Trump’s recent choices show he’s abandoning the anti-establishment rhetoric that won him the election in favour of the GOP’s traditional policies.
President-elect Donald Trump is now in the full embrace of the principles of the post-Reagan era Republican party. His telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, was most likely a calculated message meant for China, to say that it should expect a much harder line from Trump compared to current US President Barack’s Obama’s ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia. Trump’s rhetoric echoes that of Mitt Romney, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate who was recently nominated as secretary of state, and Senator John McCain, who contested elections in 2008. Placed alongside Trump’s raft of cabinet and other senior appointments, and policy-oriented declarations, all indications now point to a Trump presidency, with due regard to his own idiosyncratic style, almost entirely in line with what would be expected of a conservative nationalist Republican chief executive.
This leaves Trump’s white working and middle-class supporters high and dry with respect to expecting an anti-establishment presidency from Trump, but with the not-to-be-underestimated psychological wages of white empowerment and minority marginalisation to take comfort in.
The impact of this material betrayal may well be offset by the psychological profit yielded by white identity gains, much as African-Americans remained loyal to Obama despite his failure to curb police violence against Black men or to elevate the community’s economic or financial conditions. The chasmic character of American racial and class politics remains essential to understanding American society.
Signals to Beijing
The call to Taiwan may appear to be a relatively minor infringement of diplomatic protocols, but it signals that Beijing should not expect business as usual. Taiwan was long recognised as the official Republic of China after the Chinese revolution of 1949 while the mainland Peoples Republic of China under Mao Zedong was denied diplomatic recognition until the 1970s. After Mao’s death and the opening of China, the US officially recognised Beijing as the legitimate and sole sovereign power and Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be reunited with the mainland. The telephone call, then, provided a level of legitimacy to the ‘president’ of Taiwan that the position has not received since the mid-1970s.
Trump maintained a level of anti-Chinese rhetoric throughout his election campaign – China was accused of currency manipulation and dumping cheap steel into the American market, for example. China’s biggest offence, however, is its alleged but incomprehensible desire to be the new regional hegemonic power in the Asia-Pacific region, challenging and displacing the US, which the latter has long regarded as an Anglo-Saxon lake.
The ‘rise’ of China is constructed as a threat to US power as part of its long-term plan for global domination, the ‘China Dream’ of President Xi Jinping. China’s increasing economic power and the growing level of economic and commercial dependence of the US’s regional allies like Taiwan, Philippines, Australia, India on China is viewed as part of the country’s bid to eject the US from its position as a regional hegemon. Trump, to make America great again, is reasserting the US’s power to show China the shape of things to come. Hence, the dangers of greater confrontation, including military conflict – by error or design, are likely to increase.
The Taiwan call may also have come about due to the strong relationships between some of Trump’s key appointees and Taiwan. In particular, Trump’s White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has firm connections with Taiwan’s political leadership. Meanwhile, Edwin Feulner, a senior adviser to Trump and former founding president of the Heritage Foundation, is hawkish on growing Chinese ambitions. Heritage is also rumoured to receive generous funding from Taiwanese sources. Feulner is said to have played a key role in facilitating the Taiwanese phone call.
Trump has also adopted the think tank’s suggested military policy as his own and is set, therefore, to significantly increase military expenditures – larger army, navy, airforce and marine corps. Trump’s proclaimed ‘isolationism’ now appears to be a distant memory as he prepares for power. His nomination of retired General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis for secretary of defense suggests a traditional policy of respecting alliances and allies across NATO, the Middle East and Asia. And retaining the centrality of the global war on terror in American strategy.
Trump’s voter base is destined for disappointment
Trump’s other appointments seem destined to disappoint his struggling and anxious working and middle-class voter base. Steve Mnuchin, for treasury secretary, stands squarely against Trump’s anti-Wall Street rhetoric. Mnuchin, like his father before him, has been involved with Goldman Sachs, hedge funds and financial institutions, a far cry from the rust belt workers whose swing away from Clinton put Trump across the electoral college finishing line on November 8.
Another billionaire financier is nominated for commerce secretary – Wilbur Ross, formerly with Rothschilds, and apparent saviour of coal and steel firms. Ross possibly represents a ray of hope for Trump’s supporters – that he will similarly save miners’ and manufacturing jobs in the rust belt. Yet, as the World Socialist website argues, Ross “made his fortune buying and closing steel mills, putting steelworkers out of work and dumping the pensions of retired workers into the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which pays only a fraction of what these workers actually earned in a lifetime in the mills.”
With his cabinet of billionaires and millionaires, overwhelmingly white and male, promising multi-trillion dollar tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Trump’s administration and policies will become indistinguishable from previous Republican administrations, especially those from the pre-civil rights and women’s freedom movement eras. His cabinet members’ total personal wealth is said to be worth around $35 billion, demonstrating that Trump’s administration will be one represented by the rich and, most likely, work for the rich.
From a campaign for change to an administration of billionaires, Trump has apparently saved the Republican party and built a coalition of white workers, middle class voters, the very affluent, a smattering of minorities and a majority of women – a combination that could make the GOP unassailable for the presidential elections in 2020. A great deal depends, however, on the delivery of material gains, especially to rust belt workers and minorities or the mid-terms in 2018 could be brutal for the GOP’s new found self-confidence.
Those who took Trump seriously but not literally may well be upset with Trump’s performance in office since he’s embracing the conservative principles people voted against. Trump the isolationist also seems unlikely to appear during his time in office, so we should expect a drift, if not a stampede, back into the presidential fold of those ‘respectable’ conservative Republicans and think-tankers who declared Trump a racist warmonger unfit to serve as America’s commander-in-chief.
It’s morning again in a resurgent, amnesiac, Reaganesque America.
Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a columnist at The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire.