When Donald Trump’s seemingly maverick presidential campaign began to accelerate in 2016, both the Left and Right in domestic U.S. politics began to formulate predictable reactions almost on cue. Virtually the entire spectrum of the American right-wing, save the seeming spoil sports of the (neo-Trotskyist) neoconservative milieu, began heralding “The Donald” as the savior of (pick one) the American nation, the white race, the free market, the working class, the Christian faith, traditional values, or something or other. Such was the attitude of virtually the entire configuration of the Alt-Right/Lite, ordinary FOX News watching Republican voters, white nationalists, the religious right, and not a few libertarians. Of course, the Left reacted with a parallel reflex, insisting that Trump was the second coming of Hitler, or at least Mussolini or at the bare minimum Franco. In the weeks leading up to the election I was constantly getting messages from right-wing friends saying things like “Hope you’re on the Trump train!” and from left-wing friends saying “Hope you’re voting against the fascist!” Of course, being the contrarian that I am, I declined to get aboard any trains, and I voted for the same candidate I always vote for, i.e. the illustrious Nobody.
During the run up to the election, it was apparent that Trump was following the exact same playbook as his Republican forebears Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, i.e. campaigning as George Wallace with the intention of governing as Nelson Rockefeller. This was evident enough from Trump’s cozy relationship with Rockefeller foreign policy luminaries such as Henry Kissinger, and a revealing interview Trump gave to neocon pinup girl Megyn Kelly in May of 2016, where he admitted that his presidential priorities would be “tax cuts” and to “rebuild the military.” These have been the same talking points used by Republicans talking for the past four decades. Of course, Trump did depart from modern Republican rhetoric in two important ways with his abandonment of “free trade” pieties in favor of opening a trade war with China, and his failure to even give lip service to fiscal conservatism, while instead implicitly embracing the “deficits don’t matter” Dick Cheney line.
More than a year into his presidency, Trump has largely “evolved” into the conventional Republican I thought he would. This “evolution” has been particularly apparent in the realm of economic policy where Trump has generally followed the standard Republican playbook of “cutting welfare from the bottom up, and cutting taxes and regulation from the top down,” in the same manner as the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush regime that governed from 1981 to 2009, from which Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was only a slight departure, and which a President Hillary Clinton would have likely continued as well. On economic policy, the Republicans resemble nothing quite as much as the most reactionary plutocratic parties of Latin America, such as El Salvador’s ARENA or Chile’s Independent Democratic Union.
The general Republican approach to economic policy is that the poor can never be poor enough because poverty generates savings on labor costs and fiscal expenditures. Their Democratic Party rivals hold to an economic line not unlike that of the center-right Christian Democratic Parties of Europe and Latin America, which holds that an excess of poverty leads to social upheaval, instability, and under consumption (the old Keynesian line), and so it is good to thrown the sans culottes an extra loaf of bread here and there. Essentially, the Trump regime has been a matter of “Reaganomics revisited,” as was the case with George W. Bush, in the form of tax cuts for the rich, deficit spending, selective deregulation that is friendly to corporate/plutocratic interests, and trade policy that is favorable to select domestic business interests. All of this was predictable enough.
On social policy, the Trump administration has likewise done what Republicans since Nixon have always done by throwing out bones and making token gestures to the various socially conservative political interest groups that are important Republican voting blocks. Hence, the Trumpian approach to social matters has involved the inclusion of anti-abortion provisions as a condition for recipients of international aid, banning transgenders that have actually transitioned from the armed forces, high-fiving the National Rifle Association, gutting environmental regulation, and appointing a Secretary of Education whose approach to education policy essentially amount to turning education over to corporations and religious institutions.
Given that prevailing demographic, cultural, generational, economic and partisan trends spell doom for the Republican Party over the long term, the Trump administration has taken a “scorched earth” approach to the federal judiciary such as, for example, appointing federal judges who are barely out of law school, but who are loyal Republican stooges. In predictable Republican vein, the Trump administration has also worked overtime to strengthen the already enormous police state, reinvigorating the decades-long disaster known as the “war on drugs,” and demonstrating that “states’ rights” only count when states do things the Republican way. Again, all of this was entirely predictable and straight out of the Nixon-Reagan-Bush-Bush Republican playbook.
It has been in the area of foreign policy that the Trump administration has thus far been the most interesting. Trump actually seems to have fairly good instincts when it comes to international relations (relatively speaking, of course), and a genuine case can be made that a Trump administration is preferable to the foreign policy horror show that the administration of failed candidate, and now professional sore loser, Hillary Clinton would have been. This is not to say that Trump did not almost immediately disappoint after having assumed office with his harebrained attacks on Syria (which seemed to cost him the support of much of the Alt-right, not that the Alt-right is large enough to matter).
Trump also did an about face on withdrawal from Afghanistan, most likely after being persuaded of the supposed necessity of keeping Chinese hands off of Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits. The Trump administration has also reversed the Obama policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, as Florida’s right-wing Cuban, Castro family-hating enclave is an important Republican constituency. The administration has also threatened Venezuela with sanctions, apparently for no reason other than punishing those who dared to defy the Empire. The U.S. “drone wars” have also escalated under Trump, as they did under Obama, and the Obama policy of “war in seven countries” has thus far remained intact.
The Trump foreign policy has involved escalating arms shipments to both Saudi Arabia (which is currently waging a genocidal war against Yemen, and against its own Shiite population in the Eastern Province), and to Israel, which apparently demands the right to hold a population of four million Palestinians as permanent P.O.W.s in an open air prison camp. Donald Trump’s uncharacteristic humility during his campaign speech before the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee was a sharp indication of his future administration’s subservience to Israel, and to date Trump has arguably been the most pro-Zionist president the U.S. has ever had, with George W. Bush being the only other competitor. Perhaps most troubling of all has been the escalating hostility of the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward Iran, and the parallel appointment of John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor. Bolton has long been an advocate of a U.S. invasion of Iran in the same manner as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and for this reason former President Jimmy Carter was correct when he said that Bolton’s appointment was one of the worst decisions Trump has made to date.
However, Trump has also demonstrated a number of more thoughtful inclinations when it comes to international relations. The anti-Chinese trade war rhetoric has largely remained in the realm of the rhetorical, and the recent tariff impositions were rather modest in nature, mostly comprising token gestures. Trump seems genuinely disinclined to want to escalate the “New Cold War” with Russia that the Democrats and neoconservative establishment are now pushing with full force. Trump had the good sense to respond to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ambition of removing Assad from Syria by removing Tillerson from the State Department, and just this week Trump hinted at his preference for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. Most interesting has been Trump’s responsiveness to North Korea’s offer of a summit and possible disarmament agreement. Who knows? Perhaps a “Nixon Goes to China” moment could eventually transpire in the form of “Trump Goes to the DPRK.”
Clearly, Trump’s instinctual inclinations toward a semi-realist approach to foreign policy is disturbing to the entire array of the foreign policy establishment, ranging from neoliberal-liberal internationalist Democrats to the ultra-hawkish neoconservative Republicans to the non-ideological but ultra-imperialist “deep state.” The current ambition of the foreign policy establishment across the spectrum is to strengthen the position of the Anglo-American-Zionist-Wahhabi axis in the face of the rising triangular resistance comprised of the BRICS, the Shia block, and the Global South. For the most part, Trump has played along with this game. Yet his apparent lack of interest in aspects of the neoliberal-neoconservative-deep state foreign policy program clearly has the establishment perturbed in some ways. Hence, the development of the CIA-neoconservative-Democratic-mainstream media alliance against Trump that emerged since Trump’s assuming office. It will indeed be interesting to witness how this game continues to be played out in the years ahead.