EconoMatters, Rethinking America

The Real Reasons for Trump’s Anti-Globalization Circus

Trumponomics: How Trump skillfully used anti-globalization as bait to cover up his extremely neoliberal switch.

Credit: Michael Vadon (www.flickr.com)

Takeaways


  • Trump's racist nationalism has broader political appeal because racism reaches well beyond the Republican base.
  • Trump exploited Americans' discontent by masquerading as a critic of the neoliberal economy.
  • The Trump narrative is that the US is a victim, whereas it actually is the chief perpetrator.
  • Trump now intends to worsen the US economy’s neoliberal proclivity to deliver income inequality.

A key element of Trump’s political success has been his masquerade of being pro-worker, which includes posturing as anti-globalization.

However, his true economic interest is the exact opposite. That creates conflict between Trump’s political and economic interests.

For political leaders around the world, understanding the calculus of that conflict is critical for understanding and predicting Trump’s economic policy, especially his international economic policy.

How Trump succeeded

Trump’s political success was based on a two-sided attack on the establishment. First, he ratcheted up the existing Republican “illiberal” cultural values agenda into full-blown racist authoritarian nationalism.

Second, he captured the progressive critique of the neoliberal economy, especially the critique of globalization.

Racist nationalism as gateway to the U.S. electorate

Trump’s ratcheting-up of the illiberal cultural values agenda enabled him to displace the Republican establishment.

His extremism jumped him to the front of the Republican queue, which was critical in the primary process as that process engages the most extreme voters.

However, his racist nationalism also has broader political appeal because racism reaches well beyond the Republican base, while nationalism has bipartisan establishment support.

A very effective con artist

The other side of Trump’s success was his capture of the progressive critique of the neoliberal economy and corporate-driven globalization.

For four decades, the U.S. economy has short-changed working class voters via wage stagnation and manufacturing job loss. That has created discontent and disappointed expectations.

Trump exploited that discontent and disappointment by masquerading as a critic of the neoliberal economy and promising to make the economy work for working class Americans.

In this regard, his capture of the globalization and deindustrialization debate is particularly important.

That is because globalization and deindustrialization are the most public face of the U.S.-style neoliberal economy, being where the impact on wages and jobs has been most visible and tangible.

By gaining credible ownership of the globalization critique (via his criticisms of off-shoring, China, and trade deals like NAFTA and TPP), Trump gained credibility for his claim to be on the side of working families.

How the Democrats enabled Trump

Establishment Democrats handed Trump the opening to capture the globalization debate by pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) despite widespread voter opposition. For this, President Obama deserves special blame.

That capture enabled Trump to create a new twisted narrative about neoliberal globalization which blames “foreigners and immigrants.” The Trump narrative is that the United States is a victim, whereas it – via the U.S. government and U.S. corporations — actually is the chief perpetrator.

Scapegoating foreigners — to cover up for the billionaire class

According to Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S. government has supposedly negotiated weak trade agreements and foreigners have cheated on those agreements. Simultaneously, illegal immigrants have flooded in and taken U.S. jobs and driven down wages.

The reality is globalization has been “Made in the USA” by corporations, for the benefit of corporations, working in tandem with the U.S. Congress and successive administrations.

Trump’s new “blame it on ‘foreigners and immigrants'” narrative of globalization complements and feeds his racist nationalist cultural values agenda. With foreigners and immigrants supposedly to blame for the economic difficulties of U.S. workers, that provides the rationale for his xenophobic policies.

In sum, Trump succeeded by outflanking the Republican establishment with his racist nationalist values agenda, and outflanking the Democratic establishment with his anti-globalization economic rhetoric.

These two political maneuvres constituted a coherent political strategy that enabled Trump to connect with reactionary voters while masquerading as being on workers’ side.

Bait and switch

Trump’s representation as being on the side of workers stands in complete contradiction to his own interests as a billionaire businessman. His real metric of success is money and wealth.

Any notions of charitable inclination or notions of public service are but cover-up pretensions. The reality is Trump is engaged in a skillful “bait and switch” befitting a con artist.

The bait was his critique of the economic establishment and globalization and the harm they have done to working class voters. The switch is he doubles-down on the U.S. brand of plutocratic neoliberalism.

Manipulating people’s dark emotions

Trump’s racism, nationalism and authoritarianism also prove useful in making the switch. That is because they further fracture and distract the national political conversation, thereby covering up his tracks.

His nefarious politics of prejudice also provide an ugly pay-off – a form of odious psychic income – to part of his electoral base.

Showing his real hand

Given his lack of any history of government service, Trump could initially get away with this pro-worker masquerade.

However, the realities of Trump’s economic policies have now become clear. All the evidence suggests he intends to worsen the U.S. economy’s neoliberal proclivity to deliver wage stagnation and income inequality.

He achieves that by increasing the power of business and finance and by further dividing and intimidating workers.

Hence Trump’s tax policy aims to cut the tax rate on corporations and wealthy individuals. Hence, his budget expenditure policy aims to slash social welfare spending and provision of public services to lower and middle class families.

And hence the fact that all forms of regulation – consumer, labor market, business, financial and environmental – are now under profound attack.

Sustaining the con

The one area where the masquerade continues is international economic policy. That is because Trump is compelled to balance political needs and economic interests.

Among working families, globalization is the most visible and economically understood issue. That is why Trump’s critique of globalization is front and center of his pro-worker masquerade. It is his image as a critic of globalization that allows him to pursue his radical corporatization agenda at home.

Conclusion: anti-globalization circus

Make no mistake about it: Trump’s own economic interests have him identifying with corporations and capital. The same is true for virtually all members of his cabinet and White House staff.

They have no interest in the ultimate truth revealing itself – that globalization has been “made in the USA” for the benefit of large American multi-national corporations which have been big winners from the process.

Consequently, Trump is inclined to preserve the system, although he is keen to make further radicalizing changes if that increases corporate profitability.

The implication is one can expect lots of anti-globalization circus to address Trump’s political needs, but he will not rock the globalization boat.

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About Thomas I. Palley

Thomas I. Palley is an independent economist in Washington D.C.

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