Viewpoint: The New ‘New Right’ – Trump’s Political Earthquake

Viewpoint: The New ‘New Right’ – Trump’s Political Earthquake

Desmond King

Four decades ago the concurrent Thatcher and Reagan governments heralded the arrival of the ‘New Right’ political agenda, which prioritised market forces over the primacy of ‘the state’ in their respective countries.  New Right policies followed in the 1980s, including reducing income and corporate taxes, deregulating labour and financial markets, and the promotion of market mechanisms of consumer choice into public sector services such as health and schools. “Market over state” was the mantra of the New Right but as many commentators noted, making markets requires state action (not least in public order maintenance), resulting in a redeployment of state power rather than its diminishment.

Having seized power through the electoral college used to elect the President of the United States, Donald Trump now intends to redeploy federal power away from civilian to military expenditures, to dismantle health care and other forms of income support, and to advance a neoliberal environment fostering business activity and investment.  Yet like conservatives before him, President Trump will also use state power to uphold those markets and in his case to build a protectionist internal production regime, which withdraws from international trade agreements, erects barriers against foreign imports and foreign labour, and penalizes firms conducting some of their business production physically outside the American economy.

The new political landscape
Ideally suited to President Trump’s new agenda is Congress, where the Republican majority and incumbent of the House Speakership, Paul Ryan (Republican, Wisconsin and ardent Ayn Rand follower), wait keenly to embrace a new ‘new right’ agenda of anti-welfare, pro-business and anti-labour, dismantled government and reduced taxes. They will be aided by Congress member Luke Messer, from Indiana and chair of the Republicans’ House Policy Committee, and by Vice President Mike Pence, also from Indiana of which he is former governor and a former ten year member of the Congress. Combined, the Trump-Pence-Messer-Ryan Republican Party alliance promises the most momentous of revolutions in American voters’ relationship to the federal government since Franklin D Roosevelt entered the White House in March 1933.

The ideology of state restructuring
The New Right of Reagan and Thatcher was a practice-run for the pending Trump administration.  Drawing on think tanks such as Cato, Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation, funded by right-wing philanthropists, notably the Koch Brothers and Olin family, (whose generosity rests on tax advantages), there will be a dramatic rolling back of governmental responsibilities in health care, schools and income support.

On the issue of health care, the primary aim is easy: to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature law, and return responsibility for workers’ health benefits to insurance companies and health clinics.  Access to such schemes will be dependent on (a high) income and employment. Giving health care benefits will be presented as an employment perk by employers who want to attract and retain staff, a reversion to the pre-Obamacare arrangement.

State disengagement however will require state intervention in several areas. The marketplace will have more of a role in how schools in the US are run, with a comprehensive withdrawal of publicly provided schools through the distribution of vouchers and fostering of charter and magnet schools. Trump’s aim seems to be that federal funds to states should be designed to incentivise the use of vouchers, effectively giving tranches of money to parents to pay for whatever schools they choose. The same logic operates for social housing programmes and anti-housing discrimination to which Trump’s controversial appointment – the African American surgeon Ben Carson – has already indicated his hostility and intention to reverse.

Financial and market regulation has been massively reformed and beefed up since the fiscal crisis of 2008. Banks are required to have much larger capital reserves proportional to the amount of money they are allowed to lend.  A new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in 2010 and located in the Federal Reserve, rigorously monitors mis-selling to consumers and the extravagant interest rates attached to credit cards.  Both the Bureau and higher capital reserves face the axe as the Treasury and Commerce secretaries favour light touch regulation and greater autonomy to individual consumers.

Another policy area facing redeployment is labour market regulation.  President Obama used his executive powers to advance a federal minimum wage – by making it a requirement of any contractors holding federal grants – and encouraged fair employment practices.  The executive minimum wage order will be rescinded.

Public help with income and health care costs withstood the first New Right wave of reforms. They are now in the firing line.  Medicare, the assistance to health care costs of the elderly, will be converted from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme. The programme helping America’s poorest citizens, Medicaid, will be delegated to the states in block grants, whose GOP controlled legislatures will have discretion to determine eligibility and level of support. The great New Deal pension programme, Social Security, is ripe for privatization – an ambition of the Bush II presidency subverted by the fallout from 9/11. These potentially momentous changes entail intensive federal reforms and initiatives.

Taxes and spending
Underpinning these reforms is the conventional lower income, corporate and estate taxes agenda. Cutting taxes will reduce revenues and raise the deficit, especially if the promised Trump stimulus package is realised (though much of this spending will be through tax credits to private firms who will ultimately own the infrastructure utilities).

The new ‘new right’ offers raw capitalism and limited government of a sort not seen in America since the 1890s.

Another feature the Trump administration’s ideology shares with the New Right is a commitment to defence spending. The injunction of less government never applies to military spending and as it did for Reagan this will provide a hidden form of Keynesian pump priming.

The Trump team
The top Trump appointments share striking features. They are overwhelmingly male (Betsy DeVos at Education, if confirmed, and Elaine Chao at Transportation being female exceptions), white (Ben Carson at HUD is the only African American), and fabulously wealthy (there have never been so many billionaires in a Cabinet).  The dominance of Wall Street (Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Wilbur Ross at Commence) and of  the mining, coal and oil industry (Rex Tillerson at State, Rick Perry at Energy, Ryan Zinke at Interior) representatives is marked.

In common with other appointments these Cabinet members share a strong advocacy of market based policies and a severely reduced federal regulatory role.  Both the proposed secretaries of Health (Tom Price) and Education (Betsy DeVos) have been advocates and policy makers in their respective fields for many years.  DeVos pioneered school vouchers in Michigan, while the nominee to reform the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – Seema Verma – implemented these market based changes in Indiana.

The conservative ideology informs Trump’s selections to run trade policy, where he is committed to renegotiating NAFTA and advancing an ‘America First’ protectionist agenda. The appointments here – Robert Lighthizer as US Trade Representative and Peter Navarro as chair of the National Trade Council – represent dramatic changes toward protectionism and against trade. They both represent a particular fixation with China and its practices.

The judiciary
Trump’s nominee to be US Attorney General – Jeff Sessions from Alabama – represents another form of state redeployment rather than mere retrenchment. In his hearings Sessions emphasised law and order, the role of stop and search policies, and the priority of removing undocumented immigrants. He did not emphasis overseeing justice for American citizens or addressing voting suppression or the disproportionate killing of African Americans by police forces.

But Trump’s judicial influence will go much further. He has 700-800 federal and district judicial appointments to fill (twice the number Obama had in 2008), and Supreme Court nominations.  Already enjoying one vacancy on the nine- member Supreme Court, President-elect Trump is likely to see between two and three more vacancies in his first term in the White House. What has been a consistent 5-4 conservative-liberal balance will shift into a 6-3 or 7-2 conservative majority led by Chief Justice, John Roberts, who cut his government teeth working in President Reagan’s Justice Department in the early 1980s. With this sort of judicial conservatism, the new administration may seek constitutional amendments to enshrine a ban on abortion or to revise the 14th Amendment to remove birth-right citizenship.

The strains and contradictions
The Trump style is populist in the sense of his citing “the people” as a legitimatizing source of authority and a source he can use to harangue and hector any opponent from a union leader to a film star to a senior Republican senator or judge.

But populism provokes responses and the fault-lines of racial division, gender division and ideology will generate protests and mobilization. Millions turned out in street protests on January 21 across US cities but channeling this into a sustainable movement is a formidable challenge. However, the masculinity and associated values of the Trump administration explicitly excludes millions of American women and African Americans from the centre of decision making, and the political response of ‘these other people’ will be a vital issue.   Protest mobilization may not be strong enough to withstand the weight and media savvy of the Trump team which, since the election in November, has held rallies and forged grass roots levels organization of supporters, available to mobilize and bombard members of Congress. The president’s Inaugural speech was consistent in content and style of delivery with nourishing a mass movement.

The disregard of civil rights and the appointment of an Alabama Senator as head of the Department of Justice have been denounced by leading African American elected officeholders, including Senator Cory Booker and Representative John Lewis.  Since racial division is the most important cleavage in American politics, overlaying and deepening the ideological and Republican-Democrat partisan dichotomy, we can expect much more action around the persistence of racial inequality in America.

The best laid political plans inevitably falter, rapidly overtaken by what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan so memorably described as “events.” Foreign policy and global matters invariably intrude disproportionately into presidential time.  The potential exposure of toxic conflicts of interest between the White House incumbent, appointees and business advantage looms large.

However, compared with former incumbents in the White House, Trump has an exceptionally strong institutional base for action, dominating the White House, the House and Senate (with the Republican members owing him electorally), the Supreme Court and a plurality of states’ legislatures and governorships. He will expect to get much done in his first 18 months, introducing a raft of policy changes that will affect America like a seismic earthquake.


Desmond King is the Andrew W Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford and a leading authority on US politics. His many books include The New Right: Politics, Markets and Citizenship (1987), In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Policy in the US and Britain (1999), Fed Power: How Finance Wins (2016) and Reconfiguring European States in Crisis (2017).

Image Credit: Darron Birgenheier, Flikr

4 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    February 01, 2017

    But how stable is the New Right/Trump state going to prove?
    Conventional wisdom has had it that social expenditures have been ‘needed’ to assuage/buy off the pains caused by economic policies/capital accumulation.
    Trump’s protectionism would, at the least, carry huge transitional (social) costs as the US economy adjusted. Yet the apparatus of social support is to be further diminished.
    Thatcher failed in her state reduction project in the sense that social security increased in cost, in order to sustain her economic policies…social peace was purchased. The analogy with the 1890s raises the question whether repression can ‘work’ in the social circumstances of the 2010s. The list of losers will grow, especially if Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security are attacked: will they be merely quiescent and/or repressed?


  2. Avatar
    February 22, 2017

    As a student of the US policy scene since the mid-1970s, I certainly concur with much of your picture drawn here. What is remarkable is that the assault on the USA’s post-1960’s (or for that matter post-1930s) tradition of weak and thin social democracy (to use the language of Freedom House) is so wide-ranging. It is not just an assault on the financial aspects of the ‘state’ (in the sociological sense) but an attempt to apply a root-and-branch transformation to the culture of expectations, albeit from a relatively thin social basis (ie the conservative movements – whether funded by billionaires or conservative churches). The effort is certainly very bold while the official opposition (at least in terms of the Democratic party) appears fragmented and weak.
    Is there some project engaging social scientists to study this phenomenon overall, from mapping the changes being presented and the forms of opposition being assembled?
    Much of the press discussion focuses on the figure of Trump himself. While this is partly legitimate it seems to me that the assemblage of forces behind Trump, with all their contradictoriness, requires fuller analysis. As a New York Times reader I don’t really get it there.


  3. Avatar
    March 30, 2017

    I was in Michigan during the campaign, which is not usually thought of as a swing-state. I detected no enthusiasm for Trump but the hatred of Obamacare was palpable. Forcing insurance companies to take on unfunded liabilities – not even “risks” in the case of pre-existing conditions – had driven the premiums for regular clients through the roof. Obama’s explicit pledge that, if you were happy with your present insurance you could keep it, it’ll be just as good and won’t cost any more, was a deliberate lie, more than a match for anything from the present president. One chap showed me documentation which confirmed that his premium had almost trebled for a policy that was now so “crappy” that his physician refused to accept it and he was forced to pay from his savings. “Affordable” care meant that he couldn’t afford worthwhile insurance but was legally bound to pay for a policy that was all but worthless. Clearly, multimillionaires like Obama and Clinton felt no pain, while the freeloaders loved it, but it was a nightmare for many families.
    There was some debate as to why the Democrats couldn’t find a more attractive candidate than Clinton. Part of the reason seemed to be that the most likely people had lost their various seats due to the unpopularity of Obamacare. Clearly, the present proposals for reform need revision but, before the next election, Republican lawmakers will need to do something if they wish to retain their own voters.


    • Avatar
      March 30, 2017

      I think you miss the point. The Democrats fell into the trap of pursuing a reform devised essentially by the Heritage Foundation, Obama being part neoliberal and thinking he was playing Republicans at their own game. In effect it left the Republicans denouncing their own creation, albeit tied to Obama.

      The big mistake is that the New Democrats abandoned the simplicity of NHI (and in Obama’s case, the public option) and ended up with the current mess. It is really a pimple on s boil.
      Blame Hillary Clinton really. She first went down this road