Abrief list of the “known unknowns” suggests Donald Trump’s presidency will not survive 12 months. We know that a grand jury has been sitting for weeks, with the power of subpoena, to consider evidence of Kremlin involvement in the Trump campaign. We know that Donald Jr received an emailfrom an intermediary offering a meeting as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”, and that, when this became public, the president personally dictated a false account of that meeting.
The scenario being touted in Democrat circles is that Trump tries and fails to sack Mueller, one or more suspects gets immunity and the beans are spilled. Trump then either resigns or is impeached. Mike Pence becomes president. Only then do we get to know what the rightwing billionaires behind the project really want. Because Trump was never their first pick: for the first six months of his campaign, the main elite donor to the Trump campaign was Donald J Trump himself. It was only when the religious conservative Ted Cruz failed to ignite the masses that ultra-rightwing business money switched to Trump.
Even then the Koch brothers, who have funded rightwing pressure groups to the tune of $400m (£307m), kept their distance until their ally Pence was installed as Trump’s running mate. If Pence becomes president it will be the true moment of revelation. All the 3am garbage tweeted by Trump, all the waffle that comes out of his mouth at rallies, will be seen as the surrealist prologue to the main event. But what is the main event?
In fact, there are two distinct but overlapping rightwing projects in the US. One, most clearly associated with the Koch brothers, is best described by its adopted euphemism: “income defence”. It sees every dollar of the US’s $19tn debt as a future claim on the profits of private enterprise; it wants low taxation and – as Trump backer Robert Mercer is once reported to have said – a state “shrunken down to the size of a pinhead”. Above all, it wants the removal of regulations on big business, including the minimum wage, which denies the poorest people in America the “opportunity for earned success”, in the words of the Kochs’ top strategist.
The libertarian project is characterised by its relentless focus on economics. Just as neoliberal ideology reduces all humans to homo economicus, the Koch ideology does not really care about ethnicity, statehood or private vices. It can live with the rights of black people, prisoners, migrants and marijuana smokers.
The other side of far-right ideology, by contrast, wants a repressive state, imposed conservative social norms and – if necessary – an eviscerated constitution to achieve it. If we analyse Trump through his actions, rather than his garbled words, it is political illiberalism that has won out during the first seven months of his presidency. When a judge blocked his Muslim immigration ban, he attacked the judiciary’s constitutional role. When the press revealed malfeasance, he labelled them “enemies of the American people”. When James Comey refused Trump’s appeals for “loyalty”, he was sacked.
Before Christmas, it is likely the US ultra-right elite will be faced with a choice: stick with Trump, corralled behind a wall of former generals and hamstrung by a potential impeachment. Or switch to the plan as it was in early 2016 – a socially conservative, libertarian presidency headed by Pence.
As we watch it unfold from Britain, one parallel with our own situation becomes obvious. In both countries, an elite group has forced a proactive break with globalisation: “America first” and Brexit are both attempts to save national free-market projects at the expense of ditching multilateral systems and rules.
But once the external constraint is ditched, the modern right has this unresolved dilemma: the levels of economic freedom it wants always produce levels of discontent that require political freedom to be curtailed. The Brexit-boosting types here and the Steve Bannon types in the US share a fantasy about the kind of market-driven society they want to live in, but can see no way to achieve it other than through a period of chaos.
What they created, between June and November 2016, was two unstable democracies – unstable not because their institutions are weak but because their elites are divided and political liberalism directionless. Neither impeaching Trump nor putting Brexit on the backburner solves this fundamental problem.