The candidacy of Donald J. Trump has upended American politics, and, indeed, has changed the political landscape in ways our liberal and conservative elites never expected and clearly abhor. He talks like an ordinary person, for one thing – a rarity in a realm where politicians routinely speak as if they are giving a speech before the Peoria Rotary Club. Unrehearsed and raw, he doesn’t do “talking points” – and this, I think, more than his controversial proposal to deport millions of illegal immigrants, has provoked the policy wonks and the “intellectuals” into paroxysms of contempt. It’s also what’s endears him to ordinary people, and makes them listen – perhaps for the first time – to what a candidate for the highest office in the land is saying about where America is today and where he wants the country to go.
Trump’s domestic platform, such as it is, doesn’t really interest me: his proposal to “temporarily” ban Muslims from entering the US is unenforceable and downright silly. (How can you know if someone is a Muslim?) The issue that catapulted him to national attention – immigration – has already been settled, for better or worse: with millions of illegal immigrants already here, largely as a result of US laxity in maintaining border security, the immigration restrictionists are about forty years too late. His plan to deport illegals will never happen.
It’s in the realm of international affairs that Trump has really made a significant and lasting contribution to the discourse. As Bill Schneider writes in a Reuters opinion piece: “Trump is repudiating the entire framework of US foreign policy since 1947.” That dramatic and unmistakable fact is being lost amid the theatrics of a campaign season that often resembles an episode of the Jerry Springer Show.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Trump explicates his consensus-busting view of America’s proper role in the world:
· On defending Korea and Japan – “[A]t some point, there is going to be a point at which we just can’t do this anymore. … at some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world.” “[I]f we are attacked, [Japan doesn’t] have to do anything. If they’re attacked, we have to go out with full force. You understand. That’s a pretty one-sided agreement, right there.”
This gets straight to the heart of Trump’s challenge to the foreign policy elites. Since the end of World War II, the US has occupied Japan. In effect, Japan is a conquered nation: and yet it’s an open question as to who conquered whom. As an economic entity, Japan exists to send cheap tariff-free exports to America in exchange for complete subordination to Washington’s imperial diktat. Only a few right-wing Japanese nationalists – and most of the inhabitants of Okinawa – object to that: as for the great majority, they are content to live prosperous lives under the American defense umbrella. Trump is quite right that this is a one-sided agreement: the Japanese don’t have to worry about defending themselves and they also get the economic benefits of having a strictly protected market while they hollow out our industrial base with cheap cars and precision machinery. This is the price we pay for the American empire – an imperium, as the Old Right writer and editor Garet Garrett put it many years ago, “where everything goes out and nothing comes in.”
· On protecting the Saudis – “The beautiful thing about oil is that, you know, we’re really getting close, because of fracking, and because of new technology, we’re really in a position that we weren’t in, you know, years ago, and the reason we’re in the Middle East is for oil. And all of a sudden we’re finding out that there’s less reason to be. …[W]e protect countries, and take tremendous monetary hits on protecting countries. That would include Saudi Arabia, but it would include many other countries, as you know. We have, there’s a whole big list of them. We lose, everywhere. We lose monetarily, everywhere. And yet, without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long. … I would say at a minimum, we have to be reimbursed, substantially reimbursed, I mean, to a point that’s far greater than what we’re being paid right now. Because we’re not being reimbursed for the kind of tremendous service that we’re performing by protecting various countries.”
This must have sent shivers through the powerful Saudi lobby in Washington and the many politicians and policy wonks on the take. The Kingdom has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Washington ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt cemented the alliance in a meeting with King Ibn Saud in 1945 aboard the USS Quincy. US oil companies captured valuable franchises and the US military followed in their wake, with overflight privileges, military training programs, and a firm commitment by the US to defend the Kingdom against all comers.
Although the relationship has had its ups and downs, it has continued to this day essentially in its original form, due largely to the efforts of a well-funded Washington lobby backed by US oil interests, who are most interested in utilizing the US military to protect their profits.
Trump’s critique of US-Saudi relations threatens a self-interested claque of privileged plutocrats and their lobbyist supporters, just as his threat to cut off our other mostly useless “allies” from the gravy train has induced panic from Paris to the Potomac.
· On NATO – “I have two problems with NATO. No. 1, it’s obsolete. When NATO was formed many decades ago we were a different country. There was a different threat. Soviet Union was, the Soviet Union, not Russia, which was much bigger than Russia, as you know. And, it was certainly much more powerful than even today’s Russia…. Today, it has to be changed. It has to be changed to include terror. It has to be changed from the standpoint of cost because the United States bears far too much of the cost of NATO. And one of the things that I hated seeing is Ukraine…. Why is it always the United States that gets right in the middle of things, with something that – you know, it affects us, but not nearly as much as it affects other countries.”
NATO became obsolete when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Yet instead of going the way of the horse-and-buggy, it grew until it reached the very gates of Moscow – in spite of a promise by George H.W. Bush that NATO would freeze its membership if Mikhail Gorbachev would allow East Germany to reunify with the West. What Trump is proposing is the dissolution of NATO as we know it – essentially an anti-Russian alliance – and its reconfiguration into an instrument devoted to counterterrorism. Indeed, later on in the interview with the Times, he suggests that NATO could be scrapped, and a new institution devoted to a more current problem – terrorism – would take its place.
This is a direct challenge to the military-industrial complex in this country, which lobbied heavily for NATO expansion in the post-Soviet era and made multi-billions. NATO requires member states to upgrade their militaries to meet certain standards, and of course it’s just a coincidence that they invariably turn to US military contractors to do the job. The prospect of this pot of gold being snatched away from Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, and all the rest has the War Party in a lather – no wonder the neoconservatives (whose thinktanks are largely funded by these characters) is shouting ”Never Trump!”
· On Syria – “I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. You know, we were fighting both of them. I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.”
With our Pentagon-funded Syrian rebels fighting our CIA-backed Syrian rebels, the absurdity of our foreign policy of regime change is so obvious that only a Washington policy wonk could fail to see it. Both parties have supported this insane policy, having learned nothing from the destruction of Iraq and the fall of the Iraqi Ba’athist regime. Although ISIS is portrayed as an “existential” threat to the US by the neoconservatives and our sensationalistic media, Washington has been trying to destroy the only effective fighting force that is today succeeding in defeating the “Caliphate” – the government of Bashar al-Assad.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, then our Syria policy surely fits the bill. And yet from Hillary Clinton – the architect of our pro-rebel policy – to Lindsey Graham, the Washington consensus is that “Assad must go.”
Trump is challenging this nonsense – and performing a great service in doing so.
· On nuclear weapons – “When people talk global warming, I say the global warming that we have to be careful of is the nuclear global warming. Single biggest problem that the world has. Power of weaponry today is beyond anything ever thought of, or even, you know, it’s unthinkable, the power. You look at Hiroshima and you can multiply that times many, many times, is what you have today. And to me, it’s the single biggest, it’s the single biggest problem.”
This part of the interview came up front, and it looked to me like the reporters were baiting Trump, expecting him to come out with some belligerent statement implying that of course he wouldn’t hesitate to nuke anyone. He didn’t fall for it. Indeed, his critique of the Iraq war and his general unwillingness to commit to putting ground troops in the Middle East – a statement he made several times in the course of the interview – shows that underneath the combative persona Trump is a bit of a peacenik. He clearly understands the horror of war, and in my view would be less likely than any other candidate to go to war, let alone use nuclear weapons.
· An overview – “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’ We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher. We were the big bully, but we were not smartly led. And we were the big bully who was — the big stupid bully and we were systematically ripped off by everybody.”
Trump’s appropriation of this slogan is the final insult to the globalists of the Washington set: it conjures their favorite “isolationist” bogeymen, the generally conservative “isolationists” who opposed US entry into World War II. The true history of the America First Committee – the biggest antiwar movement of modern times – is almost completely unknown, and it is regularly smeared by both liberals and conservatives as a “pro-Nazi” fifth column, when it in fact it was nothing of the sort.
America’s entry into the world war marked the beginning of our emergence as a global empire, and our role as self-appointed enforcer of the world order. Now that we have exhausted ourselves playing out that role, running up a debt of $18 trillion in the process, it’s only fitting that the slogan of “America First” should come back into circulation.
As Bill Schneider put it:
“During the debate in 2013 over a U.S. military strike to punish Syria for using chemical weapons, Benjamin Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said, ‘The US for decades has played the role of undergirding the global security architecture and enforcing international norms. And we do not want to send a message that the United States is getting out of that business in any way.’
“That’s precisely the message Trump is sending. And millions of Americans seem eager to endorse it.”
Yes, there are problems with Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements: his AIPAC speech was horrific, there was no mention of the “evenhanded’ approach he had previously said he’d employ in trying to reach a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s not a consistent opponent of US intervention overseas, and, worst of all, he can’t be trusted. He’s simply too unpredictable.
Yet this is all quite irrelevant to the question of his significance, whether or not he actually succeeds in grasping the GOP nomination. The point is that he has changed the foreign policy discourse in the Republican party, wresting it from the heretofore iron grip of the neocons and successfully selling a demonstrably less interventionist policy to GOP primary voters. You’ll recall that the pundits routinely discounted Rand Paul’s presidential campaign on account of his anti-interventionist views – which are quite mild compared to Trump’s. Given Trump’s popularity, however, from this day forward they won’t be able to get away with that again. The terms of the debate have been irrevocably changed – and that is Trump’s great achievement, for which he must be given full credit.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.