Why should we be concerned about yet another rightwing American president or pay attention to the ravings of disgruntled keyboard warriors? Trump is an orange ball of arrogance and the alt-right thrives on outrage. But they are worth watching because both are products of a crisis in neoliberal ideology.
The mainstream media in New Zealand, following liberal (ie Democratic Party) opinion in the USA, portrays Trump as a buffoon. The White House is supposedly in chaos under the Clown Prince, and we can only pray that the “adults in the room”, the unelected higher echelons of the American state, will check his excesses. Another view, from the left, points out continuities with Obama’s rule, when deportation of migrant workers and drone strikes both reached unprecedented heights. Not much can be learned from either point of view when studying Trump.
Similarly with the alt-right; mass shootings and white-supremacist marches are good clickbait but not taken seriously. These views are mistaken. Trump and the alt-right are not the same-old, same-old, but there are continuities with the past.
Trump and mainstream politics
It is hard now to remember the euphoria that greeted the election of Barack Obama in 2008. After the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan under George W Bush, it seemed the USA was back on centre ground, electing a black president, with a woman waiting in the wings. But come the 2016 presidential election, the centre proved weaker than anyone had imagined. Bernie Sanders, a 70-year-old democratic socialist, almost won the Democratic nomination, while Trump crushed his Republican rivals.
Underlying this volatility is inequality, which has skyrocketed since the 1980s. During the Cold War, living standards for working class Americans steadily rose, but since the 1980s, they have steadily fallen. America’s moment of triumph – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR – was also the beginning of the end of the “American Century”.
The ruling class responded with neoliberalism: cuts to wages and welfare at home and aggressive neoliberalism overseas through the WTO, IMF and World Bank. None of these measures were able to restore US power, the ultimate expression of which was the invasion of Iraq, which was followed by an orgy of militarised privatisation – and collapse. The US ruling class fatally over-reached itself and exposed its powerlessness.
Elements inside the ruling class understand neoliberalism has failed and are willing to roll the dice. The “Tea Party” that proved to be a stepping stone on Trump’s road to power was sponsored by the Republican establishment as an answer to the Occupy movement. While Trump’s election surprised that Establishment, it had started the process of experimentation.
Trump is in some ways a more serious politician than Obama or G W Bush, who operated within a narrow neoliberal framework. An example is the recent resignation of economic advisor Gary Cohn. Cohn, an investment banker, designed Trump’s tax gift for the rich but then resigned when Trump announced steel tariffs. Some commentators see this as a sign of chaos in the White House. What actually happened was an ideological clash. Trump and Cohn agreed on tax cuts but disagreed on tariffs. Trump, unlike neoliberal managerial types, realises political breaks play well in public.
The rise of identity politics
In 1993 Trump argued with a federal panel for the right to open a casino with the same exemptions as American Indians. Without openly attacking the right of Native Americans to open casinos, he argued for his right not to be discriminated against, praised his own success, and then, almost in a throwaway comment, questioned the ethnicity of the Native American casino operators, saying “They don’t look like Indians to me”.
Unlike old-fashioned racism, which explicitly avowed white supremacy as part of a conservative worldview, Trump used the liberal categories of identity politics in service of a “vice” industry. He was one of the first rightwingers to articulate a version of racism that was able to confound contemporary liberal categories.
Racism is a central ideological problem for the United States. The constitution affirms equality and property, but its economy was founded on slavery and theft. A bloody Civil War was fought in the 1860s over this question. For a brief moment, during the Reconstruction following the Civil War, an alliance of poor whites and blacks challenged Southern property owners. They responded by organising the Ku Klux Klan, which peaked in the 1920s with at least a million members. After World War Two, industrialisation meant many African Americans joined the working class. From the 1950s onwards they challenged racism in society, the unions and the Democratic Party. After two tumultuous decades that included ghetto risings in the mid-1960s, the ruling class was forced to abandon open racism as a tool.
Liberalism, which is committed to legal but not economic equality, responded by decoupling class from identity. Class politics needs solidarity between people of different backgrounds, but with identity politics, power follows difference itself. The two categories, class and identity, can operate together: Obama used a soft-left rhetoric of solidarity, and, as a black president, embodied ethnic identity decoupled from class. Nonetheless, they are fundamentally incompatible. Put crudely, what Obama “means” in identity politics terms is that every African American can rise above class inequalities without challenging them.
What Trump does is not to question these liberal categories but to render them absurd; firstly, by claiming to be oppressed, and, secondly, by questioning the authenticity of his adversaries but not the category.
In New Zealand, the National Party has been quick to boast of the Maori identity of its leader and deputy. Some National Party hacks will value this as a way to reach Maori voters, others for the way Simon Bridges renders liberal anti-racism absurd.
While there are links between the “old-right” and the alt-right, the difference is that the latter, obsessed by whiteness and masculinity, is the product of liberal identity politics turned toxic. It is a recent phenomenon. One of the founding moments, #gamergate, was only four years ago. 4Chan, the cesspool where alt-right memes and doxx attacks are spawned, was started by a fifteen-year-old fifteen years ago. #gamergate was a reaction (an astonishing overreaction) to a game called Depression Quest, in which the player navigated through clinical depression. This somehow posed an existential threat to male gamers, who responded with mass email attacks, threats of rape and murder, and “doxxing” – publishing a victim’s address to encourage hate attacks.
4chan is an organising hub for the alt-right. Its attraction is that anyone can post anything anonymously. The positive side of this anonymous libertarianism was seen in Anonymous, with its links to the Occupy movement. The negative side is expressed in pornography and hate speech for its own sake.
The alt-right is not the old right. It rejects God, Mom, America and apple pie. It is foul-mouthed and self-hating, suicidal and cynical. But through its obsession with masculinity, like a dog to its vomit, it returns to the undigested filth of the old-right – homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.
It’s worth studying, vile though it is, because: it has been effective in producing propaganda; it has spawned rightwing terrorism, and will continue to do so; and it is a petri dish in which the ruling class can test mutant ideologies. In New Zealand, Whaleoil is a good example of something that has crawled out of the sewers and into a business suit. Another example is Jordan Peterson, a Canadian lecturer and darling of the alt-right increasingly feted by the mainstream media. He seeks to use Nietzsche to bridge the gap between the cesspool and God.
Capitalism is full of contradictions. Its ideology is always in flux even though it pretends to be eternal. Trump’s incoherence reflects the confusion inside the US ruling class. The rapid emergence of the alt-right as an iconoclastic, innovative movement, and it’s even more rapid plunge back into the sewers of Nazism shows the limits of rightwing ideology.
Fortunately there is an opposition, and it is everything Trump and the alt-right is not: positive, outward-looking, and into building alliances. In brief, here are three examples: Black Lives Matter, which emerged under Obama and is unlikely to stop under Trump; #MeToo, initially denigrated as being something for celebrities only, is having ripple effects at all levels all over the world; finally, the great West Virginia wildcat strike, where teachers took on the state and won. The teachers there are mainly white women and West Virginia is as hillbilly as they come. That’s their identity, but only part of it. They are also working-class, and that gives a powerful dynamic to resistance. It requires unity and solidarity, while respecting diversity and identity. There’s a resolution to a contradiction right there.