Surely we have heard and seen enough by now that any lingering “optimism” about Trump governing as an anti-interventionist in foreign affairs has totally evaporated. What Trump promised in foreign policy terms in 2016, and what he instead delivered, are two radically different things—the same could be said of Obama, the so-called peace candidate of 2008, and something similar might be said of George W. Bush who swore against “nation-building”. Obama and Trump are two figures that especially raised expectations among supporters, then heightened disillusionment, as virtually none of the reforms that would strike at the heart of whichever malaise were ever carried out. In some quarters there is still occasional mention of Trumpian populism making a break with the “Washington establishment” of liberal interventionists and neocon war-mongers—but specifically only with reference to US troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, added to some feckless grumbling by Trump about NATO. To make matters worse, Trump still benefits from the collusion of his “opponents” in the US, who erroneously brand him an “isolationist”—if only that had been true. Trump is more of a unilateralist than an isolationist. The only “globalism” that Trump supposedly feared was one that was not properly subservient to Americanism, and that is just as true of all of his predecessors.
Not to indulge the popular truism that “all politicians are liars” (despite the massive amounts of evidence that support that conclusion), there seems to be more going on here than just lying. It is about lying always in a particular direction. We have yet to see a US president rise to power on the promise of American supremacy with more war and foreign conquest, only to govern as an anti-war and anti-imperialist president. If politicians just lied all the time, they could lie about anything and everything, in any random direction—but they don’t. The lying here seems to have a predetermined shape to it.
Let’s briefly review Trump’s foreign policy track record, particularly with respect to foreign intervention and unnecessary conflict maximization. Trump may have in fact ordered a withdrawal of US troops from Syria, but he is dithering and his generals are deliberately dawdling. The “withdrawal” from Syria came after Trump increased the US military presence there, and launched two rounds of air strikes on Syrian government facilities. Likewise in Afghanistan, a reduction in troop numbers only came after Trump increased those numbers. Trump has multiplied sanctions on Russia, withdrawn from an arms control treaty with Russia, invaded Russian diplomatic compounds in the US, shipped arms to Ukraine, expelled dozens of Russian diplomats, and placed restrictions on RT. Anyone who was against Cold War II has long been purged from the White House, starting almost immediately with Gen. Michael Flynn. Trump never made North Korea a focus of his 2016 campaign, but once he was in office he did everything possible to heighten confrontation with North Korea, before holding out a fake olive branch, and then walking away from negotiations—so the flames of a totally unnecessary crisis may slowly be reigniting yet again. On Venezuela—also not a Trump 2016 campaign issue—Trump has been nothing less than sanguine when it comes to regime change and threats of military invasion, added to actual economic warfare and helping to engineer a grotesque humanitarian crisis. Trump reversed some of the key steps made by Obama to improve relations with Cuba, while his White House proclaimed that Cuba along with Nicaragua and Venezuela (the “troika of tyranny,” i.e., the new “axis of evil”) would be the targets of destabilization. Iran has also been visited by Trump’s ire, suffering from ever-widening rounds of sanctions and threats, with the US walking out on a multiparty agreement which Iran never violated. There too Trump threatened war. As for Mexico, it still has not, and never will pay a cent for “the wall,” no matter how many tortured ways of spinning reality Trump clumsily invents. How would Hillary Clinton have been any worse?
But then there was always the default position that offered one last thread of hope. The idea of a default position is simply this: at the very least, Trump would introduce so much disarray, such disorder and chaos, undermine key institutions of the establishment while disrespecting their norms, and heighten domestic divisions and antagonisms in the US to such an extreme that… nothing would get done, not even foreign intervention. Especially not foreign intervention, one might have thought, since it is extraordinarily complex business that could easily be impeded at home. That hypothesis has been proven wrong. It was based on a flawed assumption. Instead, Americans really can do two things at once. Americans can chew gum and destroy the world at the same time.
Chewing Gum, Destroying the World
On the one hand, there was the Trump White House, which even after a short time became notorious for the turnover of its key staff. Numerous administration positions were left unfilled. A non-compliant Republican Party in Congress blocked a number of Trump’s plans or imposed their own against his. This was followed by the Republicans’ loss of the House of Representatives, and the rise of the Democrats’ wave of investigations into Trump’s corruption, conflict of interest, and so forth. There was the FBI’s special investigation into Trump and his associates, that has already levied a very high price on some just for having associated with Trump. The media were almost universally against Trump. There was one scandal, real or imagined, after another. Blockbuster books were published exposing new levels of chaos, factional fighting, and disarray in the White House, along with new whispers of criminal activity. A porn star threatened to derail the presidency. His campaign was marred by allegations of sexual assault, and the revelation of his disgusting remarks about women. He has pretended not to know what white supremacists are, and seemed reluctant to disavow endorsements by extreme right-wing racists, just as we he was reluctant and ambivalent in condemning them. Former friends of Trump became his new enemies. Trump then pretends to have never known some of them. There were two government shutdowns, one of which (the longest yet) was proudly engineered by Trump himself, to no avail: he backed down, then signed legislation that involved officially caving in. Trump has upheld few of his campaign promises, and some of his policies have spectacularly backfired: ever multiplying tariff barriers still could not stop the trade deficit from growing to record levels, including the trade deficit with China. The same budget deficit that Trump railed against, instead ballooned on his watch. While bemoaning trillions lost on foreign wars, Trump increased military spending to back-breaking new record levels—even though NATO allies were supposedly spending more and thus relieving the US of financial burden. Trump himself did not seem to know what to think on a given subject from one day to the next, frequently reversing himself and backing down in the face of criticism and “negative ratings”. The style of “governance” involved Trump petulantly protesting on Twitter, about things over which he has both power and responsibility, as if he were a hapless and innocent bystander. He thinks it’s “talking tough” to come across as a capricious, whining infant. His approach to foreign policy has been described varyingly as wildly inconsistent, impractical, unreasonable, alarmist, brazen, inarticulate, saturated with double standards and irreconcilable contradictions, of means without purpose, aims without substance, and plans without a beginning or end. Yet, with all of this, Trump still managed to bomb Syria, expand the war in Afghanistan, and manufacture new crises around Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. If Trump really thought he was the target of a “coup” by the “deep state,” one would imagine his aversion toward coups—but that is not true. Trump wants a coup by the equivalent deep state in Venezuela—and there he calls it “restoring democracy”. Chaos and division at home was no impediment to either continuity or accelerated US imperial aggression. Chewing gum, destroying the world.
On the other hand, there was the opposition to the Trump White House, consisting of a diverse array of numerous camps, sometimes collaborating, sometimes working separately and autonomously. There were mass protests against Trump around the issue of women’s rights. Violent confrontations on university campuses worked to keep prominent Trump supporters at bay. Alarms were sounded about racial hatred, immigrant-bashing, police brutality, discrimination against gays and women. The opposition fully joined the Republicans in pursuing the “culture war”. Sometimes the alarm reached the level of hysteria, and there was no shortage of actual “fake news” being produced by anti-Trump mass and alternative media, mirroring the propaganda gushing out of every hole in Fox News. So concerned about minority rights, democracy, tuition, healthcare, the supreme court, that one would think that liberals and the left had no time to bother with trying to reengineer the domestic affairs of foreign nations—when they were so clearly unable to prevent or fix distress and disarray at home. That is where one would be wrong, for the American left is mostly an American left—meaning that it is an imperial left. Let alone liberals who have long been committed to intervention around the world, possessed as they are by a messianic image of themselves as the saviours of a world not in need of their “leadership”. It was also on this side of the divide where the “deep state” came in for renewed appreciation and even veneration, up to and including the generals that Trump appointed to his own White House. One would think that with all this on their plate, overthrowing foreign governments would not be a concern, when regime change was all at home now. Once again, one would be wrong: chewing gum, destroying the world.
The Bubble Gum Thesis
We can now call what was just described as evidence for the “bubble gum thesis”. This is about the culturally ingrown, unquestionable, taken-for-granted nature of imperialism in American society. It results in what seems like a relentless non-distractibility from the goals of empire. Nothing within the society appears to have the power to change it in short order—nothing dares to try. This tells us something about both the dominant US culture, and it tells us something about American imperialism—left to themselves, on their own, they show an internal incapacity to change in any measurable way within the life-span of a single observer. It is also too generous, and unrealistic, to draw a neat dividing line between “the government” and “the people” on this issue—the gum of empire is sold everywhere, and few are those who refuse to chew it or spit it out.
The bubble gum thesis can even work when we try to make more direct comparisons between the culture of American imperialism and chewing gum as such. Chewing gum is such a classic American activity that in Italy the term for it is simply “gomma americana”: American gum. All chewing gum was by definition American gum. (American GIs entering Rome as “liberators” at the end of WWII tossed packets of gum to girls as if they were grateful servants.) Like chewing gum, US imperial culture is elastic, long-lasting, seemingly incapable of degradation, and only becomes stickier the more it is chewed. It may lose its flavour quickly, and contain too much sugar and artificial ingredients to do the chewer any good, causing tooth decay—yet it remains there, in place, ready to be chewed for as long as one wants. The last point is the only real difference: US imperial culture seems to persist in making itself chewed, regardless of what the chewers might otherwise want—indeed, the chewers have all learned that when it comes to gum/American empire, the only thing you can do, the only thing you can want to do, is to keep on chewing more.
Double the domestic trouble? No problem! Domestic strife seems to only double the chewing pleasure of empire. The US “oath of allegiance” itself contains a chilling line that attests to the swinging door between imperial war/counterinsurgency/regime change abroad and at home: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. Defending America, against American enemies of America? That’s an odd line. Why would it be included? Do such people in fact exist? Why promote internal social and political divisions to a central line in an oath, thereby acknowledging their existence? One problem is evidenced by what Trump is now doing—beating up Venezuela at least in part to beat up “socialists” at home, i.e., enemies, foreign and domestic. It’s not just Trump: generations of American politicians have used foreign crusades as a means of persecuting and punishing domestic opponents, and vice versa. That Trump should try to show he can get a hard on for foreign war, by bombing Syria and intervening in Venezuela, only to have the “opposition” media salute the size of his hard on, proves the ingrained inviolability of the imperial impulse in US society.
Prospects for a Burst Bubble
Regime change has come home to the US. We saw it in the vendetta of a secret police force (the FBI) that decided which policies an elected president ought to pursue, and judged Trump to be un-American and a foreign spy for not pursuing policies with which the FBI leadership agreed: the policies of non-stop empire. We also saw it in the deliberate disinformation published by the media on numerous occasions, the surveillance of political opponents conducted by the Obama administration, and the paid thugs sent to disrupt Trump rallies in 2016. Then there were various boycott efforts (the domestic equivalent of sanctions). Recognizable regime change theatre appeared in the form of statues being torn down—instead of tearing down statues of Saddam or Lenin, they tore down statues of Confederate officers. Adding to the established theatrical pattern of past regime changes, Hollywood celebrities with long resumes acting as ambassadors for a slew of humanitarian interventionist crusades abroad, brought home and re-applied their skills of tearless sobbing, screaming, and rehearsed utterances of vulgarity. Oh, the emergency of it all, the need for urgent action, the never-ending crisis mode of gesturing practiced by the red carpet cliques. Accompanying the theatre were stories of the exaggerated opulence and decadence of the leader’s private lifestyle, and targeting even his family members for public lampooning. Assassination porn was the cherry on the ice cream—the ultimate wish for death of every regime change operation. What CNN routinely did overseas since the 1980s, it simply started to do at home—except you can’t expel CNN from the US.
So what do Americans do, especially those on the potential losing end of domestic regime change? Do they denounce regime change as wrong? Incensed by the anti-democratic injustice of coercive regime change, do they tilt against all manifestations of regime change, at home and abroad? Or do they do like Trump himself does, and raise the banner of regime change against Iran and Venezuela? Even when you can prove to Americans, with verifiable, objective, lived experience that regime change is a hideous thing, they seem immune to change, impervious to even questioning regime change. Talk about a Levi-Straussian “cold society”.
Above, I mentioned that the cultural continuity we see in American empire seems so resistant to change that it would almost appear to be static, when viewed from the vantage point of an observer in a single lifetime. But can change ever occur rapidly? The most radical and rapid cultural change of which we know, usually happens in cases of extreme distress–but distress itself is insufficient. As for situations of distress that are relevant here, we can think of at least three cases.
One source of distress that might produce rapid change can be that which is caused by extreme and indefensible social inequalities in terms of power, wealth, and status. However, in the US these have been constant features, even if the statistical measures of such inequalities have fluctuated over time (increasing, again, in the last 30 years). American society has grown incredibly tolerant of vast inequality and limited social mobility, and routinely deploys myths to “make sense” of such inequalities. In addition, nowhere have poverty and oppression themselves led to revolutions—that standard myth sold by propagandists, journalists and commercial filmmakers has long been disproved by political scientists. It’s also the myth used to justify sanctions for regime change—yet sanctions have nowhere ever caused regime change. They are not meant to, and that is the secret US officials will not reveal to the public: sanctions are simply meant to punish an entire nation. The end goal is simply the production of pain and hardship. Ultimately, sanctions are a means to destroy a nation. Meanwhile CNN viewers in the US are instructed about a number to call to “help” Venezuelans cope with crisis—I somehow doubt that number takes them to an anti-interventionist or anti-sanctions hotline to Congress.
A second source of distress that can generate broad cultural change can be a general loss of faith in the dominant cultural myths that bind members of a society into a kind of community. This might be happening in the US, now more than ever before as the popular imagination veers closer and closer to an apocalyptic phase (thus some of the imagery used for this essay comes from the popular Fallout video game series). However, because any diminishment of US power is treated as if it were an apocalyptic crash, and apocalypses are scary things, the very invocation of a coming apocalypse can act as an incentive to keep the engines of empire running at full throttle. It’s either empire or it’s cannibalistic savagery, people!
A third source of distress is, fortunately, one over which the US does not have total control: objective, external geopolitical and global economic conditions. My own inclination is to stick with a long-held thesis espoused on this site: change in the centre will first come from the periphery, and it will be unstoppable. Once US empire no longer finds an external environment that permits its policies to take root, that will cause consequences to cascade back on the US. Such external conditions could include: large numbers of countries dropping the US dollar as a reserve currency for international transactions; the development of new financial and manufacturing centres outside of the US; the formation of powerful blocs in a multipolar world; and, greater solidarity and cooperation among militarily significant states targeted by the US. Also, despite Trump’s tough talk, the US absolutely cannot afford an arms race, yet it is being successfully baited into one now. Of course the ultimate form of externally-imposed stress for the US would be devastating nuclear strikes, a possibility which is both alarming and a lot less unlikely than it was a few short years ago.
Misplaced Hopes for a Popped Bubble
Some were aware, and might remember, that at least some of those who declared their intent to vote for Trump in 2016 did so precisely because they thought he was a repulsive a**hole and likely to be incompetent and offensive (he certainly has delivered on each of these fronts)—and that therefore Trump would be a “disruptor”. Bill O’Reilly likened him to a Molotov cocktail lobbed by angry and disillusioned voters (like many in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who had twice voted for Obama, before voting for Trump). Michael Moore advanced a “f*ck you” theory of Trump’s electoral win—voting for Trump would be an act of revenge for millions cheated and betrayed by neoliberal Clintons and Obama who had turned their backs on the working class. It’s the disruptor thesis that has proven to be wrong. When it comes to foreign policy especially, and neoconservative policy (despite Trump supposedly overthrowing and ejecting neocons from the GOP with his 2016 ascendancy), it is precisely there where we find continuity overall.
Optimistic analyses held out the hope that Americans themselves could change, that they held the keys and the rationality to put empire into reverse, especially since Americans themselves had started to really suffer from imperial excess. Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, wrote in 2016: “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”. Jean Bricmont wrote this in 2016 about Trump: “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”. Even a Marxist like Domenico Losurdo came to the conclusion that when it comes to advancing imperialism, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was clear: “I believe that Hillary Clinton would perhaps be the worst of the two”. In 2017, Joseph Natoli asked: “How likely is it that President Trump, a man who feeds on adulation, will take on the mantle of American Warrior and start a war around which we can all rally? And who will fight that war?” Others in CounterPunch held out the possibility that Trump might be good for world peace, as did Brian Cloughley, while thoughtful writers like John McMurtry explained that Trump was an anti-establishment figure.
There seemed to be something new and different about Trump, as if he might matter, and that he might just matter enough to serve as a roadblock on the path of non-stop empire. For my part, in “Half-Heads: A Dominant Force in US Politics,” I presented the argument that greater internal disarray and division in the US might be good for the rest of us. Implicitly, the value of disruption was also contained in “Haunted by Gaddafi” (an essay that otherwise elaborated on many of the key ideas discussed above). In “Donald Trump and Empire: An Assessment,” I was at my most hopeful, thinking aloud that Trump might be a transitional figure, a kind of American Gorbachev. Just a year later, I had to reverse the analysis to follow Trump’s own reversals, in “Donald Trump, Empire, and Globalization: A Reassessment”—but even there I held out the possibility of the default position that the bubble gum thesis destroyed. I argued that, “disorder, confusion, lack of conviction, and a government undermined by factions” could add to domestic turbulence, and since “domestic social and cultural conflicts cause a serious deficit of legitimacy, a loss of political capital,” the US might be too exhausted for new imperial adventures. Wrong, about both Trump and the rest of the US. In “What Happened to the American Empire?” I held on to the default position in arguing that Trump was “far from an ideal figure for empire,” one who at least served to undermine the credibility of US hegemony—and despite all the hostile noises from Europe and Canada about their distrust of Trump, they instantaneously joined to support his regime change adventure in Venezuela, just as they had backed him in Syria. Trump is not the only flip-flopper on the pier. In addition, I suggested that “by often taking the wrong course of action, and handling it with a mixture of what seems like incompetence, confusion, and vulgar jingoism,” Trump was possibly sabotaging empire—possibly, but not so in fact. What I saw as the “dysfunctionality” aggravated by Trump’s “weak, incoherent, visionless, disassembled, unreliable, untrustworthy, dishonest, and vain” governance, was also optimistic and not in tune with reality. Finally, I argued that “civil wars have a way of disrupting plans for expansion, by redirecting aggression domestically” and that much is credible; however, short of an outright civil war, the absence of domestic peace in the US does not mean greater peace for the rest of the world. Far from a roadblock on the path of empire, Trump was not so much as a speed bump.
The bubble gum thesis buries any and all future expectations of a “disruptor” who by default, by the sheer magnitude of incompetence, hinders US empire. The bubble gum thesis also points us away from “heroic individuals” and towards a structure and cultural system instead. It points to long-term continuities, and away from relatively minor episodic events, like elections.
Double Bubble Elections
It is a challenge to any optimist to continually misplace one’s hopes. At a certain point, optimism is just another word for reality-denial. On Zero Anthropology, no article will appear concerning the US presidential elections in 2020 or any that come after, and certainly not out of a concern for “non-interference”. It is instead because the conclusion has been reached here—slowly (obviously)—that the elections do not matter, and will produce no meaningful change. Yes, Trump could be defeated, but already Trump does not matter, he is insignificant, and deserves none of the enormous attention that he has received here, and more elsewhere. It’s as if he were gone already, as far as I am concerned. For less than two years we will get to see a lame-duck stooge spew and posture as if he deserved all the attention available, but he is already nothing, and a nobody. The pathological cranks from Fox News and the warmed up, left-over neocon crackpots Trump imported into his White House are more consequential than he is. Those who continue to support Trump, because they think it’s their duty to do so despite being betrayed, will likely find themselves pushed further into the margins of US political life.
The problem is that nothing is what it seems. The ability to chew gum and smash faces introduces an easy duplicity in everyday affairs, and by definition duplicity is misleading. There are supposed anti-interventionists, and it turns out that either they are racists (seeing Iraqis like “primitive monkeys” thus undeserving of the “gifts” of US “liberation”), or they think that intervention is wrong, as is racism, but all the tales demonizing a foreign leader are correct. Their cultural value system remains imperialist, even if their promised policy offers a departure. There are those who think that forcing “humanitarian aid” into Venezuela is wrong, and that it would also be implicitly wrong to block its entry. Similarly, that the corporate media are corrupt and hostile to the public interest, but preserving press freedom means we have to live with the media giants. We are bombarded with the false dilemmas of self-abducting hostages. On the other hand, we have arch neocons taking up the mantle of the identitarian virtue signallers, writing mea culpas about their white, male privilege—and calling for the wholesale destruction of North Korea, bombing Iran, and invading Venezuela. You have “decolonial” scholars who will not utter a peep in protest against US intervention, just as long as they can cash in on rewards for their skin colour. As Americans continue on their walk into a bewildering wilderness of confusion and contradiction, as they continue to chew gum and burn the world, no election and no one politician is going to matter.