How Neoliberal Fundamentalism Helped Make Trump President

For weary Americans  finding themselves to the left of both the Republican and Democratic parties (an actual majority, TJ Coles argues in his new book President Trump, Inc.), a common, headache-inducing media narrative has surfaced since the election in ‘mainstream’ liberal U.S. publications they can no longer trust, such as The Washington Post or New York Times: that the true decline of U.S. democracy, the true dominance of U.S. corporate power in public life, and the true deterioration of the ‘American Dream’ has at last begun to arrive with the victory of Donald Trump. For this group of Americans whom I will call “leftists,” this narrative can often seem devoid of historical context and working-class perspective, ignoring the steady escalation of these evils over decades and providing cover for Democratic establishment figures who, rivaling the Republicans, have driven the U.S.’s descent into neoliberal fundamentalism.

These media outlets and Democratic-establishment figures have repeatedly asserted that all legitimate anger, hatred, and blame felt by the Left should rightly be placed on the doorstep of the buffoonish posturing of President Trump and his ‘basket of deplorables’. In keeping with their long-term efforts to prevent a serious national examination of class politics, DNC flacks and liberal pundits have promoted an atmosphere of facile symbolic engagement and hashtag #Resistance, eschewing (and refusing to cover) properly grassroots, policy-oriented protests, and diverting the sizzling protest energy that arose from Trump’s victory away from demands for any structural re-imaginings of power relations in the U.S. If Trump can be the lightning-rod for all progressive America’s indignation, hedge fund managers can rest easy knowing the placards aren’t coming their way.

The clear point of these narratives is to misdirect all public outrage at the ‘individuals rather than the institutions’, an outcome supremely convenient to a U.S. oligarchy by now firmly in control of America’s thoroughly undemocratized institutions. T. J. Coles’ work is an important contribution in part because it helps readers to perceive these manipulative discourses. Coles’ latest incisive look at the history of American neoliberalism (highlighting Trump’s role within it) is titled President Trump, Inc.: How Big Business and Neoliberalism Empower Populism and the Far-Right. It reverses those misleading media narratives and begins by placing the blame for Trump’s electoral grotesquerie squarely at the feet of those bipartisan-supported neoliberal institutions which created the conditions for his rise. Coles does this by building a brusque-but-robust case for how neoliberalism’s sustained failure at home and abroad to promote any interests other than those of its most affluent proponents has steadily created the political conditions necessary for the global emergence of far-right populism, including America’s ‘alt-right’.

More specifically, he takes the reader through a brief yet insightful and comprehensive review of neoliberalism’s history and of its historical role in U.S. policy before diving into an explanation of how neatly Trump fits within these existing institutional parameters, taking his cues from the hardline stances of previous administrations both red and blue while aggressively pushing the envelope to build upon their already-extreme neoliberalist precedents. Neoliberalist policies, he explains, have left the working and middle classes behind and generated a considerable and easily-misdirected sense of electoral angst rising to actual panic and despair. Rather than spending undue time on Trump’s Twitter antics or failures of modesty, Coles reveals Trump’s presentation as a pro-(American)-worker, compassionately protectionist, and sincerely ‘populist’ candidate for the smokescreen it is, a false narrative being replicated through much of the developed world by far-right parties such as UKIP in the United Kingdom; by crassly exploiting animosity toward immigrant and minority populations while cynically claiming the mantle of economic nationalism, Trump, UKIP’s Farage, and others have repeatedly mobilized their electoral platforms successfully (as touched on in Chapters 3-4).

Commendable in Coles’ execution is how relatively accessible he has made his research (though it should be noted that some grasp of basic financial concepts is helpful for sections especially in Chapter 1) and how he has coupled this with an uncompromisingly critical style, leavening clear and forthright exposition with an occasional hint of sarcastic wit. As other reviewers have noted, Coles distinguishes himself as an author who isn’t afraid to indulge in sharply satiric invective (“America’s alt-right mainly consists of well-off white men with a persecution complex who hate Islam and want to destroy anything humane about American society…”)(pg. 17) while at the same time successfully presenting a balanced, nuanced overview of his subject which avoids common partisan and ideological pitfalls waiting for less accomplished researchers.

As an example, Cole’s discussion of populism (pg. 13 onwards) examines right and left-wing populism as distinct phenomena while nonetheless attempting to provide some over-arching definition for what constitutes populist politics. Though many other commentators on the subject have taken the bait, Coles refuses to use right-wing populism’s rise as a facile occasion to implicitly delegitimize populist economic grievances against neoliberalism’s economic elites.

As I’ve noted, among his central themes is the tension between the self-images neoliberalist candidates project and their actual policy objectives.  He presents the ideological self-contradiction and even incoherence of Neoliberalism as a product of the conflict between its mobilization strategies (i.e. explicit arguments/propaganda) and truest intent, to always make the rich richer. At the heart of Coles’ demystification of Trump’s working-class populism lies this understanding of how neoliberalism has confidently and at times explosively promoted itself by advancing American socioeconomic and military dominance worldwide. Coles notes, for example, that while Trump presented himself as an opponent of international trade deals which ‘hurt the American worker’, he is understood most accurately as a figurehead for corporate America’s long-term goal of ‘renegotiating’ the issue of ‘currency manipulation’ (exclusively for American corporations’ benefit) and the promotion of bilateral trade agreements designed to increase American market leverage (pg. 127).

Another pitfall he avoids is the myth, encouraged by Trump, of Trump’s (and the broader American Right’s) allegedly total opposition to Obama’s policies. As Coles aptly points out, this is feigned: the Obama administration vigorously laid extensive executive groundwork for the kind of exploitative neoliberal foreign policies and draconian deportation practices now held up by mainstream liberal outlets as Trump’s own pioneering work. Trump’s vigorous opposition to Obama’s Iran deal is rightly condemned in corporate media as dangerous and unjust, but never presented within the context of an already-unjust international regime employing evidence-free nuclear weapons allegations to bully Iran (and in consequence the entire Middle East) into a strict reliance on fossil fuels so as to preserve U.S. energy dominance. Trump’s abhorrent policies are merely the latest acceleration along a trajectory the U.S. has been traveling for decades.

Admirably, Coles pulls no punches in documenting how thoroughly neoliberalism has rooted itself, not merely in American policy, but throughout elite political and media infrastructures. He invites the reader to acknowledge Trump as a political phenomenon which could only have resulted from decades of neoliberal perversion from which neither party can count itself exempt.

Though Coles makes a late-manifesting attempt to infuse some level of hope into the proceedings, it wasn’t clear to this reviewer that readers of President Trump, Inc. will emerge with a particularly invigorated outlook. Coles stresses that Trump’s fundamentally provocative role provides some opportunity, however slight, for leftist renewal, and that Trump’s tenure is helping to spark new leftist energy for both protest and activism (chiefly local-level) in the legislature and the courts (pg. 159-160).

I can’t help but feel that these closing observations, while strictly true, seem more of an obligatory gesture than a genuinely optimistic appraisal on Coles’ part of what Chris Hedges recently called an American“death spiral [which] appears unstoppable.” The shafts of light presented here feel to me as rather the result of a near total cave-in of neoliberalist domination which has been left virtually unchecked for over a half-century. Even if leftist populist outrage has seen an invigoration, the question amply remains as to whether the avenues for the kinds of democratic action necessary to enable structural change remain suitably intact for effective and sustained grassroots opposition to succeed, and if not, whether Americans can yet be mobilized to massive political action which goes beyond the voting booth and targets neoliberal institutions. As Noam Chomsky notes toward the end of his 2015 documentary ‘Requiem for the American Dream’ (which sadly feels similarly obligatory to me), Americans ‘still enjoy considerable levels of freedom of expression’ and a deeply needed popular uprising is still a possibility.

Admittedly, however, it is not within the scope of Coles’ work here to attempt a road map for American progressive organization. Rather, what Coles offers is a compelling account of that first and all-too-often overlooked step to real change: a full, unflinching assessment of the problem as it exists. For readers who want a work dedicated to the subject of popular revolt and its historical precedents (and who can bear hearing the author’s voice assume an occasional tone of resignation) I recommend Hedges’ Wages of Revolt (2016).

In any case, I recommend Coles’ work here as an important contribution. Coles ably and insightfully documents neoliberalism’s late-stage attack on America’s democratic institutions, and for that he must be commended as one of a precious handful of writers committed to exposing the neoliberal roots of inequality, of the dangerous global destabilization that imperialist war making brings on, of structural racism, and of the ongoing death of our democratic institutions. It is a work that reminds us that no matter what, covering our eyes and ears won’t do; to fight this beast, we will have to look at it head on.

Alex Lindstrom is a Development Specialist at Respond Now, with interest in a wide range of policy analysis and advocacy for marginalized groups. He also volunteers with Voices for Creative Nonviolence.