Portrait of a Political Monster

How can we understand Donald Trump and what can we expect from his re-election run?
  • Maria Aurelio | 
  • April 1, 2020
Illustration: Iara Rueda

As these lines are being written, an impeachment inquiry is beginning against the president of the United States. About half of Americans support the attempt to remove Donald Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Impeachment has been used only three times in U.S. history, and it has never resulted in recall. Across the political spectrum, there is a deep sense of crisis. The self-proclaimed “greatest nation in the world” is on the decline.

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Antonio Gramsci used the term “organic crisis” to describe a time of economic, political and social turmoil that emerges from the failure of a capitalist project. This is precisely the situation the United States finds itself in after the 2008 crash created a crisis of neoliberalism and an economy that never fully recovered. In this situation, as Gramsci says, the “old is dying, and the new cannot be born.” The political parties and their bourgeois partners who governed the world for decades cannot offer a clear plan to resolve the crisis.

Nancy Fraser argues that coalitions that for decades built a widely recognized “common sense” have been torn asunder: “It is as if masses of people throughout the world had stopped believing in the reigning common sense that has underpinned political domination for the last several decades. It is as if they had lost confidence in the bona fides of the elites and were searching for new ideologies, organization and leadership.”1Nancy Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born (London: Verso, 2019).

Because masses of people no longer trust their traditional leadership, new formations emerge in the form of left- and right-wing populism. Gramsci says that during an organic crisis, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” In Slavoj Žižek’s translation of this quote, these “morbid symptoms” are “monsters,” and that seems appropriate. Trump is one of those monsters. Indeed, Trump himself is not only a perverse collage of the most monstrous right-wing populism, but also a continuation of Republican neoliberalism and imperialism.

“Very Unfair”: Trump the Populist

Trump campaigned as an ultra-right-wing populist, promising to bring back good factory jobs and blaming immigrants for the country’s financial woes. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders represents a left wing populism of the 99% against the 1%. Theoretician Ernesto Laclau defines populism as “putting into question the institutional order by constructing an underdog as a historical agent.”2Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), 13. Society is divided into us versus them, with “us” being the underdog and “them” holding all the power. Populism is a way of doing politics that uses “the people” as their base of power—either to the left as Sanders does or to the right as Trump does. Even in office, Trump positions himself as the perpetual victim of institutions that are “very unfair”—particularly the bourgeois media. As a result, he circumvents traditional and sterile means of communicating about politics, ending all White House press briefings and taking directly to Twitter to inform the public about foreign and domestic policy.

Trump also uses a similar kind of victimhood to employ populism in the realm of foreign policy, positioning the United States as a kind of global victim of Mexico, of undocumented immigrants, unfair trade deals, the United Nations, and so on. Needless to say, this victimhood isn’t a reality. Trump was born a billionaire, yet he constantly complains that the world is unfair to him. U.S. imperialism has ruled the globe for seventy years, but its leader says it is getting “pushed around.”

Trump might very well meet the textbook definition of a pathological narcissist. But his personal characteristics could gain such intense political weight only under specific social conditions. As Trotsky wrote, a “leader is always a relation between people, the individual supply to meet the collective demand.” Trump’s rhetoric speaks to a whole sector of the U.S. population that also feels it has been treated “very unfairly”: the wages of whiteness are no longer enough to pay the bills, and, because good union jobs are scarce, many workers who once saw themselves as “middle class” must now admit that they are proletarians.

The 18th Brumaire of Donald Trump

Although the term populism is widely criticized for its lack of precision, it is nonetheless helpful to understand the president’s ideological and discursive framework.

To understand Trump’s time in office, however, we need a deeper theorization. Some have called his administration fascist, but that is an exaggeration of Trump’s right-wing elements: there isn’t a coordinated attack on working-class institutions, a curtailing of formal democracy, or a militia at Trump’s beck and call. But Trumpism does have authoritarian elements, and this is where the term Bonapartism is more helpful.

The term comes from Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), and it refers to an authoritarian leader who emerges when different sectors of social classes are struggling against each other and cannot find a way to impose their own representative. In this context, a “Bonaparte” emerges, presenting himself as an arbiter from above, seemingly free from institutional mechanisms and from the dominant classes. A Bonapartist leader leans on the military, giving the executive more autonomy and creating a balance between opposing social classes.

U.S. imperialism is faced with a historic decline as the unquestioned superpower at the “end of history.” On the way down, some capitalists will win and others will lose. Amid the growing divisions and dissolution of class solidarity, no faction of the bourgeoisie can impose itself on the others. This is precisely where the ruling class needs an “arbiter.” Trump represents only an initial form of this Bonapartist development, but throughout history, the bourgeoisie has often needed such clownish figures to protect its class interests in times of crisis—the Bonaparte that Marx was writing about, French emperor Napoleon III, was just as much of a lumpen-bourgeois.

Trump’s Bonapartism arbitrates between different wings of the Republican Party and of the capitalist class by acting as a strongman: ignoring the political establishment and the rules of statesmanship, Trump attempts to ram through his policies. This is a typical Bonapartist modus operandi: those who don’t agree with Trump are out. Thus, Trump is still the master of “you’re fired,” creating a revolving door of advisers.

The Trump administration uses populist rhetoric to bolster its Bonapartism, leaning on the most undemocratic aspects of U.S. capitalism to govern, such as his many executive orders—on average 46.5 a year, more than any president since Reagan—even though he has held the majority in Congress for two-thirds of his presidency to date. He has made important decisions by executive order, including his infamous border wall. But Trump’s Bonapartism is still relatively weak, since he has not exceeded formal democracy to institute his policies. Instead, he has relied primarily on increasing support from his party.

In 2017, Trump’s populist rhetoric and right-wing policies were rejected by many sectors of capital, as well as the Republican Party. After all, American multinationals were weary of America First protectionism, war hawks were skeptical of Trump’s isolationism, and Trump’s “in your face” racism was generally seen as a PR disaster. Sectors of the FBI turned against him, and the Democrats tried to wear him down with Russiagate. Even Republican leaders spoke out against Trump—these included John McCain, who sunk Trump’s health care plans; the Bush family, which criticized him, and several others who repudiated Trump’s remarks describing “good people on both sides” at the Charlottesville car attack in 2017.

While today the impeachment inquiry demonstrates a continuation of the resistance to Trump by the Democrats and sectors of the intelligence agencies, and despite some dissatisfaction in the realm of foreign policy, Trump seems to hold leadership of the Republican Party, for now at least. As the New York Times puts it, “Trump’s Takeover of the Republican Party Is Almost Complete.” The primary reason for this is that Trump has governed for the wealthy—he is a populist in rhetoric but a neoliberal in deed.

Trump, the Neoliberal

Only a few days after Trump won the 2016 election, Cornel West penned an article entitled “Goodbye, American Neoliberalism. A New Era Is Here.” But what happened wasn’t exactly the end of neoliberalism. Despite Trump’s populist rhetoric and Bonapartist form of governing, he has implemented many neoliberal policies. First and foremost, Trump passed massive tax cuts in 2017. This tax break meant a massive wealth transfer from the working class to capital. But there are more elements to Trump’s neoliberal policies.

For example, Trump implemented deregulation plans and slashed funding—especially for environmental protection, the arts, science, and foreign aid. In Executive Order 13777, Trump created “deregulation teams” made up of lobbyists and lawyers. To go further, he weakened capital requirements for banks, allowed for more risky trading, and rolled back consumer protections. In return, big capital is backing Trump’s reelection bid, which is bringing in $300 million this year. The bourgeois state is struggling to fulfill its role as an autonomous mediator between different wings of the capitalist class—as “the ideal personification of the total national capital,” as Friedrich Engels put it. Instead, different bourgeois sectors are scrambling to put their direct representatives at the levers of power.

Unlike a traditional neoliberal, Trump is a factor of perpetual disruption in the realm of international relations. But he wasn’t the populist nationalist that he promised he would be. Trump’s “America First” wasn’t isolationism, or even protectionism: it meant relying on the United States’ military strength to make threats and breaking with and often insulting the mechanisms that imperialist nations built to maintain international hegemony, such as the United Nations and international peace agreements. It meant bilateral rather than multinational deals, using U.S. military and economic strength to bully countries into even more favorable deals for U.S. imperialism.

But “America First” doesn’t mean bringing back industry or helping the American working class. Trump can tout low unemployment—3.7 percent at the time this article was written. But, these numbers conceal the reality of working-class people: many of them are underemployed, and wages are so low that having a job doesn’t mean one can make a living. It is on the question of jobs that Trump’s populist facade really breaks down and his neoliberal essence becomes clear. Despite Trump’s massive tax cuts and deregulation, there hasn’t been a rush of companies back to the United States. This is largely because of Trump’s tariffs on imported steel, aluminum, washing machines, and a variety of other Chinese goods. General Motors can be seen as a microcosm of the general dynamic. GM plans to cut fourteen thousand jobs in the next two years while raking in massive profits. GM workers recently went on their longest strike since 1973.

Trump’s populist rhetoric hasn’t brought back jobs, and to make matters worse, the economic situation is tenuous. Everyone is bracing for a recession, watching the trade war with China as a central destabilizing factor.

Trump: The Ultra-reactionary

Trump is best known for his highly reactionary, racist, and xenophobic persona and program, which he imposes on the country whether we like it or not. Consistent themes at his campaign rallies are “shithole countries,” “send them back,” and Mexicans as criminals and rapists. Trump is unabashedly a white supremacist. But it’s not just rhetorical. Trump is building a border wall by executive order, although not with as much funding as he had hoped, and he has changed asylum policies so that asylum seekers have to wait outside the United States.

The 2020 campaign will be more of the same. He plans to move to the right as much as possible, doubling down on an anti-immigrant and anti-socialist campaign. He will attempt to paint the entire Democratic Party as socialist, arguing that Sanders and the Squad are its leaders and run a red-scare campaign.

As the most reactionary aspects of Trump’s program are becoming a reality, the Republican Party has fallen into line behind Trump, signifying a shift in the party. In 2016, the Never Trump coalition of Republicans thought Trump’s sexism and racism would bar him from electoral victories. Only a few years before, the Republicans were discussing the need to rebrand themselves. A 2012 Republican National Committee report after Mitt Romney’s loss argued that it was imperative for the Republicans to reach out to new voting blocs, such as women, immigrants, and people of color. Trump’s strategy is the exact opposite: he aims not only to win with white voters alone, but to win with thinly veiled white supremacy, betting that his populism will energize a sector of the struggling working and middle class who previously didn’t vote—or even voted for Obama in 2008 or Sanders in the primaries. Today, with the impeachment inquiry looming, nearly all Republicans have closed ranks. As a New York Times headline put it, “The ‘Never Trump’ Coalition That Decided Eh, Never Mind, He’s Fine.”

One way the right will try to win elections without winning over people of color is by attacking voting rights. Aggressive gerrymandering (a practice of both parties), voter ID laws, and purging voters from the voter registration rolls didn’t begin with Trump. But Trump and the Republican Party under his leadership escalated these practices. The first years of the Trump administration were marked by Trump’s arguing that “illegals” vote in elections and his calling on the state to curb this practice. In reality, voter fraud is a myth used to disenfranchise people of color and immigrants. It is these hyper-reactionary policies that have won Trump a foothold in the far right, neofascist movement.

The Rise of the Neofascist Right

Trump’s policies and hateful rhetoric have emboldened a neofascist far right that has been building strength in the shadows for decades. Under Trump, these small groups have stepped into the limelight. Charlottesville was their tour de force, in which several neofascist and white nationalist groups united. Although Trump said there were “good people on both sides,” most of America disagreed, and the white nationalist movement hasn’t recovered since, struggling with internal divisions. Some have since held rallies, always small, but always protected and implicitly supported by the police and by the president himself. The most radical sectors of the neofascist movement take matters into their own hands with the strengthening of paramilitary groups at the border that detain immigrants at gunpoint. Others go even further, as mass shooters with ties to white supremacist groups have become commonplace.

Although some have argued that Trump is an explicit part of the alt-right and an explicit neofascist, this is not exactly the case. While Trump retweets the alt-right and gives it implicit and occasionally explicit support, he isn’t an organic part of the movement. As white nationalist Greg Johnson put it, “Like an icebreaker, Trump has plowed through the frozen crust of the artificial political consensus, smashing it to bits and releasing the turbulent populist currents underneath. It is our job to crowd into the breach, widen it and turn every outcome in our direction.” As the organic crisis deepens and polarization continues both to the left and right, Trump may well be an icebreaker for a bona fide neofascist waiting in the wings.

Yet there are other sectors of the state that Trump has been less able to control. Since the 2016 election, there has been a war of leaks within U.S. intelligence agencies, from the Clinton email scandal to the Comey leaks to the most recent whistleblower on the Ukraine talks. These leaks of presidential “secrets” act as the capitalist state’s last resort, allowing the state bureaucrats to maintain their legitimacy and check a president who is breaking with the norms and customs that allow the intelligence agencies to play a role in governing the country. In many ways, this pulls the veil from “democracy,” uncovering just how undemocratic the capitalist state is and how molded it is by the intervention of unelected actors, from judges to the FBI.

But in the context of the organic crisis, intelligence agencies have gone from highly revered and exalted to deeply questioned and unreliable—particularly in the eyes of Trump’s base. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is attempting to hold up these very institutions, perpetuating the myth of their infallibility and using them for the #Resistance, both in Russiagate and now in the Ukraine investigation.

Of course, the political polarization goes two ways, with Trump’s right-wing radicalization pushing whole sectors of liberals to the left. The repudiation of Trump is radicalizing a broad sector of youth who know that if Trump’s policies are to be defeated, they have to mobilize. Some of these youth are turning to a vague idea of socialism, with tens of thousands joining the DSA and millions voting for Sanders. For these young people, socialism is far from a slur—it’s an aspiration.

The youth are not the only sector both affected and galvanized by the crisis. Labor strikes are back, including strikes by teachers, Stop and Shop workers, and nurses across the country. Some of these strikes were led by the union bureaucracy, forced by the rank and file to call a strike. Others, like the original red state revolt, were organized primarily outside of union mechanisms. With mixed results, these actions speak to both how deep the problem is for the workers and to their regained confidence as a class.

The polarization to the left and the right has been largely asymmetrical. According to one recent study, 40 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” But the right has a virtual monopoly on this “burn it all down” discourse, as the “democratic socialists” of the left swear their fidelity to the institutions of capital, promising only to improve them.

But in this context of increased class struggle, polarization and crisis of hegemony, there is great potential for a revolutionary left. This is becoming even more true as class struggle emerges in countries around the world in countries like Ecuador, Chile and Lebanon, demonstrating a path forward forged by masses in the streets and strikes in workplaces and schools. This class struggle, often against the policies of the U.S.-controlled IMF could mean problems for the United States in the international sphere while inspiring all those young people turning to socialism.

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