THR Web Features   /   January 14, 2021

Is Trumpism Marxism?

On the dangerous absurdity of political caricature.

Ronald Osborn

( Karl Marx, public domain; President Donald Trump/Montinique Monroe/Getty Images.)

In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill insurrection of January 6, there is a need to critically examine not only the crude lies and incitements of the former president that stoked the violence even as it was unfolding, but also the more sophisticated rhetoric of those intellectuals who for the past four years have also fanned the flames that now threaten to engulf the nation.

One of the ten most-read Quillette articles of 2020, for example, was Yoram Hazony’s “The Challenge of Marxism.” In the essay, Hazony, who is chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and the author of The Virtue of Nationalism, claims that Marxists in the United States have “conquered the universities, the media, and major corporations,” and threaten to soon “bring democracy in America to an end.” For those who already share Hazony’s belief that Marxism is everywhere on the move, his article will no doubt confirm their worst fears, helping them to detect the specter of Karl Marx behind virtually every progressive agenda and movement (from Black Lives Matter, to “cancel culture,” to even the term “progressivism” itself). And if the perils to freedom and democracy are indeed as grave as Hazony claims, virtually any action—including violent attacks on elected officials—might arguably be justified in response. Yet Hazony’s anti-Marxism ironically bears its own striking resemblance to Marxian ideology.

Together with Marx, Hazony sees the present social order through a lens of a Manichean moral dualism, albeit one in which the forces of good and evil have been reversed from Marx’s script. It is progressives and Leftists who are the actual oppressing class, while conservatives and their allies are the heroic saviors of history. The stakes in the conflict are of epochal if not apocalyptic significance. “No free nation will be spared this trial.”

Like much Marxian theory, Hazony’s thesis is not subject to empirical falsification. Marx himself made risky, falsifiable predictions about history. When his predictions failed to materialize, his followers abandoned his prophecies and adapted his theories to fit new circumstances. Like Marx’s later followers, Hazony presents his arguments at a level of generality that can account for any new evidence whatsoever. No conceivable new data will disprove Hazony’s claim that radical Marxism is an omnipresent threat.  His essay offers a flexible paradigm through which to interpret social and political realities, not a testable theory in any rigorous scientific or social scientific sense.

“Marxism” for Hazony is not about Marx’s actual economic theories but about a malleable “political framework.”  The Marxist “framework,” in Hazony’s telling, has four elements. First, the political order can be divided into two broad groups or “classes”: the oppressors and the oppressed. The former wield power through the institutions of the state. The latter are endlessly exploited for their labor. Second, this system is sustained, according to Marx, by an ideological apparatus that generates “false consciousness”—a blindness to the truth—among both oppressors and oppressed alike. Third, the solution to these problems is class struggle and the violent overthrow of the oppressors by the downtrodden masses. Finally, Marxism predicts that once the oppressed class rises up and seizes control of the state there will be an end to class struggle. Justice will finally prevail. “How this is to be done,” Hazony notes, “is not specified.”

All of these basic tenets of orthodox Marxism are clear enough. They are necessary in any description of Marx’s theories. But are they sufficient?

According to Hazony, “any political or intellectual movement that is built upon Marx’s general framework as I’ve just described it” is “Marxist” by definition. The four postulates, though, can allegedly be detached from Marx’s specific theories. It matters little to Hazony that most contemporary liberals and progressives in the United States do not read Marx and make no use of classical Marxian concepts of class struggle, alienation, labor theory of value, or commodity fetishism. Any worldview that sees society as locked in a struggle between two opposing groups with unequal power, for example, broadly corresponds with the first of the four elements in the “Marxist framework.”

Armed with this expansive and elastic definition, Hazony has little trouble detecting a metastasizing “Marxism” in virtually every sphere of American life. Movements that frame their struggles in racial or gender rather than in class terms are nonetheless “Marxist.” Progressives who explicitly disavow Marxism and socialism in favor of other values are deluding themselves or others—they are also “Marxists.” The “major corporations” that espouse progressive values in their marketing campaigns and in their workspaces are, yes, “Marxists.” One can be a Marxist, it turns out, while at the same time being a capitalist titan of industry or without knowing it. This is Hazony’s own version of the Marxian notion of “false consciousness.” Contemporary progressivism in virtually all its forms, he writes, is “simply an updated Marxism.”

We “have entered a new phase in American history,” Hazony concludes, echoing Marx’s notion that history proceeds through clear phases or stages of struggle. In this “new phase,” the “Marxist conquest of liberal institutions” is already more or less complete, as is obvious for all who have eyes to see. 

The primary evidence offered by Hazony of the triumph of “Marxism” would cause Marx himself great puzzlement. “Until 2016, America still had two legitimate political parties,” Hazony declares, but this ended after the election of Donald Trump as progressives abandoned the democratic project once and for all. The “talk of his being ‘authoritarian’ or ‘fascist,’” Hazony writes (presumably referring to such well known Marxists as George F. Will, David Frum, and Anne Applebaum), “was used to discredit the traditional liberal point of view, according to which a duly elected president, the candidate chosen by half the public through constitutional procedures, should be accorded legitimacy.”

This “delegitimizing” of Donald Trump by progressives, who have “seized control of the means of producing and disseminating ideas in America,” spells the death of democracy. The two-party system will soon be replaced by a totalitarian, Marxist form of government unless it is stopped by conservatives and those few remaining traditional liberals who have been aroused from their stupor and refuse to “submit to the Marxists.”

Reductio Ad Absurdum

How rationally coherent are these claims? There is, to be sure, a need to critique Marxism and to trace the lines that run from some of Marx’s ideas to the bloodletting that has historically followed every attempt to construct a communist utopia based upon his doctrines. I have made this critique in both book and article form. But criticism of harmful ideologies—whether Marxian or other—is not well served by Hazony’s sweeping, reductionistic, and alarmist claims about virtually all progressive movements as being somehow Marxist.

Leaving aside the fact that Donald Trump was not chosen by “half the public” in 2016 (which posed a serious democratic, not Marxian, dilemma of political legitimacy for the Republican Party), we must ask whether Hazony is consistent in the application of his reasoning. In 2008, did he speak out forcefully against the delegitimizing of President Obama by birther conspiracy theorists led chiefly by then-citizen Trump? Does he now argue that the unprecedented and unparalleled delegitimizing of President Biden’s victory by Trump and his supporters proves that Trumpism is also Marxism? 

Perhaps Hazony thinks that liberal delegitimizing of Trump (no matter the fact that Hillary Clinton conceded defeat on the night of the 2016 election) is “Marxist” because it is part of a leftist attempt to destroy democracy and establish one-party rule, whereas conservative delegitimizing of Obama and Biden is entirely different in kind since the elections of Obama and Biden were, well, somehow not legitimate. Any such equivocating will be convincing only to those who are already true believers. In the words of Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, “It is not true—and it never was true—that this election was stolen. That’s why such a charge was never even made in any court of law, where perjury penalties would hold, but only in social media streams and demagogic rallies. No matter what one wanted to happen in the election, as the saying goes, ‘facts don’t care about your feelings.’”

It is a plain fact that delegitimizing is a tactic that has been widely deployed by politicians and pundits of all stripes for a long time, although never before has a sitting president refused to concede defeat in defiance of democracy and the Constitution itself.

According to the ancient canons of logic, an argument is sound only if its terms are clear, its propositions true, and its reasoning valid. The definition of a term is only clear if it is coextensive with what it seeks to define. It cannot be either too broad or too narrow, and it cannot be negative or circular. It will not do, for example, to define “Marxism” as simply any ideology whatsoever that is not conservative (or not conservative enough). Nor will it do to define “Marxism” in a way that makes it indistinguishable from a host of other ideologies that are not Marxian in obvious and consequential ways.

To test the adequacy and the coherence of Hazony’s argument, we might adopt his framework definition of Marxism and apply it, reductio ad absurdum, to the question posed above: Is Trumpism Marxism? What happens if we merely substitute “Trumpism” (and related terms) for “Marxism” (and related terms), while leaving the structure and reasoning of the argument otherwise intact? If it turns out that the terms “Trumpism” and “Marxism” are, without much effort, fully interchangeable, then there is a high probability that either: a) the argument is vacuous, or b) Trumpism is indeed Marxism. I leave it to readers to decide which of these two possibilities is correct based upon the following revised paragraphs from Hazony’s original article (an exercise that can easily be extended through the entirety of his essay):

  1. Oppressor and oppressed: Trumpism argues that America is made up of two cohesive groups: “real,” “hard-working” Americans on the one hand (primarily concentrated in rural areas), and the rootless cosmopolitans and coastal elites of both parties who dominate and exploit their labor on the other. A liberal political order (whether governed by Democrats or Republicans) tends toward two distinct classes, one of which owns and controls pretty much everything and occupies the commanding heights of Wall Street, Hollywood, and Washington (the oppressors); while the other is endlessly alienated from the fruits of its labor (the oppressed). In addition, Trumpism sees the “Deep State,” its laws and its mechanisms of enforcement, as a tool that the oppressor class (“the elites”) uses to keep the regime of oppression in place.
  2. False consciousness: Trumpism recognizes that the businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and intellectuals who keep this system of oppression in place are often unaware that they are the oppressors. What the ruling elites think of as progress, however, has only established new conditions of oppression. (Trade agreements are enacted in the name of prosperity but harm the working class; environmental regulations promise health and safety but destroy jobs; liberals claim to value tolerance but instead seek to eradicate free speech with their codes of political correctness, etc.) Indeed, even the hard-working or “blue collar” class may not grasp the depths of their oppression. This is because they still think in terms of traditional liberal categories (e.g., they imagine that people can improve their lot through trade unions, or through the electoral process, or by embracing political correctness). False consciousness thus obscures the systematic oppression and domination of the “real” Americans by the elites, but “the system” is “totally rigged.” Ignorance of reality is called, in Trumpian terminology, believing the fake news. False consciousness is overcome only when one develops a new revolutionary consciousness through alternative media (the work of the vanguards), which unmasks the cultural mechanisms of oppression.
  3. Revolutionary reconstitution of society: Trumpism says that the oppressed class or “real” Americans can improve their material conditions only through social upheaval. The ruling elites of both major parties must be toppled in order to usher in a new golden age, which will also be a return to a lost golden age. The battle to defeat the oppressors is referred to as “draining the swamp.” There is currently an ideological civil war raging within American society. (“Folks, I’m gonna tell you, these next four months are gonna be a veritable war like we have not seen”—Rush Limbaugh.) This ideological war might soon become an actual war, at which point there can be no compromise and all will be forced to choose a side. The “real” Americans must be heavily armed, “standing by” to forcibly storm the legislatures in states with democratically elected but irredeemably corrupt liberal governors. Indeed, the revolution might already be upon us. As a result of the “stolen election,” Trump should perhaps “declare a limited form of Martial Law, and temporarily suspend the Constitution and civilian control of these federal elections” (Michael Flynn). All those who have “stabbed the president in back”—the class traitors who are Republicans in Name Only—must be punished for their betrayal and for their crimes against “the people.” As insurrectionists chanted as they trawled the halls of the Capitol with metal pipes and zip ties in their hands, “Hang Mike Pence!”
  4. Total disappearance of class antagonisms: Once the vanguards who speak for the oppressed class secure full control of government (and root out the last holdovers of “the Deep State” once and for all), the nation will achieve a new dawn of unprecedented prosperity and military might. Taxes will be cut, federal budgets raised, and the national debt eliminated—all at the same time. Racial tensions will dissipate because “MAGA loves the black people,” while monuments to the Confederacy will also be protected from the Marxist mobs. Corruption and rent-seeking will recede as “the swamp” is drained. Money will flow into the president’s private business empire from the foreign diplomats and lobbyists who book rooms at his hotels. This is not corrupt. It is smart. Socialist Obamacare will be repealed and replaced, and there will be a new healthcare policy that provides, as the president has said, “insurance for all.” Millions of illegal immigrants will be deported. Immigrants from Muslim lands will be banned and religious liberty will be protected. A colossal physical wall will be built across the southern border without any expense to the American people. Traditional values and virtues will be restored. People will understand that whether or not the president paid hush money to a porn star on the eve of his election is a private matter of no public consequence. The ruling party will win repeated landslide elections because of its overwhelming popularity with “the people.” Only millions of fraudulent votes can ever defeat the party of “the people.”  In Trumpism, all of the internal contradictions of history will be resolved. America will be great again and again.

How any of this is to be achieved is not specified.