Monday, April 17, 2017

Business Recorder Column April 17, 2017

Trumpism in our times Rashed Rahman The initial alarm about what a Trump presidency may turn out to mean for the US and the world turns out to have been premature in some respects, while indirectly spot on in others. Fears had been voiced after Donald Trump took office that he would, under advice from some of his extremist right wing advisers who helped him win the election, often on outrageous positions, alter the political system of the US along the lines of a neofascist order. By this was meant attempts to erode the constitutional separation of powers that is the historical legacy of the US and reordering the executive, legislature and judiciary to conform to his most extreme positions. This alarm has certainly turned out to be premature and perhaps overblown. The inherent strength of constitutional provisions and conventions in the US’s democratic system now appear to be reasserting themselves, with Trump increasingly being described as a president reversing or moderating many of his outlandish positions and campaign promises to veer more towards a centrist course. This of course applies more to domestic policy. On the foreign policy front, Trump the candidate who promised no new wars abroad, launched attacks against Yemen and Syria and used for the first time the biggest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal, the MOAB, in Afghanistan. In this, Trump’s trajectory mirrors his predecessor Barack Obama’s, who came to office as a ‘peace’ candidate wanting to end the US involvement in the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq begun by his predecessor George Bush, but left office last year having failed to stop the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops while starting two new wars in Libya and Syria. In both Obama and Trump’s case, both incumbents soon after taking office learnt the power of the ‘permanent’ government, the defence, security and foreign office establishment. They both had, therefore, to modify their campaign rhetoric and promises in the light of the advice from this ‘permanent’ government. Of course, Obama’s is a story past, while Trump’s is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, the pattern is unmistakable. The alarm amongst the worse targets of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, i.e. immigrants, women, blacks, etc, manifested itself simultaneously with his taking office this year when protests against his presidency simmered all over the US, led initially by the women’s mobilisation on the day of his inauguration. Currently protests continue throughout the country on the issue of Donald Trump steadfastly refusing to make his tax returns public, a demand for transparency that is not a legal obligation but has evolved as the norm for incoming presidents in recent years. Trump has reversed himself or adopted a modified course on domestic and international economic policies by taking, for example, a softer line on reappointing Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen after trashing her last year. He has embraced the Export-Import Bank that he mocked last year. The Bank is despised by conservatives as an example of crony capitalism that mainly helps a few large companies. Now the ‘re-educated’ Trump praises it as “a very good thing” that helps lots of small companies too. Obama’s Affordable Care Act has proved difficult to abolish, as Trump had threatened. After meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump says he will no longer characterize China as a ‘currency manipulator’ and welcomed Beijing’s help to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula. Abandoning his rhetoric on being a president of the US and not of the entire world (i.e. a global policeman), he has intervened directly militarily in the Yemen and Syrian civil wars and sent a shot across North Korea and all other enemies’ bow by unleashing the MOAB in Afghanistan. This more muscular foreign military policy is in sharp contrast to his pledge to retreat into solation in the interests of reviving the fortunes of the US. Trump today presides over the declining economic power and influence of the US in the world. This economic decline is not reflected in the military field, where the US’s military might is greater than the rest of the world combined. This gives the US the character of a military colossus with (economic) feet of clay. A very dangerous combination, since it throws up the temptation to try and resolve all problems through overwhelming military force, even when some situations do not lend themselves to such a course. One has only to recall the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, all owed to direct or indirect US military intervention, to see the truth of this argument. If then, declining US power is sought to be reversed through military, economic and financial muscle, the tendency to seek to overcome domestic roadblocks to the will of the incumbent can produce not just the anarchy and chaos on display in the executive appointments field, but the almost inevitable sobering up of Trump the candidate and his transformation into Trump the president, a costly but necessary learning curve. On the foreign front, the temptation to rely on the language of weapons rather than the weapon of language constantly runs up against the complexities of the post-Cold War world, in which Trump is only just recognizing, and reversing himself on for example, relations with Russia (for the worse), China (mutual economic advantage asserting itself), NATO (“no longer obsolete”, he says), and a whole raft of simplistic notions being turned on their head by reality. But the possibility of Trump either failing to fully comprehend the complexities of a dangerous situation such as that with North Korea or attempting to reduce it to the gung-hop simplicity of a global militarist view, and the uncertainty it engenders at the hands of the most powerful man in the world with his finger on the nuclear button and by now well established erraticism, reversals and flip-flops in policy is a frightening prospect for a world already poised on the edge of tipping over into madness.

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