While media outlets provide nonstop coverage of Donald Trump’s racist, misogynist, xenophobic, know-nothing antics, you should know that behind the scenes, the Republican Party and its plutocratic constituency are happily advancing their right-wing agenda and waging seemingly endless warfare against the working class.
Trump is currently fulfilling two valuable functions for the corporate elite: “supportive distraction” and “oppositional distraction.” On the supportive side, he upholds a long and successful Republican tradition of getting working people to vote against their economic interests. The true beneficiaries of Republican policies are, of course, country club billionaires. The project of engendering false consciousness among a significant portion of a mostly white working class is the signal political achievement of the Republican Party. But this Republican tactic lost its effectiveness as economic prospects dwindled for working-class Republicans. A more blatant form of distraction was required, and Trump has been willing to feed this beast with crude attacks on blacks, immigrants, women and liberals. It’s a heady brew of cultural chauvinism and economic nationalism.
The success of Trump’s strategy explains the reluctance of mainstream Republicans to criticize him. He has held together their Frankenstein coalition. The net result is what some have labelled, appropriately, “pluto-populism.” Lip-service for the disenfranchised, full service for the business class.
On the oppositional side, Trump hopes to exhaust the resistance with overstimulation. The sizable but fragmented opposition to Trumpism squanders its energy by reacting daily to each and every idiotic statement made by the president and his flunkeys; or, worse, endlessly fixating on the “Russiagate” conspiracy. An appropriate description of this ineffectual opposition, dredged from the annals of critical social theory, is “artificial negativity.” Liberal Democrats oppose Trump, but not the political-economic system or the class-based policies that have given rise to Trumpism in the first place. The negativity will remain artificial as long as the only options are anti-Trump Democrats who have no interest in challenging corporate class power and the current arrangements on which it is based.
In short, the Trumpian burlesque circus is working beautifully. It is manipulating both supporters and opponents while providing material bread only to Trump’s plutocratic cronies. In the meantime, here are only a few of the Trump administration’s anti-worker accomplishments:
• Regressive tax “reform” disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest Americans and increasing further what are already record and Third-World levels of income and wealth inequality
• Rollback of environmental, consumer, occupational safety and health protections that benefit workers but are opposed by corporations
• Opposition to social welfare and government programs designed to relieve workers facing economic insecurity and distress
This is just a small sampling of the myriad ways in which the Trump administration has actually accelerated the war on workers. One would think this would provide an opportunity for the so-called opposition to advance policies and programs that would not just halt these Republican policies, but replace them with an aggressive pro-worker agenda. But the Democratic Party has never been a labor party, though at one time it had some connection to the labor movement. Today, that connection is almost entirely severed. The only class Democrats seem capable of mentioning is the mythical and disappearing “middle class.” But the middle class is a working class, and it’s getting screwed by the existing corporate dominated system. When Democrats say they do not want to engage in class warfare, they are ignoring the fact that a class war has been raging since 1980, systematically redistributing income and wealth from the bottom and middle to the top.
Ironically called “trickle-down” economics, this scheme did not start with Trump, and it won’t end if he is removed from office. The United States is a capitalist class society. It is time to call it what it is and confront the issue of class domination and privilege head-on. And, as it turns out, while Americans are not necessarily class-conscious about their own economic position, recent survey data indicates they are quite conscious and opinionated about differences between the rich and the poor. Political scientist Spencer Piston’s comprehensive analysis of survey data concludes “that majorities of Americans view poor people sympathetically, that majorities view rich people resentfully, and that under predictable conditions, these attitudes toward the poor and rich shape Americans’ political preferences.”
These findings have obvious implications for a political strategy aimed at gaining support for a progressive, pro-poor/working-class program. This involves not just explicitly linking the policies of Trump and the Republican Party to the preferences of the rich, but also offering counter policies designed to directly address widespread economic insecurity. This will likely prove more politically productive than responding to the endless barrage coming from the weapons of mass distraction.
Jaffee is professor of sociology at the University of North Florida.