End-of-Year Thoughts on the Chaos That is Trumpism
“Yes, Trump’s foreign policy is a chaotic, incoherent, dangerous mess. Yes, he is clearly and manifestly unfit for office, and should have been removed a long time ago . . . But I find Trump’s persistence in following his electoral mandate against so much Establishment pressure in this particular respect to be rather admirable. There comes a point when a president has to say no to the neo-imperial blob, to cut bait in wars that have become ends in themselves, generating the very problems they were launched to resolve. There is never a good time to do this. There wasn’t in Vietnam and there isn’t in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Sometimes, you just have to do it. I wish Obama had been able to. But he got trapped in agonizing rationalizations of the indefensible . . . Maybe it takes an impulsive, dangerous nutjob (sic) like Trump to finally do it, to end the wars the American people want to end. And that, I think, is less an indictment of him than of those who let this madness go on for so long.”
–Andrew Sullivan, prominent conservative and iconoclast, writing about Trump’s declaration that U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Syria in “The Establishment will never say no to a war.”
“Like everything Trump does, these decisions appear to have been made in an impulsive way, without consultation with Congress, allies, or Pentagon advisers. That’s what policymakers call ‘process.’ That the president can’t be bothered with process is unfortunate and raises the risk that his change of direction will unfold badly . . . But that isn’t a reason to reject the policy shift. Process is good, but it doesn’t guarantee wisdom . . . Nations, like individuals, can be control freaks. The United States, unfortunately, has become one . . . The effort is both unwise and unsustainable. Anything that helps to break this bad habit should be welcomed. Even if that thing is named Donald Trump.”
–Damon Linker, prominent former-conservative, in “Trump is Breaking One of America’s Worst Habits.”
“Ending a war takes the cake for presidential norm-breaking. When will it end?”
–Samuel Moyn, a prominent writer on the left fond of mocking “tyrannophobes” who consider Trump a danger to constitutional democracy, on Twitter.
“Whenever Trump says he’s going to pull U.S. troops out of a foreign country, his critics go crazy. (Remember how outraged they were when he said no more war games on the Korean peninsula back in June?) Suddenly the main problem with the fascist authoritarian is that he is not deploying enough tools of violence abroad. The dominant mode of criticism seems to be: the food is terrible and the portions are so small.”
–Another prominent writer on the left fond of mocking liberals who consider Trump particularly dangerous.
“Here’s somebody who was elected to shake things up, and he is shaking things up. This is what pushing back against the Washington establishment looks like. It was never going to be pretty, it was never going to be clean. And no one thought it would be. But he’s doing it, and we should be celebrating.”
–Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing fanatic fond of mocking liberals who consider Trump dangerous.
A chaotic month of a chaotic year at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is ending in chaos.
As the noose of the Mueller investigation appears to be tightening around the neck of the president and his family, we have been presented with a rapid-fire series of political shocks:
- Trump’s announcement on Twitter that he will withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, a surprise to everyone in the U.S. government not named Donald Trump;
- the prompt resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in protest, explained in a public letter that delivered a stunning reproach to Trump’s entire worldview (leading Trump to precipitously fire Mattis, months before his announced departure, leaving the Defense Department in the hands of an aerospace industry executive);
- a subsequent announcement that Trump will also withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan;
- a melodramatic Congressional standoff over a Continuing Resolution to fund the government that has led to a shutdown of most government offices;
- a quick surprise visit by Donald and Melania to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, featuring an affront to the Iraqi government that the U.S. is supposedly supporting; presidential Tweets that included photos disclosing sensitive information about Special Forces troops; photo-ops of Trump signing MAGA caps that certainly violate the Hatch Act; and a speech that included bald-faced lies claiming credit for salary increases for troops that do not exist and nasty partisan attacks on Democrats in Congress for opposing “a wall,” and ended with a bombastic assertion that implied a total dissing of everything done by the U.S and its troops prior to Trump’s surprise withdrawal announcement: “We’re no longer the suckers of the world!”
One two-week period in the seemingly eternally recurrent disaster that is the Trump presidency.
Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for a wide range of not-Trumpist commentators across the political spectrum to declare that Trump’s moves were crazy, destabilizing, and dangerous, as if the status quo ante was an unavoidable and sustainable situation, and U.S. military interventions were self-evidently sensible, and the departed or departing generals—H. R. McMaster, John Kelly, and now Mattis — were exalted “Guardrails” if not Guardians of the Republic.
Such responses betray a naïveté, and a forgetfulness, that has deep roots in American political culture. The status quo ante in Syria and the MENA region was neither unavoidable or sustainable. U.S. troops are often not the solution to a problem but its cause. And the departing generals are generals, not civil libertarians or democratic activists; they are indeed conservative generals who felt an ideological kinship with Trump and were thus willing to support him; and their primary allegiance is to a huge and costly military and national security establishment whose existence is both a drain on and in tension with democratic political life.
Histrionics about the troops or about Mattis serve no good purpose.
And it is thus to be welcomed when self-identified “conservative” or “moderate” writers, such as Andrew Sullivan and Damon Linker, call out the celebrants of U.S. military interventionism, and raise serious questions about the costs and the harms engendered by recent U.S. policy in the region.
At the same time, it is no less naïve to abstract Trump’s announced troop withdrawals from the broader ideological and political context of which they are a part. Sullivan notes that “maybe it takes an impulsive, dangerous nutjob (sic) like Trump” to “say no to the neo-imperial blob.” Maybe. But it is doubtful that Trump shares Sullivan’s reasons for objecting to this “blob,” and it is equally doubtful that Trump’s “impulsive” moves represent a considered alteration of U.S. foreign policy likely to generate results that Sullivan would consider good. What is not doubtful is that Trump is “a dangerous, impulsive nutjob (sic).”
In the same way, Linker is right that “process” is not everything. But neither is it nothing. To the contrary. Linker questions whether it makes sense to “reject a policy shift” because of the process that produced it or the leader who effected it. But do these recent Trump announcements represent a policy shift? Really? What is the policy, beyond a disparagement of all foreign policy institutions, elites, commitments, and alliances? Linker is right to worry about the imperial arrogance behind much U.S. policy. But can he really believe that “anything that helps to break this bad habit should be welcomed. Even if that thing is named Donald Trump?” Anything? I doubt that either Linker or Sullivan really believes this.
Even if the policies that led to troop deployments in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have been bad or misguided or unsustainable or counterproductive, how can the simple withdrawal of troops, come what may, from a complicated and dense entanglement of our own making, be a wise course of action? And how does “to hell with the generals” or “we’re not suckers anymore” or “America First” represent anything more than bombastic rhetoric serving a new and more dangerous form of American arrogance?
It is not bad in principle for a president to challenge generals and foreign policy experts and celebrity worshippers of generals (and Federal Reserve bankers too).
But it is not good in principle either.
It all depends on who is doing it, and how, and why.
Trump is a kleptocratic narcissist. He hates rules, laws, bureaucracies, experts, and all forms of accountability. He has an authoritarian temperament and is animated and energized by the resentment and adulation of the angry populist crowds that comprise his “base.” He has drawn from the worst tendencies of the Republican Party, captured and transformed that party, and turned it into a vehicle of enrichment for his family and the most predatory forms of capitalism, and into an engine of environmental destruction. As a matter of ideological conviction, business strategy, and personal taste, he shits on government. He surely has never understood what Steve Bannon meant when he wrote about “deconstructing the deep state.” But he understands what it means to destroy institutions and to create chaos.
How can this do anything to advance democracy?
Military policy ought to be seriously revised. But announcing dramatic shifts by Twitter, creating confusion within militaries about troop deployments and military postures, cannot be good.
Financial capitalism needs to be tamed, reformed, regulated. But having public temper tantrums against the Federal Reserve, and throwing the stock market into turmoil, cannot be good.
The U.S. government is a capitalist state. But refusing to sign a continuing resolution funding the government, and shutting the government down, cannot be good.
Trump quite obviously faces limits. And the most important limit is the opposition of those who consider him dangerous.
Trump is not a literal dictator. But he is a rash, impulsive, angry, and dictatorial individual, and in too many ways he is what William Connolly has called an “aspirational fascist,” with a deeply authoritarian vision of the world that all too many others seem willing to support.
He is gutting the government and the alliance system. Attacking the independence of courts and the press. Celebrating partisan gridlock and stoking partisan hostility. Demonizing political opponents and ethnic, racial, and religious others. And creating a political climate that is dangerous and hostile to constitutional democracy and to whatever forms of democratic innovation might improve it.
I do not understand why anyone on the left would welcome this, or delight in teasing, parodying, or disparaging those who are deeply troubled by it. Trump’s recent moves do not represent the repudiation of militarism or violence. They represent the enactment of his own deeply authoritarian dispositions on the world stage — Syrians, Kurds, Yemenis be damned, and democracy be damned.
Trump is shaking things up all right. And as he shakes, the world trembles.
And Trump grins. And Limbaugh exults.
And what makes Rush happy should give no comfort to the rest of us.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One , is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.