Elective Affinities

It’s time to air an open secret. President Joe Biden is implementing the same policies that were inaugurated by the vilified, mocked and indicted Donald Trump, only with less fanfare and in a more decisive and brutal manner. In particular, Biden is resolutely pursuing the path of deglobalization that caused such a stir when the president in the orange wig embarked on it.

Biden has intensified the trade war with China unleashed by his predecessor. While Trump’s initiatives were sporadic and theatrical, such as the indictment of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, Biden’s more systematic policies – cracking down on advanced technology exports – have upped the ante. The war in Ukraine, which broke out a little over a year into Biden’s term, might seem to distinguish the two presidencies, but its repercussions in Europe reveal commonalities too: the dismantling of the German Ostpolitik (a policy pursued tenaciously by Germany since the chancellorship of Willy Brandt half a century ago), the decoupling of the German and Chinese economies and keeping Europe firmly under the aegis of NATO.

The Biden administration has followed the Republicans’ deglobalization playbook, even down to the details. Trump had weakened the World Trade Organization by refusing to ratify the appointment of judges to its top appeals court, which settles international trade disputes; the Democrats now continue to block those appointments. As a result, the WTO has been paralysed, 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 the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Biden visited Riyadh in July 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine to persuade Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production and to encourage closer ties with Israel. The following spring, Biden rolled out the red carpet to welcome the ‘pariah’ Crown Prince to Washington.

One could add other unkept promises, including ecological ones, notwithstanding the much-vaunted green subsidies in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. During his election campaign, Biden vowed 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 up public land for drilling – nearly 144,000 acres – to new oil and gas leases, just months after suspending them. It did not end there: in March of this year the administration approved the Willow project, a decades-long oil drilling venture worth $8 billion in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government. According to the administration’s own estimates, the project would produce enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to adding 2 million petrol cars to the roads.

But there is another area in which Biden has furtively followed in Trump’s footsteps: the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. A signature policy of the Trump administration – though it only managed to build 80 miles of new wall (repairing or replacing another few hundred miles) – the Democrats had promised they wouldn’t add another centimetre. Now, Biden has authorized the construction of 20 miles (32 km) of new barrier in south Texas. With a year to go before the 2024 election, the intention of the initiative is clear.

And speaking of the pre-election climate: it is notable that during the recent United Auto Workers strike, both Biden and Trump went to Michigan, though they behaved quite differently when they got there (Biden expressed solidarity with picketing workers while Trump told employees at a non-union shop that picketing wouldn’t make ‘a damn bit of difference’). Yet both visits, blatantly instrumental, paid with one eye on the elections, are worth reflecting on. Let us recall that, as Branko Marcetic noted in 2018, Biden has spent much of his career ‘attacking progressive “special interests” while crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans in major instances that were decidedly unhelpful to the working class’ – voting in favour, for example, of the repeal of Glass–Steagall and Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. Bear in mind, too, that Biden has spent 36 years as a senator for Delaware, the internal tax haven of the United States. 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 tax. Seeing Biden at a picket line is therefore a little strange. Such pro-labour posturing mirrors that of Trump himself, whose courting of manufacturing workers is similarly opportunistic and shallow.

The visits to Michigan bring to mind the expression ‘Reagan Democrats’, the unionized blue-collar workers whom Reagan won over so successfully on ideological issues in the 1980s. Part of this group defected to the Republicans in 2016, when Trump won several rustbelt states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (and for Obama in 2008 and 2012). In a way, the ‘Trump Democrats’ are the inverse of the Reagan Democrats: those who voted for Reagan went against their own economic interests in the name of ideology – partly the theme of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Trump’s supporters, by contrast, were pushed rightward in line with their economic interests – as a result of losing ‘good’ jobs (those with healthcare, pensions, paid holidays) or feeling that they were under threat. At an election rally in 2020, Trump said: ‘We want to ensure that more products are proudly stamped with the phrase – that beautiful phrase – made in the USA’. Under Biden, the Democrats, evidently alarmed by the 2016 election, have co-opted this refrain. Biden’s speeches emphasize bringing jobs back to America: ‘Where is it written that America can’t once again be the manufacturing capital of the world?’

This helps to illuminate the political resemblance between the two presidents, however much they present themselves as diametrically opposed. It is fair to assume that the different fractions of the ruling class in a country sometimes have diverging, 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 (i.e., the nation-empire) weakened. Those who have power intend, at a minimum, to maintain it, if not consolidate or expand it. So it is reasonable to infer that the conflicting interests between the various fractions manifest themselves in different strategies for ruling the world, in different conceptions of empire. In the United States, these different conceptions of empire are reduced to the clichés of either isolationism (or unilateralism) or interventionist multilateralism. Of course, this binary is too simple: in reality one can have unilateralist interventionism, among other combinations. But by the 1990s, these camps had crystallized into the party of globalization (governing the world by liberalizing trade and financial flows) and its opponents. Throughout the 1990s and the 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 by Obama’s second term the cracks in this edifice were beginning to show. Think tanks (and not only conservative ones) were starting to worry about the rise of China and the centrifugal forces that globalization was nurturing within the empire, particularly in Europe. Critics of globalization began to point out that the US strategy, by turning China into ‘the factory of the universe’, was likely to undermine itself.

Such critics also began to point to the ways in which the rebounding effects of globalization were eroding the domestic consensus around the issue of empire. If in the 1950s a blue-collar worker in the US had a legitimate stake in empire (his salary and standard of living were the highest in the world), this was no longer true in the early years of the new millennium, when the vast majority of US factories had been relocated, first to Mexican maquiladoras and then to Asia. In a sense, globalization was weakening the home front of the empire.

This brings us to another aspect of the striking continuity between Trump’s and Biden’s policies. Bien-pensants around the world seriously underestimated Trump, deriding him for his histrionics and his lies. (It is worth remembering that when he was elected, Reagan was also mocked – as a B-movie actor, totally ignorant of foreign policy, a dupe 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 sequel.) But of course, the Trump administration was not Trump alone. His cabinet included the CEO of Exxon, several members of the most powerful bank in the world (Goldman Sachs), a Midwestern billionaire (Betsy DeVos), several generals from the Pentagon, and as second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the Koch brothers’ man. Silicon Valley tycoons attended White House meetings. In 2018, the Heritage Foundation’s Annual Report, bidding ‘farewell to some great people in 2017’, boasted that the ‘Trump administration snapped up more than 70 of our staff and alumni’. The next year the think tank gloated about the Trump administration’s ‘embrace of 64% of Heritage policy prescriptions’. Beneath Trump’s bluster, in many respects his government was being teleguided by those think tanks funded by the fraction of the US ruling class that got him elected.

During the Cold War, a commonplace circulated: that the Republicans were conservative in domestic policy but less hawkish in foreign policy, while the 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 Republican presidents, Bush Sr and Bush Jr, who attacked Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq again (although Clinton triggered the attack on Serbia and Obama continued his predecessor’s war). This brings us to the last, but no less significant area in which Biden has doubled down on Trump’s positions: in his vision for the Middle East as formalized in the 2020 Abraham Accords, seen most vividly in Biden’s total and unconditional endorsement of Benjamin Netanyahu. With the Trump–Biden duo it feels like we are back in the Cold War: despite all his bombastic proclamations, Trump has not started any wars. Under Biden we are already on the second.

Read on: Grey Anderson, ‘Strategies of Denial’, NLR–Sidecar.