Democrats and Republicans alike have long maintained the fiction (or self-delusion) that the United States is a global champion of liberalism, democracy and human rights as well as an unbiased broker on Israel and Palestine. Few in the region ever believed these cultivated myths. But for this administration, US priorities are clear. The administration makes no claim that the massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia make the region safe or peaceful; rather, arms sales are good for American jobs and exports. And while no formal peace plan has been presented to Palestinians, if one does emerge it will be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that ends the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and gives Israel everything it wants—save the full expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the Occupied Territories.
During the administration of President Barack Obama, the use of torture in places like Guantanamo Bay was regarded as anathema to the US image as the global leader of human rights. Yet Obama’s commitment to human rights and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize did not make the exercise of US power any less lethal at home or abroad. In Chicago’s Homan Square, a police-run “black site,” many of the techniques employed in Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration were deployed on mostly black crime suspects. Overseas, Obama escalated a different kind of lethal violence by sanctioning drone warfare.
Under Trump, the critique of human rights violations is far more minimal, erratic and short-lived. He cares little for citizens demanding basic rights unless it fits his agenda. Such an exception was his defense of protesters in Iran in early 2018. He is so obsessed with tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, despite evidence that it is working, that his sudden concern for Iranian people was transparently self-serving.
Beyond the nuclear deal, Trump appears committed to abandoning any policy associated with Obama, without understanding how much he does not understand. His decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—undermining half a century of US policy—is but one egregious example of his ignorance. He cares little about understanding the international condemnation of the move by close US allies. Indeed, he seems to relish the outrage because it focuses attention on him.
Trump is also less comfortable with leaders who have had close personal relationships with Obama, including US allies like King Abdullah II of Jordan. He is most at ease with those whom he sees as strong men in his own grandiose self-image: Vladamir Putin in Russia, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and the Gulf monarchs. Yet even these regimes, closest in temperament to Trump’s ideal style of rule, seem to recognize him as weak and self-absorbed. On his state visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, for example, the Saudi regime provided Trump with the pageantry, effusive praise and shiny gold awards needed to win his favor. In exchange for such flattery, the region’s most brutal autocracies see in Trump a green light for their own worst behaviors.
The Trump effect on the region is not limited to support for autocracies. The president views himself as a master deal maker, but when he does not get his way, he quickly rages about US military power or the size of the nuclear button on his desk. As the president’s scandals and legal troubles at home mount, a diversionary war with either Iran or North Korea is a chillingly real possibility.
Domestic racial politics and imperial foreign policy have always been intertwined. Trump’s Muslim travel bans sparked outrage but registration for Muslims had been developed under previous administrations. Similarly, while his disparaging comments about immigrants and Mexican Americans stoked outrage, more Mexican Americans were deported during Obama’s last year in office than in Trump’s first. And while the Trump Justice Department has attacked Black Lives Matter protesters as “black identity extremists,” it was Obama’s Justice Department that designated former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur among the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists.
Where Trumpism seems to diverge from the contours of American empire is in his embrace of racial nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. And it is in his embrace of these forms of discrimination and racism where his Middle East policies and domestic policies converge. His comfort with anti-Semitic chants of “Jews will not replace us,” in Charlottesville, Virginia, goes along with his admiration for Israel and its occupation of Palestine. While he makes space for anti-Semites within his White House, he also embraces Israel supporters and bends to the wishes of the Israeli government. Similarly, Trump’s fawning over the Saudi leadership and Gulf monarchs works alongside a racist travel ban and special targeting of Muslims. He makes exceptions to his racism for those who have something valuable to offer him.
Trumpism gives official sanction to racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic currents in American society, currents that long have existed but were repressed because they undermined the public image of American exceptionalism. The transparency is jarring, but with the sheen of liberal internationalism and benevolent imperialism washed away, what remains are the stark realities of a country whose foreign and domestic policies have been structured in various forms of racism for a long time. But Trump not only lacks the finesse of previous administrations in masking the racism, he calls it forth in the name of protecting the homeland from threats near and abroad. The America he wants to make great again is white, Christian and patriarchal, with little regard for the actual demographics of American citizens.