and the demonstrable browning of the country (the racial component of the movement was evident in its endorsement of notorious anti-immigrant figures like Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Joe Arpaio of Arizona), (ii) Christian fundamentalists (which gave rise to the Ted Cruz phenomenon, among a plethora of religious extremists) and (iii) free market fundamentalists (the movement was fuelled by the Koch brothers and the Party’s libertarian wing).
As an insurrection, it only heightened and confirmed (rather than challenged, or rendered at war with each other) these three ideological pegs that underlie the Republican Party. The fury of the Republican masses at their increasing economic dispossession found expression in even more strident racial and religious animus and, in a testament to the sheer amount of ideological indoctrination, an even more strident neoliberal outlook. The masses fired their guns; the insurrection led to Republicans sweeping the elections for the House of Representatives and drastically improving their standing in the US Senate in 2010. The financial elite welcomed the free market extremists of the movement, and egged on the racists and religious fundamentalists.
The Tea Party wing had the effect of driving the Republican Party even more to the extreme right. One of the most fascinating developments was the dichotomy between the so-called Tea Party “base” (read the brutalized masses) and Republcan “Establishment” (read the neoliberal/neocon elite). Republican politicians who embraced only the Party’s neoliberal agenda and worked with their neoliberal Democrat colleagues in Washington, without explicitly espousing racial or fundamentalist tendencies, came to be solidly identified with the so-called establishment. In race after race, the Establishment was challenged by candidates from the far Right, culminating in the humiliating defeat of Republican House Majority leader Eric Cantor in 2014.
Mitt Romney’s defeat in the Presidential elections of 2012, the Republican Party’s post-mortem report, and the base’s reception of it, display the fissures developing in the Party structure clearly. The Party establishment diagnosed shifting demographics, and particularly the Latino vote, as the reason behind Romney’s defeat and prescribed overtures to minority communities as an antidote. The base, conversely, argued that Romney’s loss was because of, not inspite of, such overtures, which switched off the Party’s loyal voters. It was Tea Party pressure that finally doomed the bipartisan Gang of Eight’s efforts towards immigration reform, and also finally doomed Marco Rubio’s Presidential bid in 2016 for having been a part of it.
The impoverished white working class was thus slowly coming to regard the neoliberal orientation of the Party as an appendage. Class conflict was staved off and diverted into the fury of social conservatism, but the financial elite came to be regarded more and more as suspect.
It is in this context that Trumpism finally arose and threatened the compact that had been nurtured for half a century.
The second insurrection within the Republican Party in the last ten years, which has the potential to be much more of a watershed event, is the ongoing Donald Trump phenomenon. It has been described by conservative columnists as the first serious challenge to the Party structure in fifty years.
If the Tea Party movement had the effect of rendering the neoliberal orientation of the Party as a suspect appendage, Trumpianism ventures into open class conflict. Donald Trump openly challenges the neoliberal logic of the Party, and inveighs against the trade deals that have enriched the Establishment. He talks of taxing hedge funds. He talks of imposing tariffs on corporations that manufacture overseas. Of the Republican nominees, he is the only one who adamantly insists that the retirement age for Social Security benefits should not be raised, to the astonishment of the Party’s debt scolds who have traditionally argued for the whittling away of entitlement programs. Moreover, he challenges the neocon wing, going to the extent of suggesting the (well-proven) fact that the Party deliberately lied to the people and led the country to war in Iraq. These positions are anathema to the elite.
As he destroys the compact of the working class with the financial elite, he throws them ammunition for their racial animus. This is the feature that sustains his campaign – the politics of anti-immigration. Of the three legs that define the Republican Party, he has largely jettisoned the neoliberal one, championed the racial one, and nodded to the Christian fundamentalist one (although he mildly challenges them now and again, by selectively praising Planned Parenthood).
The first act itself renders him a unique figure in Republican politics over the last few decades. He has proven that large sections of the conservative white working class never had too much use for neoliberalism to begin with. They are now ready to throw it under the bus. This makes him enemy number one for the elite, who have run for cover under the NeverTrump movement, and lent their support to Ted Cruz. As an aside, one can note that the candidacy of Ted Cruz has championed the fundamentalist leg, nodded to the racist one, and largely been orthodox with the neoliberal one. This makes Ted Cruz undesirable, but infinitely more palatable to the elites at this stage than Donald Trump.
The working classes are unswayed. Evangelical Christians are ready to support this twice divorced philandering man who is demonstrably unable to quote from the Bible. Religious fundamentalists are looking to first fill their stomachs, and then pursue their social agenda in the future, perhaps four years from now. A full frontal assault on the Party’s neoliberal wing has not only survived, but thrived.
Donald Trump is no champion of the poor – he is a billionaire born into money, a crude, predatory capitalist in the mold of Silvio Berlusconi. The similarities between these two figures are striking, and give one an indication of the absolute rotten depths to which a national politics must fall before the working classes start to embrace these kinds of figures in their electoral preferences.
Does the Trumpian politics of a secular, ethno-nationalist, anti-immigrant and protectionist Right, common in Europe but unknown in the US, have a future here? There is every possibility that this crude, opportunist, billionaire crony capitalist will make amends with the neoliberal wing of the Party, sections of which have already given indications that it will fall in line. One should note that there are, as yet, no Trumpian surrogates. Very few elected officials or political figures in the Republican Party at the local level look poised to carry on his political line, and those that do mainly ally with his anti-immigration stand. There is no right-wing Trumpian populist grass-roots movement. The economic populism might thus die if Trump wins the nomination and comes into the Establishment fold again.
In this context, it is important to note that what Trump says or does is somewhat irrelevant; what matters is that the message of economic populism has resonated among huge sections of the Republican voting working class. Moreover, we have looked at the structural conditions that have underpinned his success; of course, more contingent factors have also played their role. To ascribe his success to the contingent factors would, however, miss the very important ideological points we have pointed out.It is clear that despite decades of economic indoctrination, the conservative masses have demonstrated their dislike of neoliberal policies. If Trump does in fact come back to the financial orthodoxy of the Party, it only stands to reason that the immense economic suffering of his supporters will find its expression in an even more heightened anti-immigrant and racist politics, a scenario that will only serve to strengthen his position, resulting in a nightmarish bootstrap mechanism.
If, on the other hand, the economic populism survives in the conservative landscape, and the Trumpian tendency actually becomes a movement, it may threaten to cannibalize its parent Party or fight out a prolonged war of attrition. Such a scenario is likely to strengthen the electoral fortunes of the neoliberals and neocons of the Democratic Party, as the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton clearly demonstrates. And in that scenario, and in fact, in the very emergence of Trump, the inhuman suffering of the American people under neoliberalism will be manifest.