Dylan Riley’s suggestive comments about Bonapartism have both a superficial and a possibly more profound resonance for the present: in the former column, as a star of Page Six and reality tv, Trump as parody of Reagan, without his movie career or even his stint as governor of someplace by way of apprenticeship to power; in the latter, the sense of tensely balanced class interests, overhanging and to a degree independent of the conflicts raging beneath.footnote1 It’s not clear to me that either gets us much closer to deciphering the ‘American carnage’, however, in part because the political context that inspired Marx to describe mid-nineteenth century France in this way, with its nostalgic and put-upon peasants, was so different. (In part, also, because it is too soon to tell if the monster bursting out of the rhetoric is not itself just another form of rhetoric, rather than a historically new formation, as the Bonapartist analogy implies.)
At the risk of piling on historical analogies, I’d like to offer another that I think also captures some of the problems faced by the rulers of the leading capitalist state today—perhaps the most important difference of all with the French case—at home and abroad. What if Trump is less Bonaparte than Joseph Chamberlain? Though never Britain’s Prime Minister—that position would fall to his son Neville in the late 1930s—Chamberlain (1836–1914) rose to the rank of Colonial Secretary in 1895 and played a dominant role in imperial policy during the Boer Wars. Charismatic businessman with a flamboyant style—gold-rimmed monocle and fresh orchid for Trump’s bronzer and hairpiece—who took his campaign to get a ‘fair deal’ on trade for British industry direct to voters in 1903; whose unambiguous stance on ‘imperial preference’—‘Tariff Reform means Work for All’—forced Balfour to call an election on the issue in 1905. As an exile from the Liberals after 1886, then a Liberal Unionist, Chamberlain was a radical outsider among the Tory leadership, which preferred the middle-class patrician, pipe-toking approach of a Baldwin; his rhetorical gifts were unmatched, despite his having no higher education. Indeed, Lord Salisbury famously called him a ‘Sicilian bandit’ when as a young man he suggested marching on the House of Lords, in a Twitter war for the Hansard age. Chamberlain began: ‘Lord Salisbury constitutes himself the spokesman’ of the Lords, a class of men ‘who toil not, neither do they spin’. Salisbury replied by inviting him to march in the van so he could be punched in the skull. Chamberlain accepted, provided Salisbury was also present, so that ‘if my head is broken, it will be broken in very good company’, and invited the noble lord in turn to take his next picnic in Hyde Park, not the family seat of Hatfield, where ‘I promise him he will have a larger meeting than he ever addressed’. On top of all that, Chamberlain wanted to upend the consensus in foreign affairs, not balancing power in Europe, but making a partner of its strongest power: Germany.
Those are similarities of background and outlook, against the backdrop of an empire uneasy about its economic competiveness and military prowess in the aftermath of an embarrassing, costly war. But Chamberlain failed to make imperial preference a winning issue, whereas Trump has so far succeeded. Why the failure of the former? Contextually, in Edwardian Britain there was, firstly, still strong support for free trade in traditional industrial sectors like textiles, reaping benefits from the old free-trade empire in India, China and the Mid East, or in traditional-cum-advanced ones like shipbuilding (in the us, Boeing). A second factor was the miniscule agricultural interest at home, which might have benefited from a deal to raise food prices—and, conversely, the presence of a working class who could still be mobilized by the hegemonic ideals of liberalism, at least insofar as they affected the ‘big loaf’, ‘free breakfast table’, etc. Finally, Chamberlain was a Birmingham screw manufacturer, shunned by the southern ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ encircling the City, by far the most powerful free-trade influence on economic policy.
Why the latter’s success? Trump has pulled off what eluded Chamberlain, at least up to the point of taking power, in a different national and global setting, but with this point in common—that, faced with intensifying global competition, both were aiming to revise the trading relationships on which the imperial hegemony of their respective states were based. The answer in no small part lies in a voting system even more arcane at this point than the British. But it is also significant that in Trump we have a representative of the asset-inflated bubble economy—whose manifest failings as a businessman have not prevented him from keeping and growing the pile of wealth he inherited from his father, thanks to the staggering rise in real-estate prices and creative indebtment strategies based on the unleashing of Wall Street: leverage, loans, bankruptcy, state subsidies—who also promises to put industrial capital (and labour) back on its feet by circumscribing free trade. Thus, despite being opposed by a still larger cadre of squeamish capitalists than Chamberlain, he is well suited to act as both yin and yang to the twin engines of American accumulation. (In contrast to Chamberlain, Trump will have to contend with a more powerful export-driven agriculture sector, but this is industrial-scale, without the populist reserves of a farmer uprising of yore.)
Chamberlain could not square this circle: his campaign pitted industry against finance, and tried to bring workers on side by arguing that if tariffs raised the price they paid for food, these could also be used to keep up wages and fund pensions. Trump promised jobs (and greatness) to rust-belt workers, without dividing one set of capitalists from another; and he faced little pushback on the issue of rising prices, presumably because such attacks would not have resonated (even in a country where, given the stagnation of median wages, they might have been expected to). So far, the mooted infringements on free trade have tamed few animal spirits: the stock market is bullish, setting new records; ceos receive their Twitter tongue-lashings meekly, and resubmit their offshoring plans for further review; while disagreements—on the Muslim ban, for example—are hashed out in respectful dialogue with Silicon Valley, whose executive suites are treated by the New York Times as if they were sites of resistance on a par with the maquis. Goldman Sachs has penetrated further into the executive branch than ever before. (My favourite, up for Army Secretary, the billionaire Vincent Viola, once punched an attendant at a horse auction in the face; sadly, though, for unconnected reasons, he withdrew his name from consideration.)
In Britain, free trade became ‘the common sense of the nation’ only gradually, over two centuries, with Adam Smith as patron saint, and a political party in Liberalism specifically dedicated to it. American capitalism, in contrast, was built behind tariff walls, and began championing their rollback only seventy or so years ago, with many self-interested deviations since 1945—most notably the abandonment of Bretton Woods in the early 1970s. The nineteenth-century political economists of stature it produced were all deviants, including Friedrich List, Henry George, William Jennings Bryant (if he counts) or Thorstein Veblen; by comparison, Hobson and Keynes, the two most influential heterodox economists Britain spawned over two centuries, were pretty standard liberals. In the us, add to the list Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro who, as the Economist notes acerbically, ‘has no publications in top-tier academic journals’.
In part as a result, the offers being made both to voters and to foreign leaders seem quite different. Chamberlain and his supporters could with some accuracy refer to their system as Imperial free trade—tariff walls would encompass the colonies, not exclude them. When, under the force of circumstances during the Depression, something like this finally came into existence in 1932, much grumbling arose from liberals and even some conservatives that this involved much greater benefit to the colonies than to the mother country. ‘America First’ sounds very different; on one level, a disavowal that maintaining an imperial system actually requires concessions from the empire in question to its array of allies, satraps and formal or informal colonies. To wit, renegotiating nafta with Mexico and Canada, while forcing the former to pay for a wall, as an especially brutal form of home charge; cheering the demise of the eu, while talking up nato as a bad deal and demanding European countries contribute more to their own defence; the list goes on, even if it is more talk than action so far. It is notable that, with the exception of Mexico, the countries ‘taking advantage’ of the us, for Trump, are developed; policy towards subaltern states seems unlikely to change, with space for the screws to be turned tighter where these show any signs of defiance—Iran, North Korea.