“Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist,” Donald Trump recently declared, “I’m both”. The only way in which the two (seemingly contradictory) positions can be reconciled is by introducing a third term, one that is absent from Trump’s vocabulary: imperialism. Trump might not be conscious of the implication of his statement (nor would he be the only one sleepwalking toward regime change), but that makes the explanation all the more powerful. In the absence of both conviction that matches his campaign platform, and a well developed program for an alternative US foreign policy that transforms the international “order” which the US underpins—a very tall order—Trump defaults to what is common, established, and respected in the history of Washington politics. In other words, he turns to the only dominant understanding of American international politics that anyone socialized in the US would possess: “American leadership,” that is, US global dominance. The equipment to fulfill that vision is already in place and ready to produce instant results that can then be cast as “winning,” “standing strong,” or as Fox News’ Sean Hannity likes to inexplicably exclaim, “America is back” (from what?). So why did Donald Trump, the so-called outsider, default to the established course in US politics?
One question is whether Trump drifted into this position out of disorder, confusion, lack of conviction, and a government undermined by factions. Another is whether he was “placed” in this position (by others and/or himself), in what would then effectively amount to the corporate oligarchy’s biggest ever electoral heist. Others will instead point to Trump craving respect and adulation, and thus playing to the media to improve his image. Some have made what I think are misleading and self-serving arguments: that Trump’s changes reflect an encounter with “reality,” or represent “learning on the job”. The assumption here is that reality is somehow hard-coded with neoliberal principles. If learning on the job meant learning to continue the imperial presidency, then they might have a point, even if it’s not the one they wanted to make.
Other questions to ask include (in no particular order of importance):
- In which ways does nationalist globalism relate to imperialism?
- How does Trump’s newfound globalism connect to issues of conflict of interest and nepotism?
- What role does class play in charting Trump’s actual domestic and foreign policy directions?
- Are the ostensible changes traceable to Trump’s preexisting and underlying ambitions and interests, or were the changes forced on him by circumstance?
- Is this a story about the workings of the “deep state”?
- Is Trump’s presidency good news, after all, for extending the life of global liberal capitalism?
- How might Trump’s presidency end up strengthening the hands of anti-imperialists?
This article (long as it is, it has been significantly abridged), begins by examining “nationalist globalism”. I then focus on changes to Trump’s stated positions seen from a domestic angle, and in particular on his stances regarding Obama and the Clintons, his declared interest in turning the Republican party into a “workers’ party” while in fact returning it to the hold of Wall Street, and thus I look at the ties between his cabinet, Goldman Sachs, and Wall Street broadly—this is also where we discuss the nature of the “oligarchic corporate imperial state”. After that, we see how this mutated policy extends internationally, from Cuba to Russia, Syria, North Korea, NAFTA, NATO, and WikiLeaks. I end the essay by discussing whether we can still proclaim the “end of liberalism” (short answer: yes), and consider how Trump’s presidency could aid the cause of anti-imperialism.
I considered some of the prospects of a Trump presidency with respect to US imperialism in an equally lengthy article last October. In “Donald Trump and Empire: An Assessment” I got some things right, and some things wrong, as is true of everyone else. I asked: “how can Donald Trump make the decline in US global power ‘beautiful,’ and how can he turn withdrawal into ‘greatness’?”. This question is now null and void. I also wrote that, “on foreign policy, globalization, and military intervention, Donald Trump is a transitional figure”—that might hold some validity, but not in any straightforward sense: he may be inadvertently setting the conditions for a truly transitional figure yet to come (but that could be true of any representative of the power elite). I was mistaken however in suggesting that, “Trump would be leading the equivalent of a perestroika for US empire”. I also argued that what Trump was offering was, “not so much radical change as an intermediate passage, and a way of managing imperial decline”—from where we now stand, the last thing that seems to be on Trump’s mind is anything remotely to do with “managing decline”. Where the analysis was on slightly less thin ice was when I said that Trump appeared to be, “not much of one thing, not much of another, and somewhere in between…. neither an anti-imperialist nor pro-imperialist, nor even an absolute non-imperialist”—but that is perhaps because, inside ambiguity, one can hide anything. I also pointed out that,
“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”.
The above still largely holds, I think. It is also still truer than ever that “there are multiple competing editions of Donald Trump”—and one can find support for almost any argument about Trump’s stated intentions, by using Trump’s own past words. Where I did point out that Trump had taken decisively pro-imperialist positions in the past (regardless of his choice of words) was on Iraq and its oil, on Libya, and on Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela.
Matters have now become considerably simplified. We no longer need to debate where Trump stands and what he might do once he became president. Now we know what, even if we still debate why. However, understanding why might tell us something about what comes next.
My thesis revolves around facts such as senior Goldman Sachs executives readily jumping aboard the engine of the “Trump train,” after being denounced in Trump campaign advertising, which suggests that they do not see Trump’s much touted nationalism as anything that needs to cause them any concern. There are now more Goldman Sachs figures in the Trump administration than in any previous administration.1 This is perhaps the most fundamental “reversal” of Trump’s course, that I argue points to the proper framework for assessing all of the other reversals that pile up with each passing day. That Trump plays to the media is a superficial sign of the deeper currents outlined below.
What is Nationalist Globalism?
A nationalism that extends itself globally, that projects its “interests” into other nations and then proclaims the right to defend those interests, is best understood as imperialism. Nationalism and globalization are not striking contradictions, when referring to the ideology of an imperial state that maximizes its power over globalization processes in order to gain at the expense of other states. Besides the observation that what we know of as globalization was largely the product of state action (legislation, economic incentives, building the infrastructures of global commerce and communications, the creation of multilateral organizations, and so on), one state in particular can claim a leading role in globalization. Barack Obama could thus declare in 2010, “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). As many others have argued, anthropologist Bruce Kapferer made the point that “the concept of globalization disguises the emergence to unchallenged (if momentary) global imperial dominance of the USA, whose own claim to international sovereignty reduces the sovereignty of many nation-states” (Kapferer, 2005, p. 286).
Others have instead muddied the waters considerably in trying to reconcile nationalism and globalism. The American Interest endorses an opinion by Walter Russell Mead about the somehow necessary mix of “Jacksonian” and “Hamiltonian” tendencies that borders on the nonsensical (for example, “the global military, diplomatic and economic statesmanship associated with Alexander Hamilton”). Jackson is somehow associated with a quasi-“isolationist” nationalism (despite deploying troops to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Indonesia during his term), while Hamilton is a globalist (before globalization). What Mead obscures or does not recognize is that he is making an argument for US imperialism: “The U.S. must be simultaneously a nationalist power, focused on the prosperity and security of its own people, and a globalist power working to secure the foundations of international order that Americans need”. Also what this does not answer, as straightforward as it is appears, is why Trump did not announce or explain any of this to his supporters while on the campaign trail. In addition, why has Trump been entirely absent in mediating among his divided supporters, as prominent nationalists and anti-interventionists jump ship, or continually denounce his policy changes? The aloofness of Trump here is a striking contrast to how he instead obsessively interests himself in every little utterance by the “fake news media”. The reason he appears cool and indifferent toward those who devoted every energy to boosting his campaign, is that they simply do not matter to the future of the Trump brand. They will not take the Trump family to where it wants to go, and that is to go global as major corporate players. Leveraging the power and resources of the US imperial state is the most outstanding way of executing a corporate upgrade, promoting Trump from the class of national capitalists to that of transnational capitalists.
Trump is now committed to a nationalist globalism—or imperialism—one that is all too familiar and has been described by anthropologist Neil Smith (2005) as “Americanism”. We will need to keep analyzing Trump’s policies as the months and years pass, but right now we have an outline of the kinds of imperialism that Trump upholds. One is an economic imperialism that goes back to the first premises of the US “new empire” of the late 1800s: belligerently opening up foreign markets in order to absorb US overproduction. So far, Trump is using political and economic means to achieve that goal—as in trying to intimidate Canada into opening up its dairy market to an even greater number of US imports, while punishing it for exporting cheap softwood lumber to the US. However, he is apparently willing to trade economic goals for military ones, as in the case of dropping any antagonism toward China about trade issues, in return for China’s promise to somehow alter North Korea’s foreign policy, just as the US escalates military manoeuvres with a possible military strike actively being considered. (Confusingly, he reverses this pattern with South Korea, where military measures were then clouded by talk of revising a trade agreement and extracting payment for US missile defense.) Added to the corporate capitalist imperialism, and military imperialism, Trump is also toying with liberal-humanitarian imperialism in the case of Syria. However—and this is very important—what he lacks here is a “soft power” platform of any size or credibility. The ability of Trump to preside over an effective program of cultural imperialism is diminished to the point of zero, and is likely far less than even zero. That the US and Western mass media continue to lampoon Trump may thus unintentionally serve to undermine US foreign policy, since it is led by Trump.
With his statement that he is both a nationalist and a globalist, Trump is making a major concession that contradicts a position he announced a year ago to the day: “We will no longer surrender our country or its people to the false song of globalism”. A year later he effectively declared himself an adherent to nationalism, plus something false. His statement also marks the new release of yet another edition of Trump, such that we can set up extensive debates between various versions of Trump as published in past books, speeches, and interviews. Just on the question of Syria alone, one could produce a loud debate between anti-interventionist Trump of years past and pro-interventionist Trump of today. Explaining this apparent bifurcation, and attempting to read it into his past statements on US regime change, is a complicated matter, and those who make light of it with statements of having known with certainty that what we have today would be the inevitable result, are being disingenuous.2
The only promise made by Trump that still rings true is that of his “unpredictability”. Being unpredictable and flexible might be virtues in some situations, but when it comes to charting a course, standing by a campaign platform, and committing oneself to a contract with voters, such qualities are synonymous with being capricious, unreliable, unsteady, opportunistic, and even treacherous. That would also hold true in business, and especially when living up to commitments one makes in deals. That Trump tries to lighten the nature of his apparent deficit of principles and conviction—that he essentially admits he will not permit himself to be fooled by his own words—only aggravates the problem. A man with such little political accountability to himself, can hardly be expected to be accountable to everyone else. For his independent-minded supporters, this will not look like a problem of having a two-sided coin; rather, it’s a problem of having no coin at all if there is no value.
Renewing the Corporate Oligarchic State after November 8, 2016
Among those few who predicted Trump’s victory, few or none predicted that Trump would then move on to defeating Trump. Some partisans have come up with slogans like “Love Trumps Hate,” but no one to my knowledge has ever exclaimed, “Trump Trumps Trump”—thankfully. A recent list of the monumental ruin to which standard, corporate-fueled and media-driven machine politics fell thanks to the Trump campaign, provides only an incomplete story of 2016. Now we have to rewrite even the story of 2016. While a candidate could win a presidential campaign, as an “outsider,” even as he was reviled by his own party elite, demonized by the mass media, shunned by the mass of corporate donors, and so forth, it also means that the status quo can win on the cheap. The establishment won, and all without the usual investments, and not so much as a single compliment to the winning candidate who would uphold their order—at little or no cost to them. The next US political candidate to campaign on being an “outsider” will face a greater challenge in being taken seriously; by the same token, the dominant elites may disarm themselves, thinking the next outsider will be easy to co-opt or browbeat into submission.
One of the more difficult questions involves explaining what moved Trump to abandon his promised foreign policy goals and his repeatedly stated anti-interventionist and anti-globalist principles that attracted significant support. For example, where trade is concerned, Trump has consistently opposed free trade deals for nearly three decades. He would say that he believed in free trade, but only if it was fair, and he did not believe any of the existing free trade deals were fair. Yet here too he would alter course—what was unfair was something he could generally tolerate for now. That was not to be predicted, because there was no evidentiary basis for predicting it.
Pence has consistently supported military intervention in Syria, like Hillary Clinton, even if it risked direct confrontation with Russia. In fact Pence publicly praised Clinton on her “handling” of Libya. Trump never offered a solid explanation for the choice, and it seemed to many that Pence was in there merely as a compromise with GOP elites, to lessen their obstruction of Trump. On a number of occasions during the campaign, Trump and Pence plainly contradicted each other. On military intervention in Syria, Trump flatly contradicted Pence. (Nor did Pence offer much back up during the sex tape scandal, choosing to distance himself quickly.) Now it’s the range of interests that Pence represents which are dominant, and Trump who stands out as an expedient palliative to please and calm an angry nationalist base.
No single definitive explanation has been provided by any others analyzing Trump’s malleability, and at best I am offering a draft of an explanation. What we have is a bundle of possible influences, pressures, constraints, mixed in with opportunism and class prejudice. Those with an interest in political economy will need to bend a little and admit that to some degree, beneath the workings of large macro forces of class and transnational capital, personal factors also play a role. Idiosyncratic characteristics, personality, and family life cannot be excluded. Nor can we ignore the role of the media, the new Cold War atmosphere that dominates US politics, the entrenched bureaucracy, the role of elite class prejudices, and a Trump support base divided into factions. Others have looked at institutional factors, such as Trump’s insufficient number of loyal personnel with experience in government, to legislators acting as hostage-takers in holding up a large number of nominations. Another form of institutional explanation, one common in alternative media, is that there has been a coup by the “deep state”. However, what they refer to as the deep state in most cases is just the state—without anything particularly deep or mysterious about it. They refer to the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the military, Congress, which are all very much the state. My concern is that “deep” state might mystify knowable actors and processes, shrouding them in a conspiratorial pall under which they operate with seemingly limitless power and with the independent ability to reproduce and fund themselves. Put another way, I have yet to read a “deep state” explanation for Trump’s course changes, that does not sound like it is handing an alibi to Trump.
Next, let’s review some of the main course changes charted by Trump after his electoral victory.
Trump’s Deference to Obama and the Clintons
There were disturbing signs that Trump had begun to shed his campaign skin from the first days after his electoral triumph. First, there was his inexplicable need to ingratiate himself with his enemies, with those who worked assiduously to demonize him personally, and to demoralize and stigmatize his base. On prosecuting Hillary Clinton, after revelling in chants of “lock her up” at campaign rallies, after nearly promising she would be in jail if he were president, and explicitly vowing he would appoint a special prosecutor—Trump instead told CBS’ 60 Minutes on November 13: “I don’t want to hurt them [the Clintons], I don’t want to hurt them. They’re, they’re good people. I don’t want to hurt them”. Trump misled people if he implied that his days of being a Clinton golf partner and patron were in the distant past. On Barack Obama, who had repeatedly mocked and berated him, Trump would then turn around and say about the man he said was virtually a founder of ISIS, “We get along. I don’t know if he’ll admit this, but he likes me. I like him”. When Trump visited Obama in the White House at the start of the transition, he seemed almost obsequious and unnecessarily generous in his flattery of Obama. Then there was the endless parade of visitors to Trump Tower in New York, invited by Trump as he possibly considered them for cabinet roles—including the leader of the “Never Trump” campaign, and arch neoliberal Mitt Romney. Various familiar neoconservatives were also considered for key posts—and each time a name was floated, such as that of Elliot Abrams, it was left to his legions of supporters to frantically try to change Trump’s mind, well trained as they were by the experience of trying to clean up his messes over and over again during the campaign. The uncertainty seemed to leave many of them desperate and worried about the strangely wavering Trump. In voting for Trump, his supporters certainly got neither what they asked for, nor what they deserved.
The Workers’ Party (brought to you by Carl’s Jr.)
Turning to the working class, and Trump’s talk of transforming the Republican party into “the party of the American worker”—a claim he made both before and after the election—here two significant acts stand out, and they deserve a longer essay in their own right. Trump’s first choice for Secretary of Labor was none other than Andrew Puzder, who at the time was the chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Puzder was notoriously anti-union, and his opposition to raising the minimum wage, his cheating CKE employees of their wages, support for automation, and employment of an undocumented domestic servant while not paying taxes for her services, hardly represented the qualities of a leader of some new workers’ movement. This is the person Trump chose to supposedly enforce labour regulations. Later, after Puzder withdrew himself from the nomination, Trump replaced him with Alex Acosta, dean of the Florida International Law School, who also served on the National Labor Relations Board and received the support of AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka. This belated correction—imposed by circumstances beyond Trump’s control—was among the reasons some still claim that Trump should be taken seriously on wanting to make the GOP into the workers’ party. I would prefer to remind the reader about Trump’s actual priorities, and consider the person he chose as his number one preference.
That there is no accident in Trump’s choices has a lot to do with his class prejudices and his class ambitions. His choice of cabinet members, with a preference for billionaires (or generals), shows who he tends to trust and respect. Some historians have said that Trump’s cabinet is the richest in US history, with a combined worth estimated as ranging from $11 billion to $14 billion. One can attempt to remodel Trump as a “blue collar billionaire,” but it seems futile. He would tell his supporters on the campaign trail that “we need the rich” (a statement which can be ambiguous in its implications) and “no poor man ever gave you a job” (which is unambiguous). The way his decision-making apparatus has been structured also reveals Trump’s interests: billionaires in actual positions of power in his cabinet, but only consultations with union officials.
When it comes to trade unions, Trump’s first weeks since the election reinforce this tendency toward a top-down, patronizing approach. On the one hand, he in fact won the support of many key unions, primarily private-sector unions in construction and trades, and secondarily among autoworkers, machinists, and steelworkers. On the other hand, one of Trump’s earliest skirmishes since he was elected was with Chuck Jones, president of the United Steelworkers local 1999, over Trump’s inflated claims about saving jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana that was to shut down as the company relocated to Mexico. That planned move and the layoffs it entailed played an important part in the 2016 election, underscoring both Trump’s and Sanders’ arguments against NAFTA. It seems that Trump, at most, scored half of a victory in persuading Carrier to retain some jobs in Indiana, while still moving a substantial portion to Mexico, only now with the blessing of millions of dollars in tax credits. The irony is that Carrier is now performing a state-subsidized transfer of jobs to Mexico. Trump claimed Carrier would keep 1,100 jobs in place—but Jones argued that the number included 350 jobs that were never scheduled to leave (yet 550 other union members would still lose their jobs), adding that Trump completely ignored the fact that Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies, still planned to completely shut down and transfer 700 factory jobs from Huntington, Indiana, to Monterrey, Mexico. Some of Jones’ statements to the press were very sharp. In response, Trump proceeded to lambast Jones in Twitter, with a couple of apparently vindictive and inflamed smears.
First, Trump appears to blame workers themselves for the loss of their own jobs, as if they were the owners of capital, or had a direct role in corporate decision-making, or were to blame for NAFTA’s existence. It’s the kind of spontaneous anti-worker outburst that demonstrates where Trump’s allegiance ultimately rests. The second message repeats the claim that workers are the ones responsible for keeping their jobs in place, thus more victim blaming, while adding a chilling new twist: shut up and keep working, plus unions should have less money (and thus less power). Jones is likely right in thinking that if Trump had blamed the loss of the jobs on the union and its workers during the campaign, he would have lost some votes. Jones is likely also correct when he stated about Trump that, “I’m not naive enough to think he’s going to be a friend to the working class people”.3
None of this can take away the fact that Trump’s victory was thanks primarily to working-class voters, especially women and members of ethnic minorities among them. Though the numbers are not definitive, the best knowledge we have is that 54.4% of Trump’s voters were women and minorities, and 66% of whites without a college degree, who are typically working class, also supported Trump.
The Wall Street Party (brought to you by Goldman Sachs)
As another writer noted, “not since the Eisenhower administration have so many business executives landed top government jobs, making Trump’s Cabinet the wealthiest in American history”. (Also, as mentioned in Note #1 below, this chart shows some of the key ties that dominated the Eisenhower administration.) The list of corporate executives in Trump’s cabinet exceeds those mentioned above. Rex Tillerson, now Secretary of State, was the CEO of Exxon. Ross Wilbur, a billionaire investor, is the Commerce Secretary. Of course, we must also include the presence of the Trump corporation itself at the apex of the administration. As some observed, Trump’s choices send “the most powerful signal yet that Mr. Trump plans to emphasize policies friendly to Wall Street, like tax cuts and a relaxation of regulation….that approach has been cheered by investors”. For weeks on end the stock market boomed, reaching new records, as if celebrating a major victory. The fact that stock markets reacted so positively, and so quickly, to Trump assuming the presidency almost suggests something akin to a coup, with some having had the benefit of advance, inside knowledge. These features bring to mind Kapferer’s discussion of the “corporate oligarchic imperial state”:
“Current configurations of global, imperial and state power relate to formations of oligarchic control. A major feature of this is the command of political organizations and institutions by close-knit social groups (families or familial dynasties, groups of kin, closed associations or tightly controlled interlinked networks of persons) for the purpose of the relatively exclusive control of economic resources and their distribution”. (Kapferer, 2005, p. 285)
Trump may have reversed himself in terms of the opportunistic targeting of Goldman Sachs, as a symbol, but there is little point in evading the fact that he entered the electoral campaign as the owner of a large family corporation. What is more difficult to explain is why Trump, as a national capitalist, lent himself so quickly to supporting a transnational capitalist class with economic and financial interests different from his own, which was also ideologically opposed to his campaign. I see many taking matters for granted, by resorting to easy assertions that “they are all the one percent,” or “they are all oligarchs”. That is broadly accurate, but also facile, because such commentary focuses (knowingly or not) on capital, in broad terms, and not on the capitalist class which is divided into competing factions. The elite political class of experts, managers, technocrats and legislators, certainly remains more united than ever against Trump since his victory—but the capitalist class is seeing some remarkable reconciliation thanks to Trump (at least for now). So why did Trump choose to perform this service?
Trump’s pleasure at the remarkable absence of legal constraints on the presidency regarding nepotism and conflict of interest, does not mean that conflict of interest and nepotism do not mark his presidency, according to the commonly understood meanings of these terms. Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, thus really could not be countered when he recently exclaimed, “it always bothers me when members of a family, who have never been elected, show up suddenly as official state representatives and are treated almost as if they were members of a royal family”. Trump will now essentially rent out the US military in order to extract tribute to advance his quasi-monarchic ambitions.
Trump’s Revised and Re-released Foreign Policy: The World Policeman is Back
In terms of foreign policy, and even during the transition before Trump’s inauguration, there were other, more disturbing signs of where Trump would be heading soon. When Fidel Castro died on November 25, 2016, Trump seemed jubilant as if he had somehow been vindicated, and took the opportunity to slander Castro as a “brutal dictator” who “oppressed his own people” and turned Cuba into a “totalitarian island”. Trump could have kept quiet, and lost nothing. Instead what he was attacking—and the irony was missed on his fervently right wing supporters—was someone who was a leader in the anti-globalist movement, from long before it was ever called that. Fidel Castro was a radical pioneer of independence, self-reliance, and self-determination. Castro turned Cuba from an American-owned sugar plantation and brothel, a lurid backwater in the Caribbean, into a serious international actor opposed to globalizing capitalism. There was no sign of any acknowledgment of this by Trump, who instead chose to parrot the same people who would vilify him using similar terms (evil, authoritarian, etc.). Of course, Trump respects only corporate executives and billionaires, not what he would see as some rag-tag Third World revolutionary. Here Trump’s supporters generally failed, using Castro’s death as an opportunity for tribal partisanship, another opportunity to attack “weak liberals” like Obama who made minor overtures to Cuba (too little, too late). Their distrust of “the establishment” was nowhere to be found this time: their ignorance of Cuba and their resort to stock clichés and slogans had all been furnished to them by the same establishment they otherwise claimed to oppose.
Just to be clear, the above is not meant to indicate any reversal on Trump’s part regarding Cuba. He has been consistently anti-communist, and fairly consistent in his denunciations of Fidel Castro. What is significant is that—far from overcoming the left-right divide—Trump shores up the barriers, even at the cost of denouncing others who have a proven track record of fighting against neoliberal globalization and US interventionism. In these regards, Trump has no track record. Even among his rivals in the Republican primaries, senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul had more of an anti-interventionist track record.
However, when he delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, Trump appeared to reaffirm his campaign themes of anti-interventionism. In particular he seemed to turn the government’s back on a long-standing policy of cultural imperialism, stating: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone”. In addition he said his government would “seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world,” and he understood the importance of national sovereignty when he added, “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first”.
Yet when it came to Russia, Trump could have instantly removed sanctions that were imposed by Obama in his last weeks in office—an irresponsible and dangerous act by Obama, where foreign policy was used as a partisan tool in the service of shoring up a crummy conspiracy theory about “Russian hacking” in order to deny the Democrats any culpability in their much deserved defeat. Instead, Trump continued the sanctions, as if out of meek deference to Obama’s policy, one founded on lies and antagonism toward Trump himself. Rather than repair the foul attempt to sabotage the US-Russian relationship in preparation for his presidency, Trump simply abided and thus became an accomplice. To be clear, Trump has done precisely nothing to dampen the near mass hysteria that has been manufactured in the US about alleged—indeed imaginary—“Russian intervention”. His comments, both during the electoral campaign and even early into his presidency, about wanting good relations with Russia, have been replaced by Trump’s admissions that US relations with Russia are at a low point (Putin agreed: “I would say the level of trust [between Russia and the US] is at a workable level, especially in the military dimension, but it hasn’t improved. On the contrary, it has degraded” and his spokesman called the relations “deplorable”.) Rather than use the power of his office to calm fears, to build better ties with Russia, and to make meeting with Vladimir Putin a top priority, Trump has again done nothing, except escalating tensions. The entire conflict with Russia that has developed in recent years, on the US side, was totally unnecessary, illogical, and quite preventable. Russia had actively facilitated the US’ war in Afghanistan for over a decade, and was a consistent collaborator on numerous levels. It is up to thinking American officials to honestly explain what motivated them to tilt relations with Russia, because it is certainly not Russia’s doing. The only explanation that makes any sense is that the US leadership grew concerned that Russia was no longer teetering on the edge of total socio-economic breakdown, as it was under the neoliberal Boris Yeltsin, but has instead resurfaced as a major actor in international affairs, and one that champions anti-neoliberal objectives of enhanced state sovereignty and self-determination.
Just two weeks after violating his promise to end the US role as the world’s policeman and his vow to extricate the US from wars for regime change, Trump sold out again. “I love WikiLeaks!”—this is what Trump exclaimed in a speech on October 10, 2016. Trump’s about-face on WikiLeaks is thus truly astounding. After finding so much use for WikiLeaks’ publication of the Podesta emails, which became incorporated into his campaign speeches, and which fuelled the writing and speaking of journalists and bloggers sympathetic to Trump—he was now effectively declaring WikiLeaks to be both an enemy and a likely target of US government action, in even more blunt terms than we heard during the past eight years under Obama. This is not mere continuity with the past, but a dramatic escalation. Rather than praise Julian Assange for his work, call for an end to the illegal impediments to his seeking asylum, swear off any US calls for extraditing and prosecuting Assange, and perhaps meeting with him in person, Trump has done all of the opposite. Instead we learn that Trump’s administration may file arrest charges against Assange. Mike Pompeo, chosen by Trump to head the CIA, who had himself cited WikiLeaks as a reliable source of proof about how the Democratic National Committee had rigged its campaign, now declared WikiLeaks to be a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” along with vicious personal slander against Assange.
Trump’s about-face on WikiLeaks was one that he defended in terms that were not just a deceptive rewriting of history, but one that was also fearful—“I don’t support or unsupport” WikiLeaks, was what Trump was now saying in his dash for the nearest exit. The backtracking is so obvious in this interview Trump gave to the AP, that his shoes must have left skid marks on the floor:
AP: If I could fit a couple of more topics. Jeff Sessions, your attorney general, is taking a tougher line suddenly on Julian Assange, saying that arresting him is a priority. You were supportive of what WikiLeaks was doing during the campaign with the release of the Clinton emails. Do you think that arresting Assange is a priority for the United States?
TRUMP: When Wikileaks came out … never heard of Wikileaks, never heard of it. When Wikileaks came out, all I was just saying is, “Well, look at all this information here, this is pretty good stuff.” You know, they tried to hack the Republican, the RNC, but we had good defenses. They didn’t have defenses, which is pretty bad management. But we had good defenses, they tried to hack both of them. They weren’t able to get through to Republicans. No, I found it very interesting when I read this stuff and I said, “Wow.” It was just a figure of speech. I said, “Well, look at this. It’s good reading.”
AP: But that didn’t mean that you supported what Assange is doing?
TRUMP: No, I don’t support or unsupport. It was just information….
AP: Can I just ask you, though — do you believe it is a priority for the United States, or it should be a priority, to arrest Julian Assange?
TRUMP: I am not involved in that decision, but if Jeff Sessions wants to do it, it’s OK with me. I didn’t know about that decision, but if they want to do it, it’s OK with me.
First, Trump invents the fictitious claim that WikiLeaks was responsible for hacking the DNC, and that WikiLeaks also tried to hack the Republicans. Second, he pretends to be an innocent bystander, a spectator, in his own administration—whatever others decide, is “OK” with him, not that he knows about their decisions, but it’s all up to others. He has no power, all of a sudden.
Again, what Trump is displaying in this episode is his ultimate attachment to his class, with all of its anxieties and its contempt for rebellious, marginal upstarts. Trump shuns any sort of “loyalty” to WikiLeaks (not that they ever had a working relationship) or any form of gratitude, because then that would imply a debt and therefore a transfer of value—whereas Trump’s core ethics are those of expedience and greed (he admits that much). This move has come with a cost, with members of Trump’s support base openly denouncing the betrayal.6
On NAFTA, Trump claims he has not changed his position—yet, from openly denouncing the free trade agreement and promising to terminate it, he now vows only to seek modifications and amendments, which means supporting NAFTA. He appeared to be awfully quick to obey the diplomatic pressure of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto. Trump’s entire position on NAFTA now comes into question. While there is no denying the extensive data about the severe impacts of NAFTA on select states and industries in the US, witnessed by the closure of tens of thousands of factories and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, there is little support for the claim that Canada and Mexico, as wholes, have instead fared well and that the US as a whole has been the loser thanks to them. This really deserves to be treated at length, separately from this article. However, for now, let’s keep in mind that when Trump complains about Canadian softwood lumber and dairy exports to the US, his argument about NAFTA is without merit. Neither commodity is part of the NAFTA agreement. Moreover, where dairy is concerned, the problem is US overproduction. Wisconsin alone has more dairy cows than all of Canada. There is a net surplus, in the US’ favour, with respect to US dairy exports to Canada. Overall, the US has a net surplus in the trade in goods and services with Canada. Regarding Mexico, the irony of Trump’s denunciations of imaginary Mexican victories is that he weakens his own criticisms of immigration. Since NAFTA was implemented, migration from Mexico to the US skyrocketed dramatically. US agricultural industries sent millions of Mexican farmers into food poverty, and ultimately drove them away from agriculture. As for per capita GDP, so treasured by economists, NAFTA had no positive impact on Mexico—in fact, per capita GDP is nearly a flat line for the entire period since 1994. Finally, Trump does not mention that in terms of the number of actual protectionist measures that have been implemented, the US leads the world.
To put Trump’s position on NAFTA in bold relief, it is not that he is decidedly against free trade. In fact, he often claims he supports free trade, as long as it is “fair”. However, his notion of fairness is very lopsided—a trade agreement is fair only when the US reaps the greater share of benefits. His arguments with respect to Canada are akin to those of a looter or raider. He wants to block lumber imports from Canada, at the same time as he wants to break the Canadian dairy market wide open to absorb US excess production. That approach is at the core of what defined the US as a “new empire” in the 1800s. In addition, while Trump was quick to tear up the TPP, he has said nothing about TISA and TTIP.
Trump’s argument with Mexico is also disturbing for what it implies. It would seem that any evidence of production in Mexico causes Trump concern. Mexico should not only keep its people—however many are displaced by US imports—but it should also be as dependent as possible on the US for everything except oil. Since Trump has consistently declared his antagonism to OPEC, ideally Mexico’s oil would be sold for a few dollars per barrel.
Trump’s turn on China almost provoked laughter from his many domestic critics. Absurdly, what figures prominently in most renditions of the story of Trump’s change on China (including his own), is a big piece of chocolate cake. The missile strike on Syria was, according to Wilbur Ross, the “after-dinner entertainment”. Here, Trump’s loud condemnations of China on trade issues were suddenly quelled—and it is not because chocolate has magical properties. Instead it seems Trump has been willing to settle on selling out citizens’ interests, and particularly those who voted for him, in return for China’s assistance on North Korea. Let’s be clear: countering and dominating North Korea is an established favourite among neoconservatives. Trump’s priority here is fully “neocon,” and the submergence of trade issues in favour of militaristic preferences is the one case where neoconservatives might be distinguished from the otherwise identical neoliberals.
Where North Korea is concerned, Trump chose to manufacture a “crisis”. North Korea has actually done nothing to warrant a sudden outbreak of panic over it being supposedly aggressive and threatening. North Korea is no more aggressive than any person defending their survival can be called belligerent. The constant series of US military exercises in South Korea, or near North Korean waters, is instead a deliberate provocation to a state whose existence the US nearly extinguished. Even last year the US Air Force publicly boasted of having “nearly destroyed” North Korea—language one would have expected from the Luftwaffe in WWII. The US continues to maintain roughly 60,000 troops on the border between North and South Korea, and continues to refuse to formally declare an end to the Korean War and sign a peace treaty. Trump then announced he was sending an “armada” to the Korean peninsula, and boasted of how “very powerful” it was. This was in addition to the US deploying the THAAD missile system in South Korea. Several of his messages in Twitter were written using highly provocative and threatening language. When asked if he would start a war, Trump glibly replied: “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see”. On another occasion Trump stated, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely”. When the world’s leading military superpower declares its intention to destroy you, then there is nothing you can do in your defense which anyone could justly label as “over the top”. Otherwise, once again Trump posed as a parental figure, the world’s chief babysitter—picture Trump, surrounded by children taking part in the “Easter egg roll” at the White House, being asked about North Korea and responding “they gotta behave”. Trump would presume to teach manners to North Korea, using the only tools of instruction that seem to be the first and last resort of US foreign policy (and the “defense” industry): bombs.
Attacking Syria, on purportedly humanitarian grounds, is for many (including vocal supporters) one of the most glaring contradictions of Trump’s campaign statements about not embroiling the US in failed wars of regime change and world policing. During the campaign, he was in favour of Russia’s collaboration with Syria in the fight against ISIS. For years he had condemned Obama for involving the US in Syria, and consistently opposed military intervention there. All that was consigned to the archive of positions Trump declared to now be worthless. That there had been a change in Trump’s position is not a matter of dispute—Trump made the point himself:
“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change. Well, I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me—big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that. And I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible— and I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. And if you look back over the last few weeks, there were other attacks using gas. You’re now talking about a whole different level”.
Bending to the will of the prevailing Cold War and neo-McCarthyist atmosphere in the US, rife with anti-Russian conspiracy theories, Trump found an easy opportunity to score points with the hostile media, ever so mindful as he is about approval ratings, polls, and media coverage. Some explain Trump’s reversals as arising from his pursuit of public adulation—and while the media play the key role in purveying celebrity status, they are also a stiff bastion of imperialist culture. Given his many years as a the host of a popular TV show, and as the owner of the Miss Universe Pageant, there is some logical merit to the argument. But I think even more is at work, as explained in paragraphs above. According to Eric Trump it was at the urging of Ivanka that Donald Trump decided to strike a humanitarian-militarist pose. He would play the part of the Victorian parent, only he would use missiles to teach unruly children lessons about violence. Using language typically used against him by the mainstream media, Trump now felt entitled to pontificate that Assad is “evil,” an “animal,” who would have to go. When did he supposedly come to this realization? Did Assad become evil at the same time Trump was inaugurated? Why would Trump have kept so silent about “evil” on the campaign trail? Trump of course is wrong: it’s not that the world changed and he changed with it; rather, he invented a new fiction to suit his masked intentions. Trump’s supposed opponents and critics, like the Soros-funded organizer of the women’s march Linda Sarsour, showed her approval of even more drastic action by endorsing messages by what sounded like a stern school mistress who thought that 59 cruise missiles were just a mere “slap on the wrist”. Virtually every neocon who is publicly active applauded Trump, as did most senior Democrats. The loudest opposition, however, came from Trump’s own base, with a number of articles featuring criticism from Trump’s supporters, and one conservative publication calling him outright a “weakling and a political ingrate”.
Members of the Trump administration have played various word games with the public on intervention in Syria. From unnamed officials saying the missile strike was a “one off,” to named officials promising more if there were any other suspected chemical attacks (or use of barrel bombs—and this while the US dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in existence on Afghanistan); some said that regime change was not the goal, and then others made it clear that was the ultimate goal; and then Trump saying, “Our policy is the same, it hasn’t changed. We’re not going into Syria”—even though Trump himself greatly increased the number of US troops he deployed to Syria, illegally, in an escalation of the least protested invasion in recent history. Now we should know enough not to count this as mere ambiguity, but as deliberate obfuscation that offers momentary (thinly veiled) cover for a renewal of neocon policy.
We can draw an outline of Trump’s liberal imperialism when it comes to Syria, which is likely to be applied elsewhere. First, Trump’s interventionist policy regarding Syria is one that continues to treat that country as if it were terra nullius, a mere playground for superpower politics. Second, Trump is clearly continuing with the neoconservative agenda and its hit list of states to be terminated by US military action, as famously confirmed by Gen. Wesley Clark. Even Trump’s strategy for justifying the attack on Syria echoed the two prior Bush presidential administrations—selling war with the infamous “incubator babies” myth and the myth of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs). In many ways, Trump’s presidency is thus shaping up to be either the seventh term of the George H.W. Bush regime, or the fifth straight term of the George W. Bush regime. Third, Trump is taking ownership of an extremely dangerous conflict, with costs that could surpass anything witnessed by the war on Iraq (which also continues). Fourth, by highlighting the importance of photographs in allegedly changing his mind, Trump has placed a high market value on propaganda featuring dead babies. His actions in Syria will now create an effective demand for the pornographic trade in pictures of atrocities. These are matters of great importance to the transnational capitalist class, which demands full global penetrability, diminished state power (unless in the service of this class’ goals), a uniformity of expectations and conformity in behaviour, and an emphasis on individual civil liberties which are the basis for defending private property and consumerism.
It is very disturbing to see how Venezuela is being framed as ripe for US intervention, in ways that distinctly echo the lead up to the US war on Libya. Just as disturbing is that Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has a clear conflict of interest regarding Venezuela, from his recent role as CEO of Exxon and its conflict with the government of Venezuela over its nationalization of oil. Tillerson is, by any definition, a clear-cut member of the transnational capitalist class. The Twitter account of the State Department has a battery of messages sternly lecturing Venezuela about the treatment of protesters, while also pontificating on the Venezuelan Constitution as if the US State Department had become a global supreme court. What is impressive is the seamless continuity in the nature of the messages on Venezuela from that account, as if no change of government happened between Obama’s time and Trump’s. Nikki Haley, Trump’s neocon ambassador to the UN, issued a statement that read like it had been written by her predecessors, Samantha Power and Susan Rice, a statement which in itself is an unacceptable intervention in Venezuelan internal affairs. For Trump’s part, from just days before the election, to a couple of weeks after his inauguration, he has sent explicit messages of support for anti-government forces in Venezuela. In February, Trump imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s Vice President. After Syria and North Korea, Venezuela is seeming the likely focus of US interventionism under Trump.
Rounding out the picture, at least for now (this was just the first hundred days of Trump’s presidency), was Trump’s outstanding reversal on NATO—in fact, once again he stated the reversal himself, and without explanation either: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete”. This came just days after the US missile strike against Syria, and just as Ivanka Trump was about to represent his government at a meeting of globalist women, the W20. NATO has served as the transnational military alliance at the service of the transnational capitalist class, and particularly the military and political members of the TCC.7
Has Trump saved neoliberal capitalism from its ongoing demise? Has he sustained popular faith in liberal political ideals? Are we still in the dying days of liberalism? If there had been a centrally coordinated plan to plant an operative among the ranks of populist conservatives and independents, to channel their support for nationalism into support for the persona of the plant, and to then have that plant steer a course straight back to shoring up neoliberal globalism—then we might have had a wonderful story of a masterful conspiracy, the biggest heist in the history of elections anywhere. A truly “rigged system” could be expected to behave that way. Was Trump designated to take the fall in a rigged game, only his huge ego got in the way when he realized he could realistically win the election and he decided to really tilt hard against his partner, Hillary Clinton? It could be the basis for a novel, or a Hollywood political comedy. I have no way of knowing if it could be true.
Framed within the terms of what we do know, there was relief by the ousted group of political elites and the liberal globalist media at the sight of Trump’s reversals, and a sense that their vision had been vindicated. However, if they are hoping that the likes of Trump will serve as a reliable flag bearer, then theirs is a misguided wishful thinking. If someone so demonized and ridiculed, tarnished as an evil thug and racist fascist, the subject of mass demonstrations in the US and abroad, is the latest champion of (neo)liberalism, then we are certainly witnessing its dying days.
Is Trump Beneficial for Anti-Imperialism?
Once one is informed enough and thus prepared to understand that anti-imperialism is not the exclusive preserve of the left (a left which anyway has mostly shunned it over the last two decades), that it did not originate with the left, and that it has a long and distinguished history in the US itself, then we can move toward some interesting realizations. The facts, borne out by surveys and my own online immersion among pro-Trump social media users, is that one of the significant reasons why Trump won is due to the growth in popularity of basic anti-imperialist principles (even if not recognized under that name): for example, no more world policing, no transnational militarization, no more interventions abroad, no more regime change, no war, and no globalism. Nationalists in Europe, as in Russia, have also pushed forward a basic anti-imperialist vision. Whereas in Latin America anti-imperialism is largely still leftist, in Europe and North America the left-right divide has become blurred, but the crucial thing is that at least now we can speak of anti-imperialism gaining strength in these three major continents. Resistance against globalization has been the primary objective, along with strengthening national sovereignty, protecting local cultural identity, and opposing free trade and transnational capital. Unfortunately, some anti-imperialist writers (on the left in fact) have tended to restrict their field of vision to military matters primarily, while almost completely neglecting the economic and cultural, and especially domestic dimensions of imperialism. (I am grossly generalizing of course, but I think it is largely accurate.) Where structures such as NAFTA are concerned, many of these same leftist anti-imperialists, few as they are, have had virtually nothing to say. It could be that they have yet to fully recognize that the transnational capitalist class has, gradually over the last seven decades, essentially purchased the power of US imperialism. Therefore the TCC’s imperialism includes NAFTA, just as it includes open borders, neoliberal identity politics, and drone strikes. They are all different parts of the same whole.
As for Trump’s domestic opposition, what should be most pertinent are issues of conflict of interest and nepotism. Here members of Trump’s base are more on target yet again, when they reject the presence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in the White House (“we didn’t elect Ivanka or Jared”), than are those distracted by identity politics. As Trump leverages the presidency to upgrade the Trump family to the transnational capitalist class, and reinforces the power of US imperialism which that class has purchased, conflict of interest and nepotism will be the main political signposts of the transformation of the Trump presidency, but they could also be the targets for a refined strategy of opposition.
- Perhaps the one previous administration that most closely resembles Trump’s in the degree of overlap between the cabinet and a single corporation, and the degree of nepotism, is that of Dwight Eisenhower. In Eisenhower’s case the significant corporate interest was the United Fruit Company; the ostensible nepotism involved the multiple members of the Dulles, Cabot, and Whitman families within the administration and with ties to United Fruit. This chart shows some of the key ties that dominated the Eisenhower administration.
- It is impressive just how many individuals—who could not and did not predict Trump’s electoral victory—still manage to smugly claim that they saw all of this coming. An avalanche of “I told you so” declarations, piling in from complete unknowns who are suddenly smart, has been amazing—though not so much once one realizes that the intent is to validate the candidate they chose. They could not envision a Trump presidency, yet somehow knew what a Trump presidency would be like. Since the former is a basic prerequisite for the latter, that is quite the analytical feat for the illogical soothsayer, one that might even attract circus goers (in the absence of any of the more entertaining performers).
- It should also be noted that Jones joins Trump in producing multisided messages that seemingly contradict each other. For example, Jones expressed some gratitude to Trump for helping to pressure Carrier to retain jobs in the US.
- The law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell comes up twice in this article. While today it represents Goldman Sachs, which has a large presence in Trump’s cabinet, Sullivan & Cromwell previously represented the United Fruit Company, which had an equally large presence in the Eisenhower administration. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, had worked for Sullivan & Cromwell, representing United Fruit.
- Explaining the relationship between the national and transnational capitalist classes, how they differ but also how one can lead to the other, is the subject of this chart which was meant to illustrate the work of Robinson & Harris (2000). The chart is meant to show not just what distinguishes the national from the transnational capitalists, but also how the former can become the latter. There are at least two major ways that the transnational capitalist class (TCC) can be formed: one is through a fusion of national capitalists (especially those in category 4, where we find Trump), and the other is through processes that are wholly transnational.
- One example among many others: the “Resistance Chicks” have seen growing popularity, as members of Trump’s rural support base who are critical of what they see as the US’ one-party state, the deep state. With reference to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and their criticism of Donald Trump, see: https://youtu.be/XhI9j2yLDBI
- As outlined by Leslie Sklair (1999), the TCC consists not just of the owners of capital, but also the elites who serve them, such as bankers, technocrats, politicians, journalists, but he should have explicitly mentioned military elites as well. This chart, from page 157 of his 1999 article, provides a simple overview of the composition of the TCC.
- I dislike writing in such terms, since in recent years I have started to experience anything approaching personal demonization as something like a strong allergic reaction. I am therefore not wont to produce a litany of insults and denigration of Trump—in the place of a counter-argument, or even as a preamble to a critique—in the hopes that my aiding the gang bang will somehow shore up “progressive” credentials that I neither need nor desire.
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