This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.
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by William I. Robinson*
Donald Trump is a member of the transnational capitalist class (TCC). His vast business empire spans several dozen countries around the world. Much of his “populism” and anti-globalization discourse has to do with demagogy and with political manipulation in function of the electoral campaign. Trumpism and the specter of 21st-century fascism must be seen as a response to the crisis of global capitalism. Trump’s global business empire could not flourish without capitalist globalization and without the super-exploitation of immigrant workers in the United States.
The TCC and Trump himself depend on immigrant labor for their capital accumulation and they do not intend to do away with a labor force that is bonded due to its being undocumented rather than “legal.” His electoral promise to deport 10 millions undocumented immigrants, now reduced to some three million, and his proposals to intensify the criminalization of immigrants are, on the one hand, an attempt to convert the immigrant population into a scapegoat for the crisis and to channel the fear and insecurity among the (majority white) working class against the immigrant community rather than against the system. On the other hand, the dominant groups have been exploring ways to replace the current system of super-exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor with a mass “guest worker program” that would be more efficient in combining super-exploitation with super-control.
Trump (and more generally the TCC) seek to place downward pressure on wages in the United States in order to make US workers “competitive” with foreign workers. The downward leveling of wages across countries and the “race to the bottom” has been a general tendency under capitalist globalization that Trumpism certainly intends to continue, now with the justification of making the US economy “competitive” and “bringing jobs back home.”
We cannot under-emphasize Trumpism’s extreme racism, but we need to deepen our analysis of it. The US political system and the dominant groups face a crisis of hegemony and legitimacy. Racism and the search for scapegoats is one key element in their efforts to face this crisis. At the same time, major sectors of the white working class have been experiencing social and economic destabilization, downward mobility, heightened insecurity, an uncertain future, and accelerated “precariatization”—that is, ever more precarious work and life conditions. This sector of the working class has historically enjoyed the ethnic-racial privileges that come from white supremacy vis-à-vis other sectors of the working class, but it has been losing these privileges in the face of capitalist globalization. The escalation of veiled (coded) and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed at ushering the members of this white working class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition.
Trumpism’s veiled and at times openly racist and neo-fascist discourse has legitimized and unleashed ultra-racist and fascist movements in US civil society. I have been writing about the danger of “21st century fascism” as a response to the escalating crisis of global capitalism. The response to this crisis was the rise a neo-fascist Right in both Western and Eastern Europe, the vengeful resurgence of a neo-fascist Right in Latin America, and the turn towards neo-fascism in Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, India, and elsewhere. One key difference between 20th-century fascism and 21st-century fascism is that the former involved the fusion of national capital with reactionary and repressive political power, whereas the latter involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. It is crucial to stress that Trumpism does not represent a break with capitalist globalization, but rather a recomposition of political forces as the crisis deepens. If we want to understand political phenomena we must not confuse surface appearance (or discourse) with underlying essence (or structure).
Trumpism represents an intensification of neoliberalism in the United States that assigns a major role to the state in subsidizing transnational capital accumulation in the face of stagnation and overaccumulation. For example, Trump’s heralded proposal to invest one trillion dollars in infrastructure, when we examine it closely, is in reality a proposal to privatize public infrastructure and to transfer wealth from labor to capital by way of corporate tax breaks and subsidies for the construction of privatized infrastructural works. We can expect under the Trump regime an effort to further privatize what remains of the public sector, including schools, veterans affairs, and possibly social security, along with deregulation and a further transfer of wealth from labor to capital through corporate tax cuts and austerity.
It is a mistake to view 21st-century fascism as a political development outside of the “normal” progression of global capitalism. Global capitalism faces an unprecedented crisis of social polarization, political legitimacy (hegemony), sustainability, and overaccumulation. The TCC has accumulated trillions of dollars that it is finding ever harder to “unload.” In recent years it has turned to mind-boggling levels of financial speculation, to the raiding and sacking of public budgets, and to what I call militarized accumulation—that is, to endless cycles of war, destruction, and reconstruction; to “accumulation by repression” (building of private prisons and immigrant detention centers, border walls, homeland security technologies, etc.); and to the construction of a global police state to defend the global war economy from rebellions from below.
Trump’s electoral base among the white working class will discover very early on in his regime that his promises were a hoax. How will their rage be contained? Will they be recruited into projects of 21st-century fascism? Political and economic elites in the United States (and worldwide) are currently divided and confused. But if and when the mass of humanity, the global working class, will pose a challenge to TCC control, the dominant groups will unite to defend their rule. The liberal elements among the transnational elite will be unlikely to object to 21st-century fascism in political power if that is what it takes to beat down challenges from below and to maintain control. I fear we are before the gates of hell. There will surely be massive social upheavals from below, but also an escalation of state and private repression.
The spiraling crisis of global capitalism has reached a crossroads. Either there is a radical reform of the system (if not its overthrow) or there will be a sharp turn to a 21st-century fascism. The failure of elite reformism and the unwillingness of the transnational elite to challenge the predation and rapaciousness of global capital have paved the way for the far-Right response to crisis. In the United States, the betrayal of the liberal elite is as much to blame for Trumpism as are the far-Right forces that have mobilized the white population around a program of racist scapegoating, misogyny, and the manipulation of fear and economic destabilization.
Critically, the political class that has been in place for the past three decades is more than bankrupt—it is feeding the turn to the far Right. Its brand of identity politics has served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes and of anti-capitalism. It has served to derail ongoing revolts from below, to push white workers into an “identity” of white nationalism, and to help the neo-fascist right organize them politically.
A global rebellion against the TCC has been spreading since the financial collapse of 2008. Wherever one looks there are popular, grassroots, and leftist struggles and the rise of new cultures of resistance. Can we beat back the threat of 21st-century fascism? Our efforts must involve analytical clarity as to what we are up against. Trumpism is not a departure from, but an incarnation of an emerging dictatorship of the transnational capitalist class.
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* William I. Robinson is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also affiliated with the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program and with the Global and International Studies Program at UCSB. His scholarly research focuses on macro and comparative sociology, globalization and transnationalism, political economy, political sociology, development and social change, immigration, Latin America and the Third World, and Latina/o studies.
An earlier version of this article (in Spanish) was published by La Jornada on December 4, 2016 (here).
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Header image (left) by Joe Brusky, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.