Why Elites Hate Trump

Battles over Trump's candidacy reveal the tensions underlying the US-led global capitalist project.

Cruz and Kasich are out. The Donald is in. The #NeverTrump brigade, the Republican Party’s half-hearted divide-and-conquer strategy, and Trump’s own seemingly endless rhetorical blunders simply weren’t enough to stop him.

So far only the calm assurances of pundits that Trump can’t win in November seem to be staving off a meltdown.

Commentators are busying themselves nailing down the reasons for Trump’s success. Apart from Republican voters’ disturbing appetite for Trump’s racist, xenophobic, misogynistic drivel, other factors are at work.

Nate Cohn’s New York Times listicle cites the huge number of Republican candidates (seventeen), the curious behavior of blue-state Republicans, the nonstop media coverage, and the failure of the GOP elite to simply get its act together and unite against him.

Christopher R. Barron sensibly notes that poll data from the primaries shows Republicans are ticked off about their party’s record of betraying conservative values.

And Thomas Frank has done a good job reminding smug liberals that Trump actually talks about stuff working people care about, like job-destroying free trade agreements and a deep-rooted fear that the good life (at least for working-class white people) is a thing of the past.

But a different question is worth asking: why is the American elite so terrified of a Trump presidency?

Polls put millionaires solidly in Camp Hillary. And as Corey Robin discussed yesterday (and Doug Henwood documented) Republicans are so angry about Trump that they’re jumping ship, or at least threatening to.

Some, like former New Jersey governor Christie Whitman say they’ll vote for Clinton, while others, like Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, have declared a pox on both houses. Charles Koch has expressed dismay at Trump’s candidacy, saying his plans will “destroy free society.”

Is Trump’s vision for a stratospheric wall along the US-Mexico border, his plans for registering Muslims, and his propensity to debase women simply too much to bear?

Perhaps. But the border wall — in fact and in idea — is not new; it goes back at least to Nixon, and was expanded greatly following NAFTA. Muslim immigrants and students (including non-Muslims hailing from predominantly Muslim countries like Bangladesh) were already forced to register with Homeland Security following 9/11. And while Trump’s frankness may embarrass the jet-set crowd, many of his viewpoints are widely shared by other US elites.

But embarrassment cannot explain the disdain that Trump elicits from the establishment.  His other talking points offer a clue to the deeper roots of Trump Terror.

As Thomas Frank pointed out months ago, Trump and Bernie Sanders are the only two candidates to talk seriously, and regularly, about free trade deals and the job loss associated with them.

Trump calls NAFTA the “single worst trade deal ever done” and has promised “serious consequences” for companies who move production overseas but continue to benefit from the US market.

He advocates a direct confrontation with China by “immediately declaring it a currency manipulator” and “bolstering the US military presence in the East and South China Seas to discourage Chinese adventurism.”

There’s more. In his recent “foreign policy speech” Trump laid out a very different role for the United States on the global stage. He condemned the sleights he says the US has experienced abroad — in visits to Cuba and Saudi Arabia Obama was not met at the tarmac by the countries’ leaders; the United States’ Olympic bid failed despite a personal visit by Obama to Copenhagen; and the “list of humiliation goes on and on.”

According to Trump, everything went downhill after we won the Cold War. To make America great again we need to focus on number one — America — and use any means necessary to secure our power and pride.

Of course, Trump isn’t the only candidate to engage in China-bashing or bemoan the current geopolitical landscape. But when people like Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio do it, it’s all very wink-wink, nod-nod.  They’re insiders. They’re predictable. The power elite knows where their allegiances lie.

We know where Trump’s allegiances lie too, sort of. He wants to keep his money and make more. (One of his plans is to lower the corporate tax rate.) But he’s an outsider — a billionaire outsider, but an outsider nonetheless.

He’s unpredictable and seems unconcerned about burning bridges. When he talks about tearing up trade agreements and calling out NATO allies, it makes the establishment nervous.

They take his threats seriously because he’s a wild card — a wild card that should have already been weeded out had things gone the way they normally do.

Elites take comfort in the fact that Trump wouldn’t be able to do all the things he ostensibly wants to do. But they’re squirmy nonetheless because Trump would have a lot more power as president than our fifth-grade civics textbooks would lead us to believe.

As scholars like Nitsan Chorev and others have shown, decisions regarding both international policy and domestic economic policy have slowly been transferred from Congress to the executive branch over the last seventy years.

And while Trump might be right that US foreign policy is a “complete and total disaster,” Washington’s role goes far beyond forays in nation building and diplomacy.

The US Treasury-Federal Reserve hybrid superintends the global economy, as it has since the end of World War II. It manages (with help from global elites) an international structure of trade, regulation, and profit-making that underpins the entire global economy. Global capitalism needs a state to provide the structures, and enforce the rules, that make capital accumulation possible. The US Treasury-Fed hybrid serves this role.

Where Trump sees failure in the post–Cold War trajectory, US capital and policymakers — at least until recently — see success. They see a victorious neoliberal project that reestablished the power of big business at the expense of the working class, both in the United States and abroad, and built new structures of global integration, yoking more and more countries to the prerogatives of capital.

And they see these structures solidifying and deepening in the future with projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

That’s why Trump’s disavowal of central elements of this project is so disturbing for them. It potentially jeopardizes the structures and practices and norms that underpin business as usual for global capital.

But however alarming for elites, Trump’s anti-trade bombast is not surprising. Skepticism about the US’s role in managing the global economy has been building.

Global capitalism gets more volatile by the minute and, as Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch argue, these days the Treasury-Fed’s main job seems to be cleanup crew. There were seventy-two financial crises in low- and middle-income countries during the 1990s alone.

The United States helped manage all of them, whether through quiet backdoor bridge loans, or out in the open through the International Monetary Fund. And the 2008 financial crisis topped the bunch, costing trillions to smooth over.

But the cost of containment isn’t merely pecuniary. The Trump candidacy highlights the palpable tension between the US state’s responsibility toward its own sovereign population and its duties in superintending the global economy.