Summary: Sociologist Wolfgang Streeck moves the debate about the rise of Trump beyond “racism” and “Russia”. He connects Trump to large political forces sweeping through the West. We cannot cope with them until we see and understand them. Otherwise they might sweep us away, as has happened before.
Excerpt from “Trump and the Trumpists“
By Wolfgang Streeck.
Inference Review, April 2017.
STRANGE PERSONALITIES arise in the cracks of disintegrating institutions. They are often marked by extravagant dress, inflated rhetoric, and a show of sexual power. The first Trumper of the postwar era was the Danish tax rebel, Mogens Glistrup, the founder of the nationalist Progress Party, who, having put his principles into practice, went to prison for tax evasion. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Boris Johnson in England are hairstyle Trumpers. Pim Fortuyn and Jörg Haider were both dandies. They died in their finery. Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are each one third of a full Trump.
Trumpers generate their populist charisma among Trumpists by defying convention; they appear extraordinary to those who are intimidated but not impressed by society’s machinery of social control.1 With hindsight, it seems as though the capitalist democracies have been waiting for their Trumpers, men and women eager to liberate public speech from its commitment to the unbelievable.
- Donald Trump’s promise to make America great again is an acknowledgement that the United States is a power in decline, embarrassingly unable since Vietnam to win, or even to finish, any of the wars that it started.
- When Trumpers ask about NATO, they are asking why NATO should continue to exist a quarter century after the end of the Soviet Union.
- Calls for economic protectionism raise the question, long taboo among liberal internationalists, of whether new free trade agreements are really to everyone’s benefit, and why, in particular, the government of the United States should have let its country deindustrialize.
- The United States has an elaborate immigration policy, and yet there are eleven million illegal immigrants in its territory.2 Trumpers say this is odd, and Trumpists agree with them.…
Death of the Center-Left.
OVER THE PAST quarter century, the center-left made a historic commitment to internationalism, a movement both promoting and requiring economic and social modernization. Now it is declining into desuetude. It is against this background that Trump and Trumpism must be understood.
In the 1990s, the center-left placed its hopes for restoring growth and consolidating public finance on liberalized international markets. A worldwide effort at industrial and social restructuring followed. International competition put pressure on national economies to become more efficient. Economic losers were punished by ever-lower wages and reduced social security benefits. Economic winners were rewarded by higher profits and lower taxes.
Policies to this effect were hard to sell to center-left voters, so they were attributed to the irresistible natural force of globalization. In this way, the center-left hoped to escape responsibility for the pain inflicted on its constituents. The bitter medicine did not work; nor was the center-left granted political immunity. In all countries of the developed capitalist world, the number of losers increased until political entrepreneurs sensed their opportunity and entered the public scene.
The rise of the Trumpists was made possible by the decline of the center-left in the United States, Italy, France, the UK, Austria, the Netherlands, and even Germany, where the losers in the former GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), were among the earliest supporters of the new right-wing party, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland).
Those aggrieved by the accelerated internationalization of their societies felt abandoned by their national state. Elites in charge of public affairs were judged guilty of having handed national sovereignty to international organizations. These charges were largely true. Global neoliberalism has enfeebled the nation state, and with it, national democracy. Citizens most affected by these events had only their votes to express their displeasure.
Trumpism took off, fueled as much in the United States as elsewhere by popular irritation at the vast public celebration of internationalization. Economic and cultural elites entered an international space rich in their rights, at ease both in and out of national states. If democracy is understood as the possibility of establishing social obligations toward those luckless in the marketplace, the global elites had entered into, or created, a world in which there was a great deal of lucklessness and not many obligations.
For those plotting to take advantage of growing discontent, nationalism appeared as an obvious formula both for social reconstruction and political success. The winners and the losers of globalism found themselves reflected in a conflict between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. The old left having withdrawn into stateless internationalism, the new right offered the nation-state to fill the ensuing political vacuum. Liberal disgust at Trumpian rhetoric served to justify the withdrawal of the left from its constituents, and to explain its failure to help them express their grievances in civilized public language. Discontent grew fast.
The Trump presidency is both the outcome and the end of the American version of neo-liberalism. Having commenced crumbling in the era of George W. Bush, the neo-liberal regime managed to regain an appearance of vitality under Barack Obama. With his departure, it was bound to collapse under the weight of its contradictions, and, indeed, absurdities.
Clinton’s daring attempt to present herself as advocate of those Americans “working hard and playing by the rules,” while collecting a fortune in speaker’s fees from Goldman Sachs, was destined to fail. So, too, was Clinton’s insistence that it was the historical duty of American voters to elect her as their first female president. Transgendered restrooms infuriated everyone except those seeking access to them, no matter the Obama administration’s attempt to depict bathroom access as a civil right.11 Deep down, no one cared. …
On the Governing Capacity of Trumpism.
CAN TRUMP GOVERN? Could Le Pen? Or Grillo? In a system of personal rule, personal defects matter: narcissism, fickleness, a short attention span. It remains to be seen if Trump has the time, and, indeed, the will, to study dossiers or even to listen to advice.31
Trump’s performance during his first weeks in office has been erratic, messy, and incompetent. Early in his presidency, it seemed conceivable that he might resign during his first term, perhaps undermined by the intelligence community he had insulted during the campaign. He could also be forced to resign over conflicts of interest, or be declared unfit to serve, under the 25th Amendment.32 His cabinet appointments, on the other hand, indicate an attempted reconciliation with both the military and the national security establishment, buying stabilization in office with concessions on policy, especially on NATO, Russia, and global affairs generally.
An elected president can stray far from his campaign rhetoric without popular punishment. In this, Trump might learn from his predecessor. But even if Trump learns how to govern, there is no reason to believe that he will be better than his predecessors at dealing with the crises of global capitalism and the international state system that have brought him to power. Increasing inequality, rising debt, and low growth are not easily cured. Trumpism is, after all, an expression of the crisis, not its solution.
If Trumpists feel bound by their electoral promises, they must put an end to neoliberal reform. This will not end the impasse between capitalism and society. In the absence of a stable class compromise between capital and labor, policy is doomed to become capricious. Perhaps Trumpism will make its departure from neoliberalism and free trade palatable to capital by increasing credit, debt, and inflation—another policy intended to buy time and little else. Nobody knows what Trumpists will do to shore up their political support if economic nationalism fails to produce the promised results.
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About the author
Wolfgang Streeck is sociologist, Professor and director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. See his c.v. and publications, his website and his Wikipedia entry. Also see these essays…
- “The Politics of Public Debt: Neoliberalism, Capitalist Development, and the Restructuring of the State“, July 2013.
- “States and Markets“, ASA Economic Sociology Section Newsletter, Fall 2015 — About the perennial debate in economic sociology about the relationship between the state and economy.
- “Politics in the interregnum“, ROAR Magazine, 23 December 2015 — Why capitalism and democracy are in conflict.
- “Social Democracy’s Last Rounds“, Jacobin, 25 February 2016 — “The trajectory of democratic capitalism in Europe … prioritizes the imperatives of the market and of business profitability over the requirements of democratic equality and social solidarity.”
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