What will be the grand strategy of Donald Trump? During the first travel abroad of the president some anticipation emerged coherently with what one could see between the electoral campaign and the first months into the presidency. To the surprise of many, US foreign policy under Trump will have some important elements of continuity with Obama’s foreign policy. His visit to Saudi Arabia – which he once attacked for its “complicity” with 9/11 – in part confirmed what stated in a previous post where I hinted at the resistance of Washington, D.C.’s establishment and at the possibility of a turn towards normalisation. In fact Donald Trump adopted a more indulgent and congratulatory stand with regard to terrorism while blaming regional instability onto Iran. This was “exactly the kind of rhetoric the Sunni strongmen of the region yearned for during the Obama years” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/21/donald-of-arabia-215170). Taking the distance from both Bush’s messianic discourse against Islam and Obama’s watered down version, Trump stated the US does not want to give lectures and let emerge a more pragmatic approach which sounds more similar to Obama’s style than Bush’s one: We are adopting a Principled Realism […] Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. […] And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/21/president-trumps-speech-arab-islamic-american-summit). On the other hand, this was also a smart way of phrasing Trump’s intention to relive the US from responsibilities in Middle East’s. The deal on military armaments signed with the Saudis was in continuity with Obama’s strategy of disengaging America’s power from the Middle East. However, as different state managers adopts different solutions for long term objectives, while Obama signed the deal with Iran, Trump preferred to maintain his idiosyncratic and braggart view against Tehran – despite Iran’s internal politics became more moderate since Bush – and make a deal of $110 billion dollars which will require Saudi Arabia to consolidate its military power. As he stated in his remarks: “the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/21/president-trumps-speech-arab-islamic-american-summit). This was too similar to when Obama stated that “enabling long-term stability in the region, requires more than the use and presence of American military forces. For one, it requires partners who can defend themselves. We are therefore investing in the ability of Israel, Jordan, and our Gulf partners to deter aggression […] (p. 26, http://nssarchive.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015.pdf). Meanwhile the deal was also aimed at receiving sounding billions in investments – $400 billion – which is a reminder of Trump’s money-driven politics. Coherently with this, Trump “scolded his Nato allies for their “chronic underfunding” (https://www.ft.com/content/9212b3ea-416a-11e7-82b6-896b95f30f58), confirming the “burden-sharing” philosophy that characterized Obama’s grand strategy (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2346.2012.01073.x/full). In his remarks at the unveiling of Berlin Wall memorials he made clear in several passages what he further stressed in the conclusion of the speech: “this twisted mass of metal reminds us not only of what we have lost, but also what forever endures — the courage of our people, the strength of our resolve, and the commitments that bind us together as one” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/25/remarks-president-trump-nato-unveiling-article-5-and-berlin-wall). While Saudi Arabia and Nato are two of the issues where there is a certain continuity between Obama and Trump, the third foreign policy matter that presents some similarity between the two presidents is Germany and its hegemony in the EU. In fact in several occasions Obama reproved Germany – among others – for its mercantilist foreign trade policy and in general for its delay in “shifting from a competitive posture to increasing domestic consumption” (pp. 4, 7, 29, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/international/exchange-rate-policies/Documents/2016-4-29%20(FX%20Pol%20of%20Major%20Trade%20Partner)_final.pdf). Not to mention Obama’s tension with Merkel over NSA’s spy when he stated that “we will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective” (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/17/remarks-president-review-signals-intelligence). Similarly but with a more aggressive language, Trump stated in his recent trip that Germans are “bad, very bad” and stressed his concern for US imports of foreign cars (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/donald-trump-g7-summit-germans-bad-very-bad-car-imports-curb-us-trade-surplus-president-a7757106.html) confirming what explained at the beginning of the year by Navarro when every chance for the TTIP to be signed vanished: “is a multilateral deal in bilateral dress” (https://www.ft.com/content/57f104d2-e742-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539). Of course Obama’s meeting with Merkel during Trump’s trip in Europe confirmed the Afro-American president’s endorsement for multilateralism (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/05/25/how-obama-undercuts-trump-238814), but it should not be perceived as if Trump’s attacks to Germany were born out of the new president’s madness, and it can be agreed that he “has a point” with regard to the fact that German exports are “artificially inflated”, as in fact Obama did (http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/05/26/trump-right-about-germany-trade-000445).
What discussed so far will define Trump’s grand strategy – D.C.’s establishment permitting! – for the Middle East and Europe. However there is another issue which is the most important of all other and it concerns China. Again, also about China there are important continuities with Obama. This will be the object of another post.
Leftist people described president Trump like a member of the ruling elites which adopted a populist rhetoric against Washington, D.C.’s establishment only to further decrease state control and revamp Corporate America with Reaganism. While this perspective must be taken into account, it overlooks important nuances about Trump’s worldview and it runs the risk of being reductionist. This post does neither agree nor disagree with Trump’s ideology – personally I find myself on the far left side of the political spectrum – but it is important to highlight the logic and the coherency that one can trace by looking at Trump’s discourse.
In this sense the work of Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, while it does not offer the kind of quality of academic works, it provides an interesting view of the new president.
They observed Trump’s statements since the 1980s and concluded that “he is not mere opportunist […] Trump emerges from the confluence of two long-dormant but now resurgent American political traditions: the blunt early 19th century appeal of Andrew Jackson to the “common man” and the protectionist isolationism which produced the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s” (Donald Trump: The Making of a World View by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, 2017). This argument is diametrically opposite to the view of all those that find in Trump a narcissist and sociopath, a personality driven by “sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/?utm_source=twb). This is not only the psychological analysis executed on Trump by observers but in a way it reflects the view of many rivals. To the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – one of the members of “The Blob”, see previous post in this blog – the president looks rather like “a “wrecking ball” when it comes to longstanding American foreign policy […] determined “to just destroy everything about” the U.S. establishment’s view of the world” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/bob-corker-committee-foreign-relations-trump-214773). Others argued that Trump’s “Miami Vice”-like attitude for “law and order” that he adopted with regard to the war on drug it applies to his governmental style (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-weird-adherence-to-this-1980s-concept-explains-his-whole-presidency/2017/05/26/a7ecec0c-4094-11e7-9869-bac8b446820a_story.html?tid=sm_tw_pp&tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.a5ca93156f81). Certainly, the fact that he often says what he thinks and therefore is “too honest” – as suggested – does not help to calm institutional-bureaucratic tensions (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/23/trump-is-americas-most-honest-president-215180).
However Simms’ and Laderman’s observations about Trump’s worldview found confirmation in an interview that the new president released to The New York Times and which is crucial to understand the global perspective of the new American president. As the interview went through the most important issues in international politics, Trump explained that his idea of American greatness remains “the turn of the century, that’s when we were a great, when we were really starting to go robust” first of all, but also – in fairness – Truman’s years (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/us/politics/donald-trump-transcript.html?_r=1).
As it can be read in previous posts of this blog, Trump encountered severe resistance to his ideological view. The president and some of his advisers had to compromise with the globalist establishment. This problem was portrayed clearly in an interesting piece which described well how Trump’s idiosyncrasies add complexity to the interaction between different foreign policy actors and in particular between the White House and the bureaucrats. Trump is isolated inside his own administration. It was argued that the president is part of “a tiny minority within his own administration. His national security team is primarily composed of people who want to maintain U.S. alliances, an open global economy and support for universal values. The reason why Trump ended up with such a team is, in part, because there are no think tanks or academic cabals that are working out how to translate his visceral beliefs into policy” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/trumps-jekyll-and-hyde-foreign-policy-214903). The ideological clash involved also people that are close to Trump such as daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kusher against Bannon and the Californians. It was argued that California’s history bore responsibilities for the intellectual incubation of people like Steve Bannon. Anticipating what then happened on a national scale – see blog post on Obama’s multiculturalism – the rise of Latinos and Asians explains why “California’s out-of-power Republicans […] hardened their own political views” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/how-california-gave-us-trumpism-215038).
This local process and Trump’s views on national identity are contiguous with what many Republican voters believe despite this represented a minoritarian faction inside the GOP which remained too close to Jacksonian Democratic Party. Donald Trump’s identity discourse in fact embeds the paleoconservative idea that “nations were defined by the specific cultural and historical heritage of their founders” rather than by a collective political experience (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/218712/spencer-gottfried-alt-right). How profitable will this ideological posture be in terms of electoral success – in a demographically changing United States – it remains to be seen.
As election night delivered a fragmented society, the second Obama Administration passed the baton on to the highly ideological Trump. While one already knows what to expect from Trump’s identity politics, understanding Obama’s approach to American exceptionalism is a less straightforward task, particularly because everyone agrees that the former president was not exceptional. In fact both detractors and devotees of the 44th president of United States believe that he was a post-ideological leader who did not characterised his policies with a personal and nationalist style.
On the one hand his enemies described him as a president who pushed American power towards decline because he was “not committed to America’s exceptional qualities”. They stated he was “apologist”, “abdicating”, “anti-American” and “non-nationalist”. On the other hand, those that admired him did so because of his preference for “caution over confrontation” and “consensus-building over ideology”. To sum up, both groups of observers agree that Obama’s ideological stance was moderate. To the first group this moderation meant weakness, to the second group it meant charm. Here I want to challenge both superficial views. For better or for worse Obama was a very nationalist president who coherently tied his identity discourse to some of the most traditional strands of American exceptionalism. He put forward a narrative which represented a quasi-autobiographical re-interpretation of American values. Firstly, he was called to lead the country at a time of economic turmoil and social anger.
As the financial crisis hit white-Americans and the demographic revolution triggered a trend towards a society of “minority-majority” – with Asian-American figuring as the fastest growing group – Obama had to play the role of social fireman. The politics of Obama’s exceptionalism was mainly committed to recover those foundational principles of American society and Constitution enclosed in the slogan e pluribus unum – out of many one. He stated extensively in his public speeches how inclusiveness lied at the foundation of his society and often reasserted that racial discrimination was unconceivable and “not American”. Despite being black, Obama went beyond the politics of Jesse Jackson and his negritude remained entangled with his multi-ethnic biological experience. Indeed Obama’s Afro-American background intersected with the fact he was born on a Pacific island become American thanks to the very last phase of continentalism. Obama’s mother had Irish origins and his father was from Kenya and both met at a Russian class. The former president lived in the Philippines – again on the route of American expansionism – and his white grandparents took part to WWII. He embedded the foundational paradigm of Americanness – many immigrants from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe under the same flag – but for the 21st century. In this sense Obama’s speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015 was one of the most meaningful, a statement of his attachment to American exceptionally diverse society.
Secondly, this domestic discourse found continuity in foreign policy with a more geopolitical inclination. The intersection between Obama’s worldview, the numerical increase of Latino and Asian-American, the economic decline of Europe and the rise of China in Asia-Pacific pushed the former president of United States to shift the focus of American exceptionalism away from Atlanticism. He returned once again to American history and to the centrality that the Pacific frontier had as a bulwark for commercial openness and wealth and as a space for the encounter of different civilizations for 19th and 20th century United States. Obama’s geo-ideological view was explicitly presented in his speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 – and often reaffirmed in Japan and India – where he explained how the Pacific basin contained the history of international migration to and from America, the blood of American soldiers for important battles and the gift of prosperity all in once, and that this granted America with the right of being an Asia-Pacific nation. Given the importance of the Asia-Pacific in economic terms and given the current economic recession, Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the Pacific frontier would have swept away the “maladies” of his country resurrected in Obama’s discourse. This served the purpose to construct his nationalist narrative and to strengthen US power in a region which geopolitically speaking has become the most important in the world. If observers were concerned with Obama’s “weak” policy in the Middle East, only few noticed that he was “fixated” on the Asia-Pacific because it represents the “future”.
Obama’s nationalism recovered the old traditions of multiculturalism and Pacific identity and used it to carry America through a tremendous economic crisis and the geostrategic shift towards Asia.
Trump’s style when dealing with corporations triggered a sense of “urgent need to restore faith in our vital economic and government institutions”. While in a previous post it was explained what this means with regard to state-capital relations, this post focuses on Trump’s relations with the politico-military establishment.
While Trump’s rhetoric is not anti-capitalist, his ideological positions and unpredictable attitude represent an obstacle to the objectives embedded in a US grand strategy which for decades was formulated and maintained by a globalist bureaucracy.
The main evidence of this tension is reflected in the reaction of the “Deep State” against Trump since he was elected. While bureaucrats understand that Trump is not a revolutionary, they see him as a threat to their sectional interests and decisional power, and above all to the pillars of post-WWII grand strategy – not everyone agrees on this argument about the arbitrary measures taken by the Deep State and it has been argued that the latter functioned as it was supposed to do. The New York Times was right in commenting that “Mr. Trump has put institutions under enormous stress. […] That has forced civil servants into an impossible dilemma: acquiesce, allowing their institution to be sidelined, or mount a defense, for example through leaks that counter Mr. Trump’s accusations or pressure him into restoring normal policy-maker practices”. This statements explains how Trump’s personality and attitude is perceived as an attack to the power of bureaucrats. But more interesting in terms of relations between the president and the establishment are the words of an Obama’s adviser.
In addition to the Deep State, he portrayed the opposition to Trump as a front formed by “The Blob”, which Ben Rhodes described as “the bipartisan class of foreign policy elites—Washington swamp dwellers like Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates and their assorted Ivy League hangers-on […]”. “Trump managed—or threatened—to blow up many of “The Blob”’s most cherished beliefs about American power. In doing so, he finally united Democrats and many Republicans, hawks and doves, neocons and Obamians, in a frenzy of worry” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/trump-foreign-policy-elites-insiders-experts-international-relations-214846). If anything this demonstrates that Trump is an atypical member of the elite – the ugly duckling in Washington, D.C. – and that the politicization of certain issues does complicate the plans of capitalist ruling classes and their political and military representatives. Pressures on American governments are shaped by internal struggles for power. Trump’s fight with the FBI is very indicative of the conflict between the presidency and “The Blob”. The firing of Comey was the culmination of this tension begun when the first news on Trump’s relation with Russia emerged. But this could also be seen with regard to the lack of candidates for the position of National Security Adviser. This was also confirmed in Walter R. Mead’s portrait of Jackson. The conservative scholar highlighted that “the establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians” (https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/01/19/the-winners-of-2016/). Rhodes and Mead are right. The struggle of power does not involve only the security apparatus but also the Republican Party which is increasingly divided.
On the one hand it lies Trump with people such as Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer, Wilbur Ross and Steve Bannon. On the other side there are Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin representing globaloney. However this portrait is more representative of the first 100 days of government rather than recent weeks. Since the launch of missiles in Syria there seems to have been some normalisation as Trump ceded to the globalists, even though Comey’s case has revived the institutional-political conflict.
It is still too early to provide a comprehensive and coherent portrait of Trump’s relations with the establishment.
Donald Trump’s presidency so far has provided important material for those interested in state theory. While his administration has never questioned capitalism, the new president maintained a much politicised posture by virtue of his strong electoral mandate, ideological worldview and arbitrary behaviour. There are mainly two critical views on what Trump’s experience might tell with regard to state-ruling class relations. The first view argues that Trump’s rhetoric is just populism to buy the consent of frustrated citizens by attacking elites only to then implement even further the programme of crony capitalism.
The second view instead maintains that the portrait is more complex and fragmented.
The former position is shared by elitists. City, University of London’s Professor Inderjeet Parmar from the columns of The Wire explained that Trump “has not drained the swamp but moved the government right into the middle of it and is immersing the departments of state in the calculus of the fast buck” (https://thewire.in/108191/trump-divide-and-rule/).
If one was to look at the profile of secretaries and advisers, for instance, he or she would realise that is correct. However my view is more sympathetic to the second perspective. Trump’s attitude, driven by his worldview and individual character produced a Byzanthine and Kafkaesque condition inside which big businesses have to interact with the White House. Several of Trump’s moves produced anxiety among the ruling class and the establishment in Washington, D.C. The immigration ban threatened to damage the bio-tech industry. The pharmaceutic sectors, it was commented, remained silent on that issue only because it wanted to use it as a good of bargaining for other favours from Trump. Anxiety hit automakers and mainly Ford given its interests in the Middle East, and spread across other sectors as well. Trump’s economic nationalism generated tensions and divided the ruling class along the lines of import and export companies after the plan for “border adjustment” tax regime was revealed. Those working in Mexico felt their interests were threatened, and certainly big shipping companies are extremely concerned about policies that might lead to restrictions of global trade. The Cadillac’s president announced the existence of “contingency planning” in case Trump was elected. Meanwhile Trump earned the support of Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions thanks to the promise of giving free way to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Trump’s posture on climate change also was used politically to consolidate consent from workers. It was acknowledged that, contrary to the theory that Trump is just lying to his electorate because he will only favour the interests of business elites, “business likes certainty” and that “business leaders seem intoxicated at the prospect of breaking bread with the most powerful man on earth”. Others compared Trump to a “natural disaster”.
In conclusion, the impression is that the ruling principle of state-capital relations during the Trump presidency will also depend on extemporaneous negotiations and tacit deals to accommodate the president’s and some of his advisers’ views. Above all this will serve to enable Trump to mediate between big businesses, his perspective on US global political economy, his idiosyncrasies and the ideologically strong mandate received after the elections. This point about new rules for negotiations between state and corporations was more precisely developed by Adam Tooze: “we might be talking of a new compromise under which protectionism buys political support for the priorities of key segments of US business that do retain influence within the party and in the White House and whose agendas coincide with the worldview of right-wing libertarians” (https://www.adamtooze.com/2017/03/17/americas-political-economy-trump-new-protectionist-alignment/).
The advent of Trump outraged many citizens and observers, and required students from all perspectives to work hard over the last months in order to keep up with events, as it remains unclear what direction Trump’s government might take – despite we saw a process of normalisation as I explained in another post on this blog.
One of the angles that were overlooked is that the phenomenon of Trump reminded of how peculiar remains the history of parties and ideologies in the United States.
Trump, for his symbiotic relation with the character of Andrew Jackson, could easily be a Democratic candidate if he was born in late 18th century. At the dawn of the market revolution in the United States, when in the second decade of the 19th century capitalism was attempting to make it through slavery, barter, craftsmanship and old forms of production it was Andrew Jackson to put at the centre of the agenda of the recently born Democratic Party the opposition to finance. Jackson attempted to oppose the spread of paper currency which was perceived as socially dangerous in a context where “producer were vulnerable and “moneyed men” powerful” (Hahn, 2016, p. 99; A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, New York: Viking).
Jackson saw a “massive concentration of power “in the hands of a few […] Monied Capitalists” who could “oppress” the people” (ibid.). Not too differently from Trump’s “draining the swamp” Jackson stated that “the bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it” (ibid.). In fairness, as Hahn explains – and much like Trump – in Jackson’s discourse the economic threat intersected with all sorts of social and political discontent of lower classes whose status was being disrupted by the new economy. Economic issues became the basis for what nowadays would be seen as a populist argument against “aristocratic and unjust” elites (p. 100). This front gathered together all the people that felt threatened by rising capitalism and it was a heterogeneous group going from “yeoman farmers” to “slaveholders planters” (ibid.). In Jackson’s Democratic Party the sentiment against crony capitalism intersected with civil and social conservatism and a small state approach.
This was just the first ideological realignment in US history. Later there was the realignment of the 1850s-60s triggered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed states to vote on slavery. But the most important realignments were those of the 20th century. The first started in the 1930s and was led by Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. This produced urbanisation in the US and stimulated blacks to migrate North. Later, this was followed by the most famous “racial realignment” which was unleashed by the Civil Rights Act and which saw a broad reshuffling of voters between the main parties.
All this well known history and the importance of looking at Andrew Jackson’s experience is very telling of how Trump may be at the verge of a process which has brought to a new realignment of the electorate. Eventually this process started in the late 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the acceptance by Republican of globalism and multiculturalism. The most striking evidence of this realignment is symbolised by the electoral shift in Rust Belt states from red to blue during the last election. In a time of economic crisis, when capitalism is believed to be delivering more troubles than benefits, changes in electoral choices can be explored through a historical perspective on American politics.