Trump’s style when dealing with corporations triggered a sense of “urgent need to restore faith in our vital economic and government institutions”. While in a previous post it was explained what this means with regard to state-capital relations, this post focuses on Trump’s relations with the politico-military establishment.
While Trump’s rhetoric is not anti-capitalist, his ideological positions and unpredictable attitude represent an obstacle to the objectives embedded in a US grand strategy which for decades was formulated and maintained by a globalist bureaucracy.
The main evidence of this tension is reflected in the reaction of the “Deep State” against Trump since he was elected. While bureaucrats understand that Trump is not a revolutionary, they see him as a threat to their sectional interests and decisional power, and above all to the pillars of post-WWII grand strategy – not everyone agrees on this argument about the arbitrary measures taken by the Deep State and it has been argued that the latter functioned as it was supposed to do. The New York Times was right in commenting that “Mr. Trump has put institutions under enormous stress. […] That has forced civil servants into an impossible dilemma: acquiesce, allowing their institution to be sidelined, or mount a defense, for example through leaks that counter Mr. Trump’s accusations or pressure him into restoring normal policy-maker practices”. This statements explains how Trump’s personality and attitude is perceived as an attack to the power of bureaucrats. But more interesting in terms of relations between the president and the establishment are the words of an Obama’s adviser.
In addition to the Deep State, he portrayed the opposition to Trump as a front formed by “The Blob”, which Ben Rhodes described as “the bipartisan class of foreign policy elites—Washington swamp dwellers like Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates and their assorted Ivy League hangers-on […]”. “Trump managed—or threatened—to blow up many of “The Blob”’s most cherished beliefs about American power. In doing so, he finally united Democrats and many Republicans, hawks and doves, neocons and Obamians, in a frenzy of worry” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/trump-foreign-policy-elites-insiders-experts-international-relations-214846). If anything this demonstrates that Trump is an atypical member of the elite – the ugly duckling in Washington, D.C. – and that the politicization of certain issues does complicate the plans of capitalist ruling classes and their political and military representatives. Pressures on American governments are shaped by internal struggles for power. Trump’s fight with the FBI is very indicative of the conflict between the presidency and “The Blob”. The firing of Comey was the culmination of this tension begun when the first news on Trump’s relation with Russia emerged. But this could also be seen with regard to the lack of candidates for the position of National Security Adviser. This was also confirmed in Walter R. Mead’s portrait of Jackson. The conservative scholar highlighted that “the establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians” (https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/01/19/the-winners-of-2016/). Rhodes and Mead are right. The struggle of power does not involve only the security apparatus but also the Republican Party which is increasingly divided.
On the one hand it lies Trump with people such as Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer, Wilbur Ross and Steve Bannon. On the other side there are Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin representing globaloney. However this portrait is more representative of the first 100 days of government rather than recent weeks. Since the launch of missiles in Syria there seems to have been some normalisation as Trump ceded to the globalists, even though Comey’s case has revived the institutional-political conflict.
It is still too early to provide a comprehensive and coherent portrait of Trump’s relations with the establishment.
Donald Trump’s presidency so far has provided important material for those interested in state theory. While his administration has never questioned capitalism, the new president maintained a much politicised posture by virtue of his strong electoral mandate, ideological worldview and arbitrary behaviour. There are mainly two critical views on what Trump’s experience might tell with regard to state-ruling class relations. The first view argues that Trump’s rhetoric is just populism to buy the consent of frustrated citizens by attacking elites only to then implement even further the programme of crony capitalism.
The second view instead maintains that the portrait is more complex and fragmented.
The former position is shared by elitists. City, University of London’s Professor Inderjeet Parmar from the columns of The Wire explained that Trump “has not drained the swamp but moved the government right into the middle of it and is immersing the departments of state in the calculus of the fast buck” (https://thewire.in/108191/trump-divide-and-rule/).
If one was to look at the profile of secretaries and advisers, for instance, he or she would realise that is correct. However my view is more sympathetic to the second perspective. Trump’s attitude, driven by his worldview and individual character produced a Byzanthine and Kafkaesque condition inside which big businesses have to interact with the White House. Several of Trump’s moves produced anxiety among the ruling class and the establishment in Washington, D.C. The immigration ban threatened to damage the bio-tech industry. The pharmaceutic sectors, it was commented, remained silent on that issue only because it wanted to use it as a good of bargaining for other favours from Trump. Anxiety hit automakers and mainly Ford given its interests in the Middle East, and spread across other sectors as well. Trump’s economic nationalism generated tensions and divided the ruling class along the lines of import and export companies after the plan for “border adjustment” tax regime was revealed. Those working in Mexico felt their interests were threatened, and certainly big shipping companies are extremely concerned about policies that might lead to restrictions of global trade. The Cadillac’s president announced the existence of “contingency planning” in case Trump was elected. Meanwhile Trump earned the support of Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions thanks to the promise of giving free way to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Trump’s posture on climate change also was used politically to consolidate consent from workers. It was acknowledged that, contrary to the theory that Trump is just lying to his electorate because he will only favour the interests of business elites, “business likes certainty” and that “business leaders seem intoxicated at the prospect of breaking bread with the most powerful man on earth”. Others compared Trump to a “natural disaster”.
In conclusion, the impression is that the ruling principle of state-capital relations during the Trump presidency will also depend on extemporaneous negotiations and tacit deals to accommodate the president’s and some of his advisers’ views. Above all this will serve to enable Trump to mediate between big businesses, his perspective on US global political economy, his idiosyncrasies and the ideologically strong mandate received after the elections. This point about new rules for negotiations between state and corporations was more precisely developed by Adam Tooze: “we might be talking of a new compromise under which protectionism buys political support for the priorities of key segments of US business that do retain influence within the party and in the White House and whose agendas coincide with the worldview of right-wing libertarians” (https://www.adamtooze.com/2017/03/17/americas-political-economy-trump-new-protectionist-alignment/).
The advent of Trump outraged many citizens and observers, and required students from all perspectives to work hard over the last months in order to keep up with events. This required required an intense and almost daily work of analysis during the first 100 days as it was – and still is – unclear what direction Trump’s government might take – despite we saw a process of normalisation as I explained in another post on this blog.
One of the angles that were overlooked is that the phenomenon of Trump reminded of how peculiar remains the history of parties and ideologies in the United States.
Trump, for his symbiotic relation with the character of Andrew Jackson, could easily be a Democratic candidate if he was born in late 18th century. At the dawn of the market revolution in the United States, when in the second decade of the 19th century capitalism was attempting to make it through slavery, barter, craftsmanship and old forms of production it was Andrew Jackson to put at the centre of the agenda of the recently born Democratic Party the opposition to finance. Jackson attempted to oppose the spread of paper currency which was perceived as socially dangerous in a context where “producer were vulnerable and “moneyed men” powerful” (Hahn, 2016, p. 99; A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, New York: Viking).
Jackson saw a “massive concentration of power “in the hands of a few […] Monied Capitalists” who could “oppress” the people” (ibid.). Not too differently from Trump’s “draining the swamp” Jackson stated that “the bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it” (ibid.). In fairness, as Hahn explains – and much like Trump – in Jackson’s discourse the economic threat intersected with all sorts of social and political discontent of lower classes whose status was being disrupted by the new economy. Economic issues became the basis for what nowadays would be seen as a populist argument against “aristocratic and unjust” elites (p. 100). This front gathered together all the people that felt threatened by rising capitalism and it was a heterogeneous group going from “yeoman farmers” to “slaveholders planters” (ibid.). In Jackson’s Democratic Party the sentiment against crony capitalism intersected with civil and social conservatism and a small state approach.
This was just the first ideological realignment in US history. Later there was the realignment of the 1850s-60s triggered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed states to vote on slavery. But the most important realignments were those of the 20th century. The first started in the 1930s and was led by Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. This produced urbanisation in the US and stimulated blacks to migrate North. Later, this was followed by the most famous “racial realignment” which was unleashed by the Civil Rights Act and which saw a broad reshuffling of voters between the main parties.
All this well known history and the importance of looking at Andrew Jackson’s experience is very telling of how Trump may be at the verge of a process which has brought to a new realignment of the electorate. Eventually this process started in the late 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the acceptance by Republican of globalism and multiculturalism. The most striking evidence of this realignment is symbolised by the electoral shift in Rust Belt states from red to blue during the last election. In a time of economic crisis, when capitalism is believed to be delivering more troubles than benefits, changes in electoral choices can be explored through a historical perspective on American politics.