What should the radical Left expect from a Trump presidency?

by · January 21, 2017

Getting straight to work

Getting straight to work


So, what might we expect out of a Trump presidency?

For Trump to maintain his prime source of power, he will not only need to uphold his existing anti-political position — which only got him over the line; no more or less — but will have to augment and expand it. The quickest and most sure-fire way in which this will be dead on arrival is if he proceeds to act only as a rubber stamp for the GOP agenda. If he cedes his freedom of action in relation to them in this way, or is otherwise quickly corralled, those who are taking heart in his relative lack of popular approval will find themselves rewarded. If he ends up serving the GOP, rather than forcing the GOP to serve him (even where the two already agree ideologically), this will substantialise into a sharp, fatal withdrawal of his authority. An anti-Trump movement would thrive in such an environment because it would be pushing at an open door.

But if he doesn’t roll over and is not quickly contained, as I would forecast is more likely, what precisely might we expect out of him on core policy fronts? Here are some guesses as to possible developments on four of the key areas.


If Trump were to go ahead and force, as he says he will, the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies to lose their protected monopoly status in price negotiations and cross-state competition restrictions, and he isn’t simultaneously offering a universal state health care single-payer program as an alternative way for them to continue to make an assured (even if reduced) profit through the state, those companies will go into a massive crisis. Under ordinary circumstances, that would be enough to ensure those monopoly controls would be retained.

This, unlike that of a regular politician, is not Trump’s concern. The extent to which it becomes his concern is the extent to which he becomes just another politician. I suspect that Trump will propose what Obama didn’t. Basically, a competitive private health market operating across state lines, with a public option. The public option might be capped based on income and wealth, and largely function as a takeover of the Medicaid expansion.

If he gets this done, his popularity is liable to explode. He will have traversed existing ideological antagonisms and delivered an outcome that maintains expanded public coverage without negating the upper petit bourgeois and bourgeois wish to keep the private health insurance options alive. For now. The in-built crisis it will leave for the privates will, more likely than not, create a mess that the political class might even have no option left but to solve through a move to a universal single-payer.

Foreign policy

It’s too early to assess what Trump’s general direction is going to be on this front. So far as it goes, just as Obama’s independence in relation to factions of the political class (as well as his technocratic “resource-rational” mode of navigating the state) enabled him to administer the empire with an obliquely interventionist military distance, Trump is even more freed up from the push and pull of state interests when it comes to these questions.

Despite the stuff about his having his finger agitatedly on the button, I expect we are more like to see a softer touch in terms of “boots on the ground” military commitments, continuing the Obama years, but with perhaps an enhanced brutality in the conduct of the kind of surgical interventions which Obama signaturised with his drone empire. I would also speculate that the greatest likelihood of major conflict would evolve out of either a stratagem of his opposition for trying to assert greater direct state control over the Executive, or as an outcome of needing to find a solution to the debilitation of US capitalism’s functioning, which Trump’s own efforts to find a temporary fix to its stagnation might induce.


Right now, there seems to be a view forming that Trump is going to be a Bush II do-over, only megascale. But Bush II’s administration imposed its fiscal policy out of a combination of ideological indifference to the cost of tax cuts and an inability to force through the spending cuts he ideologically would’ve wanted to fund that, especially to Social Security. The “crisis of state debt” in the tax-cut regime, the corporate welfare system, and the paying of private companies to dispense what would otherwise be state services was always engineered to be the basis for claiming “we’re broke, we can’t afford welfare”, and to force the “exigencies” to pay for the spending.

Trump’s statements on the debt indicate he doesn’t care much ideologically about all that. In both directions, it seems: he doesn’t hold the view that the debt can no longer be expanded and he doesn’t have a fixation on hyper-ideologically shrinking the (social) state to pay back that debt.* On the contrary, his focus is much more on figuring out how to engineer a political situation in which creditors simply must accept whatever he does in terms of spending because the alternative to not accepting it is that they, too, will risk losing everything. In fact, I suspect this is part of why most of the political class is banking on Trump to be reined in by the GOP Congress and/or the state.

Meanwhile, prior to his recent remarks about printing money — which, as C. Derick Varn ironically noted, could almost be said to point in a Modern Monetary Theory direction — Trump caused controversy when, asked about how he would handle spending, he said: “I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal.” Or, in other words, though it was walked back tactically, it seems Trump is basically extending the “too big to fail” principle to the US state itself. I have no clue how that’s going to go, or if it even will go anywhere. I expect that Trump might be thinking of using the military spending he promises as a stealth stimulus and jobs program, as this will be politically untenable for the GOP to refuse. I also assume his efforts to try and act upon the trouble US capitalism is in could well bring on the crisis it’s meaning to escape. But that crisis might be military rather than economic, and might come after a Trump administration (under, say, a Democrat).

Social policy

I would wager that Trump’s susceptibility to being drawn to a programmatic reactionariness in respect to social policies will tend to find solid ground proportional to how much these can be captured by anti-Trump political positioning. Hence, the more that anti-discrimination units, gender and racial equality programs, state funded outreach activities and packages, the education system, and so on, become explicitly self-politicised in a singular “resistance” to Trump, the more they can expect Trump to be driven back toward the GOP agenda, and the more they can expect that agenda to be imposed by Trump not as orthodox GOP ideological fixations but as “pro-Trumpism” — as an assertion of his anti-political authority against a “special interest” captured political class. I think that the biggest problem with the “anti-normalisation” and “radicalisation” (more accurately, pro-polarisation) mind-set of the Left, in this regard, is refusal to recognise that the more it engages in associating these policy sectors, funds, and provisions closely with its activism as part of the political sphere, the less those very sectors, funds, and provisions can present themselves as too socially essential for Trump to safely attack.

Quietism is not being recommended here, but, rather, a deprioritisation of the purely political-class and activist-strata effort to “confront” Trump at an abstracted remove from any specific assaults on people’s interests as they emerge. Better to strategise an emphasis — whether it be, in more liberal and soft Left terms, through the media or state-internal channels, or, in more radical terms, through contentious acts of lawbreaking and disobedience — on exerting pressure on Trump in a way that undermines his anti-political authority, by driving home how ideological it would be to deprive people of that aid. Especially ordinary, non-political people. And, extra-especially, Trump voters themselves; not just the “white working class” ones — given that “Trump voters” is now taken by the Left as a virtual synonym for that social group — but, rather, that small-yet-extremely-conjuncturally-important group of non-whites, as well as women, who went for him, and who carry the authority of being able to, if their interests are attacked, speak as burned Trump supporters.

It would follow that the continuing anathematisation of and contempt towards said voters would need to be rethought. A truly radical strategy would demand a certain ideological de-cathexis about the assumed composition, “locked” affinities, and projected attachments of those who went for Trump, or didn’t feel moved enough by the ostensibly massive threat he posed to back Clinton. Greater focus on the so-called “depoliticised” public — not to ideologise them (i.e. “win them to Marxism”, “queer radicalism”, “feminism”, etc.) but to engage them in specific actions related to their direct self-interest on any given point, with the wider and broader political changes they undergo, if any, secondary to that — would seem to me to have the most strategic efficacy. This is so given there is no mass organised framework or institution-creating force grounded in mass social activity, and which might be able to bind people into a mass politically-structured project anew, let alone one so refined and purpose-fit it could respond to a project of deposing an incumbent purely on a left-political “wokeness” about his extra order of evil (no matter how qualified that putative wokeness is about the general evil out of which this particular evil has emerged.)

Though Trump has nothing like the popular base Obama did, the politically woke approach won’t fly any better than did the Tea Party’s frustrated efforts to catalyse a far-right driven anti-Obama social “rebellion” through their fixation on him as an extra order of evil over “norms” of prior presidencies. It will simply not be able to escape looking transparently ideological to the rest of society in the way that the Tea Party formation did outside its own ranks. And it would find itself equally as frustrated — just as incapable, even with those, outside the political sphere and its followers, who didn’t vote for Trump, didn’t vote at all, and who know there is nothing socially emancipatory to be gained from Trump, to achieve a mass purchase.


* Though it remains to be seen what he might slash out of the state’s spending — not for purposes of “balancing the budget” but for instrumental reasons of maintaining a pledge on solvency through the ritual of cuts to “waste”, such as regulatory agencies, or “the superfluous”, such as arts funding.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Barry says:

    Readers might be interested in this take on Trump via my blog, C21st Left. It looks at aspects that ‘the media don’t seem to get’. “The big event was Trump beating the entire Republican establishment as a complete outsider in a hostile takeover. Most attention has been directed at the subsequent defeat of the Democrats and the wailing and gnashing of teeth from their celebrities and media. But the situation on the Republican side is far more interesting”. https://c21stleft.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/notes-on-trump-by-arthur-dent/