Is Trumpism the future?
Yes, the US president is widely derided, writes Mike Macnair, but does he represent an alternative to the neoliberal ‘equalities’ agenda?
Donald Trump on January 11 cancelled his intended visit to London to open the new US embassy. His ostensible explanation is that the Obama administration, which sold Grosvenor Square and bought and built the new Vauxhall site, was guilty of a bad real estate deal, selling at an undervalue and buying and building at an overvalue.1
Given that Trump is a property speculator by trade, and prone both to pique and to blaming the Obama administration wherever possible, this story is not wholly impossible. It is certainly no less plausible than the claim made by the Stop the War Coalition and the Socialist Workers Party that he has been forced to pull out by the threat of protests2: there is no evidence of the STWC being able to mobilise mass forces in anti-Trump protests, and only 1,547 signed the latest petition against him visiting.3
More plausible than either claim is that this is a calculated diplomatic snub to the British government. Probably, it was in retaliation for Boris Johnson on January 11 publicly expressing British alignment with European opposition to the Trump administration’s proposals to repudiate the Iran nuclear deal.4 It is enough to induce May to take special steps to seek to “mend fences” with the US administration.5
It is probably more significant than this diplomatic spat that the British establishment is deeply ambivalent - or embarrassed - about the ‘Trump issue’. As well as the Iran nuclear deal, the British media has ‘gone after’ Trump over reported comments about Haiti and African countries as “shitholes”. And while ‘#MeToo’ has had only limited direct impact on Trump as an individual,6 the whole media campaign keeps alive in the background the story which ran during the presidential election about Trump as a serial groper.
What lies behind this is that the UK establishment has not ceased, as things now are, to promote official ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-sexism’ and ‘anti-discrimination’ more generally. Indeed, efforts to reverse ‘Iraq syndrome’ have taken the form of promoting Israel and falsely witch-hunting opponents of Israeli policy as anti-Semites: ie, racists. This last, of course, had been going on in the USA for at least 15 years. The same goes for ‘weaponising’ questions of feminism as a ‘humanitarian’ excuse to drop bombs on people.
These sharp ends are backed up by the shaft of the spear in the form of the Equality Act 2010 and the elaborate bureaucratic apparat which grew up already before it, but is now endorsed under it. Less overtly state-based is all the rest of the stuff, originated by Eurocommunist academics, central to Blairism (as in the US it was central to Clintonism), addressing any form of discrimination other than class, and other than US and British imperialist operations. To address either of these would - we are told - be old-fashioned in one way or another.
Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, this policy fitted perfectly well with US policy. Indeed, it continued to fit, albeit rather less comfortably, under the intervening GW Bush administration, which continued to use ‘anti-discrimination’ themes and tropes.
With Trump in the White House it becomes seriously problematic: the man is overtly racist and sexist - and won the presidential election on the basis of glorying in his being overtly racist and sexist.
And yet what the UK cannot do is simply reject its historical so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US. The UK stands in a particular position in this respect, and it is one of special weakness, not special strength. In spring-summer 1940 the strategic architecture of British world domination fell apart, and the British state core explicitly accepted future subordination to the US for the sake of help with its immediate problem.7 In the latter part of the war and in the Bretton Woods discussions Keynes and others endeavoured to promote a global financial architecture which would restore a degree of British freedom of action, but the US said ‘no’.8
In 1956 the chickens came home to roost when Britain attempted to act independently of the US, but in alliance with France and Israel, in the Suez crisis. The US simply turned the financial taps off and forced Britain to scuttle.9 Thereafter, the Kennedy administration in the US demanded that Britain should join the European Economic Community, which it had previously hoped to avoid. The Macmillan government was quick to ‘sit up and beg’ by applying for EEC membership, though it took the 1968 events to break French Gaullist opposition to British entry.10
The long-term result is that gradually the idea that Britain is ‘America’s poodle’ has become a commonplace (more than half a million hits on Google).11
The embarrassment and the difficulty may be particularly British, but it is not uniquely British. Official anti-racism and gender equality agendas, and so on, are commonplace across the ‘west’ and into parts of the ‘third world’. For a single example, ‘traditionally conservative’ Ireland has as prime minister Leo Varadkar, a mixed-race, openly gay neoliberal who spent time early in his career in ‘leadership training’ at the ‘Washington Ireland Program’ in Washington DC.
Equally, the rest of Europe remains substantially politically subordinate to the US: Angela Merkel took office as an Atlanticist (she supported the Iraq war against the Schröder government, although she has been sharply critical of Trump), and the USA has been able to get ‘its man’ in the Élysée Palace with the neoliberal banker, Emmanuel Macron. And so on. Europe today stands in relation to the USA as Germany stood to Britain before Bismarck, or as the USA stood to Britain before the civil war destroyed British control of US politics through the southern sectional interest: as a half-independent subordinate.
It is not just a matter of US political manipulation, though the political manipulation is real. In the late 18th to early 20th centuries, whisky, tweed, Shakespeare and other British products were fashionable among elites in a very wide geographical range, and ‘Anglophilia’ commonplace. With the US succeeding British world leadership, attachment to US political and cultural forms - Americanophilia or ‘Americanisation’ - has replaced it and remains current.12
The equalities agenda itself is to a considerable extent the product of this background - and of the relatively recent history of the USA. The black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s fed almost seamlessly into the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s-70s. It was a notable feature of the war that black youth were disproportionately conscripted and sent to the ‘sharp end’; and that the US army was marked by a mainly white officer corps presiding over a mixed-race rank and file.13 By the 1970s, the extent of general opposition to the war, and the race issue within the US army, were leading to a real crisis - both of the draft and of military discipline in the field.
In April 1975 the US scuttled out of Saigon, and the open recognition of defeat in Vietnam became inevitable. It was in the late Vietnam and post-Vietnam period that the US armed forces began to take seriously the issues of anti-discrimination (beginning with race). If they could not get over the ‘wrong war’ problem, and had to be cautious with ‘Vietnam syndrome’, they could at least deal with the race issue, which had radically exacerbated their problems. With the state core, the armed forces, moving on the issue, resistance to formal anti-discrimination measures more widely faced considerable difficulties.
The anti-discrimination agenda also actually fitted well with the more general project of neoliberal financial globalisation and Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 The end of history,Thomas Friedman’s 1999 The lexus and the olive tree, and all the other similar apologetic products. It ‘sold’ the free market as going along with other forms of ‘freedom’.
There was by no means general acceptance of this synthesis. The 1980s saw for a while the promotion of continental European values and structures, and of far-eastern Confucian ones, as alternatives to free-market liberalism. The 1990s saw the emergence in the US itself of ‘communitarianism’, most famously peddled by Amitai Etzioni. These lines of reasoning had difficulty in saying so openly, but they did contain arguments for the traditional family, for in-practice ethnically homogenous ‘communities’, and for ‘values-driven’ regulation of various sexual and other victimless behaviours. They have not wholly gone away, but the neoliberal/antidiscrimination synthesis mainly ‘won out’ as a frame of pro-capitalist apologetics through the 1990s-2000s.
The broad equalities agenda thus began in the USA, and spread later to Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Now, however, Donald Trump’s repudiation of that agenda is producing criticism, embarrassment and difficulty among ‘western’ political leaders. The question posed is which of three possibilities this difficulty represents.
The first possibility is that the USA may shortly dispose of both Trump and his vice-president, Christianist extremist Mike Pence, and return to the neoliberal globalising and anti-discrimination agenda. The second is that Trumpism may win in the US, but the Brits and Europeans may break with the US to carry the neoliberal globalising and anti-discrimination agenda forward. The third is that the criticisms and embarrassment may represent the same sort of thing as the 1980s resistance to emergent neoliberalism and anti-discrimination: dragging heels on the road to a more generalised culture of nationalism, racialism and patriarchalism, which the US will promote.
My own view - and I stress that this is merely an individual view - is that the third is the most likely possibility: that the US is gradually moving towards overt nationalism, racism, sexism and so on as a framework for capitalist apologetics and will gradually drag the rest of the ‘international community’ behind it on this path.
The first point is that, for all the excitable media talk and the Mueller inquiry, getting rid of Trump and Trumpism in the short term looks unlikely. In the first place, though Trump is less popular than recent previous presidents, what he has done and the stories about him do not seem to have made his popularity dramatically worse.14 On the other side: first, he and the Republican Congress have delivered a serious tax cut for the rich and the corporations.
Second, for all the noise, his foreign policy is in substance that of the GW Bush administration, the talk of friendship with Russia having come to nothing.
Third, even if Trump is an egomaniac vulgarian, Pence is on the outer fringes of the Christianist right wing, so that replacing Trump with Pence looks like a bad bargain from the point of US capital: while Trump can be managed through his short attention-span, Pence might well be less manageable.
Meanwhile, Trump has got a Christianist extremist and high-prerogative man (Neil Gorsuch) onto the supreme court. The consequences of this can already be seen in the ‘Muslim immigration ban’ litigation and will feed through even after Trump ceases to be president.
As to the second possibility, for Europe to break with the US in order to maintain neoliberal financial globalisation and the associated anti-discrimination agenda would be a completely illusory policy. Neoliberal globalisation was and is a policy in the interests of the US and UK and at the expense of the continental Europeans (as well as everyone else). For Europe to break with the US would need a ‘Bismarckian’ unification or an equivalent of the US civil war of 1861-65 to overthrow the US’s institutional controls on European politics (set up in the aftermath of 1945). That such a turn could be conducted under the banner of neoliberalism would be a delusion. Indeed, Europe’s geopolitical interest is to get the US embroiled in a serious war in the far east, which could expose the weakening of US military production capability by ‘offshoring’ and financialisation (as happened to the UK in 1914-18, to the benefit of the US). But this means that if the US turns towards nationalism, and so on, the interest of the Europeans is to defer any immediate conflict with the US over the issue.
As to the third possibility, the point is that the underlying trend is towards rightwing, nationalist populism. That was already the character of the Islamists and of the Putin regime in Russia. It has been an increasing theme of Chinese politics. It is the character of Abe’s government in Japan. It is that of the Hindutva BJP government in India. It is the character of the Hungarian and Polish regimes in eastern Europe. Rightwing populists have also played a major role in France, with the Front National opening the way to the US-backed Bonaparte, Macron; in Germany with the role of the Alternative für Deutschland; and in the UK with the brief flourishing of Ukip and the more important role of the Tory Brexiteers.
We should not assume that the neoliberal/‘equalities’ synthesis will buck that trend. The trend is there because of the failures of neoliberalism as an economic policy and the fact that the left has subordinated offering an alternative policy to tailending the neoliberal equalities agenda. As long as the left continues to do this, the dynamic towards right populism will also continue l
1. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5260453/Donald-Trump-cancels-visit-Britain.html (January 11).
2. Chris Nineham, http://stopwar.org.uk/index.php/news-comment/2861-we-should-be-proud-we-ve-not-just-faced-down-a-bigot-we-ve-challenged-the-special-relationship (January 12), also linked from the SWP’s website.
4. ‘UK, Germany and France urge US not to tear up Iran nuclear deal’ The Guardian January 11.
5. ‘Theresa May seeks chance to make peace with Donald Trump after embassy snub’ The Times January 16.
6. ‘Donald Trump dismisses calls for inquiry after three women accuse president of past sexual misconduct’ The Daily Telegraph December 12 2017.
7. N Moss Nineteen weeks: America, Britain and the fateful summer of 1940 Boston 2003.
8. B Steil The battle of Bretton Woods Princeton 2013.
9. A von Tunzelman Blood and sand: Suez, Hungary and the crisis that shook the world London 2016; DB Kunz The economic diplomacy of the Suez crisis Chapel Hill 1991.
10. W Kaiser, Using Europe, abusing the Europeans: Britain and European integration, 1945-63 London 1996, chapter 6.
11. A few decades ago, ‘America’s pit bull terrier’ would have been a better description (1968 was the only 20th-century year in which British forces were not engaged in overseas military operations). But British military capabilities have declined markedly since the 1980s, so ‘poodle’ really does now seem right.
12. Interestingly, Googling ‘Anglophilia’ produces about 455,000 results, ‘Americanophilia’ only about 1,500. ‘Americanization’ gets about 1,670,000.
13. Some outline discussion in GF Goodwin, ‘Black and white in Vietnam’ New York Times July 18 2017. A well-reviewed full study is JE Westheider Fighting on two fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam war New York 1999.
14. Graphically shown at https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings.