Donald Trump's success in the 2016 Republican Party primaries has mostly been interpreted by speculating about his local appeal. He’s speaking to disaffected white men – capitalising on American racism – catching the fear and alienation of the American working class – and so on. There’s doubtless truth there. But something more is going on, and it’s not just a local issue.
What is Donald Trump, after all, if not a billionaire who broke free of the usual organizational bases of conservative politics? Trump’s media career already pointed in that direction.
Normally in liberal-capitalist regimes, there’s a clear specialization between the business and the political leadership. Family or personal wealth can help a politician to rise in a party (David Cameron and Malcolm Turnbull show that), but it’s not essential. What is essential is the network that links the business leadership to the political leadership. That is a very complex tangle of connections – going far beyond official funding committees - through which conservative party machines and campaigns are funded, short-term deals are done and long-term strategies evolved.
That was the structure behind Menzies, Eisenhower, Thatcher, Fraser, and Reagan. We got glimpses of it from time to time in corruption scandals, for instance when some of Nixon’s funding network came to light. Most of the time the connection worked without publicity. From the business leadership’s point of view, a grey anonymity was best. The political and social stance too was normally ultra-conventional.
Something in the neoliberal era has shaken this pattern. Trump is definitely not the first owner of a large fortune to use it in a personal bid for power. In 1992 the billionaire Ross Perot ran for president of the United States, campaigned against the Washington establishment, and was actually leading in the polls until his political naivety derailed his campaign. In the early 2000s the oil company oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky seemed to be launching an independent political project in post-communist Russia, until he was crushed by Putin.
Australia launched a variation on this story. Rupert Murdoch started out in the conventional way, using a media fortune to back professional politicians. But he took a different turn post-Reagan. Especially through Fox Channel, the Murdoch empire became a stridently right-wing mobilizing force in its own right.
|Birds of a feather...|
The most spectacular example of the rogue oligarch, however, is Silvio Berlusconi. Starting as a property developer, becoming quickly rich as a media magnate, Berlusconi moved into electoral politics in the early 1990s. At that moment, the established parties in Italy were massively discredited by corruption. Berlusconi improvised a new party on the basis of his company, named it after a football slogan, and managed, through spectacular ups and downs, to be the centre of Italian politics for more than a decade.
In these careers, anonymity and conventionality have gone by the board. Publicity is the breath of life to their campaigns (notice the connection with electronic media). Being a bit shocking is one way to get attention; Trump plays this card repeatedly. The Big Man image is important, so trophy wives can be expected; in Berlusconi’s case the display of virility went beyond this.
There’s an absence of detailed or coherent policy – of course! That would be a hindrance. There’s a good dose of nationalism and xenophobia (Berlusconi called his party “Forza Italia”, i.e. “Go, Italy!”; Perot became a noted opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement). Trump seems to have gone farthest towards racism and and is certainly using sexism. This feeds the diagnosis of an appeal to anxious white working-class men. No rogue oligarch, however, supports unionism, or any other effective form of working-class organizing.
Two background conditions seem important for this kind of politics. One is the collapse of unionism, and mass party membership, since the 1970s - the latter has affected the political right as well as the left. Mass organizations once provided political education as well as policies and campaign workers. Now the parliamentary and presidential parties are suspended over a void. Mobilizations like Obama’s internet campaign in 2008 can work electorally, but they don’t remain as a presence in working-class life.
The second condition is the corrosive effect of neoliberalism on the ruling class itself. It’s significant that Trump displays no solidarity with the institutional system that made him very rich. The outsider image matters. Social solidarity at the elite level has badly frayed in the era of neoliberal globalization. The old ruling class held together by conventional religion, dynastic marriages (you don’t get that with trophy wives), bourgeois high culture, establishment charities. Neighbourhood networks in Belgravia or the Upper East Side are not what they were!
The first of these conditions makes a Trump-style campaign possible. The second suggests that even if this one crashes and burns, we are likely to get more Trumps in future.