The Trump Trap
The GOP, MAGA, the past, and the future…
The classic pattern of a fascist takeover of government goes something like this…
The fascist party grows to the point where it is big enough to be a kind of kingmaker in a deadlocked representative democratic system, and the conservative elites of that system, threatened by chaos and/or growing left political feeling and workers’ struggle, adopt the fascists as the (to them) lesser evil, and help them into power. The conservative elites expect to be able to control the fascists and use them as a bulwark, discarding them when they have outlived their usefulness, only to find that the fascist party out-manoeuvres them and assimilates or ejects them. This has not yet happened in the United States, but it seems to have happened – on a micro level, as it were – within the Republican Party.
The MAGA conquest of the Republican Party may not be absolutely complete, however. MAGA might still split away.
A lot depends on whether Trump once again secures the Republican nomination.
Front-runners don’t necessarily get nominations. Many people now considered political jokes have, at one time or another, been front-runners. Donald Trump isn’t even always the front-runner in the polls these days. Even so, the likelihood is that, all else being equal, he will get the Republican nomination again.
The movers-and-shakers within the GOP want rid of him. So do most of the mid-level people. They talk openly about how he was great but it’s not 2016 anymore, we need someone new, etc. They are hoping to nudge the feeling in the party. But the feeling in the party stays with Trump. The insiders are reduced, as some of them have recently confessed, to waiting for Trump to die.
We all know the paradox. We saw it played out in instance after instance in the midterms. Republican hopefuls can’t be candidates without Trump’s approval; Republican candidates can’t get elected by the public with Trump’s approval. This paradox runs right the way through the Republican Party, from top to bottom. It is soon to be enacted on the national stage in the 2024 presidential election.
This is the trap the present-day Republican Party is in. A trap entirely of its own creation and long in the making.
I’ll have to go back a bit.
Neoliberalism, ‘Creeping Fascism’, and The Cosby Show
In the late twentieth century, the post-war ‘long boom’ crumbled as a result of the secular tendency towards decline in the profit rate, which is – as Marx showed – innate to capitalism. By the 1970s, even the vast and ongoing government stimulus of Cold War arms spending was failing to pump up the burst tyre. The neoliberal strategy was an attempt by capitalism – unsuccessful in overall, real terms – to restore the profit rate, and the GOP was at the forefront of it with Reaganism, as were the British Tories with Thatcherism.
The neoliberal revolution was not just economic. It was also – in an almost too on-the-nose demonstration of Marx’s ‘base and superstructure’ model – political and cultural. It consisted of mainstreaming profoundly reactionary economic politics and a vast extension of the power not only of corporate capital but also of the capitalist state, which – in rank contradiction of neoliberal rhetoric – became bigger and more powerful. It simply expanded its reach away from regulation of capital and towards regulation of the working class. It became even more carceral and authoritarian than ever before. Even as it privatised and deregulated, even as it demolished the social safety net, it expanded its ability to punish and imprison.
Like everything else in history and nature, neoliberalism contains, and is powered by, internal and constitutive contradictions. One of the contradictions of neoliberalism is that, despite being a reactionary counter-revolution, it coincided with (as response and, in a complex dialectic, also cause) the rise of liberal sentiment, and the formation of a new liberal mainstream social ideology.
Part of this was deliberate and conscious. It needed this social liberalisation as a cloak, and later as a foil. As it mainstreamed reaction in economics and government, neoliberalism also permitted criticism and progress within narrow cultural and social limits. It utilised a defanged and domesticated, bourgeois-friendly version of the defeated rump radicalism of the 1960s – one of the phenomena it was created to bury.
A classic cultural example of the constitutive contradictions of neoliberalism may be seen in – and stay with me here – The Cosby Show. The show, a massive network hit in the 80s (including with white audiences), featured a Black family, on TV, portrayed positively. The family are intelligent, educated, trustworthy, kind, etc. Unimaginable in US mass culture before World War Two. The show has a broadly liberal attitude on social questions. The show thus represents, from some angles, genuine progress. The show was also based on a deep ideology of middle-class respectability, the work ethic, and personal responsibility. It valorised wealth, family, marriage, patriarchy, and a host of other such ‘conservative’ values. The show presented, as both aspirational and already real, a utopian world in which systemic racism and the oppression of Black people barely existed in capitalist America anymore. Where it did exist, it was a shameful aberration. And the central character was played by a serial rapist who, while undoubtedly benefiting from advances in civil rights since the 60s, also owed his long-run of consequence-free misogynistic assault to his wealth, fame, social status, reactionary politics, and friends in high places.
The neoliberal capitalist utopia is one in which the middle class may assimilate people of colour, gay people, etc, in the guise of liberalisation. In this bourgeois paradise of toleration and opportunity, the middle and political classes may assimilate and espouse all manner of egalitarian sentiments. Yet the system is still based on the same structural inequalities and oppressions as ever: capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. The neoliberal capitalist utopia is one in which, for instance, we ignore and extend the horrors of the US justice system while making sure that an exaggerated number of fictional cops and judges on TV are POC, and often tackle storylines about how bad racism is. The largely white beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism may choose one of several reactions to this cultural camouflage. They may feel justified in their position by virtue of its basis in supposed liberal progress. The market will sell them any amount of fodder for this feeling. The market will just as readily cater to an alternative reaction born of insecurity: that of feeling threatened by the supposed rise of a dangerous left/liberal propaganda assault. One of the corporate giants ready to sell to this demographic was, and is, the GOP.
The Republican Party is not actually a political party but rather a corporation which sells – via a cultural-media strategy to garner votes and seats – direct influence in government – federal and state – to sectors of US big capital. (The Democratic Party does essentially the same thing but with different strategies and different sectors of capital; thus modern bourgeois ‘democracy’ evolved, winning a darwinian battle of systems to see which could be the most durable for global imperialist capitalism.) The GOP’s most fundamental job is thus to protect US grand bourgeoisie. It does this via pandering to the fears of the US petty bourgeoisie.
The neoliberal counter-revolution resulted in both an extension and a hollowing out of the middle class and the petty bourgeoisie. As the middle layer was bought off, it was also destabilised. Big capital has been allowed to monopolise (already an innate capitalist tendency) thus squeezing small capital. Finance capital has made borrowing easier leading to debt enslavement. Globalisation spread manufacturing industry to the developing world thus forcing hyper competition in post-industrial sectors and imperilling public spending power as real-terms wages stagnate. And so on.
Without for a moment giving credence to any liberal idea that we can only understand and combat Trumpism by sympathising with the “economic anxiety” of the fascist petty-bourgeoisie, we can say that the relative insecurity of the middle-class is undoubtedly the distal economic cause of the susceptibility of people in that layer towards reactionary politics. It is an expression of their relative privilege and relative investment. They are below some and above others. They aspire to rise to the ranks of the capitalists and fear to fall into the same pit as the proletariat – especially, in racially-imbricated US capitalism, the Black proletariat. They aspire upwards yet resent those above. They fear their reassimilation back into the working class, be it in absolute or relative terms, be it by their own tumble or the rising of those below them. There is no doubt that this is the basis of fascism everywhere it appears, and this is no less true in America. The archetypal Trump supporter is white and middle class and/or petty bourgeois. The one ideology shared by almost all attendees at the January 6th coup-attempt was belief in the ‘Great Replacement’. They are worried that the immigrants and marxists, enabled by Democrats, are coming to take away their tanning salons and pool-cleaning companies. Or they’re cops whose social position is based on protection of private property and intertwined white supremacy. There are many variations of this basic pattern.
The result of this is a voting base ripe for the GOP to exploit: relatively privileged within the system of white-supremacist settler-colonial imperialist capitalism, yet also constantly aware of the precarity of its own position, and constantly alarmed by the rise of ideas which seemingly threaten it, ideas apparently representing and empowering previously subaltern social layers.
This syndrome is not new. The GOP rode it to neoliberal glory.
The Republicans spent decades stoking and coddling reactionary ideas so extreme they may legitimately be called fascist or fascistic or proto-fascist or whatever you like. We all know about the Southern Strategy. You can’t say the n-word anymore; so you say forced bussing and inner-city crime. Then you say affirmative action and welfare queens and political correctness. Generations of American politicians, on both sides of the aisle that divides the two wings of America’s pro-capitalist single party system, have done this. The trouble waiting for the GOP was that for the Democrats it was one aspect of their PR strategy. The Republicans never really had any other game.
And every time the Republicans stoked and coddled such white supremacist politics in their base, they extended and deepened that politics. (This may be seen as the proximate mechanism whereby the neoliberal economic shift causes it distally.) Even as ultra-reactionary politics shrank in terms of real support, it radicalised to compensate. The Republicans had started an inflationary spiral. The same spiral made it necessary for them to radicalise to compensate, to keep pace. And yet, in order to keep the US political system running coherently, they also had to stick – at least formally – to the agreed-upon rules of decorum, and to obey – at least formally – the rise of liberal sentiment which paradoxically accompanied the neoliberal economic, political, and cultural counter-revolution.
The Republicans did more than anyone in the world to further this counter-revolution. They weaponized the insecurity their own policies caused in their base. They did so via code that kept themselves within the agreed-upon lines. But the very act of performing this manoeuvre caused it to destabilise. The very act of utilising the anxieties and prejudices of their base caused their base to become more anxious, prejudiced, and radical. And this worked for the Republicans, for a while. They couldn’t exploit fears by reassuring people. But their own failure to ever fully deliver on any of the promises they made to their base about the fears and hates they stoked in their base caused their base to become frustrated with them. They said forced bussing and inner-city crime. They said affirmative action and welfare queens and political correctness. They say wokism and CRT and cancel culture and gender ideology. And their audience know they are actually saying the n-word and its cognates. But that is not enough for the audience. The audience – partly rightly and partly wrongly – take this shell game at face value, see their representatives’ coded language as evidence of cowardice, of insufficient radicalism. They want the real stuff. They want representatives who will not use the code, who will say the n-word.
Thus Trump accidentally becomes the führer of the US version of ‘Creeping Fascism’. Trump emerges as the subjective expression of the structural evolution of global capitalism towards a new version of economic fascism, ultimately caused by – in line with Trotsky’s analysis of fascism – the blockages of capital accumulation and capital flow in a decaying capitalist system inherently unable – as Marx showed – to continuously supply itself with sufficient profit rates.
The Quiet Part
Oceans of ink have been spilled over the appeal Trump had for a sector of the American public. The ultimate, banal truth is that he said the quiet part loud. And, to an audience raised in, and frustrated by what we could call the ‘quiet part strategy’, this seemed like – at last! – sincerity, and validation.
Trump had other attributes, of course: his stumbling charisma, his media profile, his supposed mega-wealth, his ostensible outsider status, etc. He had these markers of superiority and iconoclasm which some could find aspirational. And he has another trait which his audience can simultaneously find relatable and validatory: he is essentially one of his own audience. He is every bit as much a confused bourgeois boomer, a Fox News and Facebook grampa, as his archetypal fan.
But the ultimate appeal is that he will actually say it.
It might be objected that he has not actually said the n-word, at least not in public. But he has come close on countless occasions. Shithole countries. Grab em by the pussy. Etc. And, of course, his audience don’t actually want to hear the n-word. They want to complain about not being allowed to say it but they don’t want Trump to say it, at least not on the square. True products of the neoliberal cultural counter-revolution, they want – in their own way – to think of themselves as virtuously non-racist. Indeed, they are the victims of racism. Q himself once said “This movement has no skin colour”… which means that Black Lives Matter are the real racists. This is intrinsic to modern fascism. Just as original fascism adapted the popular monsters of its time – rats and bacteria and vampires – so modern fascism takes the quintessential decontextualized baddies of today’s pop-culture – Nazis – and, totally unconscious of the paradox, projects that identity onto those it hates.
But for all that, the base want to know for certain that he, Trump, is thinking what they’re thinking. They are sick and tired of even the sliver of ambiguity left by such entities as Cruz and McConnell. That’s why Trump’s incredibly simple platform – Mexican immigrants are rapists, the Muslim ban, build the wall, lock her up – worked so well for them. He gave them an explicit version of the hints and code-words the GOP has been feeding them for years. To them, the GOP looked like cowards who wouldn’t and couldn’t go all the way towards fulfilling the desires they were encouraging. Trump, meanwhile, came in and gave voice to their frustration with the eternal hinters and hedgers and code-talkers. They wanted an end to plausible deniability. It’s not that they stopped denying. They just wanted everyone to know that their denial was implausible. They wanted the libs to know that they knew that they knew, and to be unable to do a thing about it. Wish granted.
Trump led the base in a hijack of the Republican Party. No, he didn’t impose alien values. Contrary to pathetic liberal myth, this is still your grandfather’s Republican Party. What he did was to impose the values the Republican Party has long used to activate their pool of voters. His innovation was to communicate to those voters the idea that, instead of simply voting on those values every year, they should and could actually expect those values to be imposed on America as a whole in their entirety. Trump’s promise was the promise of ending the seemingly eternal cycle of encouraging and then postponing the dreams of the base, of providing an escape from the trap of right-wing utopia endlessly deferred so the GOP can always count on your vote next time.
The archetype is Roe vs. Wade. For decades, Republicans were happy to use actual or implied opposition to legal abortion as a flagship cause. For decades, despite chipping away at abortion rights, Republicans in federal power never actually tried to take the big step. This worked to keep reactionary Christians in the US voting Republican. In order to keep this trick working, Republicans had to deepen and radicalise anti-abortion rhetoric. Even their piecemeal nibbling away at legal abortion fuelled the escalation. And yet their ‘failure’ to go all the way created a slow-building frustration. Eventually, the impatient base started showing signs of being unable to wait any longer. They would not indefinitely be able to dangle the promise without ever fulfilling it. A cat will eventually tire of a red dot. Now, the far-right present Supreme Court – created, via Trump, by dark money and influence from the fanatical far-right believers in the Federalist Society – has pulled the trigger. The result is that the GOP has partly lost a signature issue in the culture war. The base are, of course, still not satisfied. But they are likely inclined to see real progress stemming from Trump, shaming the eternal empty rhetoric of mainstream Republicans. At the same time, the US public are largely against curtailment of abortion rights, which almost certainly played a role in denying the GOP their expected ‘red wave’ in the midterms. The Republicans have, through years of tantalising their base to make them loyal, pitched themselves into an incipiently existential paradox. They need their base more than ever in a world where the US public at large is pissed at them over Roe vs. Wade. At the same time, their base is inclined to credit the GOP’s poisoned chalice – Trump and Trumpism – rather than the GOP itself. This is just one element among many similar ones of the backlash against RINOs, of which Trump has taken full advantage.
If Trump gets the Republican nomination, and runs against Biden, the indications are that he will lose again. This will be fine for him. His narcissism will make it impossible for him to not run, yet his narcissism can be cushioned by repeating the election fraud myth, which is now integral to Trumpism anyway. In the absence of legal consequences for his many crimes, Trump will be able to monetise and politicise another loss. (I take no stance on whether the various criminal investigations supposedly closing in on him will ever actually reach him, or whether he will always outrun them like the tortoise in a kind of legal Zeno’s Paradox.)
The Monkey’s Paw
There is a lot of speculation that, should he fail to achieve the Republican nomination, Trump will run as a third party candidate. It is possible that he will. If he does, he will more-or-less have to set up his own party. Indeed, he has mooted the idea before, and toyed with what he called – seemingly off the top of his inexplicably coiffed dome – The Patriot Party. Steps were taken to start setting up The Patriot Party, only for Trump to ditch the idea at CPAC 2021.
Let’s say he rethinks again. Let’s call the new party America First.
(I am thinking of a recent tweet from Marjorie Taylor Greene in which she talked about just having seen “our GREAT America First President Trump”, sounding like Trump was already the head of a party called America First, and had indeed already represented that party in the Oval Office.)
America First will not win the 2024 general election. America First will split the anti-Democrat vote. America First will ensure Biden’s reelection. This is why many people are hoping for just this scenario.
I think people should be careful what they wish for.
If America First comes into being, it might instantly have several well-known politicians as representatives in government. I find it all too easy to imagine Lindsay Graham defecting alongside several other high-profile Republicans even outside the ‘Freedom Caucus’. (Ironically, Marjorie Taylor Greene herself may now be too committed to her new goal of ‘respectability’ and integration into the mainstream GOP.) As a result of defections at lower levels, America First would instantly have a presence in local and state government right across America. It would instantly have a high profile. It would instantly have a former President as its presidential candidate. It would instantly have a network of grassroots activists. It would – casting aside all optimistic ideas that the media have learned their lesson – have extensive coverage. This scenario might even be attractive to some in the GOP. It might hold out the prospect of the MAGA elements within – now a millstone in many ways – auto-purging themselves. Those with a longer view on both ‘sides’ of the GOP might see an upside for them in such a chaotic split.
The end result would not be a Trump presidency and America First in government. It is possible, however, that it might leave the US as a three party system. America would now have three parties – a centrist liberal party (right-wing in real terms), a far-right party, and a more-or-less outright fascist party. The fascist party would be considerably smaller than the other two. But it would be there. It would be a fact of life.
This may be how the slow quantitative build-up of the process within late stage capitalism of a ‘fascist creep’ tips over into a qualitative break.
Liberals rejoice over the idea that Trump and Trumpism, and their hold on the Republican Party, are drawing towards their terminus. And they may be right.
In recent interviews, Trump has given indications that he still has a firm grasp of populism.
“We’re not cutting Social Security,” Trump told Breitbart after the midterms. “It’s very simple. It’s a simple answer. We’re not cutting Social Security.”
As Republicans step up their anti-welfare rhetoric – with Rick Scott talking about sunsetting social security pensions and medicare, and Matt Gaetz telling Steven Bannon that it’s all “on the table” – Trump is remembering that his base feel that, unlike all the ‘entitled’ people, they really are entitled. Craig T. Nelson encapsulated the feelings of Trump’s base when he told Glen Beck: “I’ve been on foodstamps and welfare. Anyone help me out? No!”
One of the primary long-term goals of the GOP has been to strip away as much social security as possible, precisely because their job is to represent big capital, and big capital resents every penny of surplus that has to be fed into the state which serves it and from there to workers and/or consumers. It makes no difference that the provision of social security to populations, won through centuries of class struggle from below, was found to be adaptable to capital’s wider purposes, part of a social and government system which buttresses capital better than any other. Just as competing capitals fight as “warring brothers” and, in the process, destabilise their own system, so too does big capital, in its form as competing private capitals, endlessly try to claw back every cent it pays into its own life-support system. The GOP expresses this imperative. But, in a mirror of its tactic to garner votes from the middle by coyly code-talking encouragement of their reactionary fears and hopes, it uses the same technique to sell the same people policies which will actively harm them. Studies show that substantial portions of white voters will oppose social programmes that will benefit them if they think the same programmes will also benefit Black people. White supremacy is mobilised to grease neoliberalism’s destruction of the social sector, even to the detriment of the middle. Alongside the transfer of manufacturing industry to the ‘developing world’ where hyper-exploitation is possible, this is part of how, even as it extended the middle class, neoliberal capitalism destabilised and hollowed it out. The GOP cannot let go of its imperative to destroy social spending, even as such a program threatens to destabilise capitalism, even as such a program eventually alienates its own voter base. Trump in power will do no different. He, like all fascists, will ransack the middle to feed the monopolies. But, like all fascists, he can and will use populist, even left rhetoric, to get himself elected. The mainstream Republicans are caught in the trap of needing to be ideologically ultra-capitalist. Trump, strange as it sounds, is not. He can dispense with neoliberal rhetoric and, like fascists before him, base himself on the confused anti-capitalism of the middle layer.
“I think a lot of Republicans didn’t handle the abortion question properly,” said Trump in the same Breitbart interview. “I think if you don’t have the three exceptions, it’s almost impossible in most parts of the country to win.”
Trump in power is likely to ban abortion outright. But, buoyed by a ground-up reactionary movement, he can be untroubled by the mainstream Republican need to appease the donors and opinion swayers of US Big Evangelicalism. He can champion far-right demands with a gloss of populism. He clearly still has his innate grasp of how to fuse far-right politics, expressed with just the right amount of openness versus just the right amount of obscurity, with populist and reformist rhetoric which steals the thunder of what passes for the left in America.
This is a firm basis for an American fascist party which wants to gradually garner actual electoral success, that might be positioned to continue doing so even after Trump is gone.
Whatever you say about the two party system, it has acted as a block on third parties for a long time. That was, of course, part of the point of it. That was part of why the system evolved that way: so that it could block any form of left reformism in America. But through its own structural traps and constitutive contradictions as an expression of American capitalism and class, it has laid itself open to the rise of a populist far-right. And America First, the new Trumpist fascist party, would be positioned to grow until it could make exactly the kinds of deals of convenience that we historically see at the start of every pre-existing fascist regime. Nor would the Republican Party be in any way averse to such deals on an inherent level, its quarrel with MAGA being solely derived from strategic issues. We’ve already seen – in a cameo of that classic pattern with which I opened – how the GOP adopts and adapts itself to a fascistic movement when it feels it can use it to gain power. We saw that in 2016.
Those weary and wary Republican mid-levellers are right: it’s not 2016 any more. No, it’s worse. We are further down the trajectory 2016 put us on. We are nearer the dialectical tipping point.
Some of the overly blithe commentators on the left are also right: Trump is symptom rather than cause. That doesn’t mean that Trump can’t still be a catalyst.
The future is not set.
But it’s coming.