Like one of those science-fiction scenarios where the protagonist witnesses an alternative dystopian future, the new US presidency has an air of unreality about it, where the unthinkable happens at high speed. Each morning we wake wondering what horror Trump has enacted overnight. What were once scandalous tweets now take the form of executive orders with serious implications for the environment, global security, women’s rights, Muslims, the rule of law and the structures of modern democracy. It’s now clear that Trump was not merely full of bluster during campaign mode but intends to realise as many of his promises as possible. Currently, the Trump administration seems intent on transferring as much power as it can to a small group of insiders, led by the president and his chief adviser, Steve Bannon, who are testing the extent to which they can override resistance from state departments, the courts, Congress and citizens. The ‘ban’ on Muslims entering the country reads like a test case: demoralising and confusing government bodies, allowing Trump’s orders to be carried out unfettered by legal concerns. Elsewhere, state employees and senior public servants are resigning or being sacked on an unprecedented scale, including almost all senior officials from the State Department. The addition of Bannon to the National Security Council and the corresponding removal of both the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence represents an unprecedented transfer of power, while the sacking of Attorney General Sally Yates—couched in the language of ‘weakness’ and ‘betrayal’—suggests an extremism behind an otherwise political decision. Bannon’s stated intention to ‘destroy the state’ and ‘bring everything crashing down’ reveals the extent of his nihilism—the degree to which this will be challenged by institutional forces, or possibly Trump himself, remains to be seen.
It’s hard to tell how the attempts to transfer power to Trump’s inner circle will resonate with voters. The rapidity of events and the (manufacture of) confusion—with Trump and his advisers saying one thing, contradicting themselves, reverting to their original position—are obscuring this larger trend. Certainly Trump has been keen to pursue the ‘culture war’ side of his campaign in his early days as president. Undoubtedly, this plays well with certain groups of voters, but its validity as a long-term strategy remains to be seen. Trump’s hostility toward minorities, the media and political correctness was only part of what got him elected. The promise of jobs, the improvement of life for those left behind by the global economy strongly contributed to Trump’s appeal. So far we have not heard much about this apart from promises of major infrastructure, the repeal of environmental protections to ‘free up’ construction projects, and the opening skirmishes in a new trade war.
The latter may cause difficulties for the United States, but an equal challenge lies with Trump’s inner circle, who have based their careers on exploiting Trump’s core constituency. Mike Pence played a key role in the destruction of labour and environmental standards in the wake of hurricane Katrina, using the trope of ‘disaster’ to usher in a radical free-market ideology. The accelerated confusion of Trump’s first few days hints at a similar attempt to create a permanent state of disaster. Trump’s pick for treasury secretary is banker Steve Mnuchin, whose notorious ‘foreclosure machine’ left thousands of Americans without homes, while Andrew Puzder, fast-food CEO and Trump’s proposed labour secretary, is a notorious critic of basic worker rights. The list goes on. It beggars belief that Trump could alleviate the conditions of ‘ordinary Americans’ with such an administration. The ‘massive infrastructure’ that Trump promised requires large amounts of labour, and the inevitable departure of cheap immigrant workers means that whoever gains jobs under the new administration may have to do so under conditions of precarity and Third World wages—not everyone’s idea of making America great again. It’s impossible to tell whether these problems can be hidden behind the pursuit of aggressive culture (and possibly actual) wars, but it suggests the possibility of a serious downturn in Trump’s popularity if he cannot deliver.
In Australia, the response to the first few days of the Trump presidency was characterised by typical obsequiousness, but it was also slightly bizarre. Trump’s cancellation of the TPP trade agreement, repeatedly flagged during the election campaign, seemed to disrupt Malcolm Turnbull, who clung to the agreement days after the executive order killing it, and provided one of the few grim pleasures this January. The on/off deal for trading refugees has presented a similar spectacle, with Turnbull apparently abused by Trump over the ‘dumb deal’. Both incidents reveal the Australian government in disavowal mode, acting as if it were business as usual, as if the neoliberal consensus—based on free trade, global agreements and unfettered markets—still operated. Similarly, protests from the EU, or from multinational corporations that embrace a token liberalism—Google, Facebook, Starbucks etc.—suggest we can return to normality if we can just get over a few years of Trump.
This is unlikely. Malcolm Turnbull’s February address to the Canberra press gallery indicated the paralysis of neoliberal governments. He recognised that people were suffering but offered no solutions. All he could manage was a muted repetition of the core tenets of the neoliberal economy: free trade, corporate tax cuts and another attempt to introduce the austerity measures of the 2014 budget. Such measures have failed to reinvigorate Western economies, yet governments have little else to offer. William Davies argues in the New Left Review that we are in a new stage of neoliberalism marked by ‘irrationality from above’, where governments continue with measures that have demonstrably failed—austerity, auditing, privatisation—refusing to countenance evidence they do not work. Neoliberal advocates no longer even claim that privatisation, benchmarking, cuts and so forth lead to a more vibrant economy. Instead neoliberal policy evokes an ethos of punishment. Greece, austerity and the EU provide the most notorious example of this ethos, but locally we might consider the Centrelink ‘robodebt’ measures, as discussed by Gerard McPhee in this issue. Marked by massive inaccuracy and failure to recover significant revenue, the robodebt scheme, along with the government’s stubborn attachment to it, points exactly to this punitive ethos.
Trump presents an alternative to the stagnation of neoliberal governments, but they have enabled his rise and his subsequent actions. Trump’s merging of the state with private business is only possible because neoliberalism has been relentlessly dismantling and privatising the state for decades. Naomi Klein, observing Trump’s inner circle, notes that ‘after decades of privatising the state in bits and pieces, they decided to just go for the government itself’. If the centre-right governments of Australia and Britain as well as the EU have reacted to Trump, they have generally done so without recognising their own role in the dismantling of lives and communities via global markets and the erosion of public culture.
Unfortunately, a similar process of disavowal frames much of the progressive resistance to Trump. After the election, left-liberals reacted by mourning (via the loss of Clinton) the very institutions and processes that enabled him to come to power. Now that Trump has enacted executive orders that attack Muslims, women and the environment, there are protests on the street and at airports, and outrage in the media. This presents a dilemma. Trump and Bannon thrive on outrage and on identifying enemies such as minorities and the media. The first two weeks of the presidency manifested the same paranoid energy that fuels alt-right websites—energy gained primarily through resentment and hatred. The response to Trump needs to break this cycle of outrage and reaction that drives the culture war.
The inability of neoliberal politics to deliver, even on its own terms, presents an opportunity for a different form of politics than Trump’s authoritarian nationalism. To gain traction, progressives must recognise the extent of their complicity in the current situation. The emancipatory movements of the 1960s have been co-opted into the neoliberal state, where liberation is tied to the global economy. Liberation, expressed through elevated consumption, mobility, information and media, is primarily aesthetic rather than political. Politically, the sentiment that technological innovation and global trade would bring freedom and prosperity to all people formed an often cynical mantra that governed Blair, Clinton, Obama and their more naive supporters. The ‘freedoms’ of global capitalism were unevenly distributed, to be sure, but they were felt differently too: fluidity and innovation for progressives, knowledge workers and professionals, insecurity for others as their lives and cultures were destroyed by the global market. Hillary Clinton’s mantra of ‘being the most qualified candidate’ absolutely marked this distinction where, for many of the ‘losers’ in the global economy, being qualified expressed more than education or experience: it symbolised the wielding of power by the intellectually trained. Others were its victims—they turned to Trump.
That professional/knowledge groupings are also threatened—through automation, outsourcing, or jobs (in arts, welfare and the like) slashed by Trump in the culture wars—presents an opportunity for new coalitions. Others have spoken about forging connections between liberal-progressives and Trump voters who reacted against the ‘system’ that failed them. While much has been written explaining the ‘Trump voter’, there has been little self-reflection by progressives: they simply have a set of values that Trump now threatens. Rarely is it asked where such values come from. Obviously Trump and his gang of corporate ideologues, religious conservatives and white nativists represent a genuine threat, but what values are to be posed against them? Is it primarily the right to identity, cosmopolitanism and tolerance, as it seems to be?
Insufficient in themselves, such values would need to connect to more material issues around the sustainability of work, environment and culture. Progressive values are often produced via the neoliberal settings now in crisis: a globalised economy that provided prosperity to the liberal Left (at the expense of others) but also ushered in a sensibility based on transience, ungroundedness and mobility. Think of the basic distinction between intellectual and manual labour, the latter anchored in a distinct setting, the former governed by abstraction from the world—a movement away from stability towards the fleeting character of images and information. Such labour can be exhilarating. It opens up a global reservoir of culture and data, harnessed as commodities for consumption, identity building and the creation of extended social networks. In such a setting, is it not surprising that the values of openness and fluidity, plurality and diversity come to be seen as natural, and superior?
To say this is not to reject such values. In the Trump era, they are a necessary part of resisting the trend towards authoritarianism and intolerance (and worse) occurring not only in the United States but in all advanced democracies. If a genuine alternative to Trumpism is to manifest, however, we must recognise where such values come from, and the limits of the settings that produced them. Such settings, premised on global trade and hyper-consumption, are unsustainable for life itself, not merely politically divisive. There is no going back.