“There is something unseemly about a nation conducting a foreign policy that involves it in the affairs of most of the nations of the world while its own domestic needs are neglected or postponed, just as there is something unseemly about an individual carrying all the burdens of the Community Chest and the PTA while his own children run wild and his household is in disarray. There is something fishy about this kind of behaviour, something hidden and unhealthy”. (Senator J. William Fulbright, 1966, p. 134)
“Surely the wars and threats of war already on our horizon would be more than enough for any empire; and our empire, as every thoughtful person knows, is already staggering under the immeasurable loads of debt piled up by America, by our governments, our corporations, our households, our students, and our promises of unlimited benefits in the future. The years of constant combat have exhausted our military. False hopes and vain promises of victory have burnt up the caches of idealism and patriotic commitment with which we began the wars a generation ago. Our forces are worn out, especially the elite warrior units that have been constantly deployed for more than a decade”. (Adam Walinsky, former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, 2016)
Understanding where Donald J. Trump stands on most positions, means going to the roots of his basic personal philosophy. His model for “American Greatness” is intimately tied up, in his words, with his “proven track record in business,” his “well-known success story and record of building residential and office buildings and developing public spaces” (Trump, 2015, pp. xi, 4). An entrepreneur once hailed by the New York Times as a “Comeback King” (with suggestions that he run for office, even decades ago), Trump acknowledges, “I realized that…I could inspire people to help create the most massive turnaround in American history” (2015, p. 4). He calls his way of thinking “practical realism”:
“I talk common sense and practical realism learned from the school of hard knocks. I’ve been there, done that, fought back, and come out on top, and much bigger and stronger than ever before….I survived, and learned so much about how to deal with bad times….I’m a fighter. Knock me down, and I come back even stronger. I love it!”. (Trump, 2015, p. 80)
He is proud of restoring and rebuilding Mar-a-Lago, frequently featured duing his campaign, a property that was previously owned by the US government: “We brought the property back to the greatness it once was—and then made it better! The same can be true of our country” (Trump, 2015, p. 123). When Trump speaks of an American decline, he symbolizes this through, what else, physical infrastructure: “Our airports, bridges, water tunnels, power grids, rail systems—our nation’s entire infrastructure—is crumbling, and we aren’t doing anything about it” (Trump, 2015, pp. 119–120). Finally, Trump makes the ultimate point: “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that stimulates the economy better than construction” (2015, p. 125).
If an analyst does not start with the first principles from which Trump starts, then the analysis inevitably goes astray and becomes increasingly a projection of the analyst. Trump’s basic motif, the foundation of his thinking, is that of the builder, focused on construction and development, of investing in specific places with which he can identify, and of making a heroic comeback. He repeats it often enough. The fighter who comes back from near defeat is a central allegory of much of US popular culture, especially boxing movies (or WWE wrestling, in which Trump participated). No wonder then that such a soaring, throbbing, video as this one—made by Trump supporters—seems to inspire a bruised, humiliated, hurting people looking for a comeback.
If we were to use his terminology, how can Donald Trump make the decline in US global power “beautiful,” and how can he turn withdrawal into “greatness”? This is the truly daunting challenge that any US leader moving to change the current order must confront, while trying to hold off all the damage of a precipitous decline: effecting a transformation while appealing to American pride, speaking through the symbols and values cherished and understood by most, while projecting confidence and pointing to concrete benefits. That is a monumental task. In case it’s not understood: shaming Americans, decrying national pride, diminishing their quality of life, and telling them to suck it up—is not a viable strategy, not for maintenance of the status quo, and even less for taking the US into a post-imperial future. If Trump had not existed, then there would have been a need for history to invent him.
On foreign policy, globalization, and military intervention, Donald Trump is a transitional figure—not much of one thing, not much of another, and somewhere in between. If you agree that the US is an imperial actor (as Steimetz, 2005, does), then Trump would be leading the equivalent of a perestroika for US empire. Trump is offering not so much radical change as an intermediate passage, and a way of managing imperial decline. He does so but without calling the US “imperial,” while he speaks of “decline” in terms of crumbling infrastructure, weakness, getting “ripped off” by wealthy allies, getting cheated by competitors, and losing the respect of adversaries. Trump writes the world has never seen “a more dangerous time”—and unlike a xenophobe, his accusation of the cause of this is not levelled at foreigners: “The so-called insiders within the Washington ruling class are the people who got us into this trouble” (2015, p. 31).
Nowhere, as far as I have seen, does Donald Trump ever proclaim himself an “anti-imperialist”. Apart from using the word “Empire” for one of his fragrances, there is little evidence of the word in his writings and speeches. Likewise, he never identifies himself as “pro-imperialist” either. Donald Trump certainly does advocate for American power, and “American strength,” and even calls himself a militarist on some occasions—but with more caveats than his political adversaries:
“I am the only person on this dais that fought very, very hard against us going into Iraq, because I said going into Iraq—that was in 2003, you can check it out—I’ll give you 25 different stories. In fact, a delegation was sent to my office to see me because I was so vocal about it. I’m a very militaristic person, but you have to know when to use the military. I’m the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq”. (Donald Trump, GOP Debate, September 16, 2015).
In a comparatively objective and comprehensive summation of Trump’s overall foreign policy stance, Jean Bricmont offered the following:
“He is the first major political figure to call for ‘America First’ meaning non-interventionism. He not only denounces the trillions of dollars spent in wars, deplores the dead and wounded American soldiers, but also speaks of the Iraqi victims of a war launched by a Republican President. He does so to a Republican public and manages to win its support. He denounces the empire of US military bases, claiming to prefer to build schools here in the United States. He wants good relations with Russia. He observes that the militarist policies pursued for decades have caused the United States to be hated throughout the world. He calls Sarkozy a criminal who should be judged for his role in Libya. Another advantage of Trump: he is detested by the neoconservatives, who are the main architects of the present disaster”. (Bricmont, 2016)
Previously, I outlined the major points of Donald Trump’s foreign policy and similar to Bricmont, I wrote: “If one had to summarize and synthesize Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions, it looks something like this: he is against the US acting as policeman of the world; against propping up Saudi Arabia; doesn’t really care about Ukraine; declares NATO obsolete; prefers Eisenhower to Reagan; and is against NAFTA, TPP, and other free trade deals”. However, trying to precisely define Donald Trump on imperialism is a tricky task, just as tricky as trying to define imperialism for that matter.
Which Imperialism? Which Class Interests?
There are many different theories of imperialism, and some focus only on singular aspects of action directed abroad. In broad terms, while all theories of imperialism have a very basic common denominator—the use of power to dominate other nations, resulting in extreme asymmetry between dominator and dominated—they diverge on whether to define imperialism as military intervention, political neo-colonization, economic extraction, or directed cultural change (indoctrination, propaganda, assimilation, etc.). Some combine each of these, but with little precision as to whether all or some of these facets must be present to characterize a state or relationship as imperialist, and often discussion about how these facets might interact is limited. At the very least then, according to some definitions, Donald Trump is at least non-imperialist particularly on the cultural and political fronts.
The class interests behind Donald Trump also tell an interesting story. While some of his billionaire friends have lined up to support him, no CEO of any Fortune 100 corporation has backed his campaign. The overwhelming majority of donations from Wall Street banks, hedge funds and financiers like George Soros, and Silicon Valley, have gone to the Democrats. Key firms in the military-industrial complex have likewise sided with Hillary Clinton—and she likes to say “tell me who you walk with, and I will tell you who you are”. Trump’s own vested interests are in tourism, entertainment, and real estate—not exactly the driving forces of the US’ imperial economy, nor any imperial economy in history. Trump’s large donors generally represent the same set of interests: real estate, housing, and casinos—but he has generally not won the support of traditional large GOP donors, and some “mega donors” have instead turned to attacking Trump. The majority of donations come from small donors, and here Trump has smashed all Republican Party records in the volume of such donations received. He is a capitalist, but against the transnational capitalist class’ use of capital flight and speculation. He writes that he is “very concerned about the 46.5 million people living in poverty,” and then perhaps unconsciously ties this to his own grounding in real estate: “the great majority of middle-class Americans…can barely afford their homes or have lost them” (Trump, 2015, p. 81). Trump also denounces financial interests: “I am concerned for the people who can’t buy into the American dream because the financial programs of this country are so tilted in favor of the rich” (Trump, 2015, p. 81). About “hedge fund and money managers,” he writes: “these financial engineers are ‘flipping’ companies, laying people off, and making billions—yes, billions—of dollars by ‘downsizing’ and destroying people’s lives and sometimes entire companies” (Trump, 2015, p. 81). Even the unspoken, experimental lessons he is teaching the public and political elites through his campaign methodology, convey similar points: the encrusted elites’ favourite weapon of pacification and conversion—the advertising industry—has been proven useless and redundant; and—so much for globalization—places still matter (hence his large volume of in-person campaign stops, which make such a splash locally).
Perhaps in the near future, others will take up the interesting task of doing a detailed class analysis of the interests represented by the elite factions and working-class base that constitute his multi-class alliance.
How to Define Trump on Empire?
In developing this assessment I have relied principally on two of Donald Trump’s recent books, plus all of his foreign policy speeches this year, interviews with Trump (especially those concerning foreign policy), transcripts from his debates in the Republican primaries and in the presidential race, and online compilations of his position statements on a multitude of foreign policy issues from over more than two decades. The two books were either timed for release during this campaign, or revised and updated for re-release in 2016: 1) Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (2015); 2) Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again! (2011 ). Crippled America closely resembles Trump’s improvised speeches, as if dictated to a typist, with all of the usual flourishes, “believe me,” and few sources or references; Time to Get Tough, on the other hand, is filled with quotes, references, and footnotes, and more closely resembles his scripted speeches and the policy statements on his campaign’s website.
One reason it can be difficult to define Trump’s position in this respect is that Trump prefers to speak a vernacular language, avoiding the specialist jargon of political analysts. Thus what and how political analysts debate, do not neatly match Trump’s narrative.
Second, it is not likely that he would use terminology which in the US is associated with leftists, and specifically Marxist-Leninists. That is understandable because many, including on the left, forget that “imperialism” as a concept, along with the first theories, did not emanate from leftists, but rather emerged from certain tendencies to be found among Victorian liberals and conservatives (see Proudman, 2008). Trump is all about the greatness of Americana, so he speaks like a “traditional American” to Americans—my own terminology cannot be more precise here, but hopefully the reader can still intuit what this means.
Third, there are multiple competing editions of Donald Trump: what he says or writes on one issue in the 1980s or 1990s, may not be the same as what he says in 2016, but all of the versions remain simultaneously available. Sometimes in trying to articulate a message, Trump seems to be competing against himself. One could play the game of “what you say today is not what you said yesterday” with Trump, and it would be as endless as it would be pointless. There are two reasonable resolutions to this problem: one is that what Trump means, is what Trump says today, and the other is that what Trump has said repeatedly over the years—and has not forgotten the fact that he said it—usually mark the positions he holds most dearly.
Fourth, and this relates to the last point—lacking the political fixity of the professional ideologue—Trump is no drafter of ideological blueprints. He candidly admits to not having time to read, and to reading little as a result. Therefore, efforts by analysts to root his ideas in those of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh (Trump dismisses this association), Dwight Eisenhower, etc., are more reflections and impositions of analysts’ own understandings of the genealogy of certain ideas, rather than uncovering intellectual paths that Trump himself has likely (never) walked. In his speeches, Trump virtually never cites any source of intellectual inspiration, and seems to take particular pride in doing his own thinking, in his own way (something which I personally admire). At some point, analysts will have to decide to judge his thinking for what it is, rather than for what they believe it was. Trump seems to respond to the immediate context, and to the main actors in the dominant political arenas, rather than configurations of past political theories. What he gets as political theory is then likely a highly distilled, reinvented and loosely concocted version that surfaces in contemporary struggles and is often encoded in Hollywood movies, which Trump has likely seen, and which he then remixes and alters to suit his preferences.
What I hope to do here is to explain that where Donald Trump stands in relation to empire is something that is contingent, transitional, and recessional.
By contingent I mean, as I said above, that Trump’s understandings and responses are developed in tune with the immediate social, political, and international contexts. Unlike Barack Obama, Trump is not one to speak or think in grandiose terms of an “arc of history”. Trump is about decisive action, and right now—to hell with the scholar’s script. And not just any action, but action that serves the broad political, economic, and cultural interests of Americans at home. That is the starting point, the constant principle: America First. It is not inherently an imperialist principle, but it could resort to the use of methods most commonly identified with imperialism.
By transitional I mean that Donald Trump is effectively promising a period of perestroika for American empire. There is to be a break with the past—without saying “domination,” “hegemony”, or “empire,” he essentially describes a break with such phenomena, if you can stitch together his diverse statements to form a semi-coherent whole. The future is one that is national, and post-global. He denounces Obama for serving foreign interests—interests that some scholars might call the “transnational capitalist class” whose primary if not exclusive loyalty is to capital (Robinson & Harris, 2000; Sklair, 2001). Globalization and US imperialism are implicitly interconnected in Trump’s plan, because his rejection of “globalism” outright must also mean a cancellation of any US role as a global leader—the opposite of what Obama declared: “no nation should be better positioned to lead in an era of globalization than America—the Nation that helped bring globalization about” (quoted in Forte, 2015, p. 10).
By recessional I mean that “America First” means a coming back home to the US, and by implication shedding any pretence of the US as a world empire. He loudly denounces “globalism,” opposes “America being the world’s policeman,” says he is “not running to be President of the World,” and he condemns both “regime change” and “nation-building”. If he says he believes in “American Exceptionalism” it’s because that sounds good, something like an exceptional America (rather than what the doctrine really means). Otherwise, he has no plans to use “soft power” and no aspirations to “Americanize” the world.
From this point on, I try to spell out Trump’s positioning with reference to particular cases and issues that Trump himself has raised, and with special attention to the two books mentioned above. The sections that follow deal with: China, Russia, Africa, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, ISIS, OPEC, NATO, the military, and globalization and trade. Otherwise, the reader should also feel free to skip ahead to the conclusion.
“There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy,” Trump noted before adding: “But that’s exactly what they are” (2015, p. 43). The China-is-the-enemy argument is possibly one of Trump’s greatest hooks for making his anti-globalization argument:
“They [China] have destroyed entire industries by utilizing low-wage workers, cost us tens of thousands of jobs, spied on our businesses, stolen our technology, and have manipulated and devalued their currency, which makes importing our goods [into their country] more expensive—and sometimes, impossible”. (Trump, 2015, p. 43)
He made the same arguments in his 2011 book: “Despite the happy talk in Washington, the Chinese leaders are not our friends. I’ve been criticized for calling them our enemy. But what else do you call the people who are destroying your children and grandchildren’s future?” (p. 2). Elsewhere he reverses the argument: it’s China who sees the US as the enemy (Trump, 2011, p. 29).
Trump is alarmed by the increasing economic asymmetry between China and the US, where China holds $1.5 trillion in US debt, is the US’ third largest trading partner, and where the US buys 20% of China’s exports (Trump, 2015, pp. 42–44). He also believes that China is undertaking a massive military build-up, while lying about its military expenditures. Trump’s line of attack is almost the classical anti-imperialist one, directed against China. Seeing things from this vantage point, Trump’s fears suggest that US workers have become the colony of global capital, with foreign workers brought in, or making their goods, just as surely as the British policed workers in some of their colonies with men imported from another colony.
Linked to China is Trump’s scathing criticism of Obama, and it also demonstrates how in some respects Trump’s campaign is a direct outgrowth of what he sees as Obama’s betrayals:
“back in 2008 during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was more than happy to sound off on the negative effects of currency manipulation. As a candidate, he even endorsed a bill that would have changed the current law to ‘define currency manipulation as a subsidy subject to the imposition of countervailing duties’. Fast forward to 2011. Today, Obama is all nicey-nice on the subject and engaged in his usual ‘pretty please’ diplomacy with the Chinese. Just listen to what the president is saying now about the Chinese undervaluing their currency to rip us off: ‘So we’ll continue to look for the value of China’s currency to be increasingly driven by the market, which will help ensure no nation has an undue economic advantage’….Is this a joke?” (Trump, 2011, p. 36)
Thus Trump concludes: “We just have to get tough, get smart, and get a president willing to stand up for America and stick it to the Chinese” (2011, p. 39). For all the current denunciation of Trump’s plans for retaliating against China, he notes that the US House of Representatives passed a bill in September 2010, by a vote of 348 to 79, which “would allow our government to calculate taxes on imports based on how much the manufacturing country’s currency is undervalued” (2011, p. 39). In other words, today Trump is being denounced across both of the dominant parties, for a measure which they supported in 2010, and even tried to make into law (but which Obama opposed).
“I’m a fan of fairness. I’m a fan of common sense. I’m certainly not a fan of us being against Russia. Why are we always at the forefront of everything?” (Donald Trump, on Meet the Press, August 17, 2015).
“Why should I tell Putin what to do?” Donald Trump said at the end of July, 2016. Why—because one is expected to issue commands and instructions, if one aspires to become an imperial president (such as Obama and Clinton). As if it were uncovering a sordid pattern of collusion, CNN diligently archived Trump’s quotes on Russia’s Vladimir Putin—the only case they really prove, however, is that a Trump presidency would significantly calm relations and pull back from current escalation which could have the gravest consequences for humanity’s continued existence on this planet. However, as readers already know, a neo-McCarthyite frenzy has taken hold of defenders of the status quo in the US, which if anything certifies them as dangerously irresponsible, making their removal a matter of foremost urgency.
In line with his rhetorical question above, Trump made the following strong statement that is not representative of an imperialist missionary. Instead, it shows that he has no interest in pursuing global dominance and the US-directed creation of a New World Order:
Trump has been quite clear that he would end the US’ dangerous antagonism toward Russia:
“Oh, I would love to have a good relationship where Russia and I, instead of, and us, and the U.S., instead of fighting each other we got along. It would be wonderful if we had good relationships with Russia so that we don’t have to go through all of the drama”.
Acknowledging that Russia is a powerful actor, that pursues its own national interests, Trump seems to ascribe to a realist school of international relations—Russia’s leaders are doing what Russian leaders ought to. If Russia doesn’t look out for its own interests, then who will? Neither Trump, nor any reasonable person, would be scandalized by this.
The most important aspect of Trump’s stance on Russia is that it will likely reinforce Trump’s disinterest in regime-change in Syria (contradicted by his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence). Both Russia and the US would then be fully collaborating in combating ISIS, and maintaining the Syrian government in place as a vital partner in that effort. In Donald Trump’s words: “I also believe that we could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS. They too have much at stake in the outcome in Syria, and have had their own battles with Islamic terrorism”.
On Russia and Ukraine, Trump’s positions are just as valuable as an insight into a post-imperial mindset. Trump sends a sharp signal to US dependents that they had better sort out their affairs diplomatically and productively, without resort to threats and aggression guarded by the assumption that the US will always have their back. About US intervention in Ukraine, Trump explained:
“we’re the ones always fighting on the Ukraine. I never hear any other countries even mentioned and we’re fighting constantly. We’re talking about Ukraine, get out, do this, do that. And I mean Ukraine is very far away from us. How come the countries near the Ukraine, surrounding the Ukraine, how come they’re not opening up and they’re not at least protesting? I never hear anything from anybody except the United States”.
In an unusual commentary from Reuters, “Not all of Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions are crazy,” many of Trump’s positions receive a positive evaluation—here are some samples:
“Trump’s willingness to meet with with the leaders of American adversaries such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin should not be dismissed out of hand. As odious as the North Korean regime may be, the reality is that Pyongyang possesses a growing nuclear arsenal….The argument for engaging with Russia is even stronger. While demonizing Putin makes for good rhetoric, U.S. and Russian interests overlap in some places. Cooperation to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation represents one fruitful area for further cooperation. Containing the violence in Syria is another example where coordinating with Moscow might be useful…. Trump’s belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move into Syria and desire to fight Islamic State is a ‘wonderful thing’ makes some sense”.
Though a compromise between Trump’s side and GOP officials, the 2016 Republican Platform nonetheless makes absolutely no mention of Crimea. Though the language on Russia is still strong, and is unlike what Trump says in speeches and interviews, the BBC found that “the harsh condemnations of Russian involvement in Ukraine present in the 2012 platform were removed” and concluded, “Mr Trump’s foreign policy has largely been a hodgepodge of positions, so it was somewhat unusual that his team took an active interest in watering down the platform’s anti-Russian language”.
Not much is said or written about Donald Trump in relation to Africa, but what has been put out there by dubious agents is so terribly suspicious that it is worthy of mention. In all of this one has to keep in mind that US agencies such as the CIA have a long and ongoing history of planting fake stories in foreign newspapers—it’s standard practice. My hypothesis is that something along these lines has been occurring to smear Trump across Africa, and to incite condemnation from the continent’s leaders. As outlined here—along with links to articles that have since gone offline—on December 30, 2015, Kenya’s The Spectator published an article titled “ ‘I will lock Mugabe and Museveni in prison if I become President’ – Donald Trump VOWS”. It was signed “Andrew Lieberman,” and the only actual Andrew Lieberman I can find with any connection to Kenya, belongs to the Communication Initiative Network, backed by various UN agencies and US foundations, and Clinton-supporter George Soros. The Spectator allowed anyone to submit an article, and “Andrew Lieberman” may simply be an invented name. The content of the article should have been instantly spotted as fake, by anyone but the most gullible (except there are many, including Canadian academics who immediately believed the false, photoshopped Trump tweet that he would “recolonize” Canada if elected). In the article, the fabricated quote from Trump states:
“I want to reiterate here before America’s greatest heroes that I will not condone any dictatorial tendencies exhibited by dictators around the world especially the two old men from Zimbabwe and Uganda. Mugabe and Museveni must be put on notice that their days are numbered and that I am going to arrest them and lock them in prison. If the past American administrations have failed to stop these two despots, I will personally do it. Mugabe and Museveni have given the world enough troubles and its about time someone puts to an end all these madness for peace to prevail. If Obama fears them, I will never fear them. If clinton [sic] and Bush feared them, If the Pope kneels before them, I will never be reduced to that level. I will never be cowed. I promise to clean all the political mess around the world and promote international justice”.
It’s incredible that anyone fell for this hoax, since it is so obviously counter to every thing Donald Trump has said over the last two years about meddling in foreign affairs, about regime change, and nation-building. It actually sounds more like an irate Obama, or a Hillary Clinton.
Unfortunately, at first the article—and its reproduction on other sites—did have an effect. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe declared that Adolf Hitler was Trump’s grandfather, adding among other things: “How do you even start imagining that you are going to arrest a man like myself? Is that Trump’s head okay? And, are there enough doctors in America to check this man’s psychiatric condition?”. A little more restrained, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni answered the fictitious Trump statement: “He has no credentials to talk about Uganda. He has no authority He has got enough work to do in the US. In case you are in touch with him, tell him that”.
The propaganda effort against Trump in Africa seems to have fizzled out, as a few months later Robert Mugabe was already tacitly endorsing Donald Trump, not denouncing him. The most the Democrats have been able to do, in invoking Mugabe, is to compare Trump with Mugabe. On the other hand, Malik Obama, who is Barack Obama’s Kenyan half-brother, also a Pan-Africanist, has proudly come out in support of Donald Trump, and since he is registered to vote in the US, he also vows to turn his endorsement into an actual vote. The only truth that remained a constant throughout this bizarre episode, and Trump’s campaign generally, is that Donald Trump has not voiced any interest in intervening in African affairs, on any level.
On Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico
Where Cuba is concerned, there seems to be little consistency in Trump’s statements over the years, which range from support for the embargo and denunciation of Fidel Castro, to criticism of the embargo and decreased rhetorical acrimony. Trump’s shifting position seems to parallel that of the Florida Cuban community, which has also come to favour open relations with Cuba. Trump argues that in normalizing relations, the US should refuse to admit any possible payment of reparations to Cuba, which would also cut off US claims for compensation from Cuba for the nationalization of properties. For a man whose primary philosophical motifs are those of construction and development, we can expect Trump to continue on the course of opening relations with Cuba and fostering US investment in Cuba. This is also in keeping with recent analysis of Trump’s own interest in exploring Cuba’s tourism opportunities. What is more problematic is Trump’s apparent interest in retaining possession of Guantánamo.
In his previous writings, Trump denounced the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela as “certifiably insane dictators” (2011, p. 86). More recently, speaking of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, he said: “Their leaders are not very friendly to our leaders. But, of course, our leaders don’t get along with too many people”. On Hugo Chávez in particular, he stated: “He had some feelings, some very strong feelings, and he did represent a lot of people, and he represented a lot of people that had been left behind. We have people that, honestly, they’ve been left behind”.
Where Mexico is concerned, the way Trump has been represented by the media entails enormous damage to US-Mexican relations, and perhaps that is Trump’s stepping stone for launching an assault on NAFTA. From that point of view, media misrepresentations have been hugely beneficial. Trump never said that “all immigrants are criminals,” that “all Mexicans are rapists,” or that he is “anti-immigrant”—the insistent repetition of these falsehoods, however, may ironically produce the results Trump is seeking, which is a break with globalization. Otherwise, Trump himself goes to lengths to deny that he ever made such comments:
“What I said was that among all the illegal immigrants coming from Mexico were some pretty bad people, some of them are rapists, some of them are drug dealers, some of them are coming here to live off the system, and we’d better take immediate and tough measures to close our borders to ‘illegals’”. (2015, p. 14)
Trump’s statement is factually correct. He cites a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office that documented the number of illegal immigrants arrested and imprisoned for criminal offenses (constituting 27% of all inmates), at an annual cost of $1.6 billion for the Department of Justice. The GAO added: “There were nearly 1.7 million arrest records relating to nearly 3 million offenses for these 249,000 criminal aliens” (p. 3). Trump also cited the figure of 351,000 imprisoned criminals who entered the country illegally (2015, p. 22). Trump has not retreated from his position. Indeed, he reaffirmed it while meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and reasserted his intention to tackle NAFTA. In the aftermath of Trump’s visit, while the Mexican president engaged in some rough tweeting, his own government began to fracture as he replaced his finance minister as a direct result of Trump’s visit. A left-wing opposition senator proposed an initiative to retaliate against any expropriations or economic losses caused by a Trump presidency—which would further advance Trump’s cause of reordering relations against NAFTA. At home, articles appeared praising Trump’s “huge win” in Mexico, and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, a union representing the US’ 5,000 federal immigration officers and law enforcement support staff, publicly endorsed Trump (never before has it endorsed a presidential candidate).
So far, the Mexican episode is validating Trump’s strategy. A wall runs through Trump’s foreign policy on Mexico, which takes us back to the builder motif at the start of this essay. Here is Trump in his own words, which by now are familiar to most US readers:
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build it very inexpensively. I will build a great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words” (2015, p. 20).
He links this to his views on leadership, and it might explain why he is not likely to see the US as much of an empire:
“A country that can’t protect its borders isn’t a country. We are the only country in the world whose immigration system places the needs of other nations ahead of our own. There is word to describe people who do that: fools”. (Trump, 2015, p. 22)
Assessing how Trump would transform the long, complex relationship between the US and Mexico, in terms of an analysis of imperialism, is not easy. What Trump’s policy looks like is a form of disengagement, with the relationship being flattened and reduced to trade and immigration issues. Given that Mexico has historically suffered great losses with the US fully “engaged” in its affairs—such a change might not be bad news for Mexico. That does not validate Trump’s misrepresentation of Mexico as the “winner,” which if anything fails to explain why Mexico would produce an outflow of migrants if that were the case.
On Iraq, Taking the Oil, and ISIS
Apart from China, Donald Trump seems to have reserved a special hatred for OPEC: “Excuse me, but OPEC—these twelve guys sitting around a table—wouldn’t even be in existence if it weren’t for the United States saving and protecting those Middle Eastern countries!” (2011, p. 2, also p. 19). Trump also supports Congress passing the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act (NOPEC) (S.394)” (2011, p. 21). His contempt for those on the losing side of (neo)colonial exploitation, banding together to finally secure their own interests, might be the most unvarnished expression of an imperialist mindset—were it not diminished by Trump’s emphasis on the US exploiting its own energy resources instead. Otherwise, he was all for “taking their oil”.
Writing in 2011, Trump’s argument for taking Iraq’s oil was at that point about straightforward economic extraction that many writers would see as plain imperialism, even adding insult to injury against Iraqis:
“When you do someone a favor, they say thank you. When you give someone a loan, they pay you back. And when a nation like the United States sacrifices thousands of lives of its own young servicemen and women and more than a trillion dollars to bring freedom to the people of Iraq, the least—the absolute least—the Iraqis should do is pick up the tab for their own liberation. How much is it worth to them to be rid of the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and to have gained a democracy in which they can vote and have a freely elected parliament?” (Trump, 2011, p. 9)
That comes from chapter 2 of his 2011 book, a chapter titled: “Take the Oil”. A subsection of that chapter is titled, “To the Victor Go the Spoils,” a phrase which he has repeated recently on the campaign trail, and it is, quite frankly, a refrain that would meet with the approval of classic imperialists. In that section, he essentially threatens all oil producers in the Middle East: “if any country in the Middle East won’t sell us their oil at a fair market price—oil that we discovered, we pumped, and we made profitable for the countries of the Middle East in the first place—we have every right to take it” (Trump, 2011, p. 10). Trying to argue that this is not an imperialist view, would seem a fool’s errand—and it might well be, but there is a hint of another discourse behind the one above. Throughout, Trump makes repeated reference to this idea (however fictitious) that “we’ve spent blood and treasure defending the people of the Middle East” (2011, p. 10). That line of thinking is popular among conservative Americans who are critical of empire (Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan come to mind), because they believe that US military interventions are largely a form of charity that benefits others, placing a burden on the US. They arrive at an anti-interventionist stance, but through a series of useful myths.
Also by 2015, Trump’s argument was modified into one more closely resembling the Russian approach to ISIS: “bombing the hell out of those oil fields to cut off the source of their money” (Trump, 2015, p. 37). Even on this front, he has tempered his statements, acknowledging that a physical occupation of territory would not be workable now.
On Iran, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan
On the Middle East and North Africa, Trump spells out his assessment of the Obama-Clinton legacy:
“Before the Obama-Clinton Administration took over: Libya was stable, Syria was under control, Egypt was ruled by a secular president and an ally of the United States, Iraq was experiencing a reduction in violence, the group that would become what we now call ISIS was close to being extinguished, and Iran was being choked off by economic sanctions. Fast-forward to today: Libya is in ruins, our ambassador and three other brave Americans are dead, ISIS has gained a new base of operations, Syria is in the midst of a disastrous civil war, ISIS controls large portions of territory, a refugee crisis now threatens Europe and the United States, terrorists have gained a foothold in the Sinai desert, Iraq is in chaos, and ISIS is on the loose. ISIS has spread across the Middle East, and into the West”.
On Iran, readers will be more familiar with Trump’s position, which is exclusively hostile unlike any of his other positions on foreign policy. He rejects the nuclear deal; opposes release of Iranian financial assets; wants to re-impose sanctions; and seems to threaten armed action against Iranian vessels that come close to US ships in the Persian Gulf. On the Iran nuclear deal, he wrote: “I wouldn’t have settled for less than a complete dismantling of all their nuclear facilities, destruction of all their centrifuges, and on-site inspections anytime, anywhere” (Trump, 2015, p. 40). Besides making little sense—why would there be a need for “on-site inspections” if all the sites were dismantled—it is also unfair in singling out Iran as the one country that is not to be permitted the sovereign right to achieve energy independence. If he were to act on his aggressive and confrontational words, a Trump presidency could significantly escalate tensions with Iran, perhaps leading to open conflict, or perhaps leading to greater Iranian concessions. On the so-called Green Revolution of 2009, Trump argues that the US should have intervened directly to support the protesters and overthrow the government (2011, p. 96)—an act of outright war, that also seems to fly in the face of his otherwise recalcitrant indifference to the idea of the US serving as liberator or policeman in conflicts around the world. From an Iranian perspective, Trump’s foreign policy would be unmistakably imperialist. How Trump would maintain this stance, while Iran collaborates with Russia and Syria in fighting ISIS, is a knot left to Trump to untie.
On Syria, Trump’s primary and seemingly only interest is in defeating ISIS. He is not interested in a dangerous escalation of confrontation with Russia, fortunately. His running mate, Mike Pence, seems to have a very different view, which leans more toward the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) argument that is cherished by liberal imperialists and missionaries for “humanitarian intervention”. Trump himself has dismissed humanitarian intervention, arguing (see below) that policing the world is not the US’ job—but in the past, he has not always been consistent.
On Libya, recently Trump argued that all would be better off if Muammar Gaddafi had been left in power. Trump’s own limited and brief relationship with Gaddafi was ambivalent at best, but his older writings express clear disregard and contempt. Those who do opposition research discovered a little known video file, that apparently not even Trump recalled, that suggested he was in favour of US military intervention in Libya, and at the very least, the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. Then there was an interview with Piers Morgan, in which Trump also backed intervention. The argument was a combination of humanitarian intervention, regime change, and getting paid for liberating Libyans—similar to his arguments on Iraq in 2011 and “take the oil,” discussed above. Trump’s vice presidential candidate, Mike Pence, similarly came out strongly in favour of US intervention in Libya, even praising Hillary Clinton, and then gradually throughout the war in 2011 he lessened his support, questioned who the US was arming in Libya, and eventually formally voted against a resolution to authorize the use of US armed forces in support of NATO’s intervention, while condemning Obama’s violation of the War Powers Act.
The transition in Trump’s thinking seems to pick up on the latter point. He begins his criticism of the 2011 intervention in Libya by writing:
“Obama ran for president on a platform that he wouldn’t start any more ‘illegal wars’. Guess what? He started an ‘illegal war’. He never went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war with Libya. Instead, Obama launched one by himself and thrust American into a bloody civil war. Isn’t that what Obama bashed George W. Bush for doing, even though Bush got rid of Saddam Hussein?” (Trump, 2011, p. 102)
The rest of his analysis seems to bemoan the fact that the US spent money on the war in Libya and supposedly got nothing in return. Trump wrote that if the Libyan rebels had come to him asking for help, he would have told them: “Sure, we don’t like the guy [Gaddafi] either. We will help you take out Gaddafi. But in exchange, you give us 50 percent of your oil for the next twenty-five years to pay for our military support and to say thank you for the United States doing what you could never have done on your own” (2011, pp. 102-103). So for a military campaign that Trump admits cost the US no more than $1 billion, he would have wanted to be paid a grand total of $129 billion. Astonishingly, Trump believes “the ‘rebels’ would have jumped at the offer and said yes” (2011, p. 103). Most likely, those he writes about as “so-called ‘rebels’” would have been utterly disgusted. Perhaps that is Trump’s point, that asking the US for “help” will become so odious and disgusting, that no one will do it? Trump’s plan, in 2011, was apparently to replace “humanitarian interventionism” with “hitman for hire”. It’s as if US foreign policy were to be turned over to the Mafia.
The second part of Trump’s Libya critique turns on the nature of the “so-called ‘rebels’”. He complains that in September of 2011, up to 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles went missing, that the US had known that Al Qaeda was operating in Libya, and that the missiles might make their way out of the country (Trump, 2011, p. 103). But he concluded then, “like everyone else, I’m glad Qaddafi is gone” (Trump, 2011, p. 104).
To a point, Trump’s anti-Gaddafi statements in 2011 and calls for regime change, echoed those of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders for that matter—not to mention a large part of the North American and European left. Of course, unlike Obama, Clinton, and Sanders, Trump’s opinion was of no consequence: he neither voted for nor implemented the intervention that has cost Libya so dearly. Unlike Obama and Clinton, but like Sanders, Trump had by 2016 clearly recanted his support for US intervention. On the other hand, he called for bombing ISIS in Libya in 2016. It’s possible that the influence of retired Navy Rear Admiral Chuck Kubic, a Trump foreign policy adviser, played some role in reshaping Trump’s thinking, as did General Michael T. Flynn, who is a staunch critic of Obama’s intervention in Iraq and Syria on the side of Muslim extremists. Kubic became active in covert diplomacy Libya in 2011, in an attempt to stop military intervention by engaging in peace talks toward a peaceful transition—stymied by Clinton, against the efforts and advice of the Joint Chiefs. Since 2015, we have learned that US intelligence did not support Hillary Clinton’s wrongful claims that intervention in Libya was needed to prevent an “imminent massacre” in Benghazi; that the overthrow of Gaddafi seriously damaged the US campaign against Al Qaeda; and, very grave revelations that Clinton sought to arm Al Qaeda fighters in Libya, and send weapons to extremists in Syria.
For the entirety of his political campaign since its launch in June 2015, Trump has opposed another such intervention as the one in Libya. He now sees it as having produced destruction, chaos, and fertile ground for ISIS. Obviously, unlike either Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders, he is not responsible for any of the intervention that occurred in Libya in 2011.
Afghanistan, unfortunately, will see no change at all in terms of US policy. Trump, for reasons he has neither clearly nor cogently explained, believes the US is compelled to remain in place in Afghanistan. Other than that, he has offered little else in the way of his plans where Afghanistan is concerned.
“Uncle Sucker” on NATO (and Policing the World)
Donald Trump has made numerous statements about NATO, with some minor shifts over recent months. He has reduced the heat of his rhetoric, claiming victory in that NATO leaders have heard his criticisms and have started to realign their priorities, but the substance of his criticisms has yet to be addressed. Here is a list of his known positions, drawing from sources used for an earlier report:
- “I said here’s the problem with NATO: it’s obsolete.”
- “It was really designed for the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore.”
On NATO members:
- “That means we are protecting them, giving them military protection and other things, and they’re ripping off the United States. And you know what we do? Nothing. Either they have to pay up for past deficiencies or they have to get out. And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO.”
- “Maybe NATO will dissolve and that’s OK, not the worst thing in the world.”
- “We cannot be the policeman of the world.”
The last point is subject to modification as it relates to Trump’s views on a host of bilateral alliances, from Germany to Saudi Arabia to Japan and South Korea. He writes: “We defend Germany. We defend Japan. We defend South Korea. These are powerful and wealthy countries. We get nothing in return” (Trump, 2015, p. 34)—except that their location within the US orbit has historically been strategically and economically advantageous to the US. His point becomes stronger and more convincing when he turns to Kuwait:
“When Kuwait was attacked by Saddam Hussein, all the wealthy Kuwaitis ran to Paris. They didn’t just rent suites—they took up whole buildings, entire hotels. They lived like kings while their country was occupied. Who did they turn to for help? Who else? Uncle Sucker. That’s us”. (Trump, 2015, pp. 34–35)
Trump then added a story about Kuwaitis refusing to invest in the US, or to pay back the US for getting their country back for them. He fumes: “How stupid are we?!” (Trump, 2015, p. 34).
His views on world policing are somewhat murky—they might even sound like an advertisement for hiring out US military services to regional hegemons, which would make the US government a mercenary rentier, an international war racketeer. He writes: “If we’re going to continue to be the policemen of the world, we ought to be paid for it” (Trump, 2015, p. 32). So policing the world is bad, or only bad as long as you don’t get paid? The first proposition is an anti-imperialist one, but the second one is even more economically extractive than current imperial arrangements.
More to the point, Trump seems to conflate two separate issues under the heading of “policing the world”: one is the defense of allies, and the other is the adventurism of humanitarian interventionism and endless war and occupation. One is about maintaining bases, and the other is about actual war. If he separated the two and made a distinction, he might better clarify his thoughts.
Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that under a Trump administration, “responsibility to protect” (R2P), “humanitarian intervention,” “atrocities prevention,” and other cherished norms of the liberal imperialism that has been a dominant force in Washington DC since the time of Woodrow Wilson (off and on, but almost constant since George H.W. Bush proclaimed a “new world order”), will be severely diminished at least, and most likely discarded and defeated.
On the Military
“Everything begins with a strong military. Everything”. (Trump, 2015, p. 47)
On the military, Donald Trump sounds like the traditional conservative: “the single most important function of the federal government is national defense” (2011, p. 85). However, Trump does not let his thinking rest there. “We need a military that will be so strong that we won’t have to use it,” Trump wrote in Crippled America (2015, p. 3). This is a basic principle, one that Trump has repeated in various forms numerous times. Others will recall his words about having a military that is so strong that “nobody messes with us”. He is effectively saying two things here:
1) the military is to serve as an insurance policy—most likely as insurance against any possible retaliation for the significant changes he proposes to the current world order; and,
2) his assertions that the military is “depleted” and needs rebuilding, has to do with,
- his belief that it has been underfunded by Obama;
- his understanding of the economic importance of national defense industries; and,
- his agreement with arguments that the military has been over used and over stretched in multiple, simultaneous adventures that have resulted in massive foreign policy failures.
This military-as-insurance argument is validated by his comment that, “the best way not to have to use your military power is to make sure that power is visible” (Trump, 2015, p. 33).
Though a self-described “militarist,” Trump has frequently repeated the following core policy of his on military intervention:
“We can’t be afraid to use our military, but sending our sons and daughters should be the very last resort. I’ve seen what wars do to our kids. I’ve seen their broken bodies, know all about the horrors that live in their heads, and the enormous effects of trauma….My rules of engagement have always been pretty simple—if we are going to intervene in a conflict, there had better be a direct threat to our national interests. The threat should be so obvious that most Americans will know where the hot spot is on the globe and will quickly understand why we are getting involved….In other words, my strategy would be the exact opposite of our strategy in going to war with Iraq”. (Trump, 2015, pp. 35–36)
On Globalization and Trade: America First
Donald Trump puts forth his basic outlook on US interests in this manner:
“I believe in always putting the interests of American citizens first—always. There aren’t any second or third places. That level of commitment is what has been missing for so long in our foreign policy, in our trade policy, in our immigration policy. Somewhere we started worrying too much about what other countries thought about us. Does anybody reading this believe that I’m concerned about making other countries feel good? They used to fear us. They used to want to be us. We were respected”. (Trump, 2015, p. 104).
One could devote many hours just to “unpacking” that one statement, with all of its facets that again show Trump’s position as representing transition. “America first” is not inherently an imperialist vision—in fact, one would expect it to be the norm for most states to pursue their self-interest in international relations. Trump implicitly recognizes the wholeness of “foreign policy” by lining it up with “trade policy” and “immigration policy” (which are arguably all aspects of “foreign policy”), but he also disaggregates them. Some might balk at the notion that the US ever “worried” about what “other countries thought”—but that would not be a fair argument: it would be contradicted by both recent “soft power” campaigns and decades of “cultural imperialism”. Trump’s final three sentences have an imperialistic tone, of inspiring fear, respect, and imitation—or they could be an inchoate reflection on the level of imperial power the US once possessed, and that it no longer possesses to the same degree, hence: decline.
As an illustration of Trump’s grievances against free trade deals which the US has signed, he often brings up the example of the US free trade agreement with South Korea, which instead of boosting US exports and growth in manufacturing, achieved just the opposite, and widened the trade deficit. In addition, the US pays roughly half the costs of defending South Korea: “The South Koreans like our military defending them against North Korea….they don’t need us to do their dirty work—South Korea’s armed forces number between 600,000 and 700,000. And yet we still have 28,500 American troops in South Korea! Why?….why isn’t South Korea footing the whole bill for our defending them?” (Trump, 2011, p. 5).
Donald Trump, as a transitional figure, is a bit of a political hybrid—neither an anti-imperialist nor pro-imperialist, nor even an absolute non-imperialist (he is not shy about using US military power and extracting economic gain in specific instances and restricted senses). However, the most important feature of Donald Trump is that he is ideally suited to managing the decline of US power, the withdrawal from over-stretched ambitions, by making it sound loudly triumphant and dignified: America First, Making America Great Again. And he looks the part too—the wealthy, gilded entrepreneur and media celebrity—he is ideally suited for pulling off such a critical job, for making it culturally plausible and politically feasible. It could not have been done by a Bernie Sanders or a Jill Stein, if one understands the dominant thrusts of American popular culture. For years I have maintained that if there were to be any brake on US imperialism, it would not come from the left (which in any case is too divided on liberal imperialism and “humanitarian intervention,” which makes the left only selectively “anti-war” and compromised with reformism within transnational capitalism)—rather the real change would come from the conservative, Republican side. It’s also best not to entertain unrealistic prospects: the US will not cease to be a “great power” even long after it ceases to be an imperial power.
If Donald Trump were to win the presidency, there would be no sudden and abrupt transformation of world politics to a post-imperial stage. Real processes take time. What Trump would successfully do—and what objectively one should want him to do—is to usher the US toward post-imperialism in a manner that is supremely confident, integral, centered, and without a hint of loss or humiliation. Trump seems to prefer dealing with national leaders who represent such qualities, because he can respect them, and likewise other national leaders should want to deal with a confident US leader. Anything less would mean that only an abrupt shift to post-imperialism could or should happen, which would mean that a crisis has become uncontrollable, and all the worst, most cataclysmic and apocalyptic reflexes of American culture and elite fear-mongering would come into play—in other words, producing an extremely dangerous and unpredictable world, for everyone. Indeed, American popular culture already seems to be training American media consumers into thinking of decline in terms of epidemics, zombie outbreaks, and ruined cities. The way US political, financial, and media elites today speak of Trump and his movement, shows a class that is prone to extreme reactions motivated by a hysterical sense of doom and collapse. This is a section of society that needs to be removed from power as quickly as possible.
Owing to some popularized misunderstandings among leftists in North America, there is confusion about “accelerationism” versus “incrementalism,” concerning the potential for a leftist to vote for Trump versus Clinton respectively. In an interview, the pro-Bernie Sanders Hollywood actress, Susan Sarandon, intimated that a possible vote for Trump would be better than voting for Clinton, as his presidency might serve to “heighten social contradictions” and galvanize the masses toward revolutionary action. Clinton, supposedly, represents gradual reformist change. I think this is completely wrong, and is at the very least backwards. By failing to address the root causes of growing inequality, and persistently defending the system that produces such inequality, a heightening of contradictions would occur under Clinton—just as it has under Obama (with a decline in family incomes, lower civilian labour force participation rates, lower home ownership rates, an increase in the number of people on food stamps (SNAP), increased health premiums, increased student debt, increased income inequality for African-Americans, an increase in printing money, and a massive rise in the public debt). Trump, on the other hand, represents a populist initiative to redress job loss through restructuring trade and the energy industries, recapturing US capital from abroad, and revitalizing domestic industry, while blocking the immigrant influx that depresses wages, limits employment opportunities, and adds a burden to social welfare expenditures. No self-professed revolutionary, reformism is the only way one could realistically class Trump’s plan.
The current turning point in history places a special, heavy burden on US voters. It is their challenge to not let themselves be distracted by petty comments, trivial personality conflicts, and cynical media distortions. That the vast majority have rejected the mainstream media as trustworthy, is already an excellent sign. On two fronts, Donald Trump has already served as a useful battering ram against elite institutions: (1) he has exploited the media, and delegitimized them, and, (2) he has successfully overthrown the neoconservative elite that dominated the Republican Party, forced a shift in its neoliberal path, and set the stage for realigning the party with the working-class—already monumental achievements, without even acquiring presidential office. Voters will need to be clear-headed about consequences, about the importance of their decisions for the rest of humanity. For example, Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at NYU and Princeton, warns: “We’re approaching a Cuban Missile Crisis level nuclear confrontation with Russia”. Even more pressing, the former US Secretary of Defense, and registered Democrat, William Perry, warns us that we are today, “on the threshold of a new Cold War….a new nuclear arms race….the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is actually greater than it was during the Cold War”. Adam Walinsky, a Democrat and speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, pointed out the following dangers of a Clinton presidency:
“today’s Democrats have become the Party of War: a home for arms merchants, mercenaries, academic war planners, lobbyists for every foreign intervention, promoters of color revolutions, failed generals, exploiters of the natural resources of corrupt governments. We have American military bases in 80 countries, and there are now American military personnel on the ground in about 130 countries, a remarkable achievement since there are only 192 recognized countries. Generals and admirals announce our national policies. Theater commanders are our principal ambassadors. Our first answer to trouble or opposition of any kind seems always to be a military movement or action. Nor has the Democratic Party candidate for president this year, Hillary Clinton, sought peace. Instead she has pushed America into successive invasions, successive efforts at ‘regime change’. She has sought to prevent Americans from seeking friendship or cooperation with President Vladimir Putin of Russia by characterizing him as ‘another Hitler’. She proclaims herself ready to invade Syria immediately after taking the oath of office. Her shadow War Cabinet brims with the architects of war and disaster for the past decades, the neocons who led us to our present pass, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, in Ukraine, unrepentant of all past errors, ready to resume it all with fresh trillions and fresh blood. And the Democrats she leads seem intent on worsening relations with Russia, for example by sending American warships into the Black Sea, or by introducing nuclear weapons ever closer to Russia itself”.
Unfortunately, some may still cling to the idea that endorsing what Trump argues with respect to transforming or ending NATO, improving relations with Russia, and withdrawing from instigating global conflict, means that one is endorsing everything he has said about anything else. That is illogical and false. Others may raise a different argument altogether, that a “deep state” will prevent a President Trump from effecting real change. While this sort of discussion takes us well beyond the bounds of this article, let me just say that whatever one thinks the deep state is, it is not autonomous and self-generating, it does not fund budgets, and it is very much dependent on executive power. The fact is that executive power—what some scholars call the imperial presidency—has been vastly increased since WWII, and particularly since 9/11. There is in fact a great deal that a president can do, and that is why the current elites are so shrill in their panic and alarm, and why the “neocons” have gone over to Hillary Clinton.
For those US voters for whom anti-imperialism is of paramount importance, the choice is rather clear: either the transitional hybrid who crashes globalization and renounces US global leadership, or the oligarchic manager that seeks to maintain everything as is, with the prospect of newer and more dangerous wars and heightened global inequality. In this respect, it’s not a matter of being “strategic” as a voter, nor does one need an inordinate amount of time to decide which figure will do the greatest harm. While for Trump we rely more on his words to judge him, in Clinton’s case we have a track record of disaster-creation. As Walinsky explained, “Trump marks himself as a man of singular political courage, willing to defy the hysteria of the Washington war hawks, the establishment and the mainstream media who daily describe him as virtually anti-American for daring to voice ideas and opinions at variance with their one-note devotion to war”.
In a long-term perspective, the candidacy of Donald Trump and the popular movement behind it, represents an inevitable confrontation with the US polity’s recurring struggle between imperial ambition and republican self-possession. Every generation for well over a century has produced a new range of writers and politicians who denounce the US’ imperial missionary tendency. After the Vietnam generation, another emerged with the end of the Cold War, one that loathes imperial adventurism, with Trump’s most obvious and immediate predecessors being Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul. One does not usually get to choose the messenger, but it would be more than just foolish now to ignore the message. Waiting for the perfect and pure messenger to arrive, before one commits to change, is the most fatalistic form of messianism, one that even Christian conservatives would eschew. For those who are seriously invested in arresting US imperialism then, as some have found already, among the leading candidates there is only one viable choice: Donald Trump.
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