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The Political Economy of Trumpism

Mike Konczal has a pretty good post discussing whether or not left-wing economic policy might win over white working-class Trump voters in the future. He discusses four broad policy directions: "a more redistributive state, a more aggressive state intervention in the economy, a weakening of the centrality of waged labor, and a broadening, service-based form of worker activism," and argues that all of these will repulse white conservatives even more from the left.

Konzcal aptly notes that the major engines of conservative politics are highly moralized notions about desert (to wit: poor people, especially minority ones, deserve their fate) and a love of coercive hierarchy as such, the most important of which is the racial hierarchy with its roots in antebellum slavery. Therefore, those four policies, which involve new transfers and government action to benefit the disproportionately black and brown bottom of the income distribution, and union organizing among increasingly black, brown, and female service workers, will inspire snarling outrage among Trump-inclined white voters.

This is a good excuse to get down something I've wanted to outline for awhile: my napkin sketch theory of Trump. Let me start with that.

Alf Landon
In pre-Great Depression capitalist politics, the impulses Konczal mentions were translated into a basically libertarian economic ideology insisting that enforcing markets and (ludicrously lopsided) contracts was the only proper role of economic policy, and that business should rule the economy. As Michal Kalecki wrote, "The social function of the doctrine of 'sound finance' is to make the level of employment dependent on the state of confidence."

The Depression broke that ideology to smithereens. It turns out the bigger and more sophisticated a capitalist economy becomes, the more direct a role government must play in its management — otherwise disaster results. The New Deal and especially WWII cemented a new bedrock ideology that the state must use monetary and fiscal policy to prevent mass unemployment, regulate industry to some degree, and provide at least a meager welfare state. After losing every presidential election from 1932 through 1948 (and most of the midterms), even Republicans accepted this as a fact of life.

Conservative politics for the past 80 years has been dedicated to ripping up that bedrock ideology and replacing it, brick by brick, with the pre-Depression version. They want to return to the gold standard, (or failing that, to disembowel the Fed's ability to fight unemployment), deregulation, and privatization or abolition of the welfare state. That ideological project is largely complete, assisted greatly by the Democrats' turn towards neoliberalism starting with the election of Jimmy Carter. Any trace of Eisenhower Republicanism has been purged from the GOP, and the vast majority of conservative elites now reject the basic legitimacy of the postwar welfare and regulatory state.

Importantly, the raw political fuel of this movement is still the same largely sociocultural factors as before. But the striking thing about conservatives in the Obama era is how the expression of these has been turbocharged, culminating with the nomination of Trump. Republican voters are more comfortable now with open bigotry than at any time Wallace voters in 1968 — and not only that, they nominated a candidate who is also egregiously unqualified according to any respectable notion of what sort of person should be president.

Much of that is no doubt due to the browning of America, the first black president, and the absolutely debauched state of the conservative intellectual apparatus. But I think another factor must be increasing material desperation. Among the bottom half or so of the white population, wages are flat or declining and have been for decades, mortality is up, and opioid addiction is an ongoing catastrophe.

Now, as Steve Randy Waldman notes, desperation doesn't translate automatically to political change — among many other reasons, because the most desperate people generally don't vote at all. It's a chaotic and weird process. But the severely-underpowered arguments that attempt to pin Trump's rise on 100 percent ex nihilo racism are unconvincing, not least because they fail to explain the character of Trump's racism and overall candidacy (and contain more than a whiff of apologia for cosmopolitan finance capitalism). Again, Trump is not just a racist, but the first presidential candidate in American history with precisely zero relevant experience.

Desperation fuels a search for scapegoats and thus a more and more open bigotry, in addition to furious contempt for elite political norms in general. Outside a US electoral context, this is a trivial observation about the rise of Nazi Germany — is it simply a coincidence that their best electoral result happened in 1932, when unemployment was nearly 30 percent?

So there is a feedback loop here. Conservative and neoliberal austerity fuels a harder-edged reactionary movement, which elects more and more reactionaries to political office, who then put through more austerity. But austere libertarian economics has not gotten any more workable since 1929 — on the contrary, active policy is more necessary now than ever. So this process continues until taxes and government services have been cut so far that the basic structure of the state starts to come unglued. This happened in the nation as a whole from 1929-32, it has happened in Kansas and Louisiana today, and to a lesser extent in most other conservative states, as Chris Hooks notes.

There are two basic paths from there. One is for voters to turn out Republicans made hideously unpopular by their destructive policy and elect Democrats who can undo the damage (Louisiana). The other is the basic fascist formula: a truly vicious conservatism translated into a Keynesian economic ideology — basically, full employment plus the secret police. Trump, with his demagogue's ear for what people want to hear, has stumbled close to this formula — but because he is a complete ignoramus about all policy and theory, he can't make the full leap to Keynesianism.

All this means is that to a very great extent I think it will be completely impossible to win over Trump supporters to actually vote for Democrats. However, more left-wing policy might go a considerable distance towards defusing Trumpism and nudging Republicans to vote for less deranged candidates. It's quite plausible to think that if in 2009 Democrats had put through a big enough stimulus to quickly restore full employment, Medicare for all, cut the size of the financial sector in half, and not enabled the foreclosure epidemic, the 2010 and 2014 midterms would not have been lost, and Republicans would have nominated an ordinary politician in 2016. (Equally important, the Democrats might have made serious inroads into the huge population of nonvoters.)

I think the political stance of the broad left should ideally be something like this. We should confidently push forward on social democracy wherever possible, blithely ignoring the furious protests that are sure to result from white conservatives, and build on the hopefully resulting coalition to further entrench new benefits. After a few more shellackings at the ballot box, Republicans will hopefully calm the hell down and again accommodate themselves to the welfare state, and we can start the whole merry process over again.

One final note: three out of four of Konczal's policies are mostly about government policy. The final one, labor organizing, seems like a much more difficult nut to crack, at least in theory. As Jamelle Bouie notes, any sort of revitalized service worker organizing must be cognizant of the fact that working class service jobs are disproportionately held by minorities and women. Therefore, he argues that racist whites must be kept out of the organizing effort, "lest you undermine the larger effort."

That's probably a good idea for any particular union looking to expand. But I suspect such a situation will be long-term poison for any labor movement, for the exact same reason that keeping minorities out of most of the postwar unions helped lead to their downfall. Keeping a large slice of the working class un-organized means a big population of reserve labor that can be exploited as competition and scabs by business. And while America is browning fast, service jobs are the jobs of the future, and white people will be by far the largest ethnic group for decades and decades at least.

I honestly don't have the slightest idea what to do about that (and it goes without saying I am piss-poor at organizing). But I do think organizers and thinkers should continue to hammer home the fact that the economic fortunes of working class whites are inextricably tied up with those of minorities. The more people you can cover with union contracts, however grudgingly, the greater the potential staying power of the labor movement — and you might even help erode racist attitudes to boot.


  1. Interesting article, very informative and logical. Unfortunately, I think the in depth history lesson is probably lost on most tRumanzees.

    As to how tRump came about, your absolutely right. Blaming the republican party is a no brainer, but they had (some) help from the Democratic party when the LIE of "regulation = bad" fallacy that was born in the Reagan era had little or no push back.

    I think President Obama also said it most succinctly by pointing out that the republican party "built this" (referring to the last 40+ years, and especially the last 8 years, of "dog whistle" politics that they've been gleefully playing with), and that tRump, as he is prone to do, just slapped his name on it (like most other tRump buildings).

    At this point I consider any tRump supporters with nothing but utter contempt. That is because I have very little patience for willfully ignorant (AKA "stupid") people.


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