Populism, Crisis and Business as Usual: Trump's First Year
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teleSUR spoke to David Bacon, Francis A. Boyle, and William Robinson to discuss Trump's first year of foreign, trade and domestic policies.

"Trumpism certainly does not signal a retreat from global capitalism; it is a deeply confused and contradictory effort to rescue global capitalism from its crisis," said Prof. William I. Robinson.

It's been a full year since former real-estate magnate and television personality Donald J. Trump was elected 46th President of the United States, riding to victory on a massive groundswell of support for a message consisting of thinly veiled racism and white nationalism.

Trump promised to "Make America Great Again" and drain the swamp surrounding the White House, signaling a break from years of "liberal-democratic" internationalism that had long been the guiding orthodoxy in Washington, D.C.

Instead, Trump would put the (white) American worker first; expel "illegal aliens"; destroy the Islamic State and other "radical Islamic terrorists"; reset relations with Russia, and build gleaming infrastructure across the U.S. – first and foremost, a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

A year on, support for Trump continues to drop, even among his most hardcore supporters. Far from kicking out Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan types – the "banksters and globalists" – he's restocking the White House with Wall Street insiders.

Rather than extricating the U.S. from its military adventures abroad, Trump has surrounded himself with Pentagon top brass threatening new offensives against North Korea and Iran. The move has been welcomed by his new friends, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Meanwhile, the rumored "bromance" between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to blossom. Not that this has prevented certain U.S. media from broadcasting round-the-clock "Russiagate" coverage or finding Kremlin connections to every story, it seems.

One year after "winning like you wouldn't believe," Nielsen Ratings-obsessed Trump's approval ratings are among the lowest in history. A poll shows approval of the former "Apprentice" host hovering around 35 percent nationally, with close to 60 percent of respondents disapproving of his performance in office so far.

However, Trump has proven more than once that polls can't always be trusted. He's also proven himself a wily, unpredictable player.

So is Trump a great nationalist leader rebuilding the U.S. in an uncompromising, decisive manner? Or is he an incoherent demagogue – a windblown kite drifting at the helm of the empire – whose kneejerk reactions and impulsive tweets threaten to bury the Republic?

Joining us in conversation:

David Bacon: photographer, labor organizer and journalist who has authored several books on immigration, labor and U.S. trade policy.

Francis A. Boyle: author and professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law.

William I. Robinson: professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity.

Left to right: William I. Robinson, Francis A. Boyle, David Bacon | Photos: Revo Grafia, contributed

Contradictions and Incoherence

Bacon: Trump is caught in a conflict between the big-business Republicans whose agenda he is still serving, and the way he got elected, which was by appealing to racism and nativism among people, especially those who were hurt by the economic changes in the U.S. of the past 20 years.

So on the one hand he's making very anti-immigrant statements to appeal to that base, and then turning around and telling business: "Don't worry about it, you'll get what you need."

Robinson: The Trump regime's trade policies and pronouncements have been highly contradictory. This reflects, in turn, the contradictions involved in the regime's dual mission. Trumpism represents a far-right response to the crisis of global capitalism and also to the legitimacy crisis of the U.S. state.

In its drive to regain state legitimacy, Trumpism has carved out a social base, above all, among downwardly mobile sectors of the U.S. working class, whose living conditions have been destabilized by capitalist globalization and who face escalating insecurity. Trump has utilized a racist and anti-immigrant appeal and the "Make America Great Again" rhetoric to organize these sectors of the working class. It is this political-ideological strategy that leads Trump to espouse a nationalist and protectionist (as well as a racist) discourse and a so-called "America First" approach to global affairs.

On the other hand, Trump's actual economic program is neo-liberalism on steroids. It involves proposed massive cuts in taxes on capital and the rich, an accelerated deregulation – a virtual smashing of the state's regulatory apparatus – increased subsidies to capital, a new round of privatizations, including of public lands and of infrastructure, and an assault on unions and the working class.

These two thrusts of Trumpism are, of course, contradictory. Trump's economic program will only further destabilize his working- and middle-class social base and aggravate the state's crisis of legitimacy; in fact, this is already occurring.

Boyle: I've been following U.S. foreign policy since the Bay of Pigs Invasion and right now it is very incoherent. With Obama and his people, their agendas were much easier to understand, but the Trump people – neocons, oil people, big business – that's much harder to understand.

Trump is trying to change directions and that's why there's this confusion, but there are no good guys. Trump's incoherence is a result of two factions among imperial elites within the U.S. fighting it out for the control and domination of the world's natural resources.

"We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again." | Photo: Reuters

Free Trade, Globalization and NAFTA

Bacon: Trump has made a lot of very provocative statements to the extent that he's going to renegotiate NAFTA. He's playing to a nativist electoral base, really. Trump has no intention of changing the basic relation between the U.S. and Mexico, and he certainly is not planning a change that will alter the corporate structure of these free-trade agreements; that certainly won't change under Trump.

NAFTA simply cemented in place changes that had been taking place over a long period of time between the U.S. and Mexico. For example, the border militarization program that established the maquiladoras goes all the way back to 1964, and the opening-up of the Mexican economy to foreign investment took place throughout the 1980s. Carlos Salinas was able to get the Mexican Congress to change the Constitution to allow foreign ownership of land and increased U.S. investment; that was already a major factor before NAFTA was passed.

This led to a huge increase in poverty and an enormous increase in migration to the U.S. There were about 4.5 million Mexican migrants in the U.S. in 1994 when NAFTA went into effect, and that number peaked in 2008 at about 12.5 million. This is what NAFTA created.

Even if Trump wanted to, Trump could not walk that back, but of course, he doesn't want to. It's really a lot of nativist rhetoric appealing to his base, playing on anti-immigrant sentiment.

Robinson: Much of Trump's "America First" and "Make America Great Again" approach, when we cut through the rhetoric and put aside the symbolic and cultural dimensions of this approach (extreme racism, imperialist chauvinism, "Build the Wall"), seeks to attract transnational corporate capital to the U.S. He has called on transnational capitalist groups in Europe and Asia to invest in the U.S. in the hopes of creating jobs and retaining legitimacy among his social base, so this is absolutely not the old protectionism that keeps out transnational capital from abroad.

Trumpism certainly does not signal a retreat from global capitalism: it is a deeply confused and contradictory effort to rescue global capitalism from its crisis. Trump's cabinet, the Trump family itself and the corporate groups that support Trump are all part of the transnational capitalist class.

Trump's business empire spans five continents and includes maquiladora factories in Mexico and China: the two countries he has most attacked for supposedly undermining "American economic interests". Trumpism does not want to – nor could it – dismantle the globally integrated production and financial system and the vast global chains of outsourcing and subcontracting that this system involves.

It is true that Trump cancelled the TPP, but it was likely already dead on arrival. Hillary Clinton had also been forced to come out against the accord due to massive opposition to it in the U.S. Trump's railing against NAFTA is a political maneuver to secure his social base and shore up legitimacy. NAFTA may well collapse, but we would not see a reversion to autonomous U.S., Canadian and Mexican economies. That is simply out of the question. Apart from NAFTA and threats to withdraw from the U.S.-Korean FTA, there has been no U.S. withdrawal from global capitalism in Trump's first year in office.

Mass raids and undocumented immigrant roundups are becoming far more frequent under Trump. | Photo: ICE

Immigration

Bacon: Instead of having any sort of sympathy for the people who were forced to come here to survive, Trump is talking about them as if they were the enemy. The immigration policies he's put into place since coming into office have treated those people as a target.

Obama deported a lot of people – well over 2 million in the eight years he was in office – but the number of deportations has gone up again since last year. At the end of the Obama administration, popular protest had forced a lot of concessions from the White House, such as the DACA program and the restrictions on the cooperation between local police and immigration service.

Trump is now basically beating up people who are coming here as a result of U.S. policies, whether it was free trade in Mexico or the civil wars in Central America.

One of the first things he did in office was decide that when women and children refugees arrive at the U.S. border from Central America, he was going to take the children away and incarcerate them separately from their mothers. Essentially, this was a form of terrorism meant to intimidate people so they would no longer migrate to the U.S. Then he turns around and his allies such as Bannon and Breitbart are saying: "The administration is getting serious about immigration enforcement."

Immigrants are now paying the price for these jingoistic and nativistic policies. The economic bedrock of the relations between the U.S. and Mexico, Central America – this imperial relationship – it's not going to change at all, not one bit. Trump is punishing those who have already paid the price in terms of damage wrought on their home countries by treating them as the target of enforcement in the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks his mind at a working dinner with Latin American leaders in New York City, Sept. 18, 2017. | Photo: White House

Latin America

Bacon: We're seeing changes in Cuba with the White House attempting to reverse Obama's movement towards normal relations.

In Venezuela, Trump is doing what Obama did before him. I don't see very much change there. Trump has talked about going even further, but the basic hostility toward the Venezuelan government and the revolution there is a long-standing policy of the U.S. which Trump is basically continuing.

On this whole question of renegotiating the trade agreement with Mexico, you have to look beyond the rhetoric and see what's actually being proposed here and the real answer is: very little.

Trump has somewhat cleaned out the State Department in many ways: Tillerson has laid off plenty of staffers and career diplomats. There's a big scandal in Washington about that, but has that resulted in a basic change in direction towards Latin America? I don't see that.

Boyle: The White House has militarily threatened Venezuela in a clear-cut volation of the United Nations charter and Organization of American States charter. President Maduro could use also use the 1921 treaty between the United States and Venezuela for the advancement of general peace to invoke an international commission against Trump over these threats and sanctions.

Venezuela is swimming in a sea of oil. That's what really matters to Trump and his people, like Tillerson; they couldn't give a damn about democracy and human rights in Venezuela. It's the oil.

Since 9/11 they've used the "War on Terror" to grab oil and other resources in the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile, here in the Western Hemisphere, they used the bogus pretext of the "War on Drugs" to infiltrate governments, force them to do their bidding, and steal as many resources as they can.

Latin America has an abundance of natural resources and that's what they're after here.

Trump has dangerously escalated tensions with North Korea. | Photo: Reuters

Asia

Bacon: In some ways, the Trump administration seems much more interested in East Asia than in Latin America. Trump's tour of Asia certainly highlights this, and the big question for the administration is China. What kind of relationship are Trump and Xi Jinping going to negotiatiate, and will there be a war in Korea? As horrifying as it is to think about it, Trump is rattling the nuclear sabre in a way no administration has since the days of Eisenhower. It's hard to shrug that off; it could result in the deaths of millions and millions of people.

Also, now Trump is talking about this Indo-Pacific free-trade concept: re-establishing a free-trade zone that includes India, Japan, the Philippines – everybody except China.

Boyle: Trump's decided to have this confrontation with North Korea. Obama, Clinton: Democratic Party people saw North Korea as being on its last legs anyway and ready to collapse, so they adopted a policy of so-called "strategic patience": let the country collapse under its own weight. So Trump is picking on North Korea because it certainly isn't as dangerous as Russia. Regrettably, I think Trump believes that he can wipe them out very quickly, so it's very easy for him to bully the country right now.

As for China, pursuant to the Brzezinski 'Grand Chessboard' theory, Obama had this 'pivot to Asia' which was really a pivot to confront China directly and move massive quantities of U.S. military forces into the Asia-Pacific region.

Right now it does not appear that this is what Trump wants to do. He is trying to establish good relations with (Chinese leader) Xi Jinping, at least for the time being. He's on his state visit to China hoping to work out some type of arrangement on North Korea.

"Like you wouldn't believe..." | Photo: AFP

Trump and Global Capitalism

Robinson: You ask if Trump has represented the interests of U.S. and global capitalism in his first year. He has deeply divided both the transnational capitalist class and the U.S. and transnational elite. The divisions are political and ideological, above all. Trumpism is generating greater international tension and instability at home and abroad. His threats to withdraw from NAFTA and his nationalist and protectionist rhetoric – even though they have not translated into any systematic policy beyond inviting transnational capital to invest in the U.S. – are of great concern to those sectors of capital that are most transnational. His brash racism, misogyny and authoritarianism disturbs the political elite as it generates a new wave of mass protest in the U.S. and around the world.

In assessing the first year of Trumpism, we have to remember that it represents a highly contradictory response to the crisis of global capitalism. Global capitalism is spiraling out of control, not just in the U.S. but around the world. The post-WWII international order is collapsing. While capital has transnationalized, most nation-states around the world face mounting crises of legitimacy. The transnational elite is confused and rudderless. It is in this context that Trumpism must be seen.

Liberal protester holds sign equating Trump with Russia, who are equated with "communists." | Photo: AFP

Russiagate” and Foreign Policy

Boyle: Right now we're having massive civil warfare within the U.S. establishment about foreign policy, and it's been that way for the duration of the Trump administration.

On the one hand you have Clinton and the Democratic Party and their loyal news media, which makes up a majority of news media in the U.S. On the other hand you have Trump and people like Bannon and the Breitbart/Fox News types. That can account for all the scandals, allegations and every thing else that we're currently reading about and following on TV.

It's really a battle between two factions of the elite about the future of American imperial foreign policy. Clinton and the Democrats want definitely to confront Russia. They made that clear: this was their agenda going back to Obama and his foreign policy guru and mentor from Columbia University, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Trump and his people, it seems, are not interested in direct confrontation with Russia. I think, for the time being, he'd like constructive relations.

For that reason, you've been having all this infighting within the establishment: these investigations, these allegations, the Democrats beating up on Russia and Trump. Meanwhile, Trump responds with his own scandalous allegations against the Democrats.

These are the tools used by U.S. elites as pretexts to pursue other agendas behind the scenes. There are a lot of forces arrayed in this fight and we'll see how this all plays out for either side.

Protesters in Los Angeles rally against Trump's policies. | Photo: EFE

Have social movements risen to the challenge of fighting Trumpism?

Bacon: I think movements have risen to challenge Trump. The first thing we saw was when people came to airports all around the country and shut them down in order to free the people stuck in detention as a result of his order, and then create a political climate in which you had these judges begin to overturn Trump's Muslim bans. The women's march, which brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, was a big achievement too.

It's gotten to the point, however, where it's hard to get people to protest and keep protesting; just repeating: "No, no, no, no."

There are other strategic questions that face social movements in the U.S.

One of them is whether Bernie Sanders' "Our Revolution" movement is going to actually become a powerful political force that can mobilize voters in elections. Then there's the fight inside the Democratic Party: whether the Democratic Party is going to become something other than what it has been over the past 20 or 30 years of Clintonism.

Another question is whether the labor movement, especially in the public sector, will be able to continue to have political power.

Generally speaking, I feel very encouraged by the way the movements in the U.S. have responded. It's important to ride on the widespread popular revulsion at Trump and mobilize that and turn it into something that can actually change the politics here. There's no question that the base for it exists, but then what? You have to organize it, right? That's the big challenge.


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