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So who was Trump really?

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Donald Trump has left the White House but debates over his legacy will rage on. Isabel Ringrose looks at how socialists should understand his time in office
Issue 2739
Trumps departure from the White House will mean many will want to define what his legacy is
Trump’s departure from the White House will mean many will want to define what his legacy is (Pic: Gage Skidmore)

The inauguration of Joe Biden signals the long-awaited end of Donald Trump’s presidency of horror.

Activists across the world will be glad to see the world’s biggest racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted Islamophobe leave the White House.

In his farewell message Trump claimed he was “the only true outsider ever to win the presidency”.

But this only summarises how he wanted to be seen.

Trump—a reality star billionaire—put himself forward as the anti-establishment candidate who would “drain the swamp” and represent ordinary people.

It worked against Hillary Clinton in 2016 and almost worked against Biden. Trumpism was an attempt to solve the crisis in US politics.

Trump wasn’t the outsider that he claimed to be. He represented both continuity and break with what had come before him. He clashed with parts of the ruling class but also served them.

A section of the ruling class believed he was the solution to their problems. But Trump wasn’t there just to do their bidding. He brought his own dynamic by reaching out to other forces, including the far right.

Throughout his presidency he tried to balance his supporter base, in particular his dangerous far right fandom, with governing in the way the US establishment wanted him to.

This tension shifted during his four-year presidency. He used both the elites and right wing when it suited him, and both used him.

Trumpism was an experiment between building a popular base and keeping in line with the ruling classes.


He became an ideological core for a populist movement, yet was sometimes forced to denounce fascist groups due to his relationship with the ruling classes.

Some present Trump as a total aberration. But his election win came out of a deep crisis in the US that neoliberal politics failed to offer an answer to.

Some analysts have seen Trump as a variety of what Karl Marx called “Bonapartism”. They treat him as a completely different form of rule than the norm, and one based on violence and dictatorship.

But Trump was not trying to declare his own regime with the support of bosses and generals.

Marx used the term to describe the rule of French emperor Louis Napoleon. His regime was a form of military dictatorship, “rule by the sword”.

Marx saw this as a government that emerged when the class struggle had ended in a form of stalemate.

Louis Napoleon appeared to rise above classes and the traditional political parties. He relied even more than “normal” governments on the state’s repressive forces.

But the appearance of independence was not a reality. Louis Napoleon ruled clearly in the interests of the capitalists and the big landowners.

Donald Trump’s four years of horror
Donald Trump’s four years of horror
  Read More

Leon Trotsky later used Bonapartism to describe the rule of a “judge-arbiter between two camps in struggle”.

Trotsky added, “Bonapartism represents in the social sense, always and at all epochs, the government of the strongest and firmest part of the exploiters.

“Consequently, present-day Bonapartism can be nothing else than the government of finance capital which directs, inspires, and corrupts the summits of the bureaucracy, the police, the officers’ caste, and the press.”

Trump might have wanted to have been in such a position. But class struggle was not so high that big business and the military wanted him to break from the present forms of political rule.

Despite his anti-establishment mask and populist rhetoric that led to confrontation with the ruling class, Trump benefitted it by being pro rich and pro tax cuts for the wealthy.

He tapped into culture wars—rampaging up patriotism to weaken the working class and deflect blame onto minorities.

Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent.

The top 1 percent of taxpayers—who have an income over £566,788 a year—were expected to receive 83 percent of gains from the act by 2027.

And through his Covid-19 bailout scheme, Trump loaned almost £200 million to 100 companies that are owned or operated by his donors.

But he did clash with sections of big business. Biden raised almost twice as many large contributions for his election campaign than Trump, showing that US capitalists see Biden as a safer pair of hands.

“I like chaos. It really is good,” Trump once said. This was not good news for some fat cats who want a stable market to grab profits from.

The Financial Times reported that 15 chief executive officers of top corporations on the US stock exchange backed Trump. But twice as many donated to Biden’s campaign.

The ongoing crisis in the system meant different wings of the ruling class looked to different solutions—for some Trump fitted into that.


But he split bosses over his import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminium. Aimed at targeting China in his trade wars, the tariffs also hit the interests of some major capitalists.

Trump also unsettled sections of the state with his attacks on the Nato nuclear alliance and his disregard for US allies.

Ex-marine Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defence secretary, quit after disagreements—such as over Iran and using troops on BLM protesters.

Elites such as Mattis care about US dominance as a global superpower and did not want this endangered by a reckless Trump.

But Trump’s warmongering ways were also popular. During his presidency the Pentagon made the largest weapons deal in US military history and defence spending increased by 16 percent.

Trump’s government shutdown—the longest in US history—pushed senior Republicans away to avoid being associated with his chaos.

Trump has mobilised a dangerous far right movement—it won’t be beaten by the Democrats, the state or the ‘centre ground’
Trump has mobilised a dangerous far right movement—it won’t be beaten by the Democrats, the state or the ‘centre ground’
  Read More

Yet Republicans in the Senate still voted in Trump’s favour in his trial following impeachment by the House of Representatives.

It was his relationship with fascists that made him different from any previous president.

Trump used the alt right to build a base of supporters around his existing middle class one, despite not being a fascist himself.

His political base was formed by right wing populism. Not every Trump supporter wearing his memorabilia was a fascist—but his policies coalesced such forces around him.

He defended right wing teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two anti-racists at a BLM demonstration in Wisconsin last August.

During the first 2020 presidential debate Trump also told the fascist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” if he lost the election. And he promoted far right conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

But the ruling elite still had the power to rein him back in, showing Trump is not so separate from them as he may claim.

The storming of the Capitol building was used by the far right as a bold declaration of action to rally troops behind them.

Trump told his supporters to “take back our country”. He instructed them to march to the Capitol to “show strength” and “fight like hell”.

During the violence that left five dead, Trump posted on his social media that he loved the fascist-led rioters, describing them as “great patriots” and “very special”.


Republican leaders, such as Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and vice president Mike Pence distanced themselves from Trump.

So a week later Trump condemned the violence, saying “all Americans were horrified by the assault”.

After Charlottesville in 2017 the establishment again distanced themselves from Trump, forcing him to act.

During a neo-Nazi march, a car drove into anti‑­fascist ­protesters killing a woman and injuring a further 19. Yet Trump insisted that there “were very fine people, on both sides”.

Trump’s response isolated him from his enemies within the Republican Party.

He was forced to fire far right figure Steve Bannon less than a week later.

It shows how Trump was pulled back into line and had to divert the blame.

Trump drew on the right wing “traditional forces such as the Tea Party activists. They had set out in 2009 to back strictly conservative candidates in numerous Republican primaries. They like Trump.

Many Republicans liked the votes that Trump produced while at the same time feeling uneasy about him. It’s been “a helluva journey” as senior Republican Lindsey Graham cynically said in the Senate recently.

Trump may not have always lined up with those at the top, but he did at key moments. He was a part of maintaining the ruling class.

The policies Biden now represents will provide fertile ground for the dangerous fascist movements Trump has helped build.

Biden provides nothing for workers, or any solutions to the crisis the US is mired in. He is part of the system that created the conditions for Trump.

What Trump represented and the movement he created will not be defeated while the working class is offered only failing centrist politics.

Revolutionaries must unite with those on the left to build united resistance and socialist politics to smash Trump’s legacy for good.

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