Donald Trump may have won the US elections with demagogic, strongman promises to “Make America Great”, but, in the lead up to his inauguration, the hollowness of such claims is clear as he stocks his Cabinet with oligarchs collectively worth billions.
Last year’s presidential election was marked by deep divisions in both the Democratic and Republican parties, on top of a stalemate in Congress between the twin parties of US capitalism.
The election occurred with the nation deeply polarised over race, economics and many other issues. There was no mass working-class party that could have championed an alternative to the status quo.
In this context, Trump won by presenting himself as a strongman who could set things right. Exactly how was left largely unexplained.
The background for this disarray was the Great Recession that began in 2007. Financial institutions were bailed out, but the mass of workers were hit by high unemployment, foreclosures on their homes and wage cuts.
In the slow recovery that followed over the next eight years, profits rose while working class living standards did not. Ninety-five percent of households have not seen their incomes regain 2007 levels. Wealth and income inequality have grown.
This eight-year period coincided with the years of the Obama administration. During this time, the administration did little to counter this reality.
In fact, when the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and moved hard to the right, the Democrats were pulled to the right in their wake, agreeing to large cuts to social programs.
The Democratic and Republican establishments paid little heed to the growing despair and anger in the working class. But the two candidates who ran anti-establishment campaigns — Bernie Sanders in the Democrats and Donald Trump in the Republicans — tapped into this anger.
The demagogic Trump promised — with few actual proposals — to bring well paid jobs back. He blamed other countries, especially China and Mexico, for the fact that US-based corporations outsourced labour-intensive aspects of their production to countries where wages were very low. He vowed to use tariffs to counter this.
Such a nationalist stance was combined with racist scapegoating of Blacks, Latinos and immigrants for the loss of white working class jobs.
In the Republican primaries, Trump smashed his establishment Republican opponents with unparalleled denigration and insults, presenting himself as a “winner” capable of remaking a corrupt government — unlike his “loser” opponents.
Trump captured the Republican Party, which is now beholden to him. Most Republicans in Congress, with a few old establishment has-beens bleating in the wings, are so far to the right that Trump fits right in. Moreover, whatever disagreements they have with Trump are overridden by their knowledge that they will rise or fall with Trump.
For the Democrats, the primaries quickly boiled down to a contest between Sanders and the Democrat establishment figure Hillary Clinton.
Sanders ran as the opponent of the 1%, proposed steps to give working people some relief and styled himself as a democratic socialist. His proposals included raising the minimum wage to US$15 an hour, national health insurance for all and free college.
To the surprise of the Democratic establishment, Sanders’ campaign caught on with workers and youth, including Black youth. In fact, during the primaries, more people under 30 voted for Sanders than Clinton and Trump combined. Sanders held large and enthusiastic rallies as opposed to Clinton’s modest events.
The establishment rallied around Clinton to discredit Sanders, as documents released by WikiLeaks showed. When Sanders lost, he threw his weight behind the Clinton campaign, despite having blasted her as Wall Street’s candidate.
Sanders’ Achilles heel is his strategy to reform the Democratic Party, one of the ruling class’s two main parties, rather than building a new, independent party based on his pro-working class platform.
In the lead up to the November 8 elections, both Clinton and Trump had majority negative ratings among the population. In the end, although Clinton won the popular vote, Trump won the undemocratic Electoral College.
Trump’s base was among open racist elements in the white middle and working classes. They rallied around his attacks on Mexicans and Latino immigrants; his threats to “deal” with Black communities with even greater police repression; his proposals to entirely ban Muslim immigration and create a watch list of all Muslims living in the country; and his anti-Semitic dog whistles.
His many attacks against women, including his defence of his open bragging about sexual assaults, were also embraced by this base.
Every brazen insult or bigoted statement was greeted at his large rallies with loud cheers and chants, as were his fomenting of violence against any protesters present. His attacks on Clinton were greeted by loud chants of “Jail her! Jail her!”
Open racists among whites of all classes are a minority, but a significant one. Not all who voted for Trump are open racists. Many naively hope that Trump will strong-arm the system to create decent jobs.
But in voting for him, they were willing to put aside Trump’s overt racism, misogyny and bullying. Many whites also feared, even if unconsciously, being driven down into the second class status of non-whites.
Trump can rely on Republican control of both houses of Congress and two-thirds of state legislatures. Many state legislatures are already carrying out some of Trump’s proposals, attacking unions, women’s rights and other democratic rights — and they will be emboldened by Trump’s election.
Trump also inherits a strong state from past administrations, both Democrats and Republicans. The vast NSA spying apparatus, the CIA, FBI and other similar agencies will now be in his hands. Trump will also be the Commander in Chief of the most formidable military the world has ever seen.
Trump’s choices for cabinet and other posts give a glimpse into what to expect from his regime.
From his court in Trump Tower in New York City, the president-elect brought in a large number of people for private interviews, ostensibly to consider a wide range of candidates and opinions. This became a daily media circus, with a wide range of figures essentially grovelling before him like loyal subjects before a monarch.
It is revealing to look at his choices. Many have noted that his proposed cabinet is largely composed of billionaires and multi-millionaires, who together are worth more than $9.5 billion. Key posts are to be filled by generals, bankers, fossil fuel moguls, authoritarians and racists.
Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, comes from the extreme white Christian evangelical movement. As a Congressperson, Pence opposed federal funding for HIV treatment unless the government also funded programs against same-sex relationships. As Indiana governor, Pence signed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the US.
Some examples of Trump’s choices are:
• for attorney-general, the racist Jeff Sessions, will be Trump’s domestic “law and order” enforcer. Like Trump, he backs the police against Black Lives Matter, supports the “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration, and anti-immigrant measures.
• for Homeland Security is retired General John Kelly. Along with Trump, he charges that immigrants bring in drugs and terrorists.
• Steve Bannon will be Trump’s chief strategist. He is the former owner of Breitbart News, a key voice for the “alt-right” — a euphemism for white supremacists. He advocates an authoritarian presidency.
• Trump’s national security advisor will be retired Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn. He attacks Islam as a religion, claims Iran is the greatest threat to the US and says Sharia law is gaining in the US.
• Secretary of Defense is slated to be retired General James Mattis, a central commander in the US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. He famously “joked” that it was “fun” to kill Afghans who resisted the US invasion.
• The Treasury and Commerce departments will be headed by Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, billionaire hedge fund managers who made huge profits from mortgage foreclosures in the Great Recession.
• As Secretary of State, Trump proposes Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, a climate change denier, whose international expertise is limited to the oil and gas giant’s vast holdings around the world.
Trump has also made a series of nominations designed to undermine the agencies they will head. These include:
• Ryan Zinke for interior secretary, responsible for managing the nation’s public lands and waters. As a Montana congressperson, he proposed gutting protections of public lands and waters.
• Rick Perry for energy secretary. He has proposed abolishing the department — as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. A former Texas governor and climate change denier, he has close ties to fossil fuel giants.
• Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor, the strongly anti-union head of a big fast food chain. An opponent of any minimum wage, he is known for attacking the Labor Department, which he will now head.
• Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency. A close ally of the fossil fuel moguls and climate change denier, he has built his career fighting environmental regulations.
• Ben Carson to head the Housing Department. A millionaire neurosurgeon who knows nothing about housing, he opposes programs to help homeowners, especially those with low incomes.
• Betsy DeVos as education secretary. She opposes public schools and supports privatisation schemes and pushed this agenda in Michigan. From a family of billionaires, her brother Erik Prince helped found the notorious Blackwater mercenary army hired by the US military to carry out dirty tactics in Iraq.
• Tom Rice, representative from Georgia, for head of Health and Human Services. He waged a crusade against Obamacare (calling it socialised medicine) and will help overthrow it and replace it with something even worse.
How far Trump will get with his agenda — made clear by these nominations — depends on the opposition his administration faces.
Trump will be a “law and order” president. He will increase police powers to keep a lid on the Black and Latino communities. There will be no more federal oversight (already weak) of police violence in these communities. There will be further militarisation of the police.
There will be no rollback of the “War on Drugs” or mass incarceration; instead these will be stepped up. The stocks of private prison companies jumped immediately following Trump’s election.
He will increase already huge border control measures with Mexico, but not Canada. The huge deportations under Obama will be greatly stepped up.
Military spending will significantly rise. The US arsenal of nuclear weapons, already being “modernised” by Obama at the cost of about $1 trillion, will increase.
Trump will prevent, under one formula or another, most Muslims from immigrating to the US, including millions of desperate refugees from Washington’s wars.
Big tax cuts for the rich are certain. Regulations on the financial firms will be relaxed. Regulations on oil, coal and natural gas including on fracking will be abolished or severely weakened, as will regulations of other industries such as finance. The stock market soared after Trump’s win.
Trump will appoint a candidate for the Supreme Court who will vote to overturn Roe v Wade, which made abortions legal, and who will back Trump if he encounters legal problems, as is likely. States will be encouraged to pass more restrictions on abortions.
Trump has also projected major infrastructure projects. But he presents contradictory proposals on how to fund this, and the Republican Congress has been reluctant to support spending for such projects.
He will likely raise tariffs on imports, targeting China especially. Business with Russia is likely to improve. But he will follow a general protectionist and economically nationalist agenda.
Throughout his campaign, Trump constantly attacked the corporate media as “scum” or worse. He will continue to do so in a bid to domesticate the major media. He will hold few press conferences and will continue to use Twitter and other measures to go over reporters’ heads.
Trump will attack democratic rights in general, as is already in the works in Republican-controlled states. How this works out remains to be seen, but we can expect more restrictions on the right to assemble and protest, and more police violence at protests.
On foreign policy, much remains to be seen. Secretary of State nominee, Tillerson, is a friend of authoritarian Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s campaign pledges to downgrade NATO may, or may not, be forgotten.
Trumps pledges to wage a trade war on China were given a boost when he nominated Peter Navaro as his White House trade guru. Navaro is known for extreme views against trade with China, which in the words of the Financial Times implies “tearing up the rule book” concerning “the world’s most important bilateral economic relationship”.
This could spill over into a deeper split between China and the US in all areas.
Trump’s appointment of David Freidman as ambassador to Israel rips away Washington’s fig leaf of the “two state solution”. Freidman has close ties to illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and opposes any Palestinian state. He supports Israel annexing the West Bank. Trump says he will move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, ratifying Israeli claims to all of the city.
Small wonder Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks forward to working with Trump — and has gone full steam ahead on new settlements.
Nature of Trump’s regime?
Some on the left have noted Trump’s racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, demagogic claims to support workers, and anti-democratic stands to label him a fascist.
But, historically, fascism represents a mass, organised, and armed movement ready to fight the workers’ movement (parties and trade unions) in the streets before taking power, to crush it with mass violence after taking power, and to establish a totalitarian state to do this. The capitalist ruling class does not resort to such extreme solutions unless its rule is threatened. There is no such threat in the US at present, to say the least.
It is certainly true that white nationalist groups joined the Trump campaign. They openly brag that he has made their message more mainstream and they have grown as a result. But they remain small, fragmented and are unable to unite behind one leader. The appointment of the far right Bannon as Trump’s main advisor is significant, but is also a bone thrown to the “alt-right.”
This is not to say Trump, and his regime, will not be an extremely dangerous and authoritarian one, that will aim to curtail democratic rights to the greatest extent possible on behalf of oligarchic corporate interests.
The scale of the danger comes from the sheer global power of the US. The danger will be even worse if Trump consolidates dictatorial like powers.
What can stop him from realising his ambition?
It appears Trump will inherit an economy experiencing modest growth. In any case, he will likely have a “honeymoon” period where many will hope he can improve workers’ lives.
But given the experience of the Great Recession and the past eight years, and major problems in the world economy, it is likely there will be another crisis during Trump’s administration. Workers who voted for him may feel betrayed, undercutting his support.
Could sections of the ruling class also become exasperated with his likely reckless policies, potentially moving against him at some point?
The organised working class is weak in size, strength and leadership. But hopefully workers will not rely on the Democrats, but rather their own power to counter the Republicans’ continued attacks on the unions.
It will not be easy for Trump to carry out his planned attacks on two large, mostly working-class sectors — African Americans and Latinos, who will likely fight back. Women, Native Americans, environmentalists, civil libertarians and others will also resist. It is among such forces that hope lies.
[A longer version of this article can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]