To really understand the Trump phenomenon, you have to prioritize the fact that Trump is running against the political class. This is the fundamental, though not exclusive, source of his newfound popularity and power. He is an antipolitical force. But, at the same time, he also does have a political agenda of his own.
The American Conservative, in rightly emphasising that Trump’s candidacy is powered by a grand repudiation of, and revenge upon, the political class which chronically oversees the administration of harm against ordinary people, ventures that Trump himself is more or less an ideologically vacant figure: “The point of nominating Trump isn’t really to promote a set of policies (one would be hard-pressed to describe Trump’s agenda in much detail in any case) but to repudiate the party leaders that have repeatedly disregarded and dismissed Trump voters’ interests and concerns.” This is certainly true, but it overlooks the political reorientation that Trump has broadly indicated is the desired outcome of his intervention into politics. You don’t have to be hard-pressed as all that to offer a broad description of it.
As a bourgeois who seems to only have undergone some kind of definitive transformation into a conservative during the Obama years, he has also, simultaneously, found himself “without a party” when looking to the GOP to represent him, and so the purpose of his intervention has been to initiate a hostile take-over to make it representative of the type of bourgeois he is. Now, the fact he even can do this is due to a pre-existing state of affairs: namely, the advanced state of enervation and rot party politics as a whole has reached, with the conservative side of the political establishment leading the way in the US. (And it should be noted: this means that this is not a crisis for the conservative side of politics alone; it will, sooner or later, engulf the Democrats too – has, already, in their utter major unelectability at the state and local levels in spite of the heinousness of their Republican opposites – and it will bring with it “opportunities”, such as we see with Sanders, which will themselves simultaneously become morbid symptoms of political derangement, confusion, losses and disarray yet to come.)
In this frame, thinking of Trump’s relation to conservatism as engaged in neither a straightforward repudiation or radicalisation but a type of reframing of it, the interesting part is that Trump then emerges in political terms as neither a moderate right-winger nor a radical right-winger – although he is a conservative. Instead, because he is engaged in an attempt at reformatting the conservative side of politics along a different spectrum of moderation and radicalism, he manifests as both simultaneously. This is the whole thing about his ideological malleability: while it relates directly to the fact that his trashing of the whole political class positions him outside of it – which is actually where his more moderate stances come from, not his radical ones, despite the flagrant antipathy toward the working class at work in the “horror” at the masses crashing the gilded gates of “the process” – that malleability is also part and parcel of his refusal of the stagnant doctrines of the Right as he attempts to assert a “new Republicanism”.
Reading what he’s actually had to say and listening to his speeches beyond the soundbite grabs, this Republicanism seems to be based on three main tiers:
1) the separation of US military force from its democratic promotion alibis – that is, the embrace of its unvarnished and unapologetic use as a weapon of punishment or conquest (cf. his stance on ISIS and on resource annexation) – but also its strategic limitation of deployment (cf. the angle of his excoriating critique of the Iraq invasion), with a focus on only acting when it can be sure the result will build US power, in consciousness of a sense of finitude about the dangers which come with squandering it, and building “co-management” alliances with other nations, like Russia (especially because of the turn for Trump toward a more aggressive stance against China). The line of logic, then, is the idea of a sort of “preservational imperium”, simultaneously more unabashed in its aggressive intensity and more moderated in use;
2) the “redistribution of market participation”: in her book, ‘The Undeserving Rich’, Leslie McCall makes a powerful case that the historical consequences related to such things as the non-emergence of a labour party in the US have forged social conditions which leads its working class, in particular, to strongly support measures against inequality which expand opportunity and redistribute earnings in the market even as they strongly oppose measures which try to attain the same end through redistribution of income after the fact with taxation and spending. Whether this is accurate or not as a description of fact in relation to the multifarious contradictoriness of what the US working class wants, Trump’s policies are lined up with this logic. His overall vision insists upon a reorientation toward a conservative, pro-market position which emphasizes “increase of social share” in the market, while continuing to stand in strict and recalcitrant opposition to the mobilisation of the aggregating power of state finances to fund social care. Thus, though Trump is staunchly opposed to wage increases and worker’s rights, he’s (at least rhetorically) for tackling employment opportunity through turning back to strategic tariffs. His talk of “smart trade” where free trade won’t suffice is his way of flagging support for promoting the stolen possibility of blue-collar careers. Likewise, although he’s against both universal public health care and welfare state expansion, he’s for introducing freedom for the state to negotiate on pharmaceutical prices, for the end of entry barriers of cheap import pharmaceuticals into the American domestic market, for the retention of Medicaid as a “safety net” for the lumpenproletariat, and for the dismantling of the 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act – with its exemption from antitrust provisions of the health sector in respect to erecting barriers against cross-state competition, exempting the health insurance industry from the jurisdiction of the federal consumer protection enforcement authorities, and opening the capacity for sharing information which contributes to price-fixing. Similarly, while he’s for reducing the corporate tax rate to zero, he’s also for calculating taxes on imports on the basis of how much the currency of the importing country is undervalued as well as for a twenty percent tax on companies which export jobs overseas. In all of this, what stands out (separate from whether any of it would actually work or not) is the high capitalist conservatism in the staunch defence of the authority and power of the market as the dominant and necessary mechanism of provision for workers (coupled with a conspicuous absence of any movement on freedom to organise their labour which might make this meaningful for them) connected to a consciousness that the balance of shares in the market that stabilises the legitimacy of otherwise conservative actions. Trump calls this “common-sense conservatism”.
3) the enforcement of what I’ll call “geoquarantine”, vetted by a “multicultural” poaching of what’s wanted through the immigration process: the (understandable) critical focus on the extremism of Trump’s border policies and his call for a temporary racialized religious ban on Muslims entering the United States has tended to either ignore his clear statements on his staunch support for generous legal immigration processes or to see them only as a kind of ploy or smoke screen, rather than a central distinguishing feature between his particular brand of reaction and that of the far right, both as it exists in the political process (exemplified by those who denounced him in the National Review) and outside of it (exemplified by David Duke). Listen to him and you’ll find that Trump expresses remarkably little concern with the direct racial composition of the US – his statements are actually quite notable for the utter absence of even sideways attention to this. To do so would require, as the right-wing critics of the National Review acidly insisted, looking to the legal immigration process too – and certainly not talking in the expansive terms about it that Trump does. Rather, he is instead activating the connections between race and citizenship and guiding them away from their racialist anchorage and toward a type of “multicultural geoexclusivism”, a paradigm which links the US to a set of geomorphological rather than biomorphological traits. For exactly that reason, for Trump, illegal immigrants carry with them, embodied in their illegality, the wrong geographical dimensions, regardless of already being in the US, even as, biologically, they present “no problem”, could theoretically come back through the “big door” in the wall, since there is a distinct absence of demonology in Trump’s approach of races qua races but, rather, only of races qua geography. The fact that largely clapped out and exhausted far right entities like the KKK or the American Nazis are either disorientated or deludedly opportunistic enough to think that Trump represents a shift toward their purist white supremacist views any closer than the Latino candidates, Rubio or Cruz, would take them – and the fact, further, Trump is willing (racistly, of course) to indulge them in this fantasy, in line with shoring up his hard right credibility as he shifts the spectrum toward his ends – thus diverts most critics from really unpacking the stance Trump has toward matters of legal immigration. In this respect, even the temporary Muslim ban he put forth – a blanketly discriminating ban on the grounds of race/religion – is useful for Trump insofar as it can appear a definitive response to “Islamist terrorism” while, in the very form of winding it back, gaining leverage for imposing some kind of a geomorphological heuristic going forth, a mandatory sortation process (such as quotas) which can figure out what constitutes the basis for not having to demonize Muslims “as a whole”, but, more insidiously, to work out functioning processes which sort “the good ones” from “the bad ones”. Functioning processes which would not be possible to attain by in their own right, starting out from the position of needing to introduce limited rules of discrimination into immigration policy devoted to the “special problem category” of Muslims, but which, wound back to in the context of the wider ban, appear moderate, a compromise, an artful deal attained through the work of an initial “big opening bid”.
In all these regards, Trump’s radicalism is recurrently to the left of the current far right – more moderate than it in key terms – even as it proposes a new line of scope for reactionary expansion. It’s an effort at resetting conservative politics, in other words, an effort at a paradigm shift. It’s reaction in response to new realities.
All of this, however, is a political project. And political projects require real social movements for their success and solidity, for their capacity to wield the power which alters the material composition of social relations in their favour, to simply be carried through, even if only in part. Despite the fact Trump is achieving a lift in new participants to the voting process, this surge of attachment to him is not grounded not in his political vision but, rather, in his destabilisation and humiliation of the political class – his anti-political disruptiveness. Indeed, there’s every reason to think that its relative weakness over and against the ongoing rates of non-participation amongst the ever-denounced “white working class” – that is to say, the fact the “Non-Voters Party”, with white workers making up large portions of its ranks, remains the biggest real movement in society – is related to the fact that, by and large, attracted as much as they are by his antipolitical critiques, Trump remains transparently enough of a political creature to many to give them no reason to back him as a real revolution against the field of politics altogether. And the more that Trump becomes another politician, even one who promises to offer a “new new morning in America”, the more the active popularity he does have will risk crashing as swiftly as it arose, with no institutionalised and deeply rooted social base to prop it up politically when it sells its temporary electoral support short.
So, as much as Trump may want to build a new Republican party, this simply isn’t going to happen – no more than Sanders has a chance of overseeing a new Democratic party – something the lack of lift in turnout for the Democrats in response to Sanders’ “political revolution” seems to indicate is already clear to many erstwhile left-oriented voters. The political vision Trump proposes may well turn out to be the direction that the conservative side of politics is forced to drift toward anyhow, as its own political crisis continues in the wake of him. But the fundamental point is this: Trump is, ultimately, a bourgeois who possesses a strong sense of political ambition. And it will not be his “recklessness”, his “incitements to violence”, his “lack of credentials”, and certainly not the finger-wagging identification by liberals and leftists of his gaucheness, his obscenity, his base cunning, or his trashing of all the rules of ‘proper’ political participation — let alone the totally shortsighted linkage of all these qualities to the utter repugnance of his racism and sexism — that will unravel him. It will be, rather, the basic similarity of his political ambition to that of the political class he is currently presenting himself as so subversively opposing that will bring him unstuck. Whether or not that only finally becomes clear in the wake of his being elected President, it will become clear. And when it does, he will be subject to a repudiation as sharp as that he is now bending to his own ends.