The Dishonorable Society, Part 3
Reading Anton Jäger's Jacobin Piece
A Brief Note on Churches
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I had meant to spend this part focused on Trump in power, but I neglected to discuss one more aspect of the civic association question: religion and churches. Jäger briefly mentions, “the revival of association in evangelical megachurches and schools” but doesn’t give it much time. We know, of course, about the importance of evangelical support for Trump. In both 2016 and 2020, Trump picked up about 80% of the white evangelical vote. In general, Trump won over white Americans who regularly attend worship services, 59% to 40%. Civil society decline might be a broader context for understanding American politics, but Trump’s constituency is not mainly drawn from the atomized and lonely crowd, but people who are well integrated into the remaining structures of American communal life. One might even say that the degree of civic density on the right is much healthier that of the left: from the church, to the business group, to the various lobbies, pressure groups, and think tanks with associated the conservative movement, there’s a quite a good deal of organizing that leans right. Some of them are elite-oriented, but some are not.
Trump in Power
The preponderance of executive and administrative state over the legislative branch is a basic fact of American politics. Jäger writes that “Trump built on the executive power unbound by presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.” Of course, laying the responsibility for this growth on the last two presidents is not quite accurate. This is a longer-term process in American history. The past century witnessed the massive growth of the executive and the weakening of the legislative branch. Congress has delegated much of its authority to the bureaucracies. Recognizing this fact, presidential administrations from both parties have taken pains to carefully staff the executive. The Reagan administration in particular was known for its bureaucratic acumen, filling key posts with ideologically-motivated loyalists. By contrast, the Trump process of selecting political appointments was sclerotic, chaotic, and distracted. Did this show a desire to make good on Steve Bannon’s declared goal of “deconstructing the administrative state” or was is it just because of Trump’s laziness? In any case, Trump did not so much “deconstruct the administrative state” as use it as a hammer, rolling back most of the regulations and executive orders of the Obama administration. And he was was actually pretty effective in this effort, as noted in Thompson, Rabe, and Wong’s book Trump, the Administrative Presidency, and Federalism:
The authors call Trump’s administrative governing style a “hostile takeover” and note that his administration “pushed the envelope of executive action to unprecedented levels in the annals of the administrative presidency.” This is notable because Trump began his term with Republicans controlling both houses of congresses, but he struggled to accomplish anything on the legislative side. For all the caviling about the “deep state” of professional bureaucrats, the federal bureaucracy was the real center of Trump’s power, not the Senate or the courts. A major constituency for Trump existed within the security apparatus itself: he was endorsed by the ICE union and it’s been revealed that Department of Homeland Security attempted to politicize intelligence and enforcement efforts on his behalf.
Trump’s complaints about the bureaucracy are less paradoxical than it seems: Trump was the president after all and considering the central importance of the administrative state in modern politics, any political resistance from within it becomes a major obstacle. Remember that our structural theorists of Bonapartism and fascism make a point of the central importance of the independent power of the executive state. But as Marx writes in the Eighteenth Brumaire, “state power is not suspended in the air,” it is based on a class interest.
Obviously, these assaults on federal regulation were done on behalf of business, the traditional constituency of the Republican party. Business groups both large and small applauded Trump’s tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks. The White House itself became a place to do business, with executives leveraging business pre-existing connections to Trump. As the authors of one study in the Journal of Financial Economics observe:
We find that pre-existing network relations with Trump generated abnormal returns of 3.7% over a 21-day post-election period. We also demonstrate a number of real economic benefits enjoyed by connected firms. In the post-election period, firms with presidential ties performed better, received more government contracts, and were subject to more favorable regulation than nonconnected counterparts.
As the authors note, this may sound like simple corruption, but it is also essentially what Trump promised with his “deal-making” style of presidency:
Financial and economic benefits accrued to firms in the president’s network may be viewed by his detractors as evidence of cronyism or corruption. The president’s supporters, however, would argue Trump is merely resolving information asymmetries between policymakers and the private sector, by virtue of his extensive industry background.
One can compare this to early, constitutional phase of fascism where Mussolini made moves that largely favored industry.
Despite its populist or plebeian anti-capitalist rhetoric, Trumpism basically was a system of directly resolving the issues of capital through the power of the executive. This came at the expense of even the small businesses who viewed Trump as their champion. The Economics Review shows how the Trump administration was basically on the side of big business:
When Trump adopted a populist platform and actively condemned the Time Warner merger, many assumed he would take on big business. Makan Delrahim – Trump’s appointee to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division – has been quite vocal about bringing down big tech; however, he has yet to take significant antitrust action. Even more problematically, his “amicus programme”, where justice department lawyers are increasingly inserting themselves into antitrust litigation to advise judges how to rule has skewed America’s litigation in favor of big business. Whistleblowers from the DOJ report that not only has Delrahim encouraged them to side with entities like his former employer Qualcomm, but is using the DOJ’s power for politically-driven litigation on cases like marijuana industry mergers that possess little actionable threat to competition in their industry. Fearing no legal consequence, larger companies become more predatory hurting innovative small startups.
Further deregulation – like in the case of net neutrality – and administration backed op-eds titled “Competition is for Losers” warrant doubts on the Administration’s position against monopolization. Justin Talbot-Zorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, concludes Trump’s approval of the Sprint/T-mobile merger and backtracked position on the AT&T/Time Warner prove his administration has “adopted Peter Thiel’s [endorsement] of [less] competition and concentrated power”.
In fact, the Trump administration became explicitly pro-monopoly. In 2020, the Economic Report of the President dismissed the growing policy literature on breaking up big firms and concluded: “Concentration may be driven by economies of scale and scope that can lower costs for consumers. Also, successful firms tend to grow, and it is important that antitrust enforcement and competition policy not be used to punish firms for their competitive success.”
Melinda Cooper has pointed out that Trump’s business constituency is not organized on the basis of small versus the big, but “the private, unincorporated, and family-based versus the corporate, publicly traded, and shareholder-owned” and that “[t]he family-based capitalism that stormed the White House along with Trump stretches from the smallest of family businesses to the most rambling of dynasties, and crucially depends on the alliance between the two.” And as she points in a recent piece, this reassertion of dynastic wealth and “patrimonialism” over managerial capitalism does not suggest a return to feudalism, but to the classic era of capitalism, the Gilded Age, with its vast trusts and monopolies.
One of Trump’s few legislative successes, his 2017 tax cut, helped the owners of pass-through entities: the S-Corporations, sole proprietorships, and partnerships used by the closely-held business. (Of course, it helped C-Corporations quite a bit as well.) As the study “Capitalists in the 21st Century” shows, owners of this type of company are the country’s richest people on average: “A typical firm owned by the top 0.1% is a regional business with $20M in sales and 100 employees, such as an auto dealer, beverage distributor, or a large law firm.” Cooper again:
Some of the largest, most successful, and asset-rich companies today are registered as private, non-C corporations, and the bulk of all business income is now derived from pass-through entities—a reversal of the hierarchy that prevailed in the 1980s. While it is true that the majority of genuine small businesses continue to be structured in the pass-through form of sole proprietorship, most pass-through income is now being produced by a small sliver of hedge funds, private equity firms, and real-estate partnerships. Increasingly, big business masquerades as small business for tax purposes. The Trump Organization—a holding company for more than 500 pass-through entities—is just one of the many conglomerates that have learned to deploy this masquerade to maximum effect.
As Cooper notes, these types of company are organized in civil society organizations whose policy preferences are taking precedence in the GOP over the traditional industrial consortiums.
Like Napoleon III, Trump’s attempt to be the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes” was riven with internal contradictions: “…[H]e cannot give to one without taking from another.” Tariffs meant to create favorable conditions for industry and workers helped some sectors of the economy while their costs fell on others, the presidency declares itself to work on behalf of the working class while aggressively attacking labor protections and wages through the bureaucracy, in order to pay for the tax cuts the amount of interest taxpayers can deduct is limited, the SALT deduction is capped, hurting the middle-class, as a result some states create work-arounds, which only benefit the holders of pass-through entities, corporations receive massive tax and regulatory considerations while being publicly castigated as “woke capitalists” to please social conservatives.
The Organization of the Mob
Riley writes that the main institutional conflict under fascism was between the party and the leadership, while under Trump it’s between the Trump Organization as scheme of self-enrichment and the federal bureaucracy:
Both Hitler and Mussolini remained party leaders; they could never fully extricate themselves from the organizations to which they owed their power. Trump is not a party leader; he is a patriarch. He has no organization, and while he rules from the extreme right, he personally lacks a political ideology. Furthermore, comparing Bannon and Farinacci demonstrates Bannon’s weakness—he cannot draw on a mass of organized followers to pressure Trump from below. Instead he remains dependent on personal patronage.
This difference matters because it gives fascism and Trumpism very different developmental tendencies. Party pressure was a major source of “radicalization” in fascist regimes. It was the party demand for posts and positions that largely explains the expansion of party control over economic and social life.
But Riley underrates the political pressure that the mob can put on Trump and his inability to fully extricate himself from it. As I’ve noted, he has never been fully able to jettison this constituency and understands that he relies on them. But he has also been unable or unwilling to fully organize them effectively. He also could not effectively staff the massive executive with figures drawn from the Trumpen netherworld. He lacks both the mass party structure of fascism or the conspiratorial “gang” of Napoleon III: what he has available are much looser associations. Trump was never able to unite Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, QAnon, etc. into a single, permanent centrally directed unit.
The mob that appeared on January 6, made up of declassed and struggling members of the petit bourgeoisie, was the creature of disparate groups and those in no groups at all. Also, this mob shook the rest of his of coalition: establishment Republicans looked like they were going to finally bolt, the business community, which had tolerated other excesses, seemed genuinely spooked now and vowed to not donate to election deniers, pledges that have become more flexible over time. But this tension between conservative elements of the bourgeoisie and the rowdy mob of the “party” is straight out of fascism: the early crises of Mussolini’s rule revolved around conservative “normalizers” versus the radical demands of the party ras.
I believe the fundamental contradiction of Trumpism and therefore the Republican party is between the “populist” and plebeian side of Trumpism, that is to say the rule of the mob and the bourgeoisie. The mob, although it has appeared as a permanent political factor, does not have the strength or organization to blackjack its way into into power nor to persuade the bourgeoisie that submitting to its dictatorship is the only alternative to the end of the social order. Here’s where the lack of revolutionary threat is in fact decisive: the capitalist class doesn’t need a “savior.” The ascendancy of mob attitudes and crackpot “ideologies” in the G.O.P. has, the Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boeberts, Tucker Carlson etc. is apparently alienating both the middle-class electorate and business support, which still trusts conventional “democratic” politics to support its interests.
Trump’s strength was that he was both reassuringly bourgeois and business-oriented and a mob leader: he could fuse these groups in his person. Now, he may just be the latter, isolating him more from the mainstream. The strength of the economy that began under Trump and the continued resilience of the labor market may be undermining its own political strength: capitalism is just producing more socially-adjusted “normies” than resentful mobbists. The current efforts to use the mob are coming directly from the capitalist class itself: think Elon Musk. But as Jäger would correctly point out, these so far are merely virtual swarms.
To understand Trump’s regime form one has to return to his roots: he comes out of the corrupt machine politics of New York, a world of patronage and pay-offs. The bourgeoisie and mob there had a cozy, symbiotic relationship: It could be difficult to figure out where legitimate politics and business ended and organized crime began: Meade Esposito, the Brooklyn political boss Fred Trump cultivated to facilitate his building was in tight with the “The honorable society:” the Mafia; the Trumps shared a lawyer, Roy Cohn, with the Gambino crime family who brokered deals between the two. The mafia facilitated a kind of perverse corporatism: labor peace and industrial cartelization that businessmen like the Trumps often found more convenient than onerous to deal with. The city was divided by racial and ethnic conflicts. These were brokered in the political sphere but could break out into open violence. Despite sporadic rioting, hate crimes, and racial backlash politics, this was not a world of ideological mobilization: it was one of clubs and backroom handshakes. Machines relied on keeping the local electorate small and manageable. The mob here is “pre-political:” it wants its share of the spoils but doesn’t aspire to directly rule.
However much Trump relishes whipping up crowds and delivering plebiscitary punches, this is his natural environment. But Trumpism does portend a possible alliance between mob and capital, a recognition of their fundamental identity and their shared need to rely on openly violent and terroristic methods to ensure their domination. The dictatorial temptation may become acute if the power of the S-Corporation class, with its narrower and more direct conception of self-interest, continues to grow at the expense of managerial corporations that have to mediate between various stakeholders.
Whatever you want to call all this is up to you.
P.S. I just want to say once again, these are notes or thoughts in progress. I don’t intend this to be the final word on the topic. I hope others find this useful or interesting.
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