Is Trump a reflection of America, at least a segment of the population that has proved it wants him as the next president, or is he a historical accident, an aberration from the norm in politics? Despite both Republican and Democrat, conservative, liberal and leftist critics that Trump is not a reflection of the American mainstream, the astonishing results of the primary voting process reveal a very different story for a man who could easily win the nomination. This would be especially the case if the Republican Party establishment owned by billionaires like Trump supports his candidacy instead of undermining it in every respect possible.
Although Trump has opportunistically toyed with right-wing populism - racism, xenophobia, misogyny, jingoism - and although he is indeed a con-artist as Marco Rubio calls him and a fraud as Mitt Romney calls him, he is very much a reflection of mainstream America as much as Bernie Sanders representing the anti-neoliberal pro-Keynesian wing of the Democrat party. It is indeed true that he is an embarrassment at home and overseas because of who he is and because he is a right wing populist approaching as close to neo-Fascism as any candidate for president.
However, Trump is a product of and reflects the traditions and institutions as much as any Republican who in essence represents the same ideological and policy position. Nor can it be argued that the corrupt billionaires and Republican political establishment is against Trump on moral grounds as though these people are on a higher moral plane like Pope Francis who criticized Trump for lacking compassion for the poor trying to cross the border. Therefore, the issue comes down to the degree to which the Republican political and business establishment wants Trump as its presidential candidate no matter what the voters want, and the degree of control the party machinery and billionaires wish to exercise in the political arena as they are looking beyond the presidency to House and Senate seats that may be at risk because of Trump at the head of the party ticket.
Legitimacy and Democracy
Regardless of whether Trump becomes the nominee or the next US president, the larger issue is one of a “bourgeois democratic” society’s institutional mechanisms and sources of legitimacy. If legitimacy rests with the party machinery and the wealthy people funding it, then the system parading as democratic is a fraud, and it is not just Trump. The issue of legitimacy is at stake in American democracy and especially with this campaign of 2016 where the frontrunner and presumptive nominee after striking a deal with the party bosses finds himself isolated from the party bosses and those funding the party.
In US, does legitimacy emanate from the political party apparatus that chooses candidates and presents them to voters for election? If the people by majority vote for a candidate that the political party establishment has chosen to be on the ballot but does not want that candidate does this mean that popular vote is meaningless as is the electoral process? According to 19th century German sociologist Max Weber, the sources of legitimacy converge in an open society and they are based on tradition, charismatic leadership and legal authority. Based on a constitutional system and laws, legal authority by elected and/or appointed officials is one source of legitimacy.
The powers of legal authority are not without limits considering checks and balances in the US democratic system and popular consent as the underlying source of political power, at least in theory. It should be stressed that Max Weber never created linkage between social justice and political legitimacy, whereas his contemporaries ideologically to the left did exactly that. The question of popular sovereignty and legitimacy is one with limits in American history that had excluded slaves, women, and for all practical purposes the poor and minorities from the voting process. Although in the early 21st century the system ideally permits for all citizens to vote for pre-selected candidates of the party machinery, the issue of legitimacy remains a big question mark because the preservation of the public and private institutions take precedence over any elected official whose goal must be to serve the institutions and not change them without congressional authorization.
The Historical Role of the Wealthy in Politics
Historically in Europe the very wealthy recognized the symbolic significance of not running for office and simply manipulating the political process from behind the scenes. After all, money has always bought political influence at all levels of government, and one way of protecting the interests of capital has been to rely on the legislative branch of government because one never knows if the executive deviates from serving capital as faithfully as the socioeconomic elites expect. This rule of the very wealthy staying out of politics was broken in the Age of Imperialism in Europe (1870-1914) when the stakes became so important that competing interests at the national and international levels were fighting for market share on a world scale.
More recently, there have been billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi who was Italy’s prime minister and many European politicians have used their political office as a vehicle of moving into the socioeconomic elite class. Last spring a millionaire businessman Juha Sipila was elected to Prime Minister of Finald by promising to make the country competitive just as Republicans have been advocating, never mentioning income inequality or social justice. Therefore, Europe is not entirely free of the businessman-politician promising the moon to voters.
From its founding, the US carved a different path than Europe that tended to be skeptical of wealthy oligarchs in political power. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt were all multi-millionaires and saw their class interests converging with the nation’s interests, without necessarily neglecting completely the marginalized in society. It is true, of course, that after 1850 and the era of Lincoln we have layers and professionals with a record of public service running for office, but they were just as representative of big capital’s interests as the wealthy presidents. The Gilded Age (1870-1900) proved as much despite presidents in the White House that were not super wealthy like Washington and Jefferson. There are remarkable parallels between the late 19th century Gilded Age and the new Gilded Age of the late 20th-early 21st century America.
The Progressive Era (1900-1920) that started at the local level in Wisconsin during the age of mass consumerism as the Industrial Revolution was expanding the economy prompted calls by the rising professional middle class for limits on the role of the wealthy in politics. After all, American politics was blatantly bought and paid for by the wealthy in all levels of government to the degree that calling such a system democracy could not be taken seriously.
Ironically, Theodore Roosevelt who was very wealthy and a Republican favored the role of the state as an arbiter of capital and he favored reforms that would rationalize the political economy. He recognized that capitalists left to their own devices were predatory and the rise of big business meant the need to create large government bureaucracies to regulate and assist the private sector. In short, Roosevelt had no illusions that capitalism must be rationalized otherwise it would cause havoc in society and destroy democracy rooted in pluralism. He knew first hand that the wealthy had politicians in their back pockets and tried to broaden the process to integrate the lower middle class into the political mainstream largely to afford legitimacy to a corrupt system. Progressivism only regulated big businesses and hardly placed restrictions on capital accumulation to the detriment of labor.
The Great Depression forced Franklin Roosevelt to expand on many programs of the Progressive Era that started at the turn of the century under Roosevelt and continued under Wilson. Despite opposition by the wealthy who did not want the state used as an agent of growth and development and an arbiter in society, FDR had no choice if he wanted to save a system from chaos and collapse. He broadened the political process and co-opted the lower classes into the Democrat mainstream, thus affording legitimacy to the system. When the Second World War ended, however, the US began to slowly deviate from the premises of government’s role in society, justifying it on the basis of the Cold War and the need to compete in the world considering the US was the world’s number one economy having inherited Europe’s and Japan’s imperial role.
Just as people today complain of wealth concentration among the top one percent, so did the people in the late 19th century. Just as people today complain that government is corrupt, bought and paid by the rich, so did the people in the Gilded Age (1870-1900). Just as people today are receptive to populism from the center-left and the extreme right because the so-called middle represents the very rich, so did people in the Gilded Age. The fundamental difference is that the US economy was expanding very rapidly in the late 19th century in every sector from agriculture, mining, manufacturing and services. In the early 21st century there is no comparable expansion, making politics and the role of the billionaires in society much more controversial. Finally, whereas in the late 19th century the US had room to expand its middle class, in the recent Gilded Age from Reagan to the present the middle class has been contracting and the future prospects are very bleak for upward mobility.
Billionaires and Trump
The challenge for Republican or Democrat party politicians who represent the existing social order and capitalist political economy has always been to forge consensus by securing a broad popular base in order to govern in what is supposed to be a bourgeois democracy. It is never easy to convince people from the middle class and working class that their interests rest with a political representative of the rich, although it has been done around the world for the last two centuries. The politicians with the ability to make their case and secure public support win elections.
The Republican Party invited Trump knowing that it needed a “star quality” candidate, a celebrity billionaire with mass appeal to broaden the party’s popular base. This is exactly what this man did but the idea was to broaden the popular base, not to win. Someone more mainstream establishment would actually be the one to win the nomination. Political parties have always sought popular figures to run for office precisely because of their mass appeal and ability to convince voters to identify with the candidate, despite the reality that the candidate is beholden to those who chose him/her to run for office.
The Trump brand in the age of pop culture sells as much in real estate development as in politics. After all, Trump made hundreds of millions of dollars selling his name that he equated with business success; this despite massive losses and three bankruptcies, failure of an airline business, the phantom Trump University, etc. Just like the Democrats, the Republicans are a well oiled political machine and no one can run without the blessing of the party hierarchy as Trump is doing with self-financing campaign, which in essence means he does not have to answer to campaign donors. The billionaires and party operatives invited Trump to run because they knew he was selling the brand name to voters, mostly white and male without a college degree that aspire to dreams of becoming billionaires or at least identify with the anti-establishment nationalist rhetoric, often bordering on Fascist considering he has borrowed quotes from Mussolini that Trump preaches to win votes.
Just in case there is any doubt that the wealthy own politicians, just follow the money trail and look at newspaper endorsements and media coverage. The media built up Trump as a political messiah so that people would vote Republican. The media follows the marching orders of its billionaire and millionaire owners. On 3 March 2016, FOX news instructed its reporters and guests to stop giving Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio any sort of favorable coverage. In itself this is hardly newsworthy that a news organization would pick favorites, considering this is how it has been throughout the history of the press. However, it does reveal the factionalism within the Republican Party at a time that the economic elites in the US are split over which candidate even within their own party best represents finance capital. Usually, the wealthy rally around one candidate and recognize the need to sell that individual to voters as though he is a popular choice. There have been cases from the 19th century to the present when the elites have been split about political parties and leaders, mostly obviously during the election of 1860 that brought Abraham Lincoln to the White House.
A number of billionaires, including the founder of Home Depot, the Ricketts family that owns the Chicago Cubs, the Koch brothers and many others have become public with their adamant opposition to Trump. Considering he too is from the billionaire class just like Mitt Romney who ran on the Republican ticket in 2012, there is no reason to oppose Trump if his policy positions are not so very different from Romney’s and if he is as malleable as some like Jimmy Carter believe. There are of course many reasons that conservative billionaires oppose Trump to the degree that some have publicly stated Hillary would make a better president.
The underlying assumption that there is solidarity among capitalists is simply wrong, although there is indeed a common interest among them to keep profits high, and wages and their taxes low. There are competing capitalist interests and always have been in the political economy.
a. The inability to buy the election, as Bernie Sanders and Trump have argued, frustrates billionaires, even if the candidate is one whose policy positions are very close to theirs.
b. There are competing interests that believe Trump will favor one or the other. For example, he has argued that drug companies are engaged in price gauging and that Apple is taking away jobs from the US and shipping them to China. Clearly, he would probably favor construction firms because he is on record favoring rebuilding of the aging infrastructure, probably with mob-connected firms, although there is hardly a difference between mob money and legitimate one given the interactivity that takes place between banks and the mod.
c. His proposal of taxing Hedge Funds has not been well received by Wall Street and the banks involved in such products.
d. Defiance toward congress, even toward Majority Leader Paul Ryan that Trump threatened of getting along or paying a big price is no way to forge alliances in Washington and on Wall Street. This kind of bravado and reckless rhetoric is what the billionaire-politician Romney alluded to when he asked Americans to oppose Trump.
e. Promising to do something about illegal immigration but in essence winking at the elites that the Obama policy will continue does not sit well with right wing ideologue billionaires of the Republican party.
A closer examination of Trump’s positions on policy, without actually knowing what he would do once in office if elected, reveals that he is indeed no different than his colleagues still in the race and hardly different on many issues from Hillary Clinton a many issues once the hyperbolic populist rhetoric is taken out.
1. Ever since Republican presidential candidate announced he would run for office. Trump began to denigrate Mexicans, women, Muslims, and just about every non-white male Protestant group, including Catholics offended by Trump’s trashing of Pope Francis. The reasons for this is that a segment of American society that includes the establishment agree with Trump, but disagree on the modality of expressing such views considering one must abide by political correctness to cover up bigotry in America.
2. Although he proposed assassinating the families of ISIS jihadists, a war crime as the United Nations defines it, the media stayed silent because they agree and would never dare support international law.
3. When he berated the Pope, the media sided with Trump against Francis who argued that Christians built bridges not walls. Pope Francis is the most leftist Pope in modern history and a critic of American consumerism and the culture of greed that the US media and establishment support as part of the value system.
4. When he proposed sending back more than 11 million illegal aliens, conservatives found it difficult to justify defending illegal aliens, except to argue that they do provide cheap labor and it would cost too much to ship them back. How could they oppose Trump considering this is a core issue for the Republican Party that rhetorically opposes non-white immigrants but in practice uses them for cheap labor just as Trump has in his hotels and construction projects?
5. When he argued that he would go to an economic war against China, Japan, South Korea and Mexico, no politician or media bothered pointing out that the world economy is tightly integrated and economic nationalism makes no sense for the US at the core of globalization. How could anyone argue that that products coming from Mexico and China are made by US firms and in Japan and South Korea exporting companies in which US investors have a stake. How could anyone argue that Japan finances the US debt and unleashing an economic war would also have geopolitical consequences that would only strengthen China and weaken US strategic allies in Asia?
6. When he argued that he would have the Chinese “get rid of” the leader of North Korea, no one criticized such a proposal because political assassinations and coup d’etat hardly pose a problem for either Republican or Democrat.
7. When he proposed cutting the Department of Education, no Republican or the press asked why because they agree. After all, the teachers and their unions have a long-standing history of usually voting Democrat. Moreover, the media and the Republicans have cultivated the perception that the Department of education is to blame for all calamities befalling the country’s educational system. Never mind that schools well funded in rich communities have excellent schools while the ghetto suffers along because its schools are underfunded owing to funds going to support prisons.
8. When Trump argued that he would send in massive forces to defeat ISIS, no one in either political party or in the media bother pointing out that jihadists operate in roughly fifty countries and employ unconventional methods of warfare that have proved almost impossible to eliminate with conventional means in the last two decades.
9. When this man employed the nebulous slogan “Make America Great Again”, only Clinton insisted that America is already great because she is running on the Obama legacy, such as it is with a record of pursuing neo-liberal policies that make the rich richer. No conservative dared to argue that America is already great because that would be an endorsement for Obama. Therefore, Trump reflects their view.
10. When he proposed eliminating OBAMACARE, no Republican or mainstream media objected because it is an anathema for the conservative elites and big business to support social welfare. However, they have no problem when Trump proposed lowering corporate taxes at home and to have corporate money repatriated. How could the media and the conservatives criticize Trump for wanting to erode social welfare and strengthen corporate welfare?
11. When he proposed cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, there was no criticism from the Republicans because they advocate the exact same thing.
12. When he offered unqualified support for the Second Amendment, neither his Republican colleagues nor the media argued that something must be done to bring under control the epidemic of shootings with handguns.
13. When he admitted that he hates to pay taxes and there are reports he pays very little taxes, no one had a problem with this issue because it is ubiquitous among conservatives who want the working class and middle class to carry the brunt of the tax burden through direct and indirect taxation. There are studies indicating Trump’s proposed tax cuts for the rich would cost an estimated $1 trillion per year; this in a country that has $19 trillion in public debt soon to rise at $21 trillion. The irony here is that Trump has said his plan would lower the debt but non-partisan groups looking at his tax policy insist the opposite would be the case.
14. Although he is on record opposing the war in Iraq, and argued that Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest “funder of terrorism”, he has repeated the need to bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and placing troops on the ground to bring down Syria’s Assad.
15. Trump alarms US allies so he is unacceptable. Reagan alarmed allies as did George W. Bush, but they were both presidents that much of the world viewed very unfavorably and destabilizing for the world. Why would Cruz or Rubio be any less destabilizing for the world than Trump the deal maker? It is indeed true that conservatives, centrists and leftists around the world are amazed that the US has Trump as a frontrunner, but they would be more interested in making sure he does not pursue economic nationalism or start new wars as his hyperbolic rhetoric would suggest. They have the exact same concern about Cruz and Rubio, and they realize that any president would have constraints from congress.
16. When he publicly stated that he wants to repeal the law to after the media legally on libel cases, there was no outcry by politicians, business people or even most of the media about the First Amendment and freedom of the press.
17. Even when he was forced to repudiate David Duke, a well known KKK member, many conservatives argued that this is not as bad as some present it because the late West Virginia Democrat Senator Robert Byrd was also a former KKK member in his youth during the 1940s. Ultra right winger Mike Huckabee among others noted that Sen. Byrd endorsed Obama and that was acceptable but Duke endorsing Trump is an anathema. In short, we are all Klansmen here under these three-piece suits so let’s just stop pretending. Trump’s hesitancy to denounce emphatically the KKK has been cited as proof he does not belong in the Republican Party. However, institutional racism as manifested in the criminal justice system, the educational system, infrastructural policies such as the Flint Michigan water poisoning afflicting blacks, all these are acceptable.
18. Business deregulation that would be in line with the neoliberal mainstream all administrations have pursued since Reagan. This would result in fewer environmental, labor, health and safety regulations. Republicans and many Democrats hardly have a problem with neoliberal policies such as these considering this is the general direction they have been going in the last three decades.
Many critics of Trump pretend as though he is a recent visitor from a distant planet, as though he is not a reflection of the Republican Party and at least a segment of American society. Although “Trumpism” has similarities with “Reaganism”, among them Nativism and xenophobia, underlying racism and sexism, jingoism and right-wing populism embodying the popular issues already part of the Republican Party mainstream, there are many who insist he is outside the mainstream of Republican politics.
Organized Crime: It is true that he may be an embarrassment because Trump has worked with organized crime in New York. When confronted with the allegations, he replied that he had to work with organized criminal elements to have his hotels constructed because organized crime controlled the cement business. A number of US banks have paid fines for laundering drug money, so why should Trump be an exception to major banks?
Trump University: He may carry a stigma because he created an unaccredited makeshift real estate university that was in essence a “get-rich quick scheme” where students’ tuition ran as high as $35,000. Trump University turns out to have been another of the billionaire’s many ways of making money promising the moon and delivering nothing. The US government has been investigating a number of online and brick and mortar colleges that promise the moon and deliver fast food jobs to their students. Why should Trump be any different?
Illegal Workers: It is true he may have hired illegal workers knowingly and had to pay more than $1,000,000 in fines. He publicly justified on the basis of worker shortage, not low wages. It is also true that he used tax abatements to make money in real estate and there are reports he probably pays very little or no taxes.
KKK: Only when Trump was not emphatic and categorical about disavowing former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke and the Klan did some elements of the mainstream media turn on him. It is one thing to embrace aspects of the Klan’s belief and entirely another to remove the thin veil of political correctness that exposes a mainstream politician as just another Klansman and neo-Nazi. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants want to project the appearance of respectability by distancing themselves from neo-Nazis and the Klan, while all along wholeheartedly supporting institutional racism as evidence by the criminal justice system that weighs heavily in the black and Hispanic communities; poising blacks in Flint Michigan for profits; police shootings of black youth in the inner city; black youth unemployment at 50%, and a series of other real life measures that keep the apartheid society alive and well. Obama not Trump has been the president in the last seven years when all of this has taken place. If Obama is not doing much about racism, why should a right-wing populist trying to win the White House?
It hardly stretches credulity to conclude that Trump is not the ideal candidate for a “normal” individual to be displayed at a psychologists’ convention. Nevertheless, within the realm of what is acceptable as normal in politics, Trump may be granted a generous pass. One could argue that a politician would have to be inhuman to propose massive displacement of 11 million illegal immigrants; or the deaths of thousands of innocent people as a result of a jingoistic foreign policy? But Reagan and George W. Bush were harsh toward minorities and carried out foreign interventions resulting in millions dying and displaced. Yet, Reagan and Bush are heroes, while Trump who advocates similar measures is outside the Republican mainstream?
I am amazed that even leftist critics of Trump have difficulty assessing the situation. Some have argued that the Trump phenomenon represents white anger and fear because society is changing demographically and the economic pie is becoming smaller. Demographic change and smaller economic pie has actually hurt minorities more than whites, but it is true the absence of upward social mobility among whites has driven a segment of them to the right politically. Another critique by the left is that the Trump phenomenon represents a breakdown of society and or the two-party system essentially representing the same class. It is true that both parties have always represented the same capitalist class, but it is just as true that American society was on verge of breakdown during the depression of the 1890s and of the 1930s. Yet, it bounced back and revived itself.
What is so different in the early 21st century? The US has actually slipped very rapidly into a role of interdependence with China that is headed for global economic hegemony. This is hardly good news for those who believe in the American Dream accessible to all who work hard. The increasingly secondary role of the US in the world economy and its dogmatic insistence on policing the world as political and economic leverage is running its course and will continue to erode living standards.
All candidates agree that the debt at $19 trillion will rise to $21 and probably well in the upper 20s in the next ten years. This means that unless there is a radical shift in the political economy, America of the 2030s will probably resemble that of the 1930s. The political arena reflects the ugly realities in the economy and society. In the end the larger question is how the electoral process has exposed the reality of the wealthy in control of the political class trying to sell a dream to voters, a brand like the “Trump band” when in fact there is nothing but empty air behind it because the real economy is faltering under the existing system. The future is bleak and the stakes very high for the wealthy trying to make sure they retain their privileges as the economy is on its way to a long steady decline relative to China and Asia at large.