Trump: the unpredictable face of neoliberalism


Andrew Gamble

Martin Thomas spoke to Andrew Gamble about the character of the Trump government. Andrew Gamble is a Professor in Politics at the University of Sheffield and the author of many books on political economy. [The interview was recorded at the end of July, before the North Korea crisis blew up]

MT: Since the 1940s the world markets have been structured by a series of institutions: the WTO, the IMF, the G20, the G7, NATO. The USA has been central to all of these. Is Trump going to blow them up?

AG: He hasn’t been tested by a major international crisis yet, but almost certainly there’ll be one during his presidency. How he will react is unclear: how much he will be guided by people like Mattis and McMaster and how much he’ll do something unpredictable. There is a risk it could be the latter. While he hasn’t done much that’s very radical yet, he has certainly disoriented the complex web of international alliances that the US has put so much store by over the last 70 years. He has upset Australia and Germany: very long-standing allies. He has given comfort to Russia and some other states which are normally not close to the US at all. This has been very unsettling for lots of other states. The likelihood is that that’s going to continue because of the erratic and chaotic way the Trump administration works.

MT: The Economist (26/1/17) commented that Trump was bringing to political dealing his approach from business bombast and brokering: "he aims high, pushes and pushes, but then settles for less than he originally sought". But, as the Economist comments, "dealing with countries is a higher-stakes game than bargaining over Manhattan building plots".

AG: I think it is partly that. He clearly had so little actual political experience. His business background was fairly low-level - real estate – he wasn’t CEO of a major international company or anything like that. Tillerson is a different category of a businessperson from Trump. Trump's experience was as a reality TV host. That too has coloured how he has approached things. He approaches relations with other leaders with an eye on how it’s going to play with his base and how he can make himself look good. He uses bluff and does outrageous things partly in the belief that this will enhance his ability to do deals. This is in itself a very unsettling way of conducting relations.

In the first six months he sent out more than a thousand tweets. These things are superficial in one way, but they betoken a style which is deeply unsettling: the fact that he is prepared to put things into tweets which normally, in previous presidencies, would have been private communications, the fact that he’s prepared to go public. I had wondered whether his behaviour might start to change as he learnt more about what the US Presidency was like. But it seems at the moment that this doesn’t seem to be happening. Every time his behaviour has become a bit more normal it has been followed by reverting to some of his old techniques and habits. I conclude that he probably isn’t going to learn very much and what we’ve seen in the first six months is likely to carry on.

All US Presidents have had courts. But Trump’s court is particularly fluid and has some very opposed factions within it, which, in policy terms, point in quite different directions. Trump seems to pivot from one of these factions to another, so that no faction is dominant for very long, and he plays the factions off against one another. That makes the policy even more erratic and hard to read for foreign observers. Where this is all going is strange. We should expect some major shocks, and particularly if crises of one kind or another test Trump.

MT: The Russia connection? What's in it for Trump? And what's in it for Russia?

AG: It is mysterious how difficult it is for Trump to shake the Russia connection off. That has led me to believe that there is something going on which we don’t understand yet. The likely thing, although there isn’t firm evidence for this yet, is that Trump’s business empire is reliant in some way on Russian money – not government money, but oligarch money. There were stories at one time, of links through Deutsche Bank, which is one of the main funders of the Trump business empire.
The multiple links of people associated with Trump with Russia are extraordinary. There is probably something of substance behind it all. He has also got people, particularly Mattis and McMaster, who represent the American political security establishment and a traditional US policy towards Russia, and that of course chimes with what a lot of Republicans want.

So Trump has been forced to concede on the sanctions. But it doesn’t stop him! The latest revelation, that at the G20 meeting [7-8 July in Hamburg] he had a second 60-minute chat with Putin in which Putin used a Russian translator and Trump wasn’t accompanied by a translator. That in itself was a breach of state department protocol. What is going on? Why would you do that, when there is so much focus on his links with Russia and his associates?

What do the Russians hope to get out of it? The Russians clearly were involved in meddling in the US election. I suspect they didn’t expect Trump to win, and they were probably more seeking to weaken Hilary Clinton when she became President, by creating something which Congress might want to investigate. Trump, having actually won the election against Russian expectations, poses a problem for them.

Unless they actually have got a hold over him in a form they could immediately cash in, which seems unlikely, I suspect having Trump in the White House is in some respects unwelcome to them - because he is so uncertain and therefore difficult to read, because he is so unpredictable. They cannot be sure which of the factions of the White House will be on the up at any one time, and that makes it difficult for them to plan their policy.

Until these meetings with Trump, they have been very wary, and holding back, not rushing in. At the same time they tried to keep lines of communication open. Tillerson’s role in all of this is fascinating. He knows Putin and the top Russians very well because of his dealings when he was Exxon CEO. He obviously got on very well with them. What precisely is going on there?

It is interesting that much more effort so far from the Trump administration has gone into relations with Russia than into, say, relations with China, which many see as a much greater priority for any US administration, especially at the present time.

I am puzzled. I think there must be something which explains this depth of association with Russia, but exactly what it is I am not sure. The special counsel may be able to dig it out, but the special counsel may not last very long. It looks like Trump is seeking a pretext to dismiss the special counsel the way that Nixon dismissed Archibald Cox.

MT: Will Trump be forced out of office before the end of his term?

AG: I can’t see it happening immediately. I suspect the midterms [elections for Congress in November 2018] are critical. If the Republicans have significant losses, or if it comes to look like they are heading for such losses, some Republican support might desert him. Up to now, Republicans in Congress have been very supportive of him. He got all his nominees for the cabinet. Some went through on knife-edge votes but the Republican majority held.
There is some evidence that his base is, while not hugely loyal, is more loyal than the Congress. It doesn’t seem that he is in immediate trouble.

Even right at the end, Nixon still had 20% support. You might ask, who were these people who supported Nixon against all the weight of evidence? Republicans in Congress were very reluctant to desert Nixon until the evidence became overwhelming, and then they started to flake away. It was the tapes that did for Nixon in the end. If it hadn’t been for the tapes, I don’t think the Republicans in Congress would have deserted him. There wouldn’t have been a majority for impeachment.

One of the things that’s holding up Trump's presidency is that he has a group of former military people - Mattis, McMaster, Kelly - who are allied with Tillerson. That group is critical for the credibility of Trump’s presidency. If that group were to conclude that he was a liability, that could really put the skids under the presidency. As long as he has the support of that group, he can probably survive.

If the Republicans were to lose control of the House and of the Senate in the midterms, then the likelihood of an impeachment being launched by the Democrats would be quite high. Even then, it would be difficult to achieve.
Clinton had poor approval ratings at the start, and then was helped by a long economic boom. What Trump needs above all is a pick-up in the American economy. He is thinking of replacing Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve. Three of the people who have been tipped as being most likely to succeed her have signed an article saying that Trump’s goal of getting 3% growth in the US economy is achievable, while Yellen has been casting doubt on that.
Trump needs a way of unleashing a boom in the US economy. That would boost his ratings and stave off some of his enemies. It would make a lot of the Republicans happy and improve their chances of holding onto Congress in the midterms. But if he can’t improve the economy he is in trouble. He faces big obstacles, and his stance on trade deals doesn’t help.

Trump continues to be blocked on his signature legislation. The wall in Mexico is going nowhere: it’s going to be difficult to get the money to build it voted through Congress. The travel ban has been approved partially by the Supreme Court but that could be reversed again when a full hearing takes place in November. The repeal of Obamacare is in serious trouble and the Republican Party is split in Congress. The infrastructure programme hasn’t got off the ground, and neither has the tax reform…

Those are things that he needs. Some of them, perhaps, he can put in place in the next six months. But the longer this goes on, if he doesn’t have significant achievements, and he can’t engineer a boom in the economy, it makes a really bad backdrop for the midterms.

There are a lot of negatives. They could build up to a situation where his position gets very weak, especially if he goes in for more erratic behaviour in international relations or tries to fire Robert Mueller. Then Kelly, Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster might call time on him.

US Presidents can be blocked in a lot of the things they want to do, but actually ousting them is difficult and rare. There is a lot of institutional inertia which keeps them in office. I suspect that Trump is quite safe for the moment, but things could change next year.

MT: There is widespread discontent with Trump, but no-one leading opposition to him, especially now that his main Republican critic, Senator John McCain, is suffering from brain cancer.

AG: I can’t see who in the Republican Party is really going to emerge to rally opposition to Trump, although I suppose it’s possible. Most of the Republican leaders are people whom Trump beat in the fight for the nomination. The Democrats seen to be very divided and to be providing no clear lead.

That’s partly for structural reasons, because in America there is no Leader of the Opposition. Also, the Republicans control both houses of Congress. If the Democrats were to win back control of either the Senate or the House, their majority leader would become a kind of de facto leader of the opposition. But as of now they have no leader with that status in either branch of Congress.

Someone like Bernie Sanders has no formal status and no institutional base on which to organise opposition. That is one of the factors which strengthens the US President. During their term, it is very easy for them to ride out spells of quite intense unpopularity, because there is no way they can be ousted, unless they are deserted by a majority in Congress.

MT: To what extent does Trump represent a (reactionary) break from neoliberalism?

AG: There are novel aspects to Trump, to his style of politics, certainly to the way he conducts himself as a politician. Some of the ideological roots go back a long way in American history: nativism, America First, isolationism, dislike of foreigners and foreign entanglements. All that side of Trump has deep roots in American history, and was very strong in the 1920s and 1930s.

There have been very few representatives of it in recent times - Pat Buchanan [right-wing Republican who sought the Republican nomination for president in 1992 and 1996, and ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000] was one of very few. The consensus around US internationalism, globalism, economic liberalism, neoliberalism, has been overwhelming, crossing both political parties and becoming embedded in the organising assumptions of the ‘deep state’ of the imperial presidency of the last 70 years

Trump is a very discordant element in all of this – suddenly enunciating all these more traditional ideas, but in a modern context, and saying things like: "get out of the Paris agreements, cancel TTIP and TTP, cancel NAFTA, get out of NATO".
Even more extraordinary in a way was the rhetoric during the campaign, that he wanted to repatriate jobs to the US and break up the production chains of the US multinationals - that he would demand that US multinationals close their factories in China and bring the jobs to the US. It’s bizarre that he would flirt with the idea of disrupting the whole structure of US political and economic power built up over such a long period, although since he was elected he has talked much less about it.

One of the factions around him comprises Steve Bannon, Steve Miller and other members of the alt-right. Bannon is a radical of a kind that has generally been kept away from the US Presidency in recent decades. He seeks a total disruption of the US state at home and the pattern of the US’s involvement across the world. He has no qualms about wanting to bring about chaos and destruction and upheaval. He has a very Manichean view of the world, the forces of good and evil, and conflict, and the probability of major wars in the near future. Trump sometimes acts as a mouthpiece for Bannon. Bannon has written some of Trump's speeches including his inauguration speech.

There are other factions. There’s the faction I have already talked about, the military people, Mattis and McMaster and Kelly, linked with Tillerson. They are representatives of the US deep state. Their outlook is entirely at one with the consensus of the last six or seven decades.

Then there is the New York group, the Goldman Sachs group. These are liberal financiers, with views the complete reverse of Bannon’s working-class, protectionist, nativist outlook - people like Gary Cohn [now chief economic adviser] and Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary. These are people who are high-fliers on Wall Street. They view the global system and America’s role within it from the standpoint of American finance.

It’s a very contradictory administration. Trump’s own views are very difficult to pin down. They seem to keep changing depending on his mood and what interests him at a given moment. My hunch is that Bannon will have much less success than he’d like in re-shaping the American deep state, and that there are reserves of strength there which will form a barrier to Trump’s radicalism.

Trump is probably having his biggest impact is in the deregulation of so much of the domestic economy, where he can use executive powers, and doesn’t need legislation to reverse many of the executive orders that Obama brought in. He put Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, though Pruitt is a longstanding opponent of the very existence of the agency, and made Rick Perry Secretary of State for Energy, though Perry has called for the abolition of the Department of Energy.

Trump’s Twitter storms and all the rest of it are a distraction from what’s already happening in this administration, which is the deregulation agenda. There are other parts of the deep state which are much harder to dislodge. In some sense Trump is reinforcing the power of the military, wanting to increasing military budgets, new procurement and so on. The freedom which he appears to give to military appointments to shape policy indicates that in those areas, the Bannon agenda is much harder to push through.

MT: Is Trump part of an international wave of right-wing nationalism, potentially disrupting established neoliberalism?

AG: Bannon has talked about wanting a global Tea Party, linking up with Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Holland, Farage in the UK, and the Polish and Hungarian governments. Le Pen and Wilders were both beaten in the recent elections, and the German populist party AfD looks like it is falling apart and going backwards. A lot of people expected that the breakthrough for nationalist-populist parties would come in Europe, but it hasn’t. It has happened in the US, with Trump. Europe, so far, has proved quite resilient, although things are still very much in play.

I don’t see much opportunity for collaboration between these different groups. There seem to be too many differences. Each of them has its particular nationalist agenda. In the inter-war years the Fascist parties found it difficult to collaborate with each other because of similar differences. It is well-known that Le Pen wanted to endorse Farage, but he didn’t want to endorse Le Pen.

Trump did lean towards Le Pen and say some good things about her, but now he has been caught up in the Macron circus. I think it is going to be difficult for him, because it is so much a personal base that he has in the States; and his support within the Republican Party is a conditional support. They are prepared to work with him because he might be able to help deliver some of their agenda which they couldn’t deliver in the Obama years. But there are still big ideological differences between the conservative movement and Trump, certainly the Bannon ideology that Trump has flirted with.

There’s nothing more that Steve Bannon would like than a right-wing Catholic insurgency, a crusade against Islam and against China, but I think that is going to be very hard to deliver.

The crisis in Europe is far from over. You only have to roll the thing on a few years, and what happens if Macron fails to deliver on his promises in France? Or if the EU as a whole fails to deal with some of the big challenges of the Eurozone and migration which it faces? There could well be a new resurgence of nationalist-populist forces in Europe. For the moment it seems to be out of sync with what is happening in the US. The whole Trump episode in the US might be over by the time that there is a resurgence of the national-populists in Europe.