One of the most obvious ways to read Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States is as the emergence of a neoliberal populism. The popular backlash against a socio-economic system unable to provide an acceptable quality of life for the majority of its citizens is harnessed by entrenched elites, with the intention of leveraging this uprising to support an intensification of precisely the conditions it is a response to. We can see this through the near wholesale adoption of the Ryan policy platform by the Trump administration, as well as the rapprochement with elite donors facilitated through the Pence vice-presidency:
On Election Night, the dissonance between Trump’s populist supporters and Pence’s billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party élites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating. Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and a political donor, recalled to me, “It was amazing. In the V.I.P. reception area, there was an even more V.I.P. room, and I counted at least eight or nine billionaires.”
Despite the superficial civil war taking place in the Republican party, the political topology of its near future can be seen as in many ways as a continuation of what came previously. This ideological alchemy is rendered possible by market populism, skillfully analysed by Thomas Frank over many years, framing the expansion of ‘economic liberty’ as the extension of democracy. The subordination of democracy to capital is coded as democratisation against the wishes of cultural and political elites, allowing a deeply reactionary movement to style itself as a radical insurgency acting on behalf of ‘the people’.
However, the role of the far-right in Trumpist populism potentially complicates this analysis. This is a genuine uprising, pulled towards the Republican party by elite donors (or rather their strategists) and pushed towards it by the quasi-Leninist vanguard within the far-right (supported by the cultural shock troops of the online armies they influence). It is a combustible mix, inherently unpredictable in its outcomes. But it doesn’t exhaust neoliberal populism per se. In fact, it’s deeply shaped by the American political scene, not least of all the idiosyncratic figurehead around which these trends have coalesced.
We can expect that neoliberal populism in Europe will take a different form. Enter the figure of Emmanuel Macron, described by Selim Nadi in a recent Salvage essay:
Macron, rather than breaking with the established trend toward more racist authoritarianism, is leading us into a new kind of authoritarian populism that fits perfectly with the neo-liberal reform he wants to pursue in France. Indeed, Macron is reorganizing France precisely so as to secure the neo-liberal hegemony which has had such disastrous effects for the whole French working class, and especially for those workers originating from France’s former colonies.
Moreover, instead of ending the state of emergency, Macron seems intent on creating a legalized permanent state of emergency, which will not be the exception anymore, but rather the rule—and whose effect will be to repress any attempts coming from the Left to organize against Macron’s reforms.
This ultra-insider, whose has cultivated power and influence with astonishing effectiveness since his teens, styles himself as an outsider: leading the doers, the sayers, the actors of France in an uprising against the sclerosis that has gripped their country. It’s easy to be sceptical of the crowds surrounding him but I’ve become convinced the more I’ve read, watched and listened that En Marche! is very much a movement. It has drawn its strategy from the mainstream ‘centre-left’: David Plouffe, Jim Mesina, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell all advised the campaign. The consultancy specialising in ‘grassroots campaigns’ which planned their strategy was founded by three Harvard-educated French former Obama volunteers (pg 200-201). But these strategies changed by being pursued outside the shell of an existing political party, producing energising scenes of the would-be Jupiterian screaming at a crowd hungry for change:
If we take their claim to have produced a movement seriously, it raises important questions about the sectors of society who have been mobilised in this way and the potential outcomes of this mobilisation. How will their nascent politics be shaped by the likely conflicts arising from Macron’s contested economic agenda? My hunch is that there’s a reactionary politics lurking behind the superficially optimistic rhetoric of grassroots democracy and start-up culture. En Marche! and the Tea Party strand of Trumpism could not be more different but this is because the French bourgeoisie and the reactionary part of the American bourgeoisie could not be more dissimilar. The underlying class composition of these movements seem to have some commonalities, as Nadi hints at here:
Hence, Macron really appears as a new embodiment of the different sections of the French bourgeoisie — dispensing with the artificial boundary between the Socialist Party, the Center and the right-wing Les Républicains. Macron’s bourgeois bloc managed to unify some sections of the traditional right-wing, a section of social democracy, and even some elements of ‘civil society.’ The mythical division between state and ‘civil society’ is a very important source of legitimacy for Macron. By assembling politicians who are not members of established political parties, he created a sort of contemporary Third Estate in order to secure the political hegemony of the French bourgeoisie.
His authoritarian intentions are (arguably) a matter of record, as he has spoken at length about the French longing for a Napoleonic figurehead and his intention to fill this perceived gap. His apparently liberal stances are belied by his commitment to normalising the state of emergency, as Nadi describes:
While Macron seems to want to end the formal ‘state of emergency’, his proposal is in effect to legalize it, to include it in the common law. Hence it will no longer be a state of ‘emergency’ but just the regular state under which France will exist. As a matter of fact, his current draft legislation, entitled ‘law for the reinforcement of the fight against terrorism and for the reinforcement of homeland security,’ legalises many of the tools of the state of emergency. These include home-search, house arrest, closing of places of worship (obviously, this will mainly target Muslims), monitoring private communications, and so on.
His government could pave the way for far-right rule in the future, as Phil BC pointed out immediately after his election. However, I’m increasingly wondering whether sections of his base might themselves transmute into organic supporters of the far-right in the unfolding of the social conflicts which pursuing his agenda will inevitably aggravate. Much as we shouldn’t assume fascism in America will come in the form of jackboots, we shouldn’t assume neoliberal populism in western Europe will come in the form of a reactionary reality television star.