“America First” Signals Intensification of US Unilateralism
Anyone who doubted that Donald Trump’s arrival as 45th president of the United States heralded a major change in both the country’s internal and external relationships must surely have been forced to think again by his inaugural address and the barrage of executive orders issued in his first week.
Many political commentators and leader writers who put their faith in the moderating power of the US establishment assured us that his national-chauvinism, populism and protectionism, would be toned down to the conciliatory and diplomatic banalities appropriate to someone assuming the most powerful political office in the world.
But Trump has wasted no time in signalling full steam ahead for key planks of his programme. Executive orders have been signed withdrawing the US from the TPP free trade deal, initiating the renegotiation of NAFTA, undermining the Affordable Care Act, banning federal funding for organisations that provide abortion services, a federal hiring freeze and approval of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone oil pipelines.
A slew of further orders on national security, included federal funding for a wall along the Mexican border, a freeze on Muslim refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern countries and penalising cities that refuse to hand over “illegal” immigrants to federal authorities. His constant use of tweets to stir the cauldron of xenophobia and racism and his coercion of more liberal states into racial targeting will be given teeth by deploying a further 10,000 immigration officials.
In foreign affairs, Trump appears determined to press ahead with his programme, too, capitalising on the divisions within the US capitalist class in order to radically reorient military and economic policies. In an interview with Germany’s Bild and the London Times he floated once again the prospect of lifting US sanctions on Russia, linking it to the idea of a nuclear weapons reduction deal. He welcomed Britain’s exit from the EU, predicting its success and – not without reason – suggested the EU was an instrument of German domination designed with the purpose of beating the US in international trade.
His remarks that Nato is “obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago” provoked unease not only in Europe but amongst top Republicans. Indeed it drew a “correction” from General James Mattis, his newly appointed defence secretary. During his congressional confirmation Mattis said that Putin was trying to “break the North Atlantic Alliance”. Thus Trump’s attempt at détente with Russia will undoubtedly run into stiff opposition, going as it does against the whole drift of bi-partisan US policy: the so-called New Cold War.
His reciprocated warmness to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, plus the symbolic suggestion of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, indicates a perfunctory farewell to the two state solution supported (nominally) by Republican and Democrat presidents alike. Trump will likely use Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in February to announce an even more radical re-orientation.
Trump’s speech was written by the two chief ideologues of his presidential campaign, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Bannon is a prominent white nationalist and Trump’s inauguration speech made it clear that national chauvinism was no mere campaign rhetoric but will be a central feature of his presidency.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, in every hall of power – from this day on, a new vision will govern our land – from this day onwards it is only going to be America first – America first!”
Trump’s theme from the outset has been the decline of America. The stagnation and fall in living standards for much of the population are blamed on the decline of US-based manufacturing. Above all he blames the “unequal” trade agreements, like NAFTA, for the loss of jobs to Mexico and China. Whilst a few large manufacturers were the targets of occasional demagogic attacks, the real enemy in this scenario are the “unfair” practices of the United States’ economic competitors. China and Mexico become the enemies of US workers, rather than the billionaires who have profited immensely from offshoring.
The decline of US military prestige following the defeats and setbacks in its never-ending war on terror is exaggerated to play up the image of a weakened America. Trump berated previous governments for “allowing the sad depletion of our own military”, despite the fact that the US spends nearly as much on “defence” as the rest of the world combined. Nato – a military alliance conceived to contain the USSR and now Russia, and a cornerstone of US military doctrine for almost seven decades, was not even mentioned.
But, if anyone is foolish enough to imagine that this represents “isolationism”, rather than unilateralism, they are in for yet another surprise. In any case, he pledged once again to “eradicate” the latest of America’s series of (self-created) foes “radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth”.
Rolling all these complaints of neglect and decline together, he played to popular feelings of victimhood and the decline of living standards, which he puts down to America’s loss of power on the world stage. The reality is that, while it is true that Russia and China have emerged as regional rivals to the United States, they are both a long way from either military or economic parity.
The free trade deals imposed on much of the world by the United States has allowed the parasitic financiers of Wall Street (and the City of London) to cream off huge profits by organizing the offshoring of domestic industry. While the share of world trade has declined from 50 per cent to 25 per cent since 1945, the wealth amassed by the upper echelons of the US ruling class has ballooned. It has grown even more in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-9 with huge government bank bailouts filling the coffers without “trickling down” into increased wages.
It was the reality, that wages and living conditions have stagnated while the incomes of a tiny section of American society have been soaring into the stratosphere, that Trump exploited in his campaign. The fact is that the policy of the US ruling class has always been ‘America First’. For a time during the postwar boom, US domination over the world market meant that a large part of the working class in manufacturing and extractive industries were able to share in the profits sucked back into America, the material foundation of the 1950s American Dream. With growing stagnation of productivity in the 1970s and 80s and then the entry of the Chinese labour force into the capitalist world market, that period ended. Trump’s pitch to US workers is that he can wind the clock back.
Friend of the workers?
Though liberals have wrongly blamed “the working class” for Trump’s victory, it is true that a combination of his promises and Clinton’s record was a decisive factor in his ability to win the rustbelt states that ensured he won in the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by a three million margin. Because Trump owes a debt to the population of the voters in the run-down old industrial states, he spoke to them quite directly in his inaugural address, “One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind”.
He promised that under his presidency there will be, “a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people”. Repeating “American” with the heaviest rhetorical emphasis, he pledged that, “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules, buy American and hire American”.
Some on the radical left may dismiss this as just empty rhetoric but it is an essential component of his right wing populism, alongside his anti-immigrant racism and protectionism. It is on this promise that his record will be judged. If indeed it is just a total con, and there is no measurable improvement in jobs, new industries and infrastructure, then the sense of betrayal especially in the “rustbelt” areas of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will be enormous.
The first problem he faces is that such promises cost money to fulfil, difficult if you are simultaneously reducing the tax take of the federal government. Just jawboning the CEOs of the mega-corporations to employ more workers or move their factories is unlikely to produce much more than one-off donations or token gestures.
The other problem is more intractable. US industrial output is at its highest ever, with rising productivity through automation being the main enemy of skilled jobs; lower wages and non-union ‘right to work’ states in the US South being the other. Launching a trade war that does not have the support of big US manufacturers is not likely to encourage them to support him.
It may well be that a Republican Congress and Senate will frustrate his plans for major hikes in public infrastructure spending and obstruct his protectionist policies designed to expand American industry and jobs. After all, these policies are traditionally associated with the pre-Clinton era Democrats and are anathema to the free trading neoliberal Republican establishment.
If your programme of protecting a section of the US capitalist class requires entering into a destructive trade war, which will cost jobs, raise prices and promote greater instability on the world stage, it is necessary to have a significant part of the population on your side. That is what lies at the root of Trump’s pro-worker demagogy. It gives him, a billionaire oligarch, a base to mobilise against enemies both external and internal.
If anyone has any faith in Trump’s sincerity as a friend of the working class, they should remember his response back in November, when asked whether he supports an increase in the minimum wage,“We are a country that is being beaten on every front, economically, militarily”, Trump said. “Taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world … People have to go out, they have to work really hard, and they have to get into that upper stratum.”
When the multi-billionaire was faced by an interviewer with the fact that “nobody can live” on the federal minimum wage of $7.50 an hour and was asked where he stood on the demand to raise it to $15 he replied: “We have got to do something to compete with the rest of the world. Our country is not competitive anymore. That’s why we’re losing all of the manufacturers”.
This is the future of Trump’s “New Deal”. More jobs, maybe. There might be an increase in skilled jobs for a small privileged minority. But there won’t be a return to the “family wage”, highly paid, secure jobs of the past.
Workers in the depressed rustbelt states will undoubtedly look to see if he honours his promises to “bring back the jobs” but, if Trump succeeds in creating millions of jobs on low pay and bad contracts, by subsidising corporations with federal subsidies, those workers won’t find much complaint from their leaders.
On the Monday following his inauguration, Trump called in a collection of CEOs followed by a selection of union leaders, especially in the steel and construction industries. He seems to have easily charmed them. Sean McGarvey, the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions said, “the impression I was taken away with” was that “the American citizenry and the American Treasury will be invested in building public infrastructure.” “We have a common bond with the president,” Mr. McGarvey said. “We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”
There you have the voice of what the syndicalists called the labor lieutenants of capital or, more directly, “the labor fakers”. However, amongst his first acts was to freeze all new hiring by the federal government, which will slash jobs or outsource them to private employers who will charge the government even more (and pay their workers even less).
Fighting Trump, and the Republicans, who control the Congress and the majority of state capitols across the land, will require an effort greater than anything we have seen since the 1960s and 70s. They will set out to largely demolish the already weak and inadequate welfare state first established under Roosevelt and then expanded under the post-war boom Presidents. Trump’s hostility to recognising the racial and gender inequalities of US life, his praise for the police who shoot down black youth in the ghettos of many cities, his determination to hunt down and deport millions of “illegal” immigrants, his contempt for women’s rights, make a powerful coalition of resistance the only adequate response.
The vast mobilisation of people to reject Trump on the day after his inauguration is a source for optimism. It is vital that all the different communities and social movements should start to organise together under the old slogan of the union movement; an injury to one is an injury to all. Liberal identity politics, with its constant emphasis on diversity, provides no real basis for the unity we need to defeat Trump.
Recognising that the exploitation of the working class is the basis of the social oppression of, and discrimination against, Black people, women, youth and LGBT people, is the necessary condition for finding common ground for unity. American workers were joined by massive protests around the world; rebuilding international links with labour movement and anti-war organisations will be a necessary counterweight to Trump’s attempts to blame foreign workers for the inability of US capitalism to provide a decent future for the country’s citizens.
Critical to giving this movement the capacity for real defiance, action which can halt Trump and the Republicans in their tracks, is to draw in the working class and the trade unions. Here it will be necessary not only to oppose those union leaders sucked in by his promises, not only to expose the fraud of the pretended pro-working class parts of his programme, the infrastructure rebuilding, the new jobs and industries, but to pose real alternatives to them.
This should centre on a massive programme of public works to build not just bridges and railroads, but houses and hospitals and alternative power sources to fossil fuels. Moreover, they should be built by public enterprise and under trade union and community control, a real alternative to the tax-dodging billionaire posing as the friend of the workers. A genuine working class strategy must integrate the struggles against exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and not assign them an auxiliary role to economic questions.
For decades, the two-party contest in US elections has made it painfully clear that the American workers and oppressed have no party of their own; no party with a programme that champions the economic and social interests of workers. The Democrats are worse than useless when it comes to fighting for their interests. A coalition of resistance to Trump needs to develop a political weapon to organise and lead the struggles to come; an independent party of Labour.