The Toxic Contradictions of Trump’s America: On Past Mistakes and Possible Futures

Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpgThe election of Donald Trump was greeted with jubilation in the rust belt of the American Midwest. As a glum-faced Hillary Clinton conceded defeat on election night, whole swathes of working-class America let out a yelp of joy. Finally, said the Trump camp, the country would have someone capable of representing the interests of ‘ordinary people’. But why would once solidly Democratic areas (like coal country in Pennsylvania) vote for a crass opportunistic plutocrat like Trump? Take a closer look at recent history the mystery is soon solved. As an article in The Economist last year noted, in 1970 employment in manufacturing in America accounted for about a third of the labour force. Since then its share has dropped continuously until, in 2010, it accounted for around a tenth of workers.  In April, last year unemployment in the Pennsylvania coal region reached 8.1 % (compared to a national average of 5%). It is this backdrop of despair which offers us the key to understanding much of the appeal of the Trump campaign. As the President-Elect said in front of a Pittsburgh audience earlier this month:

America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy on federal lands and hundreds of years of coal energy reserves. I’m going to lift restrictions on American energy and allow this wealth to pour into our communities, including right here in the state of Pennsylvania, which we love.

While Democrats have recently fashioned themselves as the party of ‘responsible realists’, Trump has no such qualms. He appeals directly to people who have felt kicked around and ignored by globalised elites. Trump promised to give them back their stable communities and they offered him their votes gratefully. But as many commentators have recognised, this desire for a return to stability soon developed and dark cancerous underbelly, a shadow side which Trump gleefully endorsed. The problem with legitimate cries of anger is that they are common lightning rods for cultural misanthropy of all kinds, who tell those with legitimate grievances to go after mistaken or illegitimate targets. Whether these targets are in the form of faceless elites (add your favorite conspiracy theories here) or racial and sexual minorities the strategy is clear. But such theories of the scapegoat have one massive hole in them. They cannot confront complexity. What is always conveniently lost in such easily digestible myths is the fact that social and economic change is complex, and cannot be halted simply by having a trade war with China, deporting Mexicans or clipping LGBT rights. And why is this? Two words, liberal Capitalism. The liberal-democratic culture of the United States has been so dynamic precisely because it has assumed the continual desirability of personal, cultural, and economic ‘progress’. For Americans, change has generally been understood as something ‘good’ and transformation the iron law of history. In the expansive decades of the 18th and 19th century (when settlers expended their energy on taking a continent), this principle of progress felt benign, at least for white settlers.  The land was plentiful, technological progress swift, and culture vibrant. There was a future to be grasped and America was a new Eden in which to build it.  Yet it was soon clear that the Gospel of progress throw up all kinds of contradictions, with which the fledgling Republic had to deal.

 When Progress Stops in a Progressive Nation

Image result for FDRThe first great blip in the American story of progress came with the civil war (1861-1865) when a prosperous industrial north was pitted against a largely agrarian south.  This conflict pointed to a deep division in the American psyche. There were two Americas, one which embraced a faith in the philosophy of perpetual change, and the other which sought refuge in the security of protectionist mercantilism.  The war and the question of slavery had been resolved but the contradiction at the heart of American politics remained. Was the Republic like the older nations of Europe (a civilization in need of consolidation) or a place where bold experiments could take place? If the latter, what would become of those inevitable victims of progress? Could they be absorbed into a neat historical march? Or must they be left behind, smoldering with resentment? The social and economic devastation experienced by Europe in the early part of the 20th century pressed this question on the minds of the American public. What good was progress if it could not deliver human happiness? Of what good was great wealth, if it could build stable conditions? People needed a certain degree of solidity, to make change work for them. Continual economic upheaval could undermine the very community networks upon which trade ultimately depends. There must be an accommodation, points where the liberal-capitalist order must concede something to the old agrarian. This fact came to a head in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929, when the American economic juggernaut came to a shuddering halt. How could there be progress with millions out of work and millions more displaced? Was the Gospel of progress at an end?

Was America about to admit defeat? It turned out such defeat was premature. The election in 1932 of Franklin D. Roosevelt saw one of the most audacious political experiments ever attempted in a democracy. To resolve the contradiction between stability and progress, the Roosevelt administration expanded the activity of the Federal government by investing in national infrastructure. These New Deal reforms offered millions of jobs for the unemployed which eventually helped to revive the U.S economy. Central to the success of these public programs, were their comprehensiveness and clear emphasis upon access to work and training for those left economically inactive by the crash. This strategy was epitomised by 1945 Full Employment Act which guaranteed that ‘all Americans able to work and seeking work have the right to useful, ruminative, regular, full-time employment.’ Capitalist productiveness was to be combined with social and economic stability. And while not all the New Deal reforms remained, they set the framework for U.S economic policy until the late 1970s. For sure the agrarian/progressive divide still raged on the cultural scene (the continuing impact of the civil rights and feminist movement for instance) but they did not represent an existential threat to the creed of American progress as the Civil War and Great Depression had done.

The Reappearance of the Contradiction

Aficionados of modern American history know the next bit of this story. For the Left, it is a tale of defeat and tears; de-regulation, the smashing, and decline of labour, unions and the slashing of public welfare. But for our purposes, the story of the American Right is much more interesting. Interesting, because, although the protagonists in this narrative call themselves Conservative, they do very little conserving and a great deal of uprooting. When Ronald Reagan ascended to the Presidency in 1980, his advisors had a crystal-clear analysis of the systematic failures they wished to address. The agrarian and embedded character of the New Deal settlement, in its desire to slow down and plan for change, had strangled innovation, produced an unenterprising population and kept American enterprise back. Although the New Right was supported by a cluster of religious conservatives, Reagan’s agenda was anything but.As Richard Gamble notes:

Reagan’s speeches abounded with themes that were anything but conservative. He aligned the Republican crusader more closely with America’s expansive liberal temperament. In particular, his brand of evangelical Christianity, combined with fragments of Puritanism, enlightenment optimism, and romantic liberalism, set Reagan apart in key ways from historic conservatism. “How Right Was Reagan?”

Reagan’s program of economic rebalancing reignited the churning rootless forces of economic progress against the embedded institutions which sought to hold it back. Government stimulus was out (unless it was electorally advantageous) and privatisation was in. Nothing should stand in the way of the power of the market. But it was only a matter of time before the agrarian spirits in the body politic would fight back. But as history so often shows, political fight back often comes from unforeseen, and sometimes undesirable quarters. Pushback can be wild and intolerant, just as it can be enlivening and inspiring. The closest the Left came to such a fight back was the unsuccessful candidacy of Bernie Sanders, but in the end, it was Donald Trump (the establishment outsider of the Right) who became the rallying point for the agrarian spirit in America’s body politic at the polls. Yet, unlike FDR’s pragmatic practice of building up institutions to re-embed people (Sanders’ platform to the letter) Donald Trump’s agrarian rhetoric has courted older and nastier elements of America’s past. The scapegoating of ethnic minorities has possessed ugly traces of Jim Crow and the past dehumanisation of Native Americans.

Image result for RONALD REAGANOn the campaign trail, Trump has frequently developed a theory of re-rooting which is focused primarily on excluding rather than building up (tariffs against foreign competition, walls against foreigners, trade sanctions against other nations who refuse to benefit American business). Trump’s instincts are not those of the workmanlike FDR. Trump does not want to plan for change, nor make America more resilient in the face of challenges. Like that old reactionary Herbert Hoover, he wishes to block change by attempting to price non-American goods and services out of the market. Yet, as Hoover’s rather limp time in office amply demonstrates, blanket protectionism rarely heralds the resolution of the industrial/agrarian contradiction. In Hoover’s case, the imposition of tariffs did not herald an America reborn, but a country bedeviled by poverty and recession. Trump is attempting to solve a dangerous disease with failed medicine. And this latter fact should concern us all, who care about the future of American politics. Because failure in addressing the tension between consolidation and progress will merely set in train further tensions that an 18th-century political architecture may be unable to solve. Unless something is built to replace the dysfunction and hopelessness which now blight many communities (like those in the Midwest) cynicism and rage will grow beyond the power of institutional politics to contain. And once that happens the social fabric of America may begin to unravel irreversibly. Democracy, after all, does not rest on institutional arrangements alone but ultimately rests on people’s often unconscious commitment to the virtues of democratic governance (those of tolerance, respect, and faith in public deliberation). If commitment to these virtues fragments, no amount of institutional tinkering can stop a process of political decline. We may not witness this terminal phase during a Trump administration, but unless the decay is addressed within the next decade, the trend towards political apathy and ill-directed rage may be irreversible. The fact that we have gone from the realist liberal Obama to the protectionist authoritarian Trump in just eight years should force Americans of all stripes to take a long hard look at their public culture.

An Alternative American Future: Retrieving Equality

The question that faces a troubled American citizenry is this: is there a way out of America’s present institutional malaise and ideological polarisation? My answer for what it is worth is, not immediately. Trump may be in charge but he faces sizable contradictions of his own. He is an authoritarian and protectionist leading a political party possessing a sizable free-market and libertarian contingent. Such Republicans are very unlikely to cooperate with Trump’s trashing of trade deals and the imposition of tariffs. All we are likely to get from a Trump presidency are only those xenophobic and reactionary elements of the campaign that can be easily squared with more roundly libertarian impulses. This is likely to result in a dogs’ breakfast of measures which will simultaneously deepen racial and ethnic divides in America, while at the same time, make many of Trump’s core supporters poorer and even more rootless. The voting record of the previous Republican congress speaks volumes about the priorities of the contemporary GOP. Congressional Republicans under the Obama administration voted for cuts in food stamps, a reduction in tax for the wealthiest American households and a reduction or privatisation of state-funded healthcare. Any theoretical breathing-space for the American poor supplied by Trump’s much-vaunted stimulus package is likely to be resisted or watered-down by congressional Republicans. Change is coming, but the kind of change few ordinary Americans will find particularly palatable.

But is there a medium-term alternative to this poisonous cocktail? I think there is. The truth that so many commentators have conveniently forgotten in the wake of this seismic election result is that Bernie Sanders tapped into many of the same constituencies as Donald Trump, but if we reflect keenly on the makeup of Sander’s supporters, it is notable that his campaign was eminently capable of attracting both the blue-collar vote and the mainstream liberal kids from college campuses. From where I’m sitting, the Sanders campaign demonstrated the potential for a broad-based political movement, centred around planned change, a moderation of economic excesses and a focus on rebuilding communities through stable jobs, more affordable homes and greater collective provision of healthcare. In short, Sanders wanted to re-root communities decimated by economic change, not by tariffs and walls, but by creating a generous social safety net and strong collective buffers against sudden shocks. Capital would be allowed to flow into such an America, but owners of such Capital would be required to give over a greater portion of it for the public good (roads, schools, hospitals, care of the poor). Through these moves, argued Sanders, American could again become dynamic, but a channeled dynamism based on justice rather than the logic of winner takes all.  Per this narrative, American Capitalism could be turned away from blind, useless growth, towards genuine social development (as we have seen in Denmark and Norway). Sanders’ focus on economic regeneration through a new low-carbon economy was a stunning case in point. But in the wake of the last two weeks, many who were energised by Sanders have become unfocused, fearful and sombre. But this isn’t the time for the democratic movement Sanders galvanised to shrink from the task of renewing the country. As Sanders’ noted on the night of his defeat:

Election days come and go. But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end. They continue every day, every week and every month in the fight to create a nation of social and economic justice. That’s what the trade union movement is about. That’s what the civil rights movement is about. That’s what the women’s movement is about. That’s what the gay rights movement is about. That’s what the environmental movement is about.

Just because Trump has now won the election does not mean that Sanders’ campaign did not have the right analysis regarding the likely terminal contradictions from which the American demos now suffers.  Although Sanders’ progressive politics appears roundly social-democratic to European ears, his philosophy is in fact rooted in a controlling theme in the American political story, one which transcends the tension between roots and change. That theme is equality. By equality, Americans have generally not meant an absolute sameness of material condition (an impoverished communistic uniformity) but rather an atmosphere of fair play, dignity and civic participation which has the power to permeate every social grouping. As the great chronicler of the American character Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America (1835/1840): ‘Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions. I discovered without difficulty the enormous influence that this primary fact exerts on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and habits to the governed.’  And what are the chief ornaments of this disposition towards equality? In Tocqueville’s account, this spirit of equality often manifested as a desire for cooperation, association, and fraternity. Americans may be great individualists, thought Tocqueville, but such individualism always tended to be infused with intimacy, openness and giving. In American statements of rights and self-assertion, there was always something of the ethic of the camp-fire.

Alexis de tocqueville cropped.jpgIn this myth of American community one is accorded the space to go walking, but when one returns to the camp at nightfall, one is expected to be a good neighbour and help wash the dishes. In this political conception, one is not reduced to a mere cog, nor is one free to wander in antinomian bliss. A sense of public obligation is part of citizenship, but such obligation is placed on a person lightly, combined with sensitivity to people’s circumstances and a good dose of generosity.  If Sanders’ ‘democratic socialism’ means anything it is fundamentally about finding a space for the spirit of the campfire in the age of 3D printers and Facebook. It is about building up structures to help people rub along, help one another, and feel secure as citizens. While Sanders’ most virulent ideological opponents charge him with a  ‘European’ handout culture, what is actually being offered is a translation of American equality into modern post-industrial conditions. There is no more West to be won, no more land to conquer. The United States is energetic but crowded by people and history, its resources limited, its power constrained. Now the energy of American progress must be directed towards making the Republic livable for all its citizens. Equality must mean dignity, a hand up when times are hard, and shared institutions which guarantee the basics of a common future. Trump and the reactionaries in Congress will undoubtedly frustrate these aspirations, but a lot can happen in four years. It is up to the Sanders movement and similar social forces to provide a credible alternative to libertarian dispossession and authoritarian cruelty. Only then can America’s internal contradictions be resolved.


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