How the Donald Came to Rule

A radical middle-class insurgency has stormed the Republican Party.

Illustration by Raúl Soria

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In 2016, a radical, right-wing, middle-class insurgency displaced the dominant capitalists in the Republican Party, at least temporarily. Donald Trump’s nomination and election is the most recent chapter in an ongoing struggle that began in the aftermath of the economic crisis and the 2008 Democratic electoral victory. Capital successfully beat back the first wave of middle-class radicalism in the Republican Party — the Tea Party — during the 2014 congressional elections, but these rebels were not vanquished. They were radicalized.

Since the 1960s, the voter base of the Republican Party has been made up primarily of older, suburban, white, middle-class, small businesspeople, professionals, and managers, and a minority of older white workers. Until recently, the particular passions of that base — especially its hostility to the democratic gains of people of color, women, and LGBT people — could be contained. Minor concessions to 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. As with the Democrats, the non-capitalist elements of the Republican coalition were clearly junior partners to capital.

A Failed Marriage

The Bush and Obama administrations’ bailouts of banks, the auto industry, and some homeowners changed this dynamic, catalyzing a 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. While the middle-class ranks of the Tea Party railed against “corporate welfare” and “bailouts for undeserving homeowners,” in particular people of color who held subprime mortgages, capitalists like the Koch brothers saw an opportunity to advance their libertarian agenda of defeating Obamacare and privatizing Medicare and Social Security. Broader layers of the capitalist class encouraged the Tea Party’s mobilizations as long as they targeted unions and social services, and supported the continued deregulation of capital.

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 “supermajority” 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, with capitalist donors slightly preferring Democrats in 2010. 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 times, opposed to that of capital.

Unlike the political establishment, the Tea Party right supported stricter immigration controls and wasn’t fazed by the possibility of a federal credit default. 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 those immigrants as a threat to their “quality of life” and competitors for scarce social services.

Capitalists, however, have a different perspective on immigration. Not only do high-tech industries want access to skilled foreign professionals, but labor-intensive sectors like agriculture, construction, landscaping, domestic service, child care, health care, and hospitality rely on low-wage, vulnerable immigrant labor.

The two most important “business lobbying” organizations — the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable — oppose wholesale deportations and other policies that reduce the size of the immigrant workforce. Instead, they are leading the fight for an immigration reform that would create massive “guest worker” programs and a difficult “path to citizenship” for those in the United States without papers.

There is more common ground on the federal budget deficit, which capital would like to make inroads on through massive social spending cuts. 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 it. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable opposed attempts to “shut down the government” as a threat to the US economy and global financial system.

The uneasy alliance between the Tea Party and the capitalist class ended in autumn 2013. The 2012 campaign to “Fix the Debt” brought together dozens of former senators and congressmen and over 150 CEOs of US transnational corporations in support of a “grand bargain” to close corporate tax loopholes and lower the overall tax rate in exchange for “restructuring” federal pensions, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The campaign won the support of President Obama, the Democratic leadership, and mainstream Republicans, but the Tea Party refused to accept the compromise, sparking the late 2013 government shutdown.

Capital wasn’t pleased. In 2014 it waged primary campaigns against the Tea Party (organized primarily through the Chamber of Commerce). 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 and defeat Tea Party candidates. “Vote for Jobs” was effective in shaping the Republican congressional primaries and the November 2014 election. Only one Republican was elected to the Senate without a Chamber of Commerce endorsement.

Initially, the capitalist attempt to discipline the Republican Party appeared successful. Despite the greatly reduced Tea Party congressional contingent’s success in blocking serious discussion of a pro-corporate immigration reform and forcing John Boehner out of Congress, calls by the Tea Party to shut down government to block Obama’s executive order on immigration failed. Bipartisan coalitions in both the House and Senate pushed through the nearly $1.1 trillion spending plan in late December 2014.

Enter Trump

But the radical revolt symbolized by the Tea Party hadn’t disappeared. Donald Trump’s “outsider” campaign for president marked a deepening of the right-wing radicalization of sections of the middle classes. When Trump announced his candidacy 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, Trump was outpolling his competitors. In a year’s time he would be the only one left standing.

What made Trump unacceptable to the Republican establishment and their corporate backers was not merely his unabashed racism and misogyny, or his casual references to his penis size. Trump champions an economic nationalism that rejects central tenets of the bipartisan neoliberal agenda that has impoverished segments of the middle and working classes. Capital was 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 claims to reject the established US alliance system, in particular NATO, that has maintained US dominance since World War II. An advocate of “America First” politics that have been rejected by the US corporate elite since the 1940s, Trump is perceived as an unreliable agent of US capital.

Even more disturbing for the corporate elite are Trump’s positions on trade. The removal of political obstacles to the free movement of capital and goods — but not labor — has been a fundamental element of neoliberal orthodoxy for 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 major parties have promoted the liberalization of trade and investment. However, Trump 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 American 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.

Trump’s nomination sent the majority of the capitalist class, including traditionally Republican capitalists, running to support the reliable neoliberal imperialist, Hillary Clinton. According to OpenSecrets.org, Clinton received over 92 percent of corporate contributions in the 2016 election cycle, including over 80 percent of the contributions from finance, insurance, and real estate; communications/electronics; health care, defense, and “miscellaneous business.” Trump’s support was limited to 60–70 percent of contributions from construction, energy and natural resources, transportation, and agribusiness — which together accounted for less than 10 percent of total capitalist donations.

So how did Trump win? Despite losing the popular vote by almost three million votes, he swept the Electoral College. Voter participation among traditionally Democratic segments of the electorate fell. African Americans dipped from 13 percent of all voters in 2008 and 2012 to 12 percent in 2016. In some communities of color, the drop was even more precipitous. In Milwaukee’s Council District 15, which is 84 percent black, voter turnout was nearly 20 percent lower than in 2012. Households earning less than $50,000 a year, who made up 51 percent of the US population in 2014, dropped from 41 percent of voters in 2012 to 36 percent in 2016. The percentage of households earning over $100,000, a mere 17 percent of the population, rose from 28 percent to 33 percent of voters between 2012 and 2016. Put simply, the electorate in 2016 was even more disproportionately well-off than in the last three elections.

Within these key categories, there were also small, but significant shifts in voter preference. While 60 percent of voters in households earning less than $50,000 a year voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, Clinton’s share of these voters dropped to 52 percent. Clinton only won 88 percent of the black vote, down from 95 percent and 93 percent for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Especially alarming for the Democrats was their falling share of the Latino vote. Democratic pollsters were confident that Trump’s racist diatribes would allow Clinton to sweep this key sector. However, among Latinos, the Democrat share declined from 71 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2016. Finally, the percentage of union households voting Democratic fell from 58 percent in 2008 and 59 percent in 2012 to a mere 51 percent in 2016.

Trump’s ability to retain the core sectors of the Republicans’ post-1980 voter base — primarily the traditional (self-employed and small businesses with less than ten employees) and new (professionals, managers, supervisors) middle classes, including evangelical Christians, and a minority of older white workers — was clear in all of the exit polling.

Trump’s margin of victory came from a small minority of voters who had supported Obama in 2008 and 2012. Of 700 counties that had voted for Obama twice, nearly one-third (209) swung to Trump; and of 207 counties that Obama won once, almost 94 percent (194) went to Trump. The shift to Trump was concentrated in traditionally Democratic states of the Great Lakes and Midwest that had suffered the loss of manufacturing jobs and were experiencing a rise in the Latino population. However, Trump’s victory was primarily a result of a sharp drop in the participation of traditionally Democratic voters, rather than a sharp swing to Trump.

Trump did gain around 335,000 more votes than Romney among households earning less than $50,000 a year in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, Clinton received 1.7 million fewer votes than Obama among the same group. It was these small shifts in voter preference that gave Trump his razor-thin margins in a number of key states: less than 0.25 percent in Michigan, less than 1 percent in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and less than 1.5 percent in Florida. According to one analysis, had about 100,000 Trump voters in these areas voted for Clinton instead, she would have swept the Electoral College.

Why They Voted Trump

Trump’s populist nationalism appeals to elements of the older, white middle class who fear sliding downward into the working class. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, a study of Southern Tea Party and Trump supporters, reveals people who believe they are “hard workers” who “play by the rules” and never ask for “handouts” but are constantly falling behind socially and economically. They are threatened both by powerful economic and social elites and “line jumpers” — blacks, Latinos, and women who benefit from affirmative action, as well as undocumented immigrants and refugees.

In certain respects the attraction of the middle classes to right-wing populist demagogues is clear — these political strongmen promise to defend the “little man” against the forces that squeeze them from above and below. Yet the Left often falters in explaining why a minority of workers support right-wing politics. Why have around 40 percent of union households supported Republicans or other right-wing candidates (Ross Perot in 1992) in most elections since 1980? Why did another small, but significant group of white working-class voters embrace the nationalist populism of Trump, giving him his margin of victory?

Historically, many on the Left have treated working-class support for the Right as a form of false consciousness. Capital’s control of the means of ideological production (the media) allow them to distort workers’ thinking. For others, working-class racism and sexism is the defense of white and male privilege against threats from women, queer people, and racialized minorities.

Both of these explanations are inadequate. “False consciousness” presents capital and their ideologists as all-powerful, and portrays workers as passive consumers of capitalist ideologies. Meanwhile, simplistic notions of “defense of privilege” ignore the increasing precarity all working people face today.

Grasping the contradictory character of capitalist social relations of production allows us to transcend these explanations. The objective, structural position of workers under capitalism provides the basis for both collective, solidaristic radicalism; and individualist, sectoralist, and reactionary politics. As Bob Brenner and Johanna Brenner pointed out in their 1981 analysis of Reagan’s election:

. . . workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc. This individualistic point of view has a critical advantage in the current period: in the absence of class against class organization. It seems to provide an alternative strategy for effective action — a sectionalist strategy which pits one layer of workers against another.

As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of politics that pit them against other workers — especially more vulnerable ones. Without the experience of mass, collective, and successful class organization and struggle, it should not surprise socialists that segments of the working class are open to right-wing politics.

Workers in the United States have seen forty years of attacks on their living and working conditions. The labor movement has responded with one surrender after another, as concession bargaining and futile attempts to forge “labor-management cooperation” have destroyed almost every gain workers made through mass struggle in the 1930s and 1970s.

Faced with an impotent labor movement that tails after an ever-rightward-moving Democratic Party, it is not surprising that a minority of older, white workers are attracted to politics that place responsibility for their deteriorating social situation on both the corporate “globalists” and more vulnerable workers — blacks, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, women, and LGBT people. Kirk Noden, writing in the Nation, grasps why the Republican right wins many working-class votes:

Two narratives emerged about the collapse of the industrial heartland in America. The one from the right has three parts: First, that industry left this country because unions destroyed productivity and made labor costs too high, thereby making us uncompetitive. Second, corporations were the victims of over-regulation and a bloated government that overtaxed them to pay for socialist welfare systems. Third, illegal immigration has resulted in the stealing of American jobs, increased competition for white workers, and depressed wages . . . The second narrative, promoted by corporate Democrats, is that the global economy shifted and the country is now in transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. This story tacitly accepts the economic restructuring of the heartland as inevitable once China and other markets opened up.

Trump and his nationalist populist ideologues from Breitbart and the “alt-right” added a fourth element to the Right’s narrative — the role of globalizing corporations and free trade. Given a choice between an elitist neoliberal who refused to speak to the realities of their lives (and rejected Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic program as “unrealistic”); and a populist demagogue who offered an illusory solution to their problems, it is not surprising that some white workers embraced Trump.

Trumpism is the fruit of decades of lesser-evilism, where the Left trails after the labor officials, who continually surrender to capital, while chasing a rightward-moving Democratic Party in the name of “fighting the Right.” Without a clear and potent independent working-class political alternative, one rooted in mass struggles in workplaces and communities, more and more workers will see no alternative to the neoliberal capitalist offensive other than white populist nationalism.

The Task Ahead

What can we expect from a Trump presidency? We can expect a continuation and intensification of the attacks on working people that every administration — including Obama’s — carried out since the late 1970s. We should expect even more deportations of “criminal” undocumented immigrants (Obama set the record for deportations), more cuts to social services (Obama made the deepest cuts to food stamps of any president), and the removal of even more regulations on capital, especially in terms of energy production.

Despite the presence of Steve Bannon and other nationalist populists in the administration, it is unlikely that Trump’s promises to roll back neoliberal free-trade agreements or to renege on US commitments to imperialist diplomatic and military alliances will come to fruition. Trump himself has already backpedaled on his threats to deport all undocumented workers, reinstitute waterboarding, withdraw from the Paris Climate accords, indict Bill and Hillary Clinton, or ban all Muslims from entering the United States. His proposals to renegotiate NAFTA and impose tariffs on China, withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, build a wall on the Mexican border, or shift US military and diplomatic alliances from NATO to Putin’s Russia will face concerted opposition from both the establishment-dominated Republican Congress and the permanent officialdom of the federal government.

Put another way, Trump will likely face the sort of structural-institutional obstacles social democrats face when attempting to implement anticapitalist reforms through the capitalist state. This will, of course, demoralize many of his middle- and working-class supporters and make it easier for the mainstream Republicans to regain control of the party, possibly through the creation of a system of unelected “superdelegates” like those the Democrats created in the 1970s.

Of course, there is another threat brewing. While the Trump regime is not fascist, his election has encouraged small groups of organized fascists and individual right-wingers. They believe they have the “wind at their back,” freeing them to assault people of color, immigrants, Muslims, queer folks, and leftists. Just one full week after Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted around seven hundred violent hate crimes in the United States.

The fight-back against Trumpism will have to take various forms: organized, collective antifascist defense against attacks; mass protest; and ultimately struggles within the workplace. Strategically, new organizers need to understand that we cannot rely on either the Democrats or the forces of official reformism. While the labor officials and their allies may be more willing to mobilize against Trump than they were against Obama, we can expect them to “double down” on their support of the Democrats in the 2018 congressional elections.

The spontaneous protests in many cities and the growing campaign to wear safety pins as a sign of solidarity against racist and homophobic violence are promising beginnings. However, the danger is that these struggles, like the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, will be short-lived and leave little independent organization in their wake.

The way forward for the Left is rebuilding the militant minority — the layer of activists with a strategy and tactics that go beyond reformism — in workplaces and social movements. Without such a core rooted among broader layers of working people, the labor officials, Democratic Party politicos, and the middle-class leaders of social movements will be able to continually derail and demobilize promising struggles — as they have for most of the last forty years.

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