Trump’s “America First” policies and the global eruption of economic nationalism

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By Nick Beams
21 February 2017

While the battle in Washington between the intelligence agencies, the media and the Trump administration over the question of Russia and Trump’s supposed ties to Putin is attracting most of the headlines, a conflict on the economic front is of no less significance.

Earlier this month, in response to Trump’s “America First” agenda and what it called his “divisive delusions on trade,” the Financial Times, the voice of British and to some extent European finance capital, warned that if the Trump administration continued on its present course, it would represent a “clear and present danger to the global trading and monetary system.”

The immediate cause of this unusually strong language was the claim by the Trump administration that the euro was significantly undervalued, operating to the benefit of Germany, which enjoys a trade surplus with the US.

The editorial called for other countries to “stand ready to resist bullying and not to let the US drive wedges between them.”

The Financial Times did not go any further, but the logic of this position is clear. If countries are to stand together to combat what are seen as American attacks, then the next step is the development of trade and economic agreements directed against the US—in short, a major step down the road to the kind of economic and currency blocs that exacerbated the 1930s Depression and played a major role in the drive to a second world war in the space of two decades.

No one has yet put forward the formation of such alliances, but the issue is assuming a larger presence in public pronouncements and no doubt in discussions behind closed doors.

Last month, speaking to the New York Times on the sidelines of the Davos summit of the World Economic Forum, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the president of the euro group of finance ministers, pointed to possible major shifts in orientation. “We’ve always said that America is our best friend,” he said. “If that’s no longer the case, if that’s what we need to understand from Donald Trump, then, of course, Europe will be looking for new friends.

“China is a very strong candidate for that. The Chinese involvement in Europe in terms of investment is already very high and expanding. If you push away your friends, you mustn’t be surprised if the friends start looking for new friends.”

So far as the Trump administration is concerned, China, and to some extent Germany, is the main economic opponent and threat to the economic pre-eminence of the United States. This orientation is one of the reasons for its conflict with the sections of the military and intelligence establishment that are pressing for a more open confrontation with Russia.

Trump has variously threatened to brand China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs as high as 45 percent on its exports to the US. While he has yet to announce any concrete policies and his positions so far have been set out only in tweets and similar remarks, the underlying position of the administration and the economic processes that are driving it were set out last September in a paper on the Trump economic plan authored by the then-business professor at the University of California-Irvine, Peter Navarro, and equity investor Wilbur Ross.

Since the election Navarro has become the head of Trump’s National Trade Council and Wilbur Ross has become commerce secretary.

The paper began by noting that in the period from 1947 to 2001, US gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 3.5 percent a year, but from 2002, that average had fallen to 1.9 percent, representing a 45 percent reduction in the US growth rate from its historical pre-2002 norm.

The authors dismissed the claims of the Obama administration that lower growth was a “new normal,” labelling that position “defeatist” and claiming that low growth was the result of higher taxes, increased regulation and the “self-inflicted negative impacts from poorly negotiated trade deals,” including NAFTA and China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The latter, they wrote, negotiated under Bill Clinton, “opened America’s markets to a flood of illegally subsidized Chinese imports, thereby creating massive and chronic trade deficits.”

China’s accession to the WTO, they argued, “also rapidly accelerated the offshoring of America’s factories and a concomitant decline in US domestic business investment as a percentage of our economy.” They noted that from 1999 to 2003, US investment flows to China were stable at around $1.6 billion per year, but jumped in the period 2004–2008 to an annual average of $6.4 billion a year.

In other words, according to their argument, the flow of investment funds to China, made possible by its accession to the WTO, is one of the chief causes of the long-term slowdown in US economic growth.

The authors also hit out at WTO rules, saying that the exemption of exports to the US from value added taxes (VAT) imposed by European governments and the fact that US exports to Europe are subject to these taxes was a form of discrimination against US firms. These conclusions form the basis for the discussion within the Trump administration on the possible imposition of taxes on imports.

They wrote that unequal treatment of US exports was an example of “VAT gaming,” and that the US should have demanded equal tax treatment for US exports.

“Since the WTO would be meaningless without the presence of the world’s largest importer and third largest exporter, we had the leverage then—and we have the leverage now—to fix this anomaly and loophole,” they asserted, adding the implied threat that “without the US as a member, there would not be much purpose to the WTO.”

The Trump administration’s denunciations of China as a currency manipulator have attracted most of the media attention. But Navarro and Ross were no less strident when it came to the European Monetary Union.

“While the euro freely floats in international currency markets, this system deflates the German currency from where it would be if the German Deutschmark were still in existence,” they wrote. This was the reason, they claimed, that the US had a large trade in goods deficit with Germany, some $75 billion in 2015, even though German wages were relatively high.

The paper gave a clear summing up of where the Trump administration sees the position of the US in regard to the struggle for global markets. Answering critics of the “America First” agenda, they wrote: “Those who suggest that Trump trade policies will ignite a trade war ignore the fact that we are already engaged in a trade war. It is a war in which the American government has surrendered before engaging.”

They held out the prospect that in pursuing a policy of what they termed “more balanced trade,” the US would be able to secure cooperation because US trade partners were more dependent on American markets than America is on their markets.

As with so many of Trump’s policies, the trade war agenda outlined by Navarro and Ross represents not so much a break from the policies of the Obama administration as a continuation of their basic thrust and, at the same time, a qualitative escalation.

The underlying strategy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its counterpart for Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, promoted by the Obama administration, was that privileged access to the vast American market for those countries that signed up would enable the US to force concessions upon them.

Both proposed trade investment deals specifically scrapped the system that had governed trade relations since World War II under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the WTO, which maintained that concessions offered to one country should be offered to all. This policy was in recognition of the damage done to the world economy and trade system through the formation of exclusivist blocs in the period of the 1930s.

Outlining the rationale for the proposed agreements in 2014, Obama’s trade representative Michael Froman wrote in a major Foreign Affairs article that “trade policy is national security policy,” and that the aim of the agreements was to “place the US at the center of agreements that will provide unfettered access to two-thirds of the global economy.”

He went on to explain that the post-war system was no longer adequate and that the US no longer held “as dominant a position as it did at the end of World War II” and had to build new “trade coalitions working toward consensus positions.” In other words, the development of new mechanisms whereby the US could counter its economic decline vis-à-vis its rivals.

The Trump policy is being driven by this same agenda, albeit in a different form. The underlying driving forces can be clearly seen.

First, there is the contraction in economic growth not only in the US but internationally. It has been estimated that the economic slowdown since the financial crisis of 2008 means that developed economies are one sixth smaller than they would have been had pre-crisis growth trends been maintained.

The contraction is even more pronounced in world trade. Since 2012, world trade has advanced by little more than 3 percent per year, less than half the average expansion of the preceding decades. As the International Monetary Fund has noted, between 1985 and 2007 real world trade grew on average twice as fast as global gross domestic product (GDP), whereas over the past four years it has barely kept pace. “Such prolonged sluggish growth in trade volumes,” it concluded, “relative to economic activity has few precedents during the past five decades.”

Even before the accession of Trump, the WTO noted the rise of protectionist measures. It pointed out that members of the G20 group—all of which pledged to eschew 1930s style measures—had, in the five months leading up to last October, been implementing an average of 17 trade constraints a month, a situation it described as a “real and persistent concern.”

In other words, the accession of Trump and his “America First” agenda of economic nationalism and a war of each against all is not some aberration, but the qualitative development of a trend that has been building up within the world capitalist economy over the past decade, but which is now coming to the surface with explosive force.

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Will the Trumpian nightmare lead to a real “political revolution” after all?

Out of darkness, light:

Slavoj Žižek argued Trump would be better for the left than Clinton — and if we survive this, he might be right

Out of darkness, light: Will the Trumpian nightmare lead to a real "political revolution" after all?
(Credit: Getty/Win McNamee/Andrew Harrer)

Last November, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek turned a lot of heads when he announced shortly before the 2016 presidential election that if he were American, he would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton — not because he thought Trump was the lesser evil, but precisely because he was the greater evil.

The Slovenian intellectual’s hope was that the election of a vulgar, right-wing extremist like Trump would “be a kind of big awakening” that would trigger “new political processes” in America. In other words, with a reactionary demagogue as transparently abhorrent and dangerous as Trump in the White House, a popular movement on the left would emerge to challenge not only Trump’s reactionary populism, but the neoliberal status quo that had long prevailed in Washington. Clinton, argued Žižek, stood for an “absolute inertia” that would stifle a populist movement on the left, and while there was great danger in a Trump presidency, there was also great danger in electing Clinton — especially in the long run.

This was obviously a controversial — and very Žižekian — opinion that most on the left did not espouse. One of the most prominent leftist intellectuals of our time, Noam Chomsky, called it a “terrible point,” remarking that “it was the same point that people like him said about Hitler in the early ’30s.” Chomsky means the German Communists, who in the early 1930s were more critical of the reformist Social Democratic Party — which they preposterously labeled a “social fascist” party — than they were of the Nazis.

“The left could have been organized to keeping [Clinton’s] feet to the fire,” noted  Chomsky in an interview with Al Jazeera. “What it will be doing now is trying to protect rights … gains that have been achieved, from being destroyed. That’s completely regressive.”

While Chomsky is absolutely correct — the Trump administration’s assault on civil liberties, democracy and the Constitution has only just begun, and the left will be on the political defensive for the next four years — Žižek’s point was perhaps not quite as far off as as Chomsky believed.

Shortly before the election, many people wondered what would become of the far-right populist movement that had been energized under Trump after the election, which most assumed he would lose. It is doubtful that it would have just withered away, as many liberals no doubt hoped. With Clinton in the White House, the Democrats would have been at a clear disadvantage in both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 elections (think of the Obama backlash during the 2010 midterm elections, and then consider how much more well-liked Obama was than Clinton).

This is particularly important when you consider that 2020 is a census year, which means that the party that comes out on top will have greater control of redrawing district lines across the country. The GOP has been able to maintain control of the House since 2010 in large part because of the extreme gerrymandering that was implemented after the 2010 Obama backlash — and in four years the winning party will have similar power (currently, Republicans control state legislatures in 24 states, while Democrats only control five).

Of course, this is still some distance away, and a lot can happen in the interim. Though we are just one month into Trump’s term, his presidency has already surpassed all recent predecessors in scandal and controversy, and the dysfunction is palpable. At times it is hard to imagine how the United States can survive another 47 weeks of this unhinged and extremist administration. While many had hoped that Trump would curb his divisive rhetoric as president and take a more pragmatic approach to governing, the exact opposite has occurred, and it is now clear that fanatics like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are running the show (and that Trump’s erratic, impulsive and thin-skinned personality cannot be controlled).

Thus, Chomsky’s pessimism was well-founded when he said that the government is now in the hands of the “most dangerous organization in world history.”

At the same time, it appears that some of Žižek’s hopes are materializing as well. The clearest example of this was the massive Women’s March in Washington — along with hundreds of sister marches across the country — the day after Trump’s inauguration. According to various political scientists, it was the single largest day of protests in American history — and peaceful demonstrations have continued ever since.

Trump’s controversial executive orders and cabinet picks have led to a sustained grassroots resistance in the first month of his presidency, and it is unlikely to die down anytime soon. Moumita Ahmed, who founded the Facebook group “Millennials for Revolution” (originally “Millennials for Bernie”), recently told CNN that she believes this is “not just the beginning of the ‘tea party of the left’ but a larger movement for civil rights that could make history,” and that the protests will “continue and get bigger and bigger.”

As long as Trump is in the White House, the demonstrations are likely to grow. What remains unclear is whether this grassroots resistance will be as effective in shaping electoral politics as the Tea Party was back in 2010 — and whether the Democratic Party will be as welcoming to the populist left as the GOP was to the populist right.

The current tension between progressive activists protesting on the street and the Democratic establishment was displayed by an interesting exchange last week between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and an NYU student at a CNN town hall. After pointing out that a majority of millennials no longer support the capitalist system, the young student asked Pelosi whether she felt that the Democratic Party could “move farther left to a more populist message, the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right wing,” and if the Democrats “could make a more stark contrast to right-wing economics?” The question — or, more explicitly, the statement that young people are rejecting capitalism — made Pelosi visibly uncomfortable, and the congresswoman felt it necessary to emphasize the Democratic Party’s loyalty: “I have to say, we’re capitalist ― and that’s just the way it is.”

This is understandable — after all, the Democratic Party does support capitalist party, and the House minority leader can’t be expected to make radical pronouncements. But Pelosi was so concerned with defending the sanctity of capitalism that she failed to answer whether the Democrats could or should espouse a more populist economic message, akin to the social-democratic platform that nearly carried Bernie Sanders to victory over Clinton.

That kind of Democratic resistance to economic populism is making many progressives question whether the party is ready to lead a viable resistance against right-wing populism. Some progressives are starting to join other left-wing organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Of course, it is a truism in American politics that third parties are not viable alternatives if the goal is to succeed in electoral politics — and as long as there is a winner-takes-all system in place, this will obstinately remain true. The pragmatic approach for the populist left is to work to transform the Democratic Party itself, as groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats have set out to do, while sustaining a popular movement on the ground.

Likewise, the pragmatic approach for the Democratic leadership is to embrace the growing grassroots left and combat Trump-style populism with their own anti-establishment message. With a historically low approval rating, Trump is already the most unpopular president in modern history, and his party is now the “establishment.” That means the Democrats will have the perfect opportunity to lead a popular and successful resistance in 2018 and 2020 if they can adopt a compelling populist message of their own.

With the many profound crises that currently face humanity, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future. The worst-case scenario is that the Trump presidency could sound a “death knell for the human species,” as Chomsky put it last year. But if we are lucky enough to avoid World War III, this nightmare could also bring about the “big awakening” that Žižek imagines — and could trigger a popular movement to reverse the damage that has been done over the past 50 years.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

Republican health care plan guts Medicaid, shifts funds from poor to rich

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By Kate Randall
18 February 2017

House Republican leaders on Thursday briefed rank-and-file members on the outlines of their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Speaker Paul Ryan, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and two House committee chairmen reported to the press on the “talking points” presented at a meeting in the House basement.

Though short in details on how the proposals would be paid for, the plan takes aim at Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor and disabled jointly administered by the federal government and the states. It would also shift the burden of health care costs even more heavily on the working class. Republican leaders provided no estimates of the number of people who might gain or lose insurance under their proposals.

Donald Trump met at the White House Thursday with House Republicans who backed his presidential bid who were looking for his support in repealing and replacing the 2010 legislation commonly known as Obamacare. At a news conference following the meeting, the president said, “We should be submitting the initial plan in March, early March,” appearing to refer to a House bill that could move forward by then.

From its inception, the ACA’s aim has been to cut costs for corporations and the government, while shifting the US to an even more heavily class-based health care system than what previously existed. Obamacare’s key component, the “individual mandate,” compelled those without insurance to purchase it from private insurance companies under threat of a tax penalty.

Outlines of the Republicans’ replacement plan would further boost health insurers’ profits. The ACA’s modest government subsidies to low and middle income people would be replaced with tax and other mechanisms that would favor the wealthy and provide little to no assistance to the vast majority of health care consumers.

The Republican plan would repeal the individual mandate and penalty, but it would also eliminate fines on employers for not providing their workers with insurance coverage. Sources familiar with the proposal told the AP that a new tax might be imposed on individuals receiving health care from their employers valued above $12,000 for an individual or $30,000 for families. That is, it would penalize those receiving decent employer-sponsored health insurance.

It would also roll back the Medicaid expansion under the ACA, which has newly insured an estimated 10 million people. Republicans have long eyed the program—which provides vital health coverage to families, seniors and people with disabilities—for destruction. This attack on Medicaid would go a long way toward this aim, and it is among the most vicious of the Republicans’ proposals.

While providing no dollar amounts or details, the House outline calls for converting Medicaid to either a per capita cap or a block grant to the states. All past Republican plans, including those of Ryan and Price, have featured deep cuts that would grow steeply over time. It would be impossible for states to absorb these cuts without cutting coverage for people who should qualify for benefits.

Currently, Medicaid funding adjusts to meet need, whether from a public health emergency like the opioid crisis or the Zika virus, or the growing health care needs of aging baby-boomers. A block grant or per capita cap would deliberately stop this automatic response to increased need, forcing states to decide who should be denied benefits, or how benefits should be rationed among the most needy.

The Republicans’ “talking points” also confirm that “Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion for able-bodied adults [sic] enrollees would be repealed in its current form.” Their proposal would end the ACA’s enhanced federal matching funds for the currently enrolled Medicaid expansion population after a limited period of time.

While states would be “free” to continue to cover the 10 million people, plus those who would become eligible in the future, under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, by a set date they would have to pay between 2.5 and 5 times as much per person to do so, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The massive cut in federal funding would force states to choose between covering low-income adults and covering children, seniors and the disabled.

The savings from the cuts to Medicaid would likely go toward “relief from all the Obamacare tax increases,” as outlined by the House Republicans. According to CBPP, based on previous plans, these savings would “go to help fill the hole created by cutting Medicare taxes for high earners and eliminating drug company, insurer, and other fees” that helped finance Obamacare’s coverage expansion.

The resulting tax cuts would average $50,000 per year for households with incomes over $1 million, according the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

In place of the ACA’s refundable premium tax credits (subsidies) that are currently helping more than 9 million people afford coverage, the Republican proposal would offer a flat credit determined by age, regardless of income, with the biggest financial benefits going to older Americans.

This would mean that a 25-year-old earning $25,000 a year would receive less of a tax credit than a 65-year-old multimillionaire. The end result would be that many low- and middle-income people would be unable to come up with the money to pay the gap between their fixed tax credit and the cost of a health insurance plan.

The Republican proposals would also expand Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which allow people to put aside money tax-free to pay for out-of-pocket health care expenses. These HSAs are obviously of little help to families struggling to pay rent, utilities and put food on the table and have nothing to set aside. The tax benefits for the wealthy, on the other hand, would be substantial.

The House Republicans’ plan calls for the creation of unspecified “State Innovation Grants” to supposedly aid states in covering costs for diversifying the risk pool and covering people with pre-existing conditions. CBPP notes that previous “high risk pools” have failed to provide affordable, quality health coverage for sicker individuals.

 

WSWS

Week three of the Trump presidency: A crisis of bourgeois rule and turn toward dictatorship

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9 February 2017

Three extraordinary developments over the past several days have exposed the breakdown of democratic forms of rule in the United States.

On Monday, Trump delivered a political speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida in which he attacked the press and implied that it was aiding the enemy by not reporting terrorist attacks. “They have their reasons and you understand that,” Trump told the military, appealing for its support. Defending his anti-Muslim travel ban, he said, “We need strong programs” to keep out “people that want to destroy us and destroy our country.”

Two days later, on Wednesday, Trump gave a speech before a police organization, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, bitterly attacking the judiciary. The appearance came on the eve of a decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals on his travel ban.

“We need security in our country,” Trump told the police. “And we have to give you the weapons that you need. And this [the order on immigration] is a weapon that you need. And they [the courts] are trying to take it away from you, maybe because of politics or maybe because of political views. We can’t let that happen.”

This was nothing less than a call from the US president for the police to oppose or defy an unfavorable court ruling. He underscored the point by adding, “One of the reasons I was elected was because of law and order and security… And they’re taking away our weapons one by one, that’s what they’re doing.”

In between these two speeches, on Tuesday night, Republicans in the US Senate took the extraordinary step of halting a speech by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, the nation’s chief law enforcement official.

Warren was reading from a letter sent by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing the nomination of Sessions for a federal judgeship. Republican Senators interrupted Warren, invoking an obscure rule barring senators from imputing to other senators “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” Warren was ordered to stop talking and return to her seat.

The invocation of this gag rule recalls in its own way the pre-Civil War rule established in Congress to prevent members of either house from talking about slavery on the floor of the legislative chambers. The ban on discussion of slavery was imposed because the issue was so explosive.

Each one of these events is an indication of a violent break with the most basic forms of bourgeois democracy. The first targeted the press, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution; the second was an attack on the judiciary, one of the three “coequal,” according to the Constitution, branches of government; the third was an attempt to muzzle debate in Congress.

Within this context, the response of the Democratic Party is significant. When Warren was told to sit down, she complied, and no Democrat took any serious action to block the gag order. The debate continued throughout the day Wednesday, culminating in a 52–47 vote to confirm Sessions as the next attorney general.

As for Trump’s speeches before the military and police, they have been downplayed or ignored and their ominous implications covered up.

There are significant political divisions within the ruling class, but these are centered on issues of foreign policy. While Democrats, including Warren, have engaged in empty posturing over Trump’s various far-right cabinet appointments, they have done nothing to prevent the nominations from going through.

What they have relentlessly pursued, however, is a campaign to demonize Russia and denounce Trump for being too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This has been their main point of attack against the new president.

They speak for those factions of the military-intelligence apparatus that backed the Hillary Clinton campaign in large part out of concern that Trump will shift away from an aggressive anti-Russia policy. The new administration is for the present focusing its war-mongering on China and Iran.

While the immediate object of Trump’s vitriol is his critics within the establishment, the more fundamental target is the working class, and the methods being prepared against working-class opposition are far more violent. His speech on Wednesday was a pledge to eliminate all restraints on the use of force by the police. “My message today is that you have a true, true friend in the White House,” he proclaimed. “I support our police. I support our sheriffs. And we support the men and women of law enforcement.”

The Trump administration expresses the dictatorship of the American oligarchy in its most ruthless form. His administration, packed with billionaires and generals, is determined to massively expand the military in preparation for a major war while escalating the social counterrevolution within the United States. This includes the slashing of health care, the destruction of public education and the elimination of all restraints on corporate profits. To implement this policy, the most basic democratic forms must be cast aside.

The Trump administration is not an aberration in an otherwise healthy society. It is the culmination of a longstanding crisis of American democracy. In 2000, when the Supreme Court intervened in the election to halt the recount of ballots in Florida and hand the presidency to George W. Bush, the World Socialist Web Site noted that the decision of the court and the absence of any serious opposition from the Democratic Party demonstrated the absence of any significant constituency for democratic rights within the ruling class.

The past sixteen years have confirmed this analysis. Under Bush, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were used to proclaim a “war on terror” and justify unending war abroad and the most far-reaching attacks on democratic rights within the United States. Far from reversing these processes, Obama extended them, including the assertion of the right of the president to order the extra-judicial assassination of US citizens.

Now, with the rise to power of Trump, openly dictatorial measures are being prepared.

Every revolutionary situation arises from a violent breakdown in traditional forms of rule. It is no longer possible for the ruling class to rule in the old way, and it is no longer possible for the working class to live in the old way. Both conditions are not only present, they are far advanced.

The central strategic question is the building of an independent revolutionary leadership in the working class, opposed to all of the political representatives of the ruling class, which connects the defense of democratic rights to the fight against war, inequality and the capitalist system.

Joseph Kishore

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/09/pers-f09.html

What does it mean to make “America First”?

Trump has won some support among workers and even unions with his proposals around trade, but is this billionaire really on their side? Lance Selfa explains why not.

Donald Trump

PERHAPS IT’S foolish to take anything Donald Trump says as an articulation of core principles or beliefs. But this passage from his inaugural address hit many like a bolt of lightning:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body–and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.

This appeal to economic nationalism is very much in line with his “Make America great again” campaign theme. But for those whose political memory goes back a little ways, “America First” means something very specific and very problematic.

In the late 1930s, the Roosevelt administration was increasing its support for an interventionist foreign policy that would assert the U.S. on a world level. After the Second World War started in 1939, the administration lent massive amounts of military aid to Britain, with the intention of drawing the U.S. into the conflict.

From the late 1930s up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, a substantial sentiment against U.S. intervention in the European war developed. While on the whole sincerely opposed to a repeat of the imperialist slaughter of the First World War, the anti-intervention mood also intersected with an isolationist, rather than internationalist, approach to the coming conflict.

So when a number of college students–including future Republican President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and future Democratic vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver–along with leading capitalists issued a call to form an “America First” committee to keep the U.S. out of the European war, hundreds of thousands responded.

America First also called for a U.S. military buildup to defend the continental U.S.–a policy that came to be known as “Fortress America.”

The banner of “America First” was also embraced by supporters of the anti-Semitic “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, along with fascists and sympathizers with the Nazi regime in Germany. In speeches for the America First committee, the aviator Charles Lindbergh contended that Britain and Jews were the main advocates for U.S. intervention in the war, and that the interventionists’ main aim was to defeat Germany.

Other mainstream political figures–like Joseph Kennedy, ambassador to Britain and father of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy–shared the “America First” outlook. He contended that Germany was too strong, and that Britain and U.S. should make peace with the Nazis.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. intervention, America First organizations collapsed. The U.S. emergence from the war as a global superpower marginalized support for the “American First” outlook of staying out of foreign entanglements while building a “Fortress America.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, far right, anti-Semitic pundit and presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan carried the “America First” torch for a while. Then Trump came along.

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THIS BRIEF history of “America First” politics provides a context for Trump’s rhetoric. It also shows that, far from being a common sense advocacy for ordinary people in the U.S. versus global elite, the slogan drags along more than its share of historical baggage. It wasn’t accidental that Trump’s presidential proclamation on Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to mention the genocide of European Jewry.

Trump’s America First policy asserts that “[e]very decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

That rhetoric sounds radical, especially when compared to that of the last generation’s status quo, when most decisions on trade and foreign affairs did little for U.S. workers and their families. For most of the last generation, politicians–both Democratic and Republican–have told us that global trade is like a force of nature, which the U.S. economy can only adapt to, not control.

This notion of globalization operating outside the influence of the world’s most powerful government was always false. U.S. state policy undergirded the bipartisan regime of free trade and the U.S. global military projection. As that purveyor of “flat-world” banalities Thomas Friedman once put it, “McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.”

If Trump’s tumultuous first week showed anything, it showed just how much governmental action can shift the terms of engagement and debate on these questions.

Given that decades of corporate, governmental and institutional practices are invested in the neoliberal regime, it remains to be seen whether any or all of Trump’s actions will be sustained as new policies for the long run. But in the immediate term, they present our side with a tremendous set of challenges.

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THE FIRST of these is assessing whether they are reality-based or not. Millions of people–among them supporters of Bernie Sanders–would agree with the sentiment of protecting “our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” whether or not they agree with Trump’s rhetoric.

Yet the empirical evidence that trade arrangements–like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO)–are the main culprits in the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs and workers’ standards of living is thin.

The liberal University of California-Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong calculates that of the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment since 1971 that is greater than that experienced by other industrial powers undergoing similar structural economic shifts, only one-tenth of even this extra amount can be attributed to NAFTA and trade with China.

Nevertheless, we know that during the same period, living standards for workers in the U.S.–and not just those in manufacturing–stagnated. In real terms, the median U.S. household income is no higher than it was in the early 1970s.

Clearly something is wrong in the U.S. economy, and no amount of statistical modeling is going to convince people that they should just accept it. So when figures as diverse as Trump and Sanders point to global trade deals as the culprit for declining living standards, they at least have the merit of relating to people who know–unlike the Friedmans and the Clintons–that not all is right with the neoliberal world.

Trump promotes the notion that other countries are “ripping off” the U.S. through unfair trade deals. But this inverts reality.

One drastic effect of NAFTA has been the destruction of small farming in Mexico when that sector was forced into unfair competition with U.S. agribusiness. By some estimates, more than 1 million farmers have been driven from the land. Many of the victims moved to Mexican cities or crossed the border into the U.S. without documents to find work.

“Free trade” agreements like NAFTA are engineered for the benefit of U.S. business, as levers to pry open sectors of other countries’ economies to investment and services in the first instance.

Second, they allow for the free movement of capital across borders, but not the free movement of labor. In fact, the era of NAFTA coincided with a huge increase in “border security” and repression that produced a record number of deportations–more than 2 million–under the Democratic Obama administration.

That aspect of “Fortress America”–repression at the border–is already in place. Trump proposes to increase it. But the record should show that free trade policies didn’t put out a welcome mat to immigrants, either.

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OUR SIDE will continue to analyze the economic ramifications of Trump’s policies, but we’re faced today with what to do about the political challenges they represent.

In this case, there is a more complicated test for the left. Trump’s protectionism and rhetoric about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. have already won praise from union leaders like Teamsters President James Hoffa. Hoffa and other labor officials likewise hailed Trump’s executive order aimed at restarting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects that activism forced the Obama administration to shelve.

After a White House meeting with Trump, North American Building Union President Sean McGarvey declared, “We have a common bond with the president” and that “We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

In speaking to reporters, McGarvey and Laborers President Terry Sullivan–whose unions both endorsed Hillary Clinton for president–pointed out that they had never been invited to a White House meeting in the eight years of Obama’s presidency.

But there’s something else besides the Democrats’ neglect behind the labor leaders’ cozying up to Trump and his America First program: It gives them an alibi for their failures to do much of anything to reverse the long-term decline of their organizations and to protect their members from worsening conditions.

Those problems stem from anti-union U.S. employers and anti-labor U.S. politicians, not overseas competitors or immigrants.

Hoffa, for example, has a long record of cooperating with employers while bargaining away the rights and benefits of rank-and-file Teamsters.

For the likes of Hoffa, it’s much more convenient to blame international competition or Mexican truckers for eroding wages and conditions than to confront U.S. employers–even ones, like UPS, making record profits. Joining with Trump under the banner of “America First” won’t change Hoffa’s behavior at all.

Labor leaders like Hoffa give Trump the cover to paint his economic program–which in reality is based on tax cuts for the rich, allowing corporations free reign, and selling the U.S. as a low-wage economy–as “populist” and pro-worker. And they lend legitimacy to an administration intent on attacking whole sections of the working class, including immigrants and the undocumented.

Any labor union or worker who signs up with Trump’s “America First” program will find out that–rhetoric aside–Trump will put them last.

Thanks to Joe Allen for help with this article.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/02/03/what-does-it-mean-to-make-america-first

The mass protests against Trump and the role of the Democratic Party

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1 February 2017

On Tuesday, protests continued for a fourth day against the Trump administration’s cruel and extralegal executive order banning entry to the US for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries ravaged by the US military and barring refugees from around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in airports and city centers in the United States and around the world in opposition to this draconian measure and in defense of basic democratic and social rights. These protests are part of a political radicalization that is emerging in response to the coming to power of the most right-wing government in American history. After 16 years of the unending “war on terror,” waged under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, the protests demonstrate that masses of people have rejected the anti-Muslim chauvinism and militarism that have been promoted to justify imperialist aggression and war crimes.

Millions are outraged by the brutality inflicted on men, women and children who suddenly find themselves forcibly barred from returning to their homes, families and jobs.

Democratic politicians such as Barack Obama and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer are associating themselves with the protests in an effort to keep them within politically harmless channels. There is, however, a vast gulf separating the humane and democratic sentiments animating the protests and the fundamentally reactionary aims underlying the Democratic Party’s response to the Trump administration.

During the election campaign, the Democrats and their presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran as the party of Wall Street and the military-intelligence complex, concentrating their criticism of Trump on his supposed “softness” toward Russia. They launched a neo-McCarthyite campaign claiming, without ever providing substantiation, that the government of President Vladimir Putin had manipulated the US election to support Trump. It was this reactionary theme, combined with the promotion of identity politics and indifference to the interests and concerns of the working class, which enabled Trump to demagogically pose as an opponent of the establishment.

While the first 10 days of the Trump presidency have aroused popular anger and revulsion over the threat of a mass anti-immigrant dragnet, the Muslim ban, bellicose threats of war and Trump’s open promotion of torture, the Democrats have by no means abandoned the reactionary themes of their election campaign.

Thus Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist who unconditionally backed Clinton, begins his latest column: “We’re just over a week into the Trump-Putin regime, and it’s already getting hard to keep track of the disasters.”

The differences between the Democrats and Trump do not reflect divergent class interests—both represent the same ruling oligarchy—nor are they about democratic principles. Rather, they center on the implementation of policies to advance the strategic interests of American imperialism. The overriding issue for them is how the Muslim ban and other policies pursued by Trump will affect the preparations for confrontation with Russia and China as well as the ongoing US military operations in the Middle East.

This is exemplified by a piece published Tuesday in the New York Times by columnist David Leonhardt entitled “Make China Great Again.” The tone for the entire column is set by its opening sentence: “America’s rivals and enemies have enjoyed a very good 10 days.”

Writing unabashedly as a partisan of US imperialism, Leonhardt goes on to warn that while ISIS will undoubtedly exploit the Muslim ban, “it is not a serious rival to the United States. The ultimate beneficiary is instead likely to be America’s biggest global rival, China.”

Among those brought forward to challenge the Trump administration’s executive order is the most unlikely champion for refugees and Muslim immigrants, Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA. A Clinton supporter, he was among the most vehement in denouncing alleged Russian interference in the US election and casting Trump as Putin’s agent.

Morell, who has publicly defended the torture and drone assassinations he oversaw, played no small role in turning millions into refugees and taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of others through the CIA-orchestrated wars for regime change in Libya and Syria. Interviewed on CBS News’ early morning program on Monday, he denounced Trump’s ban not for trampling on democratic rights, but for “playing right into the ISIS narrative,” i.e., disrupting US efforts to secure hegemony, by means of military violence, over the oil-rich Middle East.

Among Morell’s principal concerns was the inclusion of Iraqis who collaborated with the US military in the travel ban, saying that this would create “a disincentive for people to work closely with the US military.”

Morell also expressed sharp opposition to Trump’s executive order naming his “chief strategist,” the former Breitbart News boss Stephen Bannon, to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC), while limiting the participation of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence.

In its Tuesday editorial, the Times sounds this same theme. Entitled “President Bannon” and published together with a sinister-looking graphic imposing half of Bannon’s face on top of Trump’s, the editorial objects not so much to the fascistic politics of Trump’s White House strategist as to the danger that his appointment to the NSC will “politicize” national security and diminish the power of the military and the intelligence apparatus.

“Imagine tomorrow,” the editorial concludes, “if Mr. Trump is faced with a crisis involving China in the South China Sea or Russia in Ukraine. Will he look to his chief political provocateur, Mr. Bannon, with his penchant for blowing things up, or will he turn at last for counsel to the few more thoughtful experienced hands in his administration, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and General Dunford?”

The concern here is that the escalation of military threats to both Russia and China initiated under the Obama administration may be disrupted. These matters, the Times argues, must remain in the “experienced hands” of the Pentagon and the CIA.

Among the most revealing statements along these lines is a commentary posted Tuesday by the Atlantic magazine under the headline “Are Trump’s Generals Mounting a Defense of Democratic Institutions?” It states that when Trump nominated ex-military commanders as the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security as well as to the post of national security adviser, “some progressives worried that…the heavy presence of brass would undermine the cherished civilian control that is a hallmark of the United States government.”

Instead, the article suggests, “the generals could serve to constrain Trump,” adding that military officers are “well-versed in the law and their own obligations” and “care deeply about following rules and procedures, and for instilling a sense of order.”

The article goes on to note approvingly that it is “not unheard of for generals, usually active-duty ones, to play the role of a check on elected leaders, in various forms. In Turkey, the military has tended to view itself as the guardian of secular norms, and has repeatedly stepped in to topple civilian governments that generals feel have strayed from national principles.”

Apparently catching himself, the author adds, “Even if one thinks Trump is acting lawlessly, a de facto coup is also lawless. There’s no good option.”

Such is the logic of the policies of the Democratic Party and the breakdown of American democracy, under the weight of decades of war and ever-widening social inequality, that the rule of the military is posed as an alternative to the rule of Trump.

The crisis of US and global capitalism confronts the working class with grave dangers of war and dictatorship. It can defend its basic social and democratic rights solely by means of an irrevocable break with the Democratic Party and the mobilization of its independent strength in a political struggle to put an end to the capitalist system.

Bill Van Auken

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/01/pers-f01.html

The Trump-Bannon government: Rule by decree

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30 January 2017

The Trump administration’s order to halt the admission of refugees into the United States and bar entry to visitors and returning residents from seven countries—all majority-Muslim, all the targets of US military aggression or economic sanctions—underscores the unprecedented nature of the new government.

This is a government that will not be constrained by laws or the Constitution. Notwithstanding the fact that Trump is a minority president, his administration intends to utilize its control over the state to the maximum, operating on the principle that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” It has already established a pattern of rule by decree.

Without any congressional vote, without any judicial process or finding of guilt for any crime, more than 100 people have been detained by federal customs and immigration agents and in some cases deported. The victims include the elderly, small children, wives returning to their husbands and people who have lived in the United States legally for many years, even decades. Hundreds more have been barred from boarding flights bound for the United States. And this is the toll just of the first weekend. The potential victims number in the many thousands, even millions.

A series of federal judges have issued court orders barring the deportations, ruling that there is a great likelihood that those challenging the Trump-ordered actions will be upheld once their cases are fully adjudicated. While some individuals have been released from detention, federal officials claim that the White House order is still in force and will be carried out.

The actions of the government in its first ten days make all the more sinister the central role being played by Trump’s “chief strategist,” Stephen K. Bannon. The media has largely downplayed the fact that Trump named Bannon, former boss of Breitbart News, a sounding board for the white supremacists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis of the alt-right, to a White House position coequal with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

It was unmistakably Bannon’s voice sounding in Trump’s inaugural address, with its open embrace of the “America First” slogan first popularized by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh in the early days of World War II. His speech followed the fascist model in appealing to genuine social grievances—the devastating decline in jobs and living standards in many industrial areas—while diverting popular anger away from the American capitalist elite and toward a politically useful scapegoat, in this case China, Mexico and other foreign countries.

Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs executive, Hollywood producer and ultra-right media mogul with no national security experience, is a fervent advocate of the racist and anti-immigrant stance expressed by Trump in a series of statements and executive orders last week, from the order to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, to a crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities,” to Friday’s ban on travelers and refugees.

Trump underlined Bannon’s central position in his White House with an executive order Saturday restructuring the National Security Council (NSC), the principal White House instrument for directing foreign and military policy. The order added “the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist,” namely Bannon, to the list of top officials entitled to attend every meeting of the Principals Committee, a subcommittee of the NSC that plays a critical role in preparing decisions for the president, and includes the national security adviser, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense.

The same order removed from the Principals Committee the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence.

There is one further action at the weekend that provides the most chilling insight into the mentality of Trump’s chief political adviser. The White House issued a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day that lamented the “innocent people” murdered by the Nazis, but made no mention of Jews or anti-Semitism. A White House spokesman confirmed that the omission of Jews from the 117-word statement was deliberate and not a mistake.

This is a trope taken straight out of the playbook of the neo-Nazi alt-right: the Holocaust is emptied of its specific content, the attempted extermination of the Jewish population of Europe, and transformed into a generic tragedy in which many people were killed.

The Democratic Party will do nothing to oppose the march of the Trump administration towards authoritarian rule. The Democrats have devoted their efforts to playing down the extreme-right character of the new government while centering its criticisms on Trump’s conflict with US intelligence agencies.

After a transition period in which outgoing President Obama portrayed his successor as respectable and reasonable, and said nothing about his ties to ultra-right and neo-fascist elements, the first ten days of the Trump administration have seen Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders profess their desire to cooperate with the White House on its nationalistic economic policies.

It is significant that when challenged on what legal authority justified the ban on entry, Trump’s spokesmen cited the actions of the Obama administration, which designated the same seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—as those posing the greatest danger of terrorist attacks on the United States. This demonstrates that Trump is basing himself on the antidemocratic foundations laid by Bush and Obama and taking them to a qualitatively new level.

Trump also follows Bush and Obama in excluding from sanctions Saudi Arabia, home of nearly all of the 9/11 hijackers, but also a source of vast wealth for American big business from oil and gas as well as arms contracts. This confirms that the executive order has nothing to do with defending the American people from terrorism: its purpose is to intimidate working people, both immigrant and native-born, and pave the way for a frontal assault on the democratic rights of the American people as a whole.

The events of this weekend have demonstrated the hollowed-out character of American democracy. In its contempt for democratic and constitutional norms, the Trump administration gives naked expression to the oligarchic character of American society. His method of government is the form of rule appropriate to the social forces that his billionaire cabinet and the entire political establishment represent.

The decisive question is the independent intervention of the working class, fighting for its own class interests, including the defense of immigrant workers.

Patrick Martin

WSWS