Friday, 11 November 2016

What will Trump's victory mean?

I wrote in my last post about the possibility of Donald Trump being elected. Now that it has happened, I want to share some preliminary thoughts about what it means. Of course, much is unknown. Trump is an unpredictable character anyway, and in any case all politicians find that their freedom of action is more curtailed than either they or their electors expect.

In my book I frame much of the analysis of contemporary organizations in terms of ‘the new capitalism’, meaning the neo-liberalized, globalizing form of capitalism that has been dominant since the 1970s, especially in the US and the UK. I also (nevertheless) record scepticism about ‘epochalism’ (p.104), but with that caveat it is at least possible that we are witnessing a significant shift away from the new capitalism.

What is distinctive about Trump, as the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle wrote today, is that he is both socially and economically illiberal. That, Kettle argues, has not been true of recent US presidents: they have been illiberal in one or other meaning, or in neither, but not in both.

Trump’s social illiberalism is what made his campaign so controversial and divisive. But it is his economic illiberalism that is truly remarkable amongst, especially, Republicans. He appears to be hostile to the global free trade system that defined the new capitalism. He has promised to reverse the offshoring of US jobs, to punish US companies that relocate abroad and to impose high tariffs on, especially, Chinese imports. It seems highly likely that he will abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the TTIP negotiations with the EU, and if not scrap then comprehensively re-negotiate NAFTA.

These policies, which I have described as nationalist populism, are, like many forms of nationalist populism, similar to left-wing economic programmes. Equally, Trump’s ambitions to create jobs through national infrastructure projects are akin to neo-Keynesian economics (although likely to be funded by foreign investors rather than state investment and so in that sense understandable as a form of privatization, and somewhat at odds with Trump's 'America First' rhetoric).

These are potentially profound shifts, then, but as a counter to epochal thinking, it should be recalled that other parts of his economic agenda, most notably (probably) holding down the minimum wage, cutting corporation and other taxes and financial deregulation, are part of the familiar repertoire of the political right. Moreover, Trump’s calling card that he can run the country as if it were a business and his embrace and embodiment of macho leadership also suggest continuity rather than abandonment of many aspects of new capitalism.

If aspects of Trump’s rejection of economic liberalism have a leftist tinge to them, it’s important to recognize that their nationalism means that they do not offer any general relief from the consequences of globalization. It is in fact questionable whether they can even deliver this for the people of the US. Globalization may simply be too far advanced for that to be possible: it is highly unlikely that the American rust belt will be re-industrialised. At all events, Trump’s nationalism (like Brexit) marks a retreat from the multi-lateral, global governance that offers to best hope of taming and regulating global capitalism, with climate change agreement the most likely early casualty.

Trump is also likely to reverse Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. That is apparent in relation to the points mentioned above about TPP and tariffs against China, but also to the likelihood of his administration taking a relaxed view about Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and agnosticism on the issue of Taiwan. This links with the wider foreign policy aspect of Trump’s presidency, which appears to entail significant withdrawal from global leadership. Some of that leadership has, of course, been highly damaging and other parts of it ineffective. Nevertheless, Trump’s apparent admiration for Vladimir Putin (it’s no coincidence that the Russian Parliament applauded the result: Trump’s election, like Brexit, represent major foreign policy boosts for Russia) and lukewarm support for NATO could be highly de-stabilising for, especially, the Baltic States and the Balkans. This could have potentially devastating consequences, both for those regions and for the wider world, making anything and everything else that Trump’s presidency may mean completely trivial.

Going back to economic issues, I’ve depicted Trump’s election, like Brexit, as triumphs for nationalist populism. But they also represent a huge threat for it. Nationalist populism operates primarily as a vehicle of protest against the establishment. But when it is victorious it itself becomes the establishment and has to take responsibility for the policies it espouses. So what happens if (and, in my view, when) those policies fail? One possibility is that its supporters realise the error of their ways and return to liberalism and social democracy. Another, far more likely, outcome is that those supporters conclude that their leaders have been thwarted by the establishment or, even, that they have betrayed them. The reaction will be to turn even more harshly against perceived enemies: immigrants, liberals, democracy itself. And to seek and support even more extreme leaders. Many people around the world are scared about what Trump’s success means: the greater fear is what his failure will mean.

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