Sketching out the Trump Presidency

We’re now officially at Series 1 Episode 2 of the US version of Black Mirror, and I must admit I’m not enjoying it as much as I thought I would. The premise is ridiculous – Manhattan property developer wins US Presidential election by energising anti-establishment poor white rural voters – the acting is awful, and the narrative is all over the place.

It’s like M Night Shyamalan remade the West Wing while high on crystal meth. It’s a massive sack of garbage, it’s not finishing any time soon, and we all have to sit through it.

On the plus side, it’s been eventful: Muslim bans, fake terrorist massacres, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, shady dealing with the Russians, there is never a dull moment. That is partly because of the cast assembled: The Spice man, the Barbie doll dipped in sulphuric acid, the human acne, the racist Attorney General, the Education Secretary who hates public education, the Energy Secretary who wants to abolish the Energy Department unless he forgets about it, the sleepwalking neurosurgeon who’s in charge of urban development and thinks slaves were immigrants, and of course the Trumps themselves.

It’s like the Addams Family merged with the Ghaddafis.

It is easy to get caught in this short-term side-show. Politics is show-business for ugly people, and these guys sure know how to keep things entertaining. Trump thinks Obama is wire-tapping him! Kellyanne is making up fake terrorist attacks! Hilary Clinton drinks baby blood but pretends it’s tomato juice! Look at Sean Spicer, or wait is that Melissa McCarthy it’s hard to tell these days!

All of this means it’s been hard to take Trump seriously. It always has. It was very hard to take him seriously during the campaign. He was impossible to pin down, had ridiculous views, and contradicted himself on a daily basis. He seemed unhinged, uninformed, and unprepared. Surely he wouldn’t behave like this as President. In fact, most commentators thought he would turn out to be a centre-right President once in power. He would moderate. He would be restrained by the realities of office. Thwarted by civil servants. Contained by the government agencies. There was no way he would enact his crazy policies. Listen to his heart, not his words!

Two months into his Presidency, it’s quite clear this was all wishful thinking. Trump isn’t a moderate. His team aren’t moderates. His appointments aren’t moderate. And his policies sure as hell ain’t moderate. In fact, Trump is proving to be much worse than we could possibly have imagined.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Let’s step away, just for one moment, from all the tweets, and the crazy conspiracies, and the am-dram nonsense he’s peddling, and consider the long term.

Trump’s win did not arise out of an ideological vacuum. It was supported, promoted, influenced, funded, and promulgated through a series of established networks and donors, united in promoting a specific ideology. Just like Obama’s policies arose from the established work of progressive think-tanks, foundations, academics, and civil society, Trump’s policies have their roots in what is called the “alt-right”, but is really the “far-right”. We had snippets of this ideology before, in Sarah Palin, in Fox News, in Michelle Bachmann, in Rush Limbaugh, in Ted Cruz, in the Tea Party. They have their own think tanks, their own media networks, their own funders, their own celebrities, and obviously their own ideology.

But don’t take it from me. Have a read through Breitbart. Check out Newsmax, whose CEO is one of Trump’s closest friends. Listen to Rush. Do like the President and spend your day watching Fox and Friends. If you want to understand Trump, you have to be in his bubble.

If you only have limited time, please just watch this clip of Bannon and Priebus discussing their role in government, at the recent CPAC. It encapsulates their thinking behind all these seemingly incoherent policies.

Breitbart: the Daily Mail after a night out.

If we had to simplify, there are three main strands to his ideology which will shape most of the decisions he makes, and which must be understood if we are to put all these disparate policies into context.

Authoritarianism

Like all good populists, and like all good CEOs, Trump is by instinct authoritarian. It makes sense when you’re the CEO: your words is law, and there is no dissent. You can rule with an iron fist as long as you keep your shareholders sweet. It’s unlikely that the company’s in-house magazine will criticise the CEO’s policies in a biting satire.

You can see strands of this already, including in the video above where Bannon calls the Press the “opposition party”. This explains Trump calling the BBC and CNN “fake news”. It explains those White House Briefings where only conservatives media outlets are invited. It explains the contempt that Trump has for the media, and by extension, for facts.

It’s not just the media, however. It also explains firing the Attorney General, or dismissing “so-called judges”, or criticising the intelligence agencies when they don’t follow his diktats.

Make no mistake, Trump will try to silence dissent. First by publicly calling them out, tarnishing their reputation, and questioning their credentials. This is currently happening in virtually every single statement he makes.

If this doesn’t work, he will start drafting executive orders to limit what the media can say, what they have access to, how they protect sources, and what they can print without being sued. Again, just listen to Bannon in that clip. It is coming, and it won’t stop at the media. As Banoon says “we haven’t even started on the big stuff yet”.

This is perhaps one of the main differences between a Trump and a Jeb(!) or a Romney. Trump doesn’t care about the Constitution, or the rule of law, or free speech. Trump cares about being effective. If something or someone stands in his way, he will remove them.

And while this all seems theoretical or superficial now, his instincts will come to the fore if something serious happens, like another 9/11. All hell will break loose then. You thought W was bad, just wait until Trump & Bannon lead the response to a serious terrorist attack on US soil.

Grass Roots Conservatism

Trump did run under the GOP banner, and therefore had to accept some of their values. These are the standard GOP clichés: climate change is a hoax, federal government should be limited to basically defence and security, tax cuts for the rich help everyone, and the fewer rules the better. It’s not the high-minded conservatism of William F Buckley, more the folksy one of Sarah Palin.

This explains the replace-and-repeal of Obamacare, the deletion of climate change mentions on the EPA website, the Dakota pipeline getting the go ahead, the Muslim ban, the immigration rhetoric and the Wall, and the massive incoming tax cuts for wealthy people.

I’m not sure Trump is fundamentally sold on any of those, but this if this is the price he had to pay to run under the GOP banner, he will be totally fine with it.

It also fits quite well with the white male supremacy rhetoric of the Bannon far-right. It’s not just American conservatives who wish for a return to the 1950s. The UK has the same with Brexit, Hungary with Orban. We are all hostages to the nostalgia for a time when old white men controlled all the economic resources and political positions. That some old white men should fight for a return to this situation shouldn’t be all that surprising. It all stinks of racism and sexism, two accusations that Trump has done nothing to dispel.

If you mix in the white evangelicals who voted from trump, and who openly dislike (deep breath) gay people, working women, abortions, ethnic minorities, godless liberal elites, contraception, the modern world, trans people, other religions, and atheists, that’s quite a potent force for change.

This will threaten Roe V Wade, same sex marriage, environmental protections, social welfare programmes, planned parenthood, sanctuary cities, and anything else that threatens conservative “values”. These will be the sweets distributed to the electorate in due time.

We all know how you feel, Abe

Economic nationalism

This is perhaps the most terrifying and damaging of all. While there are check and balances to the other two strands, this one is almost entirely at the president’s discretion as it will mainly impact foreign affairs.

“Economic nationalism” is how Bannon himself describes his ideology. It is in opposition to “globalists” who have brought you free trade agreements, single markets, WTO rules, and globalisation. It is Trump’s “America First” slogan. It is Brexit. It is, in many ways, the complete opposite of what the US and the Western world have been doing since the end of WWII.

I have to admit, I have my own qualms about globalisation. Some aspects of free trade agreements are clearly broken. It is unfair for massive corporations to be everywhere, and yet pay taxes nowhere. There is something to be said for protecting small, local, organic producers against the giants of agro-business like Monsanto. Investor-State Dispute mechanisms are clearly an affront to democracy. Clearly, some adjustments need to be made.

But at a fundamental level, free trading between countries is not only economically beneficial, it is also a political necessity. It is the biggest single guarantor of peace, more than a massive navy, more than nuclear weapons. The reason why a war between EU countries is now unthinkable isn’t because Western Europeans are fundamentally pacifists. It’s because their economies, and therefore their political destinies, are inextricably linked.

We can already see some aspects of this economic nationalism in Trump’s policies: the withdrawal of the United States from the unratified Trans-Pacific Partnership, his decision to impose a 20% border tax on Mexican imports into the United States to finance a wall between the two countries, a declared initiative to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) , and finally, the threats of punitive tariffs against China and accusations of illegal currency manipulation.

There is little surprise in the resurgence of economic nationalism around the world – most markedly in the United States and Brexit-era Disunited Kingdom – following the 2008 global financial crisis. Previous eras of economic nationalism took place in the 19th century, the aftermath of the 1929 Great Depression, as well as the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

There are three major problems with this approach, however. The first one, which the UK is currently discovering, is the amount of energy it will take to disentangle oneself from the existing arrangements. Not just in terms of resources, but in terms of political capital, internally and internationally. It is a massive effort, with little immediate returns. Those factory jobs won’t suddenly come back from China. And if they do, they price consumers pay for them will be astronomical. Renegotiating trade deals is massively complex and time consuming. And there is no guarantee that the alternative will be any better.

Trump working his PR machine in China

The second is that it is like swimming against the tide. The world is becoming more open, intertwined, inter dependent, than at any other stage in History. All the major challenges for humanity are international in nature: climate change, terrorism, wars, refugees, poverty, diseases, antibiotic resistance, none of them care about borders. And that’s leaving aside the other causes of decline in the West’s manufacturing: robots and automation. If you think Chinese workers are cheap, just wait until algorithms do it all. I’m not sure you can reverse this tide.

The third one, and the most important, is that economic nationalism is a precursor to political nationalism. One can’t exist without the other. If Trump’s vision is that trade deals are a zero-sum game with winners and losers, then nations are already pitted against one another. Such a policy of beggar-thy-neighbour can only lead to conflict.

This is where the real danger lies. The US has been the foundation of the West’s system since the end of WWII. If the US retreats into economic nationalism, so will other countries. If they start imposing new tariffs, so will other countries. If we start seeing nation states as competing against one another, rather than cooperating, we are back in the 1930s. There is no end to this, other than eventual war.

The Western world can easily survive Brexit. It might not even notice it all that much. But it won’t survive a Trump Presidency based on economic nationalism. This will be the end of the West’s unity, and therefore dominance. Does NATO make sense from a nationalist economic perspective? Does Taiwan’s protection? What about Ukraine, or Latvia? And what message does it send to other countries?

Because there is one factor that we haven’t yet mentioned: China’s rise. For all the talk about policies and ideologies, Presidencies are usually defined by external events. Despite being determined to “pivot” to the Pacific, the focus of Obama’s presidency ended up being the the Middle East (Arab Spring, Syria, etc…). He tried to “reset” relations with Russia, but then you know, Ukraine happened. Trump’s presidency will be the same. And it’s hard to see past China’s rise as the defining event that will shape the Trump presidency. It echoes Germany’s rise in the 1930s, and the UK’s response to it.

There are a myriad of potential landmines in this area: Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea, Japan, North Korea, the reminbi, US debt, and of course internal Chinese politics. Trump has already triggered a couple of those, and no one expects him not to trigger the others eventually. Trump often makes a big deal of all the grievances America has against other countries (Mexico sending their rapist, China and its currency, Europeans and their NATO contributions, etc…), but these exist in the reverse too. China is extremely conscious of the Thucydides Trap, and is watching Trump. They’re not impressed by his particular brand of bullshit so far. And when America’s retreat to economic nationalism creates a vacuum, they won’t need to be invited to step in the gap.

I think this quote from an economist encapsulates our current predicament quite well, and I’ll leave you with it:

“Every nation has to choose. The United States too. The alternative is: unity among the peace-loving nations or return to the chaos out of which new conflict will originate. But unity is incompatible with protectionism. How should Latin America and the European democracies enter into a close political collaboration with the United States if their citizens suffer from American foreign trade policies?

If economic nationalism is not abandoned, the most radical disarmament will not prevent the defeated aggressors from entering anew the scene of diplomatic intrigues, from building up new blocks and spheres of interest, from playing off one nation against the others, from rearming and finally from plotting new attacks. Economic nationalism is the main obstacle to lasting peace.”

It is from 1943.

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