Perhaps what is most puzzling about the Donald Trump presidency is why US policymakers – those who really run the country – allowed him to take the election when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by an indisputable margin. That is not to endorse Clinton’s candidacy as preferable to Trump because her actual policies contradict her populist rhetoric. But, of the two candidates, she was more experienced and would have better maintained the image of presidential dignity. His uncontrollable vulgarities and loathsome social hatreds for women, blacks, Latinos, and disabled are beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, let alone the allowable parameters for US presidents. He has compromised the albeit false dignity and authority of the office needed to portray US power to the world. The face of US power now resembles the face of a clown.
Trump took the oath of office with a 40 per cent approval rating—the lowest of any president going into office. He is perhaps the first US president-elect that hundreds of thousands of young people protested after his election. Many major news commentators, including veteran Bob Schieffer, expressed public disgust and disbelief at the spectacle of a Trump presidency. At least one-quarter of the US Congress refused to attend his inauguration calling his presidency “illegitimate.” It is clear to millions around the world that Trump is unsuitable for public office, that he is ignorant, out of control, and appeals to the most reactionary forces in society: racists, misogynists, xenophobes, vulgarians. His presidency seemed the unthinkable so why was the election handed to him despite the popular vote?
The US president does not formulate policies but represents and administers them. Policies governing a massive, complex capitalist system with economic, political, and military investments and entanglements in the multi-trillions of dollars on every continent are not left to know-nothing rookies like Trump, or for that matter Reagan, Bush Jr, Bill Clinton, or Obama, some of whom had as little experience as Trump. Brokering alliances and relationships with other countries, playing them off against each other, negotiating several wars entails an entire apparatus of Wall Street financiers, the Pentagon, CIA, the surveillance and intelligence community, government-associated think tanks, corporation leaders, governmental departments, and special advisers like Henry Kissinger.
The strong rightward trend in US politics against freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights began against Black youth in the late 1980s under the guise of the war on drugs and essentially created martial law conditions in the Black community. There was no popular movement in their defense because it was generally accepted that Black narco-terrorist gangs were on the rampage and martial law repression was required to bring order. Assaults on civil rights and civil liberties continued with increasing victimisation of undocumented immigrants as a result of anti-immigrant policies under the Bush and Obama administrations. In 2010, the state of Arizona declared open warfare on immigrants with racial profiling legislation that violated the probable cause and search and seizure provisions of the Bill of Rights, exactly where it began in the Black community. The violence against Black youth did not so much increase as become exposed during Obama’s terms, not because he addressed the issue but because fightback began in the Black community despite often martial law repression. At no point in his tenure did he ever address the assaults on the Black community in any meaningful way. It was a US governmental strategy, not an accident, which generalised attacks on the Bill of Rights because racism functioned to justify police violence in a divide and conquer tactic.
The complete lack of defense for the Black or Latino communities under siege prevailed until the 2010 profiling legislation in Arizona and the 2013 emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. As a result of that political failure among progressives, US policymakers were emboldened to institute generalised assaults on the Bill of Rights for all Americans under the Obama administration when electronic surveillance became a norm. The 2012 National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA), under the guise of national security in the war on terror, eviscerates the Bill of Rights and gives the president the right to seize and arrest any US citizen, detain them indefinitely without charge or trial without cause and without judicial oversight or due process. That is essentially the administrative detention policies employed by the Israeli military in Palestine and the Indian military in Kashmir.
Militarism expanded massively under the Obama regime in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. These were not Obama policies but US policies he represented and administered. One needn’t be a Marxist to see that US capitalism is driven by militarism, especially as the system spirals into economic crises and faces competition with China. At the same time US militarism expanded, the US antiwar movement and the political forces that organise it were in disarray, disunity, and retreat. The reasons for that retreat—which began after the Vietnam War ended—are complex and not to the point here. What is relevant about it relates to the passivity of American workers as their jobs were outsourced to the expanding sweatshop economy and the fragmentation and shattering of an already corrupted trade union movement into two federations warring with each other. That passivity made organising more difficult and antiwar and other progressive political forces feeling rootless began drifting in large numbers into armchair activism. Today, the antiwar movement is little more than a shadow of its former self.
Because politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, the torpor of the progressive movements was inevitably filled by the conspiratorial appeal of libertarianism after 9/11/2011. Right-wing libertarianism had long been a marginal political current of the lunatic fringe but the war on terror breathed new life into conspiracy explanations for complex social and political realities and there was no authoritative left theoretical perspective to counter it.
Journals like Global Research—the very fountainhead of right-wing libertarianism—became one of the most respected sources for progressive forces, both activists and armchair commentators. The website was launched only days before September 11, 2011, and its influence grew rapidly as a result of the secrecy of the war on terror. Its conspiratorial explanations for complex political problems appealed to elitism, anti-intellectualism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism. Libertarianism is an analytical method which excludes class and capitalism as a factor in politics; it is inconceivable to its adherents that working people could enter history or have the capacity to effect change, so to explain revolutions and mass mobilisations they substitute elite and nefarious forces as the agents of social change.
Many leftists who were drawn to Palestinian solidarity after the 2005 Palestinian call for a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement were already influenced by the conspiracy-mongering of Global Research to explain the secrecy and confusions of the war on terror. When the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East in 2011, Global Research was positioned as an authoritative political voice which activists relied on and cited for analyses and they used that authority to denounce the uprisings as political street theater conceived and orchestrated in the West and carried out by undercover proxies and operatives from the CIA and Mossad. Global Research wreaked particular revenge on the Syrian revolution against Assad and began actively campaigning against it in 2011 when it emerged. Today, Global Research is a forum for the most right-wing and hateful propagandists directly associated with the Assad regime and to anti-Semitic and fascist libertarians like David Icke. The fact that the left accepted the conspiracy politics and wild speculations of Global Research in place of historical materialist analyses and rigorous scholarship is an indictment of exactly how profound the theoretical degeneration among progressive forces has been.
Trump’s election has exposed these developing fault lines within progressive forces and irreversibly divided them. His election has been a turning point because those influenced by libertarianism who previously were reluctant or sly about supporting Trump are emboldened to do so openly and proclaim it progressive. They no longer even attempt to mask woman-hating, Muslim and Jewish-hating, or xenophobia but justify it with gruesome alarmism about head-choppers, who they fetishise, accusations of Soros funding, or talk about Israeli expansionism. It is now evident that Assadists are either libertarians moving in the direction of fascism or they have already arrived.
This corruption of the political movements internationally, not just in the US, is the social roots of Trump’s ascendancy. It meant there was no popular political force to lead sustained and massive actions against the rightward shift in US politics and this emboldened US policymakers. The rigged election signaled that policymakers are planning not just a continuation of the rightward shift in politics under Obama but a more decisive, volatile shift to the right. Particularly that shift means moving rapidly to eliminate Obamacare, gut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, get rid of environmental protections, finish building the wall on the US-Mexico border, and escalate and expand military interventions.
Trump had not been in office even 24 hours before there were media reports he was working on a series of executive actions to eliminate reproductive rights for women and to dismantle Obamacare without any provisions for the 20 million left without healthcare. Obamacare is a bad system—one rigged to profit the insurance companies—but as inadequate as it is, healthcare was available to many previously without any. There are also reports that the expansion plans for the wall on the US-Mexican border are set to go and only need approval and funding to proceed. That’s because these are US policies formulated in corporate and banking offices and think tanks and Trump will implement them with haste and recklessness. All his rhetoric about bringing US jobs home is nothing but hot air because sweatshop economics are essential to US capitalism. That will not change save for a few grandstanding, already orchestrated, moves by a few companies to keep a few thousand jobs here.
The foundation of US corporate rule is the two-party system, probably one of the most undemocratic in the world, outside of dictatorships and military juntas. This election didn’t do damage to the Democratic Party; in fact, it could be said the candidacy of Bernie Sanders ultimately strengthened the candidacy of Clinton and the authority of the Democratic Party. But this election campaign gutted the Republican Party or at least exposed it as a cesspool of the most dangerous and reactionary forces in US society stinking of racism and misogyny. Upon Trump’s victory, those Republicans who previously took distance from him began to grovel and court him and the party that seemed on the point of collapse from political dry rot was now miraculously regenerated, emboldened, and in charge. That may be a factor in why policymakers let Trump take the election from Clinton.
What has been destroyed must be rebuilt and understanding the process and the political forces involved in the destruction is essential to the regeneration of progressive movements. Just as Trump’s election has emboldened libertarians to move more openly to the right, it has also evoked a much more massive international response showing the willingness to fight back against the rightward shift not just in US politics but around the world.