Donald Trump is a wild card in the US presidential contest. But his role reflects the loss of legitimacy of established US politicians.
It is shocking — and perhaps peculiar to the United States — that a candidate can build up popular support while bragging of his immense personal fortune and his consequent ability to buy favors from well-known public figures.
There is no telling how far Trump’s outrageous proposals will go (the latest was his Nazi-style idea of requiring all Muslims to register). But the political space for such posturing has deep roots, both in the wider culture and in recent history.
Trump embodies success in the unrestrained aggressiveness that has defined US capitalist culture. At the same time, insofar as he is seen as a non-politician, he contrasts sharply with candidates who, although sharing much of his agenda, use euphemistic rhetoric in order to avoid giving unnecessary offense.
Trump, by contrast, spews out his racist and sexist venom openly and defiantly. There is a sadly large constituency — especially among disaffected white males — that responds to such gutter-politics with enthusiasm. And it’s delivered in a style honed in the sensationalism of entertainment media, in which gratuitous brutality — as in the repeated pronouncement “You’re fired!” on his TV “reality show” The Apprentice — offers a kind of catharsis to the powerless.
To understand Trump’s rise to political prominence, however, we must take into account its context: on the one hand, the role of the corporate media, and on the other, the direction taken by both the major US parties since the mid-1970s.
The corporate media love celebrity. This predisposition fits neatly with their commitment to keep their audiences away from debating systemic issues. The two impulses converge in their giving far more attention to the demagogic exchanges among the various Republican candidates than to Democrat (DP) candidate Bernie Sanders’ denunciations of extreme inequality. (Despite Sanders’ refusal to blame capitalism for this inequality — see his November 19 speech at www.c-span.org/video/?400961-1/senator-bernie-sanders-address-democratic-socialism — it would be easy for his audiences, given the necessary information, to take that next step.)
Instead, even though Sanders draws bigger crowds and has greater numbers of contributors than any other candidate, the media-experts do all in their power to perpetuate the assumption that he is “unelectable.” They collaborate with the DP Establishment to minimize the credibility of any challenge to Hillary Clinton. By default, this swings their focus to the free-for-all among the Republican contestants, in which Trump, with his bombastic style and his entertainment background, has a big advantage.
But Trump’s prominence also reflects the combined complicity of both major parties in the deepening crisis of capitalism, expressed in 1) the financial meltdown of 2008 (spurred by deregulation in the 1990s under Bill Clinton’s presidency), 2) the government’s rescuing the major banks while ignoring their millions of victims, 3) the resultant further aggravation of inequality, and 4) the turn toward secretly negotiated “trade pacts” aimed at imposing an international corporate veto on any possible legislative initiative to protect wage levels, the environment, food safety, access to reasonably priced medicines, etc.
These major developments were actively advanced, and in part initiated, by the DP leadership, reflecting the rightward evolution of the party — distancing itself from its New Deal legacy — that began under President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) and was crystallized in 1984 with the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council, which incubated both Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
With the Democrat and Republican leaderships now completely aligned on basic economic issues (Clinton, Bush, and Obama all having Wall Street investment bankers as their top economic policymakers), the routine alternation of the parties became more inadequate than ever as a vehicle for addressing popular discontent. Given the marginalization of progressive Democrats, the unpopularity of the official duopoly created a space for popular mobilization on the right — expressed beginning around 2009 by the Koch-subsidized Tea Party movement, which found a welcome within the upper reaches of the Republican Party.
The Tea Party constituency makes up Trump’s popular base, giving him electoral credibility in comparison not only with mainstream Republicans such as Jeb Bush, but also with the anointed candidate of the DP Establishment, Hillary Clinton, who, although looking to a more diverse and progressive base than the Republicans, has little in her record to excite its enthusiasm.
Bernie Sanders embodies quite explicitly a revival of the Democrats’ New Deal legacy. His personal definition of socialism, with his repeated invocations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thus encompasses not only the attractiveness but also the limitations of the New Deal agenda. Nevertheless, its attractive dimension makes him a potentially more formidable challenger than Hillary Clinton to the pretensions of Donald Trump.
Trump represents the existing dominant agenda in all its chauvinistic and militarist dimensions. Any critique of him on Clinton’s part is weakened by her identification with two decades of policies that have fed the popular discontent. To challenge Trump, one must be ready to call into question the right of such a phenomenon — a billionaire “self”-financed candidate — to exist.