Playing Trump’s game is almost irresistible. At least, most of his opponents seem unable to resist it.
The name of Trump’s game is Personalistic Moralism. The President’s politics are not policy-free, but policies in his political universe are inextricably wedded to personal moral characteristics. If you want the Wall (“border security”), for example, that means you are strong, tough, and protective. You are knowledgeable about the physical and cultural dangers posed by immigrants, and you care for your fellow Americans. But what if you don’t want the Wall? In this case, you are weak, effeminate, ignorant, uncaring, and secretly in favor of “open borders.”
This, by the way, is the text. The subtext, resting on the understanding that the main advocates of plentiful immigration since the nineteenth century have been employers seeking cheap labor, is that those who favor the Wall want to protect native American workers, while those who don’t care only about their profits. Of course, Mr. Trump worships great wealth and the system that produces it. But his basic political instinct, shared with Far Right ideologues going back to Edmund Burke and Charles Maurras, is to criticize mere moneymaking when it conflicts with ethno-national solidarity and a professed concern for “native” workers.
Trumpism gives a perverse new meaning to the old Movement slogan, “The personal is political.” It is a mistake, therefore, to consider the President an unprincipled politician with an unfortunate tendency to insult, demean, and threaten his opponents. Because his own moral character invites contempt, it is easy to forget that Trump is above all a certain type of political moralist. For him, virtue or vice (defined in terms of strength/weakness, masculinity/femininity, loyalty to the national tribe/globalism, and so forth) produce virtuous or vicious policies. For him, politics is, at bottom, a struggle to defeat immoral and contemptible opponents.
Conflict specialists have long been familiar with this sort of Manichean thinking. If you ask the parties to a serious dispute to name the causes of their conflict, each party will almost always point to their opponents and answer, “They are!” President Trump’s opponents, however, do not seem to understand that in making attacks on his character their primary strategy they are playing his game, in his stadium, according to his rules. By doing so, they reinforce the stereotypes of them that Trump has successfully marketed to his base. Most important, this sort of personalism excludes a form of discourse that is absolutely essential to solving the problems that, unsolved, gave Trump the presidency. I am talking about the discourse of systems and system-change.
A few examples of current issues in dispute should make this clearer. For starters, take Trump’s proposed border wall and the issue of immigration. The Democrats’ principle response to the President’s anti-immigrant campaign has been to portray him as a racist bully and heartless separator of families. (“How tender-hearted you liberals are,” reply his supporters. “But he is protecting us!”) Now and then, the Dems offer some legislative proposal said to be an alternative to Trump’s mural obsession, but their “comprehensive immigration reform” packages basically concede his major point – our alleged need for border security – while trying to extract some compensation for the concession, such as protection for the DACA “Dreamers.”
This response is typical. It involves two “moves”: first, attack Trump’s character, then try to engage in old-fashioned bargaining. But the bargaining, if it happens, almost always takes place within the boundaries established by existing sociopolitical, and economic systems. In the case of immigration, what most anti-Trumps will notpropose or discuss are changes in the American system that would make the problem of border security easily soluble, if not obsolete.
For example, when working people voice fears that immigration will endanger their jobs and undermine current wage levels, many self-proclaimed progressives dismiss this as irrational racism and/or xenophobia in action. Well . . . racism often does play a role in anti-immigrant agitation, but the economic fears of many lower-wage workers are quite well founded. The answer is notto call them racists and cite statistics showing that the overall effects of immigration on the economy are positive. This is exactly the sort of bureaucratic response that turns working class people into right-wing populists. It makes far more sense to guarantee resident workers against job losses or wage cuts caused by immigration.
This may seem startling, but is it utopian? Crazy? Not at all. It simply requires stepping outside the boundaries set by our existing system and adopting a level of economic intervention in the interest of working people that is currently anathema to free market cheerleaders and their billionaire heroes. The same sort of planning would also make it possible to direct newcomers to locations where their services are needed, and where they are most likely to be economically successful. Canada, among other nations, has already taken some steps in this direction.
A second non-utopian solution to the immigration problem has already been proposed by President Lopez Obrador of Mexico. This is to recognize the factors that compel millions of Central Americans to migrate in search of employment and safety and take steps to eliminate or mitigate those factors. The Mexican President proposes a “Marshall Plan” for Central America. Why not create and fund an even larger and more comprehensive plan than the modest effort he suggests? Among other things, this would compensate our southern neighbors to some extent for a century of looting of their economies and corrupting or overthrowing their political leaders! And, we could easily pay for such a plan, with enormous sums left over for other worthwhile social projects, by slashing the wildly bloated U.S. military budget.
But, wait! The military budget, it turns out, is a key part of the same system that requires radical alteration if we are to deal successfully with the immigration issue. Remember the military-industrial complex? This huge, government-sponsored economic sector – an oligarchy if ever there was one – is kept afloat by practicing what Paul Krugman calls “weaponized Keynesianism.” By entering into enormously profitable cost-plus contracts with favored producers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and United Technologies, the government adds significant demand to an economy plagued by congenital overproduction. This system will notbe changed unless two things happen. First, we need to rethink and decide to dismantle the American Empire, which requires the U.S. to maintain global military supremacy, not just sufficient force for self-defense. Second, we need to figure out how to convert the military-industrial complex into a system that produces needed civilian goods and public services, and to do this in a way that puts it under democratic control.
Could a restructured socioeconomic system solve not only Central America’s poverty problems but our own? As we know, deep poverty shatters families and neighborhoods, degrades schools and other public services, disempowers communities, lowers life expectancies, and generates crime and mass incarceration. Furthermore, these conditions, un-remedied, generate or reinforce racism and xenophobia on the part of working people struggling to stay out of poverty and terrified of descending into the abyss. For half a century, federal and state governments in America have been promising development programs that would rehabilitate ravaged cities and deindustralized or abandoned rural areas, but the only program creating significant jobs in most poor regions has been the illegal drug business.
To change this situation means (a) recognizing that the current socioeconomic order (misleadingly dubbed a “free market” system) actually producespoverty as part of its normal operations; and (b) asking how that dynamic can be changed. In fact, looking at all the problems mentioned thus far – immigration and nativism, “military Keynesianism,” the vicissitudes of the Empire, deep poverty, and working class/small business insecurity – we find that they are all related to failures and dysfunctions of the same mega-system. That is, they all point to a crisis of American capitalism.
In my view, the solution to these problems will very likely involve a transformation of American socioeconomic life in the direction of socialism. To put this in a nutshell, we are in desperate need of public institutions capable of managing the economy, guaranteeing decent jobs and incomes, eliminating oligarchical power, and mobilizing people to transform their communities. But Big Government that is not under democratic control moves toward fascism, so the great question is how to create a system that is fully capable of central planning and authoritative leadership, while fully responsive to workers’ power, local initiatives, and our people’s desire for personal freedom.
Another way of putting this is to say that the crisis of capitalism is also a constitutional crisis. This means that, however much we may disagree about the likely outcome of the discussion, we have to start talking with each other about how to characterize the breakdown of traditional systems and what kind of social and political arrangements we want to construct to fix or replace them. Where systems fail, social-constitutional dialogues are the alternative to violent group struggles. But, they will not take place in America if all we can think and talk about is Donald Trump’s foolishness and brutality, or if all Trump’s supporters can contemplate is our softness and self-righteousness.
Friends, if we do not move the consciousness of system-failure and the need for system-change to the center of our praxis – if we focus simply on replacing obnoxious with more sympaticoleaders – systemic problems will continue to multiply. And, if this happens, popular movements far more dangerous than Charlottesville’s white nationalists, and authoritarian figures far more dangerous than Mr. Trump. will surely appear on our doorstep.
Do you want a slogan to summarize all this? Something pithy and a bit provocative? Consider this one (copyright waived):
DEFEAT TRUMP! IMPEACH THE SYSTEM!
 Charles Maurras was a French ultra-conservative who founded the anti-Semitic journal, “Action Francaise,” and who is one of Steve Bannon’s intellectual heroes.
 See National Research Council, The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (1997), 140: “Therefore, although immigration yields a positive net gain to domestic workers, that gain is not spread equally: it harms workers who are substitutes for immigrants while benefiting workers who are complements to immigrants. Most economists believe that unskilled domestic workers are the substitutes, so their wages will fall, and skilled domestic workers are complements, so their wages will rise.”