“Hereby Ordered”: On Trump, Capital, Fascism, and China in a World on Fire

I am hearing whispers from lefties that “the ruling class is finally done with Trump.” It’s “the China stuff” that’s doing the trick. Sure, the argument goes, the corporate and financial powers that be haven’t been all that happy with Trump’s open white nationalism, racism, narcissism, and sexism. It’s not their style. But they’ve been willing to put up with Trump’s noxious nonsense because he’s rewarded them with plutocratic tax cuts and de-regulation. The presidents’ immigrant-bashing awfulness has kept his “heartland” base loyal to a president who knows (despite all his insanity) which constituency matters most in the American oligarchy: the wealthy Few.

Trump has been good for the bottom line. His antics have provided a useful diversion from the ugly fact that the filthy rich are getting obscenely richer in a nation where the top tenth of the upper One Percent already possessed more wealth the nation’s bottom ninety percent before Obama left office.

But now, the narrative runs, “Trump has gone too far.” He’s threatening the bottom line with his wacky and unpredictable trade war on China. He’s destabilizing markets and endangering multinational networks in ways that negatively impact profits and undermine rational global investment planning. Amazingly enough, the sitting president of the world’s top capitalist state appears to not comprehend the international structure of capitalist production. He seems not to get the elementary fact that a giant swath of the goods that undergo final assembly by U.S.-based corporations inside the United States (as well as in Mexico and other nations) before they reach U.S. retail outlets are made from components manufactured in China.

Contrary to the president’s throwback protectionist rhetoric, it’s not about simple import substitution: our goods for their goods. The multinational corporations atop global capitalism developed an international division of labor geared largely to China’s vast reservoir of cheap labor power decades ago. At the same time, Trump’s tariffs are a significant tax on U.S. consumers, something that promises to restrict consumer demand and thereby help move up the date of the next big recession.

The profit-imperiling madness of King Don reached a new level of bizarre when he fired off the following wild “command”-by Tweet last Friday morning:

“Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far. better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP. Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.”

Does “the Chosen One” imagine himself a God-ordained monarch atop an absolutist, late-feudal state? Does he not know about the bourgeois revolutions that made the Lords of Capital, the masters of investment, not kings or queens or prime minsters or presidents that real powers that be? Does he ludicrously fancy himself a 21st Century Fuhrer, the head of a fascist state in which the capitalist class has acquiesced to the commands of a dictator in order to defeat socialist revolution and/or mobilize the nation for glorious wars of national conquest?

Trump apparently wanted to be taken seriously in his claim that he can tell the multinational capitalist class where it can and can’t invest. After the corporate media responded to his morning tweets with mockery, citing legal and economic experts who claimed that no president can order companies to close factories in China, the wannabe Donito Assolini came back with this: “For all of the Fake News Reporters that don’t have a clue as to what the law is relative to Presidential powers, China, etc., try looking at the [International] Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) of 1977. Case closed!”

Case closed? Not exactly. The IEEPA, passed in response to the Iran hostage crisis, permits a POTUS to “regulate commerce” during a specific and declared “national emergency.” Short of declaring Chinese trade “a national emergency,” Trump’s capacity to rule over United States companies’ economic relationship with China is restricted largely to tariffs. If he were to take the strange and remarkable step of declaring trade coming from the giant Asian state with world history’s largest national pool of cheap labor a “national emergency,” Trump could do real damage to global capital. International trade policy expert Jennifer Hillman told the Washington Post that Trump lacks the authority to compel U.S. capital to retract its existing investments from China. Still, Vox reports, Trump could block future U.S. funds from being transferred there and could otherwise create an atmosphere so hostile to U.S. business with China that multinationals would be compelled to relocate.

You never say never with a textbook malignant narcissist and wannabe Dear Leader like Mad King Don, but the likelihood of Trump declaring Chinese trade “a national emergency” is very low. Seriously impeding U.S. investment in China would unacceptably damage the bottom lines of the Lords of Capital, the nation’s real owners and rulers. Multinational firms would be expensively compelled to vast new fixed capital investments and reconstitute supply chain and labor recruitment and training systems and more in other countries. Given the widespread availability of cheap labor power in other parts of the world capitalist system, moreover, the faux-populist Trump promise “return of manufacturing to the American heartland” would be exposed as a transparent illusion. And going forward with the IEEPA “national emergency” threat would likely accelerate the arrival date of the next and overdue recession, thereby increasing the likelihood that Trump would have to try stay in office by refusing to honor the results of the 2020 election.

Will Trump’s profit-menacing China trade and investment Twitter tantrum speak significant new critical mass of business elites against Trump? Not likely. He’s never been a Wall Street favorite in the first place. It is likely that smart big capital reasonably doubts that even Trump will be stupid enough to “go full animal” on U.S. investment in China. Most members of the grand globalist bourgeoisie are probably shrugging off the tangerine dumpster-fire’s bizarre threats as pathetic and partisan political bluster. The nation’s unelected dictatorship of money will be content in 2020 as in 2016 to invest more heavily in the Democratic candidate (the money men hope it is Biden, Harris, and/or Butiggieg) unless that candidate is Bernie Sanders.

One group with whom Trump’s China madness doesn’t cost him all that much is his hard-core electoral base – the white Amerikaner quarter of the U.S. populace that sticks by the Great God Trump no matter what. While he scored some “heartland” voter points with his pretend economic populism (replete with NAFTA-bashing and nasty rips against Goldman Sachs) in 2016, the main connecting glue in the Trump coalition has always been white identity. Trump’s racist, nativist, and frankly creeping-fascist base has backed him not for pocketbook reasons but rather because of his promises to Make Whites Supreme Again and to smite the upper- and “overeducated” professional-class liberals who are accused of letting supposedly undeserving poor people of color “cut in in line” past supposedly more-deserving and hard-working “real [that is, white]Americans.” China-bashing has been a key part of his white-nationalist appeal, second only to his vicious nativist assaults on Mexicans and Central Americans and equal perhaps with the not-so veiled racism of his “law and order” jabs at urban Blacks.

Whiteness carries the day for his die-hard backers – the people who Trump infamously said would support him even if he “went out on Fifth Avenue and shot somebody.” And sadly these neofascistic cretins and their white-nationalist and eco-apocalyptic political party are absurdly over-empowered by something nobody likes to talk about: an American constitutional order that drastically and quite preposterously exaggerates the political voice of the nation’s most racist, nativist, right-evangelical (“Christian fascist”), and eco-cidal regions.

Trump probably won’t win in 2020 but he very well could thanks in no small part to the continuing dismalness of the Inauthentic Opposition party (which is despicably advancing an openly demented right-wing buffoon as its top presidential contender so far), the rabid racialized and evangelical idiocy of the Trumpublican base, and the deadly over-representation of the racist white-nationalist right in the anti-democratic U.S. Electoral College. (We’ll find out just how seriously “fascist” Trump is if he loses and must decide whether to accept the count.)

If Trump wins a second term, big capital will make the best of it for four more years. As El Douche mouths off in all his malignantly normalized ugliness, his psychosis deepening along with his dementia, the neoliberal ruling class will not readily relinquish the stronghold that John Dewey observed in 1931. “Politics,” Dewey coolly noted, “is the shadow cast on society by big business,” and 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.” The commanding heights of “business for private profit” do not take orders from bone-and brain-spur clowns like Trump and his ridiculous economic advisors Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro. To be sure, the rapidly Trumpified Republican Party and its Amerikaner base (for whom “free market capitalism” and the rest of the usual bourgeois politics have been thoroughly trumped by neo-fascist white-nationalism) is all too ready for fascism under Trump or a more disciplined and devout Trump successor. But the nation’s real owners and rulers are not going to grant state-command power to a disordered and undisciplined, dementia-plagued, Big Mac-devouring, golf-cheating and whore-mongering dotard like Orange Skull.

Crises to come, economic, environmental, terrorist and/or otherwise, could tip the grand bourgeoisie into a state of mind amenable to the fascist state command that Trump fantasizes about wielding. If that ever happens, however, we can be sure that capitalist fealty will require a less ridiculous strongman than the “Midtown Mussolini” (Eric Draitser).

“Meanwhile” (to quote Stephen Colbert), the world faces a related danger even more terrible than fascism, strange as that sounds to say: Ecocide. “It’s [eco-]socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky,” as Istvan Meszaros wrote (with the environmental crisis in mind) 18 years ago. The ever-shortening timeline of human extinction has shrunk further with the current burning of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, where another evil ecofascist holds high state power in a Greenhouse Gassed planet going through yet another hottest-year-on record. Could the country go full-on fascist American-Style? Sure. Someday, maybe someday soon. “It can’t happen here? The Hell it can’t.” (In fact, in kind of already has). Why couldn’t it, in a dark Huxwellian Age of “Malignant Normalcy”? But whether it does or doesn’t, life itself cannot withstand ten more years of U.S.-led profit-mad global capitalism with or without Trumpian trade and investment wars. It seems to me that the left economist Robert Pollin’s global Green New Deal is our last and best shot at an at-once sustainable and non-fascistic future.

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