Trump and Liberalism in the Shadow of the Great Recession

Politics Features The Great Recession
Trump and Liberalism in the Shadow of the Great Recession

The Great Recession may have ended but it has not yet receded into history. It was not just a series of economic failures that will be forgotten once a certain level of recovery is achieved. It is increasingly clear the economic order created from the aftermath of the crises of the ‘70s has been exhausted, and the political order justifying it suffers a crisis of legitimacy.

This has proven to be a boon for the nationalist right-wing of our political order. The failures of capitalism opened the door for demagogues to further scapegoat immigrants and people of color for the material problems associated with the crash. Right-wing nationalists scapegoat these groups out of both genuine racism and their desire to protect the structures of capital itself. It is a political sleight of hand—the actual causes for the crisis and reasons for an uneven recovery are never addressed because they are never spoken about. If someone is made to believe that immigrants are responsible for unemployment and not instead that firms benefit from widespread unemployment to keep wages low—then the economic order remains unscathed as there is no political language or political will to challenge it.

The unfortunate reality is that the Great Recession remains felt in everyday life for millions of Americans. Unemployment is better than it was a decade ago, yet most jobs created in the last decade have been contract or part-time work while productivity growth has all but collapsed. The notion of steady employment with a single firm for decades has become a relic of the past (and for many, was never within reach to begin with) as employers increasingly seek to minimize their ranks of full-time employees. Outside of urban and suburban spheres, things don’t fare much better. Net farm income is falling back to 2009 and even 2002 lows. Despite Trump’s promises to bring back coal jobs, it’s warned there is no chance of the energy industry expanding back towards coal to such an extent it would revive the economy. While there has been recovery since the recession, the lack of vision among the architects of this recovery has left many outside it.

Had the response to the Great Recession been bolder—one meant to do more than simply turn back the clock to before the housing bubble burst—then it is unlikely Trump and his contemporaries would be able to blame an anemic recovery on immigrants with the same degree of success they do now. The failure to nationalize the banks, if not the finance industry outright, during the Great Recession is an enormous lost opportunity. When the banks received a bailout instead of homeowners, a message was sent: when crisis comes, the people come second. That no one on Wall Street was prosecuted further contributed to the sense of lawlessness around those who own the economy—and yet another instance of the government siding with the owners of capital when push came to shove.

Politically, this has been disastrous for American liberalism. It is not worth rehashing every lost position in government, but the scale of the loss is significant. It is not that in 2016 Trump won over a strong Obama coalition. The Obama coalition slowly dropped out over the last 8 years. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but liberal turnout was poor in the states where it mattered for an electoral college win. The story of American liberalism’s decline is not confined to the 2016 election alone—had Clinton assumed the Presidency for her popular vote win, that wouldn’t change the current composition of the congress or state governments. It’s not that people voted against their interests insomuch as more people felt their interests weren’t represented by either party at all—and when the tens of thousands of dollars in average household wealth that were wiped out were never recovered it is hard to blame people for their apathy.

When it’s understood that the goal of right-wing nationalism is to maintain the existing system of capitalism then the contradictory actions of the Trump administration make more sense. Parts of the regulatory Dodd-Frank Act are repealed while Trump simultaneously champions he will boost the economy not because he misunderstands why speculative practices directly led to the housing market’s collapse, but because the speculative practices made the owners of capital a lot of money. Reversing a planned cut to FHA premiums isn’t just to spite homeowners, it serves to continue to block families from building wealth—in a country where most of the wealth of black and Latino families is tied up in homeownership. Mass deportations are capital-friendly—the private prison industry runs most of the immigrant detention network in the US and companies such as CoreCivic have had an incredible stock turnout since Trump’s election. Immigration may provide a cheap pool of labor—but it can only be a cheap and exploitable pool of labor if people therein are under political and legal threat. Preventing them from being able to organize and from receiving the same rights as full citizens keeps their labor exploitable.

Capitalism, in this sense, is more than accommodating for racism and bigotry—and if the continued rallying of the stock market as a whole is any indication, it’s that big business is not only accommodating but openly welcoming of Trumpism. Here the poverty of contemporary American liberalism is laid bare, namely that an ideology cannot represent the interests of the oppressed and capital simultaneously. If business hums for a president who repeals protections for transgender people as easily as it does for one who enacted such protections—then advances towards meaningful justice for all will only ever be temporary amendments to the system and not integrated into its structure. Further, it becomes an indictment of liberalism’s governance in and of itself. Because these reforms will never substantively change the system, when crisis comes a government meant to uphold capital will inevitably side with capital.

Resisting Trump is more than just aspiring to carry out a friendlier management of the same underlying economy system. While it is possible, and even likely, that another liberal Democrat will occupy the Presidency before a major American political party advocates for socialism—the demand against capitalism still must be made. Even when liberalism prevented a recession from becoming a complete depression, the response was inadequate to control the spiraling inequality that grew during the recovery. In that failure, right-wing nationalists found new room to breathe and ultimately win political power. A future political win that only acts to reform capitalism can only ever be a short-term solution as the system itself is just as capable of working with a Trump as it is a more outwardly modest manager like Obama. If there is any lesson to be drawn from the political fallout of the Great Recession a decade out, it is this.

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