Gestures at top, gestures at bottom
Donald Trump is lurching between conciliation and wild provocations, writes Paul Demarty
Talk about hitting the ground running.
Having invited his daughter to a meeting with Shinzo Abe, having requested that Nigel Farage be posted as British ambassador to the United States in a blithe social media exchange, Donald Trump finally brought his distinctive, impulsive brand of diplomacy to the Pacific theatre, receiving a phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen.
Thus, in a brief, amiable conversation, did 30 years of careful rapprochement and diplomacy between America and China finally teeter on the brink of open crisis. The incumbent US president, Barack Obama, has made his own contribution to the cause, of course, as have several of his predecessors: he ramped up provocations in the South China Sea and pieced together the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal to encircle the Chinese economically - a deal ironically to be ripped up by Trump, giving Beijing a new opportunity to consolidate relations in its near abroad.
Yet the great thorny question in Chinese diplomacy is the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek’s last hold-out, whose constitutional status is hotly disputed. The Carter administration reached a compromise, honoured until now, not to talk directly to the Taiwanese government; a compromise torn to shreds before Trump even takes office. (Tsai, for the record, is a militaristic nationalist who despises the mainland.)
This has a been presented as essentially an issue of competence, whereby - in the words of Delaware senator Chris Coons - Trump must learn to rely “on the advice of career professionals and the state department and make moves in a calculated and thoughtful way” to avoid bungling. In reality, Trump is not stupid; he knows that ‘career professionals’ in the diplomatic corps can be relied on to smooth this out. Thus, at no cost, he can send a signal that his tough talk will continue.
Dog bites man
As a counterweight, consider what is, after that little phone call, the biggest recent news from Trump Tower: the nomination of retired general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis for secretary of defence. Two aspects of the drama interest us here.
Mad Dog’s new job is (yet another) authoritarian gesture by the president-elect. His predecessors have historically tended to shy away from military people in their choices for the department of defence. Indeed there is now a US law about it. To ensure civilian control over the military, retired officers have to wait seven years before they can run the Pentagon. In other words Mattis, who retired in 2013, will therefore need waver to get the job. It will be interesting to see how that angle plays out later in the nomination process, for the second matter of interest is Mattis’s own political character.
Mattis enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1969, and stuck with it through the turbulent four decades after that, rising to command the prestigious 1st Division in Iraq. He got his hands dirty in Fallujah in 2004, and rose ultimately to the Joint Forces Command under Obama.
He was recommended by outgoing defence secretary Robert Gates, a Bush appointee who marked a decisive shift away from the secular millenarians of the neoconservative movement towards old-fashioned state department Realpolitik. Despite his dramatic soubriquet, Mad Dog Mattis is very much cut from this cloth. He is orthodox in his foreign policy doctrine, suspicious of Iranian intentions in the region, but treats the ‘democratic’ verbiage of liberal interventionists as naive and dangerous. At the time of the ‘Arab spring’, he cautioned against the activist policy urged by Hillary Clinton’s state department, preferring to stabilise strongman regimes rather than sponsor rebels against them. He told an embedded reporter for the New Yorker:
It’s a lot easier to stay idealistic if you don’t sign two to five next-of-kin letters every day ... I don’t think the US military is conservative. It’s pragmatic.1
Mattis supports taking a tougher line with Israel over its settlements, because the Palestinian problem damages America’s relationship with Arab countries. It has emerged that he opposes renewing America’s ground-based nuclear arsenal - again, on technical grounds, and is opposed to Trump’s pledge for across-the-board maintenance of America’s nuclear deterrence ‘tripod’ (ground-based missiles, strategic air bombers and nuclear-armed submarines). Thus the irony: the first real reassurance to a political mainstream in blind panic at the November 8 result comes from a general, a military man; and so the sanest guy in the room (from a certain point of view) is the one nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’.
His appointment is the closest thing we have so far to a hint that Trump’s foreign policy will, in the end, break less with pre-existing orthodoxy than his campaign-trail diatribes suggested. The Trump Tower Kremlinologists, of course, must still await a final decision on the far more important matter of secretary of state, over which a remarkably unTrumpian paralysis has prevailed.
Exactly what is going on behind the scenes we do not know; what is certain is that the Donald’s inner circle is split on the issue. On the one hand, there is the option of picking a hard-core Trump loyalist - the name of Rudolph Giuliani, despite recent lobbying scandals, is back in the frame. The favourite, however, seems to be Mitt Romney, private-equity hooligan and ‘moderate’ Republican candidate in 2012. Romney would reassure the whole capitalist class and state apparatus that Trump can be tamed; but appointing him would be an insult to Trump’s base - this soft, northern fat cat, who asset-strips American businesses and (by his own admission) likes firing people. Better still, a plutocrat like Romney would further inflate the collective net worth of what is already a hyper-wealthy cabinet. It is all very well running as a rogue-billionaire man of the people, but quite another to then stuff your team with Wall Street creeps.
It is difficult to imagine exactly what else could be holding up the decision - surely the most momentous one Trump has had to make since his election. Between his Taiwanese shenanigans and his newfound ‘realist’ recruitment policy, Trump is avoiding a clear decision on the matter.
Protesting for what?
While the American establishment recoils in - at best - barely concealed horror, a different sort of disgust has erupted in the streets.
Unsurprisingly, given his uncompromising rhetoric and (lest we forget) failure to win the popular vote, not to mention the Manichean terms in which the election was presented to voters on both sides, protests - some larger, some smaller - have been rife since the vote. The slogan is “Not my president”; the officially designated representative personae are the ground-down Mexican immigrant who is not a drug dealer or a rapist, the woman who wants respect and bodily autonomy, and the well-meaning citizen of the ‘good’ America who believes, as the increasingly irritating pun has it, that “love Trumps hate”.
This is the main source of enthusiasm for the far left, which sees a protest and leaps to attention like an excited puppy. We turn to the International Socialist Organization as an exemplary case. ISO member Danny Katch writes in the ISO paper:
Trump’s victory is a warning that we could go a lot further back ... if we don’t fight for the history our children will inherit. That’s why hundreds of thousands have already taken part in anti-Trump protests and vigils that started the night of his election and will continue through his inauguration on January 20 and after.
There follows a run-down of the various flashpoints of protests and an exhortation to join the ISO, along with the assertion - inter alia - that, compared to previous waves of post-election protest like that which followed Bush’s wafer-thin victory in 2000, this time round anger is directed at the Democrats - “a key element of a political system so rotten it couldn’t stop a wildly unpopular sexual predator from crashing right to the top”.2
We have to ask: really? Come now, Danny: with the partial exception of Obama’s run in 2008, all Democratic presidential candidates in all elections this millennium have based their appeal on lesser-evilism. What are these protests against? Why, against the fact that Donald Trump prevailed against Hillary Clinton. We are dealing with disaffected Democrat voters. Their anguish is palpable, and it is hard not to sympathise; but it is not the job of the left to encourage the illusion that a Trump presidency is somehow more illegitimate than a Clinton one would have been, had a few tens of thousands voted the other way in the rustbelt.
Uncritical excitement about these sporadic protests - indeed the shift back into hyper-activism that is so obviously a great relief to the ISO and similar groups - can only have the effect of implicitly encouraging this view, thus leading to even greater disappointments down the road. Love may or not trump hate: the point is that the combination of political vacuity and bland, corporate sunshine-and-rainbows garbage peddled by Hillary certainly did not trump Trump.
Open propaganda for socialist ideas would be a better start.