Stop dancing in the streets and consider why Trump almost won

Nick Wright argues that behind the liberal hysterics at his vulgar persona and ineptitude, Trump’s administration was actually delivering on its promises — and restoration of the violent neoliberal order is nothing to celebrate. This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Nick Wright, Editor of 21 Century Manifesto

The US emerges from the 2020 presidential election more polarised than before with a key animator of the US imperialist war machine now elected as commander-in-chief.

Behind Joe Biden’s folksy manner is a machine man for US capital’s drive for global dominance and a consummate Washington insider with decades of experience in the service of corporate power. He was for years the senior senator for the state of Delaware which is the highly deregulated centre of dodgy consumer credit firms.

It was none other than our departed deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, while still courting British voters rather than Facebook’s shareholders, who reported on a Biden conversation over trade deals. “He said to me very unsentimentally — in that folksy way he does — ‘We are not going to sign anything that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like!’”

So Biden as president may not open the door to a trade deal that will find favour with all those anxious about imported chlorinated chicken.

Biden spent years on the Senate foreign relations committee including a spell as chairman and was a key driver of the 2003 vote to invade Iraq. As Obama’s vice-president he backed the US sponsorship of the Yemen war and argued for a prolonged intervention in Afghanistan.

As vice president he was right alongside Obama’s secretary of state Hilary Clinton during the disastrous intervention in Libya which has given us jihadi regiments-for-hire and a massive Mediterranean refugee problem.

You don’t have to be an apologist for the present president to recognise that when Trump said, “Take a look at Libya. Take a look at Iraq,” he hit a nerve. When he pointed out that Clinton “gave us Isis because her and Obama created this small vacuum,” he found willing listeners — and when he said: “We should have never been in Iraq” this resonated with working-class Americans who do the dying in these places.

Trump is no peacenik but he is tuned in to what millions of working-class US citizens think. Even if he is a wildly unstable figure whose erratic Covid-19 polices have killed thousands, his crude polemics still resound in sections of the population whose exclusion from the mythical American Dream is the basis of their contempt for a profit-seeking elite that is as venal as it is socially liberal.

Trump’s claim to put America first was coupled with campaign promises to end useless conflicts and a rhetorical opposition to sending any more US troops to die in foreign wars.

While his time in office is accompanied by a bipartisan ramping up of tensions with China and he even trumped Obama in the level of drone strikes, he has distinguished his term from those of both his Republican and Democrat predecessors without starting any more wars or invading any new foreign territories — and even by withdrawing US troops from various combat zones.

Leaving office with a military record less interventionist than Obama is a low bar but these things resonate more with some key groups of electors than does his crass behaviour and clumsy theatrics.

His misogyny has proved only a limited barrier to his support among women voters, his dog-whistle racism notwithstanding he won votes from one in 10 black voters. A failure to take account of these startling factors in his massive voter base is extremely dangerous.

Trump calibrated part of his pitch to key groups of workers who voted for Obama in the hope of job security and better wages. One inconvenient fact for his neoliberal fee market critics is that by tearing up the North America Free Trade Agreement and insisting that production in Mexico be at wage costs more comparable to US manufacturing his approach actually protected to some extent US jobs and certainly raised Mexican wages.

Under the revised agreement 40 to 45 per cent of car parts must be made by workers who earn at least $16 an hour by 2023. Mexico agreed to pass new labour laws designed to help unionise and to give greater protections to workers, including migrants and women.

Covid-19 turned out to be Trump’s weakness. The conveniently post-election announcement by Pfizer that a Covid-19 vaccine is now successfully tested is already fuelling suspicions among Trump’s base that he is the victim of a stitch-up even if a good number of these crackers think vaccination is a corporate conspiracy by a Big Pharma paedophile ring run by George Soros and Hillary Clinton.

By failing to appreciate the seriousness of Covid-19, and in search of an easy popularity, Trump was fatally weakened by the failure of his administration to deal with the pandemic and by the enormous human cost of this error. Without it he may well have won.

Where social democratic thinking merges imperceptibly into liberalism and joins up with capitalist orthodoxy the expectation was always that Trump’s economic policies would bring him down. That Wall Street, big business and the markets would punish him.

But the 2008 financial crisis, the global crisis of capitalism and the systemic weakness of the European Union — this intensified by Britain’s Brexit vote — gave Trump the edge he needed to big up his bid to Make America Great Again and take on the rival EU bloc.

Trump retains and has consolidated a new political and ideological basis for a continued role in US politics. Liberal sentiment is a real barrier to understanding how this has happened and what is needed to dismantle it.

Trump was elected because somewhere up to ten million voters who voted for Obama on his promise for change that barely arrived voted for the changes he promised.

Three years ago, the maverick economist Yanis Varoufakis said: “The Trump administration is building up a substantial economic momentum domestically. First, he passed income and corporate tax cuts that the establishment Republicans could not have imagined even in their wildest dreams a few years ago.

“Behind the scenes, Trump astonished Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat leader in the House of Representatives, by approving every single social programme that she asked of him. As a result, the federal government is running the largest budget deficit in America’s history when the rate of unemployment is less than 4 per cent.”

You don’t have to buy into Varoufakis’s dreamy ideas for a new soft-left international to agree that this explains something of Trump’s appeal. For all of the former Greek finance minister’s foibles, he at least knows what negotiating with corporate capitalist power feels like when you challenge its economic orthodoxy.

It goes against against accepted wisdom in liberal circles, but Trump was giving money to not only the richest but also to many poor people. Employment, especially for black workers, was up, inflation under control and with the stock market buoyant Trump was able to consolidate a new voting bloc and a dangerous new political movement.

The coronavirus pandemic has proved the undoing of Trump even though he increased his total vote to a level greater than won by Obama. The intense polarisation that his crude political style has generated helped mobilise as many people against him as for him.

Trump’s indifference to the traditional tendency of US monopoly to favour multilateral mechanisms to assert US supremacy was grounded in a hyper-realist understanding — greater than that of his mainstream bourgeois rivals — that a multipolar world with growing resistance to US capital would not submit to the US so easily as it has done since the end of the second world war.

If this accounts for his hostility to the challenge China poses — something he shares with his domestic rivals — he gambled that inter-imperialist contradictions coupled with the dollar’s supremacy was enough to underpin a new strategy based on consolidating the domestic US economy.

Untroubled by traditional ruling-class assumptions he was unworried by running a massive budget deficit. The 2008 crash and the coronavirus crisis has made this approach the less worse option even for big capital, especially since opposition to the status quo was finding expression in movements across the capitalist world, in France with the yellow vests, in Britain with the Corbyn phenomenon and in the US by the Bernies Sanders surge.

Keir Starmer welcomed the Biden victory with a restatement of liberal and neoliberal certainties that amount to a revision of history.

By presenting Biden’s victory as “a chance to reset” a wartime partnership evocative of “the values we fought for 75 years ago — liberty, co-operation, democracy and the rule of law” he pulls a veil of mystification over the actual nature of the anti-fascist victory and a bigger one over the postwar history of neo-colonialism, imperialist war and super-exploitation that is the essence of the “special relationship” between the ruling classes of Britain and the US.

If a sixth-form school student had rendered invisible the anti-fascist alliance that brought Britain, its empire, resistant France, China, the US and the Soviet Union (along with powers like Brazil) together in such a way we would gently chide them for superficial study techniques.

For the Labour leader to do so is a betrayal of both our working class and our nation and a mark of profound intellectual and political dishonesty.

And for anyone under the illusion that Starmer’s regime means continuity with Corbyn’s aspiration for an ethical foreign policy, Starmer spelt out the polar opposite: “The new president has promised to restore the US’s alliances and fill the void in global leadership. Britain should welcome this.”

We already have a good sense of what Biden’s notion of global leadership is. It is the one he shares with Tony Blair.

Starmer is nothing if not consistent. He sacrificed the chance of a Labour government to torpedo the decision of the British people to leave the EU and now he looks to Biden to lever trade talks to re-engineer an effective re-entry into the neoliberal EU straitjacket with a cynical play on the Good Friday Agreement as window dressing.

The danger for the working-class and labour movement is that when Labour fails to challenge the capitalist system and signs up to a bipartisan policy of capitalist stabilisation, neoliberal economic policies and a renewed transatlantic imperium it enables a reactionary populist challenge, decorated from a rummage box of abandoned socialist policies.

Nick Wright

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