For over eighty years, the reformist left in the United States has sought to transform one of the capitalist parties into a “people’s” party. Both the Communist Party’s popular front strategy and the social-democratic strategy of “realignment” (formulated by the brilliant ex-Marxist Max Shachtman) sought to transform the Democratic Party. The Democrats, through the 1950s, were a coalition of urban real estate developers, Jewish and Catholic capitalists, and southern planters who enjoyed the voting support of northern industrial workers, black and white, middle-class liberals, and most southern whites.
The reformists’ goal was to drive out the conservative, pro-capitalist elements — especially the Dixiecrats — leaving the labor officialdom and middle-class liberals to dominate a “labor-liberal” Party. As Paul Heideman recently pointed out in a recent essay in Jacobin, there was a realignment in the Democratic Party in the 1970s — but not the one the reformists hoped for. The southerners abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans, but with urban growth the non–White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) capitalists were joined by new capitalists in high technology and the media, and an increasingly neoliberal urban middle class. Rather than becoming a labor-liberal party, the Democrats moved sharply right in the 1980s as the official leaders of the labor, civil rights, and women’s movements were marginalized.
Today, we are seeing a realignment within the oldest party of industrial capitalism in the United States — the Republicans. The party establishment — those with the closest historic ties to old-line, WASP manufacturers, bankers, and financiers — have lost control of the party to a right-wing populist, Donald Trump.
Since the 1960s, the mass voter base of the Republican Party has been made up primarily of older, suburban, white middle-class small businesspeople, professionals, and managers, many of whom are self-described Christian fundamentalists, and a minority of older white workers, including a minority of union households. Until recently, the party’s base’s particular passions — especially its hostility to the democratic gains of people of color, women, and LGBT people — could be contained.
Minor concessions to the social conservatives on abortion, affirmative action, voter restrictions, and same-sex marriage/legal equality maintained their loyalty, while capitalists set the substantive neoliberal agenda for the Republicans (and the Democrats as well). As in the Democratic Party, the noncapitalist elements of the Republican coalition were clearly junior partners to capital.
In 2016, a radical, right-wing, middle-class insurgency that began in the wake of the world economic crisis of 2007–8 has displaced, at least temporarily, the hegemonic capitalists in the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate is the most recent act of a struggle for the leadership of the party that began in the aftermath of the global recession and the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both the US House and Senate.
While capital did push back against the first wave of middle-class radicalism in the Republican Party — the Tea Party — during the 2014 Congressional elections, these rebels were not vanquished. In fact, they have become even more radically nationalist and populist, imposing a presidential candidate hostile to the neoliberal agenda.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2007-8 global recession, the mainstream media predicted, and much of the Left hoped for, a sharp turn to the left in both public opinion and state policies. Growing support for “socialism” — more capitalist state regulation of the market economy and the expansion of social welfare — seemed to sound the death knell of neoliberalism across the advanced capitalist world. The 2008 election, when Obama and the Democrats scored large majorities with vague promises of a return to “New Deal” policies, seemed to confirm these prognostications.
However, within two years of Obama’s election it was clear that the United States, like other capitalist societies, was experiencing a sharpening political polarization. While capital and mainstream political leaders remained committed to austerity and deregulation, there was widespread rejection of neoliberalism from both the left and the right.
On the one hand, a significant portion of youth and working people were moving left — as manifested in the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and, electorally, in the massive support for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries. On the other, we saw the radicalization of the older, white middle classes around a right-wing populist program that targeted both people of color, immigrants, women, and LGBT folks, and the “corporate establishment.”
The Bush and Obama administrations’ bailouts of banks, the auto industry, and some homeowners was the catalyst for the radicalization of the Republican electorate. The “Tea Party” began as an alliance between a grassroots rebellion of older, white, suburban small businesspeople, professionals and managers, and elements of the capitalist class. The middle-class ranks of the Tea Party railed against “corporate welfare” and “bailouts for undeserving” homeowners, in particular people of color who held sub-prime mortgages.
Capitalists like the Koch brothers saw an opportunity to advance their libertarian agenda of defeating Obamacare and privatizing Medicare and Social Security pensions. Broader layers of the capitalist class encouraged the Tea Party’s mobilizations as long as it championed the weakening of unions, further deregulation of capital, and social-service austerity. Capitalists were also happy to manipulate hostility to Obama’s health-care plan to force the Democrats to increase subsidies to the private health care and insurance industries.
This alliance continued through the 2010 congressional elections, when the Republicans won a majority in the House and deprived the Democrats of their filibuster-proof “super majority” in the Senate. While particularly right-wing capitalists like the Koch brothers helped finance the Tea Party, most capitalists continued to hedge their bets electorally. Capitalist donors slightly preferred the Democrats over the Republicans in 2010.
The rise of a new populist right targeting immigrants, people of color, and unions for the current economic crisis represented a radicalization of the white, suburban middle class and a minority of older, white, native-born workers. Capital was more than willing to use this nativist, racist, and anti-union movement when their interests coincided. However, the new right has an agenda independent of and, at points, opposed to that of capital.
The issues of immigration and the possibility of a federal credit default distinguished the Tea Party right from the political establishment. The minority of older white workers who voted Republican viewed undocumented immigrants as competitors on the labor market; while the older small businesspeople and professionals who made up the majority of the Tea Party cadre and voters viewed undocumented immigrants as a threat to their “quality of life” and competitors for scarce social services. Mass deportations and denying the undocumented any path to citizenship (and access to social services), with lower federal deficits, would protect the “earned benefits” (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) upon which they rely.
Capitalists, however, have a very different perspective on both immigration and the debt ceiling. Not only do high-tech industries want access to skilled foreign professionals, but labor-intensive industries like agriculture, construction, landscaping, domestic service, child care, health care, and hospitality rely on low-wage, vulnerable immigrant labor. Capital wants a precarious migrant workforce without legal status, disciplined by selective deportations, to labor for substandard wages in these industries. The two most important “business lobbying” organizations — the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable — are leading the fight for an immigration reform that would create massive “guest worker” programs and a long, difficult and complex “path to citizenship” for those in the United States without papers, while opposing wholesale deportations and other policies that reduce the size of the immigrant workforce.
Capital supports massive cuts to social spending in the United States and a reduction of the Federal budget deficit. However, the Tea Party’s political brinkmanship — its willingness to let the United States default on its public debt by refusing to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 — estranged capital from the Tea Party. Both the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable led the opposition to attempts to “shut down the government” as a threat to the US and global financial system upon which capitalists depend.
The fall 2013 government shutdown marked the end of the uneasy alliance between the Tea Party and the capitalist class. The campaign to “Fix the Debt” was launched in 2012, bringing together dozens of former senators and congressmen and over 150 CEOs of some of the largest US transnational corporations in support of a “grand bargain” of closing corporate tax loopholes while lowering the overall tax rate “in exchange” for “restructuring” (i.e. massive cuts to) federal pensions, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. While the “bargain” garnered the support of Obama, the Democratic leadership, and mainstream Republicans, key leaders of the Tea Party refused to accept this compromise, sparking the government shutdown of Fall 2013.
In the midst of the 2013 budget crisis, leaders and staff of key elements of the “business lobby,” (National Retail Federation, National Federation of Independent Businesses, National Association of Manufacturers, US Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable) and the “Fix the Debt” campaign began to wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had engineered the government shutdown.
The US Chamber of Commerce led the mobilization for mainstream Republicans. Scott Reed, the chamber’s chief political strategist, launched “Vote for Jobs,” targeting key senate and house races to defend incumbents like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and defeat Tea Party intransigents. “Vote for Jobs” made very effective interventions in the Republican congressional primaries and in the general election in November 2014. Only one Republican was elected to the Senate without the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce.
Initially, the capitalist class’s attempts to discipline the Republican Party appeared to be successful. Despite calls by the still sizeable Tea Party contingent in both chambers to shut down the government to block Obama’s executive order on immigration, bipartisan coalitions in both the House and Senate pushed through the nearly $1.1 trillion spending plan in late December 2104. But while a government shutdown was avoided, the greatly reduced Tea Party contingent in the House and Senate was able to block serious discussion of a pro-corporate immigration reform.
Their continued influence was most clearly seen when John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House, was forced out of Congress despite having successfully navigated several budget deals. While his replacement, Paul Ryan, is considerably to the right, he has clearly distanced himself from the populist insurgency that has metamorphosed into the Trump campaign.
Donald Trump’s “outsider” campaign for president marked a deepening of the right-wing radicalization of sections of the middle classes and of the crisis of capitalist hegemony in the Republican Party. When Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in June 2015, few political commentators took his campaign seriously. With a field dominated by mainstream Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, most believed that Trump’s campaign would be short-lived. However, within a month of announcing for the presidency, Trump was out-polling a crowded Republican field. And in July 2016, he became the official nominee of the Republican party.
What makes Trump unacceptable to the Republican establishment and their corporate backers is not merely his unabashed racism and misogyny, or his casual references to his penis size. Nor does their hostility flow from electoral calculations, though it is true that Trump is likely to lose the presidency and possibly help return Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
Trump, in many ways, is a radical, right-wing opponent of capital’s dominance over the Republican Party. Not only does Trump express the xenophobia and racism of his populist base, but he rejects central tenets of the bipartisan neoliberal agenda that has impoverished segments of the middle class along with working and poor people. Capital is clearly uneasy with Trump’s stance on immigration and the federal debt — he floated the idea of trying to persuade creditors to accept less than full payment on loans to the US government. The corporate elite is even more disturbed by his ideas about foreign policy and global “free trade.”
Trump rejects the established “US role in the world” — a muscular, imperialist foreign policy ready to use military force to protect the global interests of US capital. While there have been debates within the US ruling class over where and when to send troops since Vietnam, no segment of the corporate class questions the US alliance with the most stable capitalist power in the Middle East, Israel, the justice of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the maintenance of nuclear hegemony.
Trump has also made incendiary comments on “bombing the shit” out of the Islamic State forces, threatened to break off negotiations with the Iranian regime, and called for US allies to pay for US military and political protection. Not surprisingly, those allies are uneasy: “In many capitals, Mr. Trump’s formal and off-the-cuff foreign policy proposals: his threat to pull out of NATO; his musings about removing the United States nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea; his pledge to slap huge trade tariffs on China — are regarded with a mix of alarm and confusion.”
As an advocate of an “America First” politics that has been rejected by the US corporate elite since the 1940s, Trump is perceived as a much less reliable agent of US capital globally than a committed and experienced imperialist politician like Hillary Clinton.
Even more disturbing for the corporate elite are Trump’s positions on “free trade” and taxation. The removal of any and all political obstacles to the free movement of capital and goods — but not labor — has been a fundamental element of neoliberal orthodoxy for well over thirty years. From Bill Clinton’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the entire US capitalist class and its political representatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties have promoted the liberalization of trade and investment.
Equally important to the neoliberal agenda is the lowering of taxes on US corporations and wealthy individuals, theoretically to promote investment. Trump is opposed to both of these pillars of neoliberalism. He blames NAFTA and other trade deals for the loss of US manufacturing jobs, and calls for tariffs as high as 40 percent on imports to protect US jobs against “unfair” competition — despite warnings that this could spark a global trade war that could damage the role of US corporations in the world economy. Nor do any section of capital in the United States support higher taxes on wealthy individuals or punitive taxation on those who “export American jobs.”
Despite winning the nomination, Trump’s politics have alienated a broad swath of the Republican establishment. Within a month of the Republican National Convention, more than seventy prominent Republicans sent a letter to the Republican National Committee urging it to cut off funding to Trump’s campaign, and instead shift resources to vulnerable Republicans in house and senate seats. The New York Times estimated that over one hundred ten Republican leaders had, by late August, declared that they could not campaign or vote for Trump.
Trump’s right-wing nationalist populist positions on foreign policy, trade, and taxation help explain why growing segments of the capitalist class in the United States — including former Tea Party backers like the Koch brothers — attempted to block his nomination. Even more ominously for Trump, traditionally Republican corporate funders are either sitting out the presidential election or supporting the more reliable spokesperson for capital, Hillary Clinton.
A USA Today survey of 156 individuals, corporations, and organizations that have donated at least $1 million to super PACs since January 1, 2015 found that many who usually donate to Republican candidates “up and down the ticket” are not providing funds for Trump. Some are actually donating to Clinton, while others are focusing their donations on “down ticket” Republican candidates for the House and Senate. Not only has Clinton been successful in raising funds from investment bankers, but the usually Republican defense industry is backing her two to one in campaign donations.
Data on the overall contributions to presidential candidates through early August reveal an even more lopsided capitalist preference for Clinton over Trump. After deducting contributions from civil servants and public officials, nonprofit institutions, unions, retirees, and Democratic and Republican ideological groups, Clinton raised over $150 million from the capitalist class, compared to Trump’s mere $5.5 million.
Clinton received over 90 percent of corporate donations from business services, education, health care and pharmaceutical producers, electronics manufacturers, construction services and contractors, lawyers, and the film-television-music industries. She has garnered donations from over 80 percent of traditionally Republican capitalists in general manufacturing, finance-insurance-securities, and real estate (Trump’s own industry). This is an especially big problem for Trump, who self-financed his primary campaign, but is not in a position to provide the approximately $1.5 billion needed to run in the general elections.
Who are Trump’s voters? Despite claims that he has won the “white working class,” the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, like those of the Tea Party, are drawn from the traditional and new middle classes, especially the older, white male and less well-off strata of these classes. Clearly, Trump’s right-wing opposition to neoliberal trade and tax policies resonates with a minority of older, white workers, including a minority of union members.
However, the claims that most of his support comes from “the white working class” are based on a problematic definition of the “working class” as all non-Hispanic whites without a college education. Not only does this conception allow mainstream commentators to caricature white workers as ignoramuses swayed by demagogic buffoons like Trump, but it allows them to misrepresent the social basis of Trump’s campaign.
First, while approximately 55 percent of Trump supporters do not have a bachelor’s degree, this demographic makes up approximately 70 percent of the US population — they are underrepresented among Trump voters. However, the college-educated white new middle class (professionals and managers), is approximately 30 percent of the population, but are overrepresented, at 40 percent, among Trump supporters. Not surprisingly, the median household income of Trump voters is around $70,000 annually.
More importantly, the category “non-college educated whites” includes both wage workers and the self-employed — the traditional middle class. The Economist found that “better-paid and better-educated voters have always formed as big a part of Mr. Trump’s base as those at the lower end of the scale for income and education.”
A systematic review of Gallup polling data demonstrates, again, that most Trump supporters are part of the traditional middle class (self-employed) and those sectors of the new middle class (supervisors) who do not require college degrees. They tend to live in “white enclaves” isolated from immigrants and other people of color, have worse health than the average US resident, and are experiencing low rates of intergenerational mobility. While not directly affected either by the decline of industry in the Midwest or by immigration, these sectors have experiencing declining living standards and are fearful about their children’s prospects of remaining in the middle class.
The impact of three decades of neoliberalism, in particular the stagnation of real incomes and growing inequality, combined with massive losses of personal wealth (mostly housing values), growing personal debt, and growing economic insecurity among broad segments of the US working and middle classes since the recession of 2007–8, has fueled the deepening polarization of US politics.
While younger working- and middle-class voters have been disproportionately attracted to the left-wing populism of the Sanders campaign, older white middle-class voters have been drawn to Trump. Caught between a decimated labor movement and an extremely aggressive capitalist class, parts of the middle classes are drawn to a politics that scapegoats immigrants, unions, women, LGBT people, and people of color. The Trump phenomenon is part and parcel of the growth of right-wing populism among the middle classes across the capitalist world, as seen in the growth of the UK Independence Party in Britain, the National Front in France, and the Five Star Movement in Italy.
Right-wing populism is ideologically similar to the classic fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Without question, the Trump campaign has allowed genuinely fascist elements in the United States — white supremacist organizations that physically confront unions, immigrants, native-born people of color, and LGBT people — to emerge into the political sunlight.
Trump’s encouragement of physical violence against his political opponents and the emergence of the “Lion’s Guard” — “an informal civilian group dedicated to the safety and security of Trump supporters by exposing Far-Left rioters” — are alarming. The hiring of the “alt-right” Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon as the head of Trump’s campaign sends a clear message to various “racialists” and “white nationalists” that they have a place in mainstream US politics.
While Trump gives aid and comfort to the still relatively tiny fascist right (the Klan, etc.), his campaign is not fascist. More importantly, neither the fascist elements around it — or Trump himself — have a significant chance of coming to power. Populist ideology, alone, does not define fascism.
Fascism is a social movement of the middle classes that is organized as both an electoral party and a street-fighting organization that seeks to physically defeat the organizations of working people (left-wing parties, unions, etc.) and destroy the institutions of capitalist democracy. Fascism becomes a mass movement with the potential of taking political power when left-wing movements threaten, but fail to take power; and capitalist classes continue to fear challenges from below. Trump is attempting to win an election, not abolish representative government.
More importantly, US capitalists, unfortunately, have not faced any serious challenge to their dominance in the United States. They have no need to turn power over to the radicalized middle classes. Faced with a Trump nomination, most capitalists have joined much of the Republican establishment in either sitting out the election, or crossing partisan lines to support the “reliable” neoliberal Hillary Clinton.
The claim that Trump is a fascist is not simply an academic or analytic problem. More importantly, it buttresses a strategy for the progressive left that is self-defeating. Reasonably frightened by the prospect of a Trump presidency, the official leadership of the unions and organizations of women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBT people will double down in their support of Clinton as the “lesser evil.”
This strategy is based on two illusions. The first is the notion that Trump has a reasonable chance of being elected president. Most political commentators agree that Trump can win only if there is a sharp decline in voter participation, especially among young people, women, and people of color. While Trump cannot raise sufficient funds to finance an effective general election campaign, Clinton is armed with a much larger war chest. Fueled by the widespread loathing of Trump among young people, women, people of color, and immigrants, Clinton will build a massive “get out the vote” machine — well beyond the foot soldiers provided by the AFL-CIO and the mainstream organizations of women, LGBT folks, and people of color. While she may not be able to mobilize the electorate on the scale Obama did in 2008, when nearly 60 percent of eligible voters came to the polls, the election is Clinton’s to lose.
Second, lesser-evilism has actually accelerated the drift to the right in US politics. The fear of alienating their Democratic “allies” has led the official leadership of reform movements in the past eighty years to derail the sort of social movements — militant labor struggles, mass movements against racism, sexism, and war — that can win reforms and build left-wing consciousness and politics. In the name of “being realistic,” these forces follow the Democrats, dropping demands for real reforms. The Democrats are then free to “compromise” with the Republican right.
This can be seen clearly in the marginalization of Sanders and his supporters at the Democratic convention, congressional Democrats’ continued support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Clinton’s choice of the “free trade” advocate Tim Kaine as her running mate, and her sharp tack to the right on foreign policy.
With social movements weakened and invisible, the “alliance” with the Democrats allows the populist right to remain the main voice of militant opposition to the failed policies of the Democrats. Put simply, the Left’s support for a rightward-moving Democratic Party as a “lesser evil” to the populist right actually facilitates the growing right-wing radicalization. Only by rebuilding effective extra-electoral resistance to capital and the state, no matter which party is in power, and by creating a mass political party that can speak for working and oppressed people, will we be able to defeat the Right.
What is the future of the Republican party? It is unlikely that the middle-class insurgency will permanently transform the Republicans. While the party establishment and their capitalist backers are sitting out the presidential campaign, they are attempting to reassert their hegemony in the congressional elections.
First, the Republican National Committee and corporate donors are pouring millions into the Republican congressional campaign, hoping to stave off a Democratic sweep. Even more importantly, the party leadership has been able to defeat several challenges from the remnants of the increasingly pro-Trump Tea Party. The Chamber of Commerce and farm organizations funded Roger Marshall’s successful primary challenge to the Kansas Tea Party congressmen, Tim Huelskamp. Tea Party challenges to John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida were defeated, along with all the other Tea Party candidates challenging mainstream Republican candidates.
Whether or not Trump’s likely defeat in November leads to a Democratic majority in the House or Senate, the Republican establishment will likely move to reorganize the party so that this sort of right-wing populist insurgency never succeeds again.
In all likelihood they will follow the example of the Democrats after the right wing of the antiwar movement temporarily seized control of the party with the McGovern candidacy of 1972, by creating unelected “superdelegates” who will guarantee that the party base will never again upset the apple cart.
Originally published at Brooklyn Rail.