US capitalism was a disaster for the majority of the country’s residents, and for the majority of the world’s population, well before Donald Trump came along. And now it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Four decades of ruling class attacks have created one of the most unequal societies in world history. The billionaire and multi-millionaire class has grown in number year after year while real wages have been stagnant. Entire sections of the country are Third World status.
The economic shocks of neoliberal restructuring have left dilapidated infrastructure in both city and town. The financial crisis and recession from 2008 made things even worse. In many cities, there are blocks of shuttered shops, even totally empty or decaying suburbs. In total, 43 million people live in poverty. And 20 million live in trailer parks.
More than 2 million people, disproportionately Black and Hispanic, are locked up by mass incarceration policies, while increasingly militarised police forces kill with impunity. The Muslim and undocumented migrant populations have been under siege, with tens of thousands subject to surveillance and harassment from the “security” apparatus and millions fearing deportation at the hands of immigration officers.
Around the world, US-headquartered multinational companies exploit local workers on poverty level wages and rip resources from the earth for a pittance. The US war machine rains hell from the skies, killing civilians and, in the most recent case of Iraq, destroying an entire country. Washington props up pliant dictators and intervenes against or overthrows democratically elected governments that try to curb US influence.
Brave new world
Donald Trump is set to ramp up the carnage. True to his deranged rantings, he has declared war on everyone and everything that is decent. Within days of taking office, his administration-cum-fascist-cult has made it clear that nothing will be sacred in post-truth, alternative-facts USA, and no-one – bar the super rich – can expect to be spared.
His first executive order, signed just hours after being sworn in, involved a sweeping assault on the Affordable Care Act, which provides at least some medical care for many who would otherwise be denied it. Next in line were women, as the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits public money going to NGOs that perform or provide information about abortion to women overseas, was re-established.
Further orders imposed a freeze on hiring for government agencies, expedited the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, railroaded environmental protections for infrastructure projects, began planning wall construction on the Mexico border and imposed the now infamous travel restrictions on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and which will increase the number of border patrol and deportation agents by 15,000. This shock and awe immigration order resulted in people being turned away at airports or detained simply of the basis of their nationality and, implicitly, their religion. More than 50,000 visas were cancelled in a week, according to the State Department.
For all his railing against the establishment, Trump signed an order that sets the stage for fewer regulatory checks on Wall Street banks, and a directive to stop the implementation of a rule requiring brokers to act in a client’s best interests, rather than just using investment funds to make profits for themselves. And the Republican-controlled Congress has introduced a so-called national right to work bill that, if enacted, would open the way for an employers’ offensive against an already weakened union movement.
He has also stacked the administration with alt-right heavyweights such as key strategist Steve Bannon, and billionaires such as commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. Perhaps as a joke, he appointed a woman ideologically opposed to public schooling as education secretary, an ExxonMobil CEO as secretary of state, a proclaimed enemy of environmental regulation as head of the Environmental Protections Agency and the owner of a low-wage fast food franchise as secretary of labor.
This is only the beginning for an administration that is making no secret of the fact that, despite all its bluster about “forgotten people”, it will rule unashamedly for the “well remembered” – an administration of the billionaires, by the billionaires and for the billionaires.
Yet while Trump is a continuation, by escalation, of what came before, he is also a rupture. He is at war with the media and at war with sections of the political establishment. His crash or crash through approach is thoroughly alienating to sections of the state bureaucracy, and his interminable Twitter rants make for a White House that appears unhinged. He is trashing the usual norms of US politics, engaging in reckless diplomacy that snubs close allies while continuing the love-in with kindred spirit authoritarian bigot and US enemy Vladimir Putin.
Significantly, his gestures signalling a revision of the multilateral international order that has dominated the West since the 1950s are unnerving many in the establishment. The US has for decades placed itself at the apex of the Western order by imposing itself through transnational institutions and at times carefully worked-out economic and military treaties. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US ruling class promoted itself as singular global leader, but still with most of everyone else as a partner, economically and militarily.
Trump’s “America first” mantra is a profound rhetorical or doctrinal shift. There’s little blathering about freedom and democracy and cooperation. It’s all about the US as a former victim, but now a my-way-or-the-highway master that will slap down anyone and everyone for the most minor of slights.
This has come as a major shock to the US establishment. And it has exposed deep divisions in the ruling class, between those committed to upholding the domestic and international status quo and the conventions of government, and those willing to throw their weight behind Trump’s radical experiment in authoritarian, billionaire-led bigotry.
Major business heads, government officials and much of the political establishment are panicking about the effect Trump’s economic and foreign policy is going to have on the US’s military alliances, trade relationships and economic interests. A former adviser of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, writing in the Atlantic, illustrates the sense of doom Trump inspires, even among those who share many of his political sympathies:
“It will probably end in calamity – substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have.”
No return to normality
Such fractures at the top make the system much more vulnerable to pressure from below. And pressure from below is shaping up to be a hallmark of the Trump era. Before he was even inaugurated, Trump had propelled thousands into action. In the first weeks, millions hit the streets and protested at airports.
For a significant number of people, Trump has taken things too far – a step beyond what they are willing to tolerate. That is pushing them towards activism.
It is inevitable in this context that there will be a widespread sense at first that Trump is an aberration that should be pushed aside, and some sort of normality restored. But normality, unfortunately, is what gave us Trump.
For decades the mantras of neoliberal economics – free trade, open markets, globalisation, privatisation, deregulation – have sat uneasily alongside a ramped-up racist nationalism across much of the advanced capitalist world. At the same time as capital has become more unfettered and transnational, borders for people have become more militarised and nationalism more intense.
Undocumented migrants and refugees across the developed world are victimised and vilified in the name of “protecting borders” and “securing the nation”. Added to this, the “war on terror” has unleashed a vicious racist campaign against Muslims, continually reinforced through terror hysteria and increased security measures and surveillance.
The humiliation and retreat of the US empire under both Bush and Obama and the economic instability and weakened position of the US in the world economy have not been adequately addressed by politics as usual. This has opened up support, or at least toleration, for Trump in the halls of power and boardrooms of key sectors of the US economy.
Trump trades on his image as a bull in the china shop of US politics, but in reality he represents the latest stage in the development of its twisted logic. His administration is a product of contemporary capitalism’s desperate search for a route out of crisis, so fittingly personified by a billionaire real estate tycoon turned reality TV star about whom nothing seems quite real.
This has important ramifications for how our side is going to be best able to fight Trump.
We are fighting, not an aberration, but a particularly extreme manifestation of a system that venerates profits and wealth over the needs and desires of ordinary people. A system that puts the needs of corporations ahead of those of human beings. A system that discourages people from standing up for themselves and works to divide them from others facing the same enemy.
If the Trump resistance is going to do justice to the hopes and values of the millions who have taken up the fight against him, then it will need to go further than a mere restoration of the norms of responsible check-and-balance government. Those capitalist norms delivered carnage and misery across the globe.
It will have to raise the possibility of an alternative – a society of genuine democracy and freedom that puts human need ahead of competition and wealth accumulation. Socialism is the answer to the question posed by the Trump administration.