By Kumar David –
America’s Alt-Right surges; Pax Americana erodes
“In essence populism believes that society is divided into two homogeneous but antagonistic groups, ordinary people and a corrupt elite. It argues that social change is possible only through a radical pruning of the power of the elite” ~ Monumental Populist by Ivan Krastev
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is a homicidal thug but it is also true that the drug problem is out of control. Xi Jinping’s thoughts are famously unoriginal but, no worry, have been enshrined in the Party constitution. Trump is idiosyncratic, psychologically unstable and gaffe prone, but is there an inherent and unintended design to his insanity? These questions are asked because the faithful sustain apparently irrational enthusiasm and continue to resonate with their leader.
Trump’s appeal for those fed up-with the establishment is unsurprising. It is hopelessness and frustration that propelled him to power. To this America, the Democratic Party had, and has, nothing to offer. And it is Steve Bannon, not DJT, who is the authentic voice of angry far right populism. The ways of Bannon and Trump are now parting; this is a crucial watershed on the American right. DJT removed Bannon form the position of White House Chief Strategist under pressure from Chief of Staff John Kelly brought into to discipline a brawling White House mob and appease GOP leaders and the media. Bannon is now on a warpath against the ‘traitors’ surrounding DJT.
Bannon (Virginia Tech, Bachelor in Urban Planning; Harvard Business School, MBA) is from a pro-Kennedy, pro-Union, working class family in Virginia. He is no clown like DJT but a visionary. Here is a sample beyond the reach of Trump’s intellectual prowess:
“This is a populist, nationalist, conservative revolt. It’s a revolt against the elites in this country. It’s a revolt against the globalists among those elites. It’s a revolt against the progressive agenda that is being jammed down the throat of the American people. Hard-working men and women of the world are tired of the global elites. They’re tired of being told what to do. This is a global revolution.”
Bannon has not yet denounced Trump as a sell-out who betrayed the base which elected him and aligned himself with the elitist swamp that he promised to drain. DJT is an opportunist dealmaker pure and simple whose lodestar is only DJT himself. Aware of the threat from a shifting base he is straining to sell his proposed tax-cuts as relief for low income earners; in truth it is pure gravy for the rich and for corporations. Trump has declared “Bannon cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!” Bannon, the prophet of Alt-Right neo-populism, may be playing a deeper waiting game. Nothing certain can be said yet.
The widely accepted view of the Republican Party is an oversimplification. Conventional wisdom has it that it is the party of big capital and hidebound conservatives while the ‘base’ is discounted as dumb frogs in the well. This is incorrect; it consists of two constituencies, big capital and the ‘Alt-Right’. The latter is an authentic social force; middlebrow, conservative, provincial, somewhat underprivileged and now includes recently alienated white workers. My thesis is that the social and class character of the GOP are more complex than the prevalent sanguine view.
For decades the ‘base’, did not shine independently and was taken for granted by the leadership till the Tea Party Movement surfaced. Liberals and left despised the ‘base’ and failed to understand its social rootedness. Why did it lie dormant for so long? Because America lived on borrowed time and money; for most folk, life was good enough. Now existential livelihoods are falling apart and at the same time US global economic influence is in decline and there are setbacks to its military reach. ‘Make America Great Again’ resonates with those who took ‘America is the Greatest’ for granted, but are now disoriented. The ‘base’, like DJT, inhabits a parallel universe of ethereal visions. The leadership in Congress is overawed by a President cum Alt-Right alliance, but the alliance is fraying, so enter Steve Bannon and such like voices.
Fire and Fury
A 336-page book released on 5 January (Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff) received extensive local and international coverage with the UK Times front page casting doubt on DJT’s mental health and Germany’s top conservative paper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, asking “Is Trump still sane?”. The book is about infighting in the White House and, inter alia, details Bannon’s moves to rebuild the neo-populist right because DJT has sold out to the “swamp”, the Republican upper class. Lawyers for the President demanded that Wolff and publisher desist from publication. The result, unprecedented demand and the release date advanced to 5 from 9 January. It sold out on the first day. Trump spent a day raging about the book and sent out a twitter message “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”.
Wolff says Bannon, chief executive of the Trump election campaign, called DJT campaign-staff’s meetings with Russians “treasonous” and adds that DJT’s advisors tried to explain the constitution to him but “could not get past the Fourth Amendment”. Wolff also claims that daughter Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner discussed, in his presence, plans for the former to run as a future presidential candidate. Some of Wolff’s claims are odd, for example: a) Trump neither wanted nor expected to win. b) The family was alarmed when he won, fearing a cock-up of the presidency. c) Donald Jr. said his father looked as if he had “seen a ghost” when he realized he had won, and d) Melania Trump was in tears of despair. Wolff is a dicey character and how much of what he says to believe is open to question.
Two new books Alt-America by psychologist George Hawley and Making Sense of the Alt-Right by David Neiwert explore a world of white resentment. Neiwert scorns the media for failing to see the threat posed by neo-populism and the role of white nationalism in DJT’s victory. Hawley says the Alt-Right is difficult to classify; its core is racist but different from its white supremacist predecessors in that it is “atomised, amorphous and largely anonymous”. Far-right activist Hunter Wallace wrote on an Alt-Right website, “liberals share the blinkered world-view that more liberty and equality is the solution to every problem. We see something else. We don’t believe in any of the standard bullshit – nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal”!
Alt-Right transcends conventional right-left divides and has no interest in conservative tenets such as tradition and liberty. It is not just racist, it is radical; its radicalism is the degree to which it rejects other values. Alt-Right people hold divergent views and combine different elements of left and right thought. Not only free marketers, but some socialists too denounce the ‘political class’, shun middle of the road parties and rely only on mass action; these are elements of neo-populism.
Which brings me to the quote from Ivan Kristev reproduced at the top. Kristev and the authors I have summarised above see neo-populism/Alt-Right in psychological and behavioural terms. Their analyses, though illuminating, lacks depth and scrutiny of systemic roots. Sans a perspective of the life-cycle of capitalism and its stages of growth, prosperity, stasis and catastrophe, analytical rigour is superficial. It’s all about ‘who thought what’ and ‘who felt how’. A materialist social and economic perspective is absent. A bland sociological version, without the hard side, is tinsel.
What are the implications for social developments? DJT may be impeached, or quit, or cling on till the end of his term, but the misery of the neo-pops will not end and the effect of the changes he has wrought in US foreign policy will persist. The return of a sane president will not restore the status quo because, in a paradoxical way, the foreign policy fixes DJT has invoked fit America’s reduced global role and is better aligned to its weakened economic and military standing.
Sea changes in foreign policy
Consider the following roughly in order of importance. Recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thus dismaying Muslim states, complicating relations with ally Saudi Arabia and invoking a UN General Assembly snub; losing global economic hegemony to China and impotent to prevent Chinese military parity within two decades; losing hegemony to Russia in the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish theatre; further despoiling relations with Iran; confronting North Korea, shouting “I have a Bigger Button than you” and aggravating the potential for nuclear conflict; upsetting relations with Europe and putting NATO under stress; raising tensions with Pakistan, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada.
Partly this is just Trump, the bull in the China shop, but against a background of declining US wealth and power, those who may have read it are reminded of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Insane Emperor Caligula appointed his horse as a Senator; DJT’s creature of choice is the pussy. However, it was not balmy emperors but hard facts that threw the Empire into tailspin. There was a fall in agricultural output in the surrounding countryside, Northern Italy was being increasingly settled by Germanic tribes (immigration; sic!) and the Legions were militarily overstretched across the vastness of the Empire. There were other factors as well; the split between Eastern (Constantinople) and Western (Rome) Empires was the most significant political factor.
I don’t want to overdraw parallels, but it is the decline of America’s material prowess, the weakening of its economy compared to Asia, the diminishing role of the dollar and petrodollar – I will discuss this in a future piece – and the erosion of military dominance, that underlie the change. We are passing through interesting times. Internally, America is becoming a different and diminished country, and overall, global balances are being restructured. The old status quo cannot be restored. The foreign policy changes that are being invoked, albeit by a nutter, are consonant with America’s weakened global economic and military capabilities.