As US primaries get under way this week, Donald Trump stands out not just because he leads his rivals for the Republican nomination by some 50 percentage points in the polls. It is his political positioning that sets him apart in the race, notably from his closest competitor Nikki Haley who represents the fusionism that was hegemonic in the GOP from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush – the combination of social conservatism with free-market fundamentalism and global power projection through foreign wars.
The turmoil within the Republican Party did not start with Trump but with the fundamental failure to recognise that unfettered capitalism erodes family, community and the economic foundations of the military-industrial complex. Wall Street and Silicon Valley are on steroids while millions on Main Street die of opioids. Financial speculation and virtual tech have displaced productive capacity, with the world’s supposedly sole superpower struggling to provide sufficient ammunition to Ukraine and Israel. And it’s far from clear whether America could defend Taiwan if Beijing opted for a naval blockade.
Since sketching the contours of his project to “Make America great again” in a 1988 Guardian interview with Polly Toynbee, Trump’s politics has been as constant as his business deals and personal life have been chaotic. He champions an “America first” approach that fuses economic protectionism with a more isolationist outlook linked to military restraint. The “forever wars” dear to neoconservative crusaders and “liberal humanitarian” hawks have left the US trillions poorer, and its moral authority across the Global South in tatters. Trump was the first president since Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter not to launch or escalate a war. The assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of 2020 reflected his long-held view that the Tehran regime deserves retribution. In the aforementioned interview, he stated that “I’d be harsh on Iran. They’ve been beating us psychologically, making us look a bunch of fools.”
Linking geopolitical isolationism to protectionism is part of Trump’s quest to restore respect for the US at home and abroad – “Make America great again”. In response to Toynbee’s question about what a possible presidential platform would be for him, Trump’s response was: “Respect. We’re a second-rate economic power, a debtor nation. We’re getting kicked around.” Hence his relentless attack on the country’s ruling elites as power-hoarding and rent-seeking traitors. With deep roots in the 19th-century Jacksonian revolt against the old establishment, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric continues to strike a chord with ordinary American voters, especially in the deindustrialised areas of the Rust Belt where globalisation is seen as a threat to everyday existence rather than a promise to live the American Dream. Global free trade has outsourced America’s manufacturing base, destroyed millions of skilled blue-collar jobs and made the country overdependent on imports from hostile foreign powers, chief of all China.
If the Obama administration helped create the conditions for the genuine grievances propelling Trump to power in 2016, the Biden administration has tried to arrest that decline by unleashing a vast programme of federal spending totalling some $3.8trn, providing subsidies to US companies for the green transition and investing in deindustrialised areas such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This agenda aims to strengthen domestic supply chains, promote competitiveness and improve resilience in the face of geopolitical instability and climate change. Biden pins his re-election hopes on linking national economic success with the revival of struggling “heartland” communities.
But while job creation and wages are up, Biden’s approval rate is down. In his three years in the White House, he has not been able to reverse the stagnating life expectancy and increasing inequality of incomes and assets for millions of Americans. Covid and its scarring effects accelerated and amplified both inflation and social divisions, as health disparities widened while the wealthy enjoyed the comfort of working from home. In many parts of the US, school absenteeism has risen sharply, as has homelessness and dependency on food stamps. But besides low wages, the other source of popular discontent is immigration. Almost half of the population thinks the porous US-Mexico border constitutes a crisis, and 63 per cent want a tougher immigration policy. All this plays into Trump’s hands and fuels his shameless demagoguery – demonising his political foes as “vermin” and accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood” of America.
Beyond policy, Trump’s personality dominates not just the race for the Republican nomination but the whole of US politics. Many voters who are angry with the status quo – including a sizable part of working-class black and Hispanic communities – correctly understand that they are governed by managers and technocrats hostile to democracy and more traditional ways of life. Trump’s incendiary language cuts through, thrilling his supporters by infuriating his opponents. “Owning the libs,” used to be a minor sport. Through Trump’s Twitter tirades and carefully choreographed campaign events, it’s become mass entertainment. Like Senator Joseph McCarthy’s staunch anti-communism, Trump is associated with galvanising moral clarity – unequivocally opposed to defunding the police and to the secular creed of “diversity, equity and inclusion” policies. His unapologetic populism and incorrigible personality are two sides of the same coin, and go with a brazen confidence and an irrepressible desire to win.
None of this makes a Trump victory in November’s presidential election inevitable. But it shows the scale of the task for the Democratic Party. In a world of disruption that the Democrats have helped create, Trump the insurgent disruptor resonates more with voters than the old liberal patrician Biden.
[See also: Why the religious right forgives Trump’s sins]