Right to left, or left to right?

Much left-wing commentary would have us believe that Trump’s elevation signals the end of days. But the many who feel marginalised by the relentless march of neoliberalism may beg to differ.

Jeremy Fox
15 November 2016

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.From time to time throughout history, prophecies of doom have warned us of the approaching apocalypse. Most religions have an end-of-days component in which the world as we know it will be swept away, either to be reborn with suitable moral improvements or, as in the Theravada branch of Buddhism, to be finally destroyed in a conflagration.  

Some bold prophets have even ventured to predict the date of our extinction. Pope Sylvester II assured the faithful that they and everyone else would expire on 1 January of the year 1000; while one of his successors, the aptly-named Innocent III settled on 1284. Martin Luther, Christopher Columbus, Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame), and Isaac Newton, are among the better-known apocalyptic sooth-sayers, Jim Jones and Charles Manson among the most sinister, while New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather and Herbert Armstrong (founder of the Worldwide Church of God) figure among the most indefatigable — happy to revise their predictions when their chosen extinction date passes without incident and they find themselves still alive on the following morning. 

A modern variation on the theme was the widely-believed prognosis of computer meltdown on 1 January 2000; and we have been assured by a newspaper as respectable as the Guardian that interstellar detritus will soon put paid to us, although the most recent extinction attributable to outer space is that of an Egyptian dog in 1912.

Latest in the long human saga of dire forebodings is the electoral victory of Donald Trump on 8 November 2016 — an event that has unleashed a torrent of alarmist rhetoric from prominent members of the commentariat. Historian and media star Simon Schama, an inveterate anti-Trump tweeter, angrily told a BBC Newsnight audience that Trump’s election was akin to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. On the BBC’s Question Time on 11 November, Professor Sarah Churchwell, a US citizen, was barely able to contain her fury at the prospect of Trump becoming president and confessed that she no longer understood her own country. Senator Joe Manchin is currently squabbling with fellow Democrat Senator Harry Reid over the propriety of hurling expletives at the president-elect. The New York Times, having spent uncountable column inches demonising the Republican candidate, is suddenly fearful of losing its subscribers and issues an apology through gritted teeth for having persistently denigrated the new leader prior to the election. 

Students at Cornell University staged a 'cry-in', though they were consoled in their grief by supplies of freshly-brewed coffee courtesy of a sympathetic barista.

Protests erupted in cities all over the United States at the news of Trump’s victory. Students at Cornell University staged a 'cry-in', though they were consoled in their grief by supplies of freshly-brewed coffee courtesy of a sympathetic barista. More energetically, but with an equal display of cerebral distinction, Columbia students marched around the campus screaming “Fuck Donald Trump”. Meanwhile on election night, Canada’s immigration website crashed, overloaded with inquiries from Americans wanting to escape Trump’s America and presumably believing that terminal implosion will occur only south of the 49th parallel.

Not to be outdone, newspaper columnists in the UK are fulsome in their expressions of outrage that a “racist misogynist” has won the White House. “Don’t for one moment let the horror of the Trump election become normal,” urges Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, while fellow journalist Owen Jones tweets that “55% of white women voting for Trump is one of the most horrifying statistics I’ve ever seen”. The Mirror goes even further with a headline predicting the end of civilisation

Adopting a slightly different but no less partisan approach, a furious Glenn Greenwald turns his ire not on the electorates that voted for Trump and also for Brexit, but on the political class that has failed to concern itself with the welfare of citizens while watching complacently as “…elite circles gorged themselves on globalism, free trade, Wall Street casino gambling, and endless wars.” As an exercise in angry polemic, Greenwald’s piece is as good as it gets.

What is meant by the political class? Essentially, the phrase refers to an inner circle of elected representatives and their advisers who belong to political parties that have a proven ability to achieve power. In the United States there have only ever been two such parties; and despite recent fragmentation, the UK currently still has two — although some might contend that the number should now more realistically be one and a half.

Serious attempts at the US presidency have required adherence either to the Democrats or the Republicans. From time to time, independents like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader have thrown their hat into the ring, as did minor-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein this year; but to no avail. If a fresh face is to appear, it must do so from within the main party stockades. For the Democrats, Obama managed it in 2008 and Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, nearly did so in 2016. In their different ways, however, both have ended up toeing the party line. 

Obama has had little or nothing to offer the blue-collar Americans who voted him in

From the outset of his presidency, Obama has arguably remained on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. He selected his first cabinet from the political-class rule-book: several Clinton stalwarts — including Hillary as Secretary of State, a sprinkling of Republicans including Robert Gates as secretary of defence, and bank executive Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary when the choice might have fallen on more progressive figures such as Nobel prize-winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Steiglitz, either of whom would have brought added distinction to the cabinet table.

In the end, despite his high intelligence and winning personality, Obama has had little or nothing to offer the blue-collar Americans who voted him in. Rust belt states have remained rusty, wealth and income inequality have continued to increase. Foreign policy, meanwhile, has persisted in an expensive and vainglorious mixture of confusion and belligerence: the failed “surge” in Afghanistan, aggressive incoherence in the Middle East, bewilderment on Russia and Ukraine, frustration in trade negotiations with the EU. Obama’s conservatism is nowhere more evident than in his administration’s coolness towards left-wing governments in Latin America where policy has ranged from meddling in Venezuela, sanctioning a coup in Honduras, quietly applauding the impeachment on false charges of Paraguay’s left-wing President Lugo, and showing approval for Argentina’s new right-wing government with a presidential visit.

Even a cursory glance at Obama’s record demonstrates why, in the world of politics, appearances often prove deceptive, hopes turn out to be illusory, and progressive rhetoric ends up sounding like vacuous sloganeering. All parties claim to be for the people — the right a little less so, the left a little more so. But in recent years, they have all occupied the same policy landscape, the one laid out by Reagan and Thatcher. They are neoliberals to a man and woman.

Party nonconformists, meanwhile, are usually either squeezed out like Bernie Sanders, or struggle to achieve credibility like Jeremy Corbyn. Neither of these have succeeded thus far in engaging the people they claim to be addressing. During the primaries, Sanders had virtually no traction among African Americans and very little among Hispanics; Corbyn has scant following in the deprived areas of the north of England and the Midlands, and none at all in Scotland. Sanders in the end compromised his principles by supporting Clinton for the sake of the party. Corbyn and his colleagues fall back on the vocabulary and thinking of the 1970s when unions were strong, manufacturing still a major component of the UK economy, and the financial sector didn’t rule the roost.  

Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Supporters of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.The Democratic party reined in Sanders, and though the electoral result may unleash him again, time is not on his side. Corbyn’s vocabulary remains firm, but thus far he enjoys limited credibility among those he most needs to convince. Sanders’ followers are largely young, idealistic students and middle-class intellectuals, and so too are Corbyn’s. Both are fluent in the requisite progressive vocabulary and they doubtless use it honestly; but they mainly reach those who think they know the answers to the problems of the poor, the unemployed, and the disadvantaged, among whom they themselves were never numbered. 

Enter Trump and Farage from the outfield — the true disrupters of convention. Both have picked up on widespread public disaffection and moulded their language to suit — Trump, one suspects, by instinct and Farage by calculation, though the result is the same. It is Trump, of course, who matters; and what is interesting and instructive about some of his prescriptions for addressing blue-collar anger in particular is that they are fundamentally left-of-centre. Whatever one may think of his xenophobic outbursts, his crude sexual boasting, his transparent vulgarity, these may fade into insignificance beside his stated desire to revamp America’s economic profile and the role of the state — ambitions, incidentally, that could put him at loggerheads with a Republican congress. Three policies, in particular, might prove ground-breaking.  

First, the hostility to free trade deals — including the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Trump has understood than free trade is never free. As soon as the ink has dried on the parchment, the signatories to trade deals find themselves obliged to open their borders to each other’s exports regardless of the interests of employees, communities, and even whole regions and sectors of activity. Tariffs reduce or disappear, but competition does not. Companies free to operate within a free trade area can move to where costs are lower - not only labour costs but also those related to energy prices, taxes, exchange rates, environmental standards and so on. Rust, decay and unemployment in regions thereby deprived of economic activity are among the less happy consequences, accompanied all too often by neglect from officialdom.

Where formal trade deals do not exist, companies may also shift production to lower-cost countries, but governments at least remain free to implement countervailing policies without being dragged before a tribunal. Free trade deals, by contrast, bypass democratic accountability, as the Canadian government learned when it tried to ban the importation of a toxic fuel additive from the United States. They are set in stone. They oblige the signatory countries to submit to their wording regardless of changing economic conditions. They can and sometimes do prevent governments from acting in the national interest. By minimising production costs — but not necessarily prices and certainly not profits — they also help to concentrate wealth in the hands of capitalists and senior executives, and thereby to increase inequality. Trump’s hostility to trade deals may or may not prove advantageous, but it is far from indefensible.

Second, Trump’s team is beginning to outline a tax plan that is again more coherent than may first appear; and though it may look thoroughly right-wing, the corporate tax element has more to do with common sense than ideology. At present the US has the OECD’s highest corporate tax rate. One consequence is that instead of repatriating their overseas profits, US companies operate abroad from low-tax jurisdictions like Ireland (tax rate 12.5%) and stash much of the rest in tax havens like Bermuda and Cayman Islands. Lowering the US corporate tax rate could be a means of inducing US corporations ‘back home’ — bringing jobs and investment with them as well as revenue to the government. 

Lowering the US corporate tax rate could be a means of inducing US corporations ‘back home’

Third, Trump is proposing major investment in infrastructure. Unlike many politicians, he understands the difference between capital and operating expenditure; and he knows that investment by the state in, for example, highways, airports or educational facilities, not only increases employment, but also has the long-term effect of reducing operating costs. Compare the UK’s so-called private finance initiative by which clever Labour and Tory chancellors sought to save public money by getting the private sector to finance capital projects. PFI’s signal achievement has not been to save public money, but to put hospitals into the red and excessive profits into the hands of corporations, while adding to the deficit. 

In summary, some of Trump’s most significant economic policy proposals are ones that would not or should not seem outlandish if they were to come from Sanders or Corbyn. Much left-wing commentary would have us believe that Trump’s elevation signals the end of days. But the poor, the unemployed, and those many who feel marginalised by the relentless march of neoliberalism may beg to differ. Even if voters find some of Trump’s opinions distasteful, when it comes to putting bread on the table, they will choose to feed the kids. While the media are fretting about the Mexican wall and the deportation of illegal immigrants — policies already softening and destined in time to become footnotes — they are forgetting Bill Clinton’s celebrated aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

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