An Insubordinate President
“Insubordinate elites,” as the distinguished American foreign policy historian Alfred W. McCoy calls them, have long been a problem for the United States empire. They privilege their own personal interests and/or concept of serving their own nations above fealty to the United States, its allies and the Western-based multinational corporate and financial interests that reign behind the shield of U.S. power.
Over the years, these disobedient foreign leaders have come in different forms. Some have been men of the socialist, populist and nationalist left—actors like Mohammad Mossadeq (Iran), Jacobo Arbenz (Guatemala), Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Sukarno (Indonesia), Salvador Allende (Chile), Michael Manley (Jamaica), Maurice Bishop (Grenada), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela). Washington has responded to the defiance of these and other “left” Third World and “developing nation” actors with assassinations, assassination attempts, coups, coup attempts, invasions, counterinsurgency campaigns, espionage, propaganda and the cultivation of political and military opposition and influence within the noncompliant states.
But you don’t have to be on the anti-imperial left to become what the U.S. ruling-class and imperial establishment considers an insubordinate elite and get put on Washington’s shit and target lists. The South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem was considered Washington’s man in Saigon until his refusal to roll back corruption and make any concessions to reform turned him into an embarrassing obstacle to U.S. control. The John F. Kennedy administration approved a CIA-assisted coup that murdered Diem and his powerful brother.
Panama’s dictator Manuel Noriega was on the CIA payroll during most of the 1980s. After he stole yet another election in 1989, however, he faced withering criticism from Washington and the U.S. media. “In the interim,” Noam Chomsky observed five years later, “Noriega had shown improper signs of independence, offending the master by lack of sufficient enthusiasm for Washington’s terrorist war against Nicaragua and in other ways.” The U.S. invaded Panama, killing thousands and taking Noriega away to rot in a federal prison.
Saddam Hussein ceased to be Washington’s good friend in Baghdad when he got cocky and invaded oil-rich Kuwait, challenging a U.S.-sponsored petro-state and threatening to become an excessively powerful new force in the oil-rich Middle East. A vicious U.S. assault (the so-called Persian Gulf War, a one-sided imperial slaughter) ensued, followed by years of mass-murderous U.S.-led economic sanctions and a full U.S. invasion and occupation (leading to Saddam’s death, along with that of more than a million other Iraqis) in 2003.
Another example is the long U.S.-sponsored Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “Despite the billions in aid lavished on Karzai,” McCoy notes in his new book “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power,” U.S. calls for him to be an effective U.S. ally by being less openly corrupt “led to public tantrums” and “inflammatory outbursts from Karzai.” The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations “found it impossible to control Karzai. … With Washington’s reform initiative effectively neutered, much like Diem had done decades earlier, Karzai was free to spend the next four years presiding, as the sardonically dubbed ‘mayor of Kabul,’ over the growth of the Taliban resistance movement.”
Yet another case is the Philippines’ thuggish president, Rodrigo Duterte. He turned against the United States, breaching his country’s 70-year alliance with Washington, and cozied up to China last year. The rupture came after President Barack Obama had the gall to weakly criticize Duterte’s extrajudicial murder of thousands in the name of the war on drugs. “Who does he think he is?” Duterte responded, adding: “I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country, and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people. Putang ina mo [Your mother’s a whore], I will swear at you.”
Which brings me to another violent and mean-spirited Obama-hater: Donald Trump. Incredible as it might seem, the United States, the global superpower itself, has been plagued by the presence of an insubordinate, dysfunctional, corrupt and excessively nationalistic elite in its own top “democratically elected” position—the U.S. presidency.
Trump is no leftist people’s champion, obviously. Think Diem, Noriega, Karzai and Duterte—not Fidel, Lumumba, Allende, Ho or Hugo. He’s a malignantly narcissistic real estate baron whose basic missions in life are to advance his own wealth and glorify his personal image and brand. He is venality and ego on steroids—too commercial and selfish to be an actual fascist, but an ugly epitome of the worst excesses of the capitalist, plutocratic, racist, sexist, militaristic and ecocidal American system.
The problem for the U.S. ruling class is that the American system and empire is compelled to sell itself as humanitarian, multicultural, peaceful, democratic, benevolent and wise. “The United States,” then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1999, channeling the establishment conventional “American exceptionalist” wisdom, “is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”
“If we have to use force,” Albright had explained one year earlier, “it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
“Our security,” Obama intoned in his first inaugural address, continuing the exceptionalist mythology as he prepared to commit new war crimes, “emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
It’s hard to match such nationally and imperially self-congratulatory rhetoric and marketing with the history, persona and conduct of “Prima Donald.” As a candidate with a long record of sexual harassment and racial insult, “Trumplethinskin”:
● Gave his fellow ruling-class presidential contenders juvenile and nasty nicknames (“Little Marco,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary”) and even insulted the looks of one candidate and other candidates’ wives.
● Encouraged violence against black protesters and embraced the nation’s racist police state, calling for a “national [racist] stop-and-frisk law” (which would create a national racist state of martial law) in the name of “law and order.”
● Absurdly claimed that the nation was being overrun by illegal Latino immigrant rapists and murderers.
● Was transparently addicted to the language and imagery of hyper-masculinist violence.
● Embraced torture (“it works”) and called for the murder of alleged Islamic terrorists’ families.
● Asked why the U.S. had nuclear weapons if it couldn’t use them and insanely advocated the nuclear weaponization of arch-reactionary and absolutist Saudi Arabia.
● Mocked Asians and a disabled journalist in front of hot microphones.
● Behaved like a boorish and unprepared adolescent during his not-so-presidential debates with Hillary Clinton, whom he called “a nasty woman” and threatened (to the applause of his white nationalist campaign rally attendees) to “lock up.”
This is a very abbreviated list.
As president of the United States, Trump has:
● Falsely and childishly claimed that the “fake news” media exaggerated the size of mass protests over his election.
● Went (also on day one) to the CIA headquarters to tell stone-faced intelligence chiefs that the U.S. might have another chance to invade Iraq and “get the oil.”
● Made preposterous, paranoid-style charges, claiming that he was denied a popular-vote victory by illegal immigrant voters and that he was wiretapped by Obama.
● Tweeted a cartoonish film of him beating up “CNN” at a wrestling match.
● Tweeted a denunciation of a retail firm that dropped its daughter’s perfume brand.
● Displayed open affinity for authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Rodrigo Duterte.
● Continued to absurdly deny the existence of anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) climate change, the biggest problem of our—or any—time.
● Advance-pardoned a convicted racist and fascist sheriff (Joe Arpaio) who created deadly open-air “concentration camps” (Arpaio’s own proud term) to detain suspected undocumented immigrants of Latino background.
● Targeted strangely selected Muslim (and other) nations for transparently racist travel bans.
● Called a distinguished federal magistrate who ruled against his travel measure “a so-called judge.”
● Claimed that another federal judge’s ruling against his scam “university” was tainted by the jurist’s Latino ancestry.
● Threatened genocidal and thermonuclear war (“fire and fury”) on North Korea, putting millions of lives at risk on and around the Korean peninsula while engaging in a cartoon-like war of words with North Korea’s equally bizarre ruler, Kim Jong Un.
● Defended neo-Nazis and other vicious white nationalists, offering them dog-whistle encouragement after they marched by torch light and killed in defense of Confederate (slave power) war statues.
● Phoned Duterte to call him “a good man … doing an unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
● Insulted U.S. ally South Korea by claiming that it was once “part of China.”
● Alienated even Australia by cutting off his initial phone call with that nation’s head of state when the prime minister reminded Trump of the United States’ commitment to absorb a small number of refugees.
● Openly obstructed “justice” by firing and intimidating top federal law enforcement officials.
● Used the presidency to advance his own global real estate fortune.
● Worked to suppress minority voting rights in advance of the 2020 elections.
● Consorted with a top adviser and close friend (Roger Stone) who uses the threat of mass right-wing, white-nationalist violence to discourage efforts to remove Trump.
● Continued to engage in juvenile Twitter assaults on his political enemies and media critics.
● Gave himself a “10” on Puerto Rico hurricane relief after he bungled the federal emergency response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island.
● Attacked San Juan’s mayor for calling him on his failure.
● Told Puerto Ricans they didn’t experience a “real catastrophe like Katrina.”
● Suggested the Puerto Ricans were lazy and lectured the island about the crushing debt unjustly imposed on it by U.S. finance capital.
● Idiotically told North Dakota residents that the White House would make North Dakota’s drought “disappear” (“It’ll all go away; you’ll see”).
This, too, is an abridged list. The record of abnormal incidents in the insane clown presidency of Donald Trump goes on and on. The Twitter- and Fox News-addicted Bad Grandpa Trump is a great embarrassment for Brand USA.
To make matters worse from a U.S. ruling-class perspective, Trump campaigned outside and against conventional neoliberal and ruling-class policy wisdom. He came into the presidency as a reactionary “populist” and nationalist demagogue. He ran as an open critic of the expansive, multilateral and “free trade” globalism long embraced by the United States’ wealth and power elite. Claiming (absurdly) to be a champion of the heartland’s “forgotten” white working class, he denounced corporate globalization, calling the North American Free Trade Agreement a jobs destroyer.
He denounced Wall Street’s abandonment of the nation’s middle and working classes and promised to bring back the nation’s lost manufacturing and coal-mining jobs. Speaking to his imagined, vast, white working-class Archie Bunker- and Joe the Plumber-esque base, Trump has channeled Pat Buchanan-esque “America First” isolationism, protectionism and unilateralism. He promised a trade war with China, calling the nation’s leading trading partner the perpetrator of “the greatest [job] theft in history.” He denounced the U.S. political system as hopelessly corrupt.
Insulting ruling classes and nations abroad, he has lectured European NATO allies on their duty to “pay up,” bashed Japanese and Chinese imports, told Japan to pay for the U.S. military bases that occupy it, called South Korea’s free-trade agreement “horrible,” and told South Korea to pay for the anti-missile system the U.S. set up there.
Unlike the classy, erudite and refined imperialists Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Muslim-obsessed Trump has never read a memo, white paper or report from “Wall Street’s think tank”—the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the granddaddy of all U.S establishment policy formation groups.
Trump joined in the chorus of right and left opposition to Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and CFR-recommended gambit to contain the rise of China with multilateral trade agreements designed to split Eurasia between East and West—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. By McCoy’s expert, deeply informed account, Trump’s election has significantly escalated the pace of U.S. imperial decline, accelerating Beijing’s transcendence over Washington as the world’s preeminent power.
All of this and more has been deeply dysfunctional and disobedient as far as the American ruling class is concerned. It’s not for nothing that Trump was shunned by leading corporate and financial campaign donors, who preferred any number of Wall Street- and CFR-vetted candidates, starting with Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, over him in 2016. And it’s not for nothing that “The Lyin’ King” has faced relentless corporate-state media criticism and mockery along with a campaign for impeachment or some other form of removal ever since he defeated the national elite’s preferred presidential selections last year.
The arch-imperial super-spook, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper (a curious liberal hero these days) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have gone on national television to question Trump’s fitness for the presidency, hinting at 25th Amendment removal on grounds of incompetence.
All of this raises an interesting question: How on earth did the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire let the vicious sociopath Donald Trump into the White House? Aren’t the wealth and power elite’s big-money-drenched and highly corporate mass-mediated candidate selection and vetting processes designed to prevent insubordinate elites (of whatever ideological or other persuasion) from rising into higher office?
Yes, they are, but the American ruling class, it turns out, is not as politically omnipotent and all-seeing as some lefties seem to think even in its own imperial “homeland.” Trump was something of an extraordinary exception to the normal money and politics rule last year. As the distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Martin Gilens (Princeton) note in their new book “Democracy in America?”:
It is extremely difficult to win a major government office without the backing of affluent campaign donors. … To be sure, the 2016 ‘outsider’ campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate that—at least under certain circumstances—huge contributions from the usual millionaire and billionaire donors may not be necessary to compete. But of course, Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the general election. Trump was an extremely unusual case: His celebrity and communications skills markedly lowered his campaign costs by giving him an enormous amount of free media exposure. And Trump had his own fortune to fall back on, if necessary, which also helped make him unusually independent of megadonors.
Among the “certain circumstances” that let Trump slip into the Oval Office last year, we must include the wage and income stagnation that has long plagued the nation’s working-class majority (even as the rich have gotten ever-more obscenely prosperous) and the transparent takeover of the both the nation’s two dominant political organizations by Wall Street and corporate America. Millions of ordinary Americans resent those who seem to have jumped ahead of them—“whether they focus on wealthy corporate executive and hedge-fund managers or on immigrants and minorities” (Page and Gilens).
The rigging of the Democratic primaries against Bernie Sanders was key. By tapping and channeling populist “anti-establishment” anger in accord with majority-progressive public opinion, Sanders (who ran against “the billionaire class”) would have defeated Trump (who ran primarily against “immigrants and minorities”).
Trump owed much of his victory to the hopelessly dull and Wall Street-pleasing, proletariat-dismissing/-dissing Hillary Clinton campaign. The elitist and oligarchic Clinton was unwilling and perhaps unable to rally the Democratic Party’s purported lower- and working-class base. She foolishly assumed that popular horror at His Awfulness would provide all the mass mobilization she really needed. As Mike Davis notes in Haymarket Books’ new must-read collection “U.S. Politics in an Age of Uncertainty”:
While Trump was factory-hopping in the hinterlands, [Mrs. Clinton’s] itinerary skipped the entire state of Wisconsin as well as major contested centers such as the Dayton, Ohio, area. The Clinton camp obviously believed that aggressive campaigning in the last weeks by Obama and Sanders, reinforced by celebrities such as Springsteen and Beyoncé, would ensure strong turnouts by African-Americans and millennials in the urban core while she harvested votes from irate Republican women in the suburbs. … Her campaign refused to heed the dangerous signals from Rust Belt, going ‘totally silent on the economy and any future plan what would be helpful to people’ … [showing] stupefying inattention to voter unrest in long-Democratic non-metropolitan counties urged upon Trump by his ‘pugnacious pollster,’ Tony Fabrizio. … In the event, Clinton’s huge popular majorities on the West Coast were worthless currency in the Electoral College while Trump reaped a windfall from his final few weeks of barnstorming the Rustbelt.
The Democrats’ surrender of the white working-class and rural vote was based on an idiotic calculus that turned out to be suicidal in a handful of upper Midwestern battleground and Rust Belt states. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” U.S. Wall Street Sen. Charles Schumer infamously and falsely predicted, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Still, Trump deserves credit for keeping the evangelical wing of the Republican Party loyal for the general election—no simple achievement given Trump’s salacious and sinful record as a self-aggrandizing New York City-based media narcissist, casino mogul and sexual predator. As Davis adds, “Boss Tweet” played his cards right, keeping the religious right on board with clever and significant concessions:
[I]f visceral nationalism and white anger gave him the nomination, it was not enough to ensure that the big battalions of the GOP, especially the evangelicals who had supported [Ted] Cruz, would actively campaign for him. Trump’s stroke of genius was to allow the religious right, including former Cruz cheerleaders David Barton and Tony Perkins, to draft the Republican platform and then, as surety, to select one of their heroes [Mike Pence] as his running mate. … To ensure implementation of the [right-wing] agenda, Trump promised to recompose the federal judiciary with evangelical fellow travelers, beginning with the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. … With the Supreme Court at stake and Mike Pence smiling from the dais, it was easier for the congregation to pardon the crotch-grabbing sinner at the head of the ticket. Trump, as a result, received a larger share of the evangelical vote than Romney, McCain or Bush, while Clinton underperformed Obama among Catholics, including Latinos.
Add in the dark support he got from the neo-fascistic, Mercer family-supported “alt-right” (gained in part by making the noxious white nationalist Steve Bannon his top campaign official), the cost-saving gift of free media attention, and the red state-amplifying impact of the Electoral College—the “unthinkable” Orange Ascendancy was sealed. The election fell into the insubordinate real estate mogul’s lap, much to the surprise of most pollsters and prognosticators, present writer included.
The neoliberal “deep state” ruling class has been trying to figure out how to deal with Trump ever since. A military coup and assassination are out of the question in the “homeland”—this isn’t Honduras. The setting requires more civilized and constitutional methods of containment and, perhaps, removal: trying to surround him with as many establishment actors as possible; helping keep his approval numbers just hovering above his “deplorable” white-nationalist Amerikaner base with a steady drumbeat of negative media; investigating him and his inner circle for “Russian collusion.”
Besides weakening the naughty Trump, the conspiratorial Russiagate campaign has the benefit of diverting public attention and discussion away from the bipartisan corporate state’s responsibility for the New Gilded Age capitalism’s hollowing out of America. It exonerates the two dominant capitalist parties, the American empire, and the corporate media from legitimate blame for the chilling rise of Herr Donald. It also helps keep the flames hot beneath Washington’s ongoing New Cold War with the proudly disobedient and nationalist rulers atop Washington’s No. 2 geopolitical rival, Russia (China is No. 1).
Last September, in one of the more colorful rhetorical flourishes against Trump, the hilariously disobedient Dear Leader Kim Jong Un said that he would he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged dotard with fire.” He will do no such thing, of course. Meanwhile, however, it would appear that the “dotard” is being tamed by the U.S. political, economic, media and imperial elite—with the threat of impeachment and the presence of just enough “deep state” neoliberal handlers within his bizarre administration.
The tough-talking trade warrior predictably went all mushy on China during his recent trip to Asia. He dropped charges of currency manipulation and told the Chinese that he didn’t blame them for attacking the U.S. market. He also shelved his verbal wargames with North Korea for the most part. That was him being a good, well-behaved Donald: The nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire have no interests in a trade war with China or a shooting war with North Korea.
The leading oddsmaker site Ladbrokes recently gave Trump a 40 percent chance of “leaving office via impeachment or resignation before the end of his first term.” The Robert Muller III investigations could certainly help make that happen, along with Trump’s foolish habit of feuding with top Senate Republicans.
But 40 percent is too high.
The corporate Democrats probably want to keep the president around to run against in 2018 and 2020. Trump-hating worked like a charm for them in last Tuesday’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Top Democrats likely hope that His Awfulness will permit them to sweep back into office without having to make too many concessions to their party’s progressive-liberal Bernie Sanders wing.
In the meantime, those of us on the actual left can hardly be expected to get teary-eyed about Trump’s role in furthering the decline of U.S. global power—well underway since at least George W. Bush’s foolish and blundering invasion of Iraq. As Noam Chomsky noted in the late 1960s: “The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within.”