By Greg Godels
Donald Trump appeared large on the national political scene five years ago and soon he will be gone. Or will he?
Joseph Biden will take the Presidential Oath of Office on January 20 and assume the Presidency. Despite all the media noise about disrupting the election and mounting a coup, there was never any real danger of Trump holding onto the office. Certainly, anyone who followed Trump’s career would know that his exit will be a circus, likely ending with his leaving the White House to play golf a few days before the inauguration and never returning (there are reputable accounts that he is planning a rally to compete with the inauguration). That’s Trump.
The noise from the media and its enabling punditry was merely a distraction from the President-elect’s awful choices for posts in his administration. Extracting the last bit of Trump-fear, corporate Democrats and their loyal megaphones sought to divert the Party’s left from the shafting they were receiving from Biden’s team.
But the question lingers: have the liberals driven a stake into the evil heart of Trump or will he, or someone like him, rise again?
The answer depends, of course, on what constitutes Trumpism. Is it a vulgar, outlandish personality; a crude bullying of women and minorities; a pandering to the fringe right; or a set of dissident policies aimed at seducing the working class and re-energizing what looks to many to be a declining or, at least, challenged empire?
The simple answer is that Trumpism is all of the above. But the more interesting and useful response is that Trump is the product of the failures of a broken political system, disabled by corruption, corporate dominance, opportunism, and cynicism. Trump nested in the presidency because the two-party system offered no options that measured up to the demands of a growing share of the electorate. For millions, the disinvestment in manufacturing, the emigration of jobs, the immigration of cheap labor, the loss of community, a growing chasm between the government and the governed, value relativism, and a coarsened everyday life spoke to the desire for a political change of course.
We know this phenomenon from forty years ago, when another outlier won the Presidential election with a “…strange mixture of business conservatism, economic populism, militant chauvinism, and moral and religious traditionalism…” in the words of a collective of Soviet historians. Ronald Reagan, as these same historians recounted, promised to “put a stop to ‘the decline of America,’ strengthen its economy and military capability and ‘move the nation’ again… The Democrats were pictured as ‘the chief architects of our decline’ and the Republicans as the party of national revival…”– an earlier version of “Make America Great Again.”
Contrary to the liberal denunciation of Trump as the “worst President in history,” his administration cannot hold a candle to the destruction wrought by this previous President. Reagan gutted social programs, empowered the extreme right, stirred racism, induced a deep recession, and exploded the size of the military budget.
But he didn’t stop the decline in US living standards, overseeing the painful deindustrialization of the 1980s.
Since then, other politicians met growing dissatisfaction with promised change. No candidate in recent years capitalized on the sentiment for change more than Barack Obama. His mantras of “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can” promised to satisfy this thirst for the new, after a devastating, unprecedented-in-our-lifetime economic collapse.
Looking back, we see that that promise was unrealized, but a significant number of those seduced by it turned to Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, many see the shift of Obama’s voters to Trump as an important, if not decisive, element in Trump’s victory in several states.
Such an unusual ideological shift from Obama to Trump underscores the desperate search for an alternative to the two-party norm, a rejection of business-as-usual. Moreover, this anomaly further reflects the profound crisis festering as a result of the ruling class’s growing economic, social, and political distance from the people. Antonio Gramsci’s often-quoted comment in the Prison Notebooks seems singularly appropriate to 2020 US politics:
If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this period a great deal of morbid symptoms appear. (p. 275-276, my emphasis)
While the ruling class may still “lead” in many ways, there is no question that decadence is setting in and we have seen “morbid symptoms” emerge more strikingly with the Trump administration.
But morbidity and its discontents are not features peculiar to the US political crisis. It clearly exhibits a pattern throughout the capitalist world: From Boris Johnson in the UK to Bolsonaro in Brazil, from Modi in India to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, from Duterte in the Philippines to Duda in Poland, popular dissatisfaction has birthed new political mutations professing few allegiances to the traditional political parties sharing power since World War II.
If there is a recent template for this mutation, it might be found in the political rise of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Like Trump, he was a super-rich vulgarian with the appearance of a measure of independence from the traditional parties. He, too, offered the aura of change to an electorate anxious for relief from political malignancy. But Berlusconi’s reign, like Trump’s today, was a nightmarish opera buffa of hot air and bluster.
It should not go unnoticed by those who are celebrating Trump’s demise that, while Berlusconi is now gone from Italian politics, his legacy has brought even more disorder to the political stage: un-elected governments, a popular extreme right wing, xenophobic party and a party founded by a popular comedian– a far more dangerous extremist, Matteo Salvini, and a far more ludicrous movement, the Five Star Movement.
Before beginning a love-fest with Trump’s successors, the US broad, un-anchored left should consider the Italian precedent. Is the Biden government more than a caretaker before the next wave of “morbid symptoms”?
A Marxism-Leninism Today comrade has argued convincingly that Trump and his ilk should best be understood as right-wing populists, a faux-populism posturing to fill the void in countries suffering from an undeveloped left, a fractured left, an opportunist left or no left at all. Right-wing populism cynically trades on the dissatisfaction of populations neglected by traditional parties, but with no realistic left-wing recourse. The false promises, failures, corruption, and hypocrisies of the previously powerful social democratic left has cleared the space for reactionary faux-populism.
The electoral successes of right-wing populism have prompted some in the Republican Party to envision their party as a haven for, even a future bastion for the working class. They hope to exploit the continued irrelevance of an ideologically backward, splintered, and defensive US left.
Republican prospects for 2022 and 2024 are in inverse proportion to how the Biden administration adopts left, pro-working class policies, a possibility that is very unlikely. In other words, it would not be surprising to see a clone of Trumpism make a strong return as a consequence of a hollow Biden Presidency.
Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto of the early immature stages of struggle by the working class:
At this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies… Thus, the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.
Exiting this backward stage is long overdue for the US working class. The widely expressed joy among liberals of a return to “normalcy” marks a victory for the bourgeois Democratic Party. We must recognize that defeating Trumpism in the 2020 election, though a worthwhile victory, is still a victory for bourgeois rule. Whether it is a final victory over rightwing populism is far from determined by Biden’s success.
A final defeat of Trumpism and its kind and the transcendence of business-as-usual politics are one and the same thing. A left anchored in Marxism-Leninism could spark the movement toward authentic working class politics. Only a left dedicated to advancing the cause of the working class over the interests of the bourgeoisie can drive a stake into Trumpism and its mutations once and for all.