Trump in transition
Jim Creegan discusses how the bourgeoisie disabuses presidents and high officials of any notion that they are free agents
Becoming a normal Republican
It is now increasingly apparent that the abrupt reversals of the Trump White House, emerging from behind a curtain of court intrigue, signal a major political shift. The white nationalist platform upon which the parvenu real estate mogul was elected in November seems in the process of being scrapped, plank by plank, in favour of a far more conventional rightwing Republican agenda, at home and abroad.
Far too often, Marxist political writing suffers from a conceptual gap. On the one hand, the bourgeois state is said - as a general theoretical proposition - to be an instrument of capitalist class rule. On the other hand, short to medium-term political events are analysed exclusively in terms of the pronouncements and deeds of political actors, momentary combinations, electoral moods etc., without regard to the interface between politics and class. No attempt is made uncover the particular pressures and influences through which the interests of the bourgeoisie are brought to bear.
In cases where politics flow through accustomed channels, the challenge is not daunting. Political parties and institutions are headed by individuals who either come from the ruling class themselves, or who are thoroughly venal and have undergone certain vetting procedures for class loyalty. The task of explanation becomes more difficult, however, when extraordinary convulsions - coups or insurrections in authoritarian regimes, or electoral upsets in democracies - put power in the hands of individuals and groups without long-established ruling class connections, and who may be hostile in important ways to the settled aims and practices of the bourgeoisie.
Donald Trump is a case in point. Although himself a member of the ruling class, he entered the presidential primaries as an arriviste, who never before held office, and had no strong links to the Republican establishment or bourgeois policy circles. He was rich enough to rely upon himself and a few other maverick billionaires to finance his run. He was considered a loose cannon not only because of his bigotry, vulgarity, incitements to violence, and gleeful flouting of political conventions. Several of his most successful campaign applause lines - drawn from the repertoire of the white nationalist right - flew in the face of long-entrenched, bipartisan policy commitments. He denounced existing trade pacts - the North American Free Trade Agreement and the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, and called Nato “obsolete”. He praised Vladimir Putin as a better leader than Barack Obama, and proclaimed himself in favour of a thaw in relations with Russia. He excoriated China’s trade practices, vowing to brand that country as a “currency manipulator” in his first day in office. He promised to abolish the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that underwrites the export of American goods. Janet Yellen, chair of finance capital’s holy shrine, the Federal Reserve Bank, was accused of keeping interest rates low for partisan political purposes. He pledged the imposition of a steep ‘border tax’ on foreign-manufactured goods sold by American companies in the US. Instead of seeing multilateral military alliances and trade pacts as the indispensable instruments of US world hegemony that they are, Trump played for easy plaudits by echoing the widespread sentiments of the ‘little man’ to the effect that the globalist liberals in power were allowing America to be fleeced by unscrupulous foreign governments. When Trump brought two leading proponents of go-it-alone, ‘America first’ policies into the White House - general Michael Flynn, as national security adviser, and, more ominously, Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, as chief strategist - worries mounted in Washington and Wall Street that the Republican Party, and indeed the American state, had been subjected to a hostile takeover.
What a difference 100 days make! Over the past several weeks, Trump’s reversals of position have flown almost as thick and fast as his earlier outrages against reigning orthodoxies. The earliest white nationalist casualty was Michael Flynn, who Trump was forced to cashier as national security adviser in February, after Flynn admitted to having lied about pre-election meetings with Russian envoys.
The tempo of Trump’s retreat quickened dramatically, however, after the humiliating defeat of his effort to fulfil his strongest campaign pledge - to repeal and replace Obamacare (Barack Obama’s medical insurance scheme). Not only was this attempt wildly unpopular amongst many of the millions who would have lost government medical subventions under the radically stripped-down replacement Trumpcare bill. During his first term, Obama was at great pains to acquire the approval for his signature legislation from the medical industry. Hospitals receive subventions under the law, and insurance companies, which also get direct subventions, are the final recipients of government payments to individual insurance purchasers, which wind up on their ledgers as profits. The medical industry thus added its voice to those of the tens of thousands who besieged the town hall meetings of Republican senators and congressmen across the country, in a liberal version of the rightwing Tea Party protests against Obamacare in 2009. The outcry was loud enough to convince several ‘moderate’ congressional Republicans to withhold their support for Trumpcare for fear of being ejected from office by voters. Their defections, together with those of ultra-right Republicans who held out for the repeal of Obamacare with no replacement at all, caused Trump to withdraw his proposed legislation before it even came to a vote in Congress.
Now, in the wake of this defeat, Trump is saying that he supports Nato; that he will no longer seek to label China a currency manipulator; that he backs the revival of the Ex-Im bank (which greatly aided the exports of the General Electric and Boeing corporations before it was rendered dysfunctional by congressional Republicans in 2014); that he “greatly respects” Janet Yellen, and may very well reappoint her as Federal Reserve chair. Steve Bannon, though still a close adviser, has been barred from the National Security Council. It was Bannon who orchestrated the White House effort to repeal Obamacare, and was behind Trump’s early executive orders excluding Muslims of seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the US - now blocked by federal courts. The media are now serving up an almost daily diet of inside leaks about a raging feud between Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom Bannon is said to have accused of being a “Democrat” and an “internationalist”.
Kushner appears to be winning. Trump made it a point of telling the Wall Street Journal that Bannon is hardly the power behind the throne of media conjuring, but “a guy whoworks for me”, and that, “Steve is a good guy, but I told them [Kushner and Bannon] to straighten it out or I will”. A rising star in the White House is reportedly Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, a former president of Goldman Sachs (where Bannon also worked, along with two other top members of the Trump team). Cohn is a lifelong Democrat, aligned with Kushner against Bannon.
Redemption by airstrike
But it is above all the airstrike on Syria, and the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, that have redeemed Trump in the eyes of globalist neoliberals in both parties. Whoever unleashed sarin gas in Hama province on April 4, the attack handed Trump a golden opportunity. With a single launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles, he went a long way toward looking strong again, and dispelling fears that he was an isolationist who rejects America’s world gendarme role. He also put a major crimp in Democratic efforts to paint him as a Kremlin agent.
Hillary Clinton was quick to support the attack, adding only that it was hypocritical to avenge civilians in Syria while rejecting them as refugees. Prominent liberal-centrist media pundit Fareed Zakaria gushed that, with the bombing, Trump had at long last “become president”. And, in a touch reminiscent of fascist war aesthetics, Brian Williams, a commentator on the Democratic Party’s unofficial television propaganda outlet, MSNBC, displayed what he said was a “beautiful” nighttime film clip of missiles being launched over Syria from a US aircraft carrier. Trump went further to put the kibosh on accusations of collusion with the Kremlin by accusing Putin of having had advance knowledge of the alleged Syrian chemical attack. At a news conference in Moscow at the end of a trip by secretary of state Rex Tillerson, he and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov could agree on only one thing: US-Russian relations are now at an all-time low. The custodians of the empire now seem more assured that, though his style is more swashbuckling than Obama’s, Trump is at least beginning to get friends and enemies right.
Trump’s turnabouts are not the manoeuvres of a cynical political hack, who shows one of his faces on the hustings and another in the seat of power (although the end result is largely the same). Trump is a political amateur, an opportunist with no fixed agenda except protecting his profits and projecting his ego. But he soon found out the hard way that what gets kudos on the campaign trail does not necessarily play in the Oval Office. His attempts to keep campaign promises that were objectionable to the ruling class ran into so many institutional barriers - corporations, courts, bought-and-paid for politicians, the ‘intelligence community’ and the military - that Trump is now being forced to abandon most of the ‘populist’ campaign pledges that persuaded rebellious voters to put him in the White House in the first place. Thus does the bourgeoisie disabuse presidents and high officials of any notion that they are free agents. Trump was a shamelessly brazen liar to begin with, but his lies served no-one but himself. Now he is learning to become a liar for his class, and demoting the ‘ideologues’ in his retinue in favour of the ‘pragmatists’ (in the bien pensant lexicon of Washington insiders).
The transition is by no means complete. The Bannon faction is still jockeying for influence over their chief, who occasionally relapses into tirades against multilateral trade agreements. Of the initiatives of which the ruling class disapproves, the crackdown on illegal immigrants is one that is still very much alive, threatening to deprive the bourgeoisie of those who pick their crops, mow their lawns and keep their restaurant kitchens clean - all for starvation wages. The crackdown is sowing terror in the hearts of non-naturalised immigrants and their families, already fearful due to the stepped-up raids and deportations that earned Obama the sobriquet of ‘deporter-in-chief’. But even on this most reliable of right-populist rallying points, Trump shows signs of weakness. He has nominated Kevin Hassett, an economist from the rightwing American Enterprise Institute, to head the Council of Economic Advisers. Hassett is known for favouring immigration, which he says “spurs growth” (read: profits). The president’s new drift toward ‘pragmatism’ may serve his purposes for now. But who knows what may happen in four years, when he must face voters who cannot but realise that, as with many populist-posing Republicans in the past, they have once again been taken for a ride.
Home front horrors
If the planks of the Trump platform that unsettled the bourgeoisie are falling one by one, it is the ones they approve of that portend a nightmare for workers and minorities. Trump may be without fixed points in the big world, but he leaves no doubt as to his class loyalties in relation to matters that are closer to home and business holdings. His cabinet and senior staff, with a combined worth of $12 billion, is the richest in US history. His presidency is deeply entangled in his sprawling real estate empire and countless other business lines. His daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have both taken up residence in the White House as ‘senior advisers’. Kushner has managed Trump’s properties, and is also the head of his own multi-million dollar family real estate domain. Another top Trump staff member, Kellyanne Conway, caused a stir in February when she plugged Ivanka’s clothing brand in an interview on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Ivanka herself has used public appearances to model her company’s jewellery and dresses. While Donald and the Kushners dined with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida during a recent state visit, Xi’s government was granting three new trademarks to Ivanka’s wares in China. It is widely understood that the Kushner couple’s efforts to avoid ‘conflict of interest’ laws by renouncing control over their various companies, and placing their assets in ‘blind trusts,’ is nothing more than a technical expedient. Never has a presidential administration more closely resembled a third-world kleptocratic clique, Kennedys and Bushes not excepted. It is therefore no wonder that Trump’s initiatives on the home front display an affinity with the most ruthless and predatory elements of his class. They give the complete lie to his campaign rhetoric about standing up for the little guy against corporate power.
Team of vandals
Trump has used his majorities in both congressional houses to capture the government’s judicial branch for his party. After having refused to confirm Obama’s nomination of a centrist judge, Merick Garland, for the Supreme Court during the last few months of the his presidency, Senate Republicans tore up a longstanding rule, which required 60 votes for Supreme Court confirmations, to push through the nominee of Trump’s choosing, Neil Gorsuch, with a simple majority. Gorsuch has compiled an impressive record of pro-business decisions in lower courts. In the most notorious case, he was a lone dissenter on a panel of three judges, two of whom ruled that a company had been wrong to fire a lorry driver for abandoning his rig when his extremities were starting to go numb amid semi-arctic temperatures. Gorsuch ruled that the driver was lawfully given the sack for disobeying a company order to stay with his vehicle and die.
Trump’s cabinet picks look like a parody of earlier Republican state repression and corporate heists. Readers will by now be familiar with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state from Exxon Mobil, and Jeff Sessions, the Klan-friendly Alabama senator, who is trying his level best to undo all Obama administration attempts to rein in police brutality against blacks and other minorities. Less well known may be figures like the new treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, aka the foreclosure king. Having served for 17 years as a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, Mnuchin struck out on his own after the crisis of 2008, and bought from the government the bankrupt Indy Mac bank, the seventh largest mortgage originator in the US, after it had been seized by the feds. Mnuchin then spun the bank off into his own company, One West, which he sold at a profit of $1.5 billion five years later. A good chunk of this money came from the federal government, which agreed to reimburse Mnuchin for losses over a certain amount as a condition of the sale. During the five years of its existence, One West carried out landlord repossessions of 36,000 homes, including that of a couple in their mid-80s, who had lived at the same address for 50 years.
Trump’s other appointments were made, in the words of Steve Bannon, with a view to “deconstructing the administrative state”, ie, dismantling the government departments that the appointees were named to head. Rick Perry, former Texas governor and the new energy secretary, pledged to abolish the Energy Department along with two other government agencies when campaigning for president in 2012 (although he could name only two of the three departments he wanted to eliminate, in a famous television debate gaffe that knocked him out of the running). The secretary of education, Betsy De Vos is a member of a far-right billionaire Republican donor family. Her brother, Eric Prince, headed Blackwater, a private ‘security’ (read: mercenary) outfit, that carried out the Nisour square massacre of 2007, in which 17 Baghdadi civilians were gunned down. De Vos herself has spent most of her adult life attacking public education, which she seeks to replace with private charter schools.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is Scott Pruitt, who, as attorney general of Oklahoma, filed numerous lawsuits (one of which is still going on) attempting to block federal environmental regulations in his state. Pruitt was a major recipient of campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, and has stated on numerous occasions that he does not believe that global warming is caused by carbon dioxide emissions or any other human activity. The head of Health and Human Services, former Georgia Congressman Tom Price, wants to convert Medicare (government old-age medical cover) into a private voucher plan.
Trump has taken aim at the Dodd-Frank law, which established minimum capital reserve requirements for financial institutions in case of emergencies, and places limits on financial speculation by banks. At the time of writing, he is promising to unveil shortly the details of a proposed overhaul of the federal tax code. It is widely expected that this legislative initiative will include a big reduction in corporate tax rates, as well as fulfilment of his pledge to do away with the inheritance tax on the only amounts to which it still applies - fortunes of over $5 million, accounting for only the top 0.2 % of bequests. Trump’s efforts in this field are being hampered by his adamant refusal to release his own federal tax returns, something that every president and presidential candidate has done for decades, and that thousands took to the streets to demand on April 15, the national filing deadline.
By advancing the standard Republican agenda of pro-corporate pillage more audaciously than ever before, Trump seems to be maintaining the allegiance of his party’s Congressional leadership, despite whatever misgivings they may have in regard to his more stridently nationalist foreign-policy posture. He hopes, in addition, to keep the support of the party’s large base in the religious, ‘pro-life’ right with an executive order that ended government funding for Planned Parenthood, a private non-profit organization whose clinics provide health services for women, including abortion.
There is no telling to what extent Trump’s corporate rape attempts will succeed. But it has usually been the case that, once having become accomplished fact, deregulations and privatisations are considered a win for the entire ruling class, seldom reversed by either political party.
For their part, the Democratic leadership are pulling out all stops to avoid responsibility in the eyes of the party base for November’s stunning defeat. This has led them to try to pin the blame on Vladimir Putin, in a campaign of diversion and ‘fake news’ worthy of the most baldly prevaricating Republican. Even if, as they contend, Russia had attempted to ‘interfere with the election’ through the release of hacked Democratic campaign documents to Wikileaks, what would the effect have been? The leaked documents exposed the machinations of Democratic national committee chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to defeat Sanders and assure Clinton’s victory in the party primaries. Are Democratic leaders asking us to believe that it was this news that made angry rust-belt white workers vote for Trump? Even more palpably absurd is the insinuation - now being dutifully put about by pro-Democratic media - that Trump himself was, or still is, working in collusion with the Russian government. Trump has effectively put paid to these accusations by bombing Syria, Russia’s Middle Eastern ally.
One purpose of this disinformation campaign is to prevent any critical self-appraisal of the party by leftward-moving supporters. They are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to vent their anger not only at Trump, but at any Democrats inclined to compromise with him. The party leadership is determined to rid the ranks of any thoughts of answering Trump’s blatant ruling-class assault - and winning back white workers who defected to Trump in November - with some semblance of class demands.
The heir apparent to Schultz as chair of the DNC, the party’s governing body, was Keith Ellison, a member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota. A black man, a Muslim and a favourite among the rank-and-file, Ellison was one of three congressional Democrats to back Sanders in the primaries. He even had the support of the middle-of-the road Senate Democratic minority leader, Charles Schumer of New York, for the chair’s job. But before he left office, Obama started beating the bushes for a centrist candidate to oppose Ellison and prevent the party from falling into the hands of the Sanders wing. Prominent Harvard Law School lawyer, and arch-Zionist witch hunter, Alan Dershowitz declared that he would quit the party if Ellison were chosen. (While dutifully voting for Israeli aid appropriations in the House of Representatives, Ellison had emitted some faint noises about Palestinian rights.) The leadership finally settled on Tom Perez, Obama’s former Secretary of Labor, as a mainstream alternative to Ellison. Perez won by 35 out of the 435 votes of the DNC.
The committee also defeated a motion to reinstate a ban on donations from corporate political action committees to Democratic campaigns, which had been put in place by Obama in 2008, only to be quietly rescinded by Debbie Wasserman Schultz during Clinton’s presidential bid. Speaking against the ban, California committee member Bob Mulholland reminded the assembled that corporations are the source of all good things: “We are in a corporate hotel. We have meals provided by corporations. We drive cars provided by corporations.” Perez, however, showed his appreciation of the importance of keeping the left in tow by appointing Ellison deputy chair. Ellison, in turn, put party loyalty over any principles he may have by graciously accepting.
Yet right-left tensions are not easily submerging themselves in hate-Trump harmony, as party bigwigs would like. Perez and Sanders are now on a joint ‘unity tour’ of nine ‘red’ (Republican majority) states, where they think the party’s ground game could stand some improvement. Yet unmistakable notes of discord were sounded in a television interview last week. Sanders spoke about the need to “transform the Democratic Party”, while no such phrase escaped the lips of Tom Perez. While Sanders talked of the need for single-payer (free government) health care, Perez limited himself to the platitude that “health care is a right”. The interviewer, Chris Hayes of MSNBC, then invited each politician to name his main enemy. Sanders had no hesitation about pointing to “the ruling class”; Perez, on the other hand, displayed his mastery of the art of evasion, saying only that the enemy was Trump and the Republicans, who were denying the “hopes and aspirations” of most Americans.
Dissonant chords are also being heard in two closely watched elections. According to a joint survey by Harvard University and the Harris Poll, Bernie Sanders - who works with the Democrats but still calls himself an independent - is the most popular politician in America today. His support, and presence on the hustings with Democratic candidates, is much sought after, and his absence much noted. Sanders recently appeared at a rally for Heath Mello, who is running as a Democrat for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Mello has an anti-corporate voting record, but is also a believing Catholic who, as a state senator, voted for a bill to require that abortion-seeking women be notified of their right to a sonogram, which typically projects an image of the foetus onto a screen to remind pregnant women that their unborn babies are already alive. Mello has said that, although he personally opposes abortion, he would uphold women’s rights as mayor. Sanders’ support for Mello threw women’s organizations into an uproar. They insisted that abortion rights, and not class issues, should be the principal criterion for support. Under pressure from NARAL Pro-Choice America1 and Planned Parenthood, Tom Perez issued statements harshly critical of Mello.
Conversely, Sanders has pointedly refused to campaign for Jon Ossoff in a by-election, now headed for a run-off, for the House of Representatives in Georgia. Perez and Democratic-allied women’s organizations have heartily endorsed him. Ossoff is an abortion-rights supporter running against a strongly anti-choice Republican. But, on economic issues, he cleaves toward the pro-corporate Democratic mainstream.
It goes without saying that any working class party worthy of the name would strongly support women’s rights, which should never be counterposed to class demands. But the Democratic leadership is determined to keep the party out of the hands of anyone who advocates even the mildest class-based platform. Identity politics are the most convenient means for the leadership to appear ‘progressive’ in the eyes of an ever more restive rank-and-file, energised by the election of Donald Trump. It is highly improbable that politicians like Keith Ellison and Bernie Sanders will break with the Democrats under any circumstances. But will the thousands who recently massed outside the Brooklyn flat of the centrist Senate Democratic minority leader Charles Schumer, demanding that he not betray them, the many thousands more roused to action by police killings in the Black Lives Matter movement, or the millions who voted for Sanders continue allow their energies to be diverted, with the help of those they now follow, into support for a minion of big money with a slightly less inhuman face than that of orange-haired ogre of Mar-a-Lago? Time will tell.
Jim Creegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. NARAL: National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.