Donald Trump is coming to Ireland. Behind the bluster, what does his presidency actually represent? Mike Davis—a world renowned American scholar, and author of several books—was interviewed by Seán Mitchell for Rebel, about the state of Trump’s America.
SM: Erratic is an oft-repeated adjective when it comes to Donald Trump’s presidency. One day he is threatening war on Korea, the next day he is shaking hands with Kim Jong-un. To what extent do you think that Trump is creating policy “on the hop” so to speak. Or is there a more coherent agenda behind his Presidency. If so, what is it?
MD: Erratic? Don’t you know that Trump is the instrument of God? He may not be capable of having a sophisticated agenda or even coherent positions on particular issues, but evangelicals, ultra-zionists, the coal industry and military lobbyists certainly do and they are firmly implanted within the administration. In serving their agendas, Trump has been dutiful and more. Indeed no administration, at least since Reagan, has given so many gifts so quickly to its elite constituencies.
The Christian Right, together with anti-union employers of every ilk, have won the grand prize: irreversible control of the Supreme Court and potentially of the federal bench as a whole. In addition, Trump and a Republican Congress have dismantled a key fire-wall separating church and state by allowing fundamentalist mega-churches to keep their tax-exempt status while operating openly as partisan campaign committees. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has become the chief legal advocate of disenfanchising people of color through restrictive voter laws and keeping them out of higher education through dismantling affirmative action. The administration’s flat-out assault on financial regulation, environmental protection and workers’ rights, of course, is the sweetest music to exploiters, polluters, and corporate raiders. And despite a strange delusion in the liberal press that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other braid-wearing Pentagon bureaucrats are somehow the ‘rational, moderating force’ in the administration, their bottom line has been the military spending spree which Trump has wholeheartedly endorsed.
But do these interest-group agendas that have been so well-rewarded in the first two years of the Trump monarchy aggregate to something larger? Is there an overall historical project comparable to Cold War Atlanticism with its intricate if always variable synchronization of the interests of major industries, investment banks and union bureaucracies under the sign of a dynamic US hegemony? Absolutely not. This is not to deny the self-proclaimed panaceas and national Viagras currently for sale in the political market place. Thus in one stall you might find Bannon or one of his followers peddling America First and the Yellow Peril, while in another Hilary Clinton is still shrilly promoting a new (multicultural?) cold war with Russia. Both augur disturbingly apocalyptic futures but each fails the test of offering the basic elements of an economic strategy that sustains American primacy. In any event that may be a lost cause. Hegemony’s shelf, it appears, is bare and the coalition of interests behind Trump is little more than a horde of vandals frenzied to loot Rome with no plan for what will follow.
What is difficult for aged US radicals of my generation to grasp is that there is no longer a ‘power structure’—a peak organization(s) of the interests of big capital—acting as a fourth branch of government. In the years of the ‘high cold war’ (from the Marshall Plan to Nixon’s unilateral demonetization of gold) there really was an interlocking Atlantic ruling class that shared a broad consensus about fighting Communism, managing the macroeconomy (via conservative Keynesianism), and expanding markets through free-trade agreements. (The Dutch Marxist Kees van der Pilj and his collaborators have mapped this world in magnificent detail.) Likewise in the turbulent 70s, as US corporations confronted serious competition in domestic markets from European and Japanese imports, the Business Roundtable emerged as a literal ‘executive committee’ of the Fortune 500 to break the power of national union contracts and the government policies that supported them.
They were so successful in fact that it eventually undermined the need for a corporate united front. The macro forces of neoliberalism—deregulation, globalization, financialization—have dissolved the old power structure of the Republican Party and replaced it with a Jurassic Park of economic predators who look like throwbacks to the pre-corporate world of the Robber Barons. Hedge funds, big casinos, family-owned energy companies, and mega real-estate developers now call the shots within the Republican Party without worrying about the agendas of General Electric or IBM and the like, who are either busy dying or long ago had moved most of their assets offshore. Thus the patronage and campaign finance once controlled by the Rockefellers and the National Association of Manufacturers now flows from obscure billionaires in Dallas, Omaha and Grand Rapids, with some coordination from the Koch brothers. Similar family dynasties have long fed neo-fascist political currents, like the financing of the John Birch Society by Texas oil men in the 1960s, but their influence was always marginal. Now thanks to the formidable network of right-wing think tanks and state policy centers (in every single state, by the way) that they fund, as well as the fundamentalist churches with whom they are allied, they leverage astounding political clout.
The acquisition of so much national power by what are basically regional elites is the paradox of contemporary US politics in an age otherwise defined by global production systems and light-speed capital mobility. Of course, true giants, entirely dependent upon free trade, wait in the wings, attended to by establishment Democrats. Big American corporations have not disappeared, they have grown unimaginably bigger and control cash hoards that makes them, like industrial corporations in the 1950s, largely independent of bank control. For years I’ve been writing articles about the political coming of age of the tech industry and the activist alliance of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street that Clintonite Democrats have counted upon to reestablish a centrist and centralized order in the political system. But big tech has bungled most of its forays into national politics, speaking a language that no one between the coasts understands. Meanwhile the Democrats’ big investors and beneficiaries have watched in perplexity as the Sanders’ insurgency has mounted a stronger assault from the left than anyone believed possible, including the overthrow of the ‘super-delegate’ system that was put into place to ensure the monopoly power of party officials and major campaign contributors. Are we watching the death agony of the American two-party system?
SM: Trump is a billionaire, and has many wealthy backers. Yet many commentators suggest that his “Trade Wars” are at odds with the interests of US capitalism, and will prove costly to the American economy. Is this the case, and how serious is he about pursuing a protectionist agenda?
MD: Trump is captive to his own reality show myth of the ruthless, consummate deal-maker who always gets what he wants. His beserk behavior and insane threats, to be fair, have extracted some trade concessions and scared the pants off World Bank technocrats and gutless EU politicians. But there is no larger politico-economic blueprint here, just political theatre that plays well in the Rust Belt and amongst small-town xenophobes. In fact, the livelihood of the Republican base depends upon the global value chains and production systems that Trump threatens to dismantle. The entire farm belt, as everyone knows, earns its living from soya and corn exports to countries like China and Mexico, while Southern states such as Tennessee, the two Carolinas, Texas and even Alabama have reinvented themselves as non-union manufacturing platforms for European and Japanese automakers. Trump himself is an absolute exemplar of a sleazy real-estate gone global and he never misses an opportunity to plug his big projects in Russia, China and the Gulf.
His trillion-dollar tax cut for rich investors and the renewed Republican attack on the regulatory apparatus of the government—both of which pumped vast amounts of hot air into the stock market—have temporarily quieted what otherwise might be a great hue and cry on Wall St. Moreover Trump’s record so far is that his mad dog rhetoric usually gives way to negotiation to extract modest concessions from the other side. This is not to claim that Trump’s actions are carefully modulated or thought out; indeed his improvised attacks could well drive the economy into another depression because all the other conditions for a downturn seem ripe. But the idea, which some Marxists propose, that the global economy could regress to the 1930s when it broke up into autarkic trade blocs with each major power substituting increased exploitation of their colonies and regional markets for the collapsed system of inter-metropolitan trade—well, that strikes me as far-fetched. And it ignores China, the only world power that actually possesses a compelling blueprint for the future.
At meetings of the Standing Committee of the Politbureau they must scratch their heads and whisper to one another: ‘are you sure he isn’t one of ours?’ Trump is a superb Manchurian Candidate and his rants against Beijing are exactly what one would expect from a deep asset. General Secretary Xi Jinping, not Vladimir Putin, is of course the real beneficiary of Trump’s wild attacks on Atlantic capitalism’s key institutions and leaders, as well as his casual sabotage of the Obama administration’s eight-year-long effort to build a new alliance system in Southeast Asia to contain China. Trump is the wrecking ball that no one expected.
SM: Donald Trump’s presidency has given new confidence to Far-Right movements across the world. As the events at Charlottesville attest, Trump himself has been willing to flirt with the worst elements. What is the relationship between Trump, his supporters, and the possibility of the emergence of a new and more coherent far-right movement in the US?
MD: The Republican Party has remade itself around Trump, becoming the first major, historical conservative party in the NATO bloc to be taken over by the far-right. The evolution, of course, started long ago, with Goldwater in 1964 and then with the triumph of the New Right’s ‘Contract with America’ in Congress under Gingrich in 1994. The Tea Party insurgency in 2009 was a further escalation since the Republican ‘establishment’ against which it was rebelling was the [old] New Right of the 1990s. Although it mantled itself in fiscal conservatism (which the Right only embraces when Democrats are in power), it quickly unmasked itself as a fourth wave of white Protestant nationalism reacting to mass immigration and perceived threats to its cultural and political hegemony.
A little history is helpful. The first wave was the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s whose targets were the Irish and German Catholic immigrants of the 1850s. An even larger mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe was countered in the 1890s by the American Protective League and an epidemic of official and unofficial violence, like the lynching of eleven Italians by a New Orelans mob in 1891. The largest backlash came after the First World War during the Republican administrations of the 1920s. Immigration law was changed to restrict the entry of Slavs, Jews and Latin Americans and Prohibition was imposed as a form of politico-cultural control over Catholics and German Lutherans. The Ku Klux Klan underwent a massive revival and moved North where it put antisemitism and antipapism at the top of its agenda. It briefly became the dominant political machine in some states (Oregon and Indiana, for instance) and launched a reign of terror
against Jews, Catholics and, of course, Blacks. But unlike the 1890s, the nativism of the 1920s was countered by militant fightbacks of the target groups (the only time to my knowledge that Catholics and Jews fought side by side) and the mobilisation of New Immigrants and their kids as the electoral base for the New Deal. With the election of Obama and the rise of non-Anglo majorities in states like California and Texas a fourth wave of nativism, joined at the hip with white supremacism, was inevitable. From this perspective, the Tea Party Republicans not very novel or unexpected.
What was not forseen and blindsided nearly everyone, including Trump himself, has been his success in taking over the Republican Party. Most pundits expected that Trump would have to settle down and share power with Paul Ryan and other Tea Party generation Republicans. Instead he has hammered them at every turn while his supporters have won one primary after another against perfectly respectable reactionaries supported by the Congressional leadership. While Trump’s election might be considered a fluke, the hothouse growth of a personalist cult, exclusively loyal to him rather than to conservative institutions and churches, speaks to a deeper phenomena: something that looks like American Peronism or what would have happened if, say, Huey Long had captured the Democratic Party in 1935. And just as radio allowed Long, Father Coughlan, and other Depression demagogues to circumvent party hierarchies and reach previously unaccessible audiences, so too has Trumpism been made possible by Fox News and especially the neo-fascist web sites whose audiences have grown explosively since the election. Although a movement without much organization or talent, this could change in the event of impeachment or a big loss in 2020. Trumpism on the outside, nursing the belief that the nation has been stolen, could become truly dangerous especially if the leader conveniently died and left his legend to others to manipulate.
The U.S. situation however differs from Europe in at least three critical respects. First, the far-right is massively armed and increasingly abetted by the ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws in 28 states that wink at murder, as in the notorious case of Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager shot in Florida in 2013. On the other hand, Michigan is not Saxony because everywhere a majority of Black people have shown their willingness to fight white supremacists and nativists side by side with immigrants. American neofascists are thoroughly intimidated by Black militancy and while they can bomb and murder, they will never own the street. And, third, demography is ultimately destiny in the American case and the flood of hate unleashed by Trump’s victory, as well as the violence that may follow his overthrow, accelerate the turnover in the electorate as baby-boom whites fade from the scene. The crucial battleground, which up to now the Democrats have abdicated, is Texas. People in Europe, and indeed Americans, are unaware that Anglos in Texas have been a minority of the population for some time. The huge state is the bedrock of conservatism and if the Republicans were to lose it, they cease to exist as a national party.
SM: Much is made about Trump’s base. In most mainstream accounts, he is presented as a voice for a disenfranchised white working class, particularly in ‘rust belt’ areas worst effected by deindustrialisation. Is this an accurate assessment?
MD: Right after the election I conducted a rather painstaking investigation of the Trump vote, comparing his performance to Romney’s in 2012 and then zeroing in on fifteen blue-collar counties in the Great Lake states or the upper Mississippi Valley that had voted twice for Obama but then switched to Trump. I looked not only at election returns and exit polls but also read back through the area papers searching for clues about local economic climates. This essay (‘The Great God Trump and the White Working Class‘) argued three major points:
First, Trump didn’t capture large numbers of working-class Democrats, that’s a myth. In the fifteen industrial areas that I examined, however, he equaled or outperformed Romney, but it’s better to emphasise Clinton’s stunning under-performance compared to Obama. All of these counties were hard hit by recent plant closures, were not visited by Clinton, and had employment at the top of their agendas. Clinton and her campaign targeted the suburbs and expected to win over many Republican women while the old Democratic base—unions and Blacks especially—would meekly follow along because they had no other place to go. In the event, the women in red did not flock to her and much of her base stayed home. She received almost one million fewer votes than Obama in the South and—this was quite stunning—three million fewer in the industrial Midwest. Her three million national popular-vote margin was largely won in the West where Latinos, who perceived Trump as more of an existential threat, voted in record numbers while fewer Republicans went to the polls.
Second, Trump won because he retained the Romney vote, the most politically important component of which was mobilised by the Christian Right. Initially a majority of evangelical power-brokers favored Ted Cruz, but after he was unexpectedly defeated by Trump, the wealthiest of the Cruz backers, Rebecca Mercer, decided to gamble on Trump and sent her best political operatives—Stephen Bannon and Kelly Anne Conway—to help broker a deal between him and the other, more skeptical conservative leaders. (The Koch brothers, however, never came aboard the Trump campaign, igniting a mini-civil war on the far-right that is still going on.) Trump agreed to embrace the maximum program of the religious right and let them and other ultras draft the Republican Program. Most of the far-right leaders were worried that the voting power of their base had crested and that 2016 was a last chance to institutionalise their program through appointments to the Supreme Court. They delivered the Republican vote (actually a little less than Romney), Clinton did the rest, and Trump has so far kept his bargain with the Christian Right to the letter. It was a stunning victory for their cause.
Third, in almost all the fifteen areas that I examined where Trump appeared to have stolen Obama Democrats, Bernie Sanders did even better in the primaries. Given the choice between a billionaire pirate who promises pie in the sky and a socialist who has a program for rebuilding jobs and extending the safety net, the jobs vote would have gone the other way. Indeed the Sanders’ campaign was the only genuine political revolution in 2016. It demonstrated that a resurrected version of the Economic Bill of Rights that FDR proposed in his 1944 campaign—the high-water mark of New Deal liberalism that was partly inspired by the Beveridge Plan in England—could mobilise a powerful coalition of young workers (many of them downwardly-mobile college graduates trapped in the temp economy), immigrants, and public-sector unions. If the missing element in this new rainbow coalition was the older Black vote in the South, which supported Clinton, younger Blacks in the North and West were amongst the most ardent Sanderistas. An unprecedented generational divide—even greater than in the sixties—now separates older voters from everyone under 35. The most dramatic evidence of this, of course, is the preference for ‘socialism’ amongst polled majorities of Democrats and younger voters.
SM: The Teacher’s strike in West Virginia earlier this year was a remarkable event given the steep decline in the US Labour movement over the last few decades. Uniquely, it began as a rank and file led strike, and later spread to other parts of the US. Are we seeing a revival in the US working class?
MD: For decades American workers have been told that if the Right manages to take the courts and rule against the unions, all is lost. The West Virginia teachers strike, originally an unauthorised wildcat, demonstrated that when workers have the will to fight and mobilise support from their communities they can win. It helps of course when the workplace is a school, hospital or government agency that can’t be sent South or exported overseas. A repression of labor’s legal rights (the case for most of American history) may ironically rejuvenate rank and file activism and channel it into broader movements and coalitions. If the heroes of the 1930s, the old CIO industrial unions, are much diminished in size and clout, new battalions of labor fighters, every bit as determined as the Flint sit-downers in ’37, have come to the fore. In California the vanguard are called nurses and their national union has emerged as a model of twenty-first century unionism. As crucibles for militancy, huge hospitals, where thousand-strong workforces punch a time-clock every morning, are little different from big auto plants or steel works.
SM: Your book, Prisoners of the American Dream, was recently republished by Verso. In the conclusion, you write that there “is never likely to be an ‘American revolution’ as classically imagined by DeLeon, Debs, or Cannon. If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is much more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements.” You wrote that in 1986. Does it still ring true to you in Trump’s America today?
MD: The great revolutionary thinkers of the past all conceived the march to socialism as an international or global process that necessarily transcended national boundaries. The Bolsheviks as we all know had a sophisticated theory of combined and uneven development that envisioned the capitalist state system failing first at the periphery before revolutions moved toward the center where the modern means of producing wealth were concentrated. In imperial Russia with its weak industrial bourgeoisie (foreign capital dominated modern industries) a small but highly concentrated and militant working class alone advanced a compelling plan for the destruction of autocracy, land reform, and peace. This enabled the Bolsheviks—the majority party of the factory working class—to seize the big cities and ally with insurgent peasants in the country. But no one, not even Stalin in this period, envisioned it would possible to build socialism in such a backward country. Rather it was the duty of the Russian workers to arm themselves, take their country out of the war, and then come to the aid of the revolution in the West—just as Russia in the past had intervened on behalf of European counter-revolutions. The main act would play out in Germany and Central Europe, probably followed by France and Italy. In the last instance the Versailles powers, their vast armies of occupation, and the million or so right-wing German troops (regular units as well as Freikorps) that they kept in uniform to wage war on the left—gave no time to allow the German revolution to learn from its mistakes or reach out to the other short-lived Soviet regimes in the Baltics or Hungary. All of this of course is old hat to most readers, but I hope a reminder of how important it is revisit classical conceptions of revolution on continental or global scales.
Mike Davis’ latest book is Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, published by Verso. Available here