By Jeremiah Kim
There are many instances in history when individuals who are little ready, suited, or prepared to be in crucial positions of leadership are propelled into it by the forces that make history. These forces are not defined by individual actors, but by the masses of people. Donald Trump is one such figure. What Trump represents in this historical moment far surpasses whatever ambition he may have envisioned for himself. His supporters, the 73 million Americans who voted for him, have thrust upon him an immense responsibility to represent them, and to channel their anger at the liberal elite that have defined American politics and foreign policy for the last few decades.
There are a few points that set Trump apart from other political candidates, both Republicans and Democrats: his stance against NAFTA and the TPP, his contempt for traditional European allies, his brusque and abrasive manner. But perhaps one position in particular has been the subject of much debate since he began campaigning in 2016: his position against American wars abroad.
If one listened seriously to Trump’s speeches that won him the 2016 election, one could not help but note – as Christian Parenti did in an article for Jacobin – a “strong, usually overlooked antiwar message [that] spoke to legitimate working-class concerns.” In his own bracingly honest way, Trump never failed to remind his audience about the connection between multi-trillion dollar wars and thousands of pointless deaths abroad, and economic devastation at home. While Hillary Clinton was ramping up hysteria about the Russians and Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Trump was proclaiming that countries like Iraq and Libya were better off under the leadership of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi, respectively, than they were after US military intervention and regime change. The results of the election proved the massively popular appeal of Trump’s anti-war position. Proceeding from 2016, we may evaluate whether Trump has followed through on his campaign promises.
In order to understand Trump’s presidency from an anti-war perspective, one must take into account his protracted battle with the military-industrial complex and the national security state. This conflict is unprecedented; never before has a sitting US president faced such vicious and concerted opposition from within his own administration – and from the larger, more permanent state apparatus – on the question of war and peace.
Former national security adviser John Bolton became a hero of liberal media outlets when he published his book, The Room Where It Happened, in which he condemned Trump for not starting any new wars. It is likely a sign of Trump’s political inexperience that he appointed a radical hawk like Bolton to serve in his administration, but what is more telling is that the two clashed on practically every issue relating to the United States’ military empire – including Trump’s desire to leave NATO, his willingness to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un for peace talks, his refusal to start an all-out war against Iran, his suspension of military aid to further fuel the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and more. Meanwhile, in the book Rage, Bob Woodward detailed how former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis conspired with former National Intelligence Director Dan Coats to take “collective action” to stop Trump from pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and South Korea. These are only two major examples of the countless figures in the intelligence community and military high command who have openly defied and covertly impeded Trump’s efforts to reduce US military involvement around the world. Their “Resistance” has garnered rapturous applause from the mainstream media.
What has Trump done to earn this opposition? Spurred forward by his base, he has committed the high crime of undermining America’s global hegemony by attacking the principal institutions and forces that underpin it. Along with his exit from the TPP and renegotiation of NAFTA, Trump has consistently pushed for the US to withdraw from NATO – a position that has resulted in intelligence officials maneuvering behind the president’s back to keep the West’s military bloc afloat. In doing so, he has disrupted the seamless political, military, and economic integration between the US and Europe that was cemented to contain the USSR during the Cold War.
Trump’s term in office kicked off four years of Russiagate, as Democrats and the media churned out baseless accusations of Russian meddling in the election and demonized Russia as an existential threat to American democracy. Russiagate had the unintended consequence of delegitimizing, in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, the US military and propaganda machine that seeks to make war with Russia. Similarly, against the endless prattling of Western media about “legitimizing dictators” and “undermining national security”, Trump made remarkable headway toward peace on the Korean peninsula by meeting with Kim Jong-Un and halting the costly, highly provocative war games conducted by the US and South Korea. Likewise, Trump announced a major US troop withdrawal from Syria last year, countering efforts by the entire Democratic establishment, mainstream media, and military-industrial complex to topple Assad and prolong the US’s airstrikes and backing of terrorists in Syria. In the latter two cases, Trump’s anti-interventionist, anti-regime-change stances were directly sabotaged by an alliance of military and state officials who were desperate to make war no matter what their Commander in Chief said – whether that meant military generals disobeying Trump’s orders to halt war games in Asia, or lying to keep more troops in Syria. And finally, Trump recently committed to a significant drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq – disregarding the hysterical response from the US ruling elite that it is “too early” to leave wars that have lasted for 20 years and 17 years, respectively.
Leftists who wish to appear anti-imperialist often point to Iran, Venezuela, Palestine/Israel, Yemen, and China as evidence that Trump is just as bad as the rest of Washington in terms of foreign policy. However, these accusations miss or obscure the larger context surrounding Trump, which is that US military hegemony, entrenched as it is in global trade and financial systems, is part of a strong, long-standing empire – and will thus fiercely resist any attempts to change it. No one individual, not even the US president, can truly change such a system; instead, pressure from a wider political movement is required. Furthermore, it is clear that Trump, as an individual, is flawed and holds beliefs propagated by the American propaganda machine. Still, we must seriously assess the deeper impacts of Trump’s foreign policy.
For instance, if we assess that Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine depends on the global imperialist order, then an unraveling of that order must be seen as forcing Israel into a difficult position. To that end we might ask, what is objectively better for Palestine: to have a “moderate” like Obama, or to have a breakup of NATO under Trump? Similar principles apply for Yemen and Iran. Trump has drawn heated criticism for escalating US involvement in Yemen and sustaining support for Saudi Arabia – criticism to such an extent that it often obscures the fact that Trump inherited the war in Yemen, along with a war-hungry Pentagon, from the Obama administration, and that US military strikes against Yemen dropped precipitously after Trump’s first year in office. Likewise, although he has demonized Iran, continued sanctions on its people, and approved the killing of General Qassem Suleimani (likely as a concession to the CIA), Trump has shown remarkable restraint and never crossed the line of declaring war against Iran – a unique distinction for a US president. And while it is true that Trump has mounted ideological/economic attacks and military provocations against China, it is also clear that the US ruling elite vehemently despises both Trump and China, along with their respective constituencies, for breaking away from the US-centered global order. In that vein, the destabilization of US dominance in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America under Trump has helped create a space for more regional, non-Western powers like Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela to work together toward peace and a different economic order.
Finally, Trump’s anti-interventionism has resulted in the withdrawal of US support for “pro-democracy” color revolutions in Hong Kong, Belarus, and Iran. First conceived in Eastern Europe and engineered to appear as grassroots movements, such color revolutions have become one of the favorite tactics of imperialism in places that hold strategic importance for the West. The Trump administration has uniquely deviated from the CIA-orchestrated status quo by cutting aid for NGOs and other organizations that fuel color revolutions, thus undercutting the ability of the West to impose its political systems and economic policy on the rest of the world.
To disregard these facts and trends is to negate the possibility of building a broad-based coalition for peace within the US, which would clearly include people who support Trump. Consequently, it must be questioned whether those who focus singularly on denouncing Trump’s policies toward countries like Iran and Yemen are simply doing so to score political points and/or justify their distance from Trump and his supporters. To that end, the 2020 election illuminated a great deal about the nature of Trump’s base: It is firmly rooted among white workers in deindustrialized, economically depressed areas, and gaining historic support among Latino and Black workers, especially Black men. With such a mix of multiple historically constituted groups, it is natural that any leadership they take on must be contradictory. We cannot expect leaders like those who were produced by the Black freedom struggle. Nevertheless, what does unite these people is their suffering under neoliberalism and globalization, and their resulting anger against the liberal elite who have upheld the status quo with polished indifference.
At this historical juncture, we must ask: Where is the left? Since the 1960s, America has seen the rise of a cultural left, which fixates on stigma and “politics of difference” largely among cosmopolitan elites, as opposed to a left that looks and stays close to the working class. This cultural leftism has made it heresy for most self-identifying leftists to sympathize or align themselves with Trump voters in any way. It has also rendered the left incapable of scientifically understanding the American war machine at the root of oppression in our society, and the struggle for peace as the revolutionary path forward. Having cut itself off from white workers and black workers alike, the current cultural left – represented by figures like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez – can only try to build its “base” among college-educated young professionals and gentrifiers who are the most likely beneficiaries of globalization and thus, war.
With this in mind, it becomes essential for any revolutionary to be able to recognize a movement when it arises, despite its contradictions. We cannot afford to be stringent, to let moralistic piety – under the guise of moral principles – get in the way of identifying something genuinely progressive as it emerges. In the final analysis, such liberal moralistic piety is actually immorality when it comes to taking the definitive moral stance of our time against war, poverty, and racism, as Martin Luther King Jr defined it. Trump may not be able to bring about world peace, but there is boundless hope and potential in the millions of Americans who have joined him and turned their backs on war.
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