- Kate Aronoff (KA)
- Paul Heideman (PH)
- Doug Henwood (DH)
- Kim Phillips-Fein (KPF)
We knew it was going to be bad. Inaugurate a billionaire that traffics in xenophobia and you can’t expect anything else.
But how bad has it been? One year to the day after Trump took the oath, what can we say about his tenure and the state of his political agenda?
We asked four Jacobin contributors to weigh in:
- Paul Heideman is a PhD student in sociology at New York University.
- Kim Phillips-Fein teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics.
- Doug Henwood edits Left Business Observer and is the host of Behind the News. His latest book is My Turn.
- Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times.
The American state is massively powerful, and even an administration unskilled at steering can still get somewhere with it. In Trump’s case, his areas of success have clustered in two key areas: giveaways to the rich and expanding the terror state.
Trump’s tax bill is obviously the most prominent of his administration’s favors to the predator class, and deservedly so. Over the next decade it will shower the rich with cash while providing a new excuse to cut social services. Yet it’s far from the only favor Trump has thrown to his fellow billionaires.
Since taking office, his administration has scrapped all manner of federal rules that rein in the market. Regulations concerning emissions reporting, federal infrastructure environmental standards, and mining company responsibility for disaster cleanup have all been thrown out or relaxed, along with dozens of others. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has seen its already criminally inadequate inspector workforce shrunk, leaving companies more confident that their mistreatment of their workforce will never be investigated.
The other major place where Trump has been able to impose his policy preferences is the US state’s machinery of repression. Immigration demands the most attention here, from the Muslim bans to the recent decision to force more than two hundred thousand Salvadorans to leave the country. The quotidian terror of the deportation machine has also ground into action once again. The pace of raids and removals has reached a point where the administrative machinery of courts and officers are now working at full capacity.
Those without papers aren’t the only ones feeling the boot of the state. In July, during a speech on Long Island, Trump proclaimed that police in the United States were too gentle with people they were arresting (a claim that decisively confirms the rumors that Trump does not know how to use a computer). More concretely, Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department has virtually halted federal oversight of local policing, insulating police departments even further from any meaningful oversight.
To top it all off, Trump has been extremely aggressive about filling federal judicial seats, ensuring that his policies will continue to be felt long after he is out of office.
It would be easy to look at this record and find the Trump exceptionalism thesis confirmed. And his administration is certainly an urgent threat to the wellbeing of most people in the country. Yet it is precisely in this respect that Trump appears quite familiar. Upwards redistribution and an expanded repressive state have been the hallmarks of GOP presidents going back to at least Ronald Reagan.
In fact, the sheer mundanity of Trump’s brutality may help explain why the Democrats’ campaign to stop him has been so singularly unimpressive. While they focus on supposedly exceptional levels of malfeasance, concentrated most spectacularly around the Russia investigation, Trump has moved on with business as usual for Republican presidents: scapegoating the vulnerable, brutalizing the dispossessed, and ministering to the needs of the opulent.
What all of this suggests is that if Trump is to be stopped, it won’t be through appealing to the hallowed standards of American normality. It will be through rediscovering the insurgent radical traditions of American politics.
Over the past year, Donald Trump’s election has been generally interpreted as a sign of resurgent racism and the delusions and insecurities of portions of the white working class. Without denying that these are part of the story, Trump’s first year in power has revealed another source of his ideology and appeal: the business politics of the American elite, and the mystique commanded by executives and money more generally.
As it happens, Trump’s initial ascendance into public life, in the 1980s, occurred at the very moment a new celebration of wealth and the market was gripping American politics. He tapped into very old themes in American life about the power of the rich. As president, he’s built on, and magnified, certain longstanding themes in business politics: the insistence on the veneration of the boss, the crude confidence that the world is divided into winners and losers, the fantasy of absolute power embodied in the notion that money should entitle you to do anything you want. These faiths in hierarchy go back to the Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century, if not before, and in one way or another, they have been central to the political organization of the wealthy throughout the twentieth century, in the years both before and after the New Deal.
For all the elite outrage over Trump’s uncouth ways, his basic economic package features the same tax-cutting and antagonism toward the public sector that has been central to mainstream Republicanism for the past forty years, ginned up to ever more moralistic heights in recent years by the Tea Party. From the tax bill passed late last year (lauded by the Business Roundtable) to the appointment of businessmen to various cabinet posts to the scrapping of environmental legislation, Trump is carrying out a program that seems designed to counter the old fears of executives, to make crystal clear that their interests are the only ones that matter and that catering to them will automatically lead to the good of the whole society.
But in stripping this politics bare, Trump has managed to alienate and frighten even its strongest supporters. The Trump presidency has produced agonies of embarrassment within the upper circles of the power elite, with executives like Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and Elon Musk seeking to distance themselves from him. His presidency has revealed certain basic fault lines around immigration and perhaps more generally the relationship of the US to the global economic order, as well as the fears of the more restrained members of the elite that maybe — just maybe — a social order founded on nothing but personal self-enrichment cannot be a stable one for long.
But they have no deep, no principled opposition to offer. In certain ways Trump has always been inside and outside at once, like an outrageous dinner guest whose outré comments elicit rolled eyes but also knowing chuckles. He is (as he has been throughout his career) furiously denounced and denied, even though his policies and his beliefs are echoed in a thousand ways throughout the political structure. No wonder the stock market has done so well this past year.
In his book On Television, Pierre Bourdieu warns against the twin temptations of historical analysis: everything is totally changed and unlike anything that went before, and nothing has changed over the last thousand years.
Nowhere are those temptations as visible as in Trump studies. You’ve got a large set of critics screaming that he’s our Hitler (or, for the Russophobes, Stalin), a violator of all the ethical norms of high office. And there’s a hearty band of Facebook ultras, less numerous than the alarmists, who assure us that Trump is little different from Obama (the deportation numbers are down, though there are technicalities involved). Is it too distressingly moderate to say that there’s more continuity in Trump than the screamers say, but that he does mark a turn for the worse?
People who talk about the dignity of the presidency mustn’t think much about Richard Nixon, a far more interestingly twisted character than the one-dimensional Trump. He ran a private spying operation and bombed Cambodia in total secrecy. His drunken ravings caused a frightened Henry Kissinger (co-architect of those secret bombings) and Alexander Haig to hide the nuclear football from him. It’s likely that Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis have a similar arrangement to control Trump. Trump’s horrendous xenophobia, shocking by recent standards, has a lot in common with the nativism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His authoritarian longings are in tune with the country that brought you the Palmer Raids and McCarthyism, though Trump has fallen well short of those models so far. And no one is shooting strikers now, though that may be because there are so few strikers.
But everything does feel worse. Policy aside, there’s no question that Trump is a bare expression of the American political id. He’s encouraged the worst people — Nazis, white supremacists, clash of civilization types — to be far more open and even violent. ICE’s war on immigrants — and the targeted roundup of immigrant leaders — is vicious and terrifying. Nuclear war has become something people talk about. Millions will lose health care, national monuments will give way to uranium mines, and the climate will go to hell at an accelerating rate. Trump himself is ignorant and aimless, but there are enough right-wing thugs around him to do a lot of damage. It’s only accelerating a long-term downtrend in the quality of American life, but an acceleration it is.
In the face of this, the Left, whose prospects seemed good in the first days of the Trump regime, now looks confused and divided against itself. Leaving aside the Russophobes, who can’t be taken seriously, we’ve got one set of people blaming identitarians for everything, and another set blaming brocialists. It’s like the 2016 campaign not only didn’t go away, but became a chronic disease. I wish I had a cure, because it’s debilitating, and the times are miserable.
When the GOP managed to pass its tax reform package last month, many hailed it as Trump’s first major policy accomplishment. Coal, oil, and gas executives would likely beg to differ.
Within hours of Trump’s inauguration, his staffers had scrubbed mentions of climate change from official White House websites. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was on his way to becoming secretary of state, and Scott Pruitt — hand-picked by Myron Ebell, of the climate-denying Competitive Enterprise Institute — had been tapped to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
By the end of the year, in an administration marked by scandals and seemingly constant chaos, men like Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had long since settled into their roles as bureaucrats against the bureaucracy — quietly churning out regulatory rollbacks and giveaways to the fossil fuel industry. It was Steve Bannon who first said he hoped to deconstruct the administrative state, but only his less mediagenic counterparts managed to stick around long enough to make good on the promise.
Maybe more so than any other members of the administration, those with direct lines to the energy sector have proven themselves skilled administrators. Along with the industries that have funded their political careers, the White House’s extractivist wing has benefitted handily from the palace intrigue surrounding the Trump administration.
They’ve also set an astoundingly low bar for what it takes to be a climate hero.
Alongside the newfound cottage industry of Never Trump Republicans — neocons like Bill Kristol and David Frum — a crop of wealthy, aging politicians eager to build their legacy as foils to Trump’s denialism has emerged. Democratic California governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Trump’s golfing buddy, brought the #ClimateResistance to last year’s United Nations climate talks, spreading the gospel of market-based solutions like cap and trade and carbon-intensive corporations’ commitment to climate action. Congressional Democrats haven’t acquitted themselves either, with even left-of-center lawmakers like Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposing climate policies that ape those of Bush and Reagan-era treasury secretaries.
Easy as it is to skewer Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax invented by the Chinese, Democrats are still talking about climate change in a way that also ignores scientific reality. The sheer scale of the climate crisis demands solutions that only the Left — historically speaking — has been able to offer. Realistically, the only path to a future defined by anything other than outright catastrophe will take (at minimum) massive expansionary spending and robust state intervention, including, among other things, the wholesale nationalization of carbon-intensive sectors.
One year into the Trump administration, Democrats are still spouting their own kind of climate denialism in a feeble attempt to counter the strain coming from the White House. For better and for worse, it’s up to the Left to present a popular, forward-facing vision that ensures we don’t all cook.