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A Danger, Not a Distraction: What’s Driving Trump and Why He Can Be Beaten

Chris Nineham argues that far from being a distraction as some are arguing, Donald Trump represents a danger that must be confronted

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"If Trump has signed a largely meaningless nuclear deal in Korea, he has scrapped a real one with Iran. This is a sign that the most extreme of the neo-cons are back in charge of foreign policy at least for the Middle East."


Almost every day brings another reason to protest against Donald Trump. A new outrage against migrants or Muslims, a new repulsive turn of phrase (or worse, a poem), another threat to workers’ rights or the environment. It must be alarming to be in the US and face such relentless attacks. But Trump and Trumpism is of concern to all of us – not just because of his impending visit – but because one of the things that marks Trump’s presidency out is its toxic international impact.

His recent turn towards economic protectionism is one aspect of this. Protectionist policies are confrontational by definition . They encourage the hardening of economic spheres of interest which have a habit of taking on a military dimension. They tend to be accompanied by increasingly rabid nationalism at home too.

Such crude America first policies have of course been accompanied by disruptive behaviour at gatherings of various international bodies, including NATO and G7 conferences.

Not content with economic provocations and bigoted, xenophobic banter, Trump and his entourage take delight in encouraging likeminded extremists. Former Trump advisor and close confidante Steve Bannon backed the recent Free Tommy Robinson march in central London. Trump himself has been working with Hungary’s Viktor Orban to issue a statement calling for ‘strong national borders’, a broadside at what they see as Angela Merkel’s overly liberal immigration stance.

The Financial Times reports widespread consternation even in some US security circles. It quotes Michael Haydn, a former director of the CIA saying, “we have never seen a US president egg on the undemocratic forces among our closest allies. Trump sees that Merkel is down. And he is trying to finish her off”.  

Drop the bomb

His military foreign policy – despite some of his election rhetoric – has been marked by a sharp turn towards more aggression.

The raw statistics are clear. In the first seven months of the Trump administration, more people died as a result of drone strikes than during the entire eight years under Obama. The attacks were focussed in particular on Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, none of them countries which the US is officially fighting. Over the course of Obama’s time in office, his military dropped an average of 12,500 bombs per year. In Trump’s first year in office the US dropped an annual total of 44,096, mainly on Iraq and Syria.

Underlying this is a new orientation outlined in the US strategic documents published at the start of this year. They state that the Pentagon now sees China and Russia as "the central challenge" facing the US military. This is a sharp change, at least in rhetoric, "inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism” the report goes on t say “is now the primary concern in US national security,"

To get on to particulars, under Trump’s administration the number of NATO troops in Eastern Europe has shot up as has the frequency of manoeuvres. This surge is prompted not just by growing hysteria against Russia but also – and this is one of  the unremarked explanations for that hysteria - the fact that Caucasus and North Central Asia has been designated as a strategic area with increased importance because of its sharply increasing production of valuable minerals and natural gas.

Trump has escalated in Afghanistan too, partly for the same reasons. There are now 16,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and last year more US weapons were used in the country than at any time since 2012 – when Obama’s surge was still on.

The media initially reported the nuclear deal with North Korean President Kim Jong Un as a sign that Donald Trump has a streak of diplomatic brilliance, some apparently seriously reporting that a Nobel peace prize was in the pipeline. The reality is the deal was more of a coup for the North Korean regime than an indication that Trump suddenly discovered his inner pacifist. The initiative was taken out of US hands when North and South Korea began a round of détente at the Olympic games and it has never regained it. The whole affair is an indication of the limits of US power.

Given the terms of the deal are so vague, the more general trend of increased US mobilisation in the Asian Pacific and the identification of China as the US’s main strategic enemy – this deal is unlikely to mark an end to trouble in the Asia Pacific.

If Trump has signed a largely meaningless nuclear deal in Korea, he has scrapped a real one with Iran. This is a sign that the most extreme of the neo-cons are back in charge of foreign policy at least for the Middle East. Both John Bolton and Mick Pompeo, respectively National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, are hawks on Iran, and John Bolton is an out and out extremist who is on the record repeatedly calling for regime change in the country.

We should be clear that the logic of scrapping the deal and re-imposing sanctions is that regime change is now US foreign policy for Iran. The situation is made worse by the fact that, unlike in East Asia, the US is in a tighter and tighter alliance with countries who also back confrontation. Israel and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies are united in wanting to cripple Iran. The immediate expression of this is the escalation of the attack on Yemen. The current attack on Yemen’s main port Hodeida is in danger of turning the world’s worst humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. The US and Britain have played a shameful role in encouraging and supporting this aggression.

The same can be said of Israel’s assault on the Palestinians which has reached new levels of brutality with the massacre of peaceful protestors in Gaza over the last few weeks.

What’s driving Donald?

The background to all this is the growing challenge to US and western power and the multiple failures of the globalising project championed by the US for decades. There has long been a mismatch between the US’s overwhelming military might and its weakening economic position. This is the why the military option has become more and more tempting for the US establishment over the last few decades.

US foreign policy is a product more than anything of the acceleration of that process. On current growth rates, China will outstrip the US in straight GDP terms in around ten years.  And China is rearming at an accelerating rate that has surprised most commentators.  You don’t have to know much history to grasp that periods in which the existing imperial order is under challenge tend towards turbulence. In partial contrast to Obama and to his own pre-election promises Trump’s instinctive response to an increasingly multipolar world is to push the US’s confrontational capacities to their limit with or without allies while it still holds an overwhelming military advantage and the economic edge.

Trump and Trumpism are a product of globalisation’s dysfunction in other ways. He won the 2015 election by channelling discontent with the way US society was going against minorities and foreigners and appealing to a semi-fantasy past of American blue collar greatness. This secured him the committed support of groups of right wing malcontents which had been incubating in US society for years. One of the novel and frightening things about Trump is that he is more driven by his desire to keep this base on board than any previous president.  

Another alarming thing about Trump’s tenure is the level of autonomy that this most erratic of Presidents appears to have. This is not just a question of character. What provides him with some of this room to move is that the US ruling class doesn’t have an agreed answer as to how to respond to its international decline and underlying economic malaise.

The Iraq war and the financial crash of 2008 was knocked back the neocons and  damaged the credibility of US capitalism itself.  Obama’s socially progressive presentation of business as usual predictably disappointed and his attempt to rein back on some foreign wars was a flop. The rhetoric may have been freshened up but inequality and poverty grew and the half-turn towards proxy war and drone attack did nothing to stem US imperial decline. His was a policy mix which might have been designed to strengthen a popular right wing mood.

Selecting Clinton to run as the Democrat’s successor was an admission by the liberal elites that they understood nothing about the situation and had run out of whatever they had ever had of courage and ideas. Their rejection of Bernie Sanders was a turning back, a vote for corporate power and more wars headed up by the definition of a Washington insider. Given the record of economic crisis, job destruction and carnage that such policies have inflicted, it was never going to inspire. Meanwhile the calibre of Republican challengers to Trump showed that they too had no credible programme round which to regroup the US ruling class.

To his own surprise Trump filled a vacuum. In the absence of any real plan for managing American decline, he has kept the business class happy with a programme of tax cuts and deregulation while pumping out provocations to appease his popular base. But while this base is holding up and he has been boosted by an uptick in the economy he is by far the most unpopular US president since the second World War at least. At this point in his presidency George W. Bush had the support of 70% of the population and was opposed by just 21%. Just 42.5% approve of Donald Trump and over 52% disapprove of him. These figures are way worse than even those for the disastrous Richard Nixon who had the support of 54% and was opposed by only 31% even at the height of the Vietnam War.

It would be wrong too to see Trump as a man with any kind of coherent project. As Perry Anderson has argued, US foreign policy in the era of imperial challenge has been marked by increasing levels of fantasy thinking. Trump’s presidency marks the point at which delusional politics has captured the White House. His economic policies have the backing of a narrow  group of business interests, but most in corporate America firmly believed he would never get serious on tariffs. Now that it has happened the turn to protectionism has caused disbelief and dismay.

We should be clear that claims that Trump is running a proto-fascist government are wide of the mark. Fascism is a term that refers to a specific historical phenomenon, a type of totalitarian regime which mobilises sections of the population to crush all social opposition and dismantle all democracy. Trump has encouraged far right groups and he has a fanatical base but it is not organised systematically into violent squads. He has attacked plenty of social programmes and civil liberties but he hasn’t shut down any major democratic institutions or carried out physical assaults on the left and the unions. But it is also a mistake to see him as a mere distraction as Noam Chomsky has been arguing. The ruling classes’ disorientation has allowed him to shape at least parts of the executive after his own image. Trump’s tweets are dangerous enough but he is much more than a malign social media presence. He has enacted real and deeply damaging policy in the US, his government is pushing the world towards military confrontation and he has enabled sinister right wing forces in the US and around the globe.

Burying the beast

Given all this ignoring him is dangerous. It would also be to miss a great opportunity for the left and progressive movements. Trump is not an aberration. He represents in condensed and poisonous form all that is wrong with 21st century capitalism. He is a warning of what can happen if the system remains unchallenged. And if his government is unpopular and his base only loosely organised some of the more serious right wing movements in Europe that take inspiration from him are making more progress.

Unsurprisingly resistance is growing in the US. Protests against his barbaric migrant policies are reaching boiling point and there have been a series of truly popular movements recently in the US from the Women’s Marches to the student walkouts over gun law. These movements appear to be providing a new impetus for social struggles of all kinds. The recent rank and file led teacher strikes that spread from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky represent the biggest wave of worker resistance in the US for decades. 

They are also helping to reinvigorate the left on a scale not seen for forty years or more. This is important. Trump and his imitators around the world can’t be beaten by even the most progressive sounding champions of the liberal order, because it is the multiple failures of that order that has allowed them to flourish in the first place. They can only be defeated by popular mobilisation linked with a radical vision for system change.

It is this context that gives our very own upcoming protests against Trump such significance and charge. If we get tens of thousands onto the streets on July 13th, bring Central London to a standstill and chase Trump around the country we will be sending out a message of defiance and solidarity that will be heard around the world. It will strengthen the protest movements generally and make it much easier to mobilise against our own racist hardcore the following day. It will be a blow to Theresa May’s intolerable government and a slap in the face to far right organisation everywhere.

We have a great tradition of confronting tryrants and reactionaries in Britain. There were big protests against Chilean dictator Pinochet when he was in prison here in the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands marched against George Bush on a weekday when he visited in 2003 making it the biggest weekday protests in British history. Trump’s visit may be the most important yet. Get to it.

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