Trump versus Brexit

Donald TrumpPeople have been making a natural comparison between the Trump victory and the Brexit referendum result back in June. The comparison is natural because in both cases anti-immigrant hysteria and racism was used to agitate and energize the passions of a grassroots base which drew its support from new roots put down into politically alienated sections of the working class, many voting for the first time. But we need to recognise the differences as well as the commonalities.

Trump made an economic appeal to blue collar workers in the "rust belt" of the Northern Great Lakes area based on an economic appeal that had no parallel in the Brexit campaign. While both Trump and Brexit took an anti-immigrant stance against the "free movement of peoples", Trump also put forward a right-populist rejection of the free trade treaties and institutions of globalisation, in other words against the free movement of goods and services, which is core to the neoliberal consensus.

Brexit offered no such challenge to neoliberal globalisation, at no stage was the anti-immigrant and anti-Brussels rhetoric of the Brexiters ever combined with a rejection of free trade, the free movement of goods and services, not even by the (marginal) leftist Brexit supporters in the obtuse #lexit campaign.

Brexit remained firmly within the camp of right-neoliberalism, rather than Trump's right-populism. In that sense the Brexit vote was leveraged more purely on the anti-immigrant, racist and xenophobic plank, than Trump's victory which promised an alternative to the free trade economics of neoliberal globalisation in addition. It is hard to see how he could have presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate without opposing the existing bi-partisan consensus on free trade that Clinton slavishly defended.

If Brexit and Trump shared an opposition to free movement of people but vocally differed on the free movement of goods and services, they were still tacitly in agreement on refusing to even question free movement of capital. To oppose the free movement of capital would be transcend the populist pose into an actual opposition to the programme of capital, and this would be beyond either the neoliberally orthodox Brexiters or the right-populist protectionist talk of Trump, united in their different ways in their loyalty to capitalism.

However, if Trump's economic "programme" marks him out from the xenophobically one-note Brexit campaign, we must recognise that this so-called programme is also "populist" in the derogatory sense - i.e. that promises to radically cut taxes, to make massive investments in rebuilding infrastructure (the infamous wall included), start trade wars with all and sundry, all without raising national deficit or debt, are simply an impossible combination within capitalist economics. That is, what he put forward as an economic package is a pack of lies. Which leaves the fear of what will Trump do to deflect popular anger when parts of his programme are simply not delivered? The real fear has to be that ad-hoc response will be the classic right-populist strategy of deflecting popular anger against enemy scapegoats, internally: muslims, people of colour, women, LGBT, muesli-eating, NYTimes reading liberals, etc; externally: ISIS, China, or who knows, really?

The road ahead looks overcast and ominous, without a doubt, and we will not be able to rely on the institutions of the state to defend us from the future depradations of Trumpism. Only the power we can organise from within our own collective body can do that.

But we also need to respond to the ideological challenges of the false solutions to the stagnation crisis, of the old "First World" specifically, but globally as well.

Brexiters presented opposition to free movement of peoples as a substitute for the economic nationalism of protectionism, as if the former could do the job of the latter. Trumpism presents opposition to free movement of goods and services (whether he intends to actually take real measures on this or not) as a substitute for the limits of the free movement of capital that the lost "golden era" of First World-dominated industrial capitalism was built on (and then later destroyed from its own internal contradictions). Any left opposition needs to start from insisting on the free movement of capital as the core point of origin of the contradictions of globalisation, that anti-immigrant or tariff war discourses falsely pretend to solve.

Even that is not enough. It is no coincidence that the first right-populist opponent of free trade in the White House is also a climate change denier. Ultimately economic nationalism, the promotion and defence of the welfare of the national working class (whether defined by the exclusions of white supremacism, or more inclusively in the left nationalist variant) at the expense of the working class of other countries and regions, is still tied to the relations of capitalist competition, not just of capitalists against each other, but workers against other workers. And, more fundamentally and problematically, by the logic of never-ending growth of commodity production ("jobs and growth!"). People's natural reaction to Trump getting his hands on the nuclear missile codes is to worry about the end of civilization in a nuclear holocaust. Without dismissing those fears entirely, the greater certainty is that the slower process of destruction through climate change will continue unabated under Trump. (Although, in fairness, optics aside, it's not clear that "business as usual" under Clinton would have made that much difference on this front).



Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles