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There has been much said in the media about Donald Trump’s “populism”, alleged by some to be the primary tool enabling him to do an end-run round both the Democrats and the establishment of his own party in the recent presidential election.
The combination of this populism with an anti-establishment stance during Trump’s campaign–the latter has so far not been translated into reality, witness Trump’s cabinet of billionaires, his planned abolition of the Dodd-Frank regulation of Wall Street, and so forth– recalls a figure from a different time and political context, namely, Margaret Thatcher.
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall coined the term “authoritarian populism” to define Thatcherism as the project of undermining the British post-war settlement between labour and capital, by mobilizing a right-wing popular movement aimed at strengthening the state. This fusion of the popular and the authoritarian state would then be turned against the post-war settlement.
Hall had his critics, most notably Bob Jessop, a social theorist influenced by Nicos Poulantzas, who said that “Thatcherism must be seen less as a monolithic monstrosity and more as an alliance of disparate forces around a self-contradictory programme”.
To an extent both Hall and Jessop are right (which is not to say that their positions can be reconciled). Thatcher did aim to destroy the post-war settlement and to strengthen the state, and this effort, despite a considerable measure of success, was also deeply self-contradictory. In fact, it owed its success to its self-contradictory nature.
Thatcher, like her pal Reagan, made an awful lot of noise about “small government” and the need to “reduce the state”, when in fact the state was the primary instrument of her gleichschaltung (a buzz-word in recent weeks with regard to Trump-Bannon, though several of us were using it in the 1980s to describe Thatcher’s project).
Thatcher used the centralized state to wipe out entire tiers of local government; to spy on her critics; to defang trade unions; to dismantle manufacturing industry; to work-round the boycott of apartheid South Africa; to fight the IRA at a time when many reasonable people, including a handful in her own party, realized that only a negotiated settlement could resolve the Irish “troubles”; to obstruct German reunification; to enrich her husband Denis and their wastrel son Mark; to undertake the neocolonial task of repossessing the Malvinas Islands after they had been seized by Argentina; to reduce spending on education; to administer her programme of privatizing publicly-owned enterprises; to deregulate the financial sector (with the disastrous consequences that have been evident since 2008); and so on.
The state, duly reinforced by her in areas that abetted her project and weakened in those that did not, was thus central to Thatcher’s project.
The signs are that the state and its appurtenances will be just as indispensable to the grey eminences around Trump, the latter being a front-man who will leave policy (aka “details”) to be crafted by Bannon and his aides.
In all other respects, though, and ideological orientation aside, Thatcher and Trump diverge significantly. By all accounts Thatcher was a ferocious micromanager, something the impulsive and erratic Trump is not. Trump’s obvious forte is showmanship, not micromanagement.
Then there is the matter of intelligence– Thatcher was no intellectual, but she could at least develop and express a consistent line of thought, an ability which eludes Trump.
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