Explaining the rise of Donald Trump

June 8, 2016

The Republicans, traditionally the leading party of Corporate America, are stuck with a presidential candidate who regularly denounces the GOP establishment and who is criticized by party leaders as "not a real conservative" even as he has won votes by pandering to racist and reactionary sentiments. In this article written for the UK-based revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website, Bill Crane comments on the left's discussion of Trump--and explains why he can and should be understood within the history of U.S. politics.

DONALD TRUMP'S race for President of the United States has shocked the mainstream political establishment. Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul most famous as a TV star with his successful long-running reality series The Apprentice, has made headlines around the world for his calls to close America's doors to refugees from the Middle East, to build a wall on the border of Mexico to defend against supposed drug traffickers and rapists, and his crude misogyny.

How do we analyze Trump from the left? His racist hysterics regarding Middle Eastern refugees and Latin@ immigrants have caused some, not just on the left but in the mainstream political establishment (even of his own party), to label Trump "fascist," "full fascist," or something of the kind, representing a surging far-right movement that threatens immediate systematic violence against the oppressed and progressive causes.

In this article, I argue that the Trump phenomenon is, in fact, not unique, but merely the latest expression of a long tradition in American politics. Both elements of the term are essential. While Trump's longstanding opportunism on racial issues, as well as his friendliness to the protectionist policies favored by organized labor, have given some on the left space to claim that he is less a threat than he seems, I argue this is understandable in the sense of right-wing populism as a "scavenger ideology" combining racist hysteria with anti-elitist rhetoric. Trump is a clear threat, but this must be understood within the history of American politics.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at a campaign rally
Donald Trump speaking to supporters at a campaign rally (Darron Bergenheier)

Trump and "Anti-politics"

In an article from early in the year, Tad Tietze attempts to analyze Trump's success through the rubric of "anti-politics" which he and Liz Humphrys have developed in several articles critiquing the failure of mainstream left parties and unions in the developed world. Anti-political movements, they have written, ride a mood of widespread detachment from the political establishment. These include the "movement of the squares" in Europe, Occupy in the U.S. and political parties such as Podemos in Spain, and but also right-wing or ruling-class parties such as the UK Independence Party and in Italy Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement which have exploited mass distaste for politics as usual to gain political office themselves.

Tietze thus writes of Trump: "[his] success occurs...because of discontent with the representative political system among Republican voters--and voters in general." So far, this sticks to his and Humphrys' earlier analysis. But he goes further: Trump's appeal is not, he continues, "because he is the ultimate right-wing ideologue, or because he foments racial division...but because he openly and in a very non-ideological way trashes the political class and its failures."

There we have it: Trump's main appeal is not as a racist and a reactionary, but because he capitalizes on an anti-political mood that, if we follow Tietze in both this article and his earlier ones with Humphrys, we should be inclined to see as progressive.

To cement his case, Tietze points to many issues on which Trump has held moderate, if not liberal stances: he attacked Bush the younger's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the money they wasted that could have been better spent on America's economy and infrastructure, he was until recently in favour of a woman's right to choose, as against the GOP mainstream he is in favour of protectionist trade policies, etc. etc.

But not only this: Tietze argues that Trump's open racism against refugees and undocumented immigrants, rather than a departure from GOP politics, is more politically moderate and "anti-political" than it may seem:

Trump may say nasty things about illegal immigrants who have committed crimes and that he will build a massive wall at the border before deporting all illegal immigrants to Mexico, but also that Hispanics are "unbelievable people" who will be free to organize legal visas and line up for entry through the wall's "big beautiful door." Similarly, his call for a ban on Muslim entry doesn't include deportations and is only temporary, "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.

Trump's racism, then, is opportunist rather than ideologically driven, out of an attempt to prove himself stronger and smarter than the existing political class, Republican and Democrat.

In labeling Trump's campaign as "anti-politics," and the popular sentiment behind him as progressive rejection of the status quo rather than a racist and xenophobic reaction, Tietze is writing out of his depth. That is to say, while Trump certainly does appeal to a mood of rejection of the existing political class (say "anti-politics" if you must, I would call it anti-elitist), this mood is not necessarily progressive, but in fact perfectly accords with many of the reactionary, racist and white supremacist traditions that have never been far from the surface of mainstream U.S. politics.

First of all, labeling Trump an "anti-political" candidate whose racist rhetoric is in service of the rejection of the status quo he channels puts the cart before the horse. As Trump himself has repeatedly noted, his poll numbers and votes tend to rise precisely after he makes outrageous claims about Mexicans as rapists or calls for closing America's doors to refugees "until [we] can figure out what's going on."

This is no aberration. While his early career as a real estate mogul in the nineties led him to make friends with the neoliberal Democratic establishment, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, and to adopt many of their socially liberal positions, Trump was mentored in business and politics during the 1980s by Roy Cohn, the conservative New York lawyer and henchman of Joseph McCarthy, who fabricated the evidence that led to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Later in the 1980s, at the height of the Central Park Jogger case, Trump paid for ads in the New York Times and elsewhere that called for the reintroduction of capital punishment in New York state, presumably to be applied against the five young men (all Black or Hispanic teenagers) accused of raping a 28-year-old white investment banker. The teenagers, who were convicted by fraudulent means, later had their convictions vacated after a serial rapist serving life in prison admitted to the crime. Yet this part of Trump's early career, riding a wave of racist hysteria to call for the return of a process of legal lynching, set the tone for future political interventions by the real estate mogul.

Just five years ago, Trump was at the head of the racist "birther" campaign that, by denying Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship, sought to declare the first Black President ineligible for office. Trump put much of his political capital into the campaign, claiming to send private investigators to Hawaii and elsewhere on his own dime and appearing on the news to deny Obama's claim to office. Despite Obama bowing to reactionary pressure and releasing his long-form birth certificate, Trump still apparently doubts whether Obama is a U.S. citizen, saying last July, "I really don't know. I mean, I don't know why he wouldn't release his records."

Tietze, then, is wrong to suggest that Trump's central appeal is his anti-political rhetoric rather than his racism and xenophobia. Trump has adroitly exploited the radicalizing nativism of the right wing of the GOP since 2000 to propel himself into the spotlight--first as a "birther" activist, now as a presidential candidate. Nevertheless, his point stands that Trump, unlike other the Republican candidates, has been able to credibly stand against the political class, including of the Republican Party. How can socialists understand this?

Right-Wing Populism in the U.S.

Here is, I think, where the U.S. context, rather than a worldwide "anti-political" sentiment of detachment from the state and political class as representatives of civil society, is necessary to understand Trump's popularity. Trump comes out of an American political tradition--that of right-wing populism, which has always combined racist and xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants (and, crucially in the U.S. context, Black people) with the anti-elitist sentiment.

It is not surprising that the U.S., being a nation founded on the bondage of Black slaves and the violent dispossession of American Indians, should give frequent rise to racist sentiments in politics. But it was also founded as a republic--that is, a community that enshrined the political rights and liberties of a certain group of people, namely white men. Thus, racism can easily cross-pollinate with anti-elitist or radical democratic appeals.

Indeed, this strain of politics is testified in U.S. history as far back as the presidential campaigns of Andrew Jackson, who made his career by combining hostility to a supposed aristocracy represented by the Whig Party and the First Bank of the U.S., with commitment to continued expropriation of Native lands, best represented when he openly defied U.S. Supreme Court orders to halt the expropriation of the Cherokee.

The tradition of the populist right continues through the Know-Nothings or American Movement, which based its political appeal on hostility to immigrants, particularly Roman Catholic ones, and to the political elites that were supposedly selling the white man's country to foreigners loyal to the Pope. It has never been far from the mainstream of American politics, from the anti-Chinese immigration upsurges of the 1890s and 1920s, to successive waves of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, to the anti-Communist John Birch Society, to the presidential campaign of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968, to Pat Buchanan's campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination in the 1990s. The Tea Party and Donald Trump are merely the most recent expressions of a long tradition within mainstream American politics.

Right-wing populism is the very reason why sentiment against undocumented immigration is so high, and hence a large part of the reason why Trump has a platform. As geographer Joseph Nevins argues in Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond, it was hard-right campaigns like that of Buchanan, and the opportunism of mainstream GOP politicians such as Gov. Pete Wilson of California in whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, that led to a "crisis" being perceived on the border by American citizens.

Right-wing populism as an ideology is incoherent, but it has two major constants. The first is racism, in recent times most frequently directed against two immigrant groups: undocumented immigrants coming from Latin America and, since 9/11, Arab and/or Muslim communities. The second constant is anti-elitism. The "elite" here, rather than the capitalist class or political class, is the liberal middle and upper class who are perceived to run the government, those who "betrayed" ordinary citizens (white men and women) by favoring hostile immigrant populations who are actual or potential internal enemies to the nation.

As far as Trump's liberal or moderate positions on wars abroad, abortion rights and the rest go, these are perfectly explicable in terms of right-populism rather than anti-politics. That right-populism is so frequently incoherent means it favors exponents who are completely opportunist aside from the two constants above.

Thus, as long as Trump continues spouting bigoted nonsense about Mexicans and Muslim refugees, he has plenty of room to talk about how free-trade policies of successive GOP and Democratic administrations have wrecked America. In a time of economic crisis, resentment against political elites who wrecked U.S. bastions of heavy industry by signing NAFTA can lead right as well as left. In fact, in the absence of a real left and working-class movement in the U.S., its organized political expression is more likely to be exploited by the right--to go together with, and reinforce, racism directed against Mexicans, Arabs, Chinese and other groups.

Using Racist Sentiments Against the GOP Establishment

Trump is therefore not a fascist, nor do his supporters represent the resurgence of a movement like Mussolini's Blackshirts or Hitler's storm troopers. The faltering attempts to build a "Lion Guard" militia to defend Trump rallies against disruption and the open intervention some far-right and neo-Nazi groups are engaging in at his campaign events aside, it seems to be correct that Trump's campaign does not represent a real or incipient fascist movement.

This means the American left neither has to collapse into hysterics about Trump being somehow exceptionally racist and reactionary, nor do we forbid ourselves from understanding his campaign as a radicalization of real racist and xenophobic sentiment that the left must take a leading role in shutting off from the public space wherever possible.

To explore this for a moment: As I wrote above, Trump's recent career exploits the rise of real radical right sentiment from the Birther movement to the racist campaign for a border wall with Mexico. On the one hand, this is an outgrowth of mainstream Republican politics. GOP politicians since 2000 have whipped up immigrant-bashing to get themselves elected to office. They have encouraged this sentiment especially since 2008, stooping to racism as a result of their inability to offer an alternative to Obama's competent management of U.S. neoliberalism and imperialism. Those such as Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and other former rivals to Trump for the nomination have no leg to stand on when they accuse Trump of fascism or of stoking exceptional racism beyond what they themselves have done.

On the other hand, Trump does constitute a real departure for contemporary GOP politics in that he has exploited radical racist sentiments to turn a significant part of the electorate toward hostility against the GOP establishment itself. That the GOP mainstream ploughed the field for Trump does not mean he is no different in substance from them. As Todd Chretien writes, "The Republican Party leadership has built up a Frankenstein's monster to have a popular base of support for its ruling class agenda...Now Trump is going around the GOP establishment to exploit all that hate behind his candidacy."

Just as the GOP establishment ploughed the field for Trump, Trump through his open bigotry and contempt for the establishment perhaps ploughs the field for the formation of a further right mood, groups or movement. While this is unlikely to take the form of classic fascism--in no small part because the economic and political crisis is not severe enough, nor is the U.S. working class remotely insurgent enough to convince the ruling class of the necessity of dictatorial methods to resolve the crisis--such a movement could thrive in America on the conditions it always has: racism against Blacks and immigrants of whatever color.

Trump's social base does have something in common with that of classic fascism. He speaks to a middle class driven to despair by the economic crisis, but takes advantage of this despair to scapegoat Latin@ immigrants and Muslim refugees, in a crusade against the "elites" who supposedly sold out America to them. Leon Trotsky wrote of these people as comprising the "human dust" of Hitler's army, the "officials, clerks, shopkeepers, tradesmen, peasants, all the intermediate and doubtful classes" as well as backwards-looking workers and the unemployed to whom Hitler offered the illusion of becoming an independent force in politics.

It is worth noting, of course, that there is a "hard core" of Trump supporters within these groups as well as weaker ones, including many working-class people despairing at the crisis who feel energized, however mistakenly, by Trump's open contempt for the ruling elite. There are those among Trump supporters who socialists can and should relate to. We do so by ruthlessly exposing Trump's bigotry and the hollowness of the solutions he offers. This can and should include mobilizing the greatest number possible of radicalizing people of color, youth, Bernie Sanders supporters and others to confront and shut down his campaign events at every opportunity possible.

Without stooping to calling Trump and his supporters fascist, therefore, we can arrive at a precise understanding of his appeal and his social base that also does not require seeing him as a candidate who through his "anti-politics" appeals to progressive sentiment and whose racism is mere opportunism and a blip on the screen.

Trump and the Presidential Race

What are Trump's chances of winning the election? His victory in the primaries, which came as a complete shock to the mainstream Republican (and Democratic) establishments, as well as many socialists (myself included), may warn us of the dangers of making categorical predictions. Yet I think, insofar as elections in the U.S. are fairly set-piece, that his election as president remains highly unlikely.

In one respect, this comes from his status as a reality TV star and a quintessentially postmodern candidate. His long time spent in the spotlight works against him--many voters cannot take him seriously in the race, while his favorability ratings are among the lowest seen in recent campaigns. Only 24 percent of voters held a favorable view of Trump last month, compared to 57 percent unfavorable--a proportion that rises when considering minority voters, and women, seven out of ten of whom hold unfavorable views, in no small part because of the open chauvinism he has displayed on the campaign trail.

While Trump has made moves to reconcile with the GOP establishment since becoming the presumptive nominee of the party, his legendary megalomania will likely set limits on to what extent he can become acceptable as the face of the party. Republican Congressional leaders such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell can barely contain their disdain for him, the former still refraining from endorsing his party's candidate and the latter telling Republican voters to feel free to dissent from Trump's campaign and focus on down-ticket races.

In another sense, Trump faces steep odds in elections which are, as the U.S., conducted so much like a business. He has been able to distance himself from the political establishment by using his own wealth to fund his campaign. But this pales in comparison to the resources Hillary Clinton will be able to draw on in the general elections if, as seems likely, she manages to see off the insurgent challenge from Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

It is likely that, once the primaries are over, Clinton will continue the record-setting fundraising trend set by Barack Obama during his two campaigns as Democratic nominee for president. As veteran socialist Charlie Post wrote some months ago in Jacobin, despite his own ruling-class status, Trump does not represent any section of the U.S. capitalist class. Hence, billionaire Charles Koch, who with his brother David is infamous as the funder of every reactionary cause you could name, told reporters that it's "possible" to see Hillary Clinton as a better alternative to Trump.

No sensible member of the U.S. capitalist class wants to see President Trump, just like no sensible member of the British capitalist class wants Britain to leave the EU. Trump's megalomania and his opportunism on issues like free trade, which has hugely benefitted the ruling class, or immigration, where they have practiced a studied pragmatism, means a Trump administration is potentially disastrous for them. Yet it is the crisis of their political establishment, especially that within the Republican Party, which has made this a possibility. This marks a potential shift in U.S. politics from the GOP being the traditional and most enthusiastic party of American capital.

Trump does have a narrow window for victory, as his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, is nearly as unpopular as he is himself. Clinton has shown herself to be as scandal-prone as her husband during her decades in politics, even considering that much of the hue and cry raised about her, as again with her husband, comes from her Republican opponents focusing on political non-issues, such as her supposed involvement in the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. Trump could make hay of this during the long months leading up to November, but victory would depend a lot on whether he can land the right blow at the right time.

A Trump presidency, given his antagonistic relationship with congressional Republicans, would likely be a disastrous one-term affair that stands a chance of permanently discrediting the GOP in the eyes of the ruling class and everyone else. This is not to say that it does not contain real threats. It would embolden the revanchist right and stoke racist attacks against Hispanics, Muslims and Blacks.

But Trump cannot be seen as the existential threat some on the liberal left are painting him as. Mainstream cries that Trump is a fascist, unlike more thoughtful analyses from the left, serve an identifiable political role in the current conjuncture: to make sure official reformism in the U.S., including organized labor, women's and Black organizations, and especially elements of the radical left that have grown out of the Sanders campaign, rally behind Clinton after the primaries.

A likely Clinton presidency presents a far greater threat than an unlikely Trump administration. Trump rightly outrages liberal and leftist crowds when he paints Mexican men as rapists. But in the last eight years, over 2.5 million undocumented migrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, have been deported. This has happened not under a right-wing Republican, but under the liberal Barack Obama, who may by the time his second term ends deport more immigrants than all previous presidents combined since 1892.

The threat of Clinton can be seen in other ways. She has made a point of recommitting to the U.S.'s special relationship with Israel, denouncing BDS and all solidarity with Palestine as anti-Semitic in front of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. This leaves little room to guess what is in store for Muslims, Arabs, and leftists who act in solidarity with their communities under her rule.

The Democratic candidate has always been able to count on the forces of official reformism I listed above, as well as many on the radical left, by painting their Republican opponent as carrying the immediate threat of fascism, of war at home and abroad, into the White House. The fact that Democratic presidents have started many more wars than Republican ones in the history of the U.S. does not give them any pause. Every four years we are told that "this is the most important election of our lifetime," and with a megalomaniac like Trump as their opponent, the Democratic recruiting sergeants must be licking their chops.

As Elizabeth Schulte and Alan Maass told rs21, there is a long tradition of what we call "lesser-evilism" on the left end of the U.S. political spectrum. That is to say, we are called on each election to support the Democratic nominee as a lesser evil who, even if terrible, will be more susceptible to pressure from social movements, will deport fewer immigrants than a GOP president would, would launch fewer military interventions.

What this means is that the Democratic candidate has always been able to take the votes of dissenting liberals, of reformist forces, of the oppressed, and many leftists for granted. They then race to the right--what Bill Clinton patented as "triangulation'--in the election to find the supposed middle ground of American politics, and once in office to find one with more and more racist, misogynist and openly hateful Republicans. When the left makes a choice to support the lesser evil, we often end up with many of the greater evils in the bargain.

The 2016 elections are made notable not only by the rise of Trump, but with that of Bernie Sanders, who, whatever the many differences we have with him, has channeled for the first time in recent memory a popular mood for economic reform and social change in perhaps the most inegalitarian and undemocratic society of developed capitalism. While the future of the Sanders phenomenon is undecided, it shows the potential for politics beyond Trump and Clinton.

The socialist tradition I come from has always proudly stood against the siren calls of lesser-evilism. Doing so again provides the only real chance of a politics that can potentially defeat Trump, the GOP establishment that has paved his way, and Clinton, who when elected will do many of the same things he would.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Sherrl Yanowitz. First published at rs21.

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