In response to “Trump and the Trumpists” (Vol. 3, No. 1).

To the editors:

Wolfgang Streeck offers a new conceptualization of political phenomena under the heading of Trump and the Trumpists. Trumpers are the leaders and Trumpists the followers, as they have emerged in recent years in several countries. Trumpism appears as a subcategory of populism. As a type, it enables and serves comparisons of similar phenomena. Streeck draws on Marx’s political analysis of Bonapartism as a form of personal rule and on Max Weber’s distinction of class and status groups. He perceives the United States as a polity of status groups, in which “the working class lost its sense of identification with the country as a whole.” But in Weberian analysis, one type or two contrasting ones—as in the old, misleading juxtaposition of bureaucracy and charisma—is insufficient; it requires a battery of types, here of different kinds of domination and capitalism. Between them, the historical specificity of a case can be identified, the ultimate aim of historical analysis. But no framework, however inclusive, can ever master the fluidity of historical dynamics.

Streeck’s framework of Trumpism tends to perceive the U.S. and western Europe in a uni-dimensional direction, with an almost deterministic dynamic. Everything disintegrates, from state-administered capitalism and neoliberalism, in practice and theory, to the woes of the center-left. Thus, in his typology, the advances of liberal democracy in the U.S. are relatively discounted and left out of the historical equation. But these have been real historical strides, which Streeck might not dispute outside his construction, which strikes an apocalyptic tone. The last hundred years, since World War I, have seen a great expansion of federal powers, which has had both liberal and illiberal effects and consequences. But since the Great Depression the federal welfare state has been advancing, with stops and goes, encompassing not only welfare for people but for the environment. Real progress has been made in race and gender relations, which Trump’s boorish behavior and the dog whistles of White supremacists cannot reverse. But from the outset liberal reformism has encountered uncompromising Republican opposition, which reached another high point during the Obama presidency. Ironically, Trump’s election as a self-declared outsider has given the Republicans a mostly unexpected opportunity to realize much of their agenda on the federal level; they have already made great advances/strides on the state level, controlling the majority of governorships and state legislatures. During the first hundred days, Trump has been so much an enabler of old Republican demands that he appeared to some in the media as a good Republican. It is a crucial difference from European forms of Trumpism that Trump was, after all, the candidate of one of the two traditional parties. And now he cannot escape the constraints of a Republican-controlled Congress, however divided it may be in itself. In spite of a pattern of unpredictable sudden urges, he cannot be a personal ruler.

Much of present-day commentary, including Streeck’s theory of Trumpism, has focused attention on the diffuse role in 2016 of the ill-defined white blue-collar working class in the partially de-industrialized Midwest. Many voters in this broad group voted for Obama twice before turning on Hillary Clinton, the victim of decades-old vilification by Republicans. The difference in outcome depended on a relatively small number of votes and a fortuitous constellation of factors. The result does not constitute a stable constellation, as far as presidential elections are concerned.

In my view, transcending the category of Trumpism is another category, useful for comparison but exemplified first of all in the U.S.: populist plutocracy. There the populist dimension encompasses age-old hostility to taxation on every level, and to the federal government’s role in serving collective national needs, as well as an ingrained racism and misogyny. The plutocratic dimension has indeed reached again a high historical point, not seen since the prominence of the super-rich in the Gilded Age. Plutocracy aims at curtailing state intervention and therefore also at controlling the electoral process. After persistent efforts, present-day plutocracy strengthened its reign in 2010 by virtue of the Supreme Court decision in favor of Citizens United. Now election campaigns are, more than ever, flooded by many hundreds of millions from mostly unidentified sources. The Tea Party movement, for one, was organizationally prepared and financed by plutocratic agencies and personalities, faking a grassroots movement, although there was a fertile field for many grievances and resentments/hatreds which Trump exploited. Some populist grievances remain directed at the plutocracy, especially Wall Street.

Up to now, the spring of 2017, Trump has had some success in freeing big and small business from federal restrictions, rather than in substantively aiding the blue-collar communities, which, it is true, is a much harder challenge. It has been very easy for him to promote the power of the super-rich. Advised by the Heritage Foundation, he appointed the richest cabinet in history. Its plutocratic members can both exploit and shrink the administrative state, a term that has been resurrected derogatively on the populist side. Trump’s dramatic proposal for revising the tax laws, while comprised of only one page on April 27 and very far from any implementation, would benefit primarily this plutocracy and his own pocket. Having wrapped himself in the mantle of populist Trumpism, he remains a not-fully-accepted member of the plutocracy. But as David Brooks observed, Trump has already moved in significant respects “from being a subversive populist to a conventional corporatist.”1 How far will he denature his own Trumpism? What would happen to it under a President Mike Pence? In spite of all his bluster and professed opposition to the Washington swamp, Trump is revealing himself more and more as the businessman he has always been, single-mindedly pursuing his own and his family’s enrichment. It is fitting that in his presidential role he has demonstratively fused political and private interests by unabashedly taking advantage of a constitutional loophole.

In sum, both Trumpism and populist plutocracy have conceptual and empirical limits, one perspective overshadowing the other. Although Streeck points out that, historically, populism has appeared in progressive as well as reactionary forms, he does not pay attention to the fact that in response to Trump’s election a progressive counter-movement has emerged that challenges the story of the apparently irreversible liberal decline. Many tens of thousands have demonstrated on the streets and many activists compete vigorously for Congressional seats in the 2018 midterm campaigns, which have already begun. This movement draws strength from the fact that it aggregates many different progressive interests, for instance not just women’s rights, as was visible in the New York City Women’s March of January 21, 2017.2 The fact that the country remains fairly evenly split in its voting pattern and cultural values in spite of its overarching plutocratic superstructure gives progressive forces much cause for hope. As an acute outside observer of the American scene, Streeck can afford to express his pessimism about the chances of American liberal democracy. American liberals can afford to believe in an open future and fight for it.

Guenther Roth

Wolfgang Streeck replies:

“No framework, however inclusive, can ever master the fluidity of historical dynamics.” Who could disagree? “The result” of last year’s presidential election, writes Roth, “does not constitute a stable constellation.” This is so. In fact, had the establishment of the Democratic Party been as inept as its Republican counterpart in keeping outsiders out, Trump might have had to run against Sanders, and Sanders might now be President. “American liberals,” Roth ends his comment, “can afford to believe in an open future and fight for it”. Indeed they can. But then, history is not a shopping mall. I subscribe to what Roth says about the United States as a populist plutocracy, which to me is the political surface of an oligarchic political economy of worldwide extension, protected by a huge “wealth defense industry” (Jeffrey Winters). There is a longstanding continuity here, a regression line with a powerful capacity to pull historical accidents back into the discipline of a firmly-established power structure. It was Obama who left the country in a condition ripe for Trump to harvest, and it was the Democratic Party that selected Hillary Clinton, of Wall Street and the Clinton Foundation, as the champion of the ninety-nine percent. To me an important development—found also in other democratic-capitalist countries—is the social and political decline of the center left. This is an ominous historical trend in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden, where center-left parties have lost their old-labor constituency and with it their capacity to govern. Whether lifestyle liberalism can deal with the challenges of an aggressive capitalism in a fragmented global order is to be doubted.

Guenther Roth is emeritus Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

Wolfgang Streeck is Director Emeritus and Professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.

  1. David Brooks, “The Pond-Skater Presidency,” The New York Times, April 28, 2017. 
  2. See Caroline Bynum, The Women’s March, New York, January 21, 2017, Common Knowledge 23, no. 4 (2017): 377–80.