It’s always been a mistake to underestimate Donald Trump. This is especially true now, when he’s fighting ferociously to stay in the White House. Not underestimating him means taking him seriously as a political operator, but also as an ideologist.
There are three dimensions to the ideological positions Trump takes. The first is the economic nationalism that helped him win in 2016. It is expressed in the trade wars with China and—at a slower tempo—with the European Union.
Secondly, there is the “culture war” that the unsuccessful right wing presidential candidate Pat Buchanan declared at the 1992 Republican convention. This is about reversing the reforms won thanks to mass struggles in the 1960s and 1970s.
These reforms didn’t seek to overthrow capitalism in the US, but to extend the citizenship rights promised to everyone at the end of the 1861-5 Civil War. An obvious example is the black struggle for Civil Rights in the South.
The 1973 Roe vs Wade decision by the Supreme Court legalising abortion was also a landmark victory.
Buchanan targeted Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s alleged support for “abortion on demand, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units”.
These are the issues that particularly motivate the Christian right, whom Trump has been careful to cultivate, particularly by appointing conservatives as federal judges.
The death last Friday of justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal feminist, gives Trump the opportunity to instal a right wing 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court which might then reverse Roe vs Wade.
But we shouldn’t ignore the third ideological dimension to Trump—his war on the anti-capitalist and anti-racist left. This came out most clearly in a speech he made last week at a conference on US history.
“Left wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy,” Trump said.
“Far left demonstrators have chanted the words ‘America was never great.’” He linked this to what he claims is the ideological penetration of the US education system by left wing ideas, naming the Marxist historian Howard Zinn.
“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed.”
Trump is of course right. Marxists and other anti-racist scholars have for decades been documenting the racist roots of US society. Unfortunately, these scholars’ influence has been limited.
The tweet Trump endorsed denouncing “critical race theory” as “the greatest threat to western civilisation” is way off the mark.
But the Black Lives Matter (BLM) risings this summer changed the situation. A militant movement has emerged that gives the lie to the idea that the US is a “post-racial” society.
Trump has seized on these protests to beat the drum of law and order.
And his ideological assault on the left is linked to his Twitter denunciations of “Antifa” activists and his encouragement of both cops and his own supporters physically to attack BLM activists. This has led to at least three fatal shootings.
Trump’s tactics are raising the stakes in the election, seeking to brand Biden as a fellow traveller of the “left wing cultural revolution”. But they seem designed also to provide the ideological cement for Trump’s own militant street movement.
Already there are widespread fears being expressed in mainstream circles that, if he looks like losing the election in November, he will mobilise his armed supporters to keep him in the White House.
We’ll see whether Trump is able to hang on, constitutionally or unconstitutionally.
But for his own opportunistic reasons, he is transforming the scattered, fragmented, incoherent far right into something that could be the beginnings of a real fascist movement.