Trump undermines America’s already-tattered authority

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Hillary Clinton and the Democrats deserved to lose the presidential election.

Under Hillary’s husband Bill, the Democratic Party moved to the center, which in US terms means to the right, in what was touted at the time as a smart strategic repositioning. What the Democrats lost sight of was that, in repositioning themselves, they were abandoning their traditional working class and black constituencies, while they were at the same time continuing to rely on their support at the ballot box.

Slowly, over decades, it began to dawn on traditional Democratic voters that the Democratic Party was no longer dedicated to serving their interests. Mass unemployment and immiseration, especially in the so-called rust belt but also nationwide, were simply disregarded by the Democratic elite, which lined its pockets with congressional salaries, pensions and benefits and supported the nakedly self-seeking Clinton dynasty, which devoted more energy to building up its own assets than it did to combating the flagrant inequalities that were increasingly at the heart of post-neoliberal life in the US.

The predatory practices of the Washington elite were actively supported by congressional carpetbaggers who approved legislation that opened the floodgates to every imaginable form of financial manipulation. When these sharp practices produced the global international crisis which, in the US, dispossessed very large numbers of ordinary citizens, sometimes depriving them of both their homes and their pensions, their cup began to run over. Congress bailed out the banks with prodigious sums of taxpayer money. The then-new Barack Obama administration, whose financial advisers were the core of the financial elite, refrained from prosecuting a single CEO. The good will of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was valued more highly than the loyalty of Obama’s legions of camp followers.

What does this potted Democratic prehistory have to do with Donald Trump, the unlikely hero of the hour? Everything.

While Bill and Hillary were rapidly accumulating a personal fortune in excess of $100 million, and were playing a starring role in the life of the nation’s elite, many of their loyal constituents were going to the wall while Bill and Hillary hobnobbed with the Trumps, even gracing their lavish wedding with their presence. Their daughter Chelsea is a best friend of Trump’s daughter Ivanka.

Hillary then, with the sublime arrogance of someone who knew that she was in absolute control of the Democratic Party machine, decided to stand for the presidency. She felt entitled to it, until a renegade pretender called Bernie Sanders emerged from the woodwork and had the temerity to challenge her. We now know, thanks to WikiLeaks, that, with the knowledge and affirmation of the Clintons, the Democratic Party machine tried every dirty trick in the book to foil Bernie’s unexpectedly successful campaign, which was generating a powerful groundswell of support, especially among demographic groupings that were conspicuously unenthusiastic about Hillary.

If Hillary had been politically smart, she would have invited Bernie to be her vice presidential candidate, but she passed him over because his loyal sense of commitment to his own constituency would have required her to modify her own private, undeclared conservative agenda once she was in office. Her arrogance led her to assume that she could win without Bernie and his loyal constituency. If Bernie’s predominantly youthful, starry-eyed constituency had come out in active support of Hillary, she could have won the presidential campaign. Hillary was to reap what she had sown.

Under the Clintons, the Democratic Party betrayed and radically alienated a sizable chunk of its traditional constituency.

A mega-billionaire entrepreneur called Donald Trump who had switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP unexpectedly entered the presidential race. Although a bully, a bounder, a narcissist and a serial sexual predator, he won the GOP nomination to the presidency, turning his own party on its head in the process. Almost the entire GOP elite and many of their financial backers publicly turned against him. But his demagoguery resonated with very large numbers of Americans who felt that both major parties had lost all interest in their concerns.

Yesterday I stumbled over a German documentary about Adolf Hitler. What struck me most forcibly was the impassioned, almost hysterical, way in which crowds of ordinary German men and women thronged the streets to applaud their beloved Führer, who, like Trump, would liberate them from poverty and hardship, and would make their country great again. The same fervor was also there for Trump, with a truly venomous edge that encouraged mass xenophobia targeting, this time not Jews, but Latinos and Muslims.

Trump scathingly attacked financial, business and political elites, although he and his family could throw around more money, hotels and golf courses than most of them. Trump advocated seemingly radical change in US society, yet was advised by conservative GOP troglodytes such as Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich. He fired campaign managers with remarkable frequency, and was rumored to have an attention span of 20 minutes at most. This had never been a problem for Ronald Reagan, by the way. He had few major financial backers. While the well-connected Clintons could spend mega millions on advertising over a period of months, he principally relied on social media.

He was caught with his pants down, so to speak, when more than 10 women publicly accused him of sexual harassment and worse. But he followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and the Kennedy brothers, lied in his teeth and rode it out.

It was becoming clear that blacks, who had historically turned out in large numbers for the Democrats, were beginning to feel used by the party machine which they had backed so faithfully for generations. They could often no longer muster up any enthusiasm to back a party which had increasingly neglected and betrayed them. Then, toward the end of the campaign, when it was apparent that blacks were underwhelmed by Clinton’s candidacy, Obama publicly, in a remarkable display of patronizing petulance, called on them to do the decent thing and to turn out for Hillary. In my view this could have cost Hillary any chance that she may otherwise have had of improving her standing with the black electorate.

Because Trump was discarded by the GOP establishment he turned increasingly to Breitbart news, which is on the far right of the US political spectrum. Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon was appointed Chief Executive of Trump’s election campaign. A broad spectrum of far-right groups including even the Klu Klux Klan declared their support for Trump. Several hundred current and former senior members of the armed forces, all on the right, publicly declared their support for a President Trump. Trump is indebted to this unholy alliance of right wing groupings and GOP troglodytes for their unwavering support when the going was at its toughest. They are now in a position to call in their debts just as he is being embraced by the GOP establishment which had publicly turned its back on him. The GOP establishment is in any case a notorious witches’ kitchen of internecine warfare and factionalism.

There will be a short-term honeymoon for Trump, but sooner or later the temporarily concealed splits and divisions in the GOP will bubble to the surface, and he will have to make some tough political choices which, over time, will exacerbate inner-party differences. We know from the election campaign that Trump is both vengeful and unforgiving. Those senior GOP members who, like Paul Ryan, crossed him, will be waiting for the axes to fall. It is already almost certain that Paul Ryan will be unable to continue as Speaker of the House. Not all of Trump’s pet projects enjoy the support of the GOP elite. The honeymoon is likely to end abruptly, with the public beginning to see the Trump administration and the GOP members of Congress as increasingly at odds. Trump will be incapable of repressing the authoritarian traits of his personality. Relationships with key players will come under pressure, and will visibly fray at the edges. This will begin to erode public trust in him.

In the next three months leading up to the inauguration there will be a lolly scramble for top jobs in and near the new Trump administration. Trump will be forced to take substantive decisions on matters which he has barely thought about beyond the level of catchy election slogans. In the field of foreign policy easily the most important decision will be his Secretary of State. Will he fall back on a reactionary brontosaurus such as Newt Gingrich, who is rumored to be seriously in contention, or will he pluck someone else from the ranks of his many almost unknown foreign policy experts?

Salon magazine has already described Trump’s team as the “cabinet from hell.” All names that are rumored to be in the mix are from the far right. Will any of his children be included in the cabinet? I am privately wondering whether Trump will appoint Fox’s Sean Hannity, who has licked his boots since the very beginning of the election campaign, as his White House press spokesman?

At home Trump will have to deliver promptly on his promise to abolish and replace Obamacare. Will he heed GOP orthodoxy by abolishing Obamacare and replacing it with privately funded options that exclude the 20 million Americans, many from his own support base, who were uninsured until Obamacare came along? He has announced major government funding for much-needed infrastructure improvements for the many crumbling US cities. The standout exception to this rule just happens to be Washington, the city that is patronized by the US political elite. Will he support public transport? Will he, as repeatedly promised during his campaign, abolish most environmental protections that have been introduced by Obama? He will almost certainly approve the Alaska pipeline project. He will also give the fracking industry carte blanche to pillage the environment in search of cheap oil which liberates the US from its dependency on the Middle East. This will also make it easier for the US to go to war in the Middle East, as it could at least temporarily be self sufficient in oil.

Whereas the stock exchange plummeted in the immediate aftermath of the election, this morning the Dow had already risen to almost unprecedented heights. US big business is eagerly anticipating a return to a frontier economy as well as a move away from bonds into stocks and shares.

The free forces of capitalism will be unshackled from regulatory constraints and straitjackets. Tax on businesses will be slashed in half, from 30% to 15%. Income tax on the rich will be reduced, while tax on the poor will apparently increase.

This means that the overall tax take will decline significantly just as Trump is ramping up spending on infrastructure and defense. During the campaign both Trump and hawkish Hillary rather vaguely undertook to considerably increase military expenditure, to help make America great again. Although international analyses have consistently shown that US military expenditure far outstrips military expenditure in both China and Russia, the US military/industrial establishment piteously laments that it has been willfully starved of even the minimal resources required to keep pace with these two potential adversaries (according to SIPRI, in 2015 the US spent US$596 billion on defense, while China and Russia spent US$215 billion and US$66.4 billion respectively). Some US NGO analyses have figured out that the US spends almost a trillion dollars annually on defense, 25% of the total US budget if one includes, for example, the cost of veterans and the US intelligence establishment.

How will Trump balance the budget if he considerably reduces total income, while massively stepping up expenditure on infrastructure and the military? Historically the response of the neo-liberal establishment has been to take a knife to welfare expenditure. But if Trump does this he will inflame his own Trumpian grass roots support base. Will he be forced to blow out the budget deficit, something that will place him at loggerheads with orthodox GOP economics? He will come under pressure from the GOP to further slash a wide range of social welfare benefits and services. This would certainly anger many of his supporters.

On foreign policy the major issues at this stage would appear to be a Mexican wall, Iran and Cuba. Although Syria has been a conversation topic, Trump has never advanced beyond trite and unusually shallow observations. What is interestingly clear, however, is that he will disregard the Washington foreign policy establishment, and will seek to avoid conflict with Russia’s Putin. This could also lead to a de-escalation of the festering conflict in Ukraine. That would be a plus. Putin has already welcomed Trump’s election and has expressed his wish to seek dialogue with him.

Iran is a different story. Trump has throughout his campaign bought into hate-filled sound bites that play on the Islamophobia that is sweeping the US at present, especially in the evangelical community. He has declared that he will “tear up” the nuclear deal with Iran, as if it was a bilateral agreement that could be discarded with the stroke of a pen. He will, however, be forced to confront the uncomfortable reality that the deal was unanimously supported by all five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, as well as by all other members of the Council, even including little New Zealand. If Trump tears up the deal, he will confirm the worst fears of the international community about his untrustworthiness as an international partner. This will not serve the best interests of the US.

The Iranians have already stated that, while their strong preference is to continue to honor their obligations under the UNSC resolution, if the US fails to comply with its obligations under the nuclear deal they will walk away, and will increase their stock of centrifuges and their production of enriched uranium to far higher levels than ever before. This would also mean that, whereas Iran is now actively seeking to liaise with the US in relation to ISIS and Syria, that diplomatic relationship is likely to deteriorate, reducing the prospects of a diplomatic settlement in Syria just as a possible rapprochement between Russia and the US could be making a political settlement more likely.

Trump will come under pressure from Congress’s Cuban hard right in the shape of two zealots called Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Will he revert to a remake of the old Cold War, which is not supported by either public opinion or the up and coming generation of young Cubans?

My medium-term perspective is that the unwieldy Trump coalition will begin to fragment, and will become mired in internal differences. The Trump army will increasingly judge him, not by what he says, but by what he does, or does not do. The chickens of Trump’s populism will come home to roost.

It’s early days yet. Almost anything can happen. In Nietzsche’s words: “Nothing is true, everything is possible.”

Bob Rigg
Bob Rigg was a senior lecturer in German, then Executive Director of Amnesty International in NZ, and eventually senior editor for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
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