A political earthquake has just ripped through the world. There can be no doubt that Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections marks a historic breaking point for American politics and the liberal international order established in the wake of World War II. Things simply won’t be the same after this. And yet it’s crucial to remind ourselves that this moment has been a long time in the making.
In recent years, the twin pillars of the postwar world system — global capitalist markets and liberal democratic institutions — have been steadily decaying under the strains of a structural crisis of financialization and a deep legitimation crisis of the neoliberal political establishment. Yesterday’s shock election result indicates that this dual crisis has finally come to a head. Trump himself will eventually move on, but the crisis he speaks to will fester and ultimately overflow the regulatory capacity of even the world’s most powerful state. We are now rapidly moving towards the kind of world-systemic chaos predicted by sociologists Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver at the turn of the century.
Here we should immediately dispense with a pervasive and dangerous myth: Trump’s rise cannot simply be blamed on the supposedly extremist and backward views of the American working class. In the US, at least, the rush to right-wing populism appears to be a middle class response to the dual crisis of global capitalism and liberal democracy. As Paul Mason puts it, “Donald Trump has won the presidency — not because of the “white working class,” but because millions of middle-class and educated US citizens reached into their soul and found there, after all its conceits were stripped away, a grinning white supremacist. Plus untapped reserves of misogyny.”
It was this white middle class, especially men, that handed Trump the presidency: the majority of those making less than $50,000 a year voted for Clinton, while a majority of those making more than that voted for Trump. Almost two in three white men, 63 percent in all, voted for the far-right Republican candidate. But while these numbers certainly do reveal a disconcerting picture about the deeply embedded racism at the heart of American society, Trump’s popularity should neither be overstated nor naturalized. All in all, Trump actually garnered a lower share of the popular vote than either Bush, Romney or McCain.
The question we should be asking right now is why America’s racist underbelly has suddenly burst out into the open. And here we cannot bypass the complex interactions between cultural and economic factors. The academic literature on nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment has all too often treated this relation as some kind of dichotomy. In truth, the two are deeply intertwined and cannot be separated from one another: it is the existential fear generated by intense socio-economic insecurity that causes deep-seated ethnocentric biases to resurface. In a climate of pervasive anxiety, wrought by decades of neoliberal restructuring and years of economic crisis, the lure of a strong leader and the identification of a set of scapegoats may be too much to resist for many.
While Trump is clearly neither charismatic nor honest, Noam Chomsky essentially foresaw the general development that would lead to a “crazed” right-wing Republican electoral victory six years ago:
If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest, this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.
In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi famously identified a very similar set of developments leading to the breakdown of the liberal world order in the early-twentieth century. As he pointed out, the rise of fascism was not just a result of the Great Depression, but more importantly of the extensive liberalization of world markets in the first wave of globalization of the late-nineteenth century. For Polanyi, it was the “disembedding” of economic relations from all social constraints, the commodification of spheres of life that had hitherto been protected from the “vagaries of the market,” and the intense social insecurities generated by this “great transformation” that finally propelled the rise of nationalist countermovements to economic liberalism — a popular backlash against cosmopolitan haute finance, personified by the racist stereotype of the greedy Jew, and against the political establishment of the day.
Donald Trump, the billionaire real-estate mogul with his lavish and unconventional cosmopolitan lifestyle, is clearly not a straightforward fascist or national-socialist of the 1930s variety. But while history may not literally repeat itself, there is at least one important respect in which today’s situation at least rhymes with Polanyi’s times. What we are witnessing at the moment appear to be the early stages of a long drawn-out process of political fragmentation, ideological polarization and institutional decomposition that will be marked by intensifying systemic chaos and an escalation of political conflict across the board. It is not altogether unlikely that these developments will eventually culminate in the gradual breakdown of the Pax Americana, just as the global disorder of the interbellum period lauded the end of the Pax Britannica.