It seems almost certain that Donald Trump will soon be leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC and heading back to Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York. Trumpism, though, is now a well-entrenched phenomenon.
Of course, Trump was never an isolated pathology. Aspects of the Trump phenomenon, including brazen corruption and a generally amoral posture, buffoonery and crude nationalism, were present in Silvio Berlusconi, who led four Italian governments between 1994 and 2011, as well as, of course, Jacob Zuma. Trump’s hard-Right politics were anticipated by Benjamin Netanyahu, who became president of Israel in 2009, Narendra Modi, who became the prime minister of India in 2014, and Rodrigo Duterte, who became president of the Philippines in 2016. Trump’s election was followed by Viktor Orbán’s re-election in Hungary in 2018, Andrzej Duda’s re-election in Poland in July this year, and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom in 2019.
Trump has functioned as the de facto leader of a new international Right. Given the global power of the US, his influence has been felt across the globe. In many countries, the Overton window – the range of positions deemed acceptable in mainstream politics – has shifted dramatically to the right.
In South Africa, Trump provided the white Right with a new confidence and a new language in which to make its claims. Trump has also inspired the development of a new form of right-wing Black politics centred on xenophobia, law and order, support for unrestrained capitalism and a brazen disregard for reason and evidence. Herman Mashaba is the most prominent figure in this space, but there are also a number of small groups making a lot of noise on Twitter.
Trumpism has not only infected the margins of our politics. The normalisation of xenophobia has rapidly advanced in the ANC and the DA, and is now also festering in the EFF. Soon after taking up a position as minister of public works and infrastructure, Patricia de Lille moved to build a R40 million fence along 37km of South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of the fence, its presentation as an intervention to secure national health and the corruption that accompanied it could hardly be more Trumpian.
Status, social standing and power
In the US, Trumpism is profoundly inflected with racism. When Trump was first elected in 2016, intellectuals across the country reached for WEB du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. In this book, written in 1935, Du Bois argued that after the Civil War, many white workers preferred to accept “a sort of public and psychological wage” in the form of “public deference and titles of courtesy” awarded to them as white people rather than throw in their lot with Black workers and struggle, together, for better conditions. He writes that “Southern white labourers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labour movement in the South made impossible”.
Trumpism offers white Americans a sense that being white gives them status, even if their economic standing is in steep decline. It offers a similar sense of social standing and power to men.
While Trump is part of the billionaire class, his posture of sympathy with the common person speaks to a general sense of alienation from elites, their norms and ways of speaking about the world. Trump offers his supporters the comforting illusion that the powerful, the same billionaire class that has wrecked the lives of millions of Americans, are on their side. This illusion extends to the idea that it is impoverished people making their way across the Sonoran Desert and then the Rio Grande in search of a better life who are the real enemy.
Reactionary nationalism can be psychologically intoxicating. It offers a fantasy of community and collective superiority, and projects the blame for social problems on to vulnerable scapegoats seen as external to the national community.
When, as has long been the case in India, reactionary nationalism gets to the point of putting socially dishonoured young men in uniforms and giving them the power to enact violence on the streets, the scapegoat is no longer merely a projection, an abstract idea. The desire for respect is violently imposed on to living, bleeding, cowering human beings. Trumpism was taking significant steps in this direction in the US.
Some modifications have to be made for Trumpism to be taken up in other parts of the world. In India, racism and xenophobia are retooled to focus specifically on Muslim people, whether at home or across the border. In the hands of someone like Mashaba, the buffoonery, lack of regard for facts, promises to impose law and order, and xenophobia can all pretty much be used as is. But the racism needs to be tweaked so that it is deflected and projected on to the people said to “bring us Ebolas”.
Biden is no progressive
Joe Biden is directly complicit with much of the devastation wreaked by the American elite at home and abroad. He supported the Iraq war, which is estimated to have cost up to 650 000 lives and resulted in up to five million people being displaced. He supported the attacks on welfare, initially led by Bill Clinton. He is a long-time supporter of the kind of economics that makes the rich much, much richer and everyone else a lot poorer. Biden is also directly implicated in the “war on drugs”, the escalation of the increasingly brutal migration regime and the longstanding mass incarceration of young Black and Hispanic men, along with poor white men.
But although Biden is far from being a progressive, and is directly implicated in the wilful production of massive human suffering, he is not Trump. For this reason and this reason alone, vast numbers of people in the US and around the world will feel a tremendous sense of relief if, as expected, Biden takes up residence on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But if Biden wins the election, the problem of Trumpism will not be resolved in the US or elsewhere. Almost 70 million votes have been counted in support of Trump. And Biden is an insider to the kind of politics initially associated with Clinton and Tony Blair in which parties that once claimed some sort of affiliation to labour, to unions and the Left took on the economic programme of the Right. At the same time, all sense of popular participation in politics was abandoned in favour of elite-driven technocratic approaches. This is one of the key factors that produced Trumpism, and there is no guarantee that a Biden presidency will not be met and followed by a new and even rougher beast slouching towards Washington.
Trumpism can only be decisively defeated by a Left programme, driven by popular organisation and open to popular participation, that offers people a secure and dignified life, and forges new forms of solidarity. Biden offers a certain kind of breathing space, but he offers no credible, or even viable way forward.
With the climate crisis accelerating at a terrifying rate, vast numbers of people locked out of any possibility for a secure and dignified life and all kinds of chauvinism festering in the US and across the planet, the imperative to organise, build progressive institutions and undertake the intellectual work of envisaging viable and decent futures, and strategies to attain them, is profoundly urgent.