Trump’s erratic presidency is a manifestation, not the cause, of democratic decay. The unfolding political crisis will outlast him. So must the resistance.
Jerome Roos: It’s been a year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America — and we’re already exhausted. Exhausted by the endless stream of sexist and racist bigotry pouring out of his hideous face and Twitter feed. Exhausted by the rapid succession of 24-hour scandals, one outrage sweeping another from the headlines before the immensity of the previous one has even begun to properly sink in.
Exhausted by the immature personal grudges and individual fallings-out that are constantly played out in public amidst the gratuitous threats of nuclear annihilation. Exhausted by the gas-lighting narcissism, the power-hungry egotism and the self-aggrandizing vanity of a multi-billionaire businessman who has never known anything but public adulation for his inherited wealth. Exhausted, frankly, by the very realization — recurring on a daily basis — that this man-child’s maniacal delusions have actually been confirmed, insofar as he himself is concerned, by his election to the most powerful office in the world.
Nevertheless, amidst the storm of chaos that Donald Trump has unleashed upon the world, it becomes ever more necessary to take some distance from the headlines and reflect upon the broader meaning of the past year in American and global politics. For me personally, three observations stand out.
1) The limits of Trump’s “declarative politics”
When Trump was first elected, many warned of his authoritarian ambitions and the threat of incipient fascism in America. In left-liberal circles, in particular, comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini were rife. There was always some merit to these concerns, as white supremacists clearly felt emboldened by Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, and the brazen response of various alt-right and neo-Nazi groups has had far-reaching, even lethal consequences. But if his first year in office has confirmed anything, it is that Trump — while certainly a vile and dangerous racist who revels in hate speech against historically oppressed groups — was always far more interested in promoting himself than in a disciplined ideological commitment to a cause external to his own self-advancement.
In fact, what stands out is Trump’s almost utter incapacity to move beyond what I call a narrow declarative politics — a superficial form of national-populism that panders to prevalent xenophobic and anti-establishment sentiment but relies almost entirely on discursive interventions, while making little systematic attempt to transform electoral promises or everyday bluster into tangible policy outcomes or new power configurations. In saying this, I certainly do not mean to downplay the material consequences of Trump’s reactionary rhetoric or the disastrous policies he did manage to push through over the past year. But the fact that the president celebrated the first anniversary of his tenure amidst a government shutdown, even as his party controls both houses, is indicative of the isolated and relatively powerless position in which he finds himself.
On the election trail, Trump repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” and rid Washington of “special interests.” His erstwhile chief strategist, the now-estranged Steve Bannon, even vowed to “deconstruct the administrative state.” Instead of presenting a rupture with the status quo, however, Trump has actually presided over its radicalization. Behind the scenes, the real power center in his administration continues to lie with Wall Street and Big Oil — just as it did under previous Republican and Democratic presidents. Far from descending into national-socialism, the United States remains governed by the same belligerent billionaire class that thrived under Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes and Obama —always pursuing further tax cuts and financial deregulation.
This is not to say that nothing has changed. As I argued after the elections, Trump’s victory speaks to a profound legitimation crisis of the neoliberal establishment, and to a broader incapacity of the United States to reproduce its hegemonic role in the liberal world order it created in the wake of World War II. Domestically, the elite consensus that cemented the politics of both major parties over the past four decades — especially around the issue of trade liberalization — is under severe attack from within, and internationally US power is clearly on the wane. Trump represents a desperate attempt to reverse the latter process by shattering the former consensus: countering America’s decline by reasserting control over its national borders and replacing the liberal internationalism of the Clintons and Obamas with a new white nationalism.
Clearly, the consequences of this reversal have been most keenly felt by migrants, who rightly fear being deported by the new administration. Yet, without defending Trump, it is important to point out that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers actually deported fewer people in 2017 than they did under Obama in 2016. So far, the domestic political implications of Trump’s “populist” earthquake have therefore been more limited than is generally acknowledged. It is mostly Trump’s declarations — his impulsive tweets and offensive statements — that defy the established liberal order; when it comes to the material constitution of US politics, the center still holds.
2) The complicity of the liberal #resistance
This brings me to the second and closely related observation: the extent to which the shallow “resistance” of the liberal establishment has actually played into the hands of the far right. Just as Trump’s defiance operates mostly at the discursive level, so the Democratic Party leadership has done little to move beyond superficial declarations of indignation. When it comes to actual policy measures, leading Democrats have repeatedly enabled the Republicans to pursue their reactionary agenda — most recently voting along with their GOP counterparts to further extend the president’s vast surveillance authority. As Glenn Greenwald astutely pointed out in The Intercept, “the same Democrats who denounce Trump as a lawless treasonous authoritarian just voted to give him vast warrantless spying powers.” So much for the #resistance.
Moreover, by focusing almost all of their attention on Trump as a person, wilfully overlooking their own responsibility for shaping the systemic political and economic conditions that brought him to power, centrist Democrats have entirely missed the bigger story: the fact that no one really trusts them anymore to solve the country’s most pressing problems. As I noted right after the elections, Trump did not win because he was popular — Hillary lost because she was extremely unpopular. What has been most astonishing over the past year has been the Democrats’ outright refusal to recognize this most basic fact. Instead of looking inwards for answers and assuming part of the blame for Trump’s rise to power, the best they could come up with was to reinvent a set of Cold War scare stories about Russian interference in US political life.
Interestingly, the liberal opposition has thereby chosen to operate its #resistance strategy almost entirely on the terrain of right-wing politics, using the president’s “national treason” and “mental incompetence ”— rather than his overt sexism, racism and classism — as the primary prongs in their attempt to push him from office. By drawing the battle lines this way, the Democratic establishment is already shaping the terms of debate for the post-Trump era: instead of laying the groundwork for a wider assault on patriarchy, white supremacy and the concentrated power of the billionaire class, the liberal elite aims to present Trump as a mere aberration within a broader legal and political framework of otherwise fair, sound and functional political institutions.
The liberal media, for its part, has been happy to play along with this game. Once identified by Steve Bannon as the authentic “opposition party,” major centrist broadcasters and newspapers like CNN and the New York Times are certainly trying their best to discredit the president — but their obsessive preoccupation with his personal life and his outrageous public statements belies a similar short attention span as Trump’s. The media’s constantly renewed sense of indignation is simply being absorbed into the giant spectacle that Trump himself continues to feed; the media simply responds, always on the back foot, to the latest Twitter outrage. Almost every other day a new scandal hits the headlines — in the past two weeks alone we have gone from “a bigger nuclear button” to allegations of advanced dementia, from “shithole countries” to hush money for porn stars — but none of these stories seem to stick for longer than 48 hours before the media collectively piles in on the next big distraction.
The result is that Trump and his liberal opposition end up holding each other up in perfect suspension — both effectively paralyzed by the inflexible and increasingly ossified institutions of representative democracy, and both exceedingly frustrated by their relative impotence and failure to advance in their stated objectives. It is always Groundhog Day at the White House. Stuck in a political deadlock of sorts, it is precisely the relative powerlessness of the president and his liberal opposition that perpetuates the overwhelming sense of crisis. The same mutual “impotence” will also make for a particularly dangerous situation in the years ahead— for despite the institutional stalemate in which he finds himself, Trump still has that “bigger nuclear button” on his desk.
3) The enduring nature of the political crisis
This finally brings me to the third observation, which is that Trump is not the cause but a consequence of the broader democratic crisis in which American politics—and, indeed, politics around the world—currently finds itself. Surely his presidency will accelerate and intensify the contradictions at work here, but the roots of the present calamity run much deeper and will outlast the sitting president by years, if not decades. Trump, in short, is not just a dysfunctional aberration within an otherwise functional political order, nor does he alone constitute an existential threat to the survival of American democracy. Rather, he is a morbid symptom of a system entering into an advanced state of decay.
It follows that the opposition to the president and his reactionary brand of far-right national populism cannot limit itself to the same level of declarative politics at which Trump himself operates. The shallow #resistance rhetoric of the centrist Democratic establishment will prove wholly incapable of redressing the broader systemic crisis. Even if Trump is unseated from office, either through impeachment or in the 2020 elections, the same popular discontents that brought him to power will continue to fester and eat away at the perceived legitimacy of the old political elites and representative institutions. To respond convincingly to these dynamics of democratic decay will require a degree of social, political and economic transformation that no mainstream politician in the country is willing to publicly countenance at this point.
The left, for its part, if it ever gains power, will encounter many of the same challenges and limitations that Trump and his white-nationalist minions are currently running in to: from a hostile media and entrenched party bureaucracy to inflated popular expectations and the rigor mortis of existing institutions. Moving from a politics of opposition to a real movement that can withstand the counter-attacks of capital, the far right and the neoliberal establishment to abolish the present state of things will require a level of political organization and strategic thinking on a scale far beyond anything currently found on the left—even among the well-intentioned camp of Bernie Sanders supporters.
There are therefore important lessons to be drawn from the experience of the past year. The declarative politics of left-populism, with its emphasis on discourse and its grand promises of a reinvigorated social-democratic politics, will likely falter in the absence of a broader campaign to rebuild popular power from below. Socialism, even in its innocent Nordic garden variety, cannot simply be declared into existence after wresting the decaying institutions of liberal democracy from Trump’s tiny hands. To chart an emancipatory way out of the current standoff between the authoritarian neoliberal establishment and an authoritarian nationalist president will require a much more extensive commitment towards mobilizing popular mass movements, countering political fragmentation and instituting new forms of radical democracy from below.
I contend that the crisis we are living through is of a general and structural nature. The social, political and economic institutions that underpinned the postwar world order, enabling the triumph of global capitalism and the consolidation of liberal democracy, are now in a process of decomposition. It would be very dangerous to reduce these world-historical developments to the inanities of a single person, no matter how vile or threatening they may be. Trump’s erratic presidency is a manifestation, not the cause, of the wider democratic decay that has accompanied the neoliberal turn of the past four decades. The unfolding political crisis will outlast him. So must the resistance.
Originally published in ROAR Magazine