The Social Character of the Trump Moment

Dylan Riley, sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, has published an essay, “What is Trump?” in the New Left Review (No. 114, November-December 2018) that echoes arguments I have been making since Trump appeared on the scene as a presidential candidate for the Republican Party. It’s nice to see somebody with expertise in the sociology of fascism making the same points—especially when those around me look at me like I’m a space alien when I make them. As many of you already know, my argument is that Trump, a New York real estate tycoon with an independent streak, is alien to transnational power and at odds with establishment norms and goals. He thus represents a disruptive force in the prevailing capitalist hegemony that desires to project globalism and multiculturalism as appealing and animating values, values harmful to working class interests. Make no mistake, there is a downside to Trump (as I have written about on this blog). At the same time, there is an upside to disturbing the smooth surface of prevailing bourgeois hegemony.

I have argued that Trump is not, as the center and the left like to portray him, a fascist (see Navigating the Spectacle and Immigration, Deportation, and Reductio ad Hitlerum), and Riley agrees. Riley is author of The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania 1870-1945 (published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2010). Much of Riley’s essay is an analysis of interwar fascism, its economic, political, and cultural character. I will let you study his argument for yourself. It should suffice to say here (I will have more to say about interwar fascism later) that, as a capitalist strategy to disorganize the labor movement and disrupt the socialist consciousness that threatened the ceaseless accumulation of wealth, fascism represents something quite different from what we see on the political right today, what amounts to a popular revolt against regionalism and globalism, a moment in which counter-establishment and charismatic politicians appeal to workers suffering under neoliberal economic policies. Indeed, while the politicians answering the call are rightwing, much of the reaction is not intrinsically so, but rather is pro-native-born labor sentiment—and, to varying extents, these politicians are in tune with that. 

Riley writes that, “in class terms,” “Trump’s hostile relationship with key sections of the American elite” stands “in sharp contrast to the good relations the interwar fascist leaders enjoyed with their big bourgeoisies and landowners.” I argued from the outset that Trump was not a candidate the establishment would have put forward. Unlike the rigged primary process of the Democratic Party (the superdelegate system), the openness of the Republican party machinery betrayed the power elite and spit out a populist candidate, one who, in Gramscian terms, lacks “any organic connection to the class of which he is part” (quoting Riley). Trump’s election came as a shock to the establishment, whose propagandists immediately turned on the distortion machine in an effort to delegitimize the president or at least bring him to heel. The pattern thus far has been establishment elites tolerating Trump where their interests align, such as tax cuts and deregulation, while criticizing him when he attempts to make peace with “America’s enemies” or roll back US military commitments around the world. The left should applaud Trump’s moves in these areas, but hysteria makes it hard to see the windfall that comes with an anti-establishment moment. The tragedy here is that the left can’t see clearly enough to seize the moment. That blindness has been a long time in development. 

Riley detects “a high level of unease within the US capitalist class about Trump” and identifies several key antagonistic relations: “intellectuals and the media” and “national-security intelligentsia and imperial bureaucracy.” Riley notes in particular Trump’s contempt for the State Department and the school of international relations. “He is the only president in living memory with the temerity to make a public issue of how much US deployments in Europe and Asia cost,” writes Riley. “This has led to indignant commentary across the political spectrum, condemning the President for failing to understand the vital role that forward bases play. Indeed the State Department, with the support of the Democrats, has often been more belligerent than Trump himself, forcing him to take a harder line on Russia and the DPRK.” Riley captures concisely the point I have been making for months about the establishment tactic of goading the president into assuming a more muscular military posture in order to continue the neoconservative Project for a New American Century. Decidedly not a Cold War liberal, Trump frustrates the modus operandi of US military-industrial ambitions. Tragically, hysteria on the left is causing many progressives to defend imperialist goals.

Riley adds to these observations an analysis of Trump’s supporters. As he notes, analyses “before the November 2016 election suggested they were likely to lack a college degree and have slightly higher-than-median incomes.” Indeed, Trump “did well among skilled blue-collar workers.” As Riley rightly observes, given the material interests of this demographic, afflicted by globalization, one can plausibly cast their concerns in “nationalist terms.” Thus “Trump’s key move in 2016 was to combine the core Republican electorate—evangelicals; relatively affluent white, rural and suburban southern voters; a section of the Appalachian working class—with a sliver of working-class swing voters in the Upper Midwest.” These are the segments of the electorate who have felt most disaffected culturally, politically, and economically by the bicoastal elite with their focus on left-wing identity politics, diversity, multiculturalism, and globalism. And despite feelings of optimism in the 2018 midterms, “Democrats lost non-college-educated white men by 34 percentage points.” That this group seeks meaning on the right is a chief indicator of the failure of the contemporary left to represent the organic interests of the working class. Instead, it indicates the alienation of a large segment of the working class by the deformation of leftwing thought into an identity politics, blaming white men for the world’s problems, accusing disadvantaged and exploited white workers of bearing “white privilege.” 

A person on my Facebook page accused the New Left Review of maintaining a stable of “leftwing analysts sympathetic to western nationalism.” One would hope so (although this doesn’t seem to be the case). After all, Marx and Engels were, given their understanding that it’s civic nationalism that emancipates oppressive structures (religion and property) from the traditional state thus providing an opportunity for emancipating individuals from ideology and class (see Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”), and that, therefore, the proletariat must first settle accounts with its national bourgeoisie (see The Communist Manifesto), which is difficult to do amid the politically and culturally disorganizing effects of globalization. In their most immediate political arguments, Marx and Engels suggest reforms that are only possible in the context of the nation-state; the internationalist movement piece is about orienting national-level proletariat in those parts of the world with liberal values waiting to be fully actualized in the same basic direction. The erasing of nationalist boundaries is something that comes later in history, once the socialist revolution has taken root in the most developed societies. Yet many on the left act as if capitalist globalization was a manifestation of the Internationale.

We should modify Marx and Engels in one crucial way, however: they could not have foreseen the disruptive effects of resurgent religious fundamentalism, especially Islam, which, unlike the Protestant strain of Christianity that made possible the political systems of the most developed capitalist countries, rejects completely the secularism necessary for the potential emancipation of individuals from irrational ideologies that politically paralyze them. Hence another reason for fortifying national boundaries and the values of civic nationalism. The modern western nation-state benefits not only the national proletariat in the developed world by protecting them from the disruptive effects of Islamism, but will, in the long run, help individuals mired in the muck of the Islamic world, since they will have powerful secular states—if we can keep them—as lights on the path to emancipation from religious backwardness. Along with this, we also need to consider that Catholicism remains a regressive force and also must be marginalized. Indeed, Islam and Catholicism represent the most obvious fascisms in waiting. Yet people do not see the real fascist threat (reactionary Catholicism was the heart of classical fascism) and instead smear those who are defending the West from the parties of god with such labels as “nativist” and “xenophobe.” 

Nationalist solidarity (of the liberal and civic sort) is a protective force against fascism. As the world saw in the interwar period, communist internationalism, disconnected from national-level sentiment, could not muster popular resistance to fascism, that latter designed by capitalist elites to heighten sympathies for ethnic (over against civic) nationalisms, intensify the split in the working class, and establish an illiberal state in order to gain control over labor and restore profits by force. The United States experience, where fascism did not become a dominant politics (rather social democracy did), provides a useful contrast. Rank-and-file workers in the US marginalized the internationalist wing of the labor movement, pushing, for example, for immigration control in a decidedly populist anti-globalization move. It took nationalist sentiment decades to pull leadership on board, but when it did, and immigration was sharply restricted, the result was greater union density, the development of broad-based democratic socialist consciousness, mass support for the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism, and a vast expansion of individual freedom—all of which was undermined by the opening of America to immigration in the mid-1960s, coupled with other strategies of labor discipline (off-shoring, for example.) 

This is the major flaw in Riley’s essay in understanding the present moment: the immigration question. When the author writes that “economic malaise today focuses on the ‘downsides’ of globalization—the relocation of manufacturing jobs abroad, to be replaced by growing precariousness, longer hours worked for falling real pay and rising household debt—thrown into relief by the trillion-dollar banker bailout,” he leaves out the other side of globalization: the importation of foreign workers to domestic production spheres, a relocation that displaces native-born workers, lowers wage, undermines living standards, increases personal debt[1], marginalizes union power, disorganizes communities, and stresses social welfare systems. Of course, the immigration side of globalization is the problem that cannot be identified honestly under the current regime of political correctness, so it goes not exactly unacknowledged, but rather the truth of it is rationalized. Riley provides a good example of rhetorical contortion: “To the extent that Trump’s economic-nationalist agenda had a popular basis, it rested on workers and middle-class layers who had suffered from the offshoring of jobs and who feared competition from immigrants in employment, rather than welcoming them as a cheap source of labor.” By describing the reaction to immigration in terms of attitude rather than fact, Riley leaves the impression (reinforced elsewhere) that concern over the importation of foreign workers is irrational, while concern over the exportation of American jobs is empirically grounded: workers and middle-class layer suffered from the former while fearing the latter. He even detracts from the reality that immigrants are a cheap source of labor (for surely he does not wish to sell immigrants as cheap labor to American workers).

More than this, Riley goes after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for what Sessions got right. Riley notes “Sessions’s anti-immigrant fanaticism” and claims that it is “rooted in a theory” that “the massive inequalities of the Gilded Age were an expression of uncontrolled immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. With the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, the European population was assimilated, becoming a homogeneous white working and middle class—the foundation for US world power and domestic tranquility in the twentieth century.” Here’s what Sessions actually said in 2015: “Some people think we’ve always had these numbers [of immigrants], and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the President and Congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through to 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”

I know it pains folks on the left to admit that a right-winger like Sessions could be right about this (or anything, really), but this argument is not only logically obvious, but is empirically confirmed. It was the sharp restriction of immigration in the 1960s that allowed for the emergence of a shared culture that supported unions and civil rights and fostered a social democracy with great promise for the transformation of the US economy (I have written extensively about this on this blog). But social democratic progress was blunted by a well-organized and determined business class that sought a new imperialism—and worked through the Democratic Party and the academy—to open the world to capital investment. This project was accompanied by the development of postmodern ideas (beginning as arguments hailing from the Frankfurt School and French reaction to communism), which led to the development of a leftwing identity politics among relatively affluent and educated youth that was hostile to labor.

At the same time, as Riley notes, the development of the postmodern attitude interferes with fascist politics. “Postmodern charisma throws up yet another contradiction for a would-be patrimonial ruler. Ideally, the charismatic aura is transmitted to the staff through some sort of ideology, creating a layer of disciples who can spread the central message outward and downward. But Trump has no mechanism for this and so lacks disciples.” To put this another way, Trump disrupts the inverted totalitarianism of the current capitalist hegemony (to borrow Sheldon Wolin’s characterization) not by throwing up an alternative ideology, but by channeling popular anger and resentment. This is one of those upsides to the Trump presidency:

“One merit of the present Administration is that, despite his own lack of ideological coherence, Trump politicizes everything, thereby undermining the fiction of technocratic consensus and rule-bound behaviour. There is no real parallel to his open attacks on the Department of Justice, the courts and the security apparatuses, to say nothing of his rejection of the idea that structures such as NATO, NAFTA and the WTO, for example, are non-political. This pervasive politicization of the institutions and treaties of the neo-liberal state may have unintended consequences.”

Perhaps we should be more Marxist about it and admit that it exposes contradictions and sharpens antagonisms. (The question is whether the left is conscious enough and in a way capable of taking advantage. The evidence suggests it is not.)

The author usefully notes that the present circumstances, which find their roots in the 1960s, represent “an inversion of the class-nation relations” we witnesses in the 1930s. “In the US today, a pro-globalist professional layer is pitted against a ‘nationalist’ white working class — a configuration that is almost the opposite to that of interwar fascism.” Identifying the nationalist working class as white prejudices the reader against the nationalist sentiment by assuming an ethnic caste, thus excluding its civic character. In a foot note, the author comments that globalism “is more cultural than political: a key difference between the ‘internationalism’ of the working class and that of the professionals.” One suspects this appears as a footnote because working out this line of thinking might compel a different interpretation of the immigration problematic. So, the author writes: “Fascism, in contrast, emerged in contexts in which the political leadership of the working class, the communist parties, remained internationalist, whereas the petty bourgeoisie swung to extreme nationalism. Far from being a form of populism, fascism was premised on its failure.” But then writes: “Socialism, at least in the advanced world, has emerged where both the new professional strata and the leadership of the working class are oriented internationally: an unfortunate rarity.” This depends on how one is defining the internationalist orientation. Is it one that is supportive of the neo/imperialism of capitalist globalization, which dismantles the nation-state and cultures supportive of civil liberties, human rights, and social democracy for the benefit of a small network of families who believe they are immune to cultural irrationalities (and environmental catastrophe)? Or is it one where, as Marx and Engels argued, the proletariat of the various advanced capitalist states settle accounts with their national bourgeoisie while being mindful of the interstate situation? 

Riley writes, “The contemporary new rights differ from these in attempting to mobilize a nationally oriented working class against a globally oriented ‘new petty bourgeoisie’.” This should be reworded to explicitly identity the new petty bourgeoisie as the administrative and cultural managers running public institutions and corporations; these are the servants of the global power elite, carrying out an ideological program of diversity over equality and identity over liberty (these as ideational control structures). One can see what is hanging Riley up. First, he makes the argument: “With the partial exception of the evangelical churches, the hollowing-out of the civil-society organizations that once mobilized electoral support for these oligarchic formations has been a condition for the steady decline in voter turnout—American political culture thus reinforces the political-economic tendency to atomize the population.” It is unclear whether Riley thinks this is a good thing (it is and it isn’t). “On the other hand,” Riley writes, “the movements for black civil rights and women’s self-determination, while lacking formal organizational structures, have continued to renew themselves and now constitute a significant feature of the political landscape.” But these movements, liberated from their traditions by postmodernism, have been substantially corrupted by a mix of the epistemology of anti-truth and stealth ethnonationalist-like notions of group identity over human being (and thus over universal human rights).

However, as Riley points out, and this is the main takeaway from his essay: “pinning the ‘fascist’ label on Trump…means uniting behind the program of the present Democratic leadership…[the] superintendents of the oligarchic order; the very project that gave Trump the White House in 2016.” In other words, the neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party, while providing no protective value against the popular nationalism Trump represents, are not the politics the left should desire in-itself. The need to persuade working class people to vote for Democrats also lies behind the hysteria over Russia and fake news; the establishment has been reduced to the most obvious of fear tactics, even dusting off and rejiggering anti-Soviet hysteria, which was longer ago than those who remember it think. 

There is a mundane explanation to all this. What the world is witnessing is the way a businessman operates in his environment. As CEO of a corporation, it is applauded (not by me, of course). But when CEO of a nation-state, it leaves a lot to be desired. But it is not fascist. Riley puts it nicely: “The hour is late and the stakes are high; but bad historical analogies will not aid in dealing with the present crisis.” The question is whether folks as enlightened as Riley will finally jettison identity politics and operate on the reality principle, especially when it comes to political economic truths.


[1] The author makes an interesting point about “personal debt-to-income ratio in the United States,” namely that it “exploded in the run-up to 2008.” As well as this sociological observation: “indebtedness is not a collective experience, in the way that mass unemployment is, but an intrinsically individual one: every debtor has a quantitatively specific credit score, for example, and the crisis for her or him takes the form of difficulty in paying the bills. Debt therefore tends towards an individualization, or serialization, of political activity. Rather than collectivizing wage-earners, it atomizes the population into what Marx famously described as ‘a sack of potatoes’.” As the author notes, “‘potatoes’ don’t make for fascism; they make for Bonapartism—rallying as individuals to a charismatic leader, rather than forming a coherent paramilitary bloc. If they are to be galvanized today, it is likely to be on the defensive basis of protectionist nationalism, rather than yet further imperial aggression.” This must be grasped within a full understanding of the dynamic.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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