Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way first: Donald Trump is an egomaniacal demagogue who knows little and cares less about law, diplomacy, or any of the other fine arts of statecraft. Electing him president would be like shooting the rapids with a junkie at the helm. Whether Ted Cruz would make an even worse president is a judgment I leave to the discriminating sensibilities of Republican primary voters who have whittled down a field of 17 to, respectively, the most irresponsible candidate their party has ever produced, and the most viscerally hated one.
That said, it must also be noted that a successful demagogue is, by definition, someone with his finger on the pulse of, and at least a substantial part of, the public. In fact, any demagogue who isn’t successful is soon dismissed as a crank or a fool. The cameras turn away toward the next entertainment, and that story is done. Say what you will, though, The Donald is neither a crank nor a fool. Even if his campaign were to implode tomorrow, he has had one of the most wildly successful rides in American political history for nearly a year.
Pundits who try to explain Trump’s appeal generally do so by putting down his supporters as bigoted, know-nothing losers who like to carry guns into churches and who are, worst of all, middle-aged white males. Sorry, but that isn’t enough to explain the success of someone who has won 21 of 34 primary contests to date, and has been the runner-up where he hasn’t won. So, maybe we should listen to what the man is saying. Maybe it’s time to take Donald Trump seriously, and examine his view of America in the world.
One of the first bricks The Donald dropped was to express his admiration for Vladimir Putin. Since the American political establishment has spent the last decade and a half demonizing Putin, this was a Category A political heresy. Barack Obama promised to push the reset button with Russia when he came into office, but our relations with Moscow are worse than ever, and our intelligence agencies rate the Russians as our chief security “threat.” Trump obviously doesn’t see things that way. Casually expressing regard for Putin isn’t a policy view. But then the other brick dropped: Trump questioned the necessity for maintaining NATO, our chief defense bulwark in the world and our most explicit safeguard against Russian expansion.
It’s a funny thing, but I had the same thought myself twenty-odd years ago, when the Cold War supposedly ended. The Soviet Union had imploded, leaving the Russia that remained shorn of a third of its former territory and nearly half its population. That remnant endured its worst decade since World War II as it made the wrenching transition from gangster socialism to gangster capitalism, and was virtually prostrate on the world stage. Why, I wondered, did we need to maintain a formal military alliance against a country that posed no threat to anyone but itself?
The answer was not long in coming. Using NATO and the European Union as our tools, we rushed in to claim Eastern Europe as the spoils of our Cold War victory, erecting a new cordon sanitaire around the borders of Russia itself to deny it any possibility of reasserting its influence, and reducing it permanently, in Obama’s candid phrase, from a world power to a “regional” one: a sort of bloated Poland. At the same time, we ginned up NATO itself as an arm of our own expansionist interests in the Middle East and North Africa.
And how, exactly, has all that worked out? In Europe itself, the legacy of NATO-EU aggrandizement is, to date, a pair of bloody civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine respectively, the latter still in progress. In the Middle East and North Africa, the toll is, to date, a trail of failed states and raging wars from Afghanistan to Libya, plus the rise of the world’s first acknowledged terror state in the so-called ISIS Caliphate. As for the profit of these ventures, ask the citizens of London, Paris, and Brussels exactly what NATO’s exploits have brought them.
Until Donald Trump, no major party candidate in the U.S. had questioned the purpose and utility of NATO in a supposedly post-Cold War Age. No other candidate, either, has challenged the necessity not only of the 70,000 American troops on European soil, but the comparable military investment in Japan and South Korea—all dating, to this point, 60 years and more. Trump would like to know why the EU can’t pay for its own defense, and why equally wealthy Asian allies can’t either.
The implied answer would seem to be that, without America’s nuclear shield, the nations we “protect” would need nuclear arsenals of their own—Europe against Russia, Japan against China, and the South Koreans against North Korea. Trump sees no reason why South Korea and Japan should not acquire nukes if they really feel they need them. This flies in the face of 50 years of nonproliferation agreements, but whether the world would be less safe if South Korea and Japan had their own means of containing North Korea and, as need be, China, is an assumption rather than a fact. Certainly, that the present nuclear club can sustain its monopoly indefinitely is neither likely nor, frankly, defensible, and as matters stand nonproliferation is simply an excuse for a closed shop. (The EU, in any case, contains two nuclear powers already, and Japan is dickering with a nuclear-armed India for protection against China.)
What Trump seems to be calling for is a case-by-case examination of our so-called strategic alliances around the globe. He wants to know whether they are necessary to our security, and what we get in return. That is a fair question. He points out that we have spent a great deal of money for a very long time defending Japan and South Korea, in the process saving them a corresponding expenditure of their own. The result? Japan makes our cars and South Korea makes our steel, while our plants close and our industrial capacity has withered. Just how, to put it in Trumpese, is that a good deal for us?
As if this weren’t bad enough, both Republican and Democratic administrations have bought into the gospel of free trade, happily abetted by academic economists who know where their own bread is buttered. Notionally, free trade benefits everybody — if, by everybody, you mean multinational corporations exporting good jobs and leaving once-skilled American workers to sling hash. Trump’s supporters don’t need advanced degrees to figure this out; they see padlocked gates and foreclosed futures, and they get the point a lot quicker than their supposed betters. No wonder The Donald draws a crowd when he tells ‘em that Uncle Sucker has been had—and that Beltway politicians and lobbyists (an interchangeable species) have sold the American working class down the creek. It just happens to be the truth.
Of course, Bernie Sanders has been saying much the same thing about free trade (although not about our imperial entanglements). But it is Trump who has forced the academic apologists for NAFTA, the TPP, et al. into finally admitting that free trade has been a swindle for American workers —Trump, and the legions he has galvanized.
Trump’s line is that he will make America great again. He doesn’t say exactly what he means by this, because the slogan is vacuous. What he does mean is that he will put America’s relationships through the prism of self-interest, and will insist on getting at least equal value for whatever bargain he strikes. Whether that would turn into a means of dismantling our global empire or simply managing it more advantageously would be the question. Anything, though, that challenges the arrogant presupposition of America as the world’s divinely appointed savior, leading it by the hand or twisting it by the arm, is a thought worth entertaining.
Donald Trump is not a serious man, but the Trump phenomenon does deserve to be taken seriously. Maybe only a jokester could cut through the official cant that surrounds our moribund empire, and jolt us into examining its costs and consequences—for ourselves, and everyone else. Maybe only a businessman who lives off his bankruptcies could lift the lid on the systemic fraud of capitalism itself, and the destruction it casually wreaks on those whose labor it exploits and then discards. Are Trump’s followers angry? Maybe more of us should be. I look around at the devastation wrought in my own profession through corporatization, with once self-governing faculties reduced to at-will employees working harder and harder for less and less while tuition rates go through the roof for their students, and I wonder how long my colleagues will want to put up with it.
See you at the next Trump rally? No, I won’t be there. But maybe we should stop looking down our noses at those who will. As Paddy Chayevsky put it forty years ago, they’re mad as hell, and just maybe they won’t take it anymore.