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By Jason Michael
Everyone is talking about Trump and Trumpism. Whether we like him and what he stands for or not, he is the man of the moment. The “resistance” to Trumpism is too busy describing what Trumpism does, but few are explaining what it really is.
Multi-millionaire developer Donald Trump has become the forty-fifth president of the United States on the crest of the wave of a massive right-leaning social movement. In his inaugural address yesterday President Trump made it clear that the divisiveness with which he won both the Republican primary and the election is how he intends to govern. “You” on Trumps lips is not the collective of all Americans, but the tens of millions of partisan voters who elected him. This will not be an Administration that seeks unity by working to heal the wounds of the presidential campaign, but one that celebrates and harnesses the raw power of anger and frustration. Rage is the dynamism at the heart of Trumpism.
Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric in spelling out what he means by making American great again – promises of Muslim immigration bans, registering Muslim Americans, dealing with Islamic terrorism, building walls, and the like – have unsettled and frightened many. Yet this same language has gathered to him a following that threatens to upturn the applecart of the Washington consensus and revolutionise the way politics is done. On the left the drums of resistance are already sounding. Sasha Abramsky lays it out in the New Statesman:
We can’t stop all of the horrors of Trumpism. But we can work tirelessly to stymie as much as possible in as many creative ways as possible. The time for compromise is over. Now is the time for an outpouring of creative, marvelous, non-violent protest.
We can all agree on the political left that the Trump programme is dangerous and a meaningful response is urgently required, but before we can do this we first must understand Trumpism and come to a working definition of the movement. It is the term everyone is using, but few are making any effort to define it – and this is fast becoming a problem. Abramsky’s own analysis, while describing the social and political symptoms it produces and reiterating the leftist call to resist, he fails to provide an adequate definition.
In this regard Abramsky is not alone. John Harwood, writing in The New York Times, speaks of its appeal to the white working-class and notes the tempering effect Trump’s “America first” trade policy is likely to have on globalisation. He highlights the contradictions in Trump’s anti-Wall Street establishment positioning while Goldman Sachs’ brightest and best are being lined up to run the new Administration’s Treasury Department and the National Economic Council. Harwood appears to be convinced that the durability of Trumpism rests on the movement’s ability to broaden its support base by appealing to more African Americans and Latinos, when in fact its undercurrents of racism and Islamophobia have – to date – proven to be a winning formula in rallying popular support.
All of this so far is commentary rather than more critically needed analysis. What is being described of Trump, the various political ideologies behind him, and the mass popular movement they have catalysed provide hints to what Trumpism is, but – as is the case with all commentary – it fails to fully grasp the essence of Trumpism, and so is incapable of laying the ground on which a successful nexus of resistance strategies and campaigns can be built.
Rather over-simplistically, like many on the left and liberal media, Abramsky is framing the rise of Trump as a return to the past; be that “in the 1870s, in an age of venomous white redemption politics,” or in “an isolationist, parochial, 1920s.” Certainly the politics of these eras remain desirable for segments of the American population, but this is no return to the past. In Europe the resurgence of the far-right – itself a close relative of the rise of Trumpism in the States – is, in similar fashion, being framed as a return to the fascist authoritarianisms of the early twentieth century. Sure, they have their similarities, but they are not the same. This is new.
Trumpism, as a social and political phenomenon, is without precedent in the history of modern parliamentary democracy. Unlike the Partito Nazionale Fascista in Italy, Hungary’s Nyilaskeresztes Párt, or Germany’s more infamous Nationalsozialismus, Trumpism is neither a cohesive body of politics nor a singular ideology. As a radical development of populism it is essentially apolitical and a fluid composition of disparate, yet predominantly rightist, ideologies.
United under the charismatic and caudillo leadership of Donald Trump the movement, now an incipient political party, has more in common with the politics of the Late Roman Empire; with its decadent and disinterested autocrats, than it does with any modern democratic system. Donald Trump, from whom the movement inevitability takes its name, is not himself behind the movement. It existed fully formed before it adopted him. Nor does he direct this composite beast. It directs him. Trump himself is not a political animal. He is an opportunist who has used this movement to further his own ambitions, and, in turn, the powers behind the movement have used him to gain their political objectives.
At its core Trumpism is a conglomeration of mass movements of ordinary people who, for a multitude of reasons, have been left behind for decades by numerous US Administrations. The heretofore neoliberal political system – the marriage of massive corporatist interests and bought and paid for career politicians – has silenced and impoverished ordinary working Americans. It is them who constitute the real energy of Trumpism. Lacking a vocabulary with which to challenge the system it has attracted to itself a whole host of fringe political organisations, an assortment of racist, white supremacist, and libertarian alt-right ideologues.
This Trumpism is therefore an ideology still in the making. It is tripartite in compositions; bringing together the indignation of tens of millions of disconnected Americans, parasitic political ideologies, and a leader who is willing to employ their combined forces to achieve his own selfish objectives. All this is what gives it its strength, being so nebulous – an internet of people and ideas – it lacks the rigidity of traditional parties and so becomes more difficult to disable by conventional targeted methods of propaganda. Its make up also exposes its greatest vulnerability; it can function only when all three components are working together.
Ending Trumpism – short of the demise of Donald Trump and limiting the freedom of speech that enables the ideologies of bigotry, misogyny, and hatred – lies in addressing the root causes of the frustration and anger of the millions of voters that have made it a success. If anything this is the long-overdue result of the politics of greed, and the answer to the problem is not in the movement, the ideas that have clung to it, or in the man Donald Trump. The answer is in constructing a better politics that puts the needs of people before profit and selfish ambition.
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