A Time of Monsters: Corporate Liberalism and The Rise of Trumpism

Bill Clinton taking the oath of office of President of the United States, January 20, 1993
Bill Clinton taking the oath of office of President of the United States on January 20, 1993.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”— Antonio Gramsci

The convulsions of a dying order are always violent. And make no mistake—the collapse of an order is what we are witnessing.

The doomed regime in question is neither white supremacy nor neoliberalism itself. Reports of the demise of those systems have been greatly exaggerated.

The order that is crumbling before our eyes is the particular nexus of cosmopolitan liberalism, militarism, and globalization that has characterized Democratic Party leadership since Bill Clinton.

The Clintons—Bill and Hillary—bookend an era in which the ostensible party of the people in the United States abandoned even the pretense of defending the interests of workers. Accelerating a shift begun under Carter, Bill successfully moved the Democrats to the right, slashing the already tattered social safety net (his bipartisan program of “welfare reform” spawned a generation of starving children and mothers) and unleashing the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, a giveaway to multinational corporations that turned thousands of American and Mexican workers into refugees in their own land.

Without Bill’s rebranding of the Democratic Party as an unabashed servant of multinational corporations, we could not have had Obama, who, with his disarming and fatherly style, consolidated the neocon policies of George W. Bush while reinvigorating an unrepentant, extortionate Wall Street. Then it was Hillary’s turn. Short on charisma but long on cozy relationships with big banks, she prepared for her installation as the next monarch of multicultural imperialism. Only, a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.

Trump’s victory exposed the bankruptcy of corporate liberalism, a brand of class warfare practiced by a refined segment of the ruling elite. Corporate liberals are masters of the art of expressing sympathy for marginalized groups while actively facilitating wealth transfer to the top one percent. Led by Obama and the Clintons, these patricians support mild policies of social democracy (especially measures like Obamacare that result in windfalls for private industry). But their main purpose is to suppress dissent (witness the Obama-Clinton contempt for Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock demonstrators) and to preserve a status quo marked by oil wars, a perilously financialized economy, and an obscene empire of incarceration.

Michelle and Barack Obama with Joe and Jill Biden at the 2009 Inaugural Parade (Credit Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Michelle and Barack Obama with Joe and Jill Biden at the 2009 Inaugural Parade (Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress)

Corporate liberals are polite white supremacists. Their paradigms of “diversity” and “inclusion” accompany and abet the state violence of mass imprisonment, mass deportation, and police terror. Their faux feminism offers no relief for women struggling with low wages, inadequate childcare, and dead-end, service sector jobs. The ranks of corporate liberalism include sophisticated politicians who dutifully observe the protocols of political correctness. But under their watch, the lives and material circumstances of many people of color, women, workers, and non-elite LGBTQ folks have deteriorated.

Now Trump’s populist blend of racism, misogyny, nativism, and jingoism has ended the hypocritical reign of corporate liberalism, humiliating the Clintonian wing of the ruling class. Freed from the velvet gloves of multicultural decorum, the iron fist of empire will fall unceremoniously on the most vulnerable members of our society, including just about anyone with brown skin.

Yes, Trumpism, like Brexit, is a reactionary brew of white resentment and fear. And yes, the trope of the angry, blue-collar voter has obscured the extent to which white racial animus in Obama’s America cuts across class lines.

To be sure, however, the antipathy toward Hillary and the political establishment that carried The Donald to victory (albeit with the help of an anachronistic, patently anti-democratic electoral college system) also reflects the declining economic fates of a vast swath of Americans. Were it not for neoliberalism’s shredding of the social contract (the evisceration of unions, the hemorrhaging of decent jobs, and the plundering of the commons), hatred and scapegoating of the Other might not have been enough to elevate to the nation’s highest office one of the slimiest personalities in recent memory.

The irony, of course, is that Trump the mogul will only exacerbate the suffering of ordinary Americans and that of a great many other souls on our beleaguered planet. The cathartic satisfaction that white workers and others gained by participating in the chastening of a smug political establishment will fade as the life chances for all laborers, and that of members of the tenuous middle class, continue to dwindle. And people of color, who overwhelmingly repudiated Trump at the polls, will remain among the principal victims of spiraling social misery.

People hold signs as they listen to speakers at a protest against the election of President-elect Donald Trump, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
People hold signs as they listen to speakers at a protest against the election of President-elect Donald Trump, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Nevertheless, the truth is that the old political regime was unsustainable. This year citizens across much of the world sought to “throw out the bums.” Though populist insurgencies in many countries demonized immigrants and marginalized groups, other revolts, from the Bernie Sanders surge in the U.S. to the Nuit Debout movement in France, targeted the depredations of a world capitalist system that has eroded welfare provisions and collective bargaining rights, offering even inhabitants of rich countries more austerity and less democracy.

In coming weeks we will continue to see financial and political elites who once rejected Trump for his volatility and vulgarity rush to embrace the new regime, even as the president-elect reveals the reptiles who will occupy his cabinet and shape his administration. If Wall Street could use corporate liberalism to insulate itself from righteous popular outrage, it will find in neo-fascism a no less effective vehicle for propagating its wealth and power.

No doubt the months and years ahead will bring intensified repression. The militarization of police will proceed apace. Law enforcement will be deployed to crush grassroots political opposition. The vilest forms of bigotry will proliferate. A compliant corporate media will aid in normalizing Islamophobia and other fundamentalist orthodoxies.

It is truly a time of monsters.

Yet progressives and leftists cannot allow themselves to wax nostalgic for a political establishment that celebrated “diversity” while waging endless war abroad and gutting social democracy at home. It is that rotten system that has subjected the world to Trump.

Let us take courage. If we peer beyond the dark edges of this historical moment, we may glimpse the contours of a new world emerging. If we can resist the politics of fear, if we can revitalize the battered ranks of popular struggle and solidarity, we may hasten the arrival of a far more humane order, one that speaks neither in the glib tones of “tolerance” nor in the strident tenor of nationalism.


Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.


Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “A Time of Monsters: Corporate Liberalism and The Rise of Trumpism

  • it’s tough to let go of the democrats of the last 20 yrs yet this case presented here makes sense. thanks for getting me thinking outside this box and i agree with most of what yu have said.

  • Calling yourselves intellectuals – needs – add a line that says – ‘intellectuals like you’ – including all comers. Acknowledge that we’re all intellectuals, disregarding the stratification and separation imperialism requires. Everyone thinks.

  • The signs have been there from the beginning, the increasing number and severity of symptoms suggesting something is terribly wrong, an invisible cancer in the bloodstream of America’s founding slowly infecting the weak heart of justice and the feeble lungs of equality, an evil menace impeding America’s ability to reason critically as it seizes control of its prefrontal cortex, a hereditary disease passed on from its European ancestors, a disease that can only be stopped with a transfusion of new blood, blood free of the poisoned DNA of greed, of profit over people, of Individualism, of White European colonialism and White American imperialism, of the survival of the 1% at the expense of the 99%, of inhuman treatment and genocide of “inferior” humans intentionally made defenseless against “superior” human wars within and without, of Capitalism in its purest form.

    Has America reached the point of no return, where all that can be done is provide her hospice in the last days of her terminal illness? Possibly. This election would certainly cause one to believe the end is inevitable. To cure her, to submit her to the necessary transfusion, requires a lot of work, maybe even blood, sweat, and tears. The hardest task of all, however, before any progress can be made is to convince her she is sick, terminally ill, and in need of real change beneath the skin. This will require removing the tumors in her prefrontal cortex, and restoring her ability to reason. Will she go willingly, or will it be necessary to force this major surgery upon her? Or is it time to let her go?

  • I fully agree with Russell’s points, just hope he will follow up and elaborate on the emerging multiracial and intersectional social movements and the parallel, cooperative-community-oriented economic developments that will replace the flailing, failing monster. Without a strong vision, people lack the energy to overcome the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

    • Agreed. We need a progressive, realistic, clear-eyed, democratic, long-term left strategy to rebuild working-class movements in this society. More to come…

  • Excellent article. I would just add that righteous outrage can no longer be insulated, but must be channeled away. We now witness how outrage is being channeled as far as away as possible, to start, from corporate elites who stand to benefit from said reptiles’ crowning, now instead to a recognizable external enemy, Russia, (ironically, much like the liberal foreign policy establishment–perhaps rightly– used to agree with Russia’s domestic critics’ view of its government seeking external enemies in Syria and Ukraine to distract from its oligarhchs’ class war on Russia and beyond…).

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