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Trump and the Rise of Authoritarian Populism


The election of Donald Trump reflects a crisis of the US state, with the erosion of the legitimacy of political elites, representative institutions and the globalist orientation that has long dominated US politics. This crisis may have significant consequences for the socalled ‘rules-based’ world order. What does it mean for the future of the pivot to Asia?

The election of Trump reflects the fracturing of the social foundations that underpinned the US-led world order, which the Asian rebalance was intended to consolidate. Moreover, Trump’s election signals the rise of ‘authoritarian populism’. Commentators often connect populist politics to Brexit and Trump’s electoral ascendance, with an emphasis on what they describe as ‘cultural backlash’. While this is a useful analysis, it fails to provide an understanding of the social forces that underpin the emergence of populism and its broader relationship to patterns of capitalist transformation.

While scholars like G. John Ikenberry have pointed out the increasing difficulties of maintaining a US-led hegemonic order, there is a tendency to attribute these difficulties to systemic factors without an appreciation of their social foundations. Ikenberry argues, for instance, that “[u]nderlying shifts within the system—in power, sovereignty, the sources of security, and the scale and scope of interdependence—have eroded the stability of the order and the authority of the United States as hegemonic leader”.

For Ikenberry, however, the liberal international order suffers mainly from a crisis of authority due to the rise of new powers, rather than a crisis of legitimacy. While he notes that the basis of the liberal order has been undermined by the tensions between “international openness and national stability”, he seems to locate the source of these tensions in international rules that can be modified to strengthen certain features of national states.

In contrast, we argue that the ‘rules’ underpinning the US’s hegemonic leadership originate in a set of social foundations that are shaped by domestic social forces and processes of capitalist development. Hence, we argue that there is, indeed, a crisis of legitimacy in the ‘rules-based’ global order, and it is one that reflects the crisis of the capitalist state in the US, in particular.

Social foundations

The US pivot to Asia was a key part of Barack Obama’s strategy for crisis management in the wake of the long-term loss of industrial manufacturing jobs and the economic crisis of 2008. The rebalance had several significant prongs: a shift of strategic focus to Asia and away from the Middle East and Afghanistan; the creation of new strategic partnerships; the consolidation of existing alliance relationships; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a preferential trade agreement. The aim of the rebalance was to manage the rise of China and ameliorate economic crises by socialising China into a liberal rules-based order that was beneficial to certain US business interests and conducive to the maintenance of the global leadership of the US.

The secrecy in which the TPP was negotiated and the way that Obama completed the deal—using fast-track authority that limited congressional debate—is characteristic of the nature of his strategy for crisis management, which rested on what Nicos Poulantzas called “authoritarian statism”.

It is clear that the crisis of 2008 not only made this mode of crisis management untenable, but also unleashed a range of austerity measures—at the local and national levels—that brought problems of legitimacy to the fore. This was reflected in growing political and policy paralysis and grinding political deadlock that eroded trust in democratic institutions.

It is in this context that the Asian rebalance needs to be understood. Strategic burden-sharing, the winding down of expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the TPP were responses to domestic economic and political crises that also had significant implications for the US role in the world. As Hillary Clinton put it in her Foreign Policy article in 2011 when she was secretary of state: ‘The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action.”

Trump and the rebalance

The reproduction of the regional and global order will now be shaped by these authoritarian populist forces—with a strong undercurrent of white nationalism—in the USA , though not without contradictions as the new administration seeks to reconcile the interests of transnational capital with its support base. This is not a coherent project . The following are some of the possible implications for US policy in Asia:

  1. Geoeconomic initiatives will still be important but these may be framed outside of the focus on plurilateralism and the ‘knowledge economy’ sectors identified with the Obama administration. The power of the social groups associated with the ‘new economy’, which were among the strongest supporters of initiatives like the TPP, will be increasingly contested within the US state. Moreover, bilateral trade agreements, which Trump can cite as a reassertion of US sovereignty in trade negotiations, may prevail over both multilateralism and plurilateralism.
  1. While Obama’s approach to warfare involved the massive expansion of an unaccountable and covert drone program, Trump has promised a focus on overt military power through the expansion of the navy in the Asia-Pacific. As a leaked internal Trump campaign memo made clear, this “military Keynesianism“—in the spring of US decline—is intended to help Trump live up to his election slogan to “Make America Great Again” by reasserting US hegemony and generating jobs. But this military Keynesianism—if it does come about—is likely to be a debt-fuelled short-term band-aid solution which will create more economic challenges and instability. It may also drive regional instability as other countries in the region follow suit and invest in military expenditure.
  1. Asia has in recent years seen the rise of leaders like Narendra Modi, Shinzo Abe and Rodrigo Duterte, who also have leanings towards authoritarian populism. Trump’s election may also fuel the rise of strands of authoritarian populism in countries like Australia. Transnational alliances between sections of the right in the Australian Liberal National Party and Trump supporters in the USA are already emerging. Superficial affinities, however, obscure significant divergences in the nature of the state crises leaders like Modi and Abe are seeking to address. The ‘rules’ of the ‘rules-based’ order are likely to become more contested than ever.

The impact of the election of Trump on the future of the rules-based order in Asia will be the outcome of more than just the resilience and adaptability of international institutions. Rather, regional and world orders are the products of processes of capitalist development and their mediation and management by a range of political actors. What we are now seeing is a fundamental crisis in the social foundations of the post-1970s US state, which has underpinned the liberal rules-based order. Trump’s rise, which in part can be attributed to Obama’s mode of crisis management, may hasten its demise.

Dr Priya Chacko is a lecturer in international politics in the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. Her research focuses on identity and foreign policy in India and the domestic and international politics of South Asia.

Kanishka Jayasuriya is currently a professor of international politics and the Director of the Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre at the University of Adelaide. Prior to this he was principal senior research Ffellow at the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University.

This article is an extract from the authors’ article commentary published on the Australian Journal of International Affairs website, ‘Trump, the authoritarian populist revolt and the future of the rules-based order in Asia’. It is republished with permission.

Published January 16, 2017

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