In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, President Trump promised to deliver on his populist campaign pledges to protect Americans from globalization. “For too long,” he bemoaned, “we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries.” But now, he asserted, the time has come to “restart the engine of the American economy” and “bring back millions of jobs.” To achieve his goals, Trump proposed mixing massive tax-cuts and sweeping regulatory rollbacks with increased spending on the military, infrastructure and border control.
This same messy mix of free market fundamentalism and hyper-nationalistic populism is presently taking shape in Trump’s proposed budget. But the apparent contradiction there isn’t likely to slow down Trump’s pro-market, pro-Wall Street, pro-wealth agenda. His supporters may soon discover that his professions of care for those left behind by globalization are — aside from some mostly symbolic moves on trade — empty.
Just look at what has already happened with the GOP’s proposed replacement for Obamacare, which if enacted would bring increased pain and suffering to the anxious voters who put their trust in Trump’s populism in the first place. While these Americans might have thought their votes would win them protection from the instabilities and austerities of market-led globalization, what they are getting is a neoliberal president in populist clothing.
Neoliberalism is a term most often used to critique market-fundamentalism rather than to define a particular policy agenda. Nonetheless, it is most useful to understand neoliberalism’s policy implications in terms of 10 norms that have defined its historical practice. These norms begin with trade liberalization and extend to the encouragement of exports; enticement of foreign investment; reduction of inflation; reduction of public spending; privatization of public services; deregulation of industry and finance; reduction and flattening of taxes; restriction of union organization; and, finally, enforcement of property and land ownership. Politicians don’t necessarily have to profess faith in all of these norms to be considered neoliberal. Rather, they have to buy into neoliberalism’s general market-based logic and its attendant promise of opportunity.
When one compares these 10 neoliberal commandments with Trump’s policy agenda, it is clear that the president is far more neoliberal than his populist rhetoric would suggest. This conclusion will likely surprise his supporters, especially in light of Trump’s assaults on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite these attacks, however, Trump is clearly and consistently positioning himself to cut taxes on the wealthy, deregulate big business and the financial industry, and pursue a wide range of privatization plans and public-private partnerships that will further weaken American unions. In short, he will govern like the neoliberals who came before him and against whom he campaigned so ardently.
In fact, Trump’s agenda aims to realize the foremost goals of neoliberalism: privatization, deregulation, tax-cutting, anti-unionism, and the strict enforcement of property rights. For example, in his address to Congress, Trump promised “a big, big cut” for American companies and boasted about his administration’s “historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations.” Ironically, Trump then asserted that he will reduce regulations by “creating a deregulation task force inside of every government agency,” itself a contradictory expansion of the administrative state he had just sworn to shrink.
Since so much of Trump’s agenda aligns with the long-standing ambitions of the Republican Party, it is likely that Trump will be able to work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to pass strictly neoliberal legislation. Unlike his approach to trade, which congressional Republicans will probably scuttle, there is little reason to doubt that we will see new legislation that privatizes public lands, overturns Dodd-Frank and other Wall Street regulations, cuts taxes on business, makes organizing unions difficult, and allows big landowners to develop, mine, log, and shoot without restraint. For all the animosity that may exist between the Trump administration and Republican congressmen, the two groups share a neoliberal vision of the world.
From his new budget proposal we also know that Trump plans to continue the neoliberal assault on social service provisions—such as the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act—as well as public broadcasting, arts funding, scientific research and foreign aid. As Trump vowed to Congress, he intends to implement a plan in which “Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts.” Moreover, the money he does want to spend will be expended on military and infrastructure projects that will almost certainly be organized around public-private partnerships that will fill the coffers of Trump’s business cronies.
What does Trump’s neoliberal agenda mean for those whose discontent with globalization gave him the presidency? Nothing good. The irony here is that the same neoliberalism that Trump plans to strengthen created the conditions that allowed him to enter the White House. Like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Trump was correct to criticize the Obama administration, whose economic team was for a time staffed by neoliberal Democrats like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, for saving Wall Street after the financial collapse of 2008 while allowing Main Street to go under. Trump’s victory is the direct result of the fact that American workers have not been well served by the country’s policymaking elites.
Yet the resistance that Trump’s presidency has inspired across the country must also learn from the contradictions between his economic nationalism and neoliberalism. Those who reject his phony populism must be careful not to dismiss the concerns of Trump’s voters, which has unfortunately been the response of too many who console themselves by deriding Trump’s supporters as ignorant “deplorables” who deserve what they will get. Going forward, all of those who want to resist the President’s agenda must engage those left behind by neoliberalism and provide them with an economic vision that addresses their very real concerns. After all, Trump’s administration will probably strengthen the forces that have hurt these citizens, and they will need representatives who are genuinely concerned with their well-being if our political turmoil is to be put to rest.