Repackaging Neoliberalism: When There's a Con-Artist on the Loose in the White House
The election of Donald Trump was, among other things, a response to the preeminence of neoliberal ideology. According to some accounts, his rhetoric and policy views departed heavily from “establishment” doctrines preaching free capital, product and labor flows. As one political scientist tweeted, “The era of neoliberalism is over. The era of neo-nationalism has just begun.” Neoliberal ideology, for which the unregulated market is the kernel of a free political society, has for years been an integral component of Republican policymaking—with occasional help from Democrats. This is especially prominent with issues such as free trade, globalized supply chains, and the maintenance of U.S. global hegemony. No doubt, Trump’s rhetoric has departed from traditional Republican party doctrine on issues such as trade and public spending. This rollback against globalist, technocratic elites is consistent with nationalist movements such as Brexit in the U.K. and the National Front in France, signaling a new style in right-wing policymaking that emphasizes nationalist ideology and a strong state role in the economy as critical to growth.
There’s a problem with this narrative. Trump’s economic policies have actually been largely consistent with past Republican emphasis on deregulated markets and limited public institutions. The electoral support may have been been an anti-neoliberal movement, but the ensuing result? Not so much. To this degree, it’s hard to see the election as a watershed moment that will drastically shape the coming era of American political economy. We could certainly say that neoliberal ideology lost its public appeal this year, but the interest-groups who benefited from it will keep power. Further, it’s doubtful that a redefined state role will come into play to alter the structure of the U.S. political economy.
Let me elaborate on just how neoliberal Trumps’ economic policies are. Deregulation, which free-marketeers have been calling for since before the financial crisis, is without a doubt the driving interest of Trump’s financial policy. Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Secretary Treasury, has called for limiting the Volcker Rule, a regulation put in place after the 2008 financial crisis that sought to limit the riskiness of bank activity by banning proprietary trading. True, Mnuchin has opted in favor of an ambiguous “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act,” but it is hard to verify that this is no more than rhetoric. Further, former M&A banker Jay Clayton, who is now the SEC head, was installed in keeping with the president’s goals to shrink the state’s regulatory capacity over the financial sector. Additional delays on a tighter fiduciary rule on retirement funds, paired with Trump’s overall commitment to repeal Dodd-Frank, are simply not anti-neoliberal policymaking.
Another policy that Trump has effected is tax remuneration for businesses that build factories in the United States. This policy is just a slightly more jingoistic version of tax cuts on corporations, a not-that-unusual action for a “lower taxes” Republican to make. A previous president to introduce a tax holiday for repatriation purposes was George Bush in 2004, which later reports called a failed policy. Trump sitting down one-on-one with businesses like Apple or Microsoft to offer tax breaks in exchange for buybacks and domestic R&D is, in this context, not that radical—though the cronyism element is a bit more overt. Furthermore, a tax break so that companies can issue stock buybacks is hardly “a return of manufacturing to the US.” As a PR matter, Trump framed these policies as a nationalistic “job creation” strategy that only he could come up with. In actuality, it’s a pretty standard right-wing way to think about economic growth.
Furthermore, remember that “great infrastructure plan” Trump had? Where is that, exactly? Bluntly, this looks like a campaign promise that will not come to fruition in any public-sector capacity. If this actually happens, it will be orchestrated by a crony project of Trump’s friends in real estate, a “public-private partnership” (PPP) if ever there was one. PPPs have played a defining role in the markets-solve-all policies of Republicans past.
There are more examples that would only be a redundancy to list. Trump has defined all of the above as policies that are meant to enrich the United States and restore global prominence. No doubt, the rhetoric and overall strategy of such policies diverges from globalist notions of how to run an economy, but these policies are fairly standard market-oriented reforms. In fact, they are actually all steps that are necessary to build a fully marketized society that “establishment neoliberalism” has sought to create. While he may have come to power on the back of pressures on a neoliberal worldview, Trump has unsurprisingly turned out to be a complete scam artist and liar.
If public interest actors are to push back against him and rally support among middle- and working-class people, they ought to do so not by blasting Trump for being anti-market, but rather by highlighting the fact that he is repackaging neoliberal political economy as a populist insurgency and lying to people en masse. Not for a minute should we forget that Trump himself is a liar, an opportunist and bottom-feeder with no coherent beliefs; in order to stay true to the mission of countering him, we need to make sure we have a realistic sense of what he is.
The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author only and do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo: "Inauguration Day Protest Against Donald Trump" by Fibonacci Blue (CC0 Public Domain) for Flickr. Use of this photo is not endorsement from its creator.