Not all of Donald Trump’s picks for cabinet have been confirmed, but given the weakness of the Democratic bloc in Congress it’s safe to say that almost all of them will serve in their appointed positions. So now the dismantling of a government accountable to the people, the press, and the rule of law can begin in earnest.
In a previous post I suggested that the best way to understand Donald Trump is neither as an authoritarian, nor a media manipulator, nor a global populist–though he clearly has strands of all these in his political DNA. Rather, he should be seen as the epitome of Neoliberalism. Virtually everything that has happened involving Trump since I wrote that post has confirmed this. But to make sense of Trump as a neoliberal, we first need to define the ideology–especially since some doubt that such a thing exists.
Telling of the American ignorance about this ideology, a definition of Neoliberalism is difficult to find in the U.S. mainstream press, even in a supposedly left-leaning newspaper like the New York Times. I was first introduced to the term through an article by William Deresiewicz in a 2015 issue of Harper’s titled, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul to the Marketplace.” In this article Deresiewicz gives a somewhat incomplete definition:
Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending. . . . Neoliberalism, which dovetails perfectly with meritocracy, has generated a caste system: “winners and losers,” “makers and takers,” “the best and the brightest,” the whole gospel of Ayn Rand and her Übermenschen.
Another writer who has paid attention to Neoliberalism is Ben Tarnoff, an opinion editorial writer for the U.S. version of the Manchester Guardian. In a recent article from his newspaper he provides a more succinct description of Neoliberalism, especially in the sense of how the term is now understood and frequently used:
Neoliberalism can mean many things, including an economic program, a political project, and a phase of capitalism dating from the 1970s. At its root, however, neoliberalism is the idea that everything should be run as a business – that market metaphors, metrics, and practices should permeate all fields of human life.
One of my favorite current columnists, also from the Guardian, is George Monbiot. In a 2016 article unabashedly titled “Neoliberalism, the Ideology at the Root of All of Our Problems,” Monbiot imparts not only a similar definition but also some of the ideology’s implications:
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. The organisation of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
What all of these authors’ explanations of Neoliberalism have in common is their mention of the marketplace, which this ideology sees as the only rightful arbiter of all politics, economics, and social phenomena. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that Neoliberalism holds the mythical marketplace as sacrosanct. As a result, Neoliberalism rears its head in almost every social, economic, and political situation these days: in the struggle over educational reform (whether to create charter schools, so as to spark institutional competition); in debates over the minimum wage (whether the market alone should decide what a wage should be); in public policy concerning health care (whether more market competition would bring down its cost). Regardless of the problem, the solution furnished by Neoliberalism begins and ends with the marketplace.
Yet the question remains: how is Neoliberalism related to what Donald Trump and his administration will do? Here I want to suggest that this ideology points to a pathway that the Trump administration is likely to follow. This is evident in primarily three different respects.
First, Neoliberalism explains not only how Trump got to the White House but also how his administration will likely play politics in the years to come. Recently Monbiot wrote of the role that celebrity has played in facilitating the victory of Donald Trump. On the face of it, being famous seems to have nothing to do with Neoliberalism. But Monbiot argues that the two are linked for largely two reasons. First and foremost, celebrity arises through massive marketing that in turn is made possible by large corporations. Think about it. Is there any chance that so much fame would be bestowed upon the likes of Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, or Kim Kardashian without the support of mass media companies and technological behemoths like Twitter? Such celebrity is vital to the strong links that corporations seek to forge with consumers. As Monbiot puts it,
The rise of celebrity culture did not happen by itself. It has long been cultivated by advertisers, marketers and the media. And it has a function. The more distant and impersonal corporations become, the more they rely on other people’s faces to connect them to their customers. . . . The celebrities you see most often are the most lucrative products, extruded through a willing media by a marketing industry whose power no one seeks to check. This is why actors and models now receive such disproportionate attention, capturing much of the space once occupied by people with their own ideas: their expertise lies in channeling other people’s visions.
Celebrity is also integral to Neoliberalism in how the former serves to distract people from social, economic, and political realities that may call the ideology into question. Again, Monbiot makes the case:
Celebrity has a second major role: as a weapon of mass distraction. . . . people who are the most interested in celebrity are the least engaged in politics, the least likely to protest and the least likely to vote. This appears to shatter the media’s frequent, self-justifying claim that celebrities connect us to public life.
For Monbiot Trump epitomizes both aspects of the neoliberal-celebrity nexus:
In Trump we see a perfect fusion of the two main uses of celebrity culture: corporate personification and mass distraction. His celebrity became a mask for his own chaotic, outsourced and unscrupulous business empire. His public image was the perfect inversion of everything he and his companies represent. As presenter of the US version of “The Apprentice,” this spoiled heir to humongous wealth became the face of enterprise and social mobility. During the presidential elections, his noisy persona distracted people from the intellectual void behind the mask, a void now filled by more lucid representatives of global capital.
Trump is a master at corporate celebrity and distraction. Not only was he elected by people drawn to the allure of his celebrity; he will undoubtedly continue to use celebrity to advance his own business interests, all the while distracting much of the country from the corporate power that his administration will unleash on an unsuspecting nation. The only question is whether many Americans will wake up or remain entranced by Trump’s fame.
Neoliberalism predicts Trump’s future actions in another respect as well: in the alliances he is forging with corporate interests. Casting aside for a moment how he is already using the presidency to enhance his own enterprises, Trump has sent clear signals that the U.S. government will operate more as a business, especially with the help of the corporate elite. The Guardian’s Tarnoff argues that the neoliberal exultation of business is central to Trump’s presidential agenda–despite his populist blather:
Trump built his campaign around the premise that his chief qualification for the presidency was his success as a businessman. He promised to make America great again by bringing business discipline and dynamism to government. It’s true that he often denounced the depredations of corporate America, lobbing populist salvos at free trade, outsourcing, and Wall Street for hurting working people. But his principal solution to these sins of business was always more business: he would cut deals with CEOs and foreign leaders, drawing on his talents as a negotiator to get American workers better terms.
Since his victory, Trump has begun turning his campaign rhetoric into reality. He is making government look more like a business than ever before. He has created the wealthiest cabinet in history. He has selected a fast food executive for secretary of labor, a billionaire Goldman Sachs alum for secretary of treasury, and the CEO of ExxonMobil for secretary of state. He is also preparing to personally profit from the presidency, refusing to cut ties with his corporate empire. Trump will run government not merely like a business, but as a business.
Neoliberalism can be seen as key to the Trump Administration’s future in one other respect: in how dismissive its members seem to be of any problem that cannot be solved by the marketplace. Most glaringly, this is the case with climate change. Trump has said very little about the issue (other than it being a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese), but his actions speak louder than words. The naming of Rex Tillerson as his choice for Secretary of State suggests that climate change will matter very little in the Trump Administration, especially given how ExxonMobil funded a well orchestrated campaign to confuse the world about climate change while Tillerson was at the helm of this mega-corporation. For some reason this issue was largely sidestepped at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.
As Monbiot also points out, Trump’s cabinet appointments suggest that he is trying “to keep the U.S. in the fossil age:”
Make America Wait Again. That is what Donald Trump’s energy policy amounts to. Stop all the clocks, put the technological revolution on hold, ensure that the transition from fossil fuels to clean power is delayed for as long as possible.
Trump is the president that corporate luddites have dreamed of: the man who will let them squeeze every last cent from their oil and coal reserves before they become worthless. They need him because science, technology and people’s demands for a safe and stable world have left them stranded. There is no fair fight that they can win, so their last hope lies with a government that will rig the competition.
The problem with waiting for the next administration to address climate change, of course, is that time is quickly running out; even if a future administration enacted radical plans to reduce carbon emissions significantly, there would still be catastrophic effects on the planet. Moreover, even if Trump were to change his tune on climate two or three years down the road, the resistance posed by others in his administration would be so strong that the government would likely be in paralysis on the issue. For the foreseeable future climate-change skeptics or deniers will not only preside over the State Department; they will also control the Departments of Energy, Interior, and Justice, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nevertheless, climate change is far from the only dilemma that the tenets of Neoliberalism cannot resolve. The granting of more school choice for parents and the creation of more charter schools–both of which are based on a neoliberal idea that education will improve once there is institutional competition–are likely to do little to improve primary or secondary education. Higher education in this country shows that even when there is robust competition between private and public colleges and universities, such competition cannot reverse the ill-effects of poverty, poor primary and secondary schooling, and other social difficulties that cause too many students to drop out before graduating. Neoliberalism, moreover, can do little about increasing wealth inequality in a nation like the U.S., to say nothing of that in world as a whole; indeed, it is likely that this ideology has been, and will continue to be, largely responsible for such inequality–as even the business-friendly International Monetary Fund recently concluded.
Neoliberalism goes a long way in predicting what the Trump Administration will likely do, and the effects may be truly devastating. Even so, we must remember that ideology is not necessarily destiny, and thus we should retain the hope that popular resistance will prevent or attenuate the worst possible outcomes of the Trump agenda. Yet given how quickly Obamacare is being dismantled, and that Trump seems poised to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, there is ever more reason to believe that the path forward for this nation in the next four years will be built upon the destruction of anything believed to stand in the way of Neoliberalism’s mythical marketplace.