Donald Trump

The working hypothesis among many people in the US at the moment is that what’s really going to happen in the Trump presidency won’t start until an opportunity of a specific type presents itself. That “specific type” would be a disaster of some sort: an economic crash brought on by international events, a terrorist attack, a Katrina-style natural disaster or similar. At that point, and in line with the argument Naomi Klein has made about capitalism, the “shock doctrine” kicks in: the disordered situation is available for a radical reconstruction of social life, and this can be done along neoliberal lines. State and collective institutions can be privatised, and any resistance to this can be suppressed by a government that claims for itself the right to suspend democracy and rights, because, after all, it’s an emergency.

The shock doctrine in its purest form applies to societies that have been wholly disrupted by humanity or nature. Chile in 1973 is one example of the former: only a dictatorship could instantiate the first neoliberal society in a place with strong resistant traditions. Haiti in the 2010 earthquake is an example of the latter, when things are so devastated that whoever comes with food, shelter, etc, can establish a beachhead for imposing a new state order.

But there’s a modified form of the shock doctrine available in a society like the US, which is so dominated by spectacle, imagination and fear that a relatively small event could be magnified into a sense of national emergency, without the government having to do much of anything at all. The trick for a Trump administration, working hand-in-glove with a Republican Congress, would be to convince a section of Trump supporters gained from the economic “left” — those who want industrial jobs, infrastructure, etc, as well a preservation of entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare — that, now there’s an emergency, all previous commitments are off, and anyone who moans about it isn’t a patriot.

That would allow the Republican right to do what they have wanted to do for years, decades: not only slash discretionary social programs, but to privatise the major entitlement ones, floating Social Security on the stock market and limiting and privatising Medicare (the program that guarantees medical care to all Americans over 65). The Republicans under Dubya tried to privatise it; they lost Congress before they could do so. Trump promised to preserve both programs, “we can afford it”, which set him apart from the other candidates in the primaries. They were at least honest: with the preferred Republican tax base, both programs are in trouble. Trump won by promising the unachievable: tax cuts and program preservation.

The supposition would be that the US in the 2010s/2020s is the place where a meta-shock doctrine could be employed — where the actual shock itself is minimal or even vestigial, but in which it acts as the formal trigger for sweeping changes to the state that many people desire anyway. Trump’s cabinet of business executives and generals, in concert with a Republican Congress, would impose a budget and program with staggering cuts in it, with the aim of finally demolishing the last remnants of New Deal/Great Society liberal America and privatising vast sections of it.

The US budget would be put into surplus, and the national debt reduced by such moves, and possibly even a currency devaluation, to float some of the debt out of the system. The domestic cuts would be particularly deep in order to preserve both military and paramilitary/police spending, and the latter would be used to aggressively and lethally police the protests that arise. The Trump administration and the Congress would attempt to create a sort of loyalty base — accepting their crappy economic situation in exchange for being part of the patriotic dealing with “the emergency” — as a majority by which mass state violence could be perpetrated.

How far could this go? Well, the constitution provides that Congress has the right to suspend habeas corpus in times of “rebellion and invasion”, and also to mobilise “militias”, an entity it leaves undefined. Habeas corpus was suspended during the Civil War, and the then much-tighter understanding of the First Amendment provision on free speech*, allowed for the shutting down of numerous newspapers, and political organisations in the North. Were there to be a pretext for such — under a very loose definition of rebellion — would there be a widespread assent to the sort of general roundup and detention the suspension of habeas corpus provides? Especially given that people could be reassured that the constitution remains in place? That America is still America? At this moment, it seems a lot more plausible than it did a year ago.

What concentrates the mind most is that the rise and election of Trump gives the lie to the idea that large sections of right-wing voters, and centrist-right voters, care about the constitution or rights all that much. Constitutional fealty is something the right have used as a fig leaf for the pursuit of power, and as a way to attack Barack Obama when he, very mildly, pushes the boundaries of executive discretion.** The Declaration of Independence, constitution and Bill of Rights were abstract rationales even at the time they were promulgated; there would be no United States without them (it would have fragmented South American-style long ago), and the US would have become a nakedly authoritarian power sometime in the last 30 years without it.

Now, we may have reached a historical moment at which the confluence of crisis, imagined crisis and power has created a situation in which that next stage could be contemplated, and could be done in such a way that it would meet with the enthusiastic approval of a majority-slice of the US population. This, it seems to me, is something other than the somewhat free-floating talk of American fascism, which has bedevilled left and right for decades. This is a moment in which it is now possible, and worth factoring in. What would American progressives do? What would the left do? How would Australia react? Overreaction? Maybe. But the signature of the era is that “democracies” — many of them former US colonies or vassals — are collapsing. The truth may be that the US has become a colony of itself, its own client state. Once thought of in those terms, the passage to a post-liberal, post-democratic regime appears if not inevitable, or even likely, at least a working hypothesis.


*until the 1960s, the First Amendment offered very little genuine protection for fully dissident speech, political or artistic. The quote “Your right to free speech does not include the right shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre” says it all — it was said by a Supreme Court judge in defence of a law jailing protestors handing out anti-war leaflets during World War I

**some like to call Obama “deporter-in-chief”, because under him, deportation of apprehended “illegal” immigrants is at its highest numbers ever. But this is a probably wilful misunderstanding of the president’s role. Congress makes the deportation laws and votes the budget allocation; the executive implements them. To not implement the law would be unconstitutional, and even impeachable (imagine a Republican president who instructed the IRS not to collect tax). What Obama did was to use the fact that the congressional allocation of funds was inadequate to deporting all “illegals”, to create a form of programmatic discretion: no deportations of children and their families. Even this has come under relentless assault, and a Supreme Court challenge. Obama fashioned some sort of non-deportation policy out of the tools available.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey