As Donald Trump courts one controversy after another, the US political establishment has developed an uneasy relationship with the president – they can neither approve of him nor renounce him.
The US’s political crisis, which President Trump promised to solve through an ‘America First’ foreign policy and a ‘drain the swamp’ pluto-populism/pseudo-anti-elitism, continues to deepen as he courts chaos and invites investigation by a Democratic-corporate media opposition that enjoys political theatre and ratings.
Meanwhile, the administration’s budget aims to cut social spending by almost 2 trillion dollars while handing trillions to the richest Americans in tax cuts. On this question, beyond ritual denunciation, the Democrats are ineffective, their critique hollow – having recently decided to let flow again Wall Street dollars to the trough of the Democratic National Committee.
Trump is applauded for Tomahawk cruise missile attacks on Syria, the mother of all bombs on Afghanistan, backing the Saudis in their illegal war in Yemen, and planning to send more troops to Afghanistan. That makes him truly presidential, according to the establishment.
Two Wall Street parties running the US – business as usual but with a Trump twist. And that ‘twist’ is what it’s all about for the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant political establishment. There is no question that President Trump represents values of intolerance, xenophobia and misogyny, a narrow white identity nativism redrawing the racial-political lines of US politics and challenging key narratives of American exceptionalism – the city upon a hill, a beacon to all oppressed peoples, exemplar nation, etc.
Yet, in truth, Trump has brutally brought out into the harsh light of day, powerful tendencies that were just beneath the surface, nurtured by Republican racial codes, stealth war on women’s and workers’ rights, denial of basic facts, promotion of alternative facts – Obama is a Muslim, denying climate science – for decades. Democrats have presided over and managed that very system, less illiberally in tone, but effectively nevertheless. Under the banner of promoting minority rights and changing the visible complexion and gender of the power elite, both parties helped maintain an increasingly unequal society and politics – dismantling the New Deal order that had provided a good measure of protection to the powerless and vulnerable.
But Trump has yet to win the establishment’s trust and may never satisfy them. They cannot forget Trump’s stated positions on the international order. They fear a return to isolationism, that is, an end to American hegemony. But they are very pleased that Trump has discovered – through a campaign of pressure on a president probably unprecedented in living memory – that NATO is not obsolete, nor is the European Union, nor the US relationship with the Saudis and other Gulf States, not to mention the security agreements with Japan and South Korea. Bombing Syria – several times – is a blood price others must pay as Trump builds his imperial credibility.
Two cheers for President Trump – flanked by two grown-ups in the form of battle-hardened generals James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, but only two. The commander in chief is still not quite in line, remains too ‘independent’ and ‘out of control’, unreliable, not ‘one of us’.
His Russian ‘connections’ remain suspicious; Trump seems to be either incompetent in courting criticism by untimely firing an FBI director or has something to hide. Who knows? And then the administration appoints Robert Mueller, respected former FBI director, as special counsel with wide powers to investigate and bring criminal charges, if appropriate. Is it just plain old incompetence, total cock-up, or conspiracy to cover up wrong-doing? Hard evidence is hard to come by it seems, despite months of ‘investigations’ by the FBI based on ‘intelligence’ from the CIA.
And so it goes on – at home, on which more in a moment.
Trump is on his first foreign tour – cementing ties with Saudi dictators, selling arms, signing deals, and condemning Iran as the principal source of crises in the Middle east. And winning plaudits – even if it’s embarrassing to mention that Saudi Arabia is governed by a theocracy, is deeply undemocratic and misogynistic in the extreme. Followed by a stop in Israel and another critique of Iran as the region’s number one threat – although there’s no mention of its recent democratic election of a president who wants dialogue with the west.
And then to meet Pope Francis in Rome – the most progressive pope and the most regressive president, bridge-builder and wall builder, respectively. But Pope Francis is smart – he’s given himself an ‘out’ should the meeting turn sour. Trump doesn’t want to be denied – the 60% of white Catholics who voted for him are wobbling behind the turbulent Trump. As may his core Grand Old Party (GOP) voters – one poll had his approval at just 75% last week, nearing levels that might be difficult to dismiss as fake news. But others indicate that 90% of his voters stand firm, as do 85% of all Republicans.
At home, it’s not all fake news but there is an artificially-tendentious dimension to the freak show that Washington beltway politics resembles. It looks a little bit like McCarthyism but does not even come close to the destruction wrought by that campaign of vilification of New Deal reform, social and racial equality and workers’ rights. McCarthyism, propelled by the-then FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, drove the construction of the national security state.
The current conjuncture is all about two parties wedded to an American global imperium that lost the presidency and aim to contain the damage. The GOP is looking at the polls and holding firm behind Trump, for now. If he lasts that long, Republicans will see what happens at the 2018 mid-term elections when voters will get their first chance to offer a verdict on the Trump phenomenon.
The Democrats have a crisis of their own to remain in denial about – fuelled by fury over a defeat that they snatched from the jaws of victory, in denial that their politics of the status quo that is Wall St, the military-industrial complex and permanent war, was the last thing Americans wanted. Even those voting for Hillary Clinton were unconvinced about her – but feared a Trump victory more. The evil of two lessers. That gave Democrats the popular vote but not the White House, delegitimising the president, fuelling fury and preventing any real reflection on what 2016 was actually all about – rejecting the status quo.
As far as Democrats are concerned, they did everything just about right for November 2016. So they march boldly on harnessing popular discontent as Trump chaos continues.
This sort of fury is normally reserved for a GOP defeat to an office they genuinely believe belongs to them as a birthright. What appears unique is that the Democrats are defending foreign policy establishment positions and trying to discipline the president to remain within bounds – destabilise the incumbent by whatever means necessary – including reasserting but inverting the Cold war norm: accusing the administration of being an agency of a foreign power.
Complementarily, GOP leaders apply some pressure on Trump (McCain et al), cajole (Pence et al) and await events, hedging political bets. They appear to believe that their party will just pick up and move on should Trump be removed or disappear of his own accord. But as long as Trump’s political core is secure, they have no (political, let alone moral) incentive to upset the apple-cart.
Both parties display greater optimism than a dispassionate analysis suggests. The hunger for radical change in the American electorate has not gone away. 2016 lives on. And the low overall approvals for the Trump administration and for the Democrats should be taken seriously.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London and columnist for The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.