Trump’s Cultural Revolution

This week Donald Trump announced an immigration ban on citizens from several major Middle Eastern, Muslim majority countries. Not, it’s worth adding, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey – the west’s key allies in the region. This extended to citizens of these countries with pre-existing rights to live and work in the USA being turned back at the border upon reentry, away from their homes and families.

Many people are understandably furious about this aggressive and probably futile (in terms of its effect on immigration and terrorism) policy decision. Despite the fact it was instantly enacted at airports, its been highlighted as illegal, unconstitutional and unlikely to be upheld by the courts or the Senate.

But people are already speculating that reducing immigration or even tackling terrorism is not the point of this policy decision. If the policy is overturned that is irrelevant to its main aim. The attorney general has already lost her job because of her resistance to this move and that, many speculate, is the real point. By inciting political havoc, Trump creates an environment in which he can make sweeping changes to the structure of the state and claim to be justified in doing so. People point out that his far-right head of strategy, Steven Bannon is likely to be behind such a coup, as he is already fluent in the art of misdirection and manipulation from his days at the head of extreme right wing  online publication Breitbart.

I believe there is a historical analogy to what we’re seeing unfold before us. Partly in the way the Trump/Clinton campaign split American voters along a fault line and the way Trump encouraged his followers to dominate and demean their opponents , but also in the way Trump is bypassing the machinery of state to make unilateral declarations of policy – declarations such as this one that begin to take effect spontaneously, without due process, causing political chaos in process.


Let us go back to the newly formed People’s Republic of China. It is the mid 1960s and
after a series of economic and humanitarian disasters during the period known as “the great leap forward”, the thinking of Mao Tse Tung and his close band of followers had become a minority position within the increasingly moderate Communist Party of China.

Although officially discrediting Mao would risk undermining the legitimacy of the entire regime (a problem faced by today’s “moderate” Republicans), he was subtly pushed aside by his own party – allowed to remain a figurehead, but cut off from serious influence on policy by the massive bureaucracy, which was firmly under the control of the party moderates.

Speaking directly to disaffected students, who had been taught to believe in a revolutionary Communist movement but only ever experienced the Party as a mundane administrative machine, Mao’s unilateral declaration of Cultural Revolution in 1965 incited huge swathes of the population to symbolic acts of violence and rebellion against “corrupt” officials and “decadent” liberal intellectuals. This violence was not, as his followers believed, designed to fix the problem of counter-revolution and reactionary class enemies, but to create enough social chaos that he could seem justified in overruling the structures and legal framework of his own party and assume complete control.

Have Trump and Bannon been studying Maoism? Highly unlikely. Have they found themselves, like Mao, at the head of a great state machine that is actively resistant to their ideas? Certainly. My view is that, like Mao, their stated aims and their true intentions are wildly different. We think we’re looking at acts of racially charged cultural reform, but we’re in fact witnessing the beginning of the militant consolidation of domestic political power.



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