The fact that Trump, Bannon and the rest of their coterie do not think through the implications of their acts is not unusual. One marked peculiarity of politics in capitalist systems is how those systems train politicians. Corporations and the rich provide the funds that enable election victories. They expect specific favors in return: a government order, a tariff, crisis bailouts, or a foreign intervention, for example. Politicians in office must deliver those, or risk removal. Politicians must also veneer those deliveries with verbiage about the national interest, the people’s safety, job creation and other vague yet vital-sounding priorities. The act of thinking through their actions’ implications — let alone publicly explaining such complexities — exceeds the capacity and need of many political leaders. They usually do the favors (or, at least, most of them) while allaying popular concerns with public posturing. If and when that fails, they repress those concerns.
It is impossible to identify, measure and trace the influences on every political decision. Politicians hope that their positions are strengthened, or at least not too badly damaged, by whatever consequences are attributed to their actions. No matter how confident they are in predicting these consequences, politicians generally focus on preparing either to plausibly dispute any negative consequences or deflect responsibility.
Taking a different tack, we might ask what must happen for Trump and Bannon’s actions to yield the outcomes they claim to hope for. Our answers will suggest some sense of where this theatrical new administration will likely push us.
For example, how might the promised “middle class” jobs and incomes become available to the millions who lost or lack them? Trump’s plan is to stimulate demand for labor power, supposedly via major infrastructure spending and relocating workplaces back into the United States, while limiting the supply of labor power, via deporting and banning the entrance of millions. If all that happens — a big if — it will be necessary to prevent a surge in automation as the employer response to rising wages. It will also be necessary to prevent or offset retaliatory measures by foreign countries. They might, for example, place tariffs on incoming US exports or tax or discriminate against US holdings inside their borders. It will be necessary to prevent or offset a business cycle downturn. Nor does this list exhaust the many other conditions needed to enable Trump to deliver on his promise.
Is it possible for enough of such necessary events to occur to deliver what Trump and Bannon promise? Such wished-for outcomes are always possible, but are they likely? To be sure, other events could happen and provide substitute supports for US capitalism. An economic resurgence could materialize from the crash of 2008 and the subsequent paltry “recovery” that has bypassed so many. If that happened, Trump and Bannon no doubt would claim that it was the result of their policies.
In capitalism, politicians’ perpetual anxieties flow, in part, from their general function as scapegoats for the system’s bad economic results — instabilities, inequalities, injustices. They blame each other, and thereby cultivate illusions among the electorate that rotating the major politicians will change the basic economic structures and their effects. More importantly, they reinforce existing taboos against blaming economic ills (such as unemployment, low wages, foreclosed homes and unsustainable debts) on the capitalist economic system that has fired, underpaid and/or evicted so many. To the extent that politicians address economic issues at all, they carefully and methodically avoid systemic critiques. They attack a price, interest rate, tax or fee without exposing or attacking the economic system that reproduces it. Politicians often prefer to find and fasten onto important issues — less immediately connected to the economic system — to establish some real differences (e.g., on ecology, abortion, civil liberties, immigration policy, etc.). Mainstream politicians do this because in terms of their orientations toward supporting, protecting and reinforcing capitalism, there is very little difference among them.
For politicians, acting as scapegoats for capitalism’s systemic dysfunction is especially arduous during its recurring crises. At such moments, they are quick to identify others upon whom to offload as much of their scapegoat status as possible. Likely targets include immigrants, foreigners, religious or ethnic minorities, terrorists and so on. Capitalism’s politics turn ugly and can become lethal.
What if Trump and Bannon’s actions are not followed by sufficiently rising jobs and incomes? What if their popular base begins to turn against them and heed their detractors? What will Trump and Bannon do? To accept defeat and abandon their project is less likely than to ratchet up the scapegoating: more deportations, more refugee bans, more deregulation, more foreigner-bashing, more saber-rattling and risks of war. And with that comes more demonization and repression of those who will likewise ratchet up their questioning or disapproval.
The particular history of US opposition to German, Italian and Japanese fascisms in the 20th century muddies fascism’s prospects here in the 21st. Trump and Bannon avoid overt fascism at this stage. Fascism will more likely come later, reluctantly “necessitated” by obstacles they denounce as illegitimately raised against their program. Endless reassurances that fascism is not happening would probably accompany a kind of backing into it.
“Resistance” has quickly become the watchword of an impressive opposition to the Trump-Bannon government and its fascist potential. However, the lessons of capitalism’s dysfunctional politics will have gone unlearned if opposition remains at the level of resisting this particular administration. Exchanging the Trump-Bannon regime for a return to “normal” capitalism returns us to precisely the system that produced Trump and Bannon. An adequate politics now requires that political parties endorsing capitalism be supplemented and challenged by those that do not. We need a political debate and contest between those who think capitalism is the best that human society can achieve and those who think we can do better. The continuing, one-sided politics of the Cold War, in which criticism of capitalism has been equated with treason, could then be overcome. We could finally welcome a more balanced contestation among political movements — one that includes genuinely different views on capitalism as a system. We could open our minds to the system’s problems, and start to create alternatives.
The ascendance of Trump and Bannon shows why we can and must do better than capitalism.