Many downwardly mobile Americans are confused about what happened to them, which explains the attraction of Donald Trump, who offers few coherent solutions but may have a lasting impact on U.S. relations with the world, says Michael Brenner.
By Michael Brenner
Donald Trump most likely will not be elected President. Still, his historic campaign has sent shock waves through the American body politic. All are asking what it means and what it portends. The focus is on America at home rather than abroad. Foreign policy issues have been overshadowed by anxious domestic concerns.
Moreover, Trump never formulated a coherent view of international issues. Like the average guy, he simply spat out whatever thoughts passed through his head as he had caught snippets of Fox News. Any attempt to discern logic and strategy from Trump’s disjointed exclamations proves frustrating.
Trump’s entire campaign conveyed emotions rather than considered thoughts. It played to the public’s feelings – amplifying them and channeling them into a turbid or opaque brew of primitive slogans. Energy was imparted through unbridled vehemence and the showmanship of the born despot.
So it is those emotions that we should look at to see what is simmering behind the formal façade of our democracy in action. For they will outlast the election. Therein lies their significance for possible effects on the United States relations with the rest of the world.
If there is an appropriate label to stick on this fermenting vat, it is “nativism.” By that we mean a rather inchoate mix of atavistic nationalism, xenophobia, aggressiveness, righteous religiosity and racism dressed up as patriotism. Deep-seated sense of grievance and pervasive feelings that the true American has been sold out provide the fuel.
Each of these elements has precedents in American history and roots in American society. They periodically have surfaced in political movements from the “Know-Nothings” who in the 1850s were empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, to the paranoia that accompanied the Red Scare in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and then reappeared with greater intensity in the form of McCarthyism.
Today’s manifestations have a larger economic component. The optimistic creed that has been the lifeblood of America has been sapped by the plight of salaried workers after decades of wealth redistribution upwards, the hollowing out of the country’s industrial core, the financializing of business, and the emergence of a “gig” economy that promises only more dislocation, insecurity, skimpy or no benefits, and declining living standards.
Rugged individualism dictates that individual persons should assume responsibility for their failings; stoic fatalism in the face of external forces that drain all hope is quite another matter. Blame, like discontent, is free-floating. Its locus shifts among Wall Street, government leaders, and foreigners.
The last most interests us here. Factors originating beyond the nation’s borders are prominent targets. They range from “globalization” as an abstract new reality, to Benedict Arnold companies that off-shore jobs and tax liabilities, to U.S. leaders who sign away American interests in one-sided trade deals to hostile governments who are cheaters.
There is more than a grain of truth in the complaints directed at all of those mentioned. The “common man,” as we quaintly used to call workers, indeed has been sold out by the “bosses” – economic and political. In truth, most of that selling out has been by elites favoring other elites here at home at the expense of the general populace. Foreigners are politically more convenient targets, though.
The primary question is whether the disposition to blame external parties will manifest itself in antagonistic action. That has been the pattern elsewhere at other times. It is by no means obvious, though, that this logic holds in the case of the United States today. This is certainly true as regards any large-scale use of military force.
Fifteen years of relentless, failed wars in the greater Middle East have drained the country of the passion for violence with which Americans retaliated for 9/11. Whether a President Hillary Clinton would expand operations in Syria is unaffected by the American public’s anger over illegal immigration or biased “trade” agreements. A vague distaste for ungrateful, grasping foreigners does not eclipse aversion to expensive new adventures abroad or skepticism that they will work.
As to Russia, the current high-decibel condemnation of Moscow’s alleged machinations is more an elite phenomenon, led by the security establishment, than it is an expression of popular outrage. Few Americans identify with the Syrian “rebels” whom Vladimir Putin is fighting or Ukrainian paramilitaries burning people alive in Odessa.
The negative view of Russia, and Putin personally, so assiduously cultivated by politicos and the mainstream media does not translate into a broad fear or hatred among the American people. The pervasive obsession with the Red Menace that marked the Cold War remains dormant. That is even true in Europe – except for the Poles and the Baltics. Washington chooses to be rhetorically aggressive and to take the much publicized steps of building up NATO forces around Russia’s periphery. But there is little stomach for actually raising a risk of direct conflict.
In conclusion, American policy toward Russia and the Middle East will follow the tracks laid down by the Obama administration with little deviation – and no greater success.
The Dark Side
Every society has its dark and dangerous undercurrents. America’s is laced with racism and fed by a deep pool of personal insecurities. The recrudescence of coarse racism, the deep psychic anxieties of the white males of Middle America, the embrace of jingoism, the frustrations of trailer park super-patriots, and the desperation of tormented Evangelicals torn over the question of whether a prospective nuclear Iran is a sign that the End Days are approaching or a serious speed-bump on the road to Rapture – together, these elements are creating an emotional maelstrom that has found an odd idol in the buffoonish persona of Donald Trump.
The longer it lasts, the more attached Trump himself becomes to the pipedream of writing his name on the wind forever – and the more his followers see themselves affirmed and exalted.
Finally, we have to come to terms with the dismaying truth that public opinion, in individuals and in aggregate, is only exceptionally the outcome of an informed and thoughtful process of deliberation. It is the rationalist myth that we are by nature thinking creatures inclined to viewing the world around us in an emotionally detached, mature manner. Very, very few persons approximate that model.
Inherited loyalties, deep-seated prejudices and preferences, private emotions, the attraction or repulsion of personality – all of these elements come into play to considerable degree. In today’s society where attachments of all sorts are weak and evanescent, where political parties have little cohesion, where associational life has faded, where we are exposed to the barrage of media imagery and messaging, the rationalist model has become less and less valid. Most of us are shaped by influences that we only dimly perceive – whether calculated intent lies behind them or not.
Immigration Hot Button
Thus, it is immigration that has become the hot button issue involving other countries. Passions are aroused by two things: the presence of millions of illegals from Mexico and Central America; and the prospect of Islamic terrorists entering the United States masquerading as refugees.
The two merge at the most primitive level of emotions. Together, they deepen worries that the world is spinning out of control in ways that call into question the country the many American people know (or imagine they know). Projections of rapidly increasing Latino populations, which threaten to overwhelm school districts and voter rolls, ruffle the feathers of many Middle Americans. Alarm that welfare and other social problems are siphoning off much needed public moneys in the age of austerity add a tangible economic element to these anxieties.
Could this lead to implementation of the sorts of draconian “ethnic cleansing” programs advocated by Donald Trump? Unlikely – despite his ability to insert them into so-called “mainstream” discourse about the problem. It is easy to exaggerate the extent and the intensity of anti-immigrant feelings.
Most Americans encounter little of it in their daily lives. Those who do in places like Texas or California pretty much take it as a given: something that should be dealt with but not a matter requiring urgent action. Arizona is different. That’s where the extreme Rightists (and the Republican politicos whom they have intimidated into obedience) make most of the noise.
Foreign observers should note that the situation in the U.S. is very different from that in Western Europe. Not only is the United States a very big country where relatively large populations can get lost but, equally important, social space is not as tightly configured.
Outside of small towns, there is little sense of traditional community to be protected. Americanism trumps all as the successful integration of waves of immigrants throughout the country’s history has demonstrated. While Latinos do present some unusual complications (unlike South or East Asian immigrants), visceral concerns about a denaturing of culture and society are relatively weak. (After all, 25 percent of baseball players in the professional leagues are Latinos – most from abroad.)
So, the politics of immigration policy reform has not changed. The policies and unresolved dispute over what to do next will remain in their present indeterminate state.
The Terrorism Scare
The immigration-terrorism link is a far more passionate matter. It taps the terrorism psychosis that has gripped the country since 9/11. The graphic outbreak of mass shootings over the past year has rekindled feverish emotions. The fact that the Orlando/San Bernadino/New York/New Jersey perpetrators had some vague connection with jihadi groups in the Middle East has given these events a transnational dimension. It doesn’t seem to matter that perps were American-born citizens or had grown up in the U.S.
Logically speaking, a detached observer could infer that restrictive immigration from the Mideast or of Muslims generally would have no bearing on the level of terrorist threat. But facts in the age of Trump have lost much of their purchase on the American mind.
One fact that is incontrovertible is that politicians run scared on all matters that are related to terrorism – however oblique. The foot-dragging of President Obama on accepting any significant number of Syrian refugees is exhibit number one. Hostility toward Muslims generally is on the rise as witness the spike in abusive incidents in recent months. They now are occurring at a higher rate than they did in the wake of 9/11. By contrast, public authorities at all levels are less inclined to pursue surveillance and detention policies that skirt the law compared to that earlier period.
The net effect will be a deepening perception around the world that the United States is hostile toward Islam. That is grist for the mill of the jihadis and opportunistic politicians. While it seems unlikely that signs of Islamo-phobia in American society will affect the thinking and actions of government leaders, they very well could register in the communities from which suicide bombers and terrorists are drawn – in Europe especially and among certain unbalanced individuals in the United States itself. That cycle thereby gains velocity.
What about the economic sphere? It is there that one might reasonably expect the preoccupations of the presidential campaign to affect the policy of a new administration. Economic nationalism follows naturally from aroused popular discontents that finger the forces of globalization as a prime cause of the economic plight in which tens of millions of American find themselves. That is to say, one might anticipate that American officials will take a more searching look at the “bottom-line” impact of the accelerating integration of the world economy whose promotion has been a centerpiece of American foreign policy since the early 1990s – as actively and optimistically promoted by Hillary Clinton’s husband.
The process has tremendous momentum – institutional (via such entities as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), political and intellectual. Economic thinking, academic and governmental, has been totally dominated by the twin market fundamentalist concepts of General Market Equilibrium Theory and benign globalization.
A Bow to Inequality
While it has become trendy for all and sundry to make a ceremonial bow to the inequality phenomenon, it is hard to see the momentum of this juggernaut being blocked by disorganized displays of populism.
Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who served under President Bill Clinton, personifies this state of affairs. One of the architects and master builders of the financialized, unregulated transnational economy who fought ruthlessly to bail out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street after the 2008 crash, he now punctuates his innumerable public appearances with warnings that we should pay attention to the inequality dilemma.
This homily is not a prelude to any action. Rather, it is akin to the Mafia don who devoutly crosses himself every time that his limousine crosses the path of a religious procession on a Saint’s Day.
That is the outlook in the United States under Hillary Clinton. The one exception might by the TPP and TIIP trade treaties with Asia. Both were crafted by elites imbued by the optimistic globalization creed, both were kept secret except for the financial and commercial interests who were participants in their drafting, and both go far beyond traditional trade matters.
The former, in particular, represents a radical transference of power from national governments to private parties institutionalized in expert panels heavily biased toward the latter. Indeed, many of its provisions may be unconstitutional – as a fair-minded Supreme Court could rule.
That recondite aspect of TPP did not get an airing during the campaign. However, the tying of the treaty to the damaging effects of “trade” treaties forced even its supporters to equivocate. Hillary Clinton had been an enthusiastic backer until Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump began to reap political hay by condemning it. She now declares that is acceptable only if significant new conditions are met.
What will be her ultimate position? She may be spared that agonizing decision were Obama able to push a lame-duck session of the Senate to ratify it. Otherwise, it may just be the one and only piece of American foreign relations that changes as a result of the election campaign.
Continuity is likely to prevail elsewhere. Americans overall will remain the insular, parochial, moralizing and largely ignorant citizens they have been. That leaves plenty of space for a foreign-policy establishment driven by a powerful inertia to add to its long string of mishaps.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. firstname.lastname@example.org