I almost titled this “Donald Trump and the Expectations of American Power”. Just as you could title anything in the last decade “Harry Potter and X” and have it be an instant hit, so too does placing a “Donald Trump and” in front of things currently buy you top billing in today’s media culture. There are several things I have seen being called “The Trump Effect” in recent weeks, from electoral surprises to proliferation of fake news to name-calling as discourse. But I think the biggest Trump Effect I see is his ability to crowd out the landscape of all other news, all other possible things to consider and report on. This impacts me as I consider what resolutions to set in debate practice or what to post about here (I’m not claiming to be an exception – scroll down and you will see Trump’s dominance in the last 18 months). A couple weeks ago, the BBC World Service overnight broadcast on NPR which makes my between-rides soundtrack when driving Uber was joking about how all their headlines were about Trump and they were scrolling to try to find one to report on that didn’t involve him just to break up the monotony.
And look, it’s explicable. Donald Trump’s election is perhaps the most unexpected event in American history since 9/11. And for a long time, American history has been offered as a proxy for world history, so that’s a pretty significant event. And it’s making people feel like they have no idea what his presidency will look like, other than a series of surprises, and that’s creating a bunch of uncertainty. And boy, do people, especially Americans, hate uncertainty!
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last month contemplating why I feel so disconnected from most of my friends on the political left in the wake of this election. It’s not like I like Trump or supported him, so I’m certainly not excited about his presidency. I already spent a couple thousand words on this subject a fortnight ago and illustrated how my extreme leftism helps keep me apart from mainline Democrats who are convinced that Trump is a disaster but Obama and Clinton have/would have had great policies. But I’m realizing that the issue is more fundamental than that. It’s really about the expectations one has of the uses of American power in the world. The thing that separates me from most people doomsaying Trump is not necessarily that I’m to their left, though that could be a contributing factor. It’s that most of these people fundamentally expect American power can and will be used for good. I can’t remember the last time I thought that. And that creates a huge divide indeed.
If you believe that American power is generally deployed as a force for good around the globe, liberating people, spreading justice, and serving as a positive model, then Trump’s election is indeed a shocking break with precedent. It’s true that Trump is going to do a lot of objectively bad things with American power, from making racist, sexist, and xenophobic statements to trying to make America more discriminatory and jingoistic to aligning and allying with bad actors to beefing up “law and order” policies to setting back environmental regulations. Lamenting the onset of Trump’s planned wielding of power to these and other ends is reasonable. But it’s only really reasonable on the scale of magnitude that I see if you think this a major shift from the way things have been. And, sorry, but I don’t.
Honestly, every time I’ve agreed with an American policy or felt it was a positive influence in the world in the last twenty years has been something of a shock for me. It’s been a surprise akin to the one most Americans felt when the media finally called the election for DJT. Most of these have come in the last two years and I think I can count the total in two decades on my two hands. Opening up Cuba, though it was painfully slow and meek. The Iran nuclear deal. The Syria chemical weapons deal. And I’m already running out of material.
Truth is, I expect American power to be used to abuse the rest of the world and, frankly, most Americans, regularly, as a matter of course. My baseline expectation is that American power is a force for grievous ill in the world, made more grievous by its self-adulating aggrandizement as being a force for good. The United States peddles influence and perpetuates a corporatist agenda with every move it makes at home and abroad, spreading its imperial tentacles into every corner of the globe and naming all resistance as backwards at best and terrorism at worst. If you’re about to virulently disagree with me, I really suggest you read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine before constructing your refutation, because even I’m shocked by its content (about 2/3 of the way through at present) and I’m one of the most cynical people about America who’s still a citizen. And it’s all the more shocking for pre-dating the further corporatist consolidation that came in 2008 and beyond through the financial crisis.
This issue really comes to a head when it comes to matters like security briefings for Donald Trump. DJT says he doesn’t want daily briefings and the Facebook public goes into a histrionic tailspin. Really, guys? What do you think America does with security briefings that are so important and good? Security briefings are ways of deciding who the US will personally assassinate today without warrant or trial, who we will scapegoat to the public so there can be backlash and recrimination, what covert operations we can conduct in foreign lands to fulfill the corporate state’s mandate. Skipping a few of these is not only perhaps my favorite thing about Trump (please note: I still do not like Trump), it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever heard about a US President.
And yes, I know Trump will still promulgate a corporatist and probably overly militarist agenda during his term(s) in office. But so did every President of my lifetime, with the possible very slight exception of Jimmy Carter, who presided over the first eleven months (exactly) of my lifetime. This is normal. This is normal.
Not normal, I guess, is saying he’ll open up relations with Taiwan. But this is what you want to get hot and bothered about? Really? I have been unable to see this news story without thinking, feeling, knowing that if Obama were talking about a two-China policy, every liberal friend I have would be crowing about his brave sense of justice and speaking truth to power. And like, yes, I get that you think Obama is smarter than Trump (he is) and that this means you trust him more to handle this situation. But it does not change the principle of the idea. Just because you think one person would handle the situation better does not change a good idea into a bad one or vice versa. It is so strange and almost cognitively dissonant to watch the same people decry Trump’s coziness with Putin and warn that he’s courting war by standing up to China. It makes me feel like opposing Trump regardless of situation or issue is all that matters.
Which, of course, is buoyed by what many people have explicitly said. This is the camp that believes Trump is, in fact, American Hitler, that it’s about to be the Reichstag fire, and that if we don’t fight literally everything the President-Elect thinks, says, and does, we will soon be trampled underfoot. My objection to this is less that I think it’s impossible (I do find it highly improbable) and more that I think Trump just clearly doesn’t depart that much from his predecessors. Obama famously expanded the scope and scale of Presidential powers vastly, especially around the key issue of enacting war and violence on the rest of the world. This was just following suit from W Bush, who used 9/11 to enact changes that we would call martial law in any other society. None of these changes have been repealed or revoked, save for the dubious claim that we have rolled back some of the worst abuses of the NSA domestic spying program after Snowden exposed it. If Trump is Hitler, the last two Presidents have been Mussolini at best and he’s just here to close the deal.
This also applies to claims about crony capitalism. Read The Shock Doctrine. The Bush administration was an unending reign of crony capitalism, bolstering my long-running claim that the Bushes sought power literally for the sole purpose of enriching themselves and their friends. And while Obama did not literally assign no-bid contracts and bailouts to his close personal friends, he certainly was in the business of picking winners and propping up a corporate agenda. No one in the financial crisis was ever held to account, just as no American war criminals since Vietnam have ever faced so much as a charge. The revolving door between financial regulation and Goldman Sachs just kept spinning. Rhetoric throughout Obama’s eight years continued to prop up the notion that the primary purpose of the President was to manually create jobs and grow businesses, no matter the overhead cost. The Carrier deal and other conflicts of business interest Trump will perpetuate in his term(s) may be slightly more aggressive in degree, but seem no different in kind from the stated purpose of American politics since Reagan: help corporations so they can replace government in providing for the American people.
What are these great uses of American power that I’m missing? What are you so sad Trump will not be doing that you feel previous Presidents have done that do good for people at home and abroad?
The environmental argument is maybe the one thing I really get. Obama broke with all prior precedents (and Presidents) in occasionally taking climate change and environmental concerns seriously. It was only very occasional and very slight, as he advocated Keystone (for 99% of the time it was an issue), “clean coal” (I can only assume it’s from the same place that Volkswagen got “clean diesel”), and the Dakota Access Pipeline. He did support the last climate agreement and he once in a while talked a good empty game about getting tough on pollution. Trump will probably do tangible damage here, though if the models are even close to right, any “environmental” policy that doesn’t dismantle capitalism is deck chairs on the Titanic. But I know the “first take your foot off the accelerator” argument and there’s probably something to that. Simultaneously, though, there’s something insidious about only lightly tapping the accelerator and passing that off as slamming the brakes. Like so many things, at least there will be widespread opposition to a slightly worse version of policy than no leftist opposition at all.
But I think the biggest issue is how tied to American Exceptionalism these positive expectations of American power are. Because if you really want Trump to go to these security briefings, to appoint more competent people to run the Defense Department and the NSA (and the CIA and the FBI and the DHS and good lord do we have a lot of ways to be scared of other people), to take more traditional approaches to foreign capitals, then well, what do you really want? Because those are all things that beef up American imperialism, that bolster our ability to control and manipulate other people, making their lives worse while trying to improve our society’s standing. Is that really what you want? And why? Is it just naked selfishness? Or do you really believe that somehow the US, who interfered with almost every democratic election in the last six decades worldwide and often overthrew the ones they couldn’t rig with military dictatorships, is going to do more good than harm?
If Trump takes steps, through incompetence or deliberate destruction, to reduce American power and influence, great. American hegemony has been terrible for the planet and worse for its people. Let’s give some other folks a try, or at least balance out the power a little so some new, non-corporatist ideas get a shot. If you think even Trump needs to do everything possible to consolidate and build American power, then what are you really rooting for?