Trump, the state, ruling (economic) elites: part I

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” (
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” (

Zeno Leoni



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