Recent weeks have brought to the fore two main issues concerning US President Donald Trump.
The first was his doubling down on one central theme of his election campaign — economic nationalism. This was found in his charge that most of the rest of the world is somehow “exploiting” the United States — and he will fight back. This charge was somewhat muted in the first months of his presidency, but now he is emphasising it again.
The second, also a main feature of his election campaign, is his drive to establish himself as an authoritarian president, the “strongman” who can take on the dysfunction in the two capitalist parties that dominate US politics.
This is bound up in his economic nationalism, and by extension political nationalism — as seen in his assertion that he is the strongman who can take on the rest of the world.
Now we are in the midst of Congressional and other investigations of charges that Trump is colluding with Russia, that Russia interfered in the US election to back him and that Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey proves this.
This is a naked bare-knuckle power struggle at the top. Its outcome may affect the success or otherwise of Trump’s authoritarian ambitions.
When Trump arrived in Europe recently as part of his first international trip, his economic nationalism once more came to the fore. He chastised the NATO nations for not paying their “fair share” in funding the warmongering alliance. He was also angered by the “unfair” economic relations between the European Union and the United States.
He especially singled out Germany, which he said was “bad, very bad” because Germany exports significantly more to the US than vice versa. He muttered that not many Chevrolets were seen on German streets.
His demeanor was insulting to the representatives of the European nations present, above all to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At one point, he physically shoved aside Montenegro’s representative to get in the forefront of the assembled “dignitaries” — as they are called in the capitalist press.
In his speech explaining why he was pulling out of the Paris Accords on climate change, he barely mentioned that issue. He did not have to, because his position denying climate science has been made abundantly clear.
His executive orders have given the green light to the fossil fuel giants to go full steam ahead — the real, practical meaning of his climate change denial. His appointments for head of the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies with climate change deniers is another example.
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out that Trump did not have to take the provocative step of withdrawing from the Paris Accords, since they were purely voluntary. He could have just ignored them. So why did he?
That was made clear in his long speech, a diatribe on how the rest of the world is exploiting the US that raised every alleged example he could think of — again singling out Germany.
His accusation against the Paris Accords was that they were designed to economically attack the US. He especially rejected the stipulation in the Accords that rich countries should help developing countries cope with greenhouse gas emissions by giving them subsidies.
The actual subsidies proposed in the Accords are paltry compared to the scale of the problem, but Trump nixed any US participation in them at all.
He repeated several times that he represented cities in the US that are hard hit economically, “not Paris”. This was a jab not only against the Accords, but also against newly-elected French president Emanuel Macron, whom Trump campaigned against. (Yes, Trump “meddled” in the French election, supporting Marine Le Pen — and so did Barack Obama, who called for a vote for Macron.)
By implication, the jab was against almost all countries of the world who signed the Accords.
However, so far Trump’s bark — accompanied by snarls and frothing at the mouth — has not been backed by any bite. His attacks against China made during the election have been shelved, for now at least. He has yet to impose new tariffs on any country, or any other promised protectionist measures.
Trump may be seeking to impose tariffs against Mexican sugar, which under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) can now freely come into the US. But Mexico is one thing, Germany another.
Is all this loud barking meant to just reassure his base that he will “bring jobs back” to the US? Or is it a prelude to real protectionist action?
Such action would probably hinge in part on economic and political developments worldwide.
Trump’s ratcheting up of military spending, increasing militarily threats against multiple targets, and confronting China in the South China Sea would imply the need to bring basic industry back to the US. It would be awkward to build tanks in the US with steel from China.
If the ruling class wants to back up economic nationalism with threats of force, this would be rational from their point of view, in the face of increased economic rivalry in the world. But such a course faces the problem that much of the US economy is tied to international supply chains.
This may be changing. In a June 1 Financial Times piece headlined “Executives quietly turn away from globalization”, columnist Gillian Tett said executives were bringing some supply chains back to the US. One example cited is “3M, the American manufacturing powerhouse [which] seemed until recently a beacon of globalisation”.
Tett wrote: “But here is a curious thing: if you ask Inge Thulin, the Swedish-born chief executive of 3M, to describe corporate strategy these days, he does not speak of globalisation. Instead he prefers to talk about ‘localisation’ — and the benefits of operating in the mighty US of A.”
Finally, it should be noted that Trump’s economic nationalism vis a vis the world is tied into his white nationalism.
His appeals to white racism in the US against Mexican and Central American immigrants, against Muslim immigrants fleeing US wars, his reaffirmation of the long-standing US support of the Israeli oppression of Palestinians and Arabs, threats against Iran, his opposition to Blacks Lives Matter and much more are part his drive to “Make [white] America Great Again” at home and abroad.