Right wing political groups throughout the world are celebrating Trump’s victory but rather prematurely. The traditional conservatives and liberals are sufficiently delusional to believe that they are somehow far removed from Trump-style authoritarian politics when in fact they laid the groundwork for Trump to succeed. Meanwhile, some traditional conservative political leaders around the world are wondering if right wing populism flirting with Fascism is the way to political victory, never questioning if their policies drove people to the far right. Others are questioning if BREXIT and the Trump victory really mean popular discontent with globalization under the neoliberal development model. Many analysts are already decrying the rightwing course of the American electorate, as though Clinton was a New Deal Democrat rather than a Rockefeller Republican with a more pro-Wall Street and more hawkish foreign policy than Trump.
Political correctness aside, the US was already a quasi-police state before Trump under both Bush and Obama. Therefore, the socio-cultural-political landscape was fertile for the new populist Republican leader, especially considering the corruption scandals that plagued Clinton. It is not at all the case as many have argued that US democracy suddenly became bankrupt because of Trump’s victory, because this was the case throughout history, with some exceptions when reformism became necessary to strengthen capitalism under the pluralistic society as during the Progressive Era and New Deal.
Behind the new authoritarian figure that will become America’s president, and behind the Republican victory of both houses of congress, the real power is corporate America as it always has been. Wall Street, not Washington, will determine policy under Trump who promised economic nationalism vs. globalization, isolationism vs. interventionism, job-growth oriented economy vs. jobs export oriented economy. Mainstream politicians, the media, and the entire institutional establishment have always projected the image that elections are equated with democracy.
The establishment wants people to believe that the electoral process affords legitimacy to the social contract. No matter how manipulated by the political class, financial elites and the media, elections put a stamp of legitimacy on what people believe constitutes popular sovereignty. As shocking as it was for many across the US and around the world, a Trump victory represents the illusion of democracy at work in a country where voter apathy is very high in comparison with most developed countries – the US ranks 27th in the world below Mexico and Slovakia in voter participation.
Besides the illusion of popular sovereignty, elections inject a sense of hope for a new start in society – the eternal spring of politics intended to maintain the status quo. An even clearer picture emerges regarding the distasteful “steak or fish” choices, as President Obama alluded during the correspondents’ dinner a few weeks before the election to indicate with pride that there is no third political choice. The larger problem is the lack of differences between ‘steak and fish’ (Democrats and Republicans) in every policy domain, except social, cultural/lifestyle issues.
Of course, the very high percentage of ‘negatives’ for both presidential candidates and the absence of alternatives other than those that the political and financial establishment chose for people to give their final approval reveals that people were voting for what each side deemed the ‘lesser of two evils’ – the ‘steak or fish’ choice that the establishment places on the menu and then the media ‘guides’ voters to choose one over the other as though it really makes much difference. This is hardly a manifestation of democracy and a testament of a system far removed from popular sovereignty.
Unlike elections in many developed countries, American elections have an aura of finality about them. It is as though everything has been decided at the ballot box until the next election cycle and people must conform. Elections invalidate expression of dissident voices, but not for corporate lobbyists influencing legislation. Despite the aura of finality and the historic election of populist Republican supporting economic nationalism, after the presidential election the US remains more bitterly divided than it was during the last years of the Vietnam War under President Nixon; certainly more undemocratic because of the ubiquitous surveillance state and Homeland Security regime that is here to stay. Although these divisions are not expressed as part of a class struggle, given the absence of working class solidarity, they find expression in varieties of smaller social, religious and cultural groups at odds with each other.
This is not to suggest that the US is as authoritarian as other countries claiming to be democratic. Nevertheless, there is considerable underlying sociopolitical polarization in a country hardly democratic as its apologists insist. Because of factionalism (socio-cultural-religious conservatives, isolationists/anti-globalist libertarians, traditional fiscal conservatives), Republican infighting will invariably manifest itself when the executive branch tries to push measures that congress will reject because corporate lobbyists oppose them. Animosity within the Republican Party and between the two major parties in congress will result in more gridlock despite a sweeping Republican victory of all branches of government. This is what Wall Street wants. Gridlock projects the image that both sides are fighting for the interests of the people when they are really fighting on behalf of corporate interests. Nevertheless, they present the process as the essence of democracy and the media reinforces that view.
Trump’s quasi-Fascist America will be unacceptable to many Democrats who believed that pluralism and multiculturalism in a country with changing demographics must become a reality with a first female president symbolizing these changes. On the other hand, Trump voters will be very disappointed once reality sinks in that the flamboyant charlatan billionaires cannot deliver in the promise to make America great again in terms of raising living standards. Trump had raised expectations so high that the first to be disappointed will be his own voters. However, he will deliver on the implied promise to take America back a few decades when white male supremacy was rarely questioned at home or abroad.
Just days before the election, a FOX NEWS poll of its own audience indicated far greater pessimism about the country’s future than the general population. These people also fear deepening division in the country because the liberal establishment is an anathema to their cultural identity. With a Trump victory, the Republican popular base watching FOX NEWS will be hoping that their right wing messiah will lead them to the promised land of the early Cold War of the 1950s and to the elusive American Dream of yesteryear. Disillusionment has already set it on the part of many on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who see their dream of greater social justice far removed.
Regardless of Trump’s promises to improve the lives of the poor and the middle class by bringing jobs back home, the only certainty is the hegemony of markets over the state resulting in continued political polarization in society that has turned sharply to the right even more than it was under Reagan AND Bush-Cheney. Globalization and neoliberal policies (the model based on state empowering the private sector in every domain and incentivizing it through fiscal policy and subsidies) will continue no matter what Trump promised/threatened, and that will result in further capital concentration and downward pressure on middle class living standards and sociopolitical polarization will become more evident.
Parading the confederate flag and a hunting rifle, the Trump voter will continue to feel one with the apartheid culture of the past. Trump’s supporters will feel marginalized and will become more fanatical. By contrast, the Clinton voter supporting trans-gender rights and the woman’s right to choose will be optimistic that the time has come for pluralism to expand the all-inclusive socio-cultural net. By the end of Trump’s first hundred days, neither the Trump nor Clinton voter will see much evidence to celebrate a future rise in living standards.
Many academic economists, private investment firms, the IMF, the World Bank, and OECD estimate that low growth will be accompanied by market concentration and jobs exported to cheap labor markets, keeping American wages low in the coming years. The average median net worth of Americans ranks lower than 18 other nations and dropping as personal debt is rising. Misplaced optimism on the part of Republicans will soon be replaced with pessimism almost as intense as that of the Democrat voter.
Campaign promises to raise living standards have been made by every presidential candidate in the last four decades. Living standards have been declining and they will continue on that trajectory according to all studies on future economic prospects. Considering the low-growth global economic environment, the high US debt under a system that encourages more capital concentration and export of high paying jobs, no one expects inflation adjusted improvement in living standards during the next four years. Moreover, the low interest rates, which stimulated some very modest growth since the recession of 2008, are ending. The absence of monetary stimulus will further impact middle class credit and the consumer-driven economy.
Contrary to appearances, Trump will be limited in what measures he can pass through congress that relies heavily on wealthy donors and lobbyists for campaign finance. The executive branch will be weaker than it was when Obama succeeded an unpopular president in 2008 amid a deep recession and US military intervention. The legislative branch will be more aggressive toward the executive branch than it was under Obama. The result will be greater political division that only helps corporate America. The share of the economic pie for the middle class and workers will continue to shrink This in no small measure because the sharp rise in the public debt will require higher indirect taxes, cuts in entitlement programs, and higher interest rates to attract buyers for US treasury bonds – presumably a risk free asset threatened by rising rapidly rising debt levels undermining the dollar’s value.
Besides the structurally weak economy under neoliberal policies and corporate welfare, several factors will lead to sharper political division in the next four years. First, Republicans will be predictably hostile to any Democrat policy proposal from background checks on guns to relief for college debt aimed to further the Democratic Party’s popular base. Second, many conservatives will use the Trump victory to rally popular support for an extreme right wing agenda to keep the populist wing of the Republican Party strong. Third, Trump already set the divisive tone by alienating every social group in the country, but was well rewarded for it, thus reflecting the ideological, political and cultural milieu of the American mainstream now entrenched on the far right of the spectrum.
People who voted Trump will feel vindicated about their attitudes toward women, minorities and foreigner from Latin America and the Middle East. As their living standards decline, they will become more fanatic. Their church leaders and local civic leaders along with right wing talk radio and FOX NEWS will encourage right wing fanaticism because they all have an ally in the White House. To appease the Republican voters, along with local law enforcement, many in the military generally accepting of a police state, President Trump will likely focus on an infrastructural development program to create some new jobs. At the same time, he will strengthen defense while fighting out with mainstream Republicans about rapprochement with Russia and withdrawal from regime change foreign policies.
Co-optation of the Popular Base
For both political parties, the biggest challenge will be to co-opt the masses while serving Wall Street and the defense/intelligence industry establishment. The Democratic Party is indeed an umbrella that includes elements ranging from Rockefeller Republicans especially suburban women opposed right wing populism, to progressive social democrats and even some espousing a form of socialism. As middle class living standards continue to decline, in accordance with IMF predictions among others, the ability of the Democrat party to remain a large umbrella will be diminished, especially after Clinton’s crushing defeat.
Unless the Democrats revert back to FDR’s New Deal politics of the 1930s, something that neoliberals and their wealthy donors adamantly oppose as do Republicans, the party will have to choose between remaining in the camp of Rockefeller Republicanism like Clinton, or abandon its neoliberal commitments and move closer to the Bernie Sanders camp.
The election of 2016 proved that Republicans have moved farther to the right than anyone could have predicted. Nevertheless, divisions remain between traditional economic/fiscal conservatives, some Libertarians, and populist socio-cultural-religious conservatives, including the Ku Klux Klan that endorsed Trump. For now, Republicans have the luxury to ignore the changing demographics – Hispanics and African-American voters along with younger voters.
No matter how charismatic the Republican or Democrat political leader, it will not be easy to compensate for the growing chasm between rich and poor. As much as ideology matters, in the end the Democrat voter cannot pay her bills with LBGTQ bumper stickers any more than the Republican voter can do so with the confederate flag. No matter the obfuscating political and media rhetoric about disparate social groups transcending social class, socioeconomic factors determine class as they always have. Both parties will try to indoctrinate their voters to live by ideology alone, as churches convinced the faithful masses that salvation of their soul was the only thing that matters.
Suppressing class struggle evident in all aspects of society, the media will continue to propagate for class collaboration using nationalism as the catalyst. Subservience to capital identified with the national interests is a historically rooted belief that has remained in the social consciousness as secular dogma and taught in schools as gospel truth. The media perpetually delivers the message that if there is a problem in the political economy the culprit is the political class, the elected official and not the financial elites; certainly not capitalism as a system engendering structural inequality.
Trump will be no different than politicians of both parties that try to distract public opinion by directing attention away from domestic issues to foreign enemies new and old alike; pursuing the dream of Pax Americana despite its costs and limitations in a multi-polar world order where East Asia plays a dominant global role. The only leverage of the US is to keep Asia divided by demonizing China, as Trump has done repeatedly. Demonizing a foreign enemy to distract from focusing on domestic problems worked during the Cold War to engender sociopolitical conformity amid the triumph of Pax Americana. In the absence of a Communist bloc, the counter-terrorism ideology that replaced anti-Communism will be intensified under a Trump administration because it is in the interest of the defense industries.
As we have seen since 9/11, there are limits and monetary and political costs to the counter-terrorism, considering that US policy and practices actually contribute to the growth of terrorism not its elimination. Even the most gullible right wing Trump fanatics realize that polluted water in Flint Michigan has nothing to do with ISIS, and everything to do with the massive tax breaks of the state’s Republican governor to corporations and the rich of that state. Similarly, people are aware that after several trillion dollars spent in Middle East wars and counter-terrorism, the US public debt has risen sharply and the economy weakened.
Sociopolitical Polarization under Corporatocracy
Even for the apathetic masses that do not bother with elections, the magic of the ballot box affords the illusion that people have a voice in the political arena. Politicians, pundits and the media remind the public that they have only themselves to blame for their elected officials. They rarely mention rich donors behind the political class that decides who runs for elected office. The realization that people’s prospects are not improving, that their children are not experiencing upward socioeconomic mobility, and policy works to benefit a small segment of society drives some to the extreme right and others to the left.
The weakened center that Democrats claimed to represent in fact causes more people to rebel from the right because it is socially and ideologically acceptable as it has deep historical roots going back to the Civil War. Trump’s victory offers ample proof of this reality. By contrast, the US, unlike many countries around the world, has no historical tradition of sustained strong left wing politics, and see right through the hollow liberal rhetoric behind which is Wall Street financial interests.
Just beneath the thin veil of conformity that the media, politicians and mainstream institutions promote, there is lingering sociopolitical polarization that will become more pronounced now that Trump is elected and legitimized neo-Fascism in America. The mainstream media actually reinforces sociopolitical polarization mainly caused by structural conditions in the economy and a political system representing corporatocracy (rule by the corporations). FOX News, right wing talk radio, among others advocates a more authoritarian/militarist/police state course for society. The rest of the media presents itself as ‘objective’ propagates for the façade of a pluralistic society that permits cultural diversity, but it is as committed to corporatocracy as the right wing. In short, corporatocracy led to the election of a populist Republican who is as close to an authoritarian leader and open to Fascism as any in the past.
Regardless of whether it supported Republican or Democrat candidates, the mainstream media in search of the culprit for the public debt is critical of social security, subsidized housing and health care for the lower strata of society, school lunches, and social programs. At the same time, the media echoes Wall Street in blaming government for the conditions of poverty that the political economy creates. Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ slogan referring to Washington never mentioned the source of the swamp which is Wall Street and its lobbyists. Therefore, the media never blames corporatocracy but the elected officials serving it in order to preserve the system. By embracing the authoritarian Republican leader, the majority voters are revealing that they see greater hope for their future under such a regime that promises to fight corporatocracy than they do under a Democrat leader linked to Wall Street.
Political Co-optation Strategy
In their struggle to broaden their popular base, aspects of Bonapartism, the political strategy of projecting the impression of rising above classes, have been embraced by both political parties, especially the Republicans. Unless the political parties representing capital co-opt the disillusioned middle class and working class elements; unless they give them an outlet to express their disapproval with a political economy favoring the rich; unless they give them hope that the system works for them, then bourgeois democracy collapses and a form of authoritarianism ensues. This is already a reality in Trump’s America.
A precursor to Fascism in Europe, Bonapartism would not be possible unless all mainstream institutions and not just the political parties and media contributed to the promotion of institutional conformity. Although a segment of the population sees past such efforts at conformity and supports the reformist candidates – Bernie Sanders in 2016 – invariably those candidates are co-opted by the mainstream and bring along the masses. This was the case with Senator Sanders who managed to lead a grass roots movement only to deliver it in the hands of the Wall Street candidate, as Sanders described Clinton.
Partly because of the Sanders candidacy, Clinton succeeded to some degree in co-opting the progressive elements of the left into the Democrat Party. A continuation of the defunct Tea Party behind which was energy corporations and right wing billionaires, Trump’s populist ‘revenge anti-establishment politics’ was even more successful in co-opting the masses that the Democrats. While the Democrats efforts focused on de-radicalizing the progressive elements by securing loyalty of their leaders into the mainstream, Republican efforts focused on driving them even farther toward fanaticism as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Democrat status quo that implicitly castigated the corporate elites.
Co-optation of the masses by Republicans necessarily entailed a populist appeal to social/cultural conservatives, mostly angry whites who feel besieged by demographic and structural economic changes in society. Instead of analyzing the root causes of structural inequality built into the system, Trump backers blame other social groups, but refused to criticize the political economy because it is unpatriotic to question capitalism. They believe that if all minorities somehow disappeared and no immigrants ever entered the land, then their social and economic problems would disappear as well and their status would magically flourish.
Because of demographic changes and downward income pressures, the traditional Republican appeal confined only to fiscal/economic, and defense-security conservatives is no longer sufficient to elect a president. Revenge politics of extreme right wing populism was more the message of the Trump team promising to clean up Washington, to distance itself from the UN, dilute NATO, exit from international trade agreements or re-negotiate them, and discipline corporations while first incentivizing them so they do not take jobs into cheap labor markets overseas.
Disgruntled social/cultural conservatives liked Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric against the political and economic establishment, against minorities, Muslims, and women. His emotional appeal similar to that of the Nazi Party (‘give people someone to hate’) worked because Republican right wing populism has deep roots and offers hope for reverting to a racist/sexist/xenophobic America of the past instead of the one that exists now under current demographic and economic conditions.
The irony is that Obama’s America operated under a regime many would justifiably label quasi-police state and institutionalized racism was evident despite an African-American president. Police officers were shooting unarmed black males and a criminal justice system reflecting institutional racism not so far off what Trump and many of followers openly or covertly advocate as a reaction to political correctness and equal opportunity institutional access (affirmative action).
Weak Executive Branch, Strong Wall Street
Wall Street pharmaceuticals and defense-related stocks celebrated with a sharp rise to welcome a Trump victory. However, a weak executive branch is inevitable under the new president, but it should not be confused with a weak governmental structure typically characteristic of developing nations. In much of Africa, and parts of Latin America and Asia, states are unable to raise taxes and deliver basic services to their citizens. Although the state structure in the US is hardly like that of developing nations, there are signs that it is weakening at the expense of the masses under the neoliberal regime Trump will follow no matter his hyperbolic rhetoric against globalization. The only certainty about the US election outcome is policy continuity, which is what the markets want, regardless of a president-elected who mobilized popular support by appealing to racism, xenophobia, sexism and authoritarian style politics.
To maintain corporate hegemony over the state, Wall Street and the media it owns can only prevail if the legislative branch is compliant and checks the powers of the executive that may dilute corporate welfare policies in order to maintain the social order by providing certain basic social programs from affordable health care and social security to affordable education. One glaring contradiction of the political economy is that people must be convinced that their interest is inevitably linked to the fortunes of big capital and not contrary to it; that big capital is not responsible for declining living standards for America’s middle class and workers in the last forty years; and that the enemy is the politician.
The media helps to keep the focus on the politician (establishment political class of both parties) as the evil force behind the calamities that befall society; never on the capitalists on whose behalf the politician conducts policy. The media will always examine tantalizing stories of all sorts about the personal lives of politicians, stories that deserve attention because they reflect integrity of character. However, the media never examines the politician as a servant of big capital and the massive influence of corporate lobbies in determining legislation. The media will never cover social justice issues, because they lead back to the structural inequality built into the political economy. In other words, the business of perpetual mass indoctrination and distraction is essential to keep the majority under the illusion that they live in a democracy – rule by the people – when in fact it is Corporatocracy. In winning the presidential election, Trump gave the illusion to his followers that they have hope for structural change.
Culture wars and personality conflicts as distraction from social justice issues will remain front and center to distract people from focusing on the root causes of downward social mobility. While market hegemony is a reality of the nexus between state and capital, the media and politicians have convinced people into believing in the illusion of choice – ‘the future is in your hands’ and ‘the people have spoken’, as media headline read. The question for capitalists who were divided between Clinton and Trump is how to manage the economy and what role the state must play against the background of intense global competition and shifting balance of power from the West to the Far East. This is not to minimize the intense political rivalry, the partisanship of law enforcement and other institutions at all levels of government, or the ongoing struggle for policy influence.
CONCLUSIONS: Revolt of the Extreme Right
Trump’s victory temporarily sets into hibernation the majority popular base of the Republican Party while emboldening its more extreme right wing elements. There is nothing like the illusion of identifying with a political victory to appease those feeling marginalized among the lower layers of the social pyramid. Once it becomes evident that domestic conditions will continue as they have in the recent past, contrary to Trump’s lofty promises to the middle class and working families, disillusioned voters will have to be content with the Republican cultural agenda, strong law and order position, and strong defense policy. Republicans are more likely to support leaders advocating greater reliance on militarism and police state methods and less tolerance for dissent. The elements for an authoritarian society are already deeply rooted in the culture and will eventually come into the forefront more pronounced than ever.
Ironically, both Republican and Democrats are responsible for the underlying causes of a revolt by the masses rallying around a right wing demagogue appearing to be in a struggle against the establishment. Judging by the performance of the US stick market, the establishment knows he represents Wall Street and not the unemployed worker in Cleveland. The media has convinced the average American that it is anathema, un-American to rebel from the left against the unjust system but patriotic to do so from the right. With the exception of the Klan label, there is no stigma attached to rebelling from the right against the establishment which includes not just Washington but corporate America. The job of the right wing politician will be to co-opt the popular base and keep it loyal to corporatocracy.
While the corporate media sings the praises of globalization and subtly criticizes Trump’s economic nationalism, it can only carry that message up to a point without appearing unpatriotic. The dilemma for the corporate elites is not to be caught in contradictory messages when trying to rally support of the masses, something that has become exceedingly difficult because of the downward socioeconomic mobilization. This is where it becomes convenient to blame politicians, and to keep the executive branch weak and government divided so that people blame everything on politicians who are actually in gridlock in the first place because they differ about which segment of the economy and which corporations benefit more than others as a result of policy.
Political campaign promises are like happy endings in children’s novels. People enjoy reading and dreaming about such things but they do not really expect that everyone lives happily ever after. The lives of the vast majority of Americans will not improve no matter who had won the White House in 2016. Symbolically and not just because she is a woman, but also in terms of engendering greater social harmony among the disparate demographic groups, Clinton was better suited for the sake of continuity from the Obama administration. However, Trump will serve Wall Street and neoliberal policies and globalization just as faithfully because corporate America will give him no choice.
Because of objective domestic and international conditions in the early 21st century, the middle class is on a continuing downward slope that radicalizes people either on the right or the left will realize cannot be fixed by populist right wingers or mainstream Democrats. Hence polarization in society will continue and it will become much worse after the next deep recession in the US because the political economy is increasingly serving a much narrower social base than it has since the 1920s. Trump has broken all political and ideological taboos about crossing the line from traditional conservatism to flirting with Fascism. This is America’s political future and it has been here for some time only to manifest itself more candidly in Trump.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. is a retired professor of History/international political economy, author of 11 books and two dozen articles on international development