Trump and the Anti-Establishment Fantasy
The Balance of Power in the New Trump Administration
After running as a political outsider, Donald Trump now finds himself having to navigate between two uneasily aligned factions. On one side is an emboldened right-populist base, personified by incoming White House chief strategist and Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon, that wants to see a fundamental turnover among the people in charge. On the other is a more mainstream Republican wing represented by figures like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that is preoccupied with standard conservative issues. These include reducing taxes on the wealthy, marketizing social services, and bolstering defense spending.
As the Trump White House takes shape, this jostling for influence within the new administration will not only affect the balance of power among state institutions and their internal dynamics, but also determine whose interests will best be represented. Bannon has previously expressed a desire to overturn the political establishment, yet it is clear that other Trump loyalists and converts within the GOP are intent on benefiting from the party’s new majority in government. The nature of Trump’s coalition naturally raises the question of how these interests will be reconciled. The outcome will reveal much about the distribution of political power within the administration, and between it and the state.
One possibility is the radical transformation of “the establishment” favored by Bannon. He has just finished overseeing a presidential campaign that used dog whistle tactics to mobilize the xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic far right into a key part of their constituency. Much has already been written about the scorched earth character of Trump’s campaign and the highly troubling potential for the erosion of democratic freedoms that his presidency promises. A former Goldman Sachs banker and self-described “hard-nosed capitalist,” Bannon made his fortune through a variety of financial and entertainment ventures. But the 2008 financial crash allowed him to articulate the conservative economic populism that became the ideological staple of Trump’s campaign: “In the last 20 years, our financial elites and the political class have taken care of themselves and led our country to the brink of ruin;” meanwhile the Tea Party was composed of “the people who fight our wars, pay our taxes, run our civic organizations, who build our cities and who hold our neighborhoods together.”
Interestingly, in 2013 Bannon allegedly told former radical-turned-conservative historian Ronald Radosh that he was an admirer of Lenin, saying: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” What should we make of this claim? There are limits to what motives we can extrapolate from two sentences, especially as conveyed through a secondhand account. Perhaps Bannon was just engaging in the kind of ironic provocation that has become the calling card of today’s white supremacists (read: the alt right). But it is also possible that Bannon was being sincere.
If Bannon’s Leninism has any intellectual grounding, it is in his belief that state institutions are spaces where entrenched interests are able to concentrate their power, wielding them as an instrument while inoculating themselves from the masses as a whole. Although Lenin’s political strategy had important nuances throughout his life, in The State and Revolution, written on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power, he was unambiguous about both the character of the bourgeois state and the political strategy for opposing it. The state, and especially its repressive organs like the police, the military, and carceral institutions, were best understood as “a special force for the suppression of a particular class.” Being an instrument wielded by the bourgeoisie for the exploitation and oppression of the proletariat, the inherent rationale for the state’s existence precluded the possibility of reform. “The liberation of the oppressed class,” Lenin wrote, “is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power, which was created by the ruling class.” This destruction of the state entailed a protracted and militant struggle. It would culminate in the seizure of the repressive and administrative institutions in which state power was concentrated, and their radical reorganization into the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Bannon’s claim of destroying the establishment — primarily meaning the political class made up of both Democratic and GOP elites, and their global financial networks — expresses hostility at an insular network of power and influence. In Bannon’s case this view has been supplemented with a familiar variety of far right conspiracy theories that see global and national politics in terms of a simplistic relationship of direct cause (hidden interests) and effect (policy). In his past remarks, Bannon has purported to represent a “growing global anti-establishment revolt against the permanent political class at home, and the global elites that influence them,” and an “insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment.” If the purpose of the state is to carry out the interests of a secretive elite, there is no possibility of negotiating or incrementally changing it. By identifying “the state” with “the establishment,” Bannon effectively collapses two terms with distinct meanings into a monolithic entity, and counterposes them to a strategy of relentless opposition and insurgency with the aim of its destruction.
Despite this superficial similarity, the rest of Bannon’s views do not neatly map onto Lenin’s thought. Bannon’s right-populist rhetoric about financial elites and the civic virtues of middle America is worlds away from Lenin’s treatment of imperialist rivalry and the class struggle. Lenin was highly skeptical of populism, and he expressed no sentimentalities toward the plight of the middle classes and their supposedly tightly-knit social fabric, nor did he simply want to “bring everything crashing down.” For these reasons, it would be misleading to prioritize Bannon’s supposed affection for Lenin as the key for explaining Trump’s presidential agenda as a whole. A more useful lens for understanding the nature and priorities of the Trump administration can be found in another source.
In 1969, the British Marxist scholar Ralph Miliband published a work titled The State in Capitalist Society. Arriving at the moment when the Keynesian welfare state had reached its apex and would soon give way to the legitimation and economic crises of the following decade, the book made an immediate impact. Miliband argued that the political systems of capitalist liberal democracies were not especially pluralistic, nor had the advent of the modern corporate model successfully transcended its class character. In other words, Western liberal democracies were still decidedly class societies — ones where the power and resources of the economically dominant classes translated into their political power. And as the economic role of the state grew under contemporary capitalism, one could also observe that much of the top echelon of state institutions were populated by economic and social elites. As Miliband wrote, “In terms of social origin, education and class situation, the men who have manned all command positions in the state system have largely, and in many cases overwhelmingly, been drawn from the world of business and property, or from the professional middle classes.”
Over the next two decades The State in Capitalist Society proved to be an important and influential work that spawned a series of debates among sociologists and political scientists concerning the relationship between political power and social classes. While its star waned somewhat under an onslaught by more theoretically sophisticated variants of neo-Marxist thought, today Miliband’s insights seem all the more prescient. For example, in 2014 Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University published a provocative study titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” They had found that compared to average citizens, economic elites and organized business interests had a significantly disproportional amount of influence on government policy. The best approximation of the political system that existed in the U.S., they concluded, was neither majoritarian democracy nor pluralism, but a “biased pluralism” at best and “economic-elite domination” at worst. As Gilens and Page noted, Miliband’s observations closely approximated their own conclusions that interest groups and corporations representing “large scale business” tended to prevail when it came to policy making.
Historically, the least democratic periods of American history have coincided with the unimpeded and unmediated influence of capitalist interests upon the state. Within the debates that were spawned by Miliband’s book, one of the most influential voices was that of Nicos Poulantzas, who argued that the capitalist state needed to retain some degree of autonomy from the interests of any specific fraction of capitalists, in order that it could promote the hegemonic, long-term interests of the capitalist class as a whole. In contrast to this general formulation, the Trump administration promises to inaugurate the closest realignment between state institutions and the direct representation of a segment of capitalist interests since at least the 1930s.
Set aside for a moment Trump’s own well-documented conflicts of interest between his public office and his businesses. His political appointments, including numerous representatives of corporate interests with little to no political experience, thus far have been made on the basis of loyalty and the potential for grift. If Trump’s recent cabinet nominations and the “deal” he negotiated with Carrier to much fanfare are any indication, he will oversee a haphazard and chaotic combination of federal subsidies to loyalists; bombastic, Potemkin-style infrastructure projects; and the systematic deconstruction of the already-tattered safety net. Under such arrangements, state institutions historically favored by progressives — like the EPA and the Departments of Education, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services — now stand to be directed by individuals who are openly hostile to their very existence, and who will undoubtedly benefit from their gutting.
What the Trump administration promises to bring, in other words, is the mobilization of authoritarian right-populism within civil society combined with the re-imposition of direct class rule on the level of the state. We are seeing a shift in the logic of governance, away from state institutions mediating competing interests on the behalf of the general interests of the capitalist class, that has characterized both Democratic and Republican administrations since the New Deal, to a more direct exercise of class rule on behalf of particular fractions involved in Trump’s coalition. Although it is too early to say for sure, this turn toward their more “hands on” involvement in governance may be symptomatic of a structural shift in which the interests of landed, infrastructural, and resource-based enterprises move to the forefront of the new Republican coalition while banking and finance is integrated into a supporting role (the jubilance on Wall Street notwithstanding).
Bannon’s war against the establishment is thus likely to fail due to the fact that other influential members of Trump’s cabinet are poised to reap the rewards of their new positions, and to reinforce a politics of inequality. But the damage he leaves in his wake could resonate for decades to come. His cultural and rhetorical assault promises to further delegitimize the importance of constitutional rights and liberties, and thus to encourage voter suppression, civil rights violations, and illegal detention. Coupled with this is a less visible but equally insidious process of institutional decay and atrophy, driven by the utter nihilism of the dominant classes toward the possibility of a more egalitarian economic and social order. These have been persistent problems over the course of American history, ones that have long preceded Trump. Now they have been articulated in a particularly noxious way, combining anti-establishment ideology with the exploitation of state institutions for personal benefit and a blatant disregard for workers, minorities, and the poor. While much still remains to be seen, none of this leaves us with little to be optimistic about.