THIS is a historic moment of great danger, not only in the United States but also, thanks to the power of the U.S. over the rest of us, across the world.
The proto-fascist movements of the Far Right that have been swirling around the world since the dismemberment of the Soviet Union have finally found in Donald Trump, the President-elect of the U.S., its unifying centre and its global figurehead. I hesitate to say “leader” for the simple reason that about Trump himself and his leadership qualities we know rather little beyond his limitless personal greed, his view of women as fodder for sexual predation, his hatred of all who are not of white European extraction, his demagoguery and cynicism—not to speak of his vast and somewhat ridiculous megalomania, rather analogous to India’s Narendra Modi’s and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s but on the grand American scale, even more evil than theirs, something of a Captain Ahab writ large.
But at least he undoubtedly has become a provisional “figurehead” of all that is vicious in global politics and power, thanks to his recent election to the one office in the world that can do the most damage—and has consistently done over the last several decades. Noam Chomsky summarised this side of the equation succinctly: “On November 8, the most powerful country in world history, which will set its stamp on what comes next, had an election. The outcome placed total control of the government—executive, Congress, the Supreme Court—in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organisation in world history.” We shall return to this characterisation of the Republican Party and to Trump’s own relationship with his party.
Changing global equation Meanwhile, the essential shock of this situation arises from the fact that even though the Far Right has been growing in the U.S. over many years—the process going back to the presidential bid in 1964 by Barry Goldwater who gained 40 per cent of the popular vote even then—and even though such forces have been gaining momentum across continents, the U.S. had seemed to be the last place where such a takeover could come so very swiftly. Some taste of it has come already in India and, considerably more ferociously, in Turkey; smaller European countries such as Austria, Hungary and Poland have been teetering on the verge. Such forces have been influential in France and have gone from strength to strength throughout these neoliberal times; they played the key role during the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, and they are ascendant in virtually all corners of Europe, from Greece to Denmark and Sweden. The fear was that they might come to power in the smaller countries of Europe and then grow further into its central formations. Their coming to power in the U.S. alters this global equation altogether. That power mainly resides, in my view, not in the person of Trump per se but (a) in the kind of people who are likely to run the government on his behalf and (b) the simultaneous Republican control over the Supreme Court as well as both Houses of the Congress.
An analysis of the host of contradictory factors that led eventually to this one fatal outcome shall be attempted in some sections of this article. The full story of how a political non-entity who seemingly had little else going for him save his bluster and self-praise got catapulted into a position of such power shall unfold very slowly, over the years. What is clear is that the campaign was crafted very carefully to portray him as a man opposed to the political Establishment as a whole, Republican as well as Democrat; fiercely independent of the media as well as corporate power; a great champion of the American working class; a foe of the neoliberalism with its free trade policies and globalised finance that had wrecked America’s own productive economy; a sober patriot opposed to wars in West Asia with its expenditure of trillions of dollars that had led to nothing but mountains of debt; a sagacious statesman who understood the perils of a New Cold War and the confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia. On this side of his public persona he seemed to be as opposed to neoliberalism and deindustrialisation of the U.S. as Bernie Sanders, who had mounted a challenge to Hillary Clinton from the Left, and distinctly more anti-war and anti-Establishment than Sanders. Both were vying for the working class vote. This side of the electoral ambiguity in the U.S. was expressed to me most vividly by a fellow passenger on an international flight—a white American female schoolteacher, probably in her late thirties—who thought that problems in her country could be fixed only if Trump and Sanders would fight the elections together, on a bi-partisan ticket. Respectable opinion attached the word “populist” to both.
Trump’s calculated, obviously cynical appeal to political rationality and working-class interest was carefully balanced, however, against the much more visceral, atavistic appeals to the darkest sides of U.S. society: with off-hand promises to use nuclear weapons against the enemies of America; with rampant, vulgar, he-man misogyny (at age of 70, no less); with unbridled racist rhetoric against all non-white immigrants, portraying Latinos as rapists, drug pushers and generally criminals, and with promises to deport millions of them and to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep them out in the future; with constant appeals to Islamophobia by equating Muslims with terrorism and promising to force Muslim citizens in the U.S. to register with anti-terrorist law enforcement agencies as well as to control further entry of Muslims into the U.S.
Trump is, in other words, a classic demagogue. And yet, he contradicts himself so often and seems so unable to either think clearly or talk cogently that it is hard to know if he has any convictions at all, beyond a narcissistic pursuit of power and money for himself. It would be charitable to recall Mussolini’s famous dictum: we fascists are super-relativists. In other words, lack of conviction is the road to power. That of course is not an attribute of fascism alone. It is equally an attribute of liberal politicians, particularly so these days among the ones whose political personae incline towards the social democratic. That you will betray your campaign promises is the norm which applies to Obama and Trump equally. What Trump is likely to do in office can, therefore, be surmised less by what he said or did on his road to the presidency but from the company he keeps.
We shall return later, at some length, to the question of the kind of company he keeps, that is, the reality of his affiliations beyond the rhetorical effects, the kind of government that is likely to emerge, the policies that might get pursued while he serves as figurehead President. The broader question that needs to be addressed in the first instance is this: what was the broader field of force within which a presidency of this kind could emerge? With their planetary wars, their brutish financialisations, and their destruction of the productive fabric of the U.S. economy itself, what role have Democrats and Republicans alike—the political Establishment as such—played in creating this new field of force that swerved so very sharply towards the Far Right?
Fractured and racist The first thing to be noted, before getting into substantive analysis, is that the U.S. has become a deeply polarised, even fractured society. This polarisation is reflected in the election results as such. The fact of the matter is that Hillary Clinton won marginally more votes than Trump, who became President-elect only because of the distorted nature of the Electoral College that elects the President. In other words, it is the macabre nature of the American electoral system, and not some apocalyptic, irreversible change in the political predilections of the electorate, that has given power to the Far Right in such a concentrated, unchallengeable form. This kind of structural distortion is of course widespread among other liberal-democratic systems as well, especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety and their colonial offspring.
Another way of putting it is this: Virtually half of the eligible voters, 43 per cent or so, did not vote. Of the 57 per cent participants, each party took half—roughly 27 per cent of the total eligible voters for each side. Give or take a few percentage points, just over a quarter of the electorate elects the government. All liberal democratic governments are by their very nature minority governments and therefore profoundly undemocratic. Close to $7 billion are said to have been spent on organising the Spectacle, but the minority that actually elects the government is too small to represent the real views and inclinations of the electorate as a whole. The Spectacle is designed to create a massive ideological effect, while distribution of power among ruling castes and elites gets reorganised in an entirely peaceful manner. Whatever violence may erupt is then suffered by random individuals from among the permanently excluded. In this particular case, the violence that accompanied the election, before and after, was largely concentrated on the non-white immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims in particular; attacks on hijab-observing Muslim women were fairly widespread.
In this circumstance, a view has been popularised that race and gender were the decisive factors in the success of Trump, a hate-spewing and half-literate white supremacist male, over Hillary Clinton, a politically accomplished, liberal, sophisticated female candidate. That race and gender were significant matters is unquestionable; that they were in any manner decisive in obtaining that electoral result is not so clear. The U.S. is and has always been a racist society. Likewise, patriarchy and the whole range of gendered bigotries have been entrenched in this society. These are permanent features of U.S. politics, increasingly so in response to feminism and unprecedented access to higher education and professional jobs for middle class women; the rise of a black middle class as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, black nationalist militancy, and subsequent affirmative action; the dramatic demographic gains for non-white immigrants in the overall U.S. population as a whole, especially in such States as California, Texas, New Mexico; and, above all, the disproportionate suffering of the white working class as a result of deindustrialisation, since white workers had most of the jobs in manufacturing while new immigrant workers were mostly absorbed in agriculture and services.
In this situation, Trump’s hate-filled speeches about Mexicans, Muslims and others of darker skin were an instance of a very familiar kind of bourgeois rhetoric in times of crisis that shifts the blame from the oppressing capitalist class to the fellow worker of a different skin colour or ethnic background; as Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French neo-fascist National Front, used to say: two million immigrants are equal to two million unemployed among the French. Le Pen’s racism was more shrewd and urbane; Trump’s is much more crude and vicious. But the effect is similar.
Similarly, Trump’s nauseating and relentless display of the most vulgar kind of misogyny was undoubtedly related to the fact that he was being opposed by a woman. The unstoppable washing of Trump’s and Bill Clinton’s dirty laundry in public, so characteristically American in its prurient fascination with the sexual misadventures of its politicians, not only brought the usual inanities of electoral contests to a new low but also catered, specifically, to the aggressivity of the males whose own social lives have been destroyed so very deeply.
The irresistible power of a dream We need not doubt that the darkest forces in the American underbelly have been greatly energised in the process, with a feeling of new empowerment on the national scene. Only a small minority needs to be thus encouraged and activated to start producing quite large and far-reaching social effects. But that this minority, so active and visible, had immediate electoral effects of any decisive nature is doubtful. Let us consider two simple facts.
Fact number One: Trump won 53 per cent of white women’s vote as against Hillary Clinton; Obama had won among white women with almost exactly the same percentage against Romney, a white male, only four years ago. Why did Hillary Clinton not win among white women the same percentage of votes as Obama? Race? Gender? Or something else? Hillary Clinton won 54 per cent of the total women’s vote, thanks to the non-white vote —but Obama had also won, by 55 per cent. Meanwhile, Trump did 2 per cent better among black voters than Romney four years earlier, while Hillary Clinton did 5 per cent worse than Obama. Why? Race?
Fact number Two: As everyone else has pointed out, Hillary Clinton lost six States that Obama had won twice: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio—States that included some of the most devastated centres of U.S. manufacturing that has been liquidated. Why? Race? Gender? It is more plausible that the suffering poor who had reposed their trust in the Democratic Party for so long finally lost that faith and turned to the alternative, in the spirit of “anyone but . . .” What needs further explanation is a third fact: Hillary Clinton polled five to six million less votes than Obama, in an enlarged electorate. Who are these millions who would vote for a black man but not for a white woman whom that very black man—not to speak of his very popular black wife —has wistfully endorsed? How much political work can race or gender do by itself?
We do not have reliable enough, extensive enough facts to answer these questions rigorously. It is quite plausible, though, that Trump is a gift from the combined Establishments of the Republicans and the Democrats who have given us endless wars and mass destitution—the gift of a power structure led in recent years by Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. does not have a conscript army whereby the young of all classes are required by law to do military service. It has a volunteer army so that the soldiery is overwhelmingly drawn from the most destitute classes. Two million of them have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Relatively few die but a huge number of them are injured. Between 30 and 40 per cent of those who return from these wars are said to then suffer from some kind of psychological disorder; countless remain jobless or work for subhuman wages. Does it not make sense that perhaps a majority of them get attracted to the presidential candidate who says that the six trillion or so dollars that have been spent on these wars have been wasted; that he is going to take care of the veterans; that he will seek peace with Syria, Iran and Russia?
Then, there is the promise of tearing up free-trade policies, to impose tariffs on imported goods, to rebuild U.S. manufacturing capacities, to restore dignified jobs to the working poor, to repair American infrastructure and create millions more of jobs. Whether or not he, or anyone else, can really do it is somewhat besides the point. The promise itself creates the irresistible power of a dream. Obama, too, had said so, in a voice that created conviction, and the white working class had voted for a black man, thus provisionally healing at least some of the racial wounds that had accumulated over centuries. But the black man then betrayed the promise; he might have failed anyway but he did not even try. Trump is the product of that treason. And, yes, the racism that had receded provisionally also resurfaced, more aggressive now than before.
Recession aftermath Obama became President of the U.S. at the height of the 2007-09 crisis. Corporate and investor taxes since 2009 have been cut by more than $6 trillion, more trillions have been made available as free money through policies of quantitative easing and zero bound rates, and U.S. corporate profits have more than doubled since then, with 97 per cent of all gross domestic product (GDP) income gains going to the top 1 per cent. At the other end of the class spectrum, millions among the 13 million who had faced home foreclosures and lost trillions of dollars in home value are still struggling to cope with debt and income insecurity. Loss of manufacturing jobs meant not just income squeeze but also drastic social consequences such as widespread depression, repressed rage, alcoholism, drug abuse, family breakups, early deaths and suicides.
It is well to recall that the fascisms of the inter-War periods were the product of extreme economic dislocation, from which countries like Germany and Italy never quite recovered until after the Great Depression. There is no reason why somewhat similar movements should not develop in response to the ravages of global militarism and neoliberal economic devastation for the majority of the people in most industrialised countries. Virtually all the countries that succumbed to some variety of fascism at that time—Spain and Portugal in addition to Germany and Italy—had powerful working-class parties and movements. It was necessary to abolish the formal freedoms guaranteed by the liberal-democratic form of the capitalist state in order to unleash full-scale terror and even military operations against those parties and movements. Today, the working classes are supine across the industrialised world, and middle-class radicals typically neither have any organic connections with the working class nor see the revolutionary organisation of the working class as the necessary bulwark against neoliberal capitalism. Thus abandoned by the self-styled Left, shrunk in its social weight and beaten down both economically and politically, the working class is particularly susceptible to populist demagoguery that promises them reindustrialisation and protectionism, and which provides them outlets for a release of their rage, in one form or another. Many of them gravitate towards the likes of Trump. Having no need to unleash state terror against working-class organisations, the Far Right has no reason to disturb the institutions of the liberal state. It simply takes them over, making explicit the underlying compact between liberalism and the politics of extremity and cruelty.
Trump’s own claims Let us return, then, to some of the shibboleths of Trump’s own claims. First, his boast that he is so wealthy that he can finance his campaign himself and thus be free of the financial oligarchy. In reality, he received uncounted millions from the likes of Sheldon Adelson, the sinister casino king who also plays a key role in keeping Benjamin Netanyahu in power. Months before the elections, Steven Munchin, the former Goldman Sachs partner and Soros Fund employee, became the finance chair in the Trump campaign, raking in millions from the corporate elite; there is a faint possibility that Munchin may become Treasury Secretary. Trump’s campaign was previously headed by the former lobbyist Paul Manafort, and well-established corporate lobbyists are said to be filing into Trump’s presidential transition team. Then the campaign command was taken over by Steve Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs executive, investor in the sitcom “Seinfeld”, a Washington insider and chair of the Far Right website Breitbart News. This website is well known for headlines like “would you rather that your child had Feminism or Cancer?” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”. More recently he has been appointed Trump’s chief strategist and senior counsellor, one of the two key posts Trump has created in his White House. This appointment has been criticised widely, and the extremity of his racist politics and his propagandist skills are so well known that some Europeans are already describing him as Trump’s Goebbels. He wants to build up a network of European and American leaders of the Far Right. That Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after his electoral victory seems significant in this context.
Second, Trump’s supposed independence from—indeed contempt for—the Republican Party elite. The fact of the matter is that the party itself has been going through a great churning since the Reagan days, with power slipping out of the hands of the wealthy, patrician leadership, much of which was once drawn from the Eastern Seaboard, while other motley forces capture the party from the Far Right: the Christian Right, the Gingriches and the Ryans, the neocon and not so neocon warriors who have given us the post-9/11 war-without-end, the competing billionaires like Adelson and the Koch Brothers, the Tea Party crowd, and much else besides.
It is this restructured Republican Party that Chomsky describes as the most dangerous political organisation in the world.
Trump is deeply entrenched among this new party elite that has displaced the old. The very first appointment he has made is to elevate Reince Priebus, the 44-year-old chairman of the Republican National Committee and key campaign manager for Trump, to the position of the Chief of Staff at the Trump White House. People who are getting prominently named as possible members of what some have dubbed as Trump’s incoming “Cabinet of Horrors” tend to be either serving or former State Governors (from Christie to Giuliani), former presidential hopefuls (Ted Cruz, Ben Carson), former House Speaker and key architect of the Far Right in the U.S. (Newt Gingrich), and prominent neocon warmonger (John Bolton). A key figure in the new administration is the former Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate who will now be Vice President and, most probably, more powerful than the figurehead President, as Dick Cheney was most of the time more powerful and purposeful than Bush Jr. Writing for The Intercept , Jeremy Cahill observes:
“…Christian supremacist militants—would not have been able to win the White House on their own. For them, Donald Trump was a godsend…. Trump is a Trojan horse for a cabal of vicious zealots who have long craved an extremist Christian theocracy, and Pence is one of its most prized warriors. With Republican control of the House and Senate and the prospect of dramatically and decisively tilting the balance of the Supreme Court to the Far Right, the incoming administration will have a real shot at bringing the fire and brimstone of the second coming to Washington.”
Cahill then goes on to catalogue a whole range of Pence’s hair-raising positions on foreign as well as domestic issues, and then says of his essential outlook:
“Mike Pence was raised Catholic, in a Kennedy Democrat household, but he has been a devout evangelical since being converted at a Christian music festival in Kentucky while in college. Pence now describes himself as ‘a Christian, a Conservative, and a Republican, in that order’. Pence has described himself as “a born-again, evangelical Catholic’.”
We still do not know what the final shape of his government will be, but there is sufficient reason to believe that he will be fully surrounded by Christian zealots, racist bigots, warmongers, and seasoned politicians capable of keeping his incoherence and bombast in check.
How powerful is the President? The capacity of the President of the U.S. to act independently and pursue his own policy is in any case greatly exaggerated. He is restrained, first of all, by key members of his own Cabinet who run the major Departments —State, Defence, Treasury—and by other officials such as the Attorney General or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, all of whom act nominally on his behalf but actually command independent fiefs. It is quite doubtful that Rumsfeld or Greenspan really waited for guidance from the President they served. Trump is at least as ignorant about the affairs of the state as Bush Jr was. Others will decide for him.
But the real restraint comes from the Deep State, which is not entirely part of the state as such: bureaucracies of the Pentagon, the armed forces, the vast network of intelligence agencies, but also the countless private corporations that are intertwined with those bureaucracies, and, above all, the financial oligarchy of globalised capital. Hillary Clinton—the queen of boutique feminism, the golden girl of Goldman Sachs and the military-industrial complex—may have been vanquished, but the Oligarchy lives. The stock market went into spasms of ecstasy at the election of Trump, quite forgetting the defeat of its own orating lady whom it used to pay hundreds of thousands per hour for churning out forgettable rubbish.
That Oligarchy, in collusion with other agencies of the Deep State, can always stage a financial crisis to pressure a President to adopt certain policies, or stage false flag acts of terrorism inside the so-called Homeland in order to obtain particular policy shifts toward particular states.
The classic recent example of a President having been derailed by his own subordinate (with no retribution, I might add) is that of a recent ceasefire in Syria that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov negotiated painstakingly and which simply evaporated when Defence Secretary Ash Carter and his Pentagon bureaucrats decided to sabotage it and bombed a Syrian airbase relentlessly for close to two hours, with dozens of fatalities, to drive home the point that the bombing was not an accident.
That was relatively a minor intervention to derail the policy of a sitting President. Other such interventions, large and small, are a routine matter for various power centres that surround the figurehead in the Oval Office.
Trump should be taken seriously, but not too seriously. Structure is always more determining than the individual agency, even if the agency is that of the President of the United States. That the whole cabal of the Far Right that has been gathering force for half a century has finally taken power in Washington is far more significant than the perverse fascination with Trump that grips the Land of the Free and, indeed, grips much of the TV-watching world.
Foreign policy What about foreign policy, then?
Part of Trump’s populist appeal was that he repeatedly described America’s wars in West Asia as futile and promised to terminate them. He called for a normalisation of relations with Russia, which would avert the possibility of a nuclear confrontation. He also called for a coalition with Russia for fighting all factions of the jehadis, including Al Qaeda, whom the U.S. has been nursing as part of the anti-Bashar al-Assad coalition in Syria. At one point he even said that the U.S. could not play a constructive role in bringing peace to Israel/Palestine if it continued to favour Israel and it should therefore adopt a truly neutral stance towards both parties in the conflict. Finally, he questioned the very relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In short, he positioned himself radically as a peace candidate across the spectrum. Then, perhaps under the influence of Adelson’s millions, he abandoned his former stance on Palestine and became a rabid advocate of Israeli interests, even promising to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thus becoming the first Western power to hold out such a promise, thereby implicitly recognising Israeli jurisdiction over East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Giuliani and Bolton have emerged as the chief contenders for the post of Secretary of State. Giuliani is reputed to have taken money from Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the shadowy Iranian terrorist outfit that is sheltered by the U.S. while also being listed as a terrorist organisation; and Bolton is known to have advocated a “bomb Iran” policy. Unlike his other positions, his position on Iran has always been belligerent, calling for a renegotiation of the nuclear territory that Obama concluded with that country. Now, that re-negotiation would be very difficult not only because Iran would not except it but also because the European Union has officially accepted that treaty. Moreover, it is not plausible that the U.S. could adopt so hostile an attitude towards Iran but also seek normalisation with Russia or peace in Syria.
In these circumstances, it is really not clear what kind of foreign policy one can expect from the incoming Trump administration. The other great problem, already visible from the earliest phase of his campaign, is his unremitting hostility towards China, the pivotal country in the emerging world order alongside Russia, Iran and others. Trump’s positions have thus been contradictory from the outset. It seems more than likely that his eventual positions would revert to the familiar ones, dictated by the Oligarchy, the neocons, the Israelis.
The reaction of the Israeli state is always a good barometer for judging the likely future of U.S. behaviour. On the morning after Trump’s electoral victory, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet, the rising star of Israel’s own Far Right, exulted: “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Meanwhile, top Israeli Ministers voted unanimously in favour of a Bill that would allow Israeli settlements and outposts that were built on property owned by Palestinians to avoid court-ordered demolitions. The calculation clearly is that Trump will not oppose the move while the opposition from the lame-duck Obama administration can be ignored.
All forces of the Right thus recognise Trump as a soul mate. On issues of imperial wars, unquestioning loyalty to Israel and confrontation with Russia and China, Hillary Clinton would have certainly not been better, possibly far worse. That is the real extent of the imperial hubris in today’s United States.