Almost one month into Donald Trump’s presidency, we are beginning to see the shape of things to come in what is widely viewed as an unorthodox administration. Of course, it is too early to be anywhere near definitive, but nevertheless worth signposting some major developments.
The big story seems to be that the politics of identity is being used to distract, confuse and divide, while hidden in plain sight is a nakedly pro-corporate programme at home and the maintenance of the US-led status quo abroad.
Those who complain that the US-led world system is threatened by Trump have, up to now, precious little evidence to back their assertions. Business as usual abroad and pro-business at home: that’s the message so far.
A politics of distraction
Trump’s personal style – the mass media’s principal obsession – appears unchanged. He is what he was during the election campaign – brusque, disrespectful, insulting, arrogant, never wrong, always ready to attack, divisive. It hardly matters if this is a calculated way of doing deals by wrong-footing whoever he happens to be dealing with – what he’s referred to as the “amazing power of negative thinking” – or evidence of a remarkably thin skin.
The effect is to keep people guessing, unsure of what he might actually think or do. It’s a version of Richard Nixon’s ‘mad man’ theory as much as that of successive leaders of North Korea – who see enemies everywhere ready to bring them down.
The main point is that Trump remains divisive, playing to the White, male, Christian identity – those celebrating “their” return to power in “their” country, seeing Trump as their saviour and champion. That hard core remains loyal and ready to back Muslim bans, alternative facts, claims of fake news when anyone exposes obvious lies and to challenge the authority of the courts to hold the administration to account.
Even on this score, however, the administration appears more interested in dramatic announcements and executive orders that, in the cases of the temporary halt of travellers from seven majority-Muslim countries, were ill-conceived and very clearly unconstitutional. This is evidence of populist posturing as well as gross incompetence.
Trump’s theatrical style, which also imbues the two most public faces of the Trump regime, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, may well be important in the long run, but it appears to be part of a ‘sand in your eyes’ strategy to blind the audience to other actions being taken that are less spectacular but more significant.
Some of this has already been picked up, although the significance of it has received scant media attention as they follow the tragi-comedic theatrics of the Trump show.
‘Draining the swamp’ – cleaning up Washington DC, politics and the government of special interests, lobbyists, corporate chieftains, big money – was one of candidate Trump’s rallying cries during the 2016 campaign. One month since his inauguration, he’s appointed a cabinet of billionaires, many of whom have not only funded special interests of various kinds but also funded party politics and been found guilty of fraud and corruption. His ‘landing teams’ – people helping Trump to determine appointees and lines of policy in each department of government – were made up of mainly Republicans who had served in the George W. Bush and other GOP administrations. Hard-core members of the very establishment against which Trump claimed to stand, including in his short, sharp and uncompromising inaugural address on January 20.
Business interests are now openly determining national interests. There is no veneer. In the Machiavellian world of lions and foxes – the foxes (politicians who smooth-talk and sell a false bill of goods to the people) have been cast out into the wilderness. This is the rule of lions, but not the lion-hearted; a sort of vulture capitalism – open, naked, no holds barred. 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.
And, of course, Trump’s own business interests and those of his wife and daughter, which he openly promotes, in violation of established governmental ethics, are central to this administration. It is therefore surprising that Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s merchandise, in which the Trump advisor has shares, on television, were not denied as fake news.
Having filed for the 2020 presidential election on inauguration day, Trump is now officially allowed to receive political donations. Of all the odious and likely ideas, statements and policies Trump will inevitably espouse, it is these ‘conflicts of interests’ which might bring his presidency to a premature end.
But ‘conflict of interests’ hardly captures the full meaning of the selling of the presidency to Wall Street, energy companies and other corporate interests. The government is moving full-speed away from the people whose interests Trump claims to defend, but this is par for the course for right-wing populism.
It would be an Orwellian nightmare in fictional terms, but it is to be wondered if there is historical precedent for placing the charge of government departments with people who have no intention of carrying out their fiefdom’s original mission? Rick Perry, energy secretary, wanted to close that department down. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, denies global warming and climate science. Trump’s secretary of education does not believe in state education, schools attended by the vast majority of American children. His nominee for labour secretary opposes workers’ rights, unions, minimum wages.
The hollowing out of the state and the gutting of the government is proceeding apace as medicare and social security come under the axe or are opened to big pharmaceuticals and their exorbitant drug prices.
The melodrama of the Muslim ban occupies our attention, and rightly so, but it appears to be a way of keeping us looking one way while the foundations of an anti-government, pro-crony-corporate capitalism deconstructs the very foundations of the social state.
If that’s the position at home, the character of Trump’s apparent foreign and national security policies is straight out of the establishment’s post-Pearl Harbor playbook. But even in this vital domain, Trump’s mouth speaks one thing while his actual policies point the other way.
Recall his declarations during the election campaign and ahead of the inauguration – NATO? Obsolete. Japan and South Korea? Taking advantage of the US, not paying their way. China? Currency manipulator, aggressor and not entitled to American adherence to the ‘One China’ policy vis a vis Taiwan. Russia? Admirable, possibly misunderstood on Ukraine/Crimea.
Those messages – the first time a major party candidate for the White House has ever openly challenged the central institutions of the US-led order – sent the foreign policy establishment into paroxysms of despair. Recall the open letters from so-called conservative foreign policy Republicans – who had all supported the Iraq war, war on terror, torture, Guantanamo – declaring Trump unfit for office.
Yet, alongside the rhetoric of change, Trump has reinforced the status quo that he inherited from the ‘weak’ Barack Obama: while Trump talks friendly with Vladimir Putin, his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, condemns Russian aggression in Ukraine and says sanctions will stay.
At the press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump did not contradict her, nor did his defence secretary, when she tells the world that the president is 100% behind NATO and that the special relationship is as strong as ever.
On Japan and South Korea, defence secretary James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis (was there ever a less mad dog than Mattis, who carries with him a copy of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius?) continues Obama era policy and reassures South Korea and Japan that the US is with them and will uphold all treaty obligations, including militarily defend them against aggression, including from China.
And, hoping for ever more Japanese investment, Trump pours praise on Premier Shinzo Abe at the White House.
China? Trump, in a telephone call with President Xi Jinping, now backs the ‘One China’ policy and has hardly mentioned currency manipulation. Could it be because there are around 16 cases involving China at the WTO, brought by the ‘weak’ Obama administration?
Support for Saudi Arabia in its war of aggression on Yemen continues Obama era policy, including a US navy seals raid in Yemen.
Even on the question of Israel, Trump has responded with caution to new settlement plans which remains consonant with the actual policies of Obama.
Despite hostile comments about the Iran nuclear agreement, the Trump administration has yet to repudiate it. Its recent sanctions were in line with the Obama administration’s policy and do not threaten the nuclear agreement nor do they reimpose sanctions previously lifted under the deal. Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior sanctions adviser at the treasury department, told The Guardian that “It is an appropriate response and consistent with the approach that the Obama administration took in dealing with missiles and terror…It doesn’t look that it is a major departure. What we see is a page from the playbook we know.”
Trump’s retort when informed that Putin is “a killer” was to ask if the US has never done such things, is not a violent state. Further echoes of Obama when he apologised for past US interventions in the Middle East. The difference is that Obama pretended to apologise while policies aimed at destabilising or removing governments not to the US’s liking continued – recall the regime change in Libya and the current chaos there.
Trump seems to be Obama without the veneer of civility and sobriety. But his policies have yet significantly to change. Perhaps Obama had to be the civil face of American power in the wake of the disasters of the Bush presidency?
The lesson: watch what the Trump administration does more keenly than listening to what he says, or tweets.
Trump’s words are designed to paint an image of a warrior standing up to the US’s enemies, internal and external. His preferred approach at home is to divide and rule.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London and a columnist at The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire