Donald Trump and the Clash of Capitalists

The LA Times, in part two of its six-part series of articles pummeling President Trump, seems to echo my point that he is the Figurehead-in-Chief, a conduit through which others can work their agendas and that contributes no input of its own: “Trump’s easy embrace of untruth can sometimes be entertaining…But he is not merely amusing. He is dangerous. His choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them…are a clue to Trump’s thought processes and perhaps his lack of agency. He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief. He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy.” Saying that Trump lacks agency is largely true but it would be a bit uncharitable, however, to claim that he’s a totally blank slate because he did, after all, have both a paramount political strategy and an economic worldview that motivated him enough to hop into politics.

His political goal was to become the Populist Pied Piper, using the credibility he gained from his campaign’s supporters to become a highly-influential pundit who winds up taking the wind out of populism’s sails. That he still sees himself as playing this role as President helps make even more sense of why Trump oddly dropped the ball on the rollout of his agenda. By trying to ram his policies through Washington the way a true uncompromising outsider populist would, Trump’s intention was to provide the ultimate teachable moment for his followers. He would then point to the ineffectiveness of the hasty, haphazard, and thoroughly anti-establishment method of enacting his campaign platform along with how disastrous the fallout from those failed attempts was and conclude that these ideas were crude, ill-considered, and should be either watered-down or abandoned. Changing to a centrist tack after this initial flubbing (which Trump has done) would be a subliminal admission that populism doesn’t work and that making America great again would have to be done through the art of the deal, negotiating with the unsavory D.C. swamp creatures.

In addition to derailing populism, Trump is also using populism to help restore a particular sect of capitalists to their former prominence, as Benjamin Waterhouse illustrates:

“Trumponomics presents a conundrum: One of the wealthiest human beings on earth seems to be cribbing from the Occupy Wall Street playbook… How can we make sense of this populist mogul? Is the consummate one-percenter a new kind of Republican? History suggests no. Trump is not a new kind of conservative. But he is a specific type of one-percenter. (Really, 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent) From where the rest of us sit, all billionaires tend to look alike. But now, as in the past, divisions within the economic elite can be fierce, with enormous political consequences. As a real-estate developer, Trump has a different set of material interests than, for example, the Wall Street investors he maligns with such glee. To understand his economic populism, we have to grapple with the long history of the fractious business elite. The myth of a unified business community is a powerful one in American history. But it is also largely false. More often than not, competing economic interests have clashed fiercely over the vital issues of the day—from Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s ferocious battles over imposing protective tariffs to the tumultuous fights over airline industry deregulation in the 1970s. (The big carriers fought for the regulations!) The history of capitalism suggests that sector-on-sector political fighting has been most pronounced when the economy underwent profound structural changes. The rise of industrial capitalism created just such a destabilizing moment. Early factory owners cast themselves as virtuous “producers”—unlike the usurious entrenched wealth of the merchant, banking and slave-holding classes. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson declared war on the Bank of the United States because, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., put it, “no institution played a more important role in transferring wealth from the producing class to accumulators.” As industrial capitalism expanded, its practitioners grew bolder in challenging the old order… In the past 40 years or so, the mass consumption industrial economy of the post-World War II era has given way to something new—often called “financialization.” Today, investment and financial speculation generate greater profits than manufacturing, natural resource extraction or service provision. Financial institutions and the elites who run them have become the faces of Big Business, replacing the once-mighty CEOs of U.S. Steel, DuPont and General Motors, who dominated at mid-century. As early as the 1980s, old-guard industrial executives noted the perils of this transition. In 1987, the Business Roundtable—a consortium of Fortune 500 firms—spoke out loudly against corporate raiders, leveraged buy-outs and short-term stock price manipulation, which have now become the mainstays of the modern economy. Many members of the Business Roundtable banded together in the “Coalition to Stop the Raid on America,” a bipartisan campaign for tougher regulations of hostile takeovers. Financialization is the capitalist disruption of our era, and it is the root of Trump’s economic message. Just as his position on immigration recalls an idealized, earlier (and whiter) America, so too does his attack on Wall Street and global corporations reflect a deeply conservative longing for a bygone epoch in American capitalism. An era when the United States dominated global manufacturing as Europe and Asia dug out from the rubble of war. An era when Big Business didn’t mean investment banks and hedge funds. When it meant domestic production—of steel to make buildings with and airplanes to fly. When business looked…more like him … His economic identity may make him an unlikely champion of a pre-financialized mode of capitalism. But since luxury hotel construction can’t be easily outsourced—and Trump can invoke the classic manufacturer’s claim of “making,” not “taking”—he has nothing to lose by calling out the hedge fund managers. Trump’s anti-elitism is neither crass pandering nor a betrayal of his class. Instead, his politics are of a piece with a long history of in-fighting among business elites as well as a nostalgic campaign to revive an older economy, to “make America great again.”

Trump has long been awake to the dangers of this shift to the primacy of finance capitalism and of neoliberal globalism run amok and wishes to reverse this trend, not just so his type of businessmen get their status back and get wealthier to boot, but because, if it’s not checked, the economic status quo poses an existential threat to capitalism as a whole. I can imagine that the 2008 financial crisis was the final straw for a man who has had presidential ambitions for decades. So, Trump is out to try to make capitalism responsible again–an eternal struggle because it’s impossible for capitalists to be responsible when capitalism relies on constant growth no matter what. Saving capitalism from itself usually requires an external force–like the state–to rein it in but Trump must believe that the solution can come from within the capitalist class. In this manner, Trump can be thought of as a pragmatic plutocrat like Nick Hanuer who advocate policies where the upper class voluntarily sacrifices slightly to stave off the rabble grabbing their torches and pitchforks. All told, I’d still agree that Trump is mostly a figurehead but he nonetheless has an ambitious vision that he will cling to and strive towards even if he isn’t quite sure how to get there yet.