American carnage: Trump’s road to ruin

The Trump presidency in the U.S. is less than two weeks old, but it is already clear that it represents an unusually fierce assault on civic, political, and moral values

Updated - February 01, 2017 02:59 am IST

Published - February 01, 2017 01:15 am IST

As a student of international politics, I can certainly suggest various ways in which U.S. President Donald J. Trump may be good for one country or another. From the vantage point of New Delhi, his focus on terrorism, his business interests in India, and his radical indifference to non-proliferation all present strategic opportunities. From my perch in London, I also understand why Theresa May, Prime Minister of the U.K., is aggressively courting the Trump administration. A trade deal with Washington would bolster the government’s hand in departure negotiations with the European Union, and American support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation remains crucial to Britain’s interests. This is all legitimate diplomacy, of course. If we work with those who imprison journalists (Turkey), shoot demonstrators (Iran) or ban political parties (Saudi Arabia) — feting their leaders, welcoming their capital, and cooperating with their soldiers and spies — then it’s difficult to make a strong case against engagement with a man who earned the votes of nearly 63 million Americans in a free and, barring Russian involvement, largely fair election.

But as citizens, as lower-case ‘d’ democrats, as those with myriad ties of culture, kinship, and intellect with the United States and its institutions, the geopolitical dimension is not the only relevant one. The Trump presidency is less than two weeks old, but it is already clear that it represents an unusually fierce assault on civic, political, and moral values, far in excess of that which might have occurred under the most extreme alternatives, from Bernie Sanders on the hard left to Ted Cruz on the hard right. To call Mr. Trump a fascist is to trivialise the term and insult those who have lived under truly oppressive systems; but to insist that the President’s critics are hysterical, motivated by partisan animus, or crying wolf is to blind oneself to the evidence that is rapidly mounting.

The I-me-myself President

Most striking of all is the President’s extraordinary narcissistic personality disorder. Its most recent manifestation is his protracted obsession with the size of crowds at his inauguration. Mr. Trump despatched his press secretary to disseminate outright and easily disproved lies (“largest audience to witness an inauguration, period”), in the manner of the Iraqi information minister who famously insisted that American tanks, audible in the background, were nowhere near Baghdad in 2003. He then spent much of his speech to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) boasting of this, and went on to shut down the Twitter account of the National Park Service after it circulated dissenting photographs. Behaviour like this is better subject to psychiatry than political analysis.

Then we come to the pathological fibbing. Mr. Trump, who began his political career by insisting that the U.S.’s first black President was a Kenyan-born Muslim, lies habitually and with disturbing ease, about matters both trivial and serious. He lied dozens of times in the past few weeks alone, claiming falsely that mass voter fraud explains Hillary Clinton’s higher number of votes, that the U.S. did not accept Christian refugees, and that his ‘Muslim ban’ was comparable to the Obama administration’s suspension of visa waivers. These “alternative facts”, to use the Orwellian term coined by the President’s adviser Kellyanne Conway, are demonstrably untrue. If a President lies on matters that can be fact-checked in seconds, is he likely to tell the truth on less visible matters of state? Moreover, when reporters call out these lies, they are repeatedly attacked as “fake news”, blacklisted and silenced at press conferences, and warned — in Mr. Trump’s own words — that they will “pay a big price”. A democracy cannot subsist on a diet of dishonesty.

Militarisation and politicisation

No less concerning is the damage being done to American institutions. Last week, the entire senior management of the State Department resigned en masse, in an unprecedented move. Hundreds of other diplomats are writing a dissent memo — like the so-called Blood Telegram from Dhaka in 1971 — on the Muslim ban. “This ban,” they write, “stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values.” No surprise, then, that Mr. Trump has filled only 33 of 700 critical positions across the federal government. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, who routinely tweets conspiracy theories and led campaign chants of “lock her up” targeting Ms. Clinton, is building up the most military-dominated National Security Council (NSC) staff of recent times. Eliot Cohen, a prominent neoconservative scholar who wrote a landmark book on the relationship between politicians and generals and served in the George W. Bush administration, warned: “A serious civil-military issue is emerging.”

And atop this militarisation, there comes a remarkable act of politicisation. On Saturday, Mr. Trump issued another executive order that removed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence as permanent members of the NSC’s apex Principals Committee. In their place came Stephen Bannon, his Senior Counselor — and co-author of the President’s dystopian inaugural address — as a permanent member of the committee, alongside the Secretaries of State and Defence. This move shocked former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta (“I’ve never seen it happen, and it shouldn’t happen”) and George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, who had barred Mr. Bush’s own political adviser Karl Rove from NSC meetings. More disturbing still is that Mr. Bannon is no ordinary political flack. He was head of the far-right, white nationalist website Breitbart News . He has complained about the number of Asians in Silicon Valley, cheered on a “historic struggle against Islam”, and published misogynistic and anti-Semitic headlines. It was surely Mr. Bannon who deliberately excluded mention of Jews from the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday — like much else, entirely without precedent.

Dealing without the dealmaker

Finally, we come to the pivotal role of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It is Mr. Kushner, the President assures us, who will bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. When British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson sought clarity on the scope of the Muslim ban, it was Mr. Kushner, rather than the State Department, that he called. If Mr. Trump’s adult sons feel slighted, they can take consolation from the fact that they have been given control of a trust controlling their father’s vast business empire which the President refuses to divest from. As he still profits from it, this creates permanent conflicts of interest in foreign and domestic policy. Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Kuwait have all booked rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., effectively funnelling money to the President. Is this the government of the world’s largest democracy, or the Corleone family?

None of this is normal. Not the sweeping cruelty of the Muslim ban, not the failed extortion of Mexico, not the press secretary printing out hostile tweets and flaunting them at a press conference, not the Attorney General being fired for upholding the law.

By all means, haggle with the self-professed dealmaker. Perhaps he’ll stick to the agreement. Perhaps, as in his business dealings, he won’t. Either way, do not delude yourself that everything is fine. President Trump is not an authoritarian leader. But the wall between populist demagogue and budding autocrat is less firm than we would like to imagine. It has been knocked down by countless leaders, such as Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like all populists, they have brought economic ruin and political turmoil. To quote President Trump’s inaugural: “American carnage”.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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