Amid all the uncertainties of this week’s US presidential election, one thing’s for sure. The Republican Party’s relationship with its social base is cracking apart.
Since the Civil War of 1861-65, the Republicans have been the party of big capital.
Republican John D Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was the early 20th century counterpart of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. His grandson Nelson didn’t fulfil his presidential ambitions, but he became governor of New York state and US vice president.
Arguably the Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt saved US capitalism during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But the bulk of big business were bitterly opposed to Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. The Democrats were and remain a pro-capitalist party. Both Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s and Barack Obama’s between 2009 and 2017 eagerly promoted neoliberal globalisation.
But the Republicans retained their intimate relationship with the bulk of the corporate rich. The Marxist historian Mike Davis dubbed Texas oilman George W Bush’s administration the political wing of the American Petroleum Institute.
But now things are changing. According to the Financial Times newspaper, 15 chief executive officers of top corporations on the S&P 500 index are backing Donald Trump. “But twice as many big company CEOs have given to Democrat Joe Biden’s campaign, MarketWatch calculated,” it said.
“James Murdoch, whose father Rupert controls Fox News, has become one of the top Democratic donors.”
In a poll of directors of top companies, 77 percent said they would vote for Biden. Trump has more support among smaller businesses who look to him for protection from international competition.
Despite his flaunted and inflated super-rich status, Trump’s an outsider in the business establishment. “I would bring Donald Trump to our CEO summit years ago,” Jeffrey Sonnefeld of Yale School of Management told the Financial Times. “And the top tier CEOs would say, ‘Don’t bring him in here. We don’t consider him a top CEO.’”
Trump indeed played on being an outsider to win the presidency in 2016. He appealed to the anger of enough blue-collar whites who see themselves as the victims of corporate globalisation to tip the balance in his favour in the electoral college.
As he’s come under greater pressure, above all this year with the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump has doubled-down on this tactic. In many ways this is a radicalisation of the “Southern Strategy” that got Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968. Nixon played on the racist backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and the black inner-city revolts to win over white voters in the South who had traditionally supported the Democrats.
But he was able at the same time to hang onto the support of the corporate rich, at least until the Watergate scandal exploded.
It looks as if Trump hasn’t succeeded in this balancing act. His polarising rhetoric, denunciations of “Antifa”, and appeals to far right militias may have hardened his white racist base. But they have scared away big business.
These fears have been reinforced by Trump’s refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transition if he loses the election. Last week he said that it would be “totally inappropriate” if ballots were still being tallied after election day.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and six other corporate lobby groups immediately issued a statement appealing for “patience” if the election count is protracted.
In other words, the existing two-party system has served US capitalism well. Preserving it is more important than any goodies that Trump might toss at business.
Biden, even if he fulfils his promise to tax the wealthier more, is a safer pair of hands steering the US state.
But whatever happens this week, Sonnefeld “doubts that the Republicans can continue to accommodate a ‘pro-expertise’ corporate cadre alongside its ‘rural, anti-intellectual conspiracy group’ for much longer”.
Undermining the Republicans’ ability to act as a reliable instrument of big capital may be a major Trump legacy.