Vilified by the entire cultural establishment and virtually every media outlet in the country, with the partial exception of Fox News, Trump managed to win the Upper Midwest—outperforming the opinion polls in Ohio by almost 10 per cent—as well as seizing Pennsylvania. Does his victory mark a fundamental shift in American politics, and if so how should we characterize the figure who embodies it? One thing should be said right away. Contrary to what some have suggested over the past eighteen months, on the left as well as on the platforms of outraged liberalism, Trump is not a fascist.footnote1 The political conditions in which he operates are quite different to those that shaped inter-war Europe, when exhausted ruling classes were prepared to countenance the suspension of bourgeois liberties and installed in office hard-right thugs who would physically eliminate the threat of workers’ revolution. Trump lacks a party organization, a militia and an ideology; his foreign policy as so far announced is isolationist, rather than revanchist—and indeed, what territorial losses could the us wish to reverse?
Berlusconi might offer a more plausible parallel, but here there are two major differences. First, the Italian tycoon was more closely linked to the political establishment: groomed under Craxi, with a vast media empire at his disposal, he had a direct and intimate link to the country’s political class that Trump lacks. Berlusconi also modelled himself on Reagan, while appealing to the desire for a paese normale. In short, Berlusconi was a late-period neo-liberal—a mould that Trump is clearly breaking. A third possibility is that Trump represents a tendency towards ‘neo-Bonapartism’: a form of rule that substitutes a charismatic leader for a coherent hegemonic project. Like the original nineteenth-century version, this latter-day Bonapartism is linked to a crisis of hegemony, ultimately stemming from the erosion of the material base that allows the American capitalist class to pursue its own interests while claiming to represent those of society in general. Unlike its prototype, however, the new version of Bonapartism is not connected to a mass mobilization from below, and cannot be understood as a reaction to a threat to the order of property.
To apply a model of politics developed for nineteenth-century France to the contemporary us requires a certain degree of conceptual transposition. Thanks to Marx’s famous pamphlets, the younger Bonaparte’s scramble to the peak of French power has been much analogized; three points seem particularly relevant from the analysis of The Eighteenth Brumaire. The first is the crisis of leadership or hegemony. Because profitability is the main determinant of economic growth in capitalist societies, capitalists can plausibly present the gratification of their own requirements as being essential for the country as a whole. However, since the turn of the millennium, and especially since 2008, the claim that its role is for the benefit of all social classes has come to seem increasingly dubious. Another key idea is the tendency for capital to turn towards the state as its capacity for leadership weakens. This should not be understood in a narrowly political sense, because it is also an economic project. In the era of financialization, a growing dependence of private capital upon the state has become apparent: this process accelerated during the late Bush years and under Obama, and is likely to reach epic proportions under Trump. (China, of course, has taken full advantage of a state-run financial system, jostling its way as a cut-price newcomer into the over-stocked global market-place.) The political economy of neo-Bonapartism is a form of state-dependent capitalism, in the sense that profits will owe more to political connections and interventions than to productivity. The third idea is that, as a consequence of this turn towards the state, capital’s political vehicles—in this case, the Republican and Democratic parties—will begin to disintegrate. In this context, the plebs may be rallied by quasi-religious charismatic figures (Obama, Trump), but the articulation of a coherent hegemonic project, in which consent has a material base, becomes much more difficult. It’s worth recalling briefly the course of previous such projects.
For a whole historical period from roughly the 1930s to the 1970s—a period book-ended by economic crisis—the capitalist class in the us ruled through a framework of Fordist hegemony based on high wages, healthy profits and (relatively) full employment. This era began with the election of fdr, a cautious and intellectually mediocre figure who was nonetheless pushed sharply to the left by a wave of labour militancy, resulting in the 1935 Wagner and Social Security Acts. The movements that produced these gains for American workers came from outside the Democratic Party itself, and there were a number of independent labour and farmers’ parties active at local and state levels during the mid 1930s.footnote2 Later in the decade, however—due in part to the disastrous Popular Front strategy of the us Communist Party—organized labour moved inside the dp’s tent, a strategic error from which it has never fully recovered. This created a strange political hybrid, with the Democrats as the party of both northern labour and the Jim Crow south. There is no parallel to this anywhere in the developed world. The dp’s social base resembled the Giolittian coalition of early twentieth-century Italy, or Spain’s Primo de Rivera dictatorship, rather than European social-democratic parties. The labour movement proved unable to break out of this political ghetto—in particular, it never managed to build an alliance with the African-American sharecroppers of the ex-Confederate South. By the late 1940s, it was fully absorbed into this ‘barren marriage’, as Mike Davis termed it, with the Democratic Party.footnote3 Nevertheless, the long post-war boom allowed the Democrats to deliver significant gains to their working-class constituency. Nixon’s Republican administration expanded levels of social provision in the early 1970s, just as the long boom was coming to an end, showing the extent to which a labour-Democrat alliance had managed to set the political agenda. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency (epa), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (osha) and the Federal highway system were all established under Republican rule.
But two developments undermined the structure of Fordist hegemony. The first was the civil-rights movement, which alienated both the northern and southern white working class. Nixon was the first Republican to take advantage of this. The second, more important factor was the slowdown of the American economy that set in from 1973. The Democrats, like their counterparts in Europe, have always been highly attuned to securing the conditions for capitalist profitability, as a precondition for their own social policies. In a period of rapid productivity growth and rising profits, an expanding welfare state could be tolerated by business elites. But as competition from Germany, Japan, the Asian Tiger economies—and finally China—drove down profit rates, the rules of the game would have to change. Capital went on the offensive from the mid-1970s on, and the two parties rapidly adjusted to the new context. The retrenchment of the us welfare state began under Carter, and continued without interruption under Republican and Democratic presidencies alike, through to the Obama years.
It was the Clinton administration that dismantled both Aid to Families with Dependent Children (afdp) and the regulatory regime of Glass–Steagall. The new hegemonic formula was neo-liberalism, which promised freedom and self-determination through the market to workers reimagined as consumers. In place of wage hikes and social programmes, tax cuts were meant to serve as the material basis of consent. When the Supreme Court installed Bush II as president in 2000, his administration initially seemed like a throwback to the days of Nixon. ‘Dubya’s’ self-styled ‘compassionate conservatism’ evinced a willingness to expand the federal government’s role in health-care and education. But the attack on the World Trade Centre gave new impetus to the most reactionary elements in the Bush team, and a panoply of right-wing policies were pursued, from unprovoked wars of aggression abroad, to vast tax cuts for the wealthy at home. In economic terms, the outcome was a complete bust: instead of unleashing a new round of growth, Bush presided over a massive real-estate bubble which duly burst in the great financial meltdown of 2008.
The crisis of the neo-liberal hegemonic formula can be dated precisely to 3 October 2008, when the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (tarp) revealed the hypocrisy of its free-market ideology. More discreetly, the Federal Reserve poured hundreds of billions of dollars into currency swap-lines for tottering banks in London, Paris and Frankfurt. Obama’s presidency unfolded against this backdrop. Neoliberal elements persisted in his administration, combined with (relatively costless) concessions on the environment and lgbtq issues. More important was the representative relationship Obama established with his base. His supporters constituted a ‘serial group’ in the Sartrean sense, their unity created through countless imaginary bonds with a figure to whom they felt a strong cultural attraction; but political support was almost completely independent of policy. The accession of the first African-American to the White House thus paradoxically weakened the pressure from his left flank to deliver. The reality of Obama’s rule was, of course, very different from the social imaginary that surrounded him. Yet his administration could not be described as straightforwardly neo-liberal in its approach. In fact, Obama pushed direct support for finance capital and wealthy asset-owners much further than Bush had done, with some $4.5 trillion in Quantitative Easing. His Affordable Care Act—in a very similar mould to Bush’s tentative foray into health-care, ‘Medicare part D’—also contained massive handouts for the insurance industry.footnote4 During the Obama years, the relationship between private owners and the state was being reorganized, as sectors of the capitalist economy became increasingly state-dependent.