Trump and National Neoliberalism, Revisited

BY SASHA BREGER-BUSH | January/February 2018

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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This article is from the January/February 2018 issue.

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Last winter, in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote an article for Dollars & Sense in which I argued that Trump’s election represented a transition toward “national neoliberalism” in the United States (“Trump and National Neoliberalism: Trump’s ascendance means the end of globalism—but not of neoliberalism,” January/February 2017).

I argued that this emergent state of affairs would be marked by a completion of the takeover of the U.S. government by corporate interests. I saw the election of Trump—a top one-percenter and real estate tycoon firmly rooted in the culture and logic of big business, who has somehow convinced many Americans that he is an anti-establishment “outsider”—as an “unmasking” of the corporate state, a revelation of the ongoing merger between state and market that has arguably been ongoing since the 1970s. In short, I envisioned a movement away from “global neoliberalism,” a state of affairs characterized by the increasing preeminence of transnational corporate capital in a relatively open global political-economic system, and towards “national neoliberalism,” a state of affairs in which transnational corporate dominance is cemented in the context of an ever more fragmented and dangerous global system.

About ten years ago, political theorist Sheldon Wolin published Democracy Incorporated, diagnosing American democracy with a potentially fatal corporate disease. Referring to the specter of “inverted totalitarianism,” Wolin writes in his preface:

Primarily it represents the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry. Unlike the classic forms of totalitarianism [e.g. Germany, Italy], which openly boasted of their intentions to force their societies into preconceived totality, inverted totalitarianism is not expressly conceptualized as an ideology or objectified in public policy. Typically it is furthered by power-holders and citizens who often seem unaware of the deeper consequences of their actions or inactions. There is a certain heedlessness, an inability to take seriously the extent to which a pattern of consequences may take shape without having been preconceived. Wolin paints a picture of a gradual process of change in which many different actors, some wealthy and powerful and others not, unwittingly push the country’s politics, bit by bit in piecemeal fashion, towards an undemocratic, corporate-controlled end. Many of these actors may have good intentions. Many of them may see themselves as champions of the people. Many of them may actually speak out against the very interests that they in other ways empower.

This framework for thinking about the plight of the United States, which has for me been legitimated over and over again during Trump’s first year in office, conditions how I think about President Trump and the Republican Party, and how I think about our opportunities for nonviolent social transformation, freedom, and social justice. It’s hard not to point to President Trump and blame him for our problems. He is a bigot who has struck out at immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, African-Americans, Mexicans, women, LGBT people, and disabled people. He lacks the basic knowledge of politics and foreign policy that are a necessary condition for competent leadership. He picked up a congratulatory call from the President of Taiwan in December 2016, disrupting relations with China, and called North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “short” and “fat.” He is a paranoid and narcissistic demagogue who has scorned and marginalized journalists, and made the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” household words. He is a corrupt businessman who is using the levers of power that he controls to enrich Big Business, as well as his cronies, his friends, and himself. I could go on.

It’s also hard not to point to Republicans in Congress. After the election, there was hope that the “never Trump” Republicans would win out and that Trump’s agenda would be blocked. This has not happened. While some in Congress, like Senators McCain (R-Ariz.), Corker (R-Tenn.), Collins (R-Maine), Flake (R-Ariz.) and Murkowski (R-Alaska) have defied Trump in certain contexts (e.g. on foreign policy), on many issues congressional Republicans have simply fallen in line (e.g. with tax reform). Today, the Republican Party is often discussed by liberals in the same breath as Trump, with everyone hoping for good news in 2018 and 2020.

But if we take seriously the idea that Trump is a consequence of the disintegration of American democracy rather than the cause of it, this “blame game” becomes especially problematic. Partisan bickering, with one party constantly pointing to the other as responsible for the country’s ills, covers up the fact that Democrats and Republicans alike have presided over the consolidation of corporate power in the United States. To paraphrase Ralph Nader, the U.S. corporate state is a two-headed beast. Sure, President Trump and the Republican Party are currently handing over public lands to oil and gas companies, eliminating net neutrality, introducing pro-corporate tax legislation, kowtowing to the military industrial complex, defunding the welfare state, and attempting to privatize education and deregulate finance. But let’s not forget our recent Democratic presidents, for example, who are also guilty of empowering and enriching big business and disempowering and impoverishing ordinary Americans.

President Obama presided over the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a process that President Trump is continuing. As William Hartung recently reported in Mother Jones, “There is, in fact, a dirty little secret behind the massive U.S. arsenal: It has more to do with the power and profits of weapons makers than it does with any imaginable strategic considerations.” President Obama also helped corporations get richer and more powerful in other ways. He negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal that, if Trump had not withdrawn us, would have expanded U.S. corporate access to overseas markets and given multinational corporates new policy leverage over governments (via investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms). (See Robin Brand, “Remembering the ‘Tokyo No’,” Dollars & Sense, January/February 2015.) In 2012, as he was running for his second term, Obama proposed a reduction in the corporate tax rate to 28%, not much different from the bill just passed by Congress. He also lobbied Congress for the $700 billion Wall Street bailouts after the Great Recession, continuing on the policy path set by his Republican predecessor, President Bush. (Obama received huge campaign contributions from finance, insurance, and real estate.) In terms of income inequality, CNBC had to reluctantly conclude that the gap widened under Obama, in spite of all his powerful rhetoric about equity and equality.

President Clinton negotiated and signed NAFTA into law, a trade agreement that created hardship for millions of American manufacturing workers and farmers, and generated large profits for multinational industrial and agricultural corporations. Clinton also pushed for welfare reform, signing into law a “workfare” system that required recipients to meet strict job and employment related conditions. Millions of people became ineligible for payments under the new system, and poverty increased especially among households in which members were long-term unemployed. Clinton’s 1997 tax proposal advocated cutting estate taxes and capital gains taxes, and did not favor lower-income Americans. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted, “Analyses by the Treasury Department indicate that when fully in effect, the Clinton plan would give the 20 percent of Americans with the highest incomes about the same amount in tax cuts as the bottom 60 percent combined. This is an unusual characteristic for a tax plan proposed by a Democratic President.”

All of this is to say that I’m considerably less excited about 2018 and 2020 than many others—on what counts as the U.S. left—appear to be. Democratic Party victories at the ballot box would certainly reduce some of the pressures on a variety of marginalized groups who are suffering mightily under President Trump. This is, of course, a good thing. But, Democratic victories will not “fix” the structural problems that underpin our current political crisis nor will they ensure a freer and more just future.

I plan to support third-party candidates at the ballot box in coming years, in the hopes of contributing to the creation of a new kind of political infrastructure that can help us to unmake the corporate state.

is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado–Denver.

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