The surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has already had a dramatic and troubling impact on the domestic politics and foreign policy of the US, and it is sure to affect international relations around the world. Trump is the very caricature of the most negative aspects of the US at its worst—celebrity culture, xenophobia, bigotry, sexism, greed, arrogance and ignorance. Certainly, his corruption, his erratic personal behavior and his seemingly cozy relations with the alt-right and Russian President Vladimir Putin have combined to create an unprecedented situation in the White House. It would be a mistake, however, to focus solely on Trump himself. Doing so risks reducing real and alarming agendas to a personality-driven phenomenon. It misses the social fault lines being carved and wars being waged. Even if Trump were to be impeached, or lose reelection in four years, the broader themes of his policies, and what they really represent, would remain.
For all his personal idiosyncrasies, and despite his tendency to drive his critics to distraction via his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric and governing by Twitter, Trump is part of a much larger domestic and even global trend of right-wing populism that is a fundamental danger to democracy in the US and well beyond. He is in many ways a democratically elected authoritarian, and hence similar to other world leaders such as Putin, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or Egyptian President ‘Abd al Fattah al-Sisi. But he is also part of a broader phenomenon of politicians channeling right-wing populism and nativist nationalism in order to achieve power. Like his counterparts in other democracies, like Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, and even Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party in Britain, Trump makes ethnocratic appeals on an imaginary basis of a unified past that erases others living in that space.
It is also easy to become distracted by the Trump administration’s rapid and repeated violation of the established norms of the US presidency. Thus far, the most outrageous of these are the flaunting of falsehoods, the attacks on the free press, the appointment of cabinet nominees who are adamantly opposed to the mission of their agencies, and the unwillingness to recognize or adequately deal with numerous conflicts of interest for Trump, his staff and his cabinet. But the apparent hubris of the administration and its willingness to reset the standards of acceptable practice masks its continuities with past administrations.
What the Trump administration has done, in many ways, is to make transparent the conduct of politics in Washington, laying bare (or exposing the barely hidden) interests that shape much US policy. A critical look at the Trump phenomenon demands careful parsing of precisely which policies and practices are unprecedented and which are already well established.
Nationalism and Neoliberal Globalism
Many on the left were outraged by the nomination and confirmation of former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. How could the administration allow an individual with deep commitments to the oil industry assume such a powerful position in shaping US foreign policy? But long before 1961, when President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address warned citizens of the influence of the military-industrial complex in affecting US foreign policy, the growth and strength of the hydrocarbon industry at home and abroad were a national priority. This included establishing close relations with foreign governments controlling vast portions of the world’s reserves, regardless of their levels of repression against their people. Indeed, repressive regimes have long provided the stability that business interests crave. Tillerson’s appointment, therefore—while unusual in that he had no government foreign policy experience—was unprecedented only in cutting out the middleman between oil interests and US policymakers. Deep corporate interests have long been intertwined with US government policies and foreign relations. Trump’s team of millionaires, billionaires, and former Wall Street bankers and lobbyists exposes as well as perpetuates the power of neoliberal economic policies globally—and America’s role in promoting, enforcing and enabling them. Gone is the pretense of promoting democracy or human rights—a project shared by many in the State Department under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but also embraced by neoconservatives under George W. Bush. The law of the land is now quite brazenly business first, with a vast and deep security state put to use in protecting the projects and interests of big business. Here again we are seeing the Trump regime make transparent decades-old policies that were always prioritized over other commitments to human rights, poverty alleviation, democratization and income equality. Where once those commitments received significant lip service and less significant funding, increasingly they receive neither. This is not to suggest that various administrations were not at times serious about advancing those projects, but that state security in the service of business goes back decades in the US.
In this sense, Trump fully inherited a system already established to do what he wanted to do: Use the prestige and power of the state and its security apparatus to advance the interests of his billionaire friends and donors. He is only doing so more blatantly than past administrations. His radicalism is that he does so while abandoning concern for basic liberal values such as equality, humanity, tolerance, and respect for differences of opinion and political dissent. Only by exposing these continuities are we able to identify more precisely his radicalism. Ironically, however, in his utter lack of interest in the state as a regulatory body, Trump is actually chipping away at some of the levers that earlier presidents used to shore up the US as the center of the international neoliberal order, to mobilize coalitions for wars advantageous to big business, and to shape the constitution and law-writing process for other countries.
Indeed, there are significant tensions in the policies and actions of the Trump White House, perhaps best exemplified in the difference between the worldviews of Tillerson and Trump’s top adviser, Steve Bannon. Tillerson and other corporate figures in the administration support a neoliberal globalism at odds with Bannon’s white nationalist project and those of his allies in the alt-right movement. But even this tension is not new. The Trump administration reveals what has long been a contradiction of US empire. The American nation-state is committed to both a bounded national landscape and a boundless marketplace. And yet, what distinguishes the Trump era is that rarely are the contradictions of empire so stark. On the one hand, some within the Trump administration, including Bannon and Stephen Miller (another senior adviser to the president), are backward-looking, hoping to reinvigorate a lost sense of white nationalism and right-wing populism. This influence within the administration led to the promulgation of multiple immigration restrictions, especially toward those from countries in the Middle East with majority-Muslim populations, and a general hostility toward civil rights. On the other hand, the State Department and military, led by Tillerson and former Army general James Mattis, seem to prize geopolitical preeminence and the status quo. They might be seen as more traditional corporate conservatives and foreign policy realists.
The retrograde nationalism of Bannon and Miller seems contradictory to the normative globalization of Tillerson and Mattis. The populist white nationalism of Bannon and Miller actually undermines the stability sought by Tillerson, Mattis and many others in the military, diplomatic and intelligence communities. This contradiction may mark a turning point, with the US remaining a global military and economic power, but one that seems barely able to influence global events, and instead turns inward toward a herrenvolk democracy.
Middle East Implications
Even though there is a tension between nationalism and neoliberal globalism in Trump’s administration, they can create a toxic mix when it comes to US foreign policy in the Middle East. But again this is not entirely new. Trump’s administration has in fact doubled down on existing alliances in the region, with a particular affinity for leaders who share his thuggish outlook and disdain for any dissent. He held a notable high-level meeting with leaders from Saudi Arabia, after relations had cooled during the Obama administration in part due to Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear deal, all while inflaming nativist fears with his Islamophobic rhetoric and justifying them through travel bans that mainly affect Muslims (but not Saudis). Indeed, the administration’s disdain for so-called radical Islam is highly selective. Saudi Arabia’s extreme application of its interpretation of sharia law got a pass during a White House meeting between Saudi’s deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and Trump. They discussed shared military, economic and energy interests, and the prince dubbed Trump a “true friend of Muslims.” This was in part due to Trump himself parroting the Saudi government’s line on sectarianism, with a view to ensuring that there is a moderate Sunni coalition to counter both Iran, on the one hand, and ISIS, on the other. And in another seeming irony, the administration views Turkey most favorably for its zero tolerance of dissent and its willingness to cooperate militarily with the US, even though Erdoğan’s regime is the quintessential example of an Islamist party coming to power through elections only to undermine the democratic process and establish an autocratic regime. But the Trump administration seems fine with the massive repression in Turkey and with similar crackdowns elsewhere—including in Egypt, the US government’s long-time ally, currently governed by an authoritarian military man who was the first foreign leader to call Trump after the election to congratulate him on his win. Thus, for pro-democracy and human rights activists across the Middle East (and beyond), this White House should be seen mainly as a green light for authoritarian retrenchment, much as earlier administrations were.
Meanwhile, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies can be expected to embolden both ISIS and al-Qaeda, both of which celebrated the administration’s attempted travel bans against Muslims. Trump’s binary portrayal of Islam versus the West fits precisely the worldview of these jihadi organizations, which remain committed to destroying what they see as the gray areas of coexistence and tolerance of Muslim communities in Western countries. In short, ISIS, al-Qaeda and other such groups can be expected to use Trump’s policies and words in their own recruiting drives, by simply saying to prospective militants, “We told you so, you are not wanted there.”
Decisions made by the Trump administration will also have significant effects on the everyday lives of people across the Middle East. Administration travel bans either block or dissuade people from the region from coming to the US for work or education, which will have real effects on remittances as well as training for people in various fields that need strengthening back home. Difficulties in attaining citizenship for Middle Easterners on visas working and studying in the US, as well as increased targeting of their communities, could also have a negative effect on family cohesion, as family members will not be able to join their relatives in the US, and those in the US may not be able to travel back home with assurance of return.
Another major area of concern is funding for development projects, whether through USAID or through private US-based organizations. In the Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq, USAID sponsors projects in important realms such as emergency resource provision in war-torn areas, gender equity programs, health services, educational initiatives, and projects to combat water scarcity and other effects of climate change. Although worldwide, USAID programs constitute just 1 percent of the federal budget, any cut by the Trump administration could have negative concrete effects on various programs for women, children and the poor across the region. Furthermore, it is quite possible that organizations doing charity and social services work in the region that depend on private US funds may see those sources turn toward stateside projects to assist US-based populations facing increasing marginalization and impoverishment due to Republican rollback of federal programs. Indeed, both the “America First” agenda and the budget threats to countless social service programs in the US portend a radical defunding of important development and humanitarian projects overseas.
Coalitions of Resistance
Trump is the only president to have his sparsely attended inauguration followed, the very next day, by the largest protest marches in US history. Very importantly, these marches were only the beginning of a broad and organized resistance to the reactionary and right-wing shift in US politics. The contradictions of both the Trump administration and US empire more generally have produced unexpected coalitions between Middle East and Muslim-related constituencies and other groups. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies triggered dozens of protests where Latinos, Arabs and Iranians, for example, joined forces. Immigration lawyers showed up at airports, working for free to help immigrants and refugees, forging new coalitions of those supporting immigrants from different groups. Palestine activist Linda Sarsour was one of the architects of the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. At the 2017 Grammy awards show, A Tribe Called Quest performed their new arrangement, “We The People,” featuring Muslim dancers breaking through Trump’s proposed border wall. The members of Tribe are themselves black Muslims, raising black and global Islamic consciousness through their performances. On college campuses, Trump’s surprise electoral victory triggered revivals of activism, uniting women’s, queer, black, Muslim and Students for Justice in Palestine student groups.
With the administration’s assault on immigrants, refugees, the poor, labor rights, women’s rights, public education and environmental protection, there is much to protest and much to resist, and the challenges of building coalitions will be many. But early indications, at least, suggest that such resistance is appearing not only in typically political venues, like street protests, but is expanding to Super Bowl halftime shows, court rulings and late-night comedy television. The movement for Palestinian and Muslim rights is entering the mainstream, and joining forces with the movements for black lives, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights. For all of this resistance to be effective, it needs to carry on for the long haul—because this moment is not just about Trump and his administration. It is about the longer history of US empire, militarism and neoliberalism. Even in the midst of the cheering demonstrators of the January 21, 2017 women’s marches across the US, there were some who were more somber. One woman in DC stood amidst the otherwise jubilant crowds with a sign that read simply “This Is a Marathon.” And indeed it is.