It’s hard to tell whether Donald Trump is more preoccupied with wrecking civil discourse and public institutions domestically in the United States, or shattering the American alliance system abroad. It should be clear that he is doing a pretty good job of destroying both, but that observation alone does not take us far. The question is whether there is a method to his madness, or at least a thought process of some sort.
The answer to the question of his domestic mayhem is less difficult. Donald Trump does not understand the presidency as an office in a system of checks and balances within which it is designed to work, and whose limitations he is obliged to respect. This is partly because his only personal experience of executive power has been that which he has (and still does) exercise over his business enterprises. That experience is one of absolute control, where his wishes are the only rule, and in which his fixers handle any questions that arise from disputes with contractors, payouts to porn stars or violations of law. Trump’s style in dealing with either such problems has been unfailingly preemptive and aggressive: sue them before they sue you.
In the White House, his problems have thus far arisen from media criticism and from the watchdog functions of the Justice Department, the FBI and other agencies whose independent operation he can neither understand nor tolerate. His reaction to this has been to demand personal “loyalty”— that is, submission to his wishes — or, when he cannot get it, to attack, slander and besmirch whatever stands in his way. Thus, his attacks on the “fake news” of the press, on the “deep state” machinations within, most notably, the Justice Department and the FBI, and, most relentlessly now, on the Mueller investigation that appears to be the largest threat to his unfettered power.
The business model that Trump has brought to the White House is not that of the standard CEO. His former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was disastrous enough in his own right, but Tillerson did understand the difference between running a giant corporation and conducting the diplomacy of the United States. As others who have worked for him, notably James Comey, have pointed out, Trump is actually closer to a mafioso whose ultimate reference point is violence: in political terms, that is, his instinct is that of a dictator, not to say a tyrant.
This fact makes it easier to understand what has appeared to be Trump’s curious affinity for strongmen abroad: Xi Jinping in China, Kim Jong-un in Korea, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia. These men run their countries as Trump would wish to run the United States. Correspondingly, he has little use for leaders who are subject to the constraints of democratic norms and rule-bound societies: they can’t make the one-on-one deals he prefers, and they can’t insure how long they’ll stick around.
General agreements and alliances with such leaders, or with the international community in general, are even less appealing to Trump, because they commit the United States to policies and obligations over lengthy periods whether or not they serve “America first” (or simply Trump first) interests. Examples of each, all challenged, derided or unilaterally exited by Trump, are NAFTA, NATO, the Iraq nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords. The Trump Doctrine, put simply, is that America, as the most powerful nation on earth, exercises its power most effectively with single parties. The bully, in short, rules the schoolyard.
Trump does recognize that two powers are, if not America’s equal, its significant rivals. These are Russia and China. There is a third and, in his view, an artificial power that has significant throw-weight, the European Union. The EU is nominally our ally, but in Trump’s world, allies are covert competitors who are hitching a free ride, in this case the military umbrella against Russia represented by NATO. This makes them, in fact, enemies. At the G7 and NATO meetings this year, Trump has made it clear that what has been regarded as the core extension of American power in the world since 1945, the Western Alliance, is, in his view, an expensive and obsolete nuisance at best and a serious impediment to our interests at worst. Russia has no such encumbrance, nor does China. They dominate the smaller powers in their respective orbits without formal alliances, more or less as we do in Latin and South America. It’s each bully in his own schoolyard.
As Michael T. Klare points out, this vision of the world is remarkably similar to the dystopian one described in George Orwell’s “1984,” with its division of the planet among three powers: Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia. Orwell’s giants divert their publics with ritual wars that consolidate elite power and totalitarian controls at home; the world is a low-level bloodbath whose purpose is to maintain material scarcity and political conformity through military waste. Trump factors warfare into his equation too, but it may be pointed out that the vaunted liberal world order his detractors defend against him arguably doesn’t look much different. The military-industrial complex bemoaned nearly 60 years ago by Dwight Eisenhower continues to find new wars to fight — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and a dozen different fronts at any given moment — meanwhile leaving America with decaying cities, a dwindling middle class and an imperial presidency presiding over a surveillance regime with a more than passing resemblance to Big Brother. Trump himself is the product of this order, however superficially he contests it.
Does Trump’s zero-sum vision of the world make all that difference, then? Yes, and for a very simple but critical reason. There are two existential threats to world civilization. One is the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which can only be controlled by international agreement and vigilance. The other is climate change, a vastly more complicated and, to a large extent, already an intractable problem that will require great wisdom, forbearance and global coordination if it is not to doom our world as we have known it. Trump’s climate denial, so perplexing to many, is not mere willful ignorance or cynical deference to fossil fuel interests. It is based on his bedrock view of the world as a Hobbesian clash of interests in which any notion of a common good — or necessity — is a mug’s game. If such a view prevails, it’s curtains for us all.