The rise of Trump and the global right and other loose ends
May 31, 2017
1. In the last two decades of the 20th century, two seismic events occurred. First was the rise of the right in the U.S. and the ascendancy of neoliberalism across the capitalist world, which became the grease for the retreat, transformation, and taming of social democratic and liberal politics. The other was the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been the mainstay of the communist movement and world socialism from its inception.
Looked at another way, the two main political currents of the working class movement – communism and social democracy – that challenged capitalist power to one degree or another in much of the world in the last century took a drubbing. It was a setback of the first order. Neither was down for the count, but historical initiative passed from their hands.
The winner in this contest was their common adversary — capitalism. And its cheerleaders took every opportunity to crow about its success. But its victory was short lived. Capitalism in its neoliberal form, resting on a turn to finance and unchecked financial and capital flows, the explosion of debt among investors and consumers alike, a punishing austerity and inequality, the dramatic expansion and spatial redistribution of global labor, and the atomization of the working class and other oppositional social constituencies, grew for sure.
But at the same time, its performance was sullied by its inability to recapture its old economic dynamism of earlier decades and spread its bounty to broad sections of wage and salary workers and other social constituencies – especially people of color and women.
This lackluster performance, however, turned into a catastrophic condition when a world-wide economic crisis struck in 2008 and shook the foundations of capitalism, while spreading hard times to people everywhere.
Not surprisingly, this massive implosion triggered a surge of mass anger and popular resistance, and undercut capitalism’s legitimacy worldwide. And into this breech stepped progressive and left people and organizations — old and new. But the right, already a dominant actor in U.S. politics and a growing presence elsewhere in the world, seized this moment as well, and actually with greater vigor than a left that was the fractured and less politically coherent.
Presenting itself as an outsider and defender of the nation and its “culture,” zealously employing xenophobic, racist, nationalistic, and even anti-capitalist rhetoric, and enjoying the financial and institutional support of a bevy of deep pocketed moneybags in finance, industry, and real estate, the right captured the imagination and shaped the thinking of millions, including sections of white workers.
Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism, free of its Soviet foe after a half century, paradoxically had a hard time exploiting its new advantage in the international arena. The overnight erasure of its global rival and the establishment of a military network that encircled the globe gave U.S. imperialism new latitude to maneuver. But that was quickly squandered in endless wars, beginning in Yugoslavia and then moving to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and horn of Africa.
In each bloodland, the projection of asymmetrical military power came with massive unintended consequences that even now show no sign of easing. If anything this display of force revealed the limits of the use of U.S. military power to shape the world according to U.S. interests in the 21st century.
Indeed, U.S, global power brokers still confront an at times (and now increasingly so) reluctant Europe, formidable regional competitors (Russia and Iran especially), and as it gazes across the Pacific, it sees a potential global peer and competitor in a rising China.
U.S. imperialism isn’t yet in a terminal crisis, to use the term of the great social theorist Giovanni Arrighi, but its hegemonic status on a global level, projecting out into the 21st century, is far less secure than some suggest. Moreover. It is in this significantly reconfigured national and global context that Trump’s candidacy and Electoral College victory — not to mention the rise of the right in Europe and elsewhere –is best understood.
2. Any accounting of successes in restraining Trump has to go beyond the seemingly obligatory invocation of the “Resistance Movement.” Give it its due for sure and find ways to expand its reach and depth too.
But an analysis should also include the positive role of the Democratic Party and the mass media, the rifts, even if small, in the GOP, and the discontent with Trump that is growing in elite circles in the state, courts, and economy — not to mention Trump’s breath-taking incompetence, indiscipline, out of control ego, and habit of putting his foot squarely in his mouth. In some ways, he is his worst enemy.
Which goes to prove once again that the process of social change is complicated, contradictory, and full of surprises and paradoxes. It doesn’t come, as much as we might wish, in pure and neat forms. Not one class — the working class — here and another class — the capitalist class — there. Not the people at one pole and the elites (and “establishment”) at the other. Not actors with impeccable credentials and unimpeachable aims on one side, while nothing but bad actors with scant possibility of a change of mind on the other.
In other words, if we are looking for simple and cut-and-dried explanations and schemes, we aren’t going to find any. And if we do, we would probably do ourselves (and others) a favor by digging a little deeper.
3. In an interesting article, Nate Silver writes that Trump’s high floor of support — thought by many to be set in stone — is eroding. According to Silver, his strongly approve numbers have fallen significantly, while those who strongly disapprove of Trump have tracked upward. This, Silver says, could turn into an “enthusiasm” advantage for the Democrats in next year’s elections.
“Trump,” Silver adds,” has always had his share of reluctant supporters, and their ranks have been growing as the number of strong supporters has decreased. If those reluctant Trump supporters shift to being reluctant opponents instead, he’ll be in a lot of trouble,3 with consequences ranging from a midterm wave against Republicans to an increased likelihood of impeachment.”
“So while there’s risk to Democrats in underestimating Trump’s resiliency, there’s an equal or perhaps greater risk,” Silver concludes, “to Republicans in thinking Trump’s immune from political gravity … If you look beneath the surface of Trump’s approval ratings, you find not hidden strength but greater weakness than the topline numbers imply.”
All this is music to my ears. Yours too, I’m sure. And I also hope that it will give new momentum to the far flung and varied coalition that opposes Trump.