Much has rightly been made of how the US Election, like Brexit before it, represents a devastating rebuke of the status quo. Most famously, Michael Moore predicted the improbable vote “to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history”. The causes of this twin repudiation have been similarly attributed by Naomi Klein, Gleen Greenwald, George Monbiot, and Cornell West, among others, to its primary driving force, neoliberalism, whose tentacles and tendencies are well known: large-scale privatization, the dismantling of the social safety net, the defeat of labor unions, financial deregulation, globalization, free trade, debt austerity programming, the offshoring of manufacturing, and the automation of labor, processes generally traced back to the late 1970s, when the post-war welfare state began to crack. The 2016 election shocks are taken to signal the failure of this economic and political configuration, and for good reason: how else to explain this pair of catastrophic results and their undeniable rejection of the present economic and political order? But perhaps they are not results at all. Perhaps they are merely a stage in the next phase of the development of neoliberalism, a stage which in the American context can be called Trumpism. In this way, we can read the appearance of Trumpism (while leaving out Brexit and other looming disasters for the moment) not as the failed outcome of neoliberalism, but, perversely, as a symptom of its developmental “success.”
What is Trumpism? Here is a provisional formula:
Trumpism = Neoliberalism³ + Neoconservatism + Neofascism
What the Trump campaign has accomplished the American Right could hitherto only dream of: it has paradoxically channeled a wave of reactionary resentment towards the status quo into the service of neoliberalism, its chief source. That’s right: some of the primary victims of neoliberalism, working and middle class alike, have freely chosen to install someone as the head of government who will now accelerate the very processes driving their pauperization. Not that he himself will intend to, of course. His searing intellectual and ethical ineptitude makes him an extremely valuable asset to the parties who have managed to be within his earshot. The Right will perceive in him a far more accessible and manipulable version of the “useful idiot” that Putin could appreciate from afar. Trump the Empty Vessel, Trump the Tabula Rasa, call him what you will. He will now be filled and inscribed with proposals, policies, and programs by the neoliberal extremists and free-market fundamentalists now salivating around him, while Cheney-type neoconservatives and neofascists (at this moment a loose confederation of Christian theocrats, alt-right frogs, Islamophobes, militias, and racial supremacists) wait eagerly in wings. (Mirroring his business career, the Empty Vessel’s limited personal attention will by contrast focus merely on settling personal scores, seeking adoration, enriching himself, and taking credit). It took the stock markets only a few hours, after a few nervy jitters, to realize this on the morning of Day One, while the Republican Party was able to come around to the new arrangement by mid-afternoon Day Two. The fascists, eternally awaiting their bonafide organ, have gleefully celebrated it from Zero Hour. In short, their emerging alignment revolves around compatible and now interlocked desires for economic, foreign, and social domination. While neoliberalism prime may have exhausted itself, with these two groups of unsavory bedfellows now in the mix, it is newly possible to foresee its debauched reinvigoration.
One way of envisioning this new configuration would be to consider how that of the wild extemporaneous campaign promises, nearly none will come true. Fiscal conservative worries will fade: “rebuild our infrastructure” will be a ruse for large-scale infrastructure privatization and sell-offs of federal assets; social security and medicare will be “improved” and “modernized” by innovative privatization measures; “terrible” trade deals will be slightly altered and repackaged as “excellent”; and manufacturing jobs will not magically reappear. And the Trump brand will pass all these off as making the homeland great again, while poverty and inequality stubbornly grow. Meanwhile, neoconservative ideology will experience a Renaissance, since nothing cures local misery more than a show of international strength (defense industry stocks have already jumped). And now, frighteningly, the neofascists are on the main stage as well, including with a prominent seat in the White House, ready to impose their vision of “national unity” in support of future foreign interventions, to spread disinformation from the powerful media ventures they control, to foment racial violence as a strategic tool for social fragmentation, and, worst of all, to encourage the abuse of the national security apparatus to achieve those ends. There is further danger that fascination with Celebrity Trump will distract attention away from the nefarious operations of Trumpism.
Since Trumpism is a further stage in the development of neoliberalism, it will absolutely cause untold damage to millions of people. It will also, at some point, fail spectacularly. What happens after that failure appears at this juncture still unknowable: it is possible the Trumpists could double down and resort to harsher measures of control, or that an even worse iteration of neoliberalism, with the fascists in the lead role, could emerge in its stead. But that future can also be determined by those who resist falling under its present sway, provided they are militant, articulate, and organized.
It is therefore time to militate against the political nightmare already begun; to articulate critical descriptions of events as they unfold and outline alternative programs for what must be done; and to organize meetings, networks, demonstrations, local campaigns and other political expressions of public dissent. Most crucially, it is necessary to formulate a positive alternative politics that refuses to accept enforced inequality as a natural given. Thankfully, some of these efforts are already and urgently underway, while the campaign of Bernie Sanders has demonstrated both their appeal and an opportunity for future success. Nevertheless, since Trumpism will be a three-headed monster with a fear that its tenure is not yet guaranteed and with enormous human, political, media, military, and ideological capital at its disposal to see that it might be, these efforts will all need to be done much more rapidly and on a much greater scale than oppositional movements have recently been accustomed to. Here below, in no particular order, are some of the fronts the new Trumpism will open up, and which an organized popular opposition will likely need to confront. This hasty tabulation is meant to be diagnostic and practical, not predictive, and it is by definition incomplete.
Torn up trade agreements, tariffs on Chinese imports, factories reopened? Not so fast. With Wall St. and the big corporations lined up for big-league tax breaks, massive deregulation, and large-scale privatization, there is little it won’t do to prevent the Tabula Rasa from following through on his hollow protectionist campaign vows. The brouhaha of campaign rhetoric will give way to a hushed deescalation of trade tensions and the creation of several “fantastic new deals,” such as a rebranded TPP, which will be sold to the working class as a significant improvement on the “terrible” one previously negotiated in secret. And the factories simply won’t be coming back. This is not the end of neoliberalism but a dramatic, coked-up acceleration of it.
As ever, when given massive tax breaks the corporations and the wealthy will generally keep the windfalls for themselves. If that surplus actually is refinanced under Trumpism, it will not be spent on opening brigades of new branches, plants, or labs but rather invested in further workplace automation. That means great advancement in drone, driverless car, and robotic technology, but also catastrophic job loss across a variety of industries. Take trucking, one of the last bastions of secure and well-compensated blue-collar employment, no college degree required. When legions of cheaper and more efficient driverless eighteen wheelers begin to be rolled out in the next half decade, the misery inflicted on Rust-Belt manufacturing will befall a nationwide class of truck drivers who will be similarly left to fend for themselves.
Trumpism might give to neoliberalism the populist jolt of strength it needs to overcome the recent global consensus on limiting greenhouse emissions and temperature rise. Expect the dismantling of regulations inhibiting the fossil-fuel industry to be fast and furious: the tearing up of climate agreements, the opening up of protected lands for gas and development, and the near complete abandonment of ecological oversight. In terms of environmental care, neoliberalism, it has long been known, entails little more than a mania for excavation and emission in the name of short-term riches, with the consequences outsourced to impoverished governments, defenseless local populations, and future generations. The underfed tiger will soon be out of the cage.
Trumpism will likewise remove whichever safeguards inhibiting the accumulation of medical profit it can. Whichever damning privatization proposals the neoliberals end up rebranding as Trumpism, health insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and hospital corporations will boost their profit margins by squeezing working people dry. The criminal peddling of opioids will likely continue unpunished while a new fleet of private prisons, providing a rare source of reliable employment, will fill their coffers with the addicted. Left unchecked, all of this will impose further hardship on working and middle class families, whose plight will be intensified rather than eased. In such a moldering petri dish, fascist cells will thrive.
You thought they were dead, but here they are, back with a vengeance. The individuals taking up posts in the foreign policy wing of the coming administration will be drawn from the dregs of the Cheney school of brutalist interventionism, the more moderate neoconservatives from the Bush school shut out from this glorious window of opportunity. A mindless and overwhelmed president will quickly succumb to a deliberate flood of national security proposals and programs designed to maximize the flexing of American power in the worst possible ways, with far more potent military, surveillance, and legal tools available than ever before.
Here’s where the worst of the neocons and the worst of the neoliberals have always scratched each other’s back. The neocon itch for war provides a convenient vent for the surplus capital produced by neoliberalism, because it allows for the private capture of additional natural resources (“We should have taken the oil!” goes the dream) and the creation of new markets. This can be churned into yet further financialized surplus, while inequality swells and abundant soldiers are available for service from the now permanent class of the underemployed. Enter the neocons to perform their duty, preach their manichean gospel, and whip the populace into a sufficiently lukewarm frenzy to keep the whole operation running.
The free-market renders all goods, values, and labor interchangeable. This range of exchangeability now includes opinions, information, and facts, as the Trumpean subject sits at their keyboard, on the alert, ready to attack or defend, carving out their limited zone of discourse in a “post-truth” world of constant informational fluctuation. The further erosion of language and of critical discernment this entails (“He can’t be an anti-semite, he supports Israel!”) will function both as an authoritarian tool to suppress dissent and as a marker for the total hegemony of neoliberal liquidity. When driven by profit targets, click value inherently supersedes informational value. As a consequence, the free circulation of equivocatory language and clever falsehoods drugs up political and social reality into utter confusion, thus inhibiting the urgent task to plot a clear oppositional course.
Our corporate media institutions will hardly fare any better. They, particularly the televisual variety, have already long since lost their ability to mediate reality and present truth. They are in fact driven by the same motive as the neoliberal subject— to draw attention, consolidate, and earn profit. This will actually render many media institutions quite accommodating to the coming Trumpist reality, since their tripartite craving will be satiated rather than frustrated by it. They will therefore be only of minimal use, at best, when it comes to confronting Trumpism.
The ideology of the free market presents a world in which individual subjects are locked in a struggle for competitive survival and promotion. Not only does a National Right to Carry initiative, making its way into public discourse from the outer fringes of reason, unlock additional markets to an eager and aggressive arms industry (which will now need a new means of stimulating demand), further consolidating its political power. On a deeper level, the violence latent in this worldview is made literal when the individual, trained to compete, acquire, and defend, is impelled to own and openly carry a licensed firearm.
In our fraught American history, the wealthy have always benefited when the lower and middle classes clash with one another. The Ryan budget will slap a half million families, mostly Black or Latino, from poverty to extreme poverty. Resentment between the white working class and the black working class will increase as they too are both nudged further along into poverty, increasing and racializing crime rates. Meanwhile, the white middle class will become yet more protective of their increasingly limited privileges, their frustrations and fears more likely directed down than up. This situation will be ripe for violence. Local budgets squeezed but federal surplus military gear ample, police departments will decrease pay and hiring standards, filling their ranks with angrier and less qualified officers. Not quite approaching the supremacist death fantasy of a so-called “race war,” racial, ethnic, and religious tensions and violence will nevertheless flare, a sign not of the failure of Trumpist neoliberalism, but of its fragile “success.” Elements within the neofascist confederation, awash in weaponry, will provoke and deepen such regional conflicts, attempting to prevent the emergence of a broader movement for socio-economic justice.
The fact that a Christian Supremacist is now de facto in charge of White House domestic policy presents a clear and present danger to LGBTQ and reproductive rights. Vicious, personal, and painful battles will be re-opened on both these fronts. These skirmishes, similar to those just above, will be used to drive a further wedge between the socially conservative disenfranchised white working class and liberal elites, a coalition that will otherwise need to coalesce in order to defeat Trumpism in the years ahead. We must not let these divisions take root.
It is more possible now to appreciate how the echo-chambers social media provide create dangerous misconceptions of reality for insular groups of the like-minded. More than that, we must accept that as political and organizational tools they are limited in their effectiveness. It is only in the unexpectedness of a direct encounter with an Other that a true political conversation, let alone conversion, can actually take place. The unknowable outcome of such encounters means there is an unavoidable element of risk in them, and this requires courage to overcome. It is worth fostering this courage, however, because these are the moments in which political change can absolutely occur: there are no lobbyists, super pacs, or fake news sites there to prevent it, since these encounters are by definition beyond their reach. In Egypt, it was only when the authorities, in their panic, shut off the internet that people could actually come together: not in the lonely luminescence of cyberspace but in the uncertain darkness of the streets, encountering one another, seeing in the face of an Other a true equal, and possibly a friend.