Donald Trump and the transition to Bonapartist rule

The Twitter Bonaparte casts a shadow – second of two parts

Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency in a world different in countless ways from the world of 19th-century France described by Marx and Engels. His election was not a coup d’état; the Trump presidency is not a Bonapartist dictatorship. Nevertheless, the process described in 18th Brumaire (see Part One of this pair of articles) provides a useful frame of reference with which to examine some important shifts in US politics that Trump’s election brings to light.

Donald Trump, President of the United States

And just as the political character of Louis Bonaparte (or, to be more precise, his lack of character) was a factor in the counter-revolutionary process of 1848-51, the political personality of Donald Trump is not without interest today. However, the key to understanding the situation today – as in 1848-51 – is the political course of the bourgeois liberals opposed to Trump.

Donald Trump clearly regards himself as a ‘strong leader’ whose personal intervention and application of his business experience is just what is required to cut through the red tape and regulations holding back business, and thereby solve the economic crisis in the United States. “I hear your demands, I hear your voices and I promise you I will deliver. I promise that…. You want low cost American energy also, which means lifting the restrictions on oil, on shell [shale?], on natural gas and on clean, very clean coal. We’re going to put the miners back to work. The miners go back to work…. We’ve just issued a new order which requires that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated,” Trump told a post-inauguration rally in Florida on February 18.

Vladimir Putin

His admiration for Vladimir Putin, whose rule in Russia could accurately be described as a Bonapartist dictatorship, is not without significance. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said in an interview with MSNBC in December 2015.

On assuming the presidency, Trump determined to rule by executive order. He declared that his ban on immigration from seven predominantly-Muslim countries was “unreviewable” when it was challenged in the courts. He described the judges mounting this challenge as “so-called judges.” When the second edition of the ban was blocked by the courts, he describe it as “unprecedented judicial overreach.” The coarseness and aggressiveness of the language of these political attacks – by one branch of the government on another – has no precedent in US constitutional history that I am aware of.

“Our founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes” – Barack Obama.

On the other hand, the centralisation of power in the executive branch of government and its bloated bureaucracy, at the expense of the legislature and judiciary – this trend has a decades-long history prior to Trump’s election. It accelerated under the Obama administration, with that President’s penchant for executive orders. “Our founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes,” Obama complained in a February 6, 2012, interview. Throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the executive exercised increasing control over questions such as immigration, with a corresponding narrowing of immigrants’ recourse to legal remedies. Clinton and Bush also argued, just like Trump, that their immigration prerogatives were unreviewable by the courts.

Agents of the Department of Homeland Security

The number of U.S. government employees increased from about 4 million in 1939 to nearly 22 million in 2014, a more than five-fold rise, twice the rate of population increase. While this includes postal, transportation, hospital and other workers who produce goods and services of some value to working people, most are employed by government administrative, regulatory, police and military departments, whose function is to maintain and defend social relations of exploitation and oppression. Among those with the largest number of civilian employees: 718,000 at the Department of Defense; 302,000 at the Department of Veteran Affairs; 240,000 at the Department of Homeland Security; 114,000 at the Department of Justice; 100,000 at the Department of Treasury; and 98,000 Internal Revenue Service agents. If Marx could describe the French state bureaucracy of the middle nineteenth century as a “colossal parasitic body,” one wonders what words he could find to describe the burgeoning state bureaucracy in the US today.

Whether Trump succeeds in gaining control over the entire apparatus of spying – parts of which are aligned with his opponents today – will be an important marker of his progress. The final outcome of the legal challenges to his ‘Muslim ban’ likewise has an importance that goes far beyond the particular legal issue in dispute.

As with Bonaparte early in his term as president of the National Assembly, Trump similarly behaves “like an unrecognized genius, whom all the world takes for a simpleton.” Hardly a day goes by without the news media ridiculing this or that wacky claim by Trump or a member of his coterie – the allegation that Obama tapped Trump Tower, the belief that microwave ovens can spy on you, the outbursts against ‘fake news’ etc – mocking his manner of speaking in short sentences, questioning his competence, proving his ignorance, or describing him as ‘unqualified’ to be President. Trump, just like Bonaparte at the corresponding moment, “enjoys the contempt of all classes in full measure.” [Marx 18thBrumaire]

The complaints that Trump is ‘unqualified’ partly reflect the prejudices of those making the complaint – the false assumption that in capitalist society the best and brightest naturally rise to the top as a meritocracy, rule by the most gifted. But more importantly, they fail to recognise that it is precisely Trump’s lack of character that is his greatest qualification for the role. As with Bonaparte, “Just because he was nothing, he could signify everything save himself.” [ibid]

Neither the torrent of ridicule and derision, nor ‘rational criticism,’ nor ‘de-bunking Trump’s lies’ succeed in producing the desired crisis in the Trump presidency, to the ever-greater exasperation of the liberal critics. Could it be that the New York Times and its ilk have scarcely more credibility than Fox News? That they are seen by many as purveyors alike of ‘fake news’?

Fake news from Associated Press, 1959. Respectable US newspapers announce ‘sweeping victory’ of the Cuban dictator Batista – on the very same day Batista fled the victorious revolution.

Could it be that the claptrap from respectable liberal politicians about how well ‘the economy’ is doing failed to convince those who face declining wages and deepening insecurity of all kinds? That the explanations routinely turned out by their educated spokespeople for why drone killings are justified, why the slashing of social services is necessary, why it’s pointless to protest cop murders, etc are no less absurd and irrational than the naked prejudices and conspiracy theories cooked up by Trump and his clique?

(See this from Esquire, for an example of the anti-working class character of the liberal exasperation: “And, please, for the love of god, ye editors and news directors throughout the land, enough with the expeditions into the heartland to talk to people who helped bring this down upon themselves and on us. These folks have nothing new to say…You’re listening to people in love with their own delusions.”)

And just to prove that truth is stranger than fiction, and real news stranger than fake news, in the same week that the laughter about Kellyanne Conway’s claim about microwave ovens spying on people was still echoing around the world, it was revealed that manufacturers of vibrator sex toys had been using the bluetooth facility on their product to collect data on their customers’ sex lives.

Trump was elected to the presidency as the candidate for the Republican Party, and to appear on the scene as a ‘party man’ is certainly not typical for a Bonapartist pretender. However, against that must be registered the fact that he was not the candidate preferred by the leading layers of the Republican Party, nor of the ruling class as a whole, and he owes little loyalty to the party machine. In the past, Trump has flirted with both the Democratic Party and the Reform Party of Ross Perot. On this occasion, he calculated that the Republican Party was a better vehicle to raise him up to high office. However, throughout the campaign he, like Perot before him, stressed the fact that his billions give him great independence from the party machine.

“With me, I’m putting my money up, folks. I’m putting my money up. Putting my money up. I funded my primaries and I spent less than anybody else” he told a rally in Pennsylvania in August 2016.

Moreover, the twin parties of capitalist rule, which seemed so dominant even four years earlier, are today both in a state of disarray. The splits within each party are wider than the differences separating them. While there are earnest efforts under way to shore up and rebuild both parties, there is no guarantee that these will meet with any success. The same political factors that led both Democratic and Republican parties to divide continue to operate with full force, including, in the case of the Republican Party, Trump himself.

The defeat of the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is less a setback for Trump than it is a setback for efforts to rebuild a united Republican Party. Trump is only partly correct when he says, “Health care is now totally the property of the Democrats…When people get a 200 percent increase [in their health insurance premiums] next year or a 100 percent or 70 percent, that’s their fault.” A more accurate assessment of the outcome of the failed effort to repeal ACA is that political responsibility for the deepening crisis of access to health care faced by working people in the US now lies with the legislature. The pressure to resolve the issue by unilateral action of the executive thus gets ratcheted up a notch.

Trump’s biggest political battle since his inauguration has been the fight for the increased barriers to immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. It is true that this policy is simply an extension of the policy carried out by his predecessors – the list of seven countries to be targeted, for example, was drawn up during the Obama administration.

It could be argued that the biggest difference between the immigration policies of Obama and Trump has been the noise level: what Obama did quietly, Trump does with great fanfare. But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that there is no substantial difference in the two policies. The noise has great importance in itself. It is a call to the border police, summoning them to their role as guardians of the nation.

The border police have responded enthusiastically to this call, taking advantage of both the clear anti-Muslim character of the executive order and its vagueness of detail to impose their own forms of profiling and arbitrary detention. Across the country, up to 100 miles from any borders, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Control (CPB) cops are extending their operations and feeling a new freedom to deport. (For an example, see this shocking video about the effects of these operations in a small Arizona town.) Passengers of domestic flights are required to produce documents as if they had been crossing a border. “The President wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies and say: You have a mission…” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told a press conference February 22.

The border control cops are only a small fraction of the state apparatus (there are about 20,000 agents in each of ICE and the CBP. When William Clinton took office in 1993 there were 4,000 in the CPB). But the great agitation and mobilisation of their ranks as a pillar of support to Trump is instructive. Bonapartist dictators typically (though not always) come to power wearing a military or police uniform. Trump is not the President with closest ties to the military machine – the list of former presidents includes nine former Generals of the US Army – and so he is atypical in this respect too. But he is rapidly building support in the military and police machine. “We got numbers that nobody believed were possible from law enforcement and from military. Basically, people who wear uniforms like us,” Trump told the Florida rally. Bonaparte’s dictatorship similarly rested principally on the political support of key elements of the capitalist state apparatus.

Trump’s hatred towards the press and his disdain for press conferences is also worth noting. He is not the first President to resent press criticism, of course, but to brand major big-business news media as “the enemy of the people” is something greater than resentment. That Trump must envy the degree of control over the press enjoyed by Putin is an idea difficult to dismiss. “I want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news…. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. … We are here today to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” he told the Florida rally.

The rift between the President and the big-business press is the counterpart, outside the House of Representatives, of the splits that afflict the parties within it. This kind of direct appeal to the people, over the heads of the squabbling politicians and their servile press is entirely characteristic of a Bonapartist ruler.

Trump answers his critics not at press conferences but at a series of post-election mass rallies of supporters, and on Twitter. With Twitter, the Bonaparte-in-waiting has found the perfect medium for his direct appeals to the nation. His Twitter pronouncements take on far greater political importance than his press conferences or speeches to Congress. (One possible interpretation of his uncharacteristically ‘presidential’ speech to Congress on February 28 is that he considers this forum a side-show. He placates them with soothing lullabies while the real political struggle is carried on elsewhere. As he prepared his coup, Louis Napoleon also gave the National Assembly free reign, and permitted them little parliamentary ‘victories’ while drawing all threads of real power to himself.)

The ‘rising above the classes’ characteristic of Bonapartism can be more difficult to see today. Ever since universal suffrage became the norm in the imperialist countries, almost all bourgeois politicians are obliged to maintain a pretence of speaking for the whole nation. The class character of their political rule is more concealed than it was when Marx was writing, when the franchise was generally restricted to owners of property.

Trump post-election mass rally in Melbourne, Florida in February.

Yet there can be few more stark illustrations of this contradictory reality than the sight of a union-busting billionaire businessman speaking frankly about the ‘carnage’ facing working people, and calling for their support against the ‘global elite’ – and then in the next breath promising to free business from regulatory fetters.  “The so-called global elite have done well for themselves, but left working families with shrinking wages. Really they are shrinking. 18 years ago, many of you in this room made more money working one job than you’re making right now working two and three jobs,” Trump told the Florida rally.

Meanwhile, for their part, the parliamentary bourgeoisie and the courts continue to seek to restrict the franchise and exclude workers. Some 6.1 million people are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, a figure almost double that from 20 years ago. About 1 of every 40 adults is barred from voting. For African-Americans the rate is much higher, with one out of 13 disenfranchised. In some states — Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — more than 20 percent of African-Americans are excluded from voting. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted key components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, an act which codified gains won by the mass Black-led movement that smashed Jim Crow segregation. State and local governments in a number of areas immediately began putting strict voter ID laws into effect, as well as restricting early voting, cutting back the number of polling sites, especially in Black communities, and eliminating same-day registration.

Marx said of the French National Assembly abolishing universal suffrage that it had torn up its own mandate. “It acknowledged once more that it had itself cut in two the muscles which connected the parliamentary head with the body of the nation.”

In The Civil War in France, Marx summarised the conditions under which Bonapartist governments arise in this way: “In reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”

In 1851 France, the inability of the working class to rule had been concretely demonstrated by the failure of the June 1848 insurrection after five days of heroic struggle. In a country where the big majority of the population was still peasants largely outside the commodity economy, the immature working class lacked sufficient economic weight, consciousness, and leadership to rule the nation.

Has the working class not yet acquired the ability to rule in 2017?

Clearly there has been no test of strength in the present-day United States comparable with the insurrection in 1848 France. Rather the opposite: there has been a prolonged period of working class torpor and paralysis, the duration of which is without precedent in the history of capitalism. But the ruling class has become nervous about this very quiescence, just as it gets nervous when the stock market reaches dizzying new heights.

The economic power and weight of the working class in all the imperialist countries is immeasurably greater than in 1848 France; today its weakness is a matter of organisation and above all, proletarian leadership. After a decade of grinding depression conditions, the mass organisations of the working class encompass a tiny and dwindling percentage of the class, their leadership is so mired in the rut of class collaboration that organised working class resistance to the depression conditions remains negligible. So long as this crisis of leadership remains unresolved, it can be said that the working class “has not yet acquired the faculty of ruling the nation.”

And yet, in spite of the lack of imminent challenge from the working class, the ability of the bourgeoisie to rule through its democratic institutions also continues to decline. In foreign policy, the US has proven so weak politically that it is unable to use its vast military supremacy to impose an imperialist order and stability in Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone Syria. Its industries in historic decline as the centre of world manufacturing shifts towards Asia, unable to stimulate any substantial economic recovery in the ten years since the 2007 financial crisis, the bourgeoisie also proved to be so weak in domestic politics that it was unable to get its preferred candidate elected to the presidency. In the 120 years since the US emerged as an imperialist power, the bourgeoisie has never been politically weaker.

The result is that a temporary stalemate of the class struggle, which Engels describes as the primary condition for Bonapartist rule, already exists.

Trotsky’s article on the Bonapartist regimes that arose in Germany and France in the early 1930s reminds us of the most important law of the dialectic: The truth is always concrete.

The article is a polemic against the Stalinist theory of fascism, which substituted the abstract formal categories of parliamentary democracy and fascism for the dialectical analysis of reality, “in its every concrete phase, in all its transitional stages, that is, in its gradual changes as well as in its revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) leaps.”

“Between parliamentary democracy and the Fascist regime, a series of transitional forms, one after another, inevitably interposes itself, now “peaceably,” now by civil war. And each one of these transitional forms, if we want to go forward and not be flung to the rear, demands a correct theoretical appraisal and a corresponding policy of the proletariat… He who operates in the domain of theory with abstract categories is condemned to capitulate blindly to facts.”

Rightist demonstration, Paris, 7 February 1934. Trotsky: “the Doumergue government appeared on the scene between the rehearsal of the civil war by the fascists (February 6) and the general strike of the proletariat (February 12). As soon as the irreconcilable camps had taken up their fighting positions at the poles of capitalist society, it wasn’t long before it became clear that the adding machine of parliamentarism lost all importance. “

In the context of the acute and rapidly-evolving social crisis that Trotsky was describing, the life of these Bonapartist regimes was measured in months rather than years – this was one sense in which the extremely unstable Bonapartist regimes of capitalism’s senile phase differed from those of its juvenile phase (Louis Bonaparte, in contrast, remained in power for eighteen years of rapid capitalist economic expansion.) Only the extremely risky resort to the regime of civil war – Fascism – could promise the bourgeoisie the greater stability that it craved.


Marx says of the months leading up to the coup of December 1851: “If ever an event has, well in advance of its coming, cast its shadow before, it was Bonaparte‘s coup d’état.”

Donald Trump has cast just such a shadow. With his election, the transition from democratic forms of rule to Bonapartist dictatorship, already proceeding under Obama’s and previous administrations, has taken a big step forward. Whether Trump is the strongman they eventually select, or whether a more suitable candidate for despot steps forward from the shadows (perhaps at the head of an anti-Trump drive – wouldn’t that throw the left wing of today’s grand anti-Trump coalition into confusion!) the process is already in motion, and accelerating. As Marx demonstrated in the case of the first Bonaparte, the transition from democratic forms of rule to Bonapartist dictatorship takes place not so much by decision of the ruling class as by its default.

One of the most important points in Trotsky’s article is easily overlooked. Trotsky says:

“Fascism in power, like Bonapartism, can only be the government of finance capital. In this social sense, it is indistinguishable not only from Bonapartism but even from parliamentary democracy.  … The strength of finance capital does not reside in its ability to establish a government of any kind and at any time, according to its wish; it does not possess this faculty. [My emphasis – JR] Its strength resides in the fact that every non-proletarian government is forced to serve finance capital; or better yet, that finance capital possesses the possibility of substituting for each one of its systems of domination that decays, another system corresponding better to the changed conditions. However, the passage from one system to another signifies the political crisis which, with the concourse of the activity of the revolutionary proletariat, may be transformed into a social danger to the bourgeoisie…”

The transition from parliamentary democracy to Bonapartist rule signals a political crisis, it is their crisis, it has begun, and this crisis brings opportunities and openings for the revolutionary working class. It remains only for the working class to seize these opportunities.

7 responses to “Donald Trump and the transition to Bonapartist rule

  1. “….With his election, the transition from democratic forms of rule to Bonapartist dictatorship, already proceeding under Obama’s and previous administrations, has taken a big step forward. Whether Trump is the strongman they eventually select, or whether a more suitable candidate for despot steps forward from the shadows (perhaps at the head of an anti-Trump drive – wouldn’t that throw the left wing of today’s grand anti-Trump coalition into confusion!) the process is already in motion, and accelerating….”

    This makes it sound as if the transition to Bonapartism is irreversable, but I’m not at all sure this is the case. In fact, after the ruling class’s “experiment” with Trump’s quasi-Bonaparistism, they may just decide to reverse gears and go back to a more traditional form of bourgeois rule. Trump wasn’t their first choice, and his regime so far has been a disaster for them.

    • I agree that the Trump regime has been a disaster for the ruling class so far – that is precisely the nature of a political crisis. But I don’t think they can solve the crisis by just going ‘back to a more traditional form of bourgeois rule.’ Trotsky points out that finance capital does not have the ability to simply ‘establish a government of any kind at any time.’ If they had that ability, Trump would not be President now, because, as you say, he was not their first choice. It wasn’t an ‘experiment.’ The parliamentary form of rule is in a state of decay, and they can’t overcome that problem by act of will. The crisis was set up by their actions prior to Trump’s appearance on the scene. For example, to ‘go back’ would require that they reverse the huge growth of the immigration cops of all kinds, ending summary deportations by decision of immigration cops, and restoring to those accused of immigration offences the access to legal remedies they have lost in recent decades. Can you see them doing any of those things? I would not rule out some kind of move by the ruling class to dump Trump. But you can be sure that whatever government comes out of such a move would have an even more clearly Bonapartist character.

      • The exact pace and line of development that this process may take cannot be completely foreseen or predicted. (Fortunately there is no need to do so. The record on Marxist predictions about the exact shape of future developments is not that good, even when those predictions were made by giants of history — never mind the rest of us.)

        But it it worth noting that the 1992 U.S. presidential elections which featured the campaigns of both Patrick Buchanan and Ross Perot, signified the opening of the crisis in the U.S. two-party system. (In a way for instance that the 1948 election which featured both the “independent” Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace, did not.)

        Perot was a classic Bonapartist figure who operated more independently of the two-party system. That system is a particular feature of U.S. bourgeois politics that distinguishes it from many other advanced capitalist countries. Bonapartism may inevitably express itself somewhat differently in the U.S. than it has in other countries.

        Trump might well have run “independently” also, but it turned out the crisis in the two-party system, and the Republican Party in particular, was so acute in 2016 he had no need to move in that direction.

        Exactly what will happen next, with Trump or his successor — whether that person arrives in 4 years, 8 years or sooner — is less important than the general trend and direction of U.S. politics which James has called our attention to.

      • “…But you can be sure that whatever government comes out of such a move would have an even more clearly Bonapartist character…” But why? It’s true that the US poliical sysem in the last few decades has been characterized by increasing power within the executive branch, but this power is not unlimited – for instance the courts and Congress have put the kibosh on some of Trump’s proposals, the Muslim ban and “Trumpcare.” As far as deportations are concerned we’ll see how that shakes out. Without illegal immigrant labor important sections of the US economy would collapse. If a big number of these workers “self-deport” in response to Trump’s rhetoric his efforts there will also be stymied by the ruling class.

        Trump’s base is passive – almost totally electoral in nature, and it’s shrinking. The largest of the “Make America Great” rallies held in his support recently have been around 2000 – most were in the low hundreds (only 3 people showed up for one in my hometown, for instance). There are no significant “Trumpite” paramilitary formations – as a fascist or even a Bonapartist Trump’s a washout.

        I don’t see that the US ruling class has a need for a more authoritarian form of government at this time. They’ll clip Trump’s wings and make do with the rickety bourgeois edifice they have now.

        Otherwise, I think you make many good points in this article, and it’s a much-needed contribution to this discussion.

  2. Excellent! In all major respects I agree with both the arguments you are raising and the questions or challenges you are posing.

    This observations quite true: “However, the key to understanding the situation today – as in 1848-51 – is the political course of the bourgeois liberals opposed to Trump.”

    However it is equally true that revolutionary socialists must also face what has changed and is in the process of changing, in the current U.S. political situation. It is inarguable — as you’ve pointed out — that there is a continuity with previous government policy as administered by the Obama administration for 8 years. But to only see that continuity, without also noting accurately what is changing is an error in my view.

    Thanks again for making an excellent opening contribution to a necessary discussion.

  3. Really enjoyed this post. I had a crack at reading 18th Brumaire many years ago, but struggled to engage with the text. This post has inspired me to give it another go, and as a NZ green card holder in the US, the parallel of recent events in the Trump adminstration demonstrate the continued relevance of Marx’s analysis to this day. Many thanks!

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