The Specter of Trump

Donald Trump speaks to an aggrieved and radicalized middle class with seemingly nowhere else to turn.

Donald Trump at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DC. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

A specter is haunting the Republican Party. Unlike in the 1980s, it’s not “communism” or the “Soviet threat.” Nor is it “radical Islam” or “terrorism.” It is Donald Trump, the self-described “self-made” billionaire — actually one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful businessmen in recent memory — who has emerged as the frontrunner in the overcrowded race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Trump’s open xenophobia accounts for much of his popularity among the Republican base — predominantly suburban (and exurban) white middle-class professionals, managers, and small business people, and a minority of white workers. Eschewing what he terms political correctness, he decries the “rapists and criminals” supposedly streaming in from Mexico and calls for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The approach resonates with a broad cross section of the white middle classes. In him they see the consummate anti-politician — a blunt-talking “man of the people” who speaks to their fears and anxieties and will restore America to greatness.

Trump’s ascendance has stoked panic among the Republican establishment, which is now trying to mobilize its resources to block his nomination. It is bankrolling ads, for instance, that accuse Trump of being unelectable because of his “extremist views” and of being a “closet liberal” who once supported abortion rights and a national single-payer health insurance program.

The mainstream media has also latched on to Trump’s “extremism” and “electability,” claims which the Left should greet with some skepticism. After all, Ronald Reagan appeared to be well to the right of the mainstream of US politics in 1980s, and yet proved eminently electable.

On the Left, two writers — Harrison Fluss and Stanley Aronowitz — recently offered different takes on Trump. For Aronowitz, Trump exposes the role of big money in bourgeois politics. Trump “lets the cat out of the bag about something the political system has spent more than a century to disguise,” thereby undermining the legitimacy of representative democracy in America. Fluss, meanwhile, sees Trump as the “rotten fruit of the American ruling class” whose ideas are “no aberration from the mainstream” of conventional politics.

There are elements of truth in both interpretations. On the one hand, the ability of Trump and various Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money allows small, politically marginal groups of wealthy contributors to so obviously skew the electoral arena that it undermines faith in capitalist democracy.

On the other, unrestrained capitalist accumulation and competition have brought declining living standards and greater insecurity not only for most working people, but for segments of the middle classes. In the absence of a viable left or labor movement, the precarity that these groups face make them open to the appeals of right-wing demagogues like Trump.

However, neither analysis gets at what makes Trump’s candidacy both so appealing to layers of the white middle and working classes and so frightening to the Republican establishment. Put simply, Trump and Tea Party–aligned candidates like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz do not represent any segment of the capitalist class in the US.

While their hostility to unions and support for brutal austerity and lower corporate taxes coincide with the mainstream of capitalist opinion in the US, Tea Party Republicans in Congress have collided with capital over shutting down the federal government — endangering the credit of the state and capital — and on immigration.

In 2014, the Chamber of Commerce spent tens of millions to defeat Tea Party candidates in Republican congressional primaries across the country. Yet though many were vanquished in 2014, there were enough who returned to push out John Boehner (R-OH) as speaker of the House, upset at his opposition to using the federal debt ceiling as a bargaining chip to defund Planned Parenthood and slash funding for Medicare and Veterans’ pensions.

In the presidential race, it is likely that the Chamber of Commerce — which represents a broad cross-section of medium and large firms — and the Business Roundtable — which represents the largest, transnational corporations — will attempt to isolate Trump and the Tea Party candidates in favor of Jeb Bush. If that fails, many of the capitalists who support Bush today will be quite comfortable with the leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

One reason is immigration — a very tricky question for capitalists in the US. Clearly, they do not want masses of immigrants entering the US legally and quickly gaining citizenship rights. However, they are militantly opposed to mass deportations and other measures that would deprive them of a cheap and pliable workforce.

In 2010, the Chamber of Commerce joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens in challenging Arizona’s anti-immigrant law (SB 1070), which drove thousands of immigrants to flee the state for fear of arrest and deportation.

In addition, the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce have been at the forefront of the push for immigration reform in Congress. Both want some combination of more “effective border protection,” a (long and difficult) “path to citizenship” for the US’s nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants, and a guest worker program for future immigrants that would provide US capital a supply of workers with no rights and no ability to become permanent residents or citizens.

The Trump boomlet is a repudiation of this agenda. Like the Tea Party, Trump is an example of radical middle-class politics. Caught between a disorganized working class and an increasingly rapacious capitalist class, segments of the middle classes — especially suburban whites in the US — feel insecure economically and socially. They see their livelihoods and social position threatened on all sides.

Unable to directly challenge capital, parts of the middle classes are drawn to a politics that scapegoats immigrants, unions, women, LGBT people, and people of color. The growing right-wing radicalization of the middle classes has fueled the expansion of right-wing formations and figures that are independent of the capitalist classes in a number of advanced capitalist societies: the UK Independence Party in Britain, the National Front in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the Tea Party and Donald Trump in the US.

This radicalization of the middle classes — what Trotsky once referred to as “human dust” — bears some resemblance to the classic fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Genuine fascist elements (white supremacist groups with organized street fighting groups) have been attracted to the Tea Party and Trump.

However, neither the Tea Party nor Trump can be described as fascists. Both seek to win power through electoral politics, not abolish elections and representative government. Nor will capitalists in the US, in the foreseeable future, opt for such a far-right option. If the Republican establishment can’t stop Trump, they’ll likely cross partisan lines and support a neoliberal politician like Hillary Clinton.

The specter of Trump not only frightens the Republican establishment, but most of the US left. As it has time and time again since the 1930s, the threat of the far right will serve as an excuse for union officialdom and the liberal civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ establishment to mobilize for Democrats.

But this solution to the rise of Trump and the far right is no solution at all: embracing “lesser evilism” in 2016 would mean yet again forgoing the work of rebuilding the labor and social movements and instead subordinating our radical politics to the Democratic Party. The disastrous result would be that the only visible opposition to the capitalist class would come not from the Left, but from a billionaire businessman.