What’s behind the political rise of Donald Trump

Trump: venom-spewing megalomaniac
Trump: venom-spewing megalomaniac

by James Creegan

The opening rounds of the 2016 presidential campaign are clearly demonstrating that the US is far from immune from the political polarisation now taking place across Europe. The expectations of politicians and plutocrats are being daily confounded.

It was widely assumed before the contest began that the nominations belonged to the two candidates who had the backing of their respective party establishments: on the Republican side to Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and younger brother of George W; and, in the Democratic camp, to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now the party bigwigs are not so sure. Clinton is currently under investigation by the FBI concerning the presence of classified documents in her private email account when she was secretary of state.

Although no presidential primaries have yet taken place, both early polls and attendance at rallies seem to contain a clear message: that a presidential election featuring a pair of carefully groomed, cautiously spoken candidates from two American political dynasties is the last thing primary voters in either party want. In the wake of the great recession of 2007-08, economic prospects for ordinary people are too dim, and elections too blatantly dominated by billionaires with their PACS (political action committees) and super-PACS, for people to have any confidence in ‘politics as usual’.

The lead in Republican polls is now held by Donald Trump, a New York mogul with the profile of a fascist demagogue; and, while Clinton is still ahead in national Democratic opinion surveys, she has fallen behind by about 10 points in the two key early primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire, to Bernie Sanders, the social democratic senator from Vermont challenging Clinton from the left by pounding on the theme of economic inequality. His campaign appearances are far surpassing hers in numbers and enthusiasm. Major donors and power-brokers in both parties are scrambling to re-establish their grip. This article will examine the Republican side.

The Republican primary field is now more crowded than it has been in over half a century, with no fewer than 15 presidential aspirants. Seven are present or former governors of states; five are present or former senators. It would be tedious to name and describe them all. One (Trump) heads his own real estate empire and another is a former corporate CEO; one is a retired neurosurgeon. The candidates run the gamut from far to lunatic right.

Base against top

The dilemma of the Republican Party consists in the fact that its most hard-core constituency is composed of older people who equate being American with being white, male, heterosexual and citizens of a country that rules most of the world. This largely middle class base cannot cope with the fact that the country is moving – erratically, but moving nonetheless – in the direction of gender equality and sexual permissiveness. They are also traumatised by the prospect that whites are on course to become a minority by mid-century, and feel emasculated by Washington’s increasing inability to dispatch the Marine Corps to deal with anyone who stands up to the US abroad.

This enraged, provincial and heavily southern party core became especially vocal after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Never reconciled to the presence of a black man in the White House, they are determined to thwart Obama, no matter what he does. And, although what became the brand name of white male ressentiment – the Tea Party – is no longer present as an organised force on the ground, the notes it sounded in 2009 and after still resound among the party ranks, just as the theme of economic inequality introduced by the now vanished Occupy movement stuck in the minds of many Democratic voters.

This writer has analysed the revolt of the Republican right in several Weekly Worker articles over the past few years. It cannot in our view be described as fascist, because it has not resorted to the extra-parliamentary, militarist methods that were the hallmark all fascist movements in the past. Yet we have viewed it as borne of an American variant of the middle class rage, independent of major ruling class factions, that springs from the same social-psychological impulses as fascism. Though these impulses – hatred of aliens and oppressed groups, and strident chauvinism in reaction to change and adversity – are routinely fostered by the ruling class to divert blame from itself, they can also become a force in their own right, escaping the control of their bourgeois enablers and interfering with certain of their aims. Such is the physiognomy of the Republican gang that is now attempting to obstruct the workings of the US government and dominating the primaries.

Republican master strategists like Karl Rove – realistic enough to appreciate that the presidential election of 2016 will not be won solely on the basis of Caucasian spleen and testosterone – are now saddled with what may be an impossible task: to find a Republican rightwing enough to turn out the base, but ‘moderate’ enough to appeal to at least a few young, female and Hispanic voters not lamenting the loss of a status they never enjoyed. (The black population has been written off long ago as an incorrigibly Democratic constituency, useful only for supplying the occasional token black reactionary – this year the primary candidate, neurosurgeon Ben Carson – to prove that Republicans are not racist).

The role of anti- or at least non-Tea Party standard-bearer seemed at first to have devolved upon John Ellis Bush (acronymically, Jeb), who, before announcing his candidacy, had complained that the Grand Old Party no longer had room within it for more middle-of-the road Republicans in the tradition of his father, the first president Bush. But, in an electoral season marked by an upsurge of populism of the left and right, Jeb Bush’s family name and associations seem to hinder more than help. He is credited by his supporters with being the “more cerebral” of the two political Bush brothers – faint praise in the eyes of those who remember Bush the Second and value intelligence, and a positive liability for Tea Party types, who deeply suspect it.

Bush’s claims to moderation are hardly more persuasive than the testimonials to his intellect. He says there is no conclusive evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and enthusiastically supports hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and drilling for oil in coastal areas and federal lands. He favours the repeal of the president’s signature health insurance scheme (Obamacare). He supports a decrease in capital gains tax, opposes the recently passed Dodd-Frank law, which imposes minimal restrictions on financial speculation by banks, and is critical of the federal Consumer Protection Bureau, created on Obama’s initiative. He favours further restrictions on welfare spending, and wants to raise the retirement age from the current 66 to 68 or 70. He supports continued government collection of telephone data from private citizens in the name of “national security” and an increase in military spending.

However, the bar for moderation in today’s Republican Party being extremely low, a few personal details and qualifications to standard far-right positions are enough to earn him that description.

Bush is, by Republican standards, mild-mannered (or, as his rival, Donald Trump, would have it, “a low- energy guy”). He is married to a Mexican woman and speaks Spanish, sometimes in public, to the chagrin of fanatical nativists. While he does not favour granting citizenship status to most of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens now resident in the US, he would not deport them all either, but rather grant non-citizen legal status to some, so that they could continue to do the low-wage menial jobs they now perform. He would also give immigrant children who grow up in the US a path to citizenship. He opposes any national legislation legalising gay marriage, saying the question is better left to the individual states, and thinks that businesses should have the right to refuse their services to same-sex couples. He did say, however, that Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples despite a supreme court decision legalising gay marriage, should obey the law of the land. (By contrast, another Republican candidate, an ex-governor of Arkansas named Mike Huckabee, appeared at Davis’s side when she was released from prison, arguing that her jailing represented persecution for her religious conviction that homosexuals should be discriminated against.)

Bush opposes the Iran nuclear deal and would probably abrogate it unilaterally, but not tear it to pieces during his first day as president, as other Republican hopefuls have promised. He opposes abortion rights for women, and would cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a national non-profit organisation that provides services to pregnant women, including abortions. He boasts that he already ended state funding to this group as governor of Florida. Bush would, however, permit abortions where the life of the mother is endangered, instead of imposing an absolute ban and allowing pregnant women to die, as, for instance, Scott Walker, the union-busting governor of Wisconsin who just dropped out of the race, said he would do.

Transcendental egotism

If Bush is a moderate, readers are probably asking what an extremist looks like. As luck would have it, we have numerous flesh-and-blood examples in the other candidates. Foremost among them, with a 10% lead in the polls over all the others, is Donald Trump.

With a net worth estimated at $4 to $10 billion, built on the basis of a more modest real estate fortune inherited from his father, Trump appears never to have been hampered by problems of low self-esteem. His 58-storey headquarters in Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue is called Trump Tower (named not after his father, but himself); it has its name emblazoned across the front in shiny, metallic letters. His other commercial properties boast such names as Trump Plaza and Trump Hotels; his yacht (since sold) was christened Trump Princess, and his private jet is named Trump Shuttle. His enormous wealth has enabled him to branch out into other lines of business such as Trump Mortgage, Trump Restaurants, Trump Catering, Trump Vodka and the Donald Trump Signature Collection (of underwear). When queried as to his literary predilections, he named a 1987 work, The art of the deal, by Donald Trump, which chronicles his earlier business career, as his “favourite book of all time”.

As host of The apprentice, a TV reality show, Trump raised his public profile. On the programme, guests compete and grovel to rise through the ranks of his real-estate empire, as he eliminates them one by one by barking, “You’re fired!”, which soon became his signature line; (he even attempted at one point to copyright it).

Trump made political headlines four years ago, when he joined the ‘birthers’ in questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and added that, even if he was, the president may have been suppressing his birth certificate to conceal the fact that it listed him as a Muslim. He floated the idea of dispatching a special team of private investigators to Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii to look into the matter more closely. (Obama’s subsequent publication of the certificate has not allayed Trump’s scepticism concerning the president’s birthplace, as he recently told a television interviewer; and when a supporter expressed his opinion at a recent rally that Obama is a Muslim, Trump did not contradict him).

“Make America great again” is the slogan with which the real estate baron launched his presidential campaign. He promises singlehandedly to reverse the steady decline – brought on by none other than Barack Obama – of our once “great and respected” country. The first step in such a restoration of faded glory would apparently be to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants and build a wall (Trump reminds people of his edifice-constructing prowess) along the entire 1,954 miles of the US-Mexican border to keep new ones out. (In the second Republican candidates’ debate, a couple of Trump’s rivals cautiously questioned this plan on the basis of logistical feasibility). He would also deny citizenship to “anchor babies” – ie, the children of immigrants born in the US – despite the fact that citizenship rights are specifically conferred by the constitution upon everyone born here. Trump launched his campaign on June 16 by summarising what he sees as the problem:

The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best … They’re sending people who have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And I assume some are good people … It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all of South and Latin America … and probably from the Middle East … And it’s got to stop. It’s got to stop fast.

In August, Trump provided a practical demonstration of his proposed immigration policies when he had Jorge Ramos, a well known newscaster for the American Spanish language network, Univision, unceremoniously ejected from a news conference for supposedly speaking out of turn. Ramos was later readmitted. But as he was being led out, Trump ejaculated, “Go back to Univision!”

Trump has even managed to make an enemy of the country’s leading Republican propaganda machine, the Murdoch-owned Fox television news network. During the first candidates’ debate the Fox anchor, Megyn Kelly, perhaps doing the bidding of Republican higher-ups, questioned him concerning his attitude toward women, recalling that he had called those he dislikes “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”. Trump replied to the effect that the had no time for ‘political correctness’. Trump later attacked Kelly on television. He said she was a “lightweight”, and added that, on the night of the debate, ‘You could see the blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her – wherever.”

Of his only female rival, Carly Fiorina, the deposed CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Trump remarked: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”

When it comes to policy proposals, Trump comes up a trifle short, arguing mainly that his spectacular success in business attests to his ability as a supremely talented “deal maker”. He says he would be tough, not weak like Obama, on all of America’s international foes, especially China. He boasts of his ability to ‘get along’ with the leaders of other countries. He assures the public that as president he would assemble a “great team”, and that he and his fellow Americans would soon see “victories coming out of our ears”.

The Trump phenomenon was at first dismissed as a flash in the pan. But the durability of his lead in the polls is now causing many Republican hierarchs to worry that it may be at least a more prolonged flash. They hate Trump not only because he stands outside conventional party politics, but also because they know from 2012 that, unlike in past decades, the GOP can never win an election by capturing a majority of the white male vote alone, and desperately needs to broaden its base. They therefore conclude that insulting the country’s fastest growing minority group (Hispanics) and the females who make up over half the electorate may leave something to be desired as a winning strategy for 2016. Effigies of Trump and piñatas bearing his image now abound among Mexicans on both sides of the US-Mexican border. Carly Fiorina got a boost in the polls in the second candidates’ debate when, responding to Trump’s remarks about her face, she replied: “I think women all over the country heard very clearly what Mr Trump said.”

Base instincts, big bucks

Anyone still puzzled about the sources of Trump’s appeal should remember a principal trait he shares with all fascistic demagogues: the willingness to proclaim from the rooftops the benighted fears and hatreds that many followers can only bring themselves to mutter under their breath. He thus assures them that he is one of them, and amplifies their basest instincts with a billion-dollar megaphone.

Trump’s Republican rivals, who must also gain the support of the party rank-and-file to win the nomination, have little to offer but a more qualified, slightly shamefaced version of many of Trump’s provocations. In almost the same breath as Carly Fiorina waxed indignant at Trump’s attitude toward women, she repeated the rightwing canard that Planned Parenthood traffics in the bodily parts of late-term aborted foetuses. And the single black Republican contender, Dr Ben Carson, recently caused a minor flap when he implied that a Muslim should not be allowed to become president, despite an explicit constitutional ban on any religious test for office.

Carson and Fiorina are, in that order, the two most popular primary candidates after Trump, but they lack Trump’s swagger, and are still perceived, along with the other candidates, as speaking in the homilies and bromides of professional politicians, while Trump is tossing the voters red meat. Agonise as they will over the shipwreck of a presidential run by this venom-spewing megalomaniac, the party establishment has yet to confect a formula – or find a candidate – to counter his popularity. The inordinate length of American presidential campaigns, however – the election is still more than a year away – gives them time to find an anti-Trump.

Trump also has this in common with other right-populist demagogues: he expresses, in his own distorted way, the resentment of the middle classes for those above them economically, a resentment that has grown since the crisis of 2007-08. Remarkably understated in this Republican contest is the aspirational, free-market rhetoric that was the centrepiece of Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid, and has always featured prominently on party hustings. The foremost proponent of laissez faire, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, has gained no traction in the polls whatsoever. Even white reactionaries seem dimly aware that the vaunted upward mobility of Americans is not what it used to be. They may place the principal blame for this state of affairs on immigrants, but a little of their anger spills over onto the ruling class.

Baier: You’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, and Nancy Pelosi [minority leader in the House of Representatives]. You explained away those donations, saying you did that to get business-related favours. And you said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do”.

Trump: You’d better believe it …. I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago. I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that’s a broken system ….

Baier: Hold on … we’re going to – we’re going to move on.

There are certain things that all professional bourgeois politicians know must never be said. By letting whatever thoughts pop into his head come out of his mouth, Donald Trump is assuring his angry middle class supporters that, although he may not be one of them, he is no venal politician; he is his own man, and one, moreover, who can buy and sell politicians by the dozen. His de-emphasis of traditional American free-enterprise worship in favour of immigrant-bashing and chauvinism, together with a hint of anti-plutocratic posturing, puts him closer to the European right of the Berlusconi, Ukip and Front Nationalstripe, than to the fulsomely invoked legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Nor is the Trump phenomenon the only symptom of turmoil within the traditional party of big business. As these lines are being written, the news has just broken that John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives and faithful corporate hack, has announced his resignation. He is stepping down next month out of dread of another bitter fight over the funding of the federal government, like the one that resulted in a temporary government shutdown in the autumn of 2013 (see ‘An enraged Frankenstein’s monster’ Weekly Worker October 24 2013). This time the Republicans are threatening to close Washington down unless Congress agrees to defund Planned Parenthood. The rightwing insurgency against the party leadership proceeds apace.

But, as in Europe, political disaffection is not limited to the right. There is a parallel insurgency brewing amongst the Democratic ranks in the form of the challenge being mounted by Bernie Sanders of Vermont to the anointed of that party, Hillary Clinton. A future article will examine developments within the Democrats’ divided house.

Jim Creegan is a veteran US Marxist activist; his article is reprinted from the October 1 issue of the British Weekly Worker; here.