Despite outcries over his policy that has resulted in children being separated from their parents at the US border, Donald Trump seems ever more inclined to follow his natural, base instincts.
First, the gathering of Western democracies at the G7 summit in Quebec ended in disarray, recorded for posterity in the already famous photograph of US President Donald Trump basking in his fellow summiteers’ exasperation. Comedian Stephen Colbert called it “Still life with douchebag”.
Trump arrived late and left early, after reportedly threatening to send 25 million Mexicans to Japan to engineer Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s election defeat and telling French President Emmanuel Macron that “all the terrorists are in Paris”. As Trump flew away, he reneged on signing the traditional joint communique. This was in retaliation for “very dishonest and weak” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau having the temerity to tell a press conference his country wouldn’t be “pushed around” by the US over trade disagreements. Canada runs a trade deficit with the US, but the mild-mannered northern neighbour is a convenient whipping boy for the Make America Great Again (MAGA) campaign.
It’s hard to believe the US’s traditional allies haven’t got the message that all bets are off, but Trump’s chief trade adviser, Peter Navarro, was leaving nothing to chance. “There’s a special place in hell,” he said, “for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Trump and then tries to stab him in the back.”
Trump insulted Trudeau via Twitter while en route to Singapore for the photo opportunity that supposedly saved the world from nuclear apocalypse. Bristling at sceptics who questioned what was actually achieved at his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump’s daughter Ivanka tweeted, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it – Chinese proverb.”
Even if this really is a Chinese proverb, which it isn’t, it was misapplied, since the most that can be said for her father’s reality-show diplomacy is that it further lowered the temperature. Trump is treating denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula as a fait accompli, but in fact Kim did nothing more than repeat the vague undertakings that North Korea has been making and breaking for decades. Given the lack of detail and anything resembling a time frame, why should we assume this vague undertaking is any more sincere than those that preceded it?
Trump was much more forthcoming, boosting Kim’s image and international standing in a way that a decade of non-stop state propaganda couldn’t do and announcing an end to “very provocative” US-South Korea joint military exercises. Admittedly, that decision can be easily reversed, but it nevertheless amounted to adopting a suggestion long pushed by China and Russia. And as critics pointed out, if US-South Korea joint exercises are provocative, wouldn’t the same apply to Nato military exercises predicated on a perceived Russian threat, and US naval deployments in the South China Sea?
Trump also expressed a desire to withdraw the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea. As things stand, such a move would signal US disengagement from Asia, downgrade its alliances with South Korea and Japan and green-light both China’s aspirations to regional dominance and North Korea’s dream of reunification on its terms.
In stark contrast to his gratuitous disparagement of Trudeau, Trump went to extraordinary lengths to convey his admiration for Kim as a person and a leader. He screened a video so fawning that Pyongyang’s propagandists must have felt plagiarised, and he described the tyrant, formerly known as “Little Rocket Man”, as “talented … funny … very smart … great personality”. Who wouldn’t “really hit it off” with such a guy?
When it was pointed out that this charming fellow has done truly horrible things, Trump launched a defence that inevitably said more about himself, since it revealed nothing about Kim: “Hey, he’s a tough guy. When you take over a country – a tough country, tough people – and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who and what you are, how much of an advantage you have … If you can do that at 27 years old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 that can do that.”
As he has done on behalf of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Trump resorted to moral equivalence, asserting that Kim is no worse than lots of other “tough” leaders.
Michael Kirby, a former judge of the High Court of Australia and chair of the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea, would beg to differ. In his view, “the gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
The commission reported that the Kim regime’s crimes against humanity entail “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”. Stalinism in a Mao jacket, in other words.
The symbolism wasn’t lost on the Europeans. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian observed that a day after vilifying Trudeau and breaking with his country’s traditional allies, Trump “practically hugged” a dictator born into a communist dictatorship. “President Trump has decided to progressively dismantle the tools of multilateralism created after the last war. It is a period of uncertainty and risk. America is shutting itself away in its fortress of power.”
No one would be happier with this development than Putin, the former KGB agent and dedicated servant of the Soviet state who called the USSR’s break-up “the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century”. Putin’s Russia may owe more to the Mafia than Marx, but he’s not the only ex-Soviet apparatchik in the ruling elite. Russia’s default to a Cold War setting speaks to a reality that wishful thinkers in the West have tried to ignore: its overarching strategic goal is the same as the Soviet Union’s – to weaken the Western alliance by decoupling Europe and the US.
You can dismiss Trump’s comment that Kim speaks “and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same” as another example of his elephantine flippancy, but there were a disturbing number of what we’re told after the event were jokes on that theme. The G7 rancour and Singapore lovefest were further evidence that he is more at ease with authoritarians than democrats.
As we’re reminded by Republican political consultant Rick Wilson, whose gonzo polemics enhance the Daily Beast, Trumpism evinced demagoguery and authoritarianism from the beginning: “Trump was never a man running as a servant of the people; he was an avatar for their darkest, most vengeful, most petty grievances and imagined slights from a catalogue of monsters from the Fox News scare closet.”
Having replaced the “adults” among his staff with enablers and zealots and started to make gains in the polls, Trump is emboldened and ever more inclined to follow his natural, base instincts. Furthermore, his takeover of the Republican Party is all but complete, as demonstrated by his successful last-minute intervention in the South Carolina Republican primary. He denounced incumbent representative and former governor Mark Sanford, a Tea Party conservative, as “very unhelpful in my campaign to MAGA”, adding, somewhat contradictorily, “he is MIA [missing in action] and nothing but trouble”. Sanford was ousted by a Republican state legislator, who declared, “we are the party of President Donald J Trump”.
“People become disenchanted with the way democracies work,” warned Sanford. “A strongman comes along [and] says, ‘You’ve got to give up some freedoms, but if you do, I’ll take care of the problems for you.’” The Trump cult that the Republican Party is becoming before our eyes is fast-tracking this process with more and more elected representatives deciding that to oppose the President is to thwart the will of the voters who sent them to Washington.
Assault on the norms
Meanwhile, Trump and his surrogates maintain their assault on the norms, conventions and protocols of democracy and government. Trump labelled recent and current FBI leaders “scum” and demanded some be jailed for undemonstrated crimes. No longer content with calling for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to be closed down, Trump’s legal spokesperson, Rudy Giuliani, now wants the investigators themselves to be investigated. Switching hats, Giuliani called Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice president and before that a distinguished senator popular on both sides of the aisle, “a mentally deficient idiot”.
Eric Edelman was George W Bush’s Ambassador to Turkey during the early days of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power. “What [Trump] has done,” says Edelman, “is begin to stress these norms and stress them constantly, and people become inured to it. I’ve seen this play out in Turkey and that’s how this stuff gets normalised. After a while, people say, ‘Okay, that’s the way it is.’”
The groundwork is being laid. At the US’s southern border, immigration officials are separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children, some of whom are being held in cages, as a deterrent. “You can see,” says Democrat senator Jeff Merkley, “the arc of dehumanisation of immigrants that created the grounds for treating immigrants like this.”
Last weekend, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and former strategist Steve Bannon predicted the Republican Party would achieve an “astounding” victory in the November mid-term elections as long as the President “listens to his own inner voice” and “doesn’t cave” on immigration. A poll just out shows 46% of Republican voters agree with the policy of separating immigrant parents from their children; 32% disagree.
Lamenting the slouch towards authoritarianism, former Republican congressman and chairman of the American Conservative Union Mickey Edwards said recently, “I don’t know if it’s where the country’s headed or where it’s already gone.”
If Bannon is correct, and the Trump Party strengthens its grip on power come November, that issue will be put to rest, along with a few other things, such as the Mueller investigation and any prospect of Trump being held to account.
This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.