Donald Trump: an unprecedented crisis

Trump attempted to install himself as a bonapartist… and he may yet do so.

Donald Trump represents something entirely new in US politics. Because what he represents is so different from what we had over the past 150 years, many people, ironically including most socialists, are having a great deal of difficulty understanding his phenomenon. This leads them to making all sorts of mistakes, which have been exposed most clearly at each stage of the Trump crisis. The majority of socialists have tended to ignore the impeachment trials, the January 6 House Subcommittee hearings, and the present indictments. When pressed, they dismiss it as just “a battle among the elites” or “a legalistic form of ruling class rivalry” and unworthy of serious discussion. In this article we will show the fundamental mistake of this attitude and why it matters. We will show that:

  • Trump is not supported by any “wing” of the capitalist class nor is there a split in the Republican Party.
  • Trump represents a tendency towards one person dictatorship, also known as “Bonapartism”.
  • This drive of Trump (and the related policies) was blocked by all wings of the US capitalist class, but only in part.

We will also explain what Bonapartism is, how and why it developed in various countries, and how it balances between the classes. We will discuss the similarities and differences between those situations and the Trump regime. This must include a realistic assessment of the situation in the U.S. working class.

Finally, we will draw some conclusions for socialists for today.

Is the Republican Party “split”?

Mitch McConnell is silent while Kevin McCarthy pays fealty to King Donals. Trump has taken over the Republican Party lock, stock, and barrel.

In January of 2021, after nearly the entire Republican Party, Mitch McConnell included, let Trump off the hook for his role in January 6 coup attempt, the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote: “The supposed civil war within the Republican Party is over. The neo-Confederates [ = Trump & Co.] have won.” That is doubly so today, with nearly the entire Republican leadership denouncing the indictments. As for Mitch McConnell, he remains silent, thereby enabling the rest of the leadership to carry the day. Other Republicans like Mitt Romney are just “dead men walking”.

While there may be some differences regarding Trump, there is no major split in the Republican Party. The same is true for the capitalist class as a whole.

There is no particular wing of the capitalist class that is behind Trump. The oil and related industries? Even the Koch family has abandoned Trump as did the former Exxon CEO and Trump’s former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. In the 2020 election, the oil and gas industry CEO’s were somewhat split, but this time round they are abandoning Trump. Despite all of this, Trump still has a commanding lead in the presidential nomination race.

In other words, there is no wing of the capitalist class that controls Trump. This situation is a sharp change from the past.

Capitalist democracy vs. Bonapartism
Ever since the US Civil War different factions of the US ruling class – the capitalist class – more or less dominated US politics through their two political parties. They advanced slogans and ideas that they both held in common while they also differed over some issues, and they mobilized different voting blocs around those differences. In this way, they dominated US politics through building a base of support. They were able to do this partly due to the peculiar way that US capitalism developed, also through the global power of US capitalism, and also due to the complicity of the US union leadership. In most other parts of the world, especially the former colonial world, the capitalist class could not build such an unchalleged base. That is why dictatorships – Bonapartism – repeatedly arose and continues to do so there. Here are a few examples of Bonapartism:

Lázaro Cárdenas, a Mexican Bonapartist

Mexico under the PRI
After the great Mexican Revolution (1910-17), the peasantry and the small but powerful working class was in an uproar while the feeble capitalist class had no credibility. Key were the oil workers, who went on strike. Into this crisis stepped Mexican general Lázaro Cárdenas, whose first step was to nationalize the oil industry. Out of his rule the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” (PRI) developed and held power for 70 years. The PRI balanced between the different classes, at times making concessions to both the working class and the peasantry. Meanwhile, they ripped off all of them, including the capitalist and the landlord classes. (B. Traven’s great novel “Government” gives a vivid description of how the Bonapartist PRI government operated.)

Arab States
Something similar happened in many Arab states with the old Ba’ath Parties. That included the regime of Hafez al-Assad (father of present dictator Bashar al-Assad). In these and similar cases, the regimes resorted to wide scale nationalization of industries. It was and is similar to the Hugo Chavez and now Maduro regime in Venezuela. There, major reforms were enacted in the earlier years, but since this was in the post-Soviet era, nationalization was not on the agenda.

To summarize: In situations like those described above, the capitalist class cannot decisively rule over society because it’s lost its base. The working class cannot replace it as the ruling class, almost always because of the role of its leadership. As a result, a stalemate develops,. Such stalemates cannot last indefinitely. Into that stalemate steps a Napoleon Bonaparte-like figure, who balances between the classes, at times even favoring the working class in particular struggles while also repressing it. At other times such regimes favor the capitalist class. Meanwhile it loots both classes, and at all times it ensures the continuation of capitalism.

Trump a would-be bonapartist?
Does that description fit how Trump came into office and the base he maintains to this day? Well, yes and no.

When Trump was elected (by a minority of votes), there was not anything like a mass movement from below. Nothing like the Mexican oil workers shutting down the key industry, nor the colonial revolutions that had swept through the Arab world at the time of the rise of the Ba’ath Parties. But what had developed was a thorough disgust with all the established capitalist institutions, both the two parties and the mainstream capitalist media. This disgust was mainly due to the previous decades of unrelenting attacks on workers’ jobs and wages – attacks that were justified by the claim that soon globalization would bring all sorts of benefits. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” was the mantra. This disgust was manipulated mainly by the radical far right and magnified by the Tea Party wing of the Republicans. It was and is kind of like the Frankenstein monster who eventually grew out of the control of its own creator.

Trump’s concessions to US workers far greater
We should remember how Trump campaigned in 2016. He made all sorts of xenophobic and racist appeals, and he and his party continue to do so today. But also a big plank of his in 2016 was his opposition to the Trans Pacific [trade] Partnership

The extremely unpopular Trans Pacific Partnership: “Globalization” in action.

(TPP). This deal was extremely unpopular among workers, especially blue collar workers, exactly because it represented the same globalization of the economy that had been devastating the US working class for decades. And Trump’s first official act was to cancel the TPP. It was an example of making a concession to the U.S. working class over the heads of and against the wishes of nearly the entire US capitalist class. In this, there was a similarity to Mexico’s PRI and the Ba’ath Parties in the Arab world, as we have explained. Then, during the Covid crisis, Trump strong-armed his own party into passing a relief bill that was far greater than what they had intended.

Crisis of US working class
But a huge difference from previous examples was that there was no working class movement that seriously threatened the US capitalist class. In fact, large sectors of the US working class supported Trump. For example, in 2020 40% of voters from union households voted for Trump. (For more on this, see US political perspectives: an incredible situation.) Rather than a crisis caused by a mobilized working class, there was and is a crisis of weakness in both major classes. The capitalist class had a crisis in that its credibility with the wider population was at an all time low. And the working class was angry but also confused, divided and unable to mobilize. Sections of the working class were open to Trump’s racist and xenophobic appeals, partly because of the huge changes in the world situation and partly due to the historic role of the union leadership.

A partial stalemate in the form of a vacuum had opened up.

Trump’s attempts to establish one-man (Bonapartist) rule stymied by capitalist class
Into that vacuum stepped Donald Trump.

While the situation was different, there were also strong similarities with situations where Bonapartist dictatorships arose. As Trump’s cancellation of the TPP – and his attacks on NATO throughout his reign – showed, he was never under the control of any significant sector of the capitalist class. Trump tried to seize complete personal control, but the capitalist class retained enough power that it was able to prevent that.

As Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mike Milley is the military-industrial complex personified. He helped put the brakes on Trump’s wilder ambitions.

The most clear example of the situation was that it was not the working class that directly prevented Trump from taking complete control; it was the military wing of the federal government! They made that clear in June of 2020 after Trump had threatened to use the Insurrection Act to put US troops in the streets. At that time Trump’s Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Milley stressed that U.S. military officers were loyal to the US Constitution not an individual and that they would obey every lawful order. The clear unspoken message was that they would not obey an unlawful order. Again, during the post 2020 election crisis, when Trump suggested declaring martial law and having troops seize the ballot boxes, the military tops made clear that they would not go along with this. This was one of the most important wings of the US capitalist class – the military industrial complex – making clear to Trump that they would prevent him from overturning the traditional means of capitalist rule in the US – capitalist democracy (popularly promoted on CNN and MSNBC as “our democracy”).

They might have done so partly out of fear of a rebellion from below. But also, the capitalist class has learned over centuries of rule that capitalist democracy is far more efficient and far more stable than is Bonapartist dictatorship.

Another element that blocked Trump at every turn was the federal bureaucracy itself, especially its mid and upper level managers. Most of these are protected by civil service laws. That is why before he left office Trump introduced “Schedule F”, which would have enabled him to fire around 50,000 such managers. This would have been an important step in his moving towards establishing one-person rule, in other words Bonapartism. (If he is elected in 2024, he will almost certainly try the same thing again.) Again, this is opposed by the capitalist class as a whole. As the Economist magazine put it “if [government] officials cannot challenge political appointees’ madder proposals for fear of being fired, policy will rot from the inside…. The deconstruction of the administrative state could begin. The vain and tyrannical whims of an emperor-president would emerge from the rubble.” (One could hardly get a better example of this than the tremendous blunder that Putin committed in ordering the invasion of Ukraine.)

Finally, and most clearly, were Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 elections, first through “legal” means including court challenges, organizing slates of fake electors, pressuring Pence to violate the Constitution, and looking into using the Insurrection Act to establish martial law. Then when all else failed, Trump tried to organize a violent coup.

January 6 temporarily shocked even the Republican Party. Trump brought them to heel in short order though.

Nearly the entire Republican Party reeled in shock from January 6. Even Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell denounced Trump. But they were quickly brought to heel and both Republican leaders did everything they could to prevent the second impeachment and conviction of their leader. Later, they even defended Trump’s theft of highly secret documents and his refusal to return them, in defiance of court orders.

The capitalist class cannot take this sitting down. They have concluded that they must hit back. So far, Trump faces three indictments and he almost certainly will face a fourth. The judge in the Washington DC election fraud case put the matter perfectly when she ruled on a previous but related case. “Presidents are not kings and plaintiff is not president,” she wrote. She might as well have been referring to Trump himself, and this short sentence embodies the attitude of the US capitalist class.

Some conclusions
There have always been a few capitalists who think they can roll the clock back 100 years. Due to the crisis of the US working class, there may be a few more such capitalists now than there were in the past. These Trump supporting capitalists could be called the “lumpenized capitalists”. However, there is no wing of the US capitalist class that supports Trump’s drive towards Bonapartism. As we showed, this includes both the oil industry and the military-industrial complex. Even finance capital in the main does not support Trump. That is why Trump was thwarted in his drive towards Bonapartism. However, due to the weakness and lack of credibility of the US capitalist class and its institutions, including its media, Trump did make unprecedented headway while in office, and the capitalist class may not be able to prevent him from regaining office and moving a lot further down that road.

To summarize: in the past, the main debates in US politics represented little more than one wing of the capitalist class mobilizing support for its particular interests and policies against another wing. That is not what’s happening this time. The unprecedented nature of both the Trump presidency and the present political crisis should force us to look at things through fresh eyes. We should pay close attention to the capitalist opposition to Trump. Today that opposition takes the form of the present indictment crisis. We should see these indictments in light of this new general situation (Trump as a would-be Bonapartist) rather than impose a template of the past on the changed present. To this should be added the global tendency in the same direction. Those who fail to do so, or who dismiss the significance of this crisis are viewing the present through the eyes of the past. This will inevitably cause them to make the same mistake when advocating a program, a path forward. For one thing, it will mean taking an old and outmoded view of the upcoming election.

Given the extremely serious situation in Ukraine, in the United States and in the world, we simply cannot afford to continue to view the present situation through the lens of the past.

In a future article, we will draw on these points to show how they relate to the upcoming elections.

Trump attempted to install himself as a bonapartist… and he may yet do so.

2 replies »

  1. John, your “bonapartism” thesis is interesting, and I hear versions of it being discussed by many people. But in practice, the Trump presidency carried out traditional Republican Party policies of cutting taxes and regulations, at least domestically. Internationally, Trump was non-traditional in his criticism of the military and CIA and NATO and his embrace of Putin and North Korea. Now the conservative capitalists, via the Heritage Foundation, have come out with their Project 2025 plan for the next Republican president. It focuses on cutting regulations, indeed slashing entire sections of the federal bureaucracy, especially those dealing with reducing reliance on carbon and transitioning to renewables. This plan is not specifically endorsed by Trump yet, but its authors were major figures in the Trump administration. It seems clear that Trump would adopt such a plan just as he previously adopted the Republican proposals on cutting taxes. Trump is not interested in opposing the right-wing trend of the capitalist class any more than the other candidates are.

    • Of course Trump didn’t abandon many of the policies of the Republicans (deregulation, etc.), but we simply cannot afford to keep looking at this situation through the lens of the past. How can anybody say that Trump was and is not basically different? In the first place, as even you admit, Trump’s foreign policies in many ways broke with fundamental planks of those of both parties, especially the Republicans. I’m referring first and foremost to his continued attempts to undermine the most important alliance of the US capitalist class – NATO. Then his siding with Putin against the US intelligence services. What other president has ever been called a “traitor” by mainstream members of his own party? What other president has ever made a serious, all-out effort to overturn an election? What other president wanted to call martial law (through the Insurrection Act) or actually tried to organize a violent coup? I suspect that many on the left don’t watch CNN or MSNBC at all or read the opinion columns in the NY Times or the Washington Post. They should. These are the voices of the main wings of the US capitalist class and it’s clear as day that they are bitterly opposed to Trump and have been for a long time.

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