Trump and the limits of globalization

By Steve Ellner December 30, 2016 –– Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Steve Ellner’s blog with the author’s permission –– Many analysts have belittled the seriousness of Donald Trump's anti-globalization rhetoric and even such jingoistic proposals as the construction of a wall along the Mexican border. They point to Trump’s appointments of such global players as Rex Tillerson and Steven Mnuchin as evidence that Trump cannot and will not turn his back on global commitments and realities. Along these lines, William I. Robinson (whose work I have always admired and used extensively in the classroom) argues that Trump represents the rise of neo-fascism, but in no way threatens to put a halt to, or a break on, globalization. As proof, he points to the global dimensions of Trump’s own capitalist holdings. In contrast to Robinson, I argue that globalization is still basically a tendency rather than an all-encompassing reality and that the nation state is a fundamental element, which has to be at the center of any analysis of the world’s political economy. The Trump phenomenon demonstrates that the ruling class of the world's most powerful nation is very much divided as to the pluses and minuses of globalization, in two ways. First, the hardened opposition to Trump’s candidacy by much of the U.S. elite indicates the degree to which the nation’s ruling class is fractured. Second, the willingness of former adversaries within the establishment to make their peace with Trump puts in evidence the ruling class’s ambivalence regarding globalization. Had Bernie Sanders been elected president, the ruling class in its totality would have carried out an all-out campaign against him both before and after his election. The fact that Republicans and business leaders who doggedly opposed Trump’s candidacy have toned down their rhetoric, and are seeking an understanding with the new president, is a reflection of the ambivalence of the nation’s elite regarding globalization. Furthermore, even before Trump’s nomination as Republican Party candidate, he counted on the unwavering support of such important political actors as Fox News and Newt Gingrich, who undoubtedly represent the interests of sectors of the nation’s bourgeoisie. Trump's anti-globalization discourse cannot be discarded as mere bluster. To completely turn his back on his main campaign offer of reversing free trade policies would be political suicide. By doing so, Trump would forfeit his largest social base of support – that is, the white working class – and leave himself vulnerable to the revengeful actions of powerful political actors who he had insulted during the campaign, who would then give encouragement to and abet popular and progressive sectors opposed to his reactionary positions. There is a consistency to Trump's positions. His racist statements particularly against Mexicans are designed to underpin and provide credibility to his promises to put a halt to the exodus of jobs and to renegotiate NAFTA. Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that two major targets of Trump's attacks are Mexico and China, while he has at least until now had kind words for Russia's Vladimir Putin. Mexico and China, unlike Russia, have been major recipients of U.S. investments in the area of production for the U.S. market. Trump’s aim is not to return to pre-globalization times or to insulate the U.S. economy from global pressures. If that were the case he would not have chosen Tillerson and Mnuchin for such top cabinet posts. However, for reasons I state above, he will probably go beyond mere symbolic gestures to counter aspects of globalization; such actions will have an important impact on the economy, given the volatility of financial markets. What the Trump phenomenon tells us is that globalization writers of all stripes underestimate the degree to which the U. S. bourgeoisie is concerned about the deteriorated state of affairs in the nation. Humanitarian considerations are obviously not in the forefront of its concerns. Regardless of the degree to which their business interests are tied to the global economy and the intricacy of those ties, U.S. businesspeople are affected in major ways by decisions taken at the level of the nation state. And the U.S. bourgeoisie has infinitely greater clout in Washington than in any European nation, and even more so in the case of China. The importance of this political factor is the most convincing explanation as to why the U.S. bourgeoisie is receptive, to the extent that it is, to Trump's proposals to "make America great again."