By David Osland
He is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, after all. He’s possessed of sufficient intellectual bandwidth to keep tally of his own golf score, and doesn’t just belong to a country club, but owns a chain of them.
The counterintuitive thing about Donald Trump is that despite his manifold effusions of populist bluster, he was in many ways a president of conventional Republican background, as the caricature might once have portrayed in a mildly satirical comedy from the golden era of Hollywood. But somehow he failed to surmount a remarkably low bar.
Instead, the most powerful nation on the planet was plunged into four years of governance in accord with the Twitter outpourings of a déclassé billionaire, saying things that must have been dismissed as unforgivably jejune the length and breadth of Westchester County.
From the start, liberal pundits were happy enough to label Trump ‘a fascist’, a comparison devalued after being routinely levelled at GOP presidents since Reagan’s embrace of Christian fundamentalism.
But this was the triumph of the lack of will, too half-arsed to be categorised as a serious project to institute a totalitarian America. US trade unionism remains intact, with the socialist left reborn to emerge in its best health since the glory days of the 1930s, and a second civil rights struggle now being played out on the streets.
At times, Trump did express overt bonhomie with elements in American society who really should be encouraged to restrict the use of white bedsheets to the bedroom.
But rather than take the salute as supporters marched in his support, he drove through the crowd on his way to 18 holes of his favoured leisure pastime. And Adolf Hitler didn’t play golf.
The Muslim ban was ineffectual and temporary, the border wall that Mexico was going to pay for remains unbuilt. The dismissal of ‘Marxist’ Black Lives Matters activists in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd remained at the level of press conference denunciations rather than internment camps.
Republican politicians have been flirting with racist rhetoric for more than half a century, ever since Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ in 1968 flipped the former Confederacy for the GOP.
Yet at no time did Trump descend to the level of George Bush senior’s infamous Willie Horton attack ad against Mike Dukakis in 1988.
Surprisingly, he even increased the Republican share of the black vote, something commentators on both sides of the Atlantic flounder to explain.
Shocking as Trump’s taped admissions of ‘pussy-grabbing’ depredations prior to entering the White House may have been, his bedroom mores while in the Oval Office compared favourably to liberal icons JFK and Bill Clinton.
He did not conduct an edgy liaison with the mistress of a Mafia boss, or invite any contemporary equivalent of Marilyn Monroe to jump out of an outsized cake and huskily lisp flirtatious birthday greetings. Nor did he cajole a starstruck junior intern into acts that cannot be described in a family newspaper.
In domestic policy, there was no Reaganite revolution from above. Trump instead revealed himself a standard rightwinger, who did a standard rightwing job for his standard rightwing backers. Taxes were cut as the rich demanded, and the stock exchange remained buoyant until the arrival of COVID-19.
By way of fortuitous side effect, the working people Hillary Clinton derided as deplorables saw increases in their standard of living after half a century of wage stagnation, a factor that helped Trump’s popularity with the ‘non-college-educated white’ demographic hold up on election day.
As an ostensible believer in Providence, fortune offered him the pretext to appoint three conservative judges to the Supreme Court, an achievement that could prove his most lasting. But the oft-reiterated desire to repeal Obamacare was relegated to the status of non-starter.
There was deregulation, to the clear detriment of the environment. But Trump was not the first president to be in hock to fossil fuel, and will not be the last.
Even on the world stage, US foreign policy was characterised more by confusion than coherence, and few items on the wish list got ticked off.
The Palestinians resisted pressure to cave in to an outrageously disadvantageous settlement with Israel that would rule out a contiguous Palestinian state. Trade war hurt the US more than China.
North Korea still has nuclear weapons, and if withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is not overturned shortly, it will simply mean Tehran’s nuclear centrifuges start spinning again.
The attempt to make aid to Ukraine conditional on Zelensky dishing the dirt on Hunter Biden backfired to the point of inducing impeachment proceedings.
But political conditionality is a constant theme in US diplomatic endeavours; pick up any book by Chomsky for details.
Nixon twice delayed a peace deal in Vietnam for electoral advantage. Reagan sold arms to the ayatollahs and spent the money illegally financing death squads in Nicaragua. Bill Clinton blitzed a Sudanese aspirin plant, Obama an Afghan wedding party.
Trump never came close to such big league standards of iniquity. Miraculously, the planet survived the Trump presidency without the US initiating a single war, not even a clandestine one.
It is always gratifying to see a reactionary defeated at the ballot box. Luxuriate in the moment, without forgetting that Trump – or someone of his ilk – will be back soon enough. But bear in mind that the victor is hardly out to inaugurate a new progressive era.
Democratic Socialists of America, the main socialist grouping in the US and the one arguably closest in spirit to the Labour left in Britain, pointedly declined to endorse Biden.
And of course, Biden is not an advocate of common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. This is something he is keen to emphasise.
“I beat the socialist,” the president elect assured one interviewer. “That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career – my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
Indeed, Biden’s position on key issues such as healthcare and energy essentially align him with the Democrats’ mainstream more than its generally timid left.
It’s not even true, as Labour has claimed, that the Democrats have “always shared Labour values”. Even in my lifetime, the Democrats saw overt segregationists and proponents of Jim Crow as their major power base. Any adventitious semblance to European social democracy has been relatively recent in historical terms.
And this is the point for the British left at this political juncture: the Democrats are bankrolled by Wall Street, dominated by an unaccountable (and wealthy) clique, have very limited union links, nor even individual members.
There have always been prominent figures in the Labour Party who see the model as the way forward. The left should see it as a warning.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.
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