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America’s Populist Moment


The meaning of Donald Trump.

Donald J. Trump has succeeded in defeating Hillary Rodham-Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. The political establishment and Democratic voters alike are at a loss as to how such a seemingly incompetent opponent could accomplish one of the most unlikely victories in American history. As something of a left communist,[1] I have eschewed writing about this election cycle because I’m convinced working class participation in bourgeois ‘democracy’ is fundamentally misguided. Nevertheless, I spent a considerable amount of time examining the Democratic and Republican primaries, as well as the general election, and have discussed facets of it on The Value of Everything podcast, so I would like to take this occasion to summarize my views on the outcome. (I don’t intend on writing a scientific analysis of the event, so I ask that readers interpret what’s to follow as commentary. As such, this entry will be devoid of evidentiary citations for my claims, but I can furnish such if anyone should take exception to those positions which lend themselves to empirical validation.)

The moment it became evident it was mathematically impossible for Clinton to take the night, “white working class” immediately became the buzzword across the corporate media in the early morning hours of 9 November, and rightly so. This segment of the population, long demonized and claimed to be condemned to demographic extinction, once again demonstrated its numerical supremacy and willingness to assert itself as a coherent force in the body politic. The detestation of these men and women by bourgeois liberals is sure to intensify as a consequence of the outcome of the election, but I suspect their critics will think twice before marginalizing their political influence from henceforth. With that said, Trump’s strategy at appealing to, and cultivating support from, Caucasian proletarians is worth comprehending, for I’m convinced certain aspects of it will prove to be of paramount importance to organizations committed to the construction of a communist commonwealth in North America and Western Europe in the years ahead.

First and foremost, Trump was an attractive candidate because he never served in public office. Americans perception of career bureaucrats has never been particularly favorable, and in recent decades confidence in public institutions has been on the decline. Similarly, being a one term senator, Barack Obama simply didn’t have time to amass the history of corruption and controversial decisions which necessarily accompany the career of a state functionary, and this relative distance from the establishment was a definite asset during his presidential campaign. What’s more, being a haute bourgeois (successful or otherwise), Trump could convincingly claim to have personally witnessed the grotesque depths of corruption in the state apparatus, and therefore be poised to know precisely how to redress it—the fact he was complicit in such behavior himself could be excused on the basis that it has hitherto been a necessary condition of conducting business in the United States. In short, a career in so-called ‘public service’ at this stage in late capitalism is a disadvantage to one’s credibility, and this tendency will only increase with time.

Donald Trump was also able to broaden the base of the Republican Party and animate it to great effect. Almost from the outset, it was Trump’s explicit goal to transform the GOP into a “workers’ party,” even if it risked alienating the party’s neoliberal intelligentsia in the process. This was accomplished by way of denouncing the pernicious consequences of free trade and currency manipulation (e.g., the offshoring of manufacturing), exposing the fraudulent employment statistics cited by the current administration, and promising to leave popular welfare programs (e.g., social security) intact. Trump’s frequent criticisms of the United States’ military interventions in the Middle East and saber-rattling at Russia surely earned him the support of ordinary Americans weary of foreign entanglements as well, and the ire of the neoconservative contingent of the Republican establishment. Likewise, Trump’s staunch opposition to illegal immigration appealed to members of the working poor who have been enduring the competition and downward pressure on wages illicit foreign labor has precipitated for decades. Most importantly, Trump accomplished this without offending the sensibilities of the GOP’s other two chief constituencies: gun owners and evangelical Christians—mere rhetorical gestures (the sincerity of which I have my doubts) were sufficient to pacify them.

The Democratic coalition, by contrast, couldn’t mobilize around a candidate as unscrupulous and generally unlikable as Hillary Clinton. Even the incessant, hyperbolic narratives about a doomsday, proto-fascist scenario following a Trump presidency were to no avail. Moreover, the DNC’s bona fides as a party concerned with the interests of working people is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain under the weight of the ongoing economic crisis and aforementioned policies the Democratic Party has been instrumental in designing and enforcing for years. As the Wikileaks info. dumps revealed, the party elite actively conspired to deprive its sole populist member, the left-liberal Bernard Sanders, of its nomination, conclusively demonstrating the utter contempt the Democratic establishment has for anything even remotely approaching leftism. In its unparalleled hubris, the Democratic Party assumed the presidency could still be secured merely through the usual game of ‘lesser evil’ exhortations, but such appeals no longer carry the purchase they once did with the American people. Political pundits had been questioning whether the Republican Party could withstand the destabilizing impact of Trump’s candidacy, but a more legitimate question is whether the Democrats will be able to recover from this world historic defeat.

Trump’s victory represents a definitive break with free market orthodoxy and progressive paternalism. And his inevitable failure to deliver on his electoral promises—public policy is, after all, determined by a combination of ruling class prerogatives and the structural imperatives of capital accumulation—in conjunction with the havoc being wrecked by the unremitting economic crisis, is going to accelerate the erosion of bourgeois ideology still further, therewith opening up possibilities for radical sentiments (both left and right) to gain traction among the population. Whether communists will be able to seize the moment is an open question. Thus far, depressingly few Marxists have accurately assessed the populist movement behind Trump,[2] and the ability to do so is, in my estimation, critical to the potential success of that endeavor.

In closing, I must confess to experiencing a certain delight in the outcome of this election. The hysteria on display from assorted social justice warriors, liberal commentators and academics, and the establishment intelligentsia is music to my ears. They deserve all the anguish Trump’s politically incorrect, incoherent utterances elicit over the next 4 years. With any luck, they’ll retreat into their ‘safe spaces’ and remain there for perpetuity.

[1] I identify primarily with the council communist tradition, but also find a few aspects of Amadeo Bordiga’s work (to wit, his critique of anti-fascism) valuable.
[2] Chris Cutrone and Slavoj Žižek are the only two of any notoriety who come to mind, and the latter I have difficulty accepting as a Marxist.


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9 thoughts on “America’s Populist Moment

  1. This was an insightful and well-developed commentary on Trump’s election. What is your opinion on the argument that voting for third parties effectively gave him the presidency?

    • I haven’t reviewed the data yet—and it’ll likely be months before reliable studies on the subject have been conducted—but my initial impression is that these notions are fanciful. The Stein vote was trivial, and Johnson likely pulled just as many votes from Trump as he did from Clinton. Another phenomenon that this narrative completely misses is the many individuals who vote third party on principle, i.e., they would have abstained from voting altogether if not for the existence of third parties.

  2. I agree with pretty much all of what you write on this. Disconnected elites, the FU vote, multiple divisions of a nation.
    Hillary would have done the same thing as before, a prolonged slow death. With Trump, it feels like the play has forwarded to final act.

  3. I still think that it will be too soon for Marxists, or any Socialist to be happy at this moment. Everyone knows that the left has all but gone in the United States, and for them to be able to re-construct themselves into a coherent force will take more than four years.

    • I agree it’ll take longer than 4 years for the radical left in America to develop an effective social movement (if it does at all), but Trump’s victory is cause for optimism for the simple reason it’s an indication that bourgeois ideology is suffering a clear legitimation crisis. As I wrote in the entry, “Whether communists will be able to seize the moment is an open question. Thus far, depressingly few Marxists have accurately assessed the populist movement behind Trump, and the ability to do so is, in my estimation, critical to the potential success of that endeavor.”

      • You might also have a look at articles on Trump by Boris Kagarlitsky and James Petras… More interesting than the usual “Trump is Hitler” stuff.

  4. Hi Michael,

    I found your site when I was searching for a better understanding of cultural Marxism. Thank you for spending time and effort on that. I learned much from it and I believe you are much closer to the truth of things than your detractors realize. I download you conversation with Charles Owen and have yet to listen to them on my 4 hour drive to Philadelphia for the Christmas holiday; I listen better when I’m driving. Anyway, there is much that you have said that resonates with my own experience and understanding of Marxism. The latter is through the perspective of Dr. Erich Fromm; perhaps you’ve heard of him. Says he

    “During the last 35 years, I have written many works, in which — under different aspects — I tried to explain that there are not only points where Marxism and psychoanalysis overlap but that there is also an intrinsic interdependency between the two. This means, I do not only believe that a synthesis is possible but also an existential necessity”

    It was Erich Fromm that introduced me to Marx about 10 years ago. Initially, I was rather apprehensive about it since I was lead to believe he was the devil incarnate. But much to my astonishment, he deeply cared for the working class. I never read Marx’s ideas directly because he’s too hard to read for me. By contrast, Dr. Fromm interprets his ideas humanistically and without the jargon that comes with political and psychological theories.

    Aside from the above, I wanted to know what your thoughts were on Adam Curtis’s recent video documentary on hyper-normalization. Here is a clip

    Here you will find the entire film

    Just looking at the clip makes me depressed. It’s the kind of feeling most people avoid at all cost yet if we give it no heed, it will bring us all to the brink of an existential crisis and I believe we are already in it but delude ourselves into believing it’s not so bad. I’m convinced, now more than ever, that those in power live in an alternate reality that places the fate of humanity at very serious risk. They have no f**king idea what they are doing and the masses are blindly following them like sheep to the slaughter house. As Dr. Andrew Bacevitch said regarding US politics and foreign policy (in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr)

    “to read Niebuhr today to avail oneself to a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called “our dreams of managing history” — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril”

    It seems we already are living in ignorance and quite frankly, I find it frightening. Am I the only one who feels this way? Would it be true to say that the problem we face is a crisis of consciousness and a complete disregard for truth? Where are the Karl Marx, Carl Jung, Freud, Karen Horney, Hanna Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Erich Fromm of today?

  5. I spent at least 40 minutes writing a comment hours ago. It went through pending revision but I still don’t see it. I’m new to wordpress. If my comment was not accepted, are reasons offered for it?

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