Trump’s Right-wing Populism as a Ruling Class Strategy
Dr. Josh R. Klein (From a talk I gave at the college where I work.)
So how is Trump’s right-wing populism a ruling class strategy? Rightwing populism is about scapegoats — finding race or nation enemies to blame instead of the ruling class. A ruling class is a layer of society that economically dominates social life and controls government 8. You know, the 1%. By strategy I don’t mean conspiracy. But Trump’s interests, despite his talk, fit with big business interests, which often harm workers, the poor and the middle class. Despite his unusual behavior, he is part of a mostly happy group marriage between the rich and the government. In social science lingo, the dominant social class and the government have a partnership which may involve conflict, but in which the dominant class understands that the government’s main job is maintaining the social order, disciplining workers, and helping business at home and abroad 9.
Imagine this. Your big, muscular dog is in a cage in your room. The dog has loved you for years, but is now growling, irritable, and unpredictable. A crazed, angry-looking baseball bat-wielding person is smashing through your window. You have nothing to use as a weapon. What do you do?
This scenario is an analogy for the politics of Trump. The scared person in the scenario stands for the 1% (the top 20% benefit from our economy but the 1% have much more power than others) — used to being in control but now real nervous because the masses are getting restless. The crazed person coming through the window stands for the masses — US middle, working, and poor folks — roughly the unhappy 99%. The dog is the government. With Trump in its brain, the dog seems a little out of control, makes disturbing noises, but he’s been part of the 1%, that is, on your team, his whole life. If you let him out of the cage he might break a few things, but he will probably do it while protecting the 1% from the 99%.
The dog’s disturbing noises stand for rightwing populism, often called just populism. Populist movements are repressive, and motivated against liberation or revolutionary movements 7. Rightwing populists speak the language of the little guy and gal against the powerful, but do not acknowledge that the main enemies of everyday folks are capitalism and the nation-state. Populism is political talk and social movement action that emphasizes the people versus the elites, so populism sounds like it supports the little guy and gal against the powerful. But like fascism, populism is usually capitalistic, reactionary (meaning ultra-conservative), racist, and nationalist. You could say populism is a rehearsal for fascism — it’s the children’s version. Since the 1980s, we have had an unusually authoritarian political system that has often made use of populism.
If the dog (our government) and the scared person in the room (the 1%) beat, tie up, and exploit the attacker coming through the window, then smoke crack and go looking for the attacker’s family to take more revenge, that’s fascism. Fascism is a social movement and ideology that is anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-union, anti-left, pro-nationalist, pro-militarist, and pro-capitalism 1.
On the basics that matter to the 1%, Trump is no different than any other president. Trump is like that angry slightly senile relative who gets too drunk at dinner and starts saying what a lot of people are thinking but always seems to have mean-spirited solutions to problems. So how does someone so rude (blunt?) become president?
Quoting one writer: “Anyone with a shot of winning the presidency knows they have only two interrelated jobs: CEO of the American-led project of capitalist globalization and Commander-in-Chief of its war machine” 5. Who made these statements?:
Person 1: “I believe in the free market… I revere the courage and competence of our military” 2
Person 2: “we… [need to] lower our taxes, remove destructive regulations…” 3. “We need a leader that can… bring back our military…” 4.
Person 1 is Obama, person 2 is Trump. In other words, like every US president, Obama and Trump are loyal to the US capitalist economy and the US military. They can say and do almost anything else and still be protecting the interests of the 1%.
But isn’t Trump pissing off lots of rich and powerful people, corporations, etc.? Not so fast. It’s true that big business does not usually talk in Trump’s language. Big business has been happy with Clintons, Obamas, the Democratic party and liberals, all of whom have been promoting business interests wonderfully in recent decades. They do this partly by blaming crime and poverty on the powerless, cutting spending for human needs, and supporting US foreign aggression and a military equal to the rest of the world combined.
How does Trump fit into this story? Trump is part of a rightwing movement of climate-change and evolution deniers, xenophobes and religious nuts that admittedly do not represent the main ideology of big business 10. Big business leaders don’t talk like Trump but are “happy to let the ravers do some of the dirty work for them” 10. The rightwing dirty work involves blaming the wrong enemies like other nations, welfare cheats, or lazy workers. Rightwing talk and policies also help corporations by keeping taxes and regulations minimal. The Democrats and liberals play up the fear of the rightwing in every election, but don’t get in the way business profiteering that harms much of the US and elsewhere.
“…a society that supports its global position and social order through… military spending… exceeding that of all the other countries in the world…, unleashing untold destruction on the world, while faced with intractable problems of inequality, economic stagnation, financial crisis, poverty, waste, and environmental decline at home, is a society that is ripe for change” 13
The only way to fight rightwing populism is a radical, popular, democratic movement that speaks to the issues that anger many 7, including those who voted for Trump.
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2. Obama, B. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. (Vintage, 2008).
3. Trump, D. J. Trump Delivers Speech On Jobs At New York Economic Club. Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. (2016). Available at: https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/trump-delivers-speech-on-jobs-at-new-york-economic-club. (Accessed: 12th February 2017)
4. Sanchez, A. E. Donald Trump’s Delusional Free Market. Commentary and Cuentos (2015). Available at: http://www.commentaryandcuentos.com/donald-trumps-delusional-free-market/. (Accessed: 12th February 2017)
5. Gupta, A. The Only Article You Need to Read About the 2016 Election. www.counterpunch.org (2015). Available at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/05/11/the-only-article-you-need-to-read-about-the-2016-election/. (Accessed: 26th September 2016)
6. Finkelstein, N. G. The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. (Verso, 2000).
7. Fletcher, Jr., B. in The Politics of the Right: Socialist Register 2016 (eds. Panitch, L. & Albo, G.) 296–311 (The Merlin Press, 2015).
8. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. (Harvard University Press, 1983).
9. Miliband, R. Class Power and State Power. (Verso Books, 1983).
10. Henwood, D. in The Politics of the Right: Socialist Register 2016 (eds. Panitch, L. & Albo, G.) 272–295 (The Merlin Press, 2015).
11. Wood, L. in The Politics of the Right: Socialist Register 2016 (eds. Panitch, L. & Albo, G.) 333–346 (The Merlin Press, 2015).
12. Travis, J., Western, B. & Redburn, S. The growth of Incarceration in the United States. (The National Academies Press, 2014).
13. Foster, J. B., Holleman, H. & Robert W. McChesney. The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending. Monthly Review (2008). Available at: https://monthlyreview.org/2008/10/01/the-u-s-imperial-triangle-and-military-spending/. (Accessed: 12th February 2017)