Trump and Biden – elective affinities

Image: Aaron Kittredge
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By MARCO D'ERAMO*

Unveiling the political similarity between the two presidents, even though they present themselves as diametrically opposed

It's time to show off an open secret. President Joe Biden is implementing the same policies that were ushered in by the vilified, ridiculed and indicted Donald Trump, only with less fanfare and in a more decisive and brutal manner. In particular, Joe Biden is resolutely following the path of deglobalization that caused such an uproar when the orange wig-wearing president embarked on it.

Joe Biden intensified trade war with China triggered by its predecessor. While Donald Trump's initiatives have been sporadic and theatrical, such as the indictment of Huawei's chief financial officer, Joe Biden's more systematic policies – cracking down on exports of advanced technology – have increased the lead.

The war in Ukraine, which broke out just over a year into Joe Biden's term in office, may seem to distinguish the two presidencies, but its repercussions in Europe also reveal common points: the dismantling of Ostpolitik Germanism (a policy tenaciously followed by Germany since Willy Brandt's chancellorship half a century ago), the decoupling of the German and Chinese economies and the keeping of Europe firmly under the aegis of NATO.

Joe Biden's government followed the Republicans' deglobalization playbook, even down to the details. Donald Trump weakened the World Trade Organization by refusing to ratify the appointment of judges to its main appeals court, which resolves international trade disputes; Democrats now continue to block these nominations. As a result, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was paralyzed, its relevance diminished.

The same continuity can be seen in relations with Saudi Arabia: despite promising in his election campaign to make the Saudis a “pariah” after the barbaric murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Joe Biden visited Riyadh in July 2022 after the invasion of Ukraine to persuade Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production and encourage closer ties with Israel. The following spring, Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet to welcome the “pariah” crown prince to Washington.

One can add other unfulfilled promises, including ecological ones, despite the much-vaunted green subsidies in Biden's Inflation Reduction Act. During his election campaign, Biden promised to block new oil and gas drilling projects. Then war broke out in Ukraine, and in late April 2022 the White House announced it was opening public lands to drilling — nearly 144.000 acres — for new oil and gas leases, just months after suspending them.

And it didn't stop there: In March of this year, the government approved the Willow project, a decades-old, $8 billion oil drilling venture in the federally owned Alaska National Petroleum Reserve. According to the government's own estimates, the project would produce enough oil to release 9,2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of adding two million gasoline cars to the roads.

But there's another area where Joe Biden has stealthily followed in Donald Trump's footsteps: building a wall on the border with Mexico. A signature policy of Donald Trump's administration – although it only managed to build 80 miles of new wall (repairing or replacing another few hundred miles) – Democrats had promised they would not add another inch. Now, Biden has authorized the construction of 20 miles (32 km) of new barrier in South Texas. One year before the 2024 election, the intention of the initiative is clear.

And speaking of the pre-election mood: It's notable that during the recent United Auto Workers strike, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump went to Michigan, although they behaved quite differently when they got there (Joe Biden expressed solidarity with the workers picketing, while Donald Trump told employees at a non-union store that picketing wouldn't make “a bit of difference”). However, it is worth reflecting on both visits, blatantly instrumental, made with an eye on the elections.

Let us remember that, as Branko Marcetic noted in 2018, Joe Biden spent much of his career attacking progressive “special interests” while reaching across the aisle to vote with Republicans in major instances that were decidedly unhelpful for the working class – by voting for, for example, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and Bill Clinton's 1996 pension reform.

Remember, too, that Joe Biden spent 36 years as a senator from Delaware, the United States' domestic tax haven. More than 1,4 million business entities – and among them more than 60% of the Fortune 500 – have made their legal home in Delaware because corporations registered in the state that do not do business there do not pay corporate income taxes. Seeing Biden on a picket line is therefore a little strange. This pro-labor stance mirrors that of Donald Trump himself, whose courting of industrial workers is equally opportunistic and superficial.

Visits to Michigan bring to mind the expression “Reagan Democrats“, the blue-collar unionized workers that Ronald Reagan so successfully won over on ideological issues in the 1980s. Part of this group defected to the Republicans in 2016, when Donald Trump won several rust belt states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin , who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (and for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012).

In some ways, “Trump Democrats” are the inverse of Reagan Democrats: those who voted for Reagan went against their own economic interests in the name of ideology—in part the theme of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas? Donald Trump's supporters, by contrast, were pushed to the right in line with their economic interests – as a result of losing “good” jobs (those with healthcare, pensions, paid vacations) or feeling they were under threat.

At a 2020 election rally, Donald Trump said: “We want to make sure that more products are proudly emblazoned with the phrase – that beautiful phrase – “made in USA”. Under Joe Biden, Democrats, evidently alarmed by the 2016 election, have co-opted this refrain. Joe Biden's speeches emphasize bringing jobs back to the US: “Where does it say that the US cannot return to being the manufacturing capital of the world?”

This helps to illuminate the political similarity between the two presidents, even though they present themselves as diametrically opposed. It is fair to assume that different fractions of the ruling class in a country sometimes have divergent, even opposing, interests. But if the country is the empire that dominates the world, on one point at least the ruling classes will agree: they do not want to see the basis of their power (that is, the nation-empire) weakened.

Those who have power intend, at the very least, to maintain it, if not to consolidate or expand it. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that the conflicting interests between the different fractions are manifested in different strategies for governing the world, in different conceptions of empire. In the United States, these different conceptions of empire are reduced to the clichés of isolationism (or unilateralism) or interventionist multilateralism.

Of course, this binary is very simple: in reality, one can have unilateralist interventionism, among other combinations. But in the 1990s, these camps crystallized into the party of globalization (ruling the world by liberalizing trade and financial flows) and its opponents. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the globalization camp had the upper hand: the neoliberal version of globalization became known as the Washington consensus, which was forcibly asserted in Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on.

But in Barack Obama's second term the cracks in this edifice were beginning to appear. You think tanks (and not just conservatives) were beginning to worry about the rise of China and the centrifugal forces that globalization was fueling within the empire, particularly in Europe. Critics of globalization began to point out that the US strategy of turning China into the “factory of the universe” would likely weaken.

Such critics also began to point to the ways in which the rebound effects of globalization were eroding the domestic consensus around the question of empire. If in the 1950s a blue-collar worker in the USA had a legitimate stake in the empire (his salary and standard of living were the highest in the world), this was no longer the case in the first years of the new millennium, when the vast majority of factories American companies had been relocated, first to Mexican maquiladoras and then to Asia. In a way, globalization was weakening the empire's internal front.

This brings us to another aspect of the striking continuity between Trump and Biden's policies. Bien-pensants around the world seriously underestimated Donald Trump, ridiculing him for his histrionics and his lies. (It is worth remembering that, when he was elected, Ronald Reagan was also ridiculed – as a B-movie actor, totally ignorant of foreign policy, a puppet who consulted fortune tellers and was convinced of the imminent end of the world, destined to be impeached in a few months. We saw the sequence.)

But of course, Donald Trump's administration was not the only Trump. His cabinet included the CEO of Exxon, several members of the most powerful bank in the world (Goldman Sachs), a Midwest billionaire (Betsy DeVos), several Pentagon generals and, as second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the man from Koch brothers.

In 2018, the Annual Report of Heritage Foundation, who said goodbye to some great people in 2017, boasted that the “Trump administration took away more than 70 of our employees and alumni.” The following year, the think tanks praised the Trump administration’s “adoption of 64% of equity policy prescriptions.” Under Donald Trump's bluster, in many ways his government was being guided by those think tanks financed by the fraction of the US ruling class that elected him.

During the Cold War, a commonplace circulated: that Republicans were conservative in domestic politics but less hawkish in foreign policy, while Democrats were progressive at home but more warmongering abroad (the Vietnam War was fought under Kennedy and Johnson; Nixon negotiated peace).

After the defeat of the USSR, this notion lost its purchase: it was the Republican presidents, Bush senior and Bush Jr, who attacked Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq again (although Clinton launched the attack on Serbia and Obama continued the war of its predecessor). This brings us to the last, but no less significant, area in which Joe Biden has doubled down on Donald Trump's positions: in his vision for the Middle East formalized in the 2020 Abraham Accords, seen most vividly in Joe's full and unconditional endorsement. Biden to Benjamin Netanyahu. With the Trump-Biden duo, it seems that we are back in the Cold War: despite all his bombastic proclamations, Donald Trump has not started any war. Under Joe Biden we are already in the second.

*Marco D'Eramo is a journalist. Author, among other books, of The Pig and the Skyscraper (To).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally posted on the blog Sidecar da New Left Review.


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