On the surface, Donald Trump and Barack Obama may seem like polar opposites but they are alike in one fundamental way: both promised to challenge a corrupt and brutal establishment but promptly caved in, writes Sam Husseini.
By Sam Husseini
Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination and the general election largely because he was able to pose as a populist and an anti-interventionist, an “America Firster.” Similarly, Barack Obama won the 2008 election in good part because he promised “hope and change” and because he had given a speech years earlier against the then-impending invasion of Iraq.
Short of disclosure of diaries or other documents from these politicians, we can’t know for certain if they planned on reversing much of what they promised or if the political establishment compelled them to change, but they both reversed themselves on their core messages, committing what you might call a massive political fraud. Yet, what is perhaps most striking is how quickly each of them backtracked on their winning messages, particularly since they were both proclaimed as representing “movements” seeking to shake up the system.
Even before taking office, Obama stacked his administration with pro-war people: He kept George W. Bush’s head of the Pentagon, Robert Gates; for Secretary of State he nominated Hillary Clinton, whom he beat largely because she voted for giving Bush authorization to invade Iraq; he surrounded himself with other prominent Iraq War backers including Vice President Joe Biden and senior foreign policy advisers Susan Rice and Richard Holbrooke. Even before he was sworn in, Obama had supported the 2008 Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. [See from 2008: “Anti-War Candidate, Pro-War Cabinet?“]
Thus, rather predictably, the Obama years saw the expansion of U.S. bombing operations and a dramatic escalation in the U.S. global assassination program using drones. Obama intentionally bombed more countries than any other president since World War II: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.
Obama had talked about a nuclear-weapons-free world – a key reason why he won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize – but he later geared up to spend $1 trillion in upgrading the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. At the end of his administration, attempts at the United Nations to work toward banning nuclear weapons were sabotaged, efforts that the Trump administration continues.
Obama also continued the feigned uncertainty about whether Israel possessed nuclear weapons. Asked by columnist Helen Thomas at his first presidential news conference if he knew of any country in the Mideast that had nuclear weapons, Obama dissembled and claimed he didn’t want to “speculate,” rather than answering “Israel” and starting the process of clearing away the mountain of deceits that sit atop U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s election also brought some hope that he would live up to his populist promises and at least pursue U.S. policies that reflected his “America First” ideas and minimize U.S. military adventures abroad. Instead there have been a series of key reversals, topped off by Trump’s April 6 launching of 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian government. But that military intervention, reversing his plans to focus on defeating ISIS not orchestrating “regime change,” was not alone. There have been “flip-flops” on the Ex-Im Bank, NATO, China, Russia, the Federal Reserve.
The Impervious Establishment
Politically, Obama and Trump ran against the Establishment but then, in effect, rebranded it and, by doing so, further entrenched it. And not just in foreign policy. Though elected amid public anger over the Wall Street collapse of 2008, Obama supported the Wall Street bailout and brought in pro-Wall Street apparatchiks Tim Geithner and others around Robert Rubin, such as Larry Summers. Some were connected to Goldman Sachs, including Rahm Emanuel, Gary Gensler and Elena Kagan.
Trump campaigned as a populist but he, too, brought in a roster of Wall Street and Goldman Sachs veterans, most prominently Steven Mnuchin at Treasury Secretary and Gary Cohn as chief economic adviser.
While the Obama/Trump deceptions have much in common, their prime difference has been in style. Obama is lawyerly and, like Jell-o, hard to pin to the wall. Many of his broken promises were actually violations of the spirit of what he said, not the letter. For instance, he vowed to withdraw “all combat troops” from Iraq, but didn’t tell voters he made a distinction between “combat troops” and, say, frontline military advisers and special-operations teams. Since many of his backers were utterly infatuated with him, they seemed incapable or unwilling to parse out his deceitful misimpressions.
By contrast, Trump behaves more like an electron, flashing from one side of an issue to the other or sometimes appearing to be in two places at the same time. Trump is an extreme example demonstrating the emptiness of political words and promises, but he is hardly unique. It’s largely meaningless if a politician declares a position, especially during a campaign. The question is: What have they done? How have they demonstrated their commitment to, say, ending perpetual wars or taking on Wall Street?
Obama and Trump were both salesmen, albeit with divergent pitches and contrasting personas. Nor were their deceptions particularly new. George W. Bush campaigned against “nation building” before launching a war of choice in Iraq supposedly intended to remake its entire political and economic structure; Bill Clinton campaigned as the “man from Hope” who felt the pain of the little guy before parlaying his presidency into a very lucrative business model for himself, his family and his friends; George H. W. Bush claimed he was a compassionate conservative but showed little compassion either in his domestic or foreign policies. All backed corporate power and finance. All waged aggressive war.
One question about Obama and Trump is whether they might have done anything differently if they weren’t subjected to ridiculous critiques from their “opposition” parties that pushed them to be even more militaristic.
Republicans portrayed Obama as a “secret Muslim” and a “pacifist,” which added to his incentive to bomb more Muslim countries to show that he wasn’t. Trump suffered from a “liberal” and “progressive” critique that he was Vladimir Putin’s “puppet” because he talked about cooperating with – rather than confronting – Russia. That pushed Trump to adopt a more militaristic posture against the other major nuclear state on the planet.
To avoid repeats of these political scams, America needs a citizenry, aided by media, that adroitly and accessibly pierces through the layers of deception in real time. Another thing that’s needed is a merging of what we call the “left” and “right” into a joint effort to pursue polices that undermine the grip of Wall Street and the Military Industrial Complex on the U.S. government.
A wiser electorate then must resist the allure of loving – or hating – certain personalities and must repudiate the cheap satisfaction of partisan shots. Only when there’s adherence to real values – and cohesion from real solidarity – can the cycles of promises and betrayal be broken.
Sam Husseini is communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy, a consortium of policy analysts and founder of VotePact.org, which encourages cooperation between principled progressives and conscientious conservatives.