Character of Trump
Donald Trump is a New York City real-estate mogul and former TV host. If he has any political ideas at all, they are his own unique “broker-state” jumble of Jacksonian and Whig tendencies. Anyone who expects more is likely to be disappointed. Trump is what he is and he’s in the White House now, which would make a great Jimmy Rodgers song.
The Voters’ Gamble
Clearly, there was some real discontent in the land, combined with some people’s (understandable) unwillingness to like Mrs. Clinton or her technocratic progressive views. Fed up with standard-issue GOP phonies and the Democratic alternative, voters took up the politique du pire. This is the notion that if things get significantly worse, they can only get better thereafter. It is close-kin to various kinds of collapse theory. Neither claim reeks of ironclad certainty.
Alas, what the voters were likely to get was uncreative destruction, as opposed to the “creative destruction” that economists always promise us. (We need not believe in this cliché until we see a speck or two of the alleged “creativity.”) Even so, voters decided to risk living through a horror-film version of Sam Francis’s Middle American Revolution rather than suffer a second Clinton Era.
Within the Republican Party, the electoral circus of 2016 featured a united front of neo-conservative warmongers against the alien intruder, Donald Trump. In a contest of the feckless against the reckless, Trump’s intuitive grasp of neglected issues and his superior cunning won out. Some disaffected conservative regulars, the Never Trumpers, supported Hilary Clinton or sat on their hands. Party hacks and much of the GOP mass base stayed with Trump; seriously ideological neo-conservatives looked for new friends.
As stunned as the famous dead parrot, overwrought Democrats -- including their standard-bearer -- remained overconfident and heaped insult and contumely on their presidential opponent and his “deplorable” mass base. They had long since thrown away those voters and had mostly forgotten them. Earlier, another Democrat in a high place had referred to such Americans as “bitter clingers,” referring presumably to their “nostalgic” attachment to a past that, as we all know, never was. (This posture is not new. In 1947, sociologist Louis Wirth chided novelist Louis Bromfield for his attachment to “a rural way of life, which, incidentally, has never existed in modern times and which, if it had, would certainly be irrecoverable.” -- “Review of Elmer T. Peterson, ed., Cities Are Abnormal,” University of Chicago Law Review, 14, April 1947, p. 532, emphasis supplied.)
Such abuse from On High did not help things so much as inflame them. In addition, one could have cut with a knife the sheer partisanship of both the old Establishment media and the new cyber-maniacal corporate media. Such an openly biased media campaign (as opposed to mere reporting) had not been seen since 1964, when Barry Goldwater went down in flames. In 2016, the great geniuses of American journalism did not get their desired outcome.
Trump in Office and Things Revealed
In the visual arts, the technique of trompe l’oeil provides three-dimensional representation -- and so too in politics, where the mere fact of Trump le président has unmasked hitherto dimly seen phenomena. First came a stampede of soul-less Republican hacks queuing up for jobs in the new administration. (One suspects that some of these worthies had been Trump-denouncers before getting in line.) Then as Trump’s team came into view, the presence of so many certified warmongers and secret-secret intelligence types suggested that Trump’s peaceful foreign policy might be an illusion. Third, the arrival of the usual bankers and other high time-preference merchant adventurers suggested that Trump’s nationalist economic policy, on which some had placed their hopes, might be another illusion. With this lot on board, the occasional tariff imposed in a punitive spirit hardly reflects any well-wrought neo-protectionist planning, but only adds an element of instability to the standing array of American economic sanctions which mainly exist as useful tools for ruling the world. At best, we shall get Hamiltonian-Whig business-as-usual undertaken in a somewhat Gilded Age style.
The Hydra-Headed War Party
Perhaps the most important result, so far, of the Trump litmus test, is the discovery that the American War Party, organized and in business since at least the 1930s, has become multiple, polycentric, and almost universal. Some fault lines showed up in the early days of the Trump administration. There were some who wanted peace with Korea, while harboring plans for a general war on Islam. There was a war-with-China crowd and a war-with-Iran crowd -- not to mention a war on any nation that bruises the American imperial ego, however slightly. The boundaries of these factions are unclear and, indeed, some of them may overlap in complicated ways. So much for the Stupid Party.
Meanwhile, the Evil Party got back into the game. Back in the day, in the wake of the Indo-China War, Democratic liberals made a great show of wanting a less interventionist foreign policy and less erosion of basic American civil liberties. Some of them really meant it. (The differences between Senator William Fulbright and Bill Clinton are real and do not much run in the latter’s favor.) But that was then, and this is now, and today’s Democratic party and its oddly named “progressives” can’t get enough war, and in defiance of all reason and logic, court war with Russia (verbally at least). For partisan reasons they are reliving the Truman Era and re-founding McCarthyism, to be directed (this time) against everyone to the Right of themselves. Their record of late on universal surveillance does not rise to the level of the contemptible.
We should have seen this coming and to some extent we did. The usual suspects regrouped after 1975 and helped Americans unlearn lessons only partly learned in Vietnam. The long march through the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations should have led us to suspect something. But the long gestation of the single-yet-manifold war party, with its various shortlists of wars to be in, has dulled our senses. Trump, for all his faults (and they are legion), has clarified things just by being there. Democrats have thrown off any vestigial pretense of wanting peace, while Republicans remain just as bad as they were, which was very bad indeed. Firmly ideological (and anti-Trump) neo-conservatives have drawn closer to the neo-liberals in the Democratic Party, which makes perfect sense because they were never that far apart anyway. They all share the fear that the wild card Trump might spoil things for them. (Whether Trump or anyone in his administration actually cares about peace seems a purely speculative question at present.)
Americans are effectively stuck with a two-party system in which both parties are war parties. The fact that many competing wars are on offer makes for some confusion, but doesn’t alter the big picture. Those great historians Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard read some of the tea leaves in 1939, sorting through ideologies and interest groups to find the American war party. There were unilateral imperialists, who favored the Open Door for U.S. exports. There were collective-security “internationalists,” who favored cooperating with nice imperial powers in the violent maintenance of “peace.” There were “free traders” whose outlook was substantially imperial. There were the Navy Lobby and steel manufacturers (making up an interest group ancestral to the military-industrial complex), who could side with either imperialist faction. Even the U.S. Communist Party counted as part of the war party in 1939, because of Japanese imperialism in China.
They concluded: “The only imperialist hope worthy of ‘great politics’ for the United States lay in the overthrow of the British empire and the substitution of an American empire for it, and no such prospect seemed enclosed in the contours of fate.” (America in Midpassage, I, 1939, p. 447, italics added.) But the Beards were too optimistic. We have that empire and we have the imperial presidency that goes with it. These may be bigger issues than Donald Trump.
End of the World and Democratic Lefty Resistance
So, Donald Trump charged in, like the “bull who brings his own China shop with him” (borrowing Churchill’s description of John Foster Dulles). He disrupted the game, overturned the tables, scattering cards, cash, and chips all over the exceptional American casino, and brought his own favored money-changers into the temple. Certainly, this was a day’s work and one for which he will not be forgiven.
Among the least forgiving are the Clintonite revanchist cadres, who know they were owed the White House and its mighty unitary powers and who, having lost it, can’t help believing that only a global Russian “fascist” conspiracy warranting a new Cold War (at least) can explain the disaster. Thus, we have had a Special Prosecutor and a witch hunt. In the end, a few witches will suffer durance vile most federal, despite the lack of any Russian connection.
But the Forward March of History cannot be denied without horrific consequences. In normal times, an event like the ill-starred march in Charlottesville would have yielded a normal internet frenzy. Dozens of lefty websites would have inaugurated a Hate the South Week, which might have turned into Hate the South Month. But on this occasion, great effort went into to focusing the fury almost entirely on Trump and his “fascist” mass base. The opportunity was too good to squander on the South. (They can kick the South any old day.)
The present moment thus involves a kind of endless harangue and Puritan jeremiad against Trump and his voters, coming from major new media, the remnant old media, NPR, and so on. It’s a case of staying up all night damning Trump and all those who won’t stay up all night damning him (to paraphrase something said about John Jay and his famous treaty of 1794). We are treated to a constant din about a “fascist” menace, which is omnipresent everywhere. Styling themselves the Resistance, these messengers cast a net so wide net so that any poor fool who doesn’t hail the latest pronouncements of post-Marxist anti-culturalists is automatically designated a “fascist.”
This is not a program likely to lead to peaceful compromise or reconciliation in this Great Nation of Futurity. And yet this state of affairs does not exactly remind one of Weimar Germany. The tone is much more like that of America in the 1850s, and that is certainly bad enough, what with the rise of the down-meltable wokeniks.
Conservatives in Freefall
Meanwhile, the Trump Interregnum is causing movement conservatives no end of bother. They are having many second and third thoughts. There seem to be roughly three responses. One small group suggest that Trump has created an opening for real debate by raising (however cynically) some serious economic and foreign policy issues. Not exactly believers, they pray that Trump’s disruption of normal beltway life will yield long-run benefits. Others, ranging from unfavorable to Trump to adamantly opposed, are raising a great howl-storm and trying to work out “what went wrong” with standard Cold War and post-Cold War conservatism. The hard cases are preparing to cross over to the neo-liberals, a daunting journey of several feet.
The short answer, if anyone dare look into the abyss, is that official conservatism as preached by the early, middle, and late National Review, by any surviving “fossils of fusionism” (to use Sam Francis’s phrase), and by neo-conservatives, just hasn’t been very good. There are many reasons for that, but the most central and important one is that these characters cannot give up their damned-old warmongering. “War any day” is their motto and they can do no other. This is what makes the presence of John Bolton in the Trump White House a very bad omen.
The Great Nation of Futility
With GOP and Democratic war-heads crashing into one another in midair -- despite their underlying agreement on imperial essentials -- we are in a bad way. What Trump himself will actually do, day to day, is anyone’s guess. We can get by, perhaps, by taking the whole thing as cheap entertainment, even if having an empire is in truth rather expensive, no matter who is in power. (2019 “defense” budget figures: $686.1 billion, 69 billion of which are for ongoing wars. Cheap.)
As Americans suffer through our sixth-or-so Great Awakening, we might do well to cultivate our own little gardens. (Historian William G. McLoughlin thought that our fourth Great Awakening took place in the years after 1945. If we count the “Sixties” as a fifth one, we are now up to six.) Someday, Trump will be gone, and some similar (or worse) person will take his place. Character may matter, but it is best to remember that the Mighty Office attracts certain types, and until we curb the bloated American Presidency in its unitary Oneness, we can’t expect miracles. In any case, the anti-Trump cause doesn’t need my help; there are plenty of people on the case, many of them quite unhinged. The Division of Labor, which economists mistake for some kind of moral imperative, suggests leaving the thing to the present specialists.
There is one item more. Trump’s chief service, if such it is, has been to goad the Left into showing who they really are. It hasn’t been pretty, but it allows me to break my internet addiction. I can, with good conscience, quit reading all the overwrought left-wing blogs, including the Guardian, which used to be an actual newspaper. It saves me time and lowers my blood pressure. Anyway, I only ever read those blogs because there was reason, once, to think that some of them cared about peace. If they can’t be bothered, I’d rather read a good book, one that takes me to some deplorable Land of Never Was. Nostalgia or not, it is bound to be better than contemporary America, where Melville’s Confidence Men reign supreme, having “followed too much the devices and desires of [their] own hearts.”
Joseph R. Stromberg is a prolific independent historian with libertarian, anti-war, and Southern sympathies. He writes from Georgia.