[Marxism] Mike Davis on Trumps America - REBEL

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 6 06:32:12 MDT 2018


Sometimes, the security system at the U. of Utah drives me nuts.

Here's the article:

Mike Davis on Trumps America

Donald Trump is coming to Ireland. Behind the bluster, what does his 
presidency actually represent? Mike Davis—a world renowned American 
scholar, and author of several books—was interviewed by Seán Mitchell 
for Rebel, about the state of Trump’s America.
SM: Erratic is an oft-repeated adjective when it comes to Donald Trump’s 
presidency. One day he is threatening war on Korea, the next day he is 
shaking hands with Kim Jong-un. To what extent do you think that Trump 
is creating policy “on the hop” so to speak. Or is there a more coherent 
agenda behind his Presidency. If so, what is it?

MD: Erratic? Don’t you know that Trump is the instrument of God? He may 
not be capable of having a sophisticated agenda or even coherent 
positions on particular issues, but evangelicals, ultra-zionists, the 
coal industry and military lobbyists certainly do and they are firmly 
implanted within the administration. In serving their agendas, Trump has 
been dutiful and more. Indeed no administration, at least since Reagan, 
has given so many gifts so quickly to its elite constituencies.

The Christian Right, together with anti-union employers of every ilk, 
have won the grand prize: irreversible control of the Supreme Court and 
potentially of the federal bench as a whole. In addition, Trump and a 
Republican Congress have dismantled a key fire-wall separating church 
and state by allowing fundamentalist mega-churches to keep their 
tax-exempt status while operating openly as partisan campaign 
committees. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has become the chief 
legal advocate of disenfanchising people of color through restrictive 
voter laws and keeping them out of higher education through dismantling 
affirmative action. The administration’s flat-out assault on financial 
regulation, environmental protection and workers’ rights, of course, is 
the sweetest music to exploiters, polluters, and corporate raiders. And 
despite a strange delusion in the liberal press that Defense Secretary 
Jim Mattis and other braid-wearing Pentagon bureaucrats are somehow the 
‘rational, moderating force’ in the administration, their bottom line 
has been the military spending spree which Trump has wholeheartedly 
endorsed.

But do these interest-group agendas that have been so well-rewarded in 
the first two years of the Trump monarchy aggregate to something larger? 
Is there an overall historical project comparable to Cold War 
Atlanticism with its intricate if always variable synchronization of the 
interests of major industries, investment banks and union bureaucracies 
under the sign of a dynamic US hegemony? Absolutely not. This is not to 
deny the self-proclaimed panaceas and national Viagras currently for 
sale in the political market place. Thus in one stall you might find 
Bannon or one of his followers peddling America First and the Yellow 
Peril, while in another Hilary Clinton is still shrilly promoting a new 
(multicultural?) cold war with Russia. Both augur disturbingly 
apocalyptic futures but each fails the test of offering the basic 
elements of an economic strategy that sustains American primacy. In any 
event that may be a lost cause. Hegemony’s shelf, it appears, is bare 
and the coalition of interests behind Trump is little more than a horde 
of vandals frenzied to loot Rome with no plan for what will follow.

What is difficult for aged US radicals of my generation to grasp is that 
there is no longer a ‘power structure’—a peak organization(s) of the 
interests of big capital—acting as a fourth branch of government. In the 
years of the ‘high cold war’ (from the Marshall Plan to Nixon’s 
unilateral demonetization of gold) there really was an interlocking 
Atlantic ruling class that shared a broad consensus about fighting 
Communism, managing the macroeconomy (via conservative Keynesianism), 
and expanding markets through free-trade agreements. (The Dutch Marxist 
Kees van der Pilj and his collaborators have mapped this world in 
magnificent detail.) Likewise in the turbulent 70s, as US corporations 
confronted serious competition in domestic markets from European and 
Japanese imports, the Business Roundtable emerged as a literal 
‘executive committee’ of the Fortune 500 to break the power of national 
union contracts and the government policies that supported them.

They were so successful in fact that it eventually undermined the need 
for a corporate united front. The macro forces of 
neoliberalism—deregulation, globalization, financialization—have 
dissolved the old power structure of the Republican Party and replaced 
it with a Jurassic Park of economic predators who look like throwbacks 
to the pre-corporate world of the Robber Barons. Hedge funds, big 
casinos, family-owned energy companies, and mega real-estate developers 
now call the shots within the Republican Party without worrying about 
the agendas of General Electric or IBM and the like, who are either busy 
dying or long ago had moved most of their assets offshore. Thus the 
patronage and campaign finance once controlled by the Rockefellers and 
the National Association of Manufacturers now flows from obscure 
billionaires in Dallas, Omaha and Grand Rapids, with some coordination 
from the Koch brothers. Similar family dynasties have long fed 
neo-fascist political currents, like the financing of the John Birch 
Society by Texas oil men in the 1960s, but their influence was always 
marginal. Now thanks to the formidable network of right-wing think tanks 
and state policy centers (in every single state, by the way) that they 
fund, as well as the fundamentalist churches with whom they are allied, 
they leverage astounding political clout.

The acquisition of so much national power by what are basically regional 
elites is the paradox of contemporary US politics in an age otherwise 
defined by global production systems and light-speed capital mobility. 
Of course, true giants, entirely dependent upon free trade, wait in the 
wings, attended to by establishment Democrats. Big American corporations 
have not disappeared, they have grown unimaginably bigger and control 
cash hoards that makes them, like industrial corporations in the 1950s, 
largely independent of bank control. For years I’ve been writing 
articles about the political coming of age of the tech industry and the 
activist alliance of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street that 
Clintonite Democrats have counted upon to reestablish a centrist and 
centralized order in the political system. But big tech has bungled most 
of its forays into national politics, speaking a language that no one 
between the coasts understands. Meanwhile the Democrats’ big investors 
and beneficiaries have watched in perplexity as the Sanders’ insurgency 
has mounted a stronger assault from the left than anyone believed 
possible, including the overthrow of the ‘super-delegate’ system that 
was put into place to ensure the monopoly power of party officials and 
major campaign contributors. Are we watching the death agony of the 
American two-party system?

SM: Trump is a billionaire, and has many wealthy backers. Yet many 
commentators suggest that his “Trade Wars” are at odds with the 
interests of US capitalism, and will prove costly to the American 
economy. Is this the case, and how serious is he about pursuing a 
protectionist agenda?

MD: Trump is captive to his own reality show myth of the ruthless, 
consummate deal-maker who always gets what he wants. His beserk behavior 
and insane threats, to be fair, have extracted some trade concessions 
and scared the pants off World Bank technocrats and gutless EU 
politicians. But there is no larger politico-economic blueprint here, 
just political theatre that plays well in the Rust Belt and amongst 
small-town xenophobes. In fact, the livelihood of the Republican base 
depends upon the global value chains and production systems that Trump 
threatens to dismantle. The entire farm belt, as everyone knows, earns 
its living from soya and corn exports to countries like China and 
Mexico, while Southern states such as Tennessee, the two Carolinas, 
Texas and even Alabama have reinvented themselves as non-union 
manufacturing platforms for European and Japanese automakers. Trump 
himself is an absolute exemplar of a sleazy real-estate gone global and 
he never misses an opportunity to plug his big projects in Russia, China 
and the Gulf.

His trillion-dollar tax cut for rich investors and the renewed 
Republican attack on the regulatory apparatus of the government—both of 
which pumped vast amounts of hot air into the stock market—have 
temporarily quieted what otherwise might be a great hue and cry on Wall 
St. Moreover Trump’s record so far is that his mad dog rhetoric usually 
gives way to negotiation to extract modest concessions from the other 
side. This is not to claim that Trump’s actions are carefully modulated 
or thought out; indeed his improvised attacks could well drive the 
economy into another depression because all the other conditions for a 
downturn seem ripe. But the idea, which some Marxists propose, that the 
global economy could regress to the 1930s when it broke up into autarkic 
trade blocs with each major power substituting increased exploitation of 
their colonies and regional markets for the collapsed system of 
inter-metropolitan trade—well, that strikes me as far-fetched.  And it 
ignores China, the only world power that actually possesses a compelling 
blueprint for the future.

At meetings of the Standing Committee of the Politbureau they must 
scratch their heads and whisper to one another: ‘are you sure he isn’t 
one of ours?’ Trump is a superb Manchurian Candidate and his rants 
against Beijing are exactly what one would expect from a deep asset. 
General Secretary Xi Jinping, not Vladimir Putin, is of course the real 
beneficiary of Trump’s wild attacks on Atlantic capitalism’s key 
institutions and leaders, as well as his casual sabotage of the Obama 
administration’s eight-year-long effort to build a new alliance system 
in Southeast Asia to contain China. Trump is the wrecking ball that no 
one expected.

SM: Donald Trump’s presidency has given new confidence to Far-Right 
movements across the world. As the events at Charlottesville attest, 
Trump himself has been willing to flirt with the worst elements. What is 
the relationship between Trump, his supporters, and the possibility of 
the emergence of a new and more coherent far-right movement in the US?

MD: The Republican Party has remade itself around Trump, becoming the 
first major, historical conservative party in the NATO bloc to be taken 
over by the far-right. The evolution, of course, started long ago, with 
Goldwater in 1964 and then with the triumph of the New Right’s ‘Contract 
with America’ in Congress under Gingrich in 1994. The Tea Party 
insurgency in 2009 was a further escalation since the Republican 
‘establishment’ against which it was rebelling was the [old] New Right 
of the 1990s. Although it mantled itself in fiscal conservatism (which 
the Right only embraces when Democrats are in power), it quickly 
unmasked itself as a fourth wave of white Protestant nationalism 
reacting to mass immigration and perceived threats to its cultural and 
political hegemony.

A little history is helpful. The first wave was the Know Nothing Party 
of the 1850s whose targets were the Irish and German Catholic immigrants 
of the 1850s. An even larger mass immigration from eastern and southern 
Europe was countered in the 1890s by the American Protective League and 
an epidemic of official and unofficial violence, like the lynching of 
eleven Italians by a New Orelans mob in 1891. The largest backlash came 
after the First World War during the Republican administrations of the 
1920s. Immigration law was changed to restrict the entry of Slavs, Jews 
and Latin Americans and Prohibition was imposed as a form of 
politico-cultural control over Catholics and German Lutherans. The Ku 
Klux Klan underwent a massive revival and moved North where it put 
antisemitism and antipapism at the top of its agenda. It briefly became 
the dominant political machine in some states (Oregon and Indiana, for 
instance) and launched a reign of terror against Jews, Catholics and, of 
course, Blacks. But unlike the 1890s, the nativism of the 1920s was 
countered by militant fightbacks of the target groups (the only time to 
my knowledge that Catholics and Jews fought side by side) and the 
mobilisation of New Immigrants and their kids as the electoral base for 
the New Deal. With the election of Obama and the rise of non-Anglo 
majorities in states like California and Texas a fourth wave of 
nativism, joined at the hip with white supremacism, was inevitable. From 
this perspective, the Tea Party Republicans not very novel or unexpected.

What was not forseen and blindsided nearly everyone, including Trump 
himself, has been his success in taking over the Republican Party. Most 
pundits expected that Trump would have to settle down and share power 
with Paul Ryan and other Tea Party generation Republicans. Instead he 
has hammered them at every turn while his supporters have won one 
primary after another against perfectly respectable reactionaries 
supported by the Congressional leadership. While Trump’s election might 
be considered a fluke, the hothouse growth of a personalist cult, 
exclusively loyal to him rather than to conservative institutions and 
churches, speaks to a deeper phenomena: something that looks like 
American Peronism or what would have happened if, say, Huey Long had 
captured the Democratic Party in 1935. And just as radio allowed Long, 
Father Coughlan, and other Depression demagogues to circumvent party 
hierarchies and reach previously unaccessible audiences, so too has 
Trumpism been made possible by Fox News and especially the neo-fascist 
web sites whose audiences have grown explosively since the election. 
Although a movement without much organization or talent, this could 
change in the event of impeachment or a big loss in 2020. Trumpism on 
the outside, nursing the belief that the nation has been stolen, could 
become truly dangerous especially if the leader conveniently died and 
left his legend to others to manipulate.

The U.S. situation however differs from Europe in at least three 
critical respects. First, the far-right is massively armed and 
increasingly abetted by the ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws in 28 states that 
wink at murder, as in the notorious case of Trayvon Martin, the Black 
teenager shot in Florida in 2013. On the other hand, Michigan is not 
Saxony because everywhere a majority of Black people have shown their 
willingness to fight white supremacists and nativists side by side with 
immigrants. American neofascists are thoroughly intimidated by Black 
militancy and while they can bomb and murder, they will never own the 
street. And, third, demography is ultimately destiny in the American 
case and the flood of hate unleashed by Trump’s victory, as well as the 
violence that may follow his overthrow, accelerate the turnover in the 
electorate as baby-boom whites fade from the scene. The crucial 
battleground, which up to now the Democrats have abdicated, is Texas. 
People in Europe, and indeed Americans, are unaware that Anglos in Texas 
have been a minority of the population for some time. The huge state is 
the bedrock of conservatism and if the Republicans were to lose it, they 
cease to exist as a national party.

SM: Much is made about Trump’s base. In most mainstream accounts, he is 
presented as a voice for a disenfranchised white working class, 
particularly in ‘rust belt’ areas worst effected by deindustrialisation. 
Is this an accurate assessment?

MD: Right after the election I conducted a rather painstaking 
investigation of the Trump vote, comparing his performance to Romney’s 
in 2012 and then zeroing in on fifteen blue-collar counties in the Great 
Lake states or the upper Mississippi Valley that had voted twice for 
Obama but then switched to Trump. I looked not only at election returns 
and exit polls but also read back through the area papers searching for 
clues about local economic climates. This essay (‘The Great God Trump 
and the White Working Class‘) argued three major points:

First, Trump didn’t capture large numbers of working-class Democrats, 
that’s a myth. In the fifteen industrial areas that I examined, however, 
he equaled or outperformed Romney, but it’s better to emphasise 
Clinton’s stunning under-performance compared to Obama. All of these 
counties were hard hit by recent plant closures, were not visited by 
Clinton, and had employment at the top of their agendas. Clinton and her 
campaign targeted the suburbs and expected to win over many Republican 
women while the old Democratic base—unions and Blacks especially—would 
meekly follow along because they had no other place to go. In the event, 
the women in red did not flock to her and much of her base stayed home. 
She received almost one million fewer votes than Obama in the South 
and—this was quite stunning—three million fewer in the industrial 
Midwest. Her three million national popular-vote margin was largely won 
in the West where Latinos, who perceived Trump as more of an existential 
threat, voted in record numbers while fewer Republicans went to the polls.

Second, Trump won because he retained the Romney vote, the most 
politically important component of which was mobilised by the Christian 
Right. Initially a majority of evangelical power-brokers favored Ted 
Cruz, but after he was unexpectedly defeated by Trump, the wealthiest of 
the Cruz backers, Rebecca Mercer, decided to gamble on Trump and sent 
her best political operatives—Stephen Bannon and Kelly Anne Conway—to 
help broker a deal between him and the other, more skeptical 
conservative leaders. (The Koch brothers, however, never came aboard the 
Trump campaign, igniting a mini-civil war on the far-right that is still 
going on.) Trump agreed to embrace the maximum program of the religious 
right and let them and other ultras draft the Republican Program. Most 
of the far-right leaders were worried that the voting power of their 
base had crested and that 2016 was a last chance to institutionalise 
their program through appointments to the Supreme Court. They delivered 
the Republican vote (actually a little less than Romney), Clinton did 
the rest, and Trump has so far kept his bargain with the Christian Right 
to the letter. It was a stunning victory for their cause.

Third, in almost all the fifteen areas that I examined where Trump 
appeared to have stolen Obama Democrats, Bernie Sanders did even better 
in the primaries. Given the choice between a billionaire pirate who 
promises pie in the sky and a socialist who has a program for rebuilding 
jobs and extending the safety net, the jobs vote would have gone the 
other way. Indeed the Sanders’ campaign was the only genuine political 
revolution in 2016. It demonstrated that a resurrected version of the 
Economic Bill of Rights that FDR proposed in his 1944 campaign—the 
high-water mark of New Deal liberalism that was partly inspired by the 
Beveridge Plan in England—could mobilise a powerful coalition of young 
workers (many of them downwardly-mobile college graduates trapped in the 
temp economy), immigrants, and public-sector unions. If the missing 
element in this new rainbow coalition was the older Black vote in the 
South, which supported Clinton, younger Blacks in the North and West 
were amongst the most ardent Sanderistas. An unprecedented generational 
divide—even greater than in the sixties—now separates older voters from 
everyone under 35. The most dramatic evidence of this, of course, is the 
preference for ‘socialism’ amongst polled majorities of Democrats and 
younger voters.

SM: The Teacher’s strike in West Virginia earlier this year was a 
remarkable event given the steep decline in the US Labour movement over 
the last few decades. Uniquely, it began as a rank and file led strike, 
and later spread to other parts of the US. Are we seeing a revival in 
the US working class?

MD: For decades American workers have been told that if the Right 
manages to take the courts and rule against the unions, all is lost. The 
West Virginia teachers strike, originally an unauthorised wildcat, 
demonstrated that when workers have the will to fight and mobilise 
support from their communities they can win. It helps of course when the 
workplace is a school, hospital or government agency that can’t be sent 
South or exported overseas. A repression of labor’s legal rights (the 
case for most of American history) may ironically rejuvenate rank and 
file activism and channel it into broader movements and coalitions. If 
the heroes of the 1930s, the old CIO industrial unions, are much 
diminished in size and clout, new battalions of labor fighters, every 
bit as determined as the Flint sit-downers in ’37, have come to the 
fore. In California the vanguard are called nurses and their national 
union has emerged as a model of twenty-first century unionism. As 
crucibles for militancy, huge hospitals, where thousand-strong 
workforces punch a time-clock every morning, are little different from 
big auto plants or steel works.

SM: Your book, Prisoners of the American Dream, was recently republished 
by Verso. In the conclusion, you write that there “is never likely to be 
an ‘American revolution’ as classically imagined by DeLeon, Debs, or 
Cannon. If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is much 
more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric 
process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements.” 
You wrote that in 1986. Does it still ring true to you in Trump’s 
America today?

MD: The great revolutionary thinkers of the past all conceived the march 
to socialism as an international or global process that necessarily 
transcended national boundaries. The Bolsheviks as we all know had a 
sophisticated theory of combined and uneven development that envisioned 
the capitalist state system failing first at the periphery before 
revolutions moved toward the center where the modern means of producing 
wealth were concentrated. In imperial Russia with its weak industrial 
bourgeoisie (foreign capital dominated modern industries) a small but 
highly concentrated and militant working class alone advanced a 
compelling plan for the destruction of autocracy, land reform, and 
peace. This enabled the Bolsheviks—the majority party of the factory 
working class—to seize the big cities and ally with insurgent peasants 
in the country. But no one, not even Stalin in this period, envisioned 
it would possible to build socialism in such a backward country. Rather 
it was the duty of the Russian workers to arm themselves, take their 
country out of the war, and then come to the aid of the revolution in 
the West—just as Russia in the past had intervened on behalf of European 
counter-revolutions. The main act would play out in Germany and Central 
Europe, probably followed by France and Italy. In the last instance the 
Versailles powers, their vast armies of occupation, and the million or 
so right-wing German troops (regular units as well as Freikorps) that 
they kept in uniform to wage war on the left—gave no time to allow the 
German revolution to learn from its mistakes or reach out to the other 
short-lived Soviet regimes in the Baltics or Hungary. All of this of 
course is old hat to most readers, but I hope a reminder of how 
important it is revisit classical conceptions of revolution on 
continental or global scales.

Mike Davis’ latest book is Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, 
published by Verso. Available here




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