The birth of a new nationalist world order under Trump
Donald Trump is a worldly fellow. He travels the globe on his private jet. He’s married to a Slovene and divorced from a Czech. He doesn’t speak any other languages, but hey, he’s an American, so monolingualism is his birthright.
His fortune depends in large part on the global economy. He has business interests in nearly two-dozen countries on four continents. Many of the products anointed with the Trump brand roll off a global assembly line: Trump furniture made in Turkey and Germany, Trump eyeglasses from China, Trump shirts via Bangladesh and Honduras (among other countries). Just as wealthy Americans often slight the role the domestic infrastructure has played in the making of their fortunes, Trump routinely disregards how much his depends on the infrastructure of the global economy.
The new president’s cabinet nominees are a similarly worldly lot, being either generals or multi-millionaires (or both), or simply, like their president, straight-out billionaires. Rich people jet off to exotic places for vacations or to make deals; generals are dispatched to all points of the compass to kill people. With an estimated net wealth of more than US$13 billion, Trump’s cabinet could be its own small island nation. Make that a very aggressive island nation: the military men in his proposed cabinet — former generals Mike Flynn (national security adviser), James Mattis (defense secretary), and John Kelly (head of Homeland Security), as well as former Navy Seal Ryan Zinke (interior secretary) — have fought in nearly as many countries as Trump has done business.
As worldly as they might be, Trump’s nominees don’t look much like the world. Mostly rich white men, they look more like the American electorate … circa 1817. Still, the media has bent over backward to find as much diversity as it could in this panorama of homogeneity. It has, for instance, identified the nominees according to their different ideological milieus: Wall Street, the Pentagon, the Republican Party, the lunatic fringe.
In this taxonomy of Trumpism, the media continues to miss the obvious. The incoming administration is, in fact, united around one key mission: it’s about to declare war on the world.
Don’t be fooled by the surface cosmopolitanism of the new president and his appointees. For all their international experience, these people care about the planet the way pornographers care about sex. Their interactions are purely transactional, just the means to an end. There couldn’t be less empathy for the people out there involved in the drama. It’s all about the money and that piercing sense of conquest.
For all their international experience, these people care about the planet the way pornographers care about sex. Their interactions are purely transactional, just the means to an end
The Trump team’s approach, a globalism of the 1%, benefits themselves even as it reinforces American exceptionalism. Their world view is a galaxy distant from the sort of democratic internationalism that values diplomacy, human rights, and multilateral cooperation to address planetary problems like climate change and economic inequality. Such a foreign policy of mutual engagement is, in fact, exactly what’s under immediate threat. As with Obamacare, the incoming administration wants to shred an inclusive project and substitute an exclusive one for it. In so doing, it will replace a collection of liberal internationalists with something worse: a confederacy of oligarchs.
For such an undertaking that so radically privileges the few over the many, the next administration needs a compelling rationale that goes beyond assertions that the status quo is broken, international institutions are inefficient, and the United States is the indispensable power on the planet. America isn’t facing just any old crisis like failing banks or nuclear wannabe nations. For someone like Donald Trump, the threat has to be huge, the biggest ever.
So brace yourself for a coming clash of civilizations. The new president is circling the wagons in defense of nothing less than the Western way of life. As if it were a town in South Vietnam in 1968, Trump aims to destroy the international community in order to save it.
In the summer of 2010, anti-Islamic sentiment was cresting in the United States. There were protests against a proposed Islamic center in New York City, arson attacks against mosques around the United States, and a fundamentalist preacher in Florida threatening to burn the Koran. A campaign was starting up to stop Muslims from imposing sharia law in America. By the end of August, the confrontations had become so intense that Time magazine put Islamophobia on its cover. “It was the Summer of Hate,” I wrote in my book Crusade 2.0 back then, “and the target was Islam.”
The Islamophobes that summer were as misguided about Islam as the terrorists they loathed. Both sets of extremists transformed a religion practiced by 1.6 billion people, the overwhelming majority of whom despise terrorism, into an enemy of Western civilization. Just as al-Qaeda found few adherents in America, the Islamophobes, too, were at that time on the fringes of society.
Pamela Geller, who led the charge against the Islamic center in New York, was an obscure blogger. The man who popularized the campaign against the imaginary imposition of sharia law, Frank Gaffney, headed up a think tank that no one except radical right radio hosts took seriously. That Florida preacher, Terry Jones, had a minuscule congregation. The Islamophobia industry was well funded, but aside from a few kooks in Congress it was not well connected in Washington policy circles. The fringe continued to advance their fabricated stories — including the supposedly secret Muslim faith of President Barack Obama — but the mainstream media moved on (or so it seemed at the time).
As it turned out, Islamophobia did anything but disappear. In 2015, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States increased by 78%, reaching levels not seen since the aftermath of September 11. As the presidential election season intensified in 2016, so did those attacks on Muslims, as tallied by the Huffington Post and analyzed in a Georgetown University-affiliated study. In the months since Trump’s victory in November, the Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded more than 100 anti-Muslim hate crimes around the country.
What makes the current moment different, however, is that the previously well-funded margins have become the well-connected mainstream. Would-be officials of the Trump administration are now proclaiming as fact what only conspiracy theorists babbled about seven years ago. The dangerous twaddle begins with Trump himself who, of course, spearheaded the birtherism movement against Barack Obama until he ran for president. During the campaign, he promised to keep any new Muslim immigrants from American shores and draw up a registry of all those who’d somehow managed to get in before the gates shut. He pledged to close down mosques. In March 2016, in a remarkable example of projection, he told CNN that “Islam hates us.”
True, Trump also pledged to work with “all moderate Muslim reformers” in the Middle East. That category, however, mainly seems to include authoritarian democrats like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, coup leaders like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, and even war criminals like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In hindsight, Trump would have supported autocrats Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi because they so effectively eliminated potential terrorists. For the new president, “reformers” really means those willing to kill large numbers of people who conveniently happen to be Muslims. Why should the United States get its hands dirty? Trump, ever the businessman, appreciates the value of subcontractors.
President Trump’s choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is even more notoriously Islamophobic. He has compared “Islamism” to Nazism and communism, calling it a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people.” He has perpetuated the sharia law myth, cultivated so strenuously by Frank Gaffney.
In his State of the Union address of 2002, George W. Bush infamously linked Iran and Iraq, two countries that hated each other, in an “axis of evil” with a putatively Communist nation, North Korea, that had few dealings with either of them. In a book he co-authored with neocon Michael Ledeen, Flynn went several steps further, imagining radical Islamists creating a global anti-American network that linked North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
He also attacked not just “radical Islam” but Islam in general and cast aspersions on both the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran, arguing that Islam as a whole is a religion utterly incompatible with modernity.
However objectionable the foreign policies of the George W. Bush administration, its officials at least attempted to distinguish between al-Qaeda and Islam. Not Flynn, who doesn’t have to go through the confirmation process. Count on one thing, though: he won’t be an isolated nutcase in the Trump administration. His deputy, K.T. McFarland, has made similarly inflammatory statements about Islam, as have Mike Pompeo (CIA director), Steve Bannon (White House chief strategist), and Jeff Sessions (attorney general).
Not all Trump nominees are as fond of fake news as Mike Flynn. There are some shades of nuance in the otherwise over-the-top bunch that Trump has assembled. Desperate for a sign that the next administration is not a Saturday Night Live parody, Democratic legislators and liberal commentators have looked for “voices of reason” among Trump’s nominees. They’ve praised Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his somewhat more conventional Pentagon view of the world, while prospective Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has attracted support for his somewhat more conventional CEO view of the world.
But even Mattis and Tillerson share a hostility toward Islam. During his confirmation hearing, for instance, Tillerson made the ludicrous claim that the Muslim Brotherhood has been “an agent for radical Islam like al-Qaeda,” proving that he’s at least as ignorant of divisions within the Islamic world as Donald Trump (who once said that he wouldn’t bother to learn the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah until it was absolutely necessary). Tillerson’s claim just happens to coincide with the latest piece of anti-Islamic legislation making its way through Congress: the fifth attempt in five years to put the Muslim Brotherhood on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This time, with support from Trump and possibly even Mattis, who has come out against “political Islam,” it might just pass.
Political Islam, like political Christianity or political Judaism, takes some noxious positions, particularly on civil liberties, but it can also be a force for stability and an ally against terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. And whatever you might think of the Muslim Brotherhood, it simply isn’t a terrorist organization. Indeed, because of its focus on achieving its goals through participation in the political process, the Brotherhood has earned the hatred of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and virtually every other Islamic terrorist outfit around. It bodes ill for the Muslim world — and the world at large — when top administration officials can’t make these elemental distinctions.
Islam is, of course, an easy target in a country that has been fed a nonstop diet of misinformation on the subject, but hardly the only target. The Trump administration has far larger ambitions.
Unraveling the institutions
At the end of December, the Security Council voted to condemn Israel for its policy of building settlements in territory slated for a Palestinian state. Instead of wielding its veto power, for the first time the United States abstained on such a vote, allowing the resolution to pass 14 to 0. Donald Trump almost immediately tweeted: “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
In fact, it’s hard to imagine an institution less devoted to having a good time. The soul of sobriety, the Security Council might be thought of as the exact opposite of a Trump casino. For all its flaws and contradictions, the UN sustains the flame of democratic internationalism and a belief that rules and regulations might be able to contain the chaos of conflict and help solve the world’s most pressing problems. That, not its supposedly wasted potential, is what has really earned it the wrath of Trump.
The president-elect’s first salvo in his attack on that institution was his nomination of Nikki Haley as the US ambassador to it. The South Carolina governor has zero experience in foreign affairs. Choosing her was as much a gesture of contempt as picking Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, an agency he once expressed a desire to disband. For a UN-averse administration, that ambassadorship is the equivalent of Siberian exile.
If former UN Ambassador John Bolton becomes number two at the State Department — he’s still in the running despite some Republican opposition — he’ll immediately put that institution in his crosshairs. Bolton has never concealed his enmity toward the UN, declaring at one point that its New York headquarters would be no worse off with 10 fewer floors. Bolton was furious over the recent Security Council vote on settlements, urging the Trump administration to immediately push for its repeal. “If that fails, and that’s the most likely outcome,” he said, “we should cut our contributions to the United Nations perhaps in toto until this resolution is repealed.”
Indeed, the easiest way for the Trump administration to undermine the UN would simply be to unleash the anti-internationalist attack dogs in Congress who have long been eager to cut its financing. Now that they’re fully in charge, expect the Republican leadership to target funding for refugees (the United States is the leading contributor to the UN Refugee Agency), the UN Population Fund (which the anti-abortion crowd has been itching to challenge), the UN Green Climate Fund (a concrete way to undercut the Paris accord on climate change), and peacekeeping (a frequent target of right-wing think tanks). Even Rex Tillerson, lauded by the UN Foundation for his philanthropic efforts to fight malaria as ExxonMobil’s CEO, would find it hard to beat back the anti-UN sentiments of the congressional budget hawks.
Keep in mind that the UN represents a potential source of organized resistance to the Trump administration, a way that the “rest” can mobilize against the “West.” But it’s increasingly clear that the “West” itself is going to pose some challenges for the incoming administration. Trump, for instance, intensely dislikes the European Union (EU). He openly supported the British vote to leave it and invited Brexit campaign leader Nigel Farage to his inauguration. The transition team has been on the lookout for the next exit votes to support. “I do think keeping [the EU] together is not gonna be as easy as a lot of people think,” Trump said ominously in a recent interview with the Times of London. Like the UN, the EU has come to represent the values of inclusive internationalism, whether it’s Germany’s willingness to accommodate Syrian refugees or the diplomatic efforts of Brussels to resolve conflicts in Eurasia and the Middle East.
In its eagerness to unravel internationalism, the Trump administration won’t simply take aim at institutions like the UN and the EU. It will also target for demolition the diplomatic accomplishments of the Obama administration, including the Iran nuclear deal and détente with Cuba. It will seek to undermine liberal values of every sort, ranging from support for human rights and multiculturalism to an abhorrence of torture. A wrecking ball with Trump’s name on it is poised to demolish the house of internationalism that Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Bunche, Jody Williams, Jimmy Carter, and so many others labored so hard to build.
As with any real estate developer, however, Trump isn’t interested in simply tearing down the old. He wants to build something big and gaudy in its place.
The new globalists
The first front in the Trump administration’s war to take back the world will, of course, be against Islam, which is expected to surpass Christianity as the world’s largest faith in the second half of the 21st century. From the Crusades to the wars against the Ottoman Empire, the very concept of “Western” developed in opposition to Islam. So it makes a certain perverse sense for Trump to tap into this longstanding tradition in establishing his supposed defense of Western (read: American) civilization.
Trump’s White House special adviser Steve Bannon, the white supremacist who made Breitbart News such a popular mouthpiece for the far right, clearly feels at home with this clash-of-civilizations framework. “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” he has written, a movement that wants to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.” Bannon can count on others in the administration just as eager to wage such an epic battle, including Deputy National Security Adviser-in-waiting K.T. McFarland, who believes that “Global Islamist jihad is at war with all of Western civilization.”
But Bannon and his Trumpian ilk aren’t just focused on Islam. Think of the war against that religion as just a wedge issue for them. After binge-watching nine films that the alt-right guru has directed over the years, journalist Adam Wren summed up Bannon’s message in Politico this way: “Western Civilization as we know it is under attack by forces that are demonic or foreign — the difference between those is blurry — and people in far-distant power centers are looking to screw you.”
Bannon dislikes Islam, but it’s the “globalists” who, as he sees it, represent the chief threat. “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist,” he says. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over.” According to their critics, the globalists are a liberal elite that has benefited from free trade, pushed for multiculturalism, and joined hands with their counterparts around the world in conclaves like Davos and at institutions like the UN They despise national traditions and disparage religious (Christian) values. Politically correct, they care only about minorities, not the majority. They want to tear down borders in order to line their own pockets. The cabal responsible for the “American carnage” joins a long list of conspiratorial groups that have supposedly poisoned the body politic. It’s just a matter of time before The Protocols of the Elders of Globalism spreads virally through the fake news Webosphere.
But don’t Rex Tillerson, CEO of a major energy company, or the multiple minions of Goldman Sachs who will join the administration fall right into this category of globalists? Surely these Trump nominees are enamored of free trade, the structural adjustments of the International Monetary Fund, and other institutions of economic globalization. That’s where Bannon comes in. He’s the right-wing equivalent of Friedrich Engels, the industrialist who supported Karl Marx in birthing Communism. Every new ruling elite needs a certain number of turncoats ready to bite the hand of the ancien régime that fed them. Having worked at Goldman Sachs before putting in time in Hollywood and at Breitbart, Bannon aspires to transform the titans of industry and finance into America-first nationalists.
It’s one thing to criticize liberal internationalism for its concentrations of wealth, political privilege, and cultural snobbery. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find fault with a global economy that functions like a casino. But Trump, Bannon, and others are not interested in democratizing globalism. They want to create an internationalism of their own. Think of it as a new globalism of the 1% that is Christian, deeply conservative, and subordinate to nationalist demands. Despite its appeals to the silent majority, this globalism 2.0 will benefit an even narrower slice of the elite. Moreover, Trump and Bannon have already lined up international backers for it, figures like Russian President Vladimir Putin, French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Putin is the linchpin of this de facto Nationalist International. In 2013, the Russian leader outlined an agenda that anticipated the Trump campaign in nearly all its particulars.
“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan. The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia.”
In Russia, the appeal to these old-fashioned values has concealed an old-fashioned looting of the economy, along with a beefing up of the military. That Trump has nominated so many titans of the corporate sector and the military-industrial complex suggests that his administration will closely follow the Russian blueprint, much as Viktor Orban has already done in Hungary.
As Donald Trump settles into the Oval Office this week, say goodbye to the one-worlders of the Obama-Clinton years and say hello to a new era of the one-percenters. America’s oligarchs will profit handsomely from the administration’s infrastructure program, its reconfigured trade deals, and its accelerated emphasis on resource extraction.
For the rest of us, much pain will accompany the birth of this new nationalist world order, this confederacy of oligarchs. The world urgently needs a new generation of democratic internationalists — or there won’t be much of a world left when Trump and his cronies get through with it.
This article appeared on TomDispatch. John Feffer is the author of the new dystopian novel, Splinterlands (a Dispatch Books original with Haymarket Books), which Publishers Weekly hails as “a chilling, thoughtful, and intuitive warning.”