The Leftish Populist Revolution That Failed
In the 2016 presidential election cycle, two “populist” candidates running outside and against the nation’s reigning financial power centers launched remarkable insurgencies within the nation’s two dominant state-capitalist political organizations. One of those contenders, Bernie Sanders, pushed Wall Street’s number one presidential aspirant, Hillary Clinton, much closer to possible defeat than probably he himself expected. After welcoming Sanders in as a token opponent to help Mrs. Clinton’s nomination as the Democrats’ presidential candidate seem at least partly contested, the Clinton campaign and its allies in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had to resort to dirty tricks to make sure he didn’t steal their prize.
Sanders’ message of reducing economic inequality resonated with millions of voters. In retrospect, this is less than surprising in a time when the top tenth of the upper U.S. One Percent owns as much as much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90 percent while half the nation’s population is either poor or near-poor (living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level). A shocking 94 percent of the jobs created in the U.S. economy during the Obama years were part-time, contract, and/or temporary positions.
Sanders’ appeal proved potent enough to force Hillary to change her position on numerous issues, including her prior support for the arch-corporate-globalist Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In the end, however, the Bernie revolution came up short. He lacked an established organizational base to match up with the formidable Clinton machine and its allies in the Democratic Party. He did not possess the killer instinct required to deal that machine a fatal blow (as seen in his excessive willingness to provide Mrs. Clinton cover on her email scandal). He made critical errors with critical Black voters. And he faced persistent media bias thanks in part to his self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”
The Frankenstein “Populist” Who Won
The other “populist” major party candidate was Donald Trump. He was richly endowed at least when it came to killer instinct regarding his opponents – or, as he likes to call them, his “enemies.” With no small help from a corporate media that gave him absurd amounts of free public exposure (helping thereby to create a Frankenstein from which that media would later recoil), Trump defeated and indeed humiliated Wall Street’s chosen Republican contenders, including first and foremost Jeb Bush.
He did this by running outside the traditional Republican Wall Street formula that Bush followed and in ways that sparked consternation in Wall Street executive suites and in other “elite” outposts of concentrated wealth and power. He denounced globalist “free trade,” NAFTA, and the TPP. He claimed to speak for working class “forgotten Americans” abandoned by big globalist corporations. He said that “free trade” had cost untold masses of working Americans their livelihoods. He said that the American political system was “broken” by big money special interests that undermine and distort democracy (something Trump said he knew all about because of his own history as a wealthy funder of politicians). Much of the country’s infrastructure was crumbling under the reign of those interests, he noted.
Along the way, Trump’s frothing promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants and build an anti-immigrant wall on the southern U.S. border troubled business interests who rely on cheap and compliant immigrant labor. It also threatened Republican efforts to win over more Latino voters
Trump also articulated a protectionist “America First” foreign policy and trade vision that won him enemies in U.S. imperial establishment, which is intimately tied in to the nation’s globalist financial and corporate oligarchy. Adding the bipartisan imperial “national security elite” to those he irked, Trump criticized George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton for advancing costly, jihad-spreading regime-change fiascos in Iraq and Libya. He hinted that he’d drop U.S. support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and criticized Hillary and the foreign policy elite’s provocation of Moscow.
A Loose Cannon Bad for the National Brand
Beneath all this, Trump was something else the ruling class really doesn’t like – a loose cannon full of individualist chutzpah and bile. As Mike Lofgren noted in his important book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016) last summer, “His painfully visible erratic unpredictability and thirst for confrontation made him anything but the sort of team player who would give due consideration to the needs of the vested interests. Dividend drawers want a reliable caretaker to run their affairs, not an insult comedian juggling sticks of dynamite.”
And Trump threatened to ruin Brand America. It is longstanding bipartisan U.S. ruling class doctrine that the United States is the world’s great beacon and agent of democracy, human rights, justice, and freedom. American Reality has never matched the doctrine, of course, but it was especially difficult indeed to square those claims with a candidate like Trump, who openly exhibited racist, nativist, sexist, arch-authoritarian and even neo-fascist sentiments and values while openly praising torture. “If our system of government is an oligarchy with a façade of democratic and constitutional process,” Lofgren wrote in the preface to his book’s paperback edition, “Trump would not only rip that façade away for the entire world to behold; he would take our system’s ugliest features and intensify them.”
The “dividend drawers” and the overlapping imperial elite prefer people like Obama. Beneath his carefully crafted people’s and “fresh” outsider imagery, he was in fact a well-vetted, Harvard Law-minted and establishment-vetted team player who understood very well that his job was to smoothly serve his Wall Street and Pentagon masters and keep populist and anti-war sentiments at bay while pretending to embrace them both for his own electoral advantage and for broader system-rebranding effect. The neoliberal, silver-tongued Obama was the empire’s sophisticated, fake-progressive, fake-constitutional, and multicultural new clothes. He enjoyed and embraced the deceptive role. He told the nation’s financial elite early on in his presidency that, as he remarked to the nation’s top 13 financial executives after he called them to the White House in the wake of the financial collapse they caused, “you guys have a public relations problem and I’m here to help.”
Trump, by contrast, threatened to remove the democratic, legal, post-racial, peaceful, and ethnically diverse, cloak in particularly glaring ways. He harkened a crisis of legitimacy for the system’s false claims to represent noble and egalitarian ideals – something that promised to be bad for business at home and abroad. A Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio presidency might have inflicted some of the same damage, to some degree, but not to anything like the same extent as Trump. The Republican Party has trucked in racist, sexist, nativist, and militarist white nationalism and authoritarianism for more than half a century. (The Bush family was no exception, to say the least). Still, no serious Republican presidential contender in memory had gone as far as Trump in making these terrible tendencies so explicit and pronounced, with the effect enhanced by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and 24/7 cable news. Trump threatened to rip the last remaining shreds of civilizational legitimacy from the ever more apocalyptic and radically reactionary GOP.
“A Small Group Has Reaped the Rewards”
Trump kept his versions of “populism” and “isolationism” – both anathema to the nation’s unelected, neoliberal, and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire – alive through the general election, along with his white nationalism and misogyny. He won, thanks not to so much to any real wave of popular appeal as to the dismal neoliberal nothingness of the tired and wooden Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the sorry centrist record of the Obama administration. He enters the presidency with the lowest approval rating of any president in the history of modern polling: 38%, with a remarkable 48% disapproval score even he was inaugurated. His inauguration sparked epic mass protests in Washington D.C., across the country, and even abroad, validating fears that his election would pose a legitimacy crisis for the American state both domestically and globally.
Trump’s Inaugural Address was not crafted to reassure ruling class globalists. Declaring his nationalist determination to “always put America first” and persisting in his pose as the leader of a great, unmentionably white working class movement, Trump advanced a nationalist and protectionist agenda. He said that his tenet will be “buy American and hire American.” He depicted a dire portrait of what neoliberal global corporatism had created across the nation. “For too long,” he said, all too accurately, “a small group in our nation has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country…What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” Trump spoke of a nation where “rusted out factories” are “scattered across the landscape like tombstones across the landscape.” He essentially accused the nation’s “establishment” (his word) of something like national treason, claiming that it had put its own interest and those of other nations like China and Mexico above those of the American citizenry.
This rhetoric was calculated to appeal to his working and middle base of anxious white working- and middle-class Americans, not to the rich and mostly white captains of transnational capital who have run the show along with entrenched state operatives behind the fake-democratic and fake-constitutional curtains now for many decades. The new president understands that a durable Trumpism is impossible unless he deepens and expands the allegiance he gets from working class voters – and not just white ones.
What he doesn’t seem to have grasped is that smart deep state operatives atop the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire that rule beneath the puppet show of time-staggered electoral circuses will not likely permit him to enjoy functional power while he tries to seriously enact a “populist,” “protectionist,” and “isolationist” America First agenda. It is a world capitalist system that the U.S. wealth and power elite stands atop, after all, something even Trump must know to some degree given his vast real estate and commercial holdings around the world.
Trump’s Day 3 executive order pulling the United States out of the highly unpopular TPP does not really tell us that protectionism has taken over in Washington because of his presence in the White House. Real U.S. participation in the TPP was already dead in the water under Obama, thanks largely to progressive and labor opposition in 2015 and 2016. The more genuinely populist Sanders campaign compelled Hillary Clinton to reverse her previous support for the measure and oppose it on the campaign trail. The so-called free trade bill’s leading champion, the neoliberal Obama, had to give up on getting it passed by Congress during his final lame-duck months. Its fate was grim on Capitol Hill no matter who won the election or what Trump did.
Capture and Contain
What is the Deep State – the unelected networks of elite private sector power (chiefly Wall Street, the military industrial complex, Silicon Valley, and their allies atop the national government’s key state-capitalist and related repressive and imperial governmental institutions (including the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Reserve) that rule the nation beneath the “marionette theater” (Lofgren) of its quadrennial major capitalist party election carnivals – supposed to do to keep things running smoothly for those in real power while keeping popular revulsion and rebellion at bay? The first thing is to capture as many top policy making offices as possible within the new administration, stocking it with people who can be counted on to maintain Big Business rule-as-usual beneath all the new president’s right-populist bluster. And that is being attained to no small extent. Super-opulent Goldman Sachs alumni and globalists have been placed atop Trump’s Treasury Department and National Economic Council. His Commerce Secretary pick, the multi-billionaire J. Wilbur Ross is no trade-warrior. Neither is Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson, the CEO of no less a multinational corporation than Exxon-Mobil. Trump’s top “defense” appointments are imperial globalists, not isolationists.
The second thing is to de-legitimize the blustering newcomer to Washington. The CIA, the Democratic Party, some Republican elites and the corporate media’s embrace of the dubious narrative claiming that Trump owes his election and presidency to Russian hacking is part of an elite campaign to keep Trump on a right leash even as he enters the White House. The ubiquitous media-fed storyline linking Trump to the Kremlin Putin is crafted to de-legitimize Trump politically as well to keep the New Cold War heat on Russia and to help the dismal Democrats avoid blame for the terrible policies they enact and enable and the awful campaigns and candidates they run.
One sign of the elite de-legitimization agenda is the remarkably favorable media coverage that was given to the giant and significantly elite-sponsored protests that followed Trump’s Inauguration Day in Washington DC, across the nation, and other world cities. Not just at MSNBC but also at CNN, the anchors and their guest commentators could barely contain their glee over the giant demonstrations that mocked Trump as he took up residence at the White House.
CNN and other media networks had special fun with Trump’s astonishingly juvenile, off-the-cuff comments at the CIA, where he petulantly complained about supposed media under-estimation of the size of the crowd for his Inaugural Address while, as Anderson Cooper noted, “senior CIA officials sat stone-faced.” (Curiously enough, the cable news talking heads had little to day about Trump’s remarkable claim to the CIA that the Islamic State arose because the U.S. failed to “keep the oil” when it invaded Iraq and his comment that “maybe we’ll have another chance” to take Iraq’s oil! That must have blown away some top CIA personnel).
On Day Three, CNN was immediately critical of Trump’s TPP move, which Sanders applauded. The network reported that the U.S. “business community… sees Trump’s position as “detached from…the reality [of an] increasingly interconnected world.” CNN portrayed Trump’s order as a threat to U.S. exports and “an opening for another global superpower [China, of course – P.S.] to pursue an alternative agreement” – a chance for “Chinese leaders” to “take the United States’ place and expand the country’s influence in the region.” CNN had little to say about how his opposition to the TPP was part of how Trump won enough working class votes to prevail in the election or about how U.S. participation in the TPP had already been defeated.
Dead on Arrival?
Except at FOX News, the talking media heads enjoy connecting Trump to Russia and pointing out that he’s coming into office with record low public approval. They like to note the hypocrisy of his claim to be champion of the working class when he is himself a billionaire who owes no small part of his fortune to cheating workers and who advocates big tax cats for the wealthy few and their corporations. They also relish cultivating misplaced liberal and progressive nostalgia for the Obama administration, which – they fail to note – helped advance a dreadful escalation of savage New Gilded Age inequality in the wake of the Great Recession that was caused by the parasitic masters atop the pyramid.
This may be only the beginning. As David Macaray reflected last week in an interesting Counterpunch piece titled “Four Reasons Trump Will Quit”:
“The media have a prodigious memory and are vindictive bastards. They will ravage him. After all the shoot-from-the-hip insults and nasty, juvenile remarks Trump leveled at the media during the campaign, there will be a veritable shit-storm of payback. These people don’t forget…As gutless and co-opted by the Establishment as the MSM is, even presidents who are somewhat liked and respected occasionally get nipped up. And once the honeymoon is over, Trump will realize that he is neither liked nor respected. As a consequence, he will remain squarely in the media’s crosshairs. It will be open season, a feeding frenzy.”
But what “honeymoon”? The media was gleefully helping Trump set his sorry out-of-his-depth ass up for epic failure on his first full day in office.
Between all this and the coming economic crash (global capitalism being badly overdue for a significant stock market “correction” that will be hung around his neck), Trump’s anachronistic “America First” agenda seems pretty much dead on arrival. It cannot be reconciled with the globalist corporate-neoliberal and neo-Open Door “Washington consensus” that holds doctrinal sway among the reigning “New Nomenklatura” (Lofgren) atop the U.S. private and state-capitalist “public” sectors.
Adjust, Quit, or Get Removed
Trump will either understand this and adjust or cling to his aberrational white-nationalist-protectionist-nativist folly and get removed from power one way or another. My sense is that the serious and sober, class- and empire-conscious U.S. wealth and power elite is counting on Trump’s sense of self-interest to understand that he’s going to have to scale back enough of his narcissism and white-nationalist “populism” to show that’s he’s a “team player” if he wants to avoid (a) being impeached, (b) being removed from office in some other fashion (has the CIA shown Trump the digitally enhanced version of the Zabruder film yet?), and/or (c) going down as the most laughably ridiculous president in American history.
Perhaps he’ll just quit and hand the job over to that smiling white Christian nationalist Mike Pence. As Macaray notes, Trump is not really into all the tedious policy and administrative work of the presidency and has a long history of walking away from deals he doesn’t like.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Trump letting himself be seen as a “quitter” instead of a fighter when it comes to the U.S. presidency. My guess is that he’ll try to tough it out, handing off most if not all the difficult work to his underlings.
In any event, Trump’s unreported tax returns and his vast holdings and related governmental entanglements abroad open him up to impeachable charges (primarily around the foreign emoluments clause) and epic public shame. Some media elites have even shown themselves ready to purvey the lurid claim that the Kremlin is in possession of sex tapes it might use to blackmail the new president. Those, sadly are the kinds of things that grab public attention in the nation’s ever more infantilized media-politics culture: semen-stained blue dresses and “golden showers,” not neoliberal “free trade” (really investor rights) measures that ruin jobs and unions or a[n Obama] drone program that amounts (in the words of Noam Chomsky) to “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.”
The Deep State’s political and propaganda arms have enough ammunition, I think, to keep in check a Donald Trump who is crazy enough to try to actually govern substantively (the new president’s after-the-fact TPP order was at best symbolic) as an anti-globalist “populist.”
The Top Trump Threat Goes Unmentioned
Meanwhile the planet faces a golden shower of capitalism-generated climate change that Trump wants to escalate. All indications are that a massive, system-wide reconversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy is required within at least the next two decades if humanity is to realistically hope for any kind of decent future under or beyond the rule of the American and world-capitalist Deep State. And here we might want to consider the main thing missing from the corporate media’s often critical commentary on the new White House: Trump’s determination to “deregulate energy” – that is, to significantly escalate the Greenhouse Gassing-to death of life on Earth. If it’s any dark consolation, the coming economic crash should cut global carbon emissions for a few months or so.