If nothing else Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election is compelling evidence that the neo-liberal project has been a catastrophic public policy failure. Blindly believing that he is their saviour, the victims of neo-liberalism’s caustic consequences have seized the moment by voting for Donald Trump. They view him as some kind of Old Testament prophet who has come to lead them out of neo-liberal captivity – a saviour who will root out the causes of their humiliation, anguish and anger. They are convinced that he is one of them – outsiders who are losing in the great game of globalisation from above. They see him as a leader in the vanguard of a new and bitter class struggle against snobbish elites with their ivy-league degrees, machine men in government, bullying bosses of the big banks, left-wing media commentators, and big businesses that have off-shored their jobs.
But the tragic fact is that Donald Trump is absolutely not one of them. He has been cunningly adroit at pandering to their prejudices, promising to make them great again, while threatening to bring down fire and brimstone on the heads of illegal immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, and uppity women – and they love him for it. He dog-whistles to the Ku Klux Klan, ultra-rightwing operatives, and the membership of the NRA – and they love him too. What they fail to see is that he is leading them by their noses into a public policy era that will be configured entirely for him and his closest associates.
They forget that Trump came from a millionaire family, via elite private schooling, into corporate businesses capitalized by his father. His ride has been a charmed one. But some of his businesses are now under legal scrutiny for dodgy practices, including hiring illegal immigrant labour. His agility in tax dodging is legion. His most egregious business interest is in the development of casinos. Let us be absolutely clear about this: casinos constitute a major fiscal strategy for channeling money from the poor to the rich. While high roller clients are celebrated amid the tasteless glitziness of those grotesque institutions, it is the poor glued to the one-armed bandit machines and low stakes gaming who contribute disproportionately to the rapacious profiteering at which casino operators excel. Casinos are anti-social, economically destructive, and morally repugnant. In America, Trump is their king.
What his supporters fail to understand is that Trump is a major beneficiary of the corporate culture that has gorged itself on neo-liberal economics. While mainstream corporate bosses on Wall Street and in government regard him as a carpetbagger – on the spurious grounds that he is not one of them – he is as much a creature of neo-liberalism’s destructiveness as they are. Trump is glaring evidence that neo-liberal capitalism has run amok. His record in business indicates that he will veer into corruption if he thinks he can get away with it and vindictiveness and malevolence when he is confronted with opposition. The very high probability is that he will fast engineer a major recession.
So for the poor white and provincial voters who follow him so blindly Trump is a false prophet – a neo-liberal wolf in a populist sheep’s clothing. There is no evidence he will be willing to address the huge problems that neo-liberalism’s victims have been struggling with for more than thirty years: stagnating wages, high unemployment, declining standards of living, the collapse of manufacturing industries, increasing inequality, devastated inner cities, worn-out infrastructure, and rising rates of crime and social conflict.
Trump has promised huge tax cuts for corporate America, freeing up the big banks, deregulating the private sector of the economy, abandoning or neutering Obamacare, withdrawing from so-called free trade agreements, and abandoning action on climate change. His economic policy is based on that hoary old myth of trickle-down economics. It is an ugly continuation of the policies of George W. Bush that bequeathed the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) to America and to the world.
In the social policy arena Trump is determined to recriminalize abortion, put an end to same-sex marriage laws, uphold the Second Amendment to enable more Americans to own – and use – guns, rescind anti-discrimination laws on the bogus grounds of defending free speech, stack the Supreme Court with judges who share his far-right values, forcibly remove illegal immigrants, ban “dangerous” Muslims from entering the United States, and build a vast wall along the US-Mexico border.
Consider the likely outcomes of these proposals. Tax cuts for the high end of the economy will vastly increase the US budget deficit, limit government funding of welfare programs, destroy any possibility of a comprehensive universal health insurance that would benefit poor Americans, while contributing relentlessly to the growth of inequality in America. The rich will certainly get richer and the poor poorer. While Obamacare has been very clumsily handled since its introduction, what it needs – and what America needs right now – is for it to be thoroughly rethought in order to turn it into the kind of health care policy of which the working and middle classes in the US are so badly in need. An un-nuanced abandonment of free trade agreements will hit the economies of all the states involved in trading with America, aggravating the plight of the poor and the unemployed. Ironically, winding back the rights of women to control their own reproductive capabilities runs counter to Trump’s libertarian instincts – further evidence of his intellectual laziness and social policy confusion.
Trump will not deliver what those who voted for him expect him to deliver. Already there are signs of back peddling in his policy pronouncements. We should not therefore be surprised that there will be a backlash from disillusioned former supporters who will come to realise that he has betrayed them. Nor should we be surprised if that happens sooner rather than later. What we are very likely to see is Trump pulling down the temple of neo-liberalism on his own head. The great question now is what will happen when neo-liberalism is finally in ruins, lying there among Trump’s massive mistakes. The answer is likely to be articulated by Bernie Sanders’ heirs.
Dr Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.