Democracy and the state in the age of Trump

The world’s greatest democracy is in danger. A “deep state”, unaccountable to democratic control, spies on a presidential candidate. Shadowy security forces leak damaging, and often false, secret dossiers. When the anti-establishment candidate is elected, the deep state moves into high gear, sabotaging every move of the democratically elected government with leaks, lies and obstruction.

This is the narrative being run by the Trump regime, especially over the past couple of weeks, as a series of crises swirl around his administration.

What should we make of such claims?

First of all, Trump has a hell of a nerve complaining about democracy being compromised.

This is the candidate who won nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. Whose party is the beneficiary of years of systematic vote rigging at a state level. Whose program involves trashing the democratic rights of migrants, Muslims and workers. Who complains about alleged surveillance, but who promises unlimited backing to the main surveillance agencies. And whose appointments have a history of systematic human rights abuses, all the way up to operating covert torture centres.

Let’s not forget, also, that Trump won his “democratic mandate” in a system rigged for the rich. The US is a society in which the richest 400 families own as much wealth as the poorest half of the population; in which electoral rules let those billionaires invest hundreds of millions of dollars in political campaigns to protect their interests; in which both major parties consist of consortiums of big money intertwined with political power – a society in which the rich are in power, no matter who is in government. No wonder that around half of eligible voters view the political system as so corrupt that they stay away from the polls altogether.

It’s within these tight limits that formal “democracy” operates in the US – and, with only a few variations, in every other “democratic” country on the planet.

Trump’s allegations of surveillance and “deep state” obstruction are a continuation of the nut job right wing conspiracy theories swirling around Barack Obama, which have been a mainstay of the Trump world view since he shot to fame pushing “birther” conspiracy theories some years ago.

The total lack of evidence presented for Trump’s claim to have been under surveillance, and the pathetic attempts by White House press secretary Sean Spicer to distinguish “wire tapping” from actual wiretapping, also lead to some scepticism, to say the least.

But, as with so many conspiracy theories, there actually is an element of truth in the Trump narrative. Secret powers might not by spying on us through our microwave ovens, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claims. But the idea seems less outlandish when, according to the latest WikiLeaks document dump, the CIA can and does hack Samsung digital TVs for this purpose.

 More fundamentally, conspiracy theories about the state have some purchase because they reflect one of the most established facts of class society: that the state is a profoundly undemocratic institution. Over decades and centuries, the state in any capitalist society has been built up – both de facto and by design – as a mechanism for ensuring the smooth running of the system. Any prospect of a sharp rupture from the way capitalism and its key institutions work is going to face opposition of some sort from within the state.

“The executive of the modern state”, Marx once observed, “is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. Given that the ruling class is often divided into various warring fractions, this “committee” is also, very often, a site where such conflicts are fought out and resolved.

This is what has been playing out in the US over the past few months. Key sections of the ruling class and its state have been confronted with a president who is hostile to much of the state architecture – in particular, international trade mechanisms and military alliances – that has ensured the smooth and profitable running of US capitalism over the decades.

Some part of this opposition comes from sections of the state that Trump intends to destroy – the Environmental Protection Agency comes to mind. But the most serious and damaging opposition to Trump from within the state comes from those sections of the bureaucracy who see their job as steering it – especially the State Department and the CIA.

This dissent is not out of concern for the countless millions of people, in the US and around the world, who have paid the price for the US ruling class’s wars, trade deals and other mechanisms of plunder. Rather, the concern of the State Department rebels is that Trump might damage these mechanisms, to the long term detriment of US capitalism.

So, nut job or not, Trump and his clique are pointing to something real: there has been a significant mobilisation within sections of the state against Donald Trump and his agenda. From the middle of last year, Trump has been condemned by a steady stream of figures well connected to the State Department and the CIA.

Some have resigned; many have leaked sensitive information. Others hostile to Team Trump are taking every opportunity to “throw sand in the gears” or “act in a classic bureaucratic passive-aggressive manner and just be obstructionist”, as former State Department employee George Kenney has observed.

This is how the custodians of the state have reacted to an impeccably ruling class figure with a different strategy for US capitalism (“economic nationalism” vs. the free trade consensus of the past three decades or more). This gives us some small indication of the sort of outright and deliberate sabotage that would be brought to bear on the likes of a Bernie Sanders character in the White House, if the US political system ever allowed him to get that far.

The campaigns of destabilisation in the 1970s against the governments of Gough Whitlam in Australia, or Salvador Allende in Chile, give some idea of what’s possible when a government is seen to seriously challenge ruling class interests.

That’s one reason why the left should be cautious in cheering on such internal dissent. It’s one thing to welcome signs of falling out between thieves – especially, as in the case of Trump’s first Muslim travel ban, when court injunctions and internal dissension are partly the product of mass protest.

But it’s another thing entirely to barrack for one of the teams of thieves. As Glenn Greenwald observed in mid-January, as many US liberals applauded CIA opposition to Trump, cheering on the CIA “is both warped and self-destructive. Empowering the very entities that have produced the most shameful atrocities and systemic deceit over the last six decades is desperation of the worst kind”.

Finally, we have to remember that the aim of the State Department/CIA rebels is, overwhelmingly, not to terminate the Trump regime, with all the political instability that would entail. Their aim is to persuade Trump and his team to work with them to facilitate the continued profitable operation of the giant machine that is US capitalism.

 Trump, after all, is not the first brash Republican “outsider” to swagger into Washington. Ronald Reagan’s rise to power in 1980 was greeted with horror by important sections of the political establishment. James A. Baker, who became Reagan’s chief of staff, recalls:

“I was an establishment Republican when Reagan was coming up and we were really fearful, we were afraid he was going to get us in a nuclear war. Here was this Grade B actor, Bedtime for Bonzo, I mean, my God, [we thought] the world was going to end, and that turned out not to be the case.”

In fact, Reagan and the Republican establishment quickly settled down to a productive working relationship, rolling back many of the gains that the US working class and social movements had won in previous decades.

It’s impossible to tell how the current, multi-sided crisis in Washington will play out. A serious crisis among our rulers can help to create a political environment in which our side can seriously push back – but only if we remember that Trump and his political establishment adversaries are only rival factions of the same ruthless and exploitative machine.