July saw the one-man circus that is President Donald Trump smear its rancid trail across Europe.
Most eye-catching was Trump’s support for the anti-immigrant racism of the European populist right. He re-told the standard cultural racist narrative to the Sun, saying that immigration had “changed the fabric” of the continent “I think you are losing your culture.”
Trump also continued his ongoing attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Kahn saying, “Take a look at the terrorism that is taking place. Look at what is going on in London. I think he has done a very bad job on terrorism”, with the clear implication that this is because Khan is Muslim.
The left’s response to Trump has been one of righteous anger focusing on this racism while seeming less sure on Trump’s broader policies, particular his escalating trade war.
Typical was Owen Jones writing in the Guardian that “movements and elite politicians across the western world have attempted to scapegoat migrants, refugees and Muslims for unemployment and job insecurity, stagnating living standards and decimated public services. Conveniently, their racist deflections have been accompanied by policies that favour the wealthy and big business.”
While it is right to highlight the nature of Trump’s racism and its continuity with more mainstream parties, the left’s understanding of Trump needs to go further.
Trump is not a straight-forward representative of big business. Big capital tended to favoured Hilary Clinton in 2016, although it should be no surprise that the owners of many small businesses in the US supported Trump. He wasn’t even the favoured candidate of big business for the Republican nomination.
Like much of the populist right, Trump is a symptom of the inability of the capitalist class to find continuing support for their neo-liberal globalising agenda.
This was not only the policy of the right, but of the “third way” of Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in Britain. The New Right amalgam of neo-liberalism with neo-conservative populist emollients of law and order, racism and family values always had tensions within it. With the populist right the two parts of the equation are now in open warfare. Increasingly the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has made it hard to build an electoral programme around there being no alternative to accepting the power of global free trade.
Thus, domestically Trump offers pro-business policies of tax breaks and deregulation. But on international trade policy he is hostile to the old free-trade mantras of the (old) New Right and Third Way instead favouring an anti-market nationalism.
He has been aided by the proliferation of broadcast and internet channels which reduce the authoritative power of the big media outlets, although Trump’s favoured Fox News is owned by Murdoch and Breitbart was supported by Robert Mercer (worth around $100 million).
The internet while diffusing power is also a medium where money (or state power) can buy influence. Yet it has made political ideology unstable and allowed the reinforcement of alternative narratives such as Trump’s. Political disillusionment in the post-2008 world has allowed more people to take the “red pill” and buy into ideas such as those represented by Trump.
Trump’s impulsive tweeting and scale of lying (the Washington Post puts the count of 5.9 a day) exists in this increasingly uncentred media.
Hence Trump’s general approach of contradictory pronouncements. His Art of the Deal playbook is to be unpredictable, because being predictable empowers the opposition. His frequent volte-faces are not accidents but underscored by his desire to disrupt, particularly existing patterns of trade which he seeks to reform in America’s interest. Nowhere is this disruption more intensively focused than on the Trump’s foreign relations as witnessed by protean pronouncements on Brexit.
Trump keeps his White House team divided into factions to heighten his control. Domestic policy is divided between right-wing Republicans and Wall Street deregulators, but in international policy there is a strong reliance on the military and intelligence establishment (sometimes seen as the US “deep state”).
Trump’s trade war is not only an attempt to appeal to his working-class base in declining industries, but may also be a reflection of the views of this group. The Trump administration claims that trade policy against China and the EU is motivated by national security. This may not simply be an attempt to circumvent WTO rules but reflect the fear that the US’s dominant position in geo-political order is under threat.
Chinese appropriation of US technology weakens American advantage and undermines US military supply chains. It seems plausible that the military-intelligence establishment are willing to accept the harm that protectionist policies will cause the US economy for maintaining relative advantage.
Ultimately, the alternative to Trump will not be built by opposition to his racism alone, essential as that is. The void that Trump has filled was, in part at least, created by the defeat of the working class in the 1980s and decline in socialist ideas.
Rebuilding working-class organisation and a through renewal of socialist ideas are the answer to Trump.