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. [email protected]
These endless wars were started by Bush and we have been saddled with them since them. Cheney made millions on the war and saved his company. So stop the drum beating for Trump who could not fight his way out of a paper bag unless he says he did it. He is a liar and he would be a continuation of prior Republican administration that would get us into more wars. It is hard to fix a problem that Bush brought on with Cheney’s help.
Hillary is smart and will do the best she can if the right wing press would get off her back. The Congress and the Republicans need to try to work across party lines for a change and stop the name calling.
“the deep psychic anxieties of the white males of Middle America” ? Where in the recesses of his memory did the author dig that out of. Maybe some notes of a lecture in his sophomore year of college. How Freudian, it’s all Mandingo or those red savages fault. ALL races have been racist, Racist is from the root word race. All racial myths whether Greater Serbia , Islam , the Third Reich, (Well you know…,) etc., are > racist. . Countries are no different especially not when they bestow upon them selves ” One nation under God” The ruling class of this nation was white for 200 years. . So what, the Dems and Reps have been entrenched in power in all three branches of government for 170 years. They have legislated their own continuity and bestowed legitimacy upon themselves. Trump v. Clinton is a manifestation of the decadence, the decay of our 2 party system. It’s moral, intellectual and spiritual exhaustion. They are the 2 most unpopular people in the nation. Why them? Is that a choice or an insulting raspberry in the voting booth. “Take that working class” , “Social network that on your way to pizza or the gun show” .Don’t blame the common man, blame history or maybe the wind.
“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.”
You cannot write this paragraph, identifying the destruction of the middle class without highlighting mass immigration, legal and illegal. Maybe the greatest force of the destruction of the lower middle class, and you simply omit it?
US elections seem to be about one thing, DIVIDE AND CONQUER.
Trump was never a viable option for the elites, but he was the perfect tool to foment hate.
Those who rule do so by destroying harmony and social structure. They don’t want you to disagree with Clinton, they want you to hate her, they don’t want you to disagree with Trump,m they want you to hate him.
The media obvious support for Clinton was not to sway votes, but to BE OBVIOUSLY BIAS, as to infuriate the Trump supporters. Because those same elites know, the contrived narrative of democrats vs republicans is so strong, Clinton supports would gladly take the bias reporting, no questions asked.
Every four years we don’t elect anything, it is simply a tool of manipulation, to strengthen the codify the left vs right narrative, the ruling elites need to allow them control.
They have done so for thousands of years, and are much better at doing it, than we are at recognizing it.
“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.”
And there you have it, an American public that exhibits the decline of our society. In four or eight, or however many years, there will be clowns running on ALL sides for president, and one will be elected, reflecting the increasing ignorance of our people. This person will probably not have the sexual predator baggage of a Trump, and so will be freed to be supported by evidence-free masses.
The popularity of Trump’s odd nationalist populism is a predictable reaction to liberalism. Let’s not forget, shall we, that modern liberalism evolved as a reactionary movement in opposition to the revolutionary radicalism of the nineteenth century. Liberalism is at heart about the preservation of property rights and the status quo. Elements of progressivism are incorporated into the published dogma of liberalism, but liberals fight just as vigorously as conservatives to see that these goals are never achieved in a way that infringes on their privileged social and economic status.
The individual liberty which liberalism claims to cherish so dearly comes at a steep price, the fragmentation of the community through rejection of the concepts of genuine equality and collective need. The elephant in the liberal living room is the embarrassing reality that capitalist society is organized on the exploitation of one class by another. No real progress is possible until the problems of the unequal distribution of wealth and the massive, systemic corruption it engenders are addressed and solved.
This system endures by successfully appealing to the weaknesses of human nature. The truly greedy, the one percent (or less) slavishly addicted to more money, more power, dominate a culture in which greed and selfishness have become praiseworthy virtues.
Clearly, those who have privilege and are very comfortable with their place in the world are bothered by Trump and his flaws are emphasized as a way of deflecting focus on issues. A man who finances his own campaign is a maverick and potentially beholden to no one. That makes him dangerous. A man who speaks of talking to Putin and threatens to wash away the Cold War is dangerous and a man who threatens to literally bring down the house built for the privileged is dangerous. The flaws are there but they are not the reason they have become the issue by the opposition.
Trump’s foreign policy is quite coherent. The author has chosen not to pay attention. He has pledged to end our stupid wars and talk to Putin. At one point he even pledged neutrality in regard to Israel, before the Israel Firsters warned him that he’d better tone that down. In the last debate he said that he would take “first strike” off the table. That’s more than enough coherence for me.
Perhaps the author would prefer that we elect a WAR CRIMINAL with the blood of millions on her hands. It’s all moot now anyway, since the bitch is going to be indicted.
For what it’s worth, I think Michael Brenner’s piece reaches the opposite conclusion from the headline and teaser text.
@Elwood A Anderson
I am no fan of Hilary Clinton, however, inasmuch as Mr. Trump may have identified these issues that you list by direct statement or allusion, but he has not proffered serious policy measures to amend or alleviate them. He is is as tethered to “more of the same” as his opponent and makes his political vision clear with delusions of grandeur for: redistribution of wealth on the upward and corporate trajectory, farcical border and immigration policy statements, pugnacious nuclear-centric foreign policy fantasies, and little stated domestic agenda other than vague references in thinly disguised dog whistles about cleaning up the “inner city” and sorting out its inhabitants.
I do not agree with the overweening neoliberal foreign policy mythology (identified and analyzed very thoroughly on Consortium News), and have only ever thought Mr. Trump made any sense when he spoke of Putin and Russia—but in every other way he is a textbook example of antisocial personality disorder at the highest level of the spectrum, and cannot lead this country. His “crotch shot” would be 5 times that of G.W. Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln playing flyboy.
The man is insufferable and has only succeeded due to the spinelessness and freakish mindset of what is currently known as the Republican and Democratic parties. CF. Mike Lofgren AND Thomas Frank, as well s the contributors to and founder(s) of Consortium News.
Wow! Just a rambling hit piece on Trump. How did this get into Consortium News. Trump has pointed out what he sees as wrong with the country on numerous occasions.
Little or no border security
No coherent immigration policy.
Globalization and financialization of the economy by establishment elites and neglect of those suffering from it
Corruption in campaign financing and the revolving door of politicians and lobbyists
Aspirations to world hegemony and demonizing of other major world powers and their leaders
Destabilization of foreign countries and never ending wars and neglect of those fighting them
Anemic economic growth due to high taxes and parking of corporate earnings offshore
Neglect of national infrastructure
Gridlock in Washington
Media bias in favor of the bipartisan establishment that want to continue the mess
I could go on. Anyone who has been listening or has lived through this mess knows that the country is in trouble and needs major changes. And, what is the bipartisan establishment offering? More of the same.
Take a deep breath, and read it again, and especially the last paragraph.
If you think he’s attacking the Donald, that is tunnel vision. Any resolution to the middle east crises and the people who have had to leave due to the bombings by the US and NATO (aka US) you have a lot to learn. Why do you think people have to leave Honduras? Read about Clintons’ nice bloody fingers in that pie.
I don’t think it was a piece on Trump, as it was a piece about how far we have drifted from priorities which would benefit the US population. When TTP, or TTIP is done in secret with no council through our elected officials, this is a cause for concern, as it should be for any alert and informed person, or populace.
In your narrow thinking you fail to see the Republican hypocrisy. If you travel the US and don’t see for yourself the use and abuse of labor let me suggest just a few: Trump himself uses low cost labor at his golf courses to cut the grass, and keep the courses spiffy. The cleaning services are also along the same lines in the fancy hotels. the concept of “look, but don’t tell” is common, as it is for farmers who need cheap labor to pick their crops since it is not a year around enterprise.
It was no surprise to the informed that Romney was busted for his illigals cutting his lawn in San Diego.
It could also be said that Clinton never mentioned to the populace that Raqqa is in Syria, and quite near the border to Turkey. Why leave out this omission? This is a deliberate falsification of the facts as the US has no legal right to mess with, or bomb a sovereign country. And much less an elected official by the Syrian people.
The lies are on both sides and the intent is to distract the populace from the meat of the issues by coming up with trivial falsifications, since they must know very few have studied critical thinking. Russia hacked the Dems? I don’t think so.
If you hadn’t mentioned ” a rambling hit piece on Trump” as a precursor to your points I would agree with many of them and they are quite valid. Trump is lying, and Clinton is lying beyond any form of ethical standard. Both are honed by the handlers and their script writers. They throw pasta against the wall to see what sticks on any particular day, sometimes just to react to the eve news the night before. It’s all a pathetic un-reality.
Precisely Curious. Either; or does not exist here. It is fully completely both and.
Just add this piece to the hundreds of hit pieces on Trump seen every day in the MSM. I am 76 years old and have never seen such one sided support of one candidate over another in a presidential election.. And Mr. Bremmer Hillary ( the true war lover in this race) does not scare the livin be jeezus out of you? she is the person pumping the public up to accept a war with the one country on earth that can wipe the USA, every town city and village off the globe. And yet you focus on Trump because he is not a foreign policy expert. Well the experts have brought us a new Cold War and the closest any of us have ever been in our lifetime to a nuclear Armeggedon with Russia. People should vote for Trump if only to save the human race from nuclear extinction.
So after 18 months of this insanity called the 2016 presidential election we Americans are no further ahead than we were when we started. In fact many would say we have fallen more behind. It promises to be more of the same old same old, but this time the same old will be guided by the hand of Hillary Clinton. Amazing after all of this we end up here, with Hillary as the boss, so how excited should we all get?
People always end up with the government THEY deserve………..
You got that right, Doctor Soudy.
That’s Ridiculous. The Chinese deserved Mao? The Russian’s deserved Stalin? What a complete cop out. Americans who vote for Stein or Gary deserve Killary? Not exactly the erudite thought process one might expect from a Dr. or from you for that matter Joe. IMO. Rubbish.
Tannenhouser, thanks for the reply. One of the things that disturbs me the most about this current presidential election, is how people shut people down with lines like, that’s a vote for Hillary, ot that’s a vote for Trump. I don’t know what the Chinese were thinking when supporting Mao, or what the Russians did honoring Stalin, what I do know is I have to live with my vote.
What I’m considering lately is doing what Apartheid South Africe did, as well as what Batista’s Cuba did, and that is to not vote. If the voter turnout is low enough then the new elected government would not be recognized by the rest of the world’s nations. So just for the record you may not see me at the polls on November 8th. If I do vote for Stein then that technically isn’t a vote for Killary or Trump that would be a vote for my living with my vote…so peddle your rubbish comments somewhere where it may matter, and leave me alone. Take care (I honestly mean that) JT
What kind of government does one ‘deserve’ when not voting? What America should be doing …..is voting en mass against the status quo and then hanging around their poling stations wearing a hat with X on it. This X would signify a vote NOT for Kilary or the Duck. The façade of your democracy would be exposed to the world in a real and undeniable manner. Or by all means stay home…… exactly what the PTB want, I’m not sure why someone with as much passion and concern would choose this option. Again just my OP. You take care as well.