Socialists, and Marxists in particular, are often slow to fully see it when a sharp turn in the situation develops. Is that what’s happening now? Does Trump’s election represent a wide-scale loss of control of the US capitalist class over their own presidency? And if so, why and how has that happened and what does it mean?
Oaklandsocialist has been arguing for some time that that is exactly the case: That Trump’s history as a money launderer for the Russian mafia capitalist class has meant he is as much beholden to them as to the US capitalist class. That would mean exactly such a historic development.
“US” foreign policy?
The left in general seems to disagree. Michael Karadjis is an example. A professor at West Sydney College, Karadjis is one of the most thoughtful and best informed commentators on the events in Syria, so his thoughts should be taken seriously. Karadjis writes (in an email, quoted with his permission): “Was this collaboration [between Putin and Trump in the 2016 presidential elections] due to Trump being an agent of the Russian oligarchy as [Oaklandsocialist] claims? Trump may well have more special links with the Russian oligarchs than others have, but I just don’t think that is necessary to explain US policy. The position of the Trump team that China rather than Russia was the major rival to U.S. imperialist interests was entirely logical…. I’ve always thought it a mistake to view economically weak Russian imperialism as the major rival of US imperialism.”
Karadjis is looking at the major economic interests at work and draws a conclusion that would seem logical on its face. But the tip-off is his use of the term “U/S. policy”, which clearly refers to US foreign policy. But it is not “U.S.” foreign policy; it is Trump’s foreign policy, just as it is Trump’s relationship with Putin. We see that over and over.
Trump’s Helsinki Moment
We should remember Trump’s famous private meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July of 2018. This meeting caused a furor throughout the US foreign policy establishment, first and foremost because he took the side of a rival government over his own security apparatus. As Oaklandsocialist reported at the time, lifelong (former) Republican Max Boot called it “capitulation” and former CIA director John Brennan tweeted ““Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. [!]Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican patriots: Where are you???”. When have we ever seen such terms applied to a US president by such high standing capitalist figures?
Trump’s Troop Withdrawal
Following that, in December of 2018 Trump announced the full withdrawal of all US troops from Syria. Although that was never carried out, that announcement created a similar scandal. Among other things, it led to the resignations of Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Both of these right wing former military leaders were and are part of the “foreign policy establishment”. They represent the heart and soul of the US capitalist class, as do John Brennan and Max Boot. Even Lindsay Graham, normally a Trump attack dog, commented “If Obama had done this, we’d be going nuts right now.”
Trump vs. Bolton and Pompeo on Venezuela
Now we have the lesser commented on but just as significant Trump turnaround on Venezuela. A year ago this ignorant and impulsive president had been privately suggesting a US invasion of that country. On May 1, both Trump’s closest advisors raised the possibility of a US invasion in that country. National Security Advisor John Bolton said “all options are on the table” and Defense Secretary Pompeo warned a “military action is possible.” Pompeo also complained about the presence of Cuban and Russian troops there. Taken together, it is inconceivable that these two were not speaking on Trump’s behalf, especially considering that they are two of Trump’s closest appointees.
But then a strange thing happened: As Oaklandsocialist pointed out, two days later Trump had a private phone conversation with Putin and then commented that Putin “ is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela. And I feel the same way.” While the numbers are small, Russian troops and jet fighters in Venezuela are not there to help the Venezuelan working class, no more than Russian troops at home help the Russian working class. They are there to serve the interests of Russian capitalism. (As do US troops serve the interests of US capitalism wherever they are located.)
Even the Wall St. Journal, normally supportive of Trump, had to oppose his position on this in a column by Gerald Seib, who is probably their most important columnist. Seib also answered those who think that economic competition and the lack of economic prowess of Russia are the only matters of concern. “Mr. Putin got not opprobrium from the U.S., which is openly backing the Maduro foes, but instead a phone call lasting more than an hour with President Trump, in which they discussed Venezuela as well as other world hot spots,” Seib complains.
All of this should be seen in the context of Trump’s longstanding hostility to NATO. Even his neoconservative National Security Advisor Bolton is known to strongly oppose this, and for understandable reason. While Russian capitalism may not be a major economic competitor to US capitalism globally, it is the major military and political competitor for influence in what is the largest market in the world – the European Union. Not only that, but the European nations represent the overwhelming majority of the rest of the advanced capitalist world. In fact, the entire world political arrangement has been predicated on the alliance between US and Western European capitalism since WW II and, in a way, since even before that.
Trump’s money laundering and Putin
No, this is the foreign policy of Trump, not of US capitalism. As Oaklandsocialist has explained many times, it is the result of Trump’s longstanding role as a money launderer for the Russian mafia capitalist class. To quote from a previous article: ‘As early as 1986, the Russian secret service (of which Putin was the head) had made contact with Trump as the NY Magazine article reveals. A year following this contact, Trump visited Moscow, and when he returned he had suddenly developed an interest in politics, starting with a call for the US to… stop paying for NATO. (This is not saying we should support NATO, but it’s pretty clear why and when Trump suddenly developed this interest.) As NYmag writes (and as we had written about earlier): “From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases — a red flag of potential money laundering — of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” said Donald Jr. in 2008. “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,” boasted Eric Trump in 2014.”’
It is unrealistic to think that this relationship would not impact Trump’s policies, especially since an important strategy of Putin & Co. is to use “kompromat” to blackmail foreign political figures. And Trump’s original reason for running for president was to “boost his brand”, not to win. His sole concern is himself. Not only Hillary Clinton, but nearly everybody right across the political spectrum, including Trump himself, was stunned when he won.
Capitalist support for Trump
Yes, Trump has the support of some capitalists. There is Sheldon Addelson, whose support is centered around his support for the most extreme wing of Israeli politics, and Rebekah Mercer, who also is involved in extreme right wing politics worldwide. There is Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal. But his politics are at odds with the great majority of Silicon Valley capitalists. In any case, most of the capitalist support for Trump is despite his romance with Russian imperialism, not in support of it. The possible exception is Rebekah Mercer and the Mercer family. But they have direct ties to Putin through their Cambridge Analytica company. They also have direct links to the extreme right, including even fascists, through their control of Breitbart.
More importantly, there is the wing of the capitalist class represented by the editors of the Wall St. Journal. But the evolution of the WSJ’s views towards Trump is telling. During the 2016 Republican primaries, they were unrelentingly hostile. Then they became more or less silent when he became the nominee. Since he passed the tax windfall for the capitalists, the WSJ editors have become his number one cheerleaders. What they represent is the most short sighted wing of the capitalist class, the wing that considers next quarter’s bottom line as the be-all and the end-all. They support Trump despite his obeisance to Putin, not because of it.
And as far as China: Yes, Obama announced the famous “pivot towards China”, but that was more an increased focus on China vs. North Africa/Western Asia. It was not a “pivot” away from Russia. And anyway, as Newsweek has pointed out, that attention towards China was as early as 2001, and ‘Obama’s real “rebalance” is between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia.’ In other words, again, not away from Russia.
“This time it’s different”
Recently, Foreign Affairs, the online journal of the extremely influential Council on Foreign Relations, published an article called This Time It’s Different. Its author is Daniel Drezner, Tufts University professor and senior fellow at the also influential Brookings Institute. His thesis is that US capitalism (he doesn’t use that term) has faced crises before. Its leaders have made blunders – such as the invasion of Iraq – before. But “this time it’s different.” The “checks and balances”, through which the mainstream of the capitalist class can control their president, have been so weakened as to be nearly non-existent. Congress is now subservient to the president. As for the judiciary, it seems en route to being so politicized that it, too, cannot serve as a check. “At the same time as the international system cemented the United States’ structural power, the country’s domestic politics helped preserve a stable foreign policy. A key dynamic was the push and pull between different schools of thought. An equilibrium was maintained,” he writes.
Normally, there is a push and pull, a dynamic tension, between the president and his top appointees. This, too, is a means through which the capitalist class controls its sitting president. Trump’s cabinet meetings have been transformed into his top appointees bending the knee and swearing fealty to the king. No disagreement or questioning is allowed. Some capitalist strategists had hoped that the new attorney general, William Barr, would be somewhat independent. He is not. James Comey, in a column in the NY Times, describes the process through which Trump co-opts his appointees. “Accomplished people… can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive this president,” Comey writes. “James Mattis resigned over principle,” Comey says. He means the principle of what is in the strategic interests of US capitalism, as Mattis sees it. “Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions,” Comey writes.
So, Trump has captured the preferred party of US capitalism (although the other capitalist party is normally perfectly up to the task). Through that he had control over both houses of congress until the 2018 elections. He still controls the most powerful of those houses – the senate. He has total, one-man control over his appointees. And the most listened-to media outlet – Fox – has a direct channel to the presidency.
Donald Trump was not the choice of any significant wing of the capitalist class. They were shocked when their first choice, Jeb Bush, fizzled like a damp firecracker, but their second choice – Hillary Clinton – was a perfectly adequate substitute. Their relationship with Trump was symbolized by an encounter between Trump and a representative of the US Chamber of Commerce about a month after Trump was elected. As the Wall St. Journal put it, “US Biggest Lobbyist Gets Shut Out”. In that encounter, the Journal reports that an advisor to the Chamber, Stanton Anderson, was introduced to Trump at his Mar a Lago country club. Trump refused to shake his hand. He refused to shake the hand of an agent of the number one representative of the US capitalist class.
Madison’s warning comes to fulfillment
James Madison, intellectual leader of those who wrote the US Constitution, warned against exactly this situation. He warned against the danger of those “without landed or any sort of property” – in other words, the working class – who he warned would become the majority in the future. He warned “These will either combine under the influence of their common situation [in other words, class interests]; in which case the rights of property and the public liberty [for the ruling class] will not be secure in their hands, or, which is more probable [emphasis added], they will become the tools of opulence and ambition; in which case there will be equal danger on another side.” Madison was warning against a mass of people putting a demagogue into office which his class could not adequately control.
Isn’t that exactly what has happened?
Doesn’t it mean a major shift in the way that the US capitalist class rules in the US? Under “normal” conditions, capitalism rules through bourgeois or capitalist democracy. Through its control of the education system, the media, organized religion and other means, it is able to maintain a base of support within the entire population. This is a much safer means of rule for them, as opposed to “bonapartism”.
Under bonapartist rule, the capitalist class is so weakened that it’s lost its ability to control its own head of state. Such a head of state rises partly above and balances between the classes. No, we are not all the way there yet, and things might pull back yet. But they might not. Drezner concludes his article: “This time… the sky may really be falling.”
It seems that the great majority of socialists are having a difficult time wrapping their heads around this situation. There is a tendency to see Trump as simply a dangerous bigot and science denier. They see how his presence has helped stir up all sorts of violent, even outright fascist, forces. But what is resisted is the understanding that a major shift in capitalist rule in the US is under way. (How far it can go is yet to be determined.) What is resisted is a recognition that we may be facing the greatest change in capitalist rule in the United States since the US Civil War.
How far can it go?
One side of the equation has been emphasized here. No capitalist bonapartist ruler acts in complete conflict with all the interests of his capitalist class. Not everything Trump does – including in foreign policy – is a product of his relationship with the Russian mafia capitalist class. Nor is it all opposed to US capitalism’s interests. His hostility to Chinese capitalism, for example, in part represents the increased rivalry between these two imperialist super-powers. But even there, his policy is not simply that. Why did he oppose Pacific trade deal – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)? That deal was as much an attempt to limit Chinese capitalism’s influence throughout Asia as it was anything else. If Trump’s policy regarding China were purely a matter of US capitalism’s interests, he would have found a way to support the TPP or something similar.
It’s not all the way there yet, nor is it predetermined that we will go all the way there, but this shift is significant enough as it is.
The 2020 election will be telling. How far will Trump and the party he controls go to remain in office? In the 2018 elections, voter suppression was carried out in Georgia on such a scale as to steal that election for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Will such suppression and other fraud be used in a whole series of states in order to “reelect” Trump? If so, that would be an important further step towards outright bonapartist rule.
That seems to be an important part of why the US left has largely ignored the fact of Trump’s money laundering past – because it directly leads to the conclusion that he is at least as connected to a rival capitalist class as he is to his own capitalist class.
Yes, truly, this time it’s different.