“Trumpism” and socialist strategy

March 9, 2016

James Robertson comments on a discussion about Trump's rise and what it means.

THE UNEXPECTED rise of Donald Trump has thrown the Republican Party into a pronounced crisis. For many in the party establishment, Trump is dangerously unpredictable, offensively unelectable and has a long history of supporting liberal causes.

In recent weeks, we've seen head figures of the GOP launch a joint attack on his campaign, with Wall Street channeling funds into an "anti-Trump" super PAC; 95 Republican "foreign policy experts" publishing an open letter labeling him "utterly unfitted to the office [of president]"; and Mitt Romney calling for a strategic vote to spoil Trump's chances of an outright majority at the Republican convention.

In the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign has already begun to plan a strategy should November see a Clinton versus Trump presidential race. Central to this campaign, the New York Times reports, will be to seize on the billionaire's bigoted comments as "unpresidential."

On the left, Trump's openly racist remarks about Mexican immigrants, his threat to temporarily ban Muslim refugees from entering the US, his reproduction of bogus statistics claiming that 81 percent of white homicides are the result of Black crime, and his overt flirting with far right figures have raised alarm bells.

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Indeed, more than alarm bells--the rise of Trump has prompted many on the left to see in the real estate mogul the seeds of a fascist movement.

Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most prominent figure to suggest that the Trump phenomenon bears more than a passing resemblance to the rise of Hitler. For Chomsky, the neoliberal policies that have decimated the U.S. economy over the past thirty years have led to a societal collapse that, in many ways, is even worse than that of the 1930s.

Chomsky's argument is one iteration of what has become a standard assessment of the U.S. left on the Trump phenomenon. Effectively, the argument goes, Trump's support lies in a primarily white working class that tends to be older, less educated and angry at the long-term decline of living standards. His scapegoating appeals to the frustration of this segment of society, transforming class anger into racist hatred of Muslims, Mexicans and African Americans.

This assessment of Trump as an expression of an underlying, inchoate but hardening right wing trend among the white working class has informed the political logic behind the "Dump Trump" protests that have sprung up around the country. If Trump's rallies are "a space for racist lies and far-right ideas to flourish," then, it follows, anti-racists must respond by targeting these rallies, registering opposition and, where possible, shutting them down.

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There is reason, however, for the left to question both this analysis and its attendant strategy.


While the above assessment of the Trump phenomenon has become hegemonic among the U.S. left in one form or another, its inability to explain the deftness and flexibility of Trump's political maneuvering poses a problem.

Indeed, much of the surprise concerning Trump's popularity stems not from the seemingly favorable reception of his right-wing bigotry, but rather the indifference of many of his supporters towards issues that have long been assumed to be shibboleths of the US right.

Take, for instance, Trump's unexpectedly aggressive attack on the Bush presidency for lying about "weapons of mass destruction" to justify the Iraq War. Or his recent call for the U.S. to play a more "neutral" role in the Israel/Palestine conflict--a sharp (and controversial) break with the staunchly pro-Israel GOP.

On domestic issues, too, Trump has been a volatile candidate. Upon the death of Antonin Scalia, he distanced himself from the judge's attack on affirmative action. Likewise, on abortion, Trump has consistently marked himself as a moderate (relative to his competitors, at least).

Far from positioning himself to the right of the Republican mainstream and building his support among this extreme pole, what has marked Trump's campaign is, rather, its blatant opportunism.

Despite--or, perhaps, because of--his inconsistency, vagueness or outright contempt toward key Republican values, Trump has managed to pull together support from a broad section of the Republican base – from young and old, moderate to hard right, evangelicals, Catholics and the theistically disinterested.

His broadness and ideological opportunism complicates current analysis that reduces Trump to simply the latest and most repugnant expression of the long-term rightward drift of the Republican Party.

"Trumpism" as Anti-Politics

An alternative explanation of Trump's rise locates his appeal not in the growth of a despairing, right-wing working class, but in the crisis of legitimacy within the Republican establishment and the real estate mogul's ability to exploit this crisis with his own brand of "anti-politics." On the left, this view has been argued by the Australian Marxist Tad Tietze, but has also been promoted by writers at The American Conservative.

For these analysts, Trump's rise is explained not primarily in his support for racist causes, but rather in his open hostility to the Republican Party establishment and, by extension, to the American political class as a whole. As Tietze has argued, Trump's success is not "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."

The strength of the 'anti-political' reading of the Trump phenomenon is that it is able to account for its inconsistency and opportunism. His positions on the Iraq War, Planned Parenthood or affirmative action are not part of a coherent ideological platform; rather, they constitute an anti-political arsenal that he deploys as required in a chaotic but effective attack on the Republican establishment.

This also helps explain much of Trump's appeal for those voters who are angry with the political status quo, who want a candidate from "outside the system," who don't conform to any clear voting profile or who make up the "Sanders-Trump crossover" vote.

To describe Trump's campaign as an "anti-political" revolt is certainly not to propose that it presents some kind of opening for the left--Trump's anti-politics are chaotic and grotesque.

But it is precisely these qualities that make them appealing to those seeking to register their anger with the political system. That Trump is seen by horrified establishment pundits (liberal and conservative alike) to be sullying the sanctified grounds of U.S. politics with his spray-on tan, "politically incorrect" outbursts and vulgar self-aggrandizing is precisely part of his appeal.

Trump and the Extreme Right

Although most on the left would agree that Trump's campaign adopts a certain "anti-political" swagger, few accept the full implications of this assessment. Trump's anti-politics are not an add-on to his racist ideology. Rather, his racist outbursts supplement his anti-political campaign.

It is clear that Trump has been able to exploit racist sentiments. Remarkable data on his campaign in South Carolina revealed extreme degrees of racism among a large minority of his supporters. Although these South Carolina results were uniquely shocking and don't seem to have been replicated in other states, there does appear to be a general correlation between support for Trump and racist attitudes.

It is also clear that certain groups on the radical right have seen in Trump's campaign an opportunity to amplify their messages. And the violent attacks on Black and Muslim protesters at several Trump rallies demonstrates that a hardcore minority of the crowd supports and even revels in racist violence.

There are, however, two reasons why it would be a mistake to reduce the Trump phenomenon to simply the expression of a growing core of hard-right racism in the U.S.

First, by so limiting Trump's appeal we risk overstating the size and influence of the far right. Of course, Trump's rise is occurring at a particularly volatile moment, which has seen a moderate growth in hate groups from 2014. But despite this growth, extremist groups remain marginalized and, on the whole, weak and fragmented. Seeing Trump as proof of their growing influence leads to a skewed perspective on the current balance of forces in U.S. society.

Second, over-identifying Trump with the far right underestimates the malleability of his anti-political strategy and the broadness of his current (and potential) appeal.

While Trump's nativist rhetoric has scored him points among racist supporters, many of his positions--such as his support for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building--place him at odds with the current demands of the far right.

Trump's flexibility is significant because it highlights his lack of a social base. He has no significant institutional backing, no real roots in any broad social formations. Indeed, one of his earliest anti-political appeals was that he was self-funded and, therefore, the only genuinely "independent" candidate.

It is precisely owing to this "independence" that Trump can play such a chaotic role: pushing hard right on immigration, and then pulling unexpectedly to a more moderate position on Planned Parenthood before attacking from the left on the Iraq War. The lack of an anchor in broader social forces allows him to position himself in as most divisive a way as possible and so occupy the space of the 'anti-establishment' most effectively.

This means that Trump could potentially jettison or rearrange his more "distasteful" policies as suits his short-term tactical needs. Unlike Cruz, he is neither an expression of nor answerable to right wing social forces. (As he reportedly told the New York Times, even his hardline position on immigration is "flexible.")

Precisely because of its social uprootedness, the Trump phenomenon is doomed to be ephemeral. Bearing similarities to the brief rise of Clive Palmer in Australia, Trump's campaign operates at the fetishized level of political maneuvering and, for the time being, is restricted to this realm.

Overstating Trump's capacity to fundamentally shift the political landscape--either by realigning the Republican Party along more populist lines or creating the basis for a mass right-wing movement--is unhelpfully catastrophist and will create serious problems for the radical left come November.

Dump Trump: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

The main strategy that has been adopted by the U.S. left has been a series of protests at Trump rallies and TV appearances that have fallen under the slogan "Dump Trump."

Although these rallies have offered an important political expression to those outraged by Trump's rhetoric, they have not had an impact on his popularity. This shouldn't be surprising. Trump's anti-political campaign has been premised on courting provocation and controversy to ensure that he is seen as utterly outside the norms of the political establishment.

That the current strategy of singling out Trump for special treatment has unintentionally contributed to his "anti-establishment" aura, should give us pause for thought.

Although Trump's rhetoric reaches a level of open racism that is rarely seen in presidential politics, his policies are far from exceptional. As Chomsky himself has quite soberly noted: "Perhaps the most favorable observation that can be made about [Trump's] candidacy is that Cruz is even more dangerous, and the other likely Republican prospect, Rubio, is hardly less of a threat to the country and the world, at least if he means a word he says."

Indeed, that many on the left and in the liberal establishment are outraged by Trump's comments on immigration, but continue to begrudgingly defend a Democratic administration that has presided over a record number of deportations, is a sad irony.

Fetishizing Trump at the expense of a focus on the wider political system--of which he is both a reflection of a source of crisis in relation to--not only runs the risk of inadvertently contributing to his "anti-political" effect; it distracts from the fight against the more durable structures of this system, which will survive long after Trump implodes.

And this brings us to the chief strategic misstep of the Dump Trump campaign: Singling out Trump as the worst of the worst sets us up for a "lesser evilism" of catastrophic proportions if we are faced with a Clinton versus Trump race later in the year, as seems the most likely outcome.

For those of us on the left who are serious about building an alternative to the Democratic Party machine and want to cultivate the desire for real social change that has characterized Sanders' campaign, coming to terms with the Trump phenomenon and how we should fight it is of paramount importance. Well-meaning but knee-jerk reactions that overexaggerate Trump's ideological commitment and broader social significance will contribute to the pressure on the left to rally behind an uninspiring Clinton campaign in November.

And there is a certain logic to this. If Trump genuinely represents the birth of a fascist movement or the consolidation of the extremist far right, then the left should pull out all the stops to ensure a Clinton presidency.

If, however, the Trump phenomenon is just a spasm of a deeper crisis of legitimacy that is convulsing the U.S. political class, uniting behind a Clinton campaign will compound our problems twofold.

First, regardless of whether we face a Clinton or a Trump presidency, there will be a dire need for mass social movements to fight for a humane immigration policy, to defend communities of color against racist violence and to confront islamophobia. Channeling these movements into the Democratic Party machine will only further weaken these struggles at a moment in which they are desperately needed.

Second, drawing the left into a vote for Clinton--the establishment candidate par excellence--cannot but align the left with the political class itself. As the crisis of this political class deepens, the left will pay the price for its ill-advised loyalty. Far from seeking to defend the political establishment, we should be finding ways to exploit the deepening crisis that is shaking it.

Trump's campaign has shown what an anti-politics looks like when articulated through the rhetoric and symbols of the right; we need to give serious thought to what an anti-political campaign might look like from the left, grounded in the mass, independent struggles of working people against a political and economic system in crisis.

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