Could US capitalism turn nationalist?

Trump’s nationalism is clear, but is US capitalism turning nationalist too? Addressing this question, Richard D Wolff traces the possible responses open to capitalism as it confronts nationalism.

THE Trump administration has turned sharply towards economic nationalism. It attacks and undermines the World Trade Organization, NATO and the UN. Trump and other top officials explicitly insult many world leaders. He imposes high tariffs. Official statements renew and sustain Cold War-type attacks on China, Venezuela, Cuba and Iran. Trump flirts openly with nationalists who also stress white supremacy and anti-Muslim activity.

The Trump regime defines its nationalism largely negatively by focusing on three components: Obama, Obamacare and globalisation. These are what it blames most for what ails US society, for the ‘un-Americanism’ that it most opposes.

The Trumpian opposition wraps itself in thin ‘philosophical’ rationales. One of those is racism expressed through an obsessive rejection of Obama and all things Obamian. The racism must simultaneously be explicitly denied the better to cover its implicit, repetitive operation. The second is a primitive libertarianism. It rejects Obamacare as government intrusion upon individual liberty. The third (derived in part from ideologues like Steve Bannon) is a rejection of globalisation. This emerges from Trump’s hostility towards immigrants and China and also his many invocations of ‘America first’.

Trump’s nationalism is clear, but is US capitalism turning nationalist too?

Broadly, US employers neither think nor care much about racism. Some use it to divide employees, keep them from unifying around workplace issues, labour unions, unwanted political initiatives, etc. Most ignore it unless and until gross racism brings victims and anti-racists into the street in ways that threaten their commerce or the economic status quo. Then lip service against racism flows. Corporations make mostly cosmetic adjustments hyped by major public relations efforts. At best, a few genuine, usually marginal improvements are achieved in racial integration and the excruciatingly slow decline of institutional racism.

US employers care less about Obamacare. They know and appreciate that it was a compromise endorsed by the medical-industrial complex. On the one hand, they worry a bit, as usual, about enhancing the government’s position in private health-care markets. But also as usual, when government intervention profits private capitalists, they are very interested and supportive. If Obamacare can help shift health-care costs from employers onto the general public and onto employees, most employers will support it. Once again, fickle corporate support for laissez-faire, conservative, libertarian ideals can and will irritate the advocates of those ideologies.

Employers are much more concerned and agitated about the Trump regime’s turn towards economic nationalism. It threatens the profitability of the already-huge US corporate investments in the production of goods and services overseas and in global supply lines. It risks advantaging foreign competitors in overseas markets over US multinationals active or interested there.

Globalisation meant profit-making capitalism practised internationally (with limited government intervention) by private capitalist corporations, state capitalist enterprises, and partnerships between and among them. The beneficiaries of globalisation lament when nationalist economic policies disrupt global supply lines, provoke trade and tariff ‘wars’, and rationalise government attacks on individual corporations. US multinationals may allocate donations to Trump vs. Biden, GOP vs. Dems – and likewise their vast media spending – according to what best supports the globalisation they favour.

So far, the Trump regime has wobbled ambivalently between base-pleasing nationalist rhetoric and a necessary subservience to globalised US capitalism. The regime hoped that a massive profit-oriented corporate tax cut in late 2017 would buy global corporations’ acquiescence in a nationalist turn. That hope has not been realised. Instead, we have herky-jerky Trump policy. First it promises global compromise and resurgent world trade and investment, then it rails against untrustworthy, evil trade and investment partners. It raises and lowers both tariffs and threats to impose tariffs, often in dizzying sequence.

Only parts of the US business community are focused exclusively on the domestic market or do not depend on imported inputs. Those parts remain too small by themselves to sustain a Trump turn to nationalism. Consider one statistic: tariffs as a share of the value of US imports fell from almost 50% right after the Civil War to 1.2% in 2008. The protectionism so central to economic nationalism was largely abandoned across recent US history. Therefore, the political project of shifting the United States towards economic nationalism poses a heavy lift for any government. The key question becomes whether enough US corporations might change their many-layered investments in globalisation and become backers of a nationalist turn.

The answer hinges on capitalist competition. US corporations’ competitive growth opportunities since the 1970s focused heavily on technical change and foreign investments in the context of increasing free-trade globalisation. Telecommunications, the Internet, social media, robots and artificial intelligence continue to drive very profitable industries. Relocating formerly US-based production abroad and producing for fast-growing foreign markets have been and are very profitable. Globalisation has been the reality and the consequent policy imperative especially over the last half-century.

But the US global capitalist leadership of the last 50 years is now ebbing. A recent Foreign Affairs article flatly declares that US hegemony is now ending and ‘isn’t coming back’. China is the chief competitor, but other countries too are fielding or threatening soon to field effective competitors. If a US multinational is losing its competitive edge in a global market, it might support nationalist measures giving it privileged, discriminatory access to a still-large US market. US multinationals might be willing to leave to others the competition to capture a fast-growing Chinese market if those US firms got privileged access, via nationalism, to a slower-growing US market and/or if US-China hostilities sharpen. If a nationalist turn in US policy were combined with massive new US government subsidies and further tax cuts for US multinationals, the latter might support that nationalist policy turn. If they did, it would signal a high degree of US corporate desperation.

A nationalist turn in the United States would provoke more or less matching and retaliatory nationalist turns elsewhere. In that case, all participating countries would likely lose economically. The world’s other major economies – their business communities and their leading politicians – are watching closely as Trump’s foreign trade and investment policies evolve. They hesitate to incur the large costs of possible nationalist turns inside their countries. They are waiting to see if what Trump has so far done ambiguously will harden into the dominant US policy over the coming years, with or without Trump. A Biden victory might abandon the nationalist turn and renew the largely pro-globalisation consensus before Trump. Then again, if confronted with corporate pressures the other way, centrist Democrats would likely bend.

Perhaps the plan (even if not yet explicit and conscious) is to rebuild US hegemony. This time ‘multilateralism’ would not be the mechanism that sustained it. That worked well over the last 75 years, but it may now be exhausted. A new US nationalism might then aim to subordinate each other part of the world (country or region), bilaterally, as a ‘partner’. Perhaps such a plan could obtain the loyalty of nationalists without compromising the basic interests of globalists.

In short, more than a viral pandemic, a global capitalist crash and climate change weigh on world trade and investment. So too does the question of whether globalised capitalism produced so many victims and critics that it cannot survive no matter how it might be reconfigured. If so, will the consequent transition hold on to capitalism but drop ‘globalisation’ to become instead a tense, dangerous world of contending nationalist capitalisms? Or, alternatively, will we see a transition to a post-capitalist global system of quite differently organised enterprises, political institutions (including nation-states), and movements of productive resources and products across its geography?

Revolutionary possibilities  loom.                                                 

Richard D Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show Economic Update is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at

     The above article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the US-based Independent Media Institute (

*Third World Resurgence No. 345/346, 2020, pp 88-89