Saturday, August 6, 2016

Donald Trump in Context

by Kurt Stand
Near the end of the 1970's New York City  went bankrupt, was put under management by banks, union strength (and union belief in its strength) undercut, black and Latino community organizations isolated, repressed or coopted, and the left (the organized left and the community of which it was a part) unmoored and demoralized.  Given slightly different starting and ending times, the same picture could be given of other urban areas, other industrial centers, other university towns – and the country as a whole personified in the image of Ronald Reagan.  It is a set of developments that has everything to do with the rise of Donald Trump whose success to date – whatever the outcome of his current presidential run – will pose a continued threat to formal democratic governance in the years ahead.
The neo-liberal changeover in the nature of New York’s local economy in the 1980s meant that greater profits could be made from the real estate boom in hotels, casinos and other commercial venues.  And that was where Donald Trump invested the fortune he inherited from his father.  Along with the money he inherited his political connections (a Republican with longstanding ties to Joe McCarthy’s advisor Roy Cohn, yet also in bed with Democratic politicians in money-making deals) and his racism.  Rooted in US culture and institutional structures, racism has been a useful tool for political demagoguery even in the liberal New York City.  Moreover it was and is a money-making proposition.  Redlining — the bank-practice of excluding blacks from neighborhoods as a means to raise property value – contributed to Fred Trump’s wealth while undercutting worker solidarity.  And it was a forerunner of gentrification – artificially inflating property values by pushing out industry as well as low and middle-income housing in favor of luxury office space and housing for the well-to-do – which is the source of Donald Trump’s wealth and political strength.

Gentrification’s destruction of stable neighborhoods and stable jobs has contributed to atomization and a sense of the world spinning out of control.  A consequence of a world so different from one that working people thought they were being promised is desperation stemming from the sense that there is no way forward, no path to “success” – whether defined as owning a home, secure retirement, children in professional careers or any other such measure.  As the possibility of a decent life for those “playing by the rules” in our capitalist economy dwindles, ever-larger numbers of people find themselves in want, in debt or simply worried.  Working too long for too little, working two or three jobs where one once sufficed, suffering bouts of unemployment lasting longer than in the past, juggling to pay constantly rising education, health and housing costs, all make the search for answers more insistent.
Upon this terrain, a more virulent racism and xenophobia has grown.  And absent viable alternatives, some look for an answer in a leader who appears strong enough to create order out of chaos.  It is a desire that Trump has been quick to exploit.  All the more so as in best-selling books and on “reality” TV shows he has presented himself as a man of action, not words, as a person always able to turn the tables on setbacks, somebody successful, rich and therefore independent – as a “winner.”
In all this lies the not inconsiderable support for Donald Trump amongst large numbers of working people.   White workers to be sure, for Trump’s appeal to racism is also an appeal to people afraid that they or their children might fall into the ranks of the excluded.  The hate and invective directed toward Mexican immigrants, toward Muslims, toward women (or, to be more precise, economically and sexually independent women) provides a target for an anger which otherwise doesn’t have a place to go.  That, in turn, is why Trump’s inconsistencies and lack of policy perspectives matter so little.  The combination of lack of clarity in message and clear clarity of tone mirrors the fear and anxiety people have but are unable to articulate.  All of this are reasons to fear Trump, because he has all the earmarks of an authoritarian leader, an authoritarian leader who knows enough to borrow from Mussolini and to appeal to pre-existing neo-fascist “white power” networks.
And there is reason to fear even if his campaign flames out, for someone else may well step in the fill the void – if not in this presidential election than the next.  Trump’s ability to rise so far has much to do with the Republican Party having undermined its own structural integrity and mass appeal – a lack which neither voter suppression nor unlimited corporate election campaign spending can completely solve (though both are well in evidence).  So the search for suppression of civil liberties in the name of freedom takes other forms as well.  Witness the network of wealthy businessmen pulled together by the Koch Brothers.  Largely behind the Tea Party, behind anti-labor reaction as a state level, they may pose a more serious threat than Trump because of their level of organization.  The differences between Cruz and Trump and Kasich and Bush, et. al. are real; but no less real is a similar desire to impose order in a stagnating economy and fractured society by restricting civil liberties, restricting social rights.
Corporate supported assaults on democratic gains has always been a factor in US politics; but the threat has grown greater as the structural weaknesses of US capitalism (reflected in aforementioned changes from the ‘70s to the ‘80s) has become deeper.  That weakness (and attendant militarism) is one reason why reaction is so much stronger in the US today than in most other wealthy nations, quite contrary to the 1930s.  Because the Right has been unable to unite around one candidate it likely will not prevail in this year’s general election — though there is no guarantee that it won’t.  More critically, it is certainly no guarantee that such forces won’t come together in the near future.
Countervailing forces do exist – direct corporate engagement in political action would otherwise be unnecessary.  And strong as Trump’s support is in some working-class circles, he is forcefully rejected in others.  Popular progressive sentiments do exist, labor still mobilizes, and multi-racial organizing continually confronts hatred.  Proof lies in examples from Obama’s election to the broad appeal of Occupy Wall Street, from the persistence of Black Lives Matter to the resonance of Sanders’s campaign.  Nonetheless, to prevent Trump – or someone like him – becoming ascendant in the future, requires stronger organization, more defined program and broader vision.
In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, an Oklahoma sharecropper despairs because he doesn’t know at whom to aim his shotgun in order to keep the banks from taking his land.  Over the course of the novel, the target takes shape as a vision of what could/should be is developed – a vision expressive of the social movements of the era.  These are captured in the lyrics of another Guthrie song, written for the film version of the novel.   His Ballad of Tom Joad spoke to the values of the radical labor movement then – and continues to speak to the values of an alternative, genuine democracy today:
“Ever’body might be just one big soul,
Well it looks that a-way to me.
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.
Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”
version of this article first appeared earlier this year in the German twice-monthly political magazine Ossietzky
Posted in Metro DC. Democratic Socialists
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S. 

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