In the last months, the attempts to grasp the ascendency of Trump has led to a wave of multiple competing interpretations of what’s happening in the American and global political landscape. Some see the new administration as a potential emergence of fascism that can only be stopped with mass opposition and mobilization. This is probably the most facile characterization. Trump is not a fascist, and his administration does not equal the rise of fascism, even though there are some among his followers who are pushing in that direction. Fascism does not just emerge because there is a small but powerful group of racists, even if some of those have positions of power.
For Fascism to emerge, we need to observe very definite trends that are actually operating in politics rather than examining the “intentions” of white supremacists. Some of those trends include: the suppression of civil society as well as the legislative and judicial powers, effective censorship of the media, total mobilization of society for nationalistic and war purposes, actual physical persecution of minorities, etc. Although Trump has expressed willingness to go in the direction of some of these trends, effectively he has not been powerful enough to do so. The last Executive Order banning foreign nationals from seven Muslim majority countries constitutes a good example. As resolute as the EO seemed, it was halted almost immediately and it has led to a widespread backlash rather than success. Liberals have focused on Trump’s attack of the judiciary, hyperventilating about how he talks about a Bush-designated judge as a “so-called” judge. The liberal press constantly provides examples of how the Trump administration could not care less about the judiciary, but most of the examples are just rhetorical. At this point, it is not clear if Trump really intends to go over the judiciary, or if his rhetoric is bluffing meant to show his constituency that he will deliver electoral promises.
After all, Trump has a serious problem: even though he has been elected by voters whose most important expectation is economic improvement, the chances that he can deliver such improvement for them are slim. For years, the American economy has been adrift, growing in slow motion, and most indicators seem to suggest that the entire world is set to experience a long period of slow growth punctuated by crisis. In a context where Trump’s chances of providing more and better jobs for Americans are severely limited, it is possible that he will try to shift public attention towards xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric, attacking Muslims, Latino immigrants, women, and LGBT people. Most polls show that his voters did not vote him for that reason, but pursuing that kind of rhetoric is the easiest course of action for Trump at this point.
By talking about rhetoric, I do not mean to say that Trump is not interested in actually pursuing xenophobic and nationalists policies. He might be, but does that really matter? Why are we going to constantly speculate what motives drive Trump? It is not his intentions that shape society. There are many limitations to his power, and I am not merely referring to the judiciary. Judges will probably be very active against him in what promises to be a very litigious historical moment. It is even possible that the GOP could split in both chambers of congress and start opposing Trump, although that is less likely. However, the most important source of opposition to Trump will probably not come from politics but, instead, from corporations.
Some of the most restrictive xenophobic policies proposed by Trump could severely affect entire sectors of the economy. A deportation of all undocumented immigrants would lead to the immediate collapse of agriculture in California, one of the breadbaskets of the nation. Even though this is a very small portion of the overall economic output in the US, it is a crucial one, as it could transform the US into a food importer. This could not only lead to a larger economic disaster, it would be politically unpalatable for the very same people who wanted to expel immigrants. The IT industries constitute another sector that would be severely affected by a consequent implementation of Trump’s policies that is not limited to bluffing but, instead, takes his electoral promises to the last logical extent. If Trump were to limit H1B visas, it could destabilize Silicon Valley and the whole system of outsourcing services to India that has made so many American corporations globally competitive. A 35% rise in tariffs on Mexican imports, another of the measures promised by Trump, would create a degree of inflation significant enough to negatively affect his constituency, drop his rate of approval to below zero, and create a political and social chaos. Moreover, the fate of majority republican states like Texas is directly tied to NAFTA. If NAFTA as we know it today comes to an end, Houston would become another Detroit.
In summary, most of the changes proposed by Trump are highly unlikely to ever be implemented. Even the wall with its twenty billion budget may never actually happen. The legislative and judicial powers may be too weak to stop Trump, but economic and social reality makes some of the proposed policies just unfeasible in the short run. Framing the issue in a psychoanalytic way, there is a gap between the principle of reality and Trump’s pleasure principle. That is assuming Trump really wants to enact his policies rather than using them to gain legitimacy and distract from other issues. We could conclude that Trump is not aware of the potential devastation his policies would ensue, but such conclusion would be quite naïve. To an extent, Trump is ignorant, uncultivated, insensitive enough to enjoy his own bravado. But that does not mean he is oblivious to reality as many argue. Trump is a businessman who has been capable of navigating some of the most competitive real state markets, surviving bankruptcy, and winning an election that nobody expected him to win, even though he had the entire mass media against him. Also, are there many other examples of someone who has become president against the will of his entire party? I am not saying we must believe Trump’s own self-representation as the smartest guy ever. That’s clearly an act for his voters, and it is even likely that he is highly insecure, especially about his tiny hands. But he is not oblivious to reality. This is not a man who cannot tell what the consequences of a 35% tariff would be on the American economy.
So, how are we to read his politics during the first months of his administration?
We must wait. Yes, we need to wait before we come up with some characterization of a reality that is still highly volatile and in the making. Most people today tend to assume that we are at a crossroads, a historical turning point. The issue would be to define exactly what kind of mega change is about to happen rather than have any doubt that it will. Unfortunately, nobody considers the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there will be very little and gradual change.
The political dynamic of the last four decades has been marked by two major elements. On one hand the collapse of any anti-capitalist alternative after the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the complete disappearance of the internationalist radical left from the political landscape. On the other hand, a world economy that is for the most part marked by slow growth. Such slow growth has important exceptions in some of the less developed areas of the world, to the extent that entire regions like China seem to be gradually occupying the center of the global economy. However, throughout the European Union, North America, and Japan, slow growth has stubbornly stuck for long. This is important to note because slow growth has transformed formerly prosperous large areas of the first world into wastelands (Detroit is one of the best examples). In those wastelands, a growingly angry political constituency expects their nation state to do something about it, to drive them back to the mid-twentieth century prosperity. Such demand, however, often echoes without finding any response and ends up lost in a void. Only the left could offer an alternative, but most of the left is concentrated on how to politically correctly labeling people and it has abandoned all attention to issues like poverty, social class, and deep transformation of the social structure. Capitalism was always characterized by uneven development allowing some areas to boom whereas other regions decline. Slow growth, however, accentuates such tendency, especially in a context where globalization deepens at very accelerated rates. Nationalist responses to this trend are bound to occur.
The question is: do nationalist responses have enough strength to effect the kind of change that happened in the 1930s? That is, can globalization be halted, world trade eroded, financial flows stopped, and the ever growing search of capital for new regions with even lower wages come to an end? I seriously doubt it.
When confronted with this phenomenon, most nationalist trends will hit a wall. That’s what happened in the past. The degree of opposition from markets and corporations would be such that nation states would have to become full blown dictatorships to achieve a nationalist split from global trade. Of course, that is exactly what happened in the 1930s, but some of the crucial factors that led to such result at that time are absent today. The first element that I want to consider to illuminate this issue is the economy. In the 1930s the global economy suffered an utter and irreversible collapse, so inward national development made a lot more sense. That has not happened in the last decades.
Capitalists have learned from the 1930s crisis. Their experience tells them that they cannot allow the total collapse of the economy. Instead, the nation states intervene to prevent a domino effect that would create a crisis of such depth. The mass infusion of capital into the global financial system after the 2008 crisis is an example of this. At the expense of growing national debts to dangerous levels, the US, Europe, and Japan prevented the domino bankruptcy that made the global economy collapse in the 1930s. This is not new. Most developed countries have been doing this since the early 1970s when the first major global economic disruption took place after decades of booming postwar economic growth. Since then, every single potential crisis has been stopped with the exact same method.
As the economic crisis never reaches a degree that could make the decline of global trade possible, the material context for the actual implementation of economic nationalist policies is severely limited. Yet, instead of examining the actual possibilities of nationalism and xenophobia in terms of the material context where it can thrive, most analysts focus on exploring the obscure motives of elected figures like Trump. It is in the psychology of Trump, we are told, that the potential for fascism resides. Any materialist analysis knows that this is nothing but wishful thinking. Or should we call it doomful thinking?
Some argue that it is not possible to save the economy forever. At some point, the attempt to infuse money to stop a wave of bankruptcies from creating domino effects may fail. Or national debts may become too big to sustain. The truth is, however, that nobody knows where the breaking point is, and for all predictions of final collapse in the previous decades, what has always happened is quite boring. Rather than ending up in a crisis that takes us to the deep end, the world is once again redirected into dull long-term slow growth. We have lived through this cycle many times already, and slow growth is so mind-numbing that it’s probably more exciting to predict the coming of a leader that will destroy everything. This is exactly what Trump voters thought when they voted him: he might not bring the change we would like, but he’ll “shake things up.” And this is exactly what liberals think when they demonize Trump. It is unavoidable to see a certain degree of enjoyment in claiming that Trump will destroy the world as we know it. That joy is nothing but the ludic desire that disaster maybe better than boredom. It’s better to think we live in the end of times than it is to think we live in an uninteresting age.
If not economic, the collapse maybe political, others have speculated. At some point the Detroits of the world will refuse to put up with constant decline. So far, however, the miserable areas that were formerly industrialized and are now hosting large impoverished populations have been effectively distracted with decades of “cultural wars.” Instead of jobs, the constituency from these areas has been promised nationalism, an end to abortion, anti-gay politics, etc. Occasionally, however, conservative politics searching for alternative targets are unable to contain the discontent. And then a new phenomenon emerges, like Brexit, like Trump. But this is not new, it has happened before. It has taken place in a variety of ways, with Berlusconi in Italy since the 1990s, Populist Neoliberalism in Latin America during the same period, Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. These are all very different movements, but politically they have all displayed rhetoric to deflect the anger created by globalization and slow growth with a conservative agenda. Every time such conservative agenda has popped up with some renewed strength we have yelled that the world is over.
Every time the anger created by slow growth gives place to a turn to the right, there is hyperventilating analysis interpreting the moment as the most significant turning point of the century that will most likely lead to a total disaster that everyone will come to regret. Obviously, a few years later everyone forgets the catastrophic predictions and we are all back to long-term slow growth with generalized political apathy and no significant political change. Thatcher’s Britain did not become more family oriented and did not embrace the traditional values she praised so highly. Britain went in exactly the opposite direction in just a few decades. In fact, it did not even work at the time. What do we remember from Thatcher’s Britain in terms of pop culture: strengthening “traditional” family life or Frankie Goes to Hollywood telling us to Relax and prolong orgasms for as long as we can?
In fact, as much as conservatives constantly relaunch cultural wars, over and over they lose many of them. Remember same-sex marriage? What conservative movement is even interested in seriously opposing it? The only exception to this trend might be abortion in the US. That is probably the only example where conservatives have legally been able to limit abortion to levels that we would not have imagined twenty years ago. In most other cases, conservatives have lost the war that they continue to displace into yet new arenas. Now they are not interested in same-sex marriage anymore. They have come to accept it as the new normal. Instead, now conservatives want to make sure that transsexual people do not enter their public bathrooms. Or that they have the right not to bake us a cake. Let’s remember that in the 1970s they were campaigning to fire all gay teachers in the US. Conservatives have come a long way, now that we gay men can marry, adopt, and teach classes to their children, they insist that they won’t bake us a cake for our wedding. I’m not trying to convince anyone that we live in a Panglossian world. Millions of immigrants have been deported from the US in the last decades, only to name an example. But it should be noted that when conservative trends have happened, it has always been due to the collaboration of Democratic administrations. Immigration was not an element of the cultural war, the attack against “illegal” immigration was bipartisan.
But going back to our topic, I think we should put Trump into perspective by placing him in a long term context, and by comparing him with all the other times we hyperventilated about the impending collapse of the world. We need to get away from that framework of mind. The idea that the end of the world is near is imbedded in our deepest fantasies today. There is no single sci fi movie or TV show today that fails to present some new version of a world destroyed by humans. The idea that the future is doomed has become widely accepted. However, this is due to our incapacity to shape social processes rather than being the result of terrible events. In the last decades, the world has become better for a lot of people. Again, not to paint a rosy picture, but billions of humans have become wealthier, healthier, live longer lives. Many of us throughout the world live better than our parents, not worse. And yet, we all imagine a terrible future. The reason for this is that the improvement in our lives is drastically insufficient when compared with what an alternative reality could offer. Life today is shaped by increasing reification: most social processes are increasingly more alien to us, they appear as objective realities over which we have no control at all. The actions of millions of us become a separate reality that governs us like The Matrix, and we are just the batteries. In that context, everything for us becomes a symptom revealing the coming end of the world. And it is within that framework that we think about Trump.
I am not denying that there is potential for the worst. A 1930s-deep economic crisis is not impossible. The crumbling of the European Union and the rise of interstate conflicts could happen. Tensions between Japan and China, India and Pakistan, and the popping up of dozens of failed states throughout Africa and the Middle East could also contribute to create a global disaster. A global xenophobic, nationalist, populist movement of right wing parties could come to control larger swaths of the world, deepening what we have already witnessed in Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey. Moreover, these negative trends could become weaved together in a feedback loop with a crazy Trump administration. I don’t deny that all of that is possible. The end of the world now is possible.
However, the most likely scenario is that life will continue and become more toiling and boring. Trump will continue to yell nationalist rhetoric while not significantly affecting NAFTA. Brexit could be kept only in name while Britain remains in the European Union for all practical purposes. Things will get worse, no doubt, but more in a gradual way rather than in the form of a disaster. Like… a bit worse than before, similar to what we have been witnessing for a very long time: increasing inequality, stronger political apathy among the majority of the population, slow growth providing a terrible fate for millions in some areas, more of us working for longer hours in menial jobs that machines could do, etc. The way to challenge the long-term dullness, however, may not come through predicting total doom. Instead, we need to gradually bring light and understanding to hundreds of millions of people who are buried in the most superficial political debates and who are unable to grasp the most basic elements of political and economic reality today. We need to get them out of boredom with a good dose of political analysis that triggers their creativity and encourages them to imagine a new world.
Let’s face it, claiming that Trump will bring the end of the world may just be a way to spice up our boring economic and political reality. Like when you watch a thriller. But we don’t need such delusion. After all, when the thriller movie ends, life goes on to the full extent of its boredom. The challenge of our time is to bring the complex understanding of the global logic of capital to the mass of billions of humans. Only mass understanding of the logic of capital will create a political alternative, one that we may not even able to imagine today. It is our incapacity to imagine that possible transformation that sometimes leads us to feel powerlessness and to conclude that the end of the world is near, just so that our age escapes the tedium that overwhelms us.