By H. L. D. Mahindapala*
“… my administration, I believe, has had the most successful year in the history of the Presidency,” Donald Trump, Conservative Political Action Conference, Maryland, February 23, 2018.
Since it is generally agreed that one week is a long time in politics, it is time to ask, at the end of one year, how far have America’s stature grown since Donald Trump set out “to make America great again.” From the first step he took to march on the road to White House he has been chanting the mantra of “making America great” which also translates into “putting America first”. They are two shades of the same slogan.
This theme, which he played to the hilt with characteristic brashness, is the most relevant standard available to review his first year in office. It is only fair to judge him by the standard he set himself. He recycled it relentlessly and noisily as the winning mantra. Besides, there isn’t a better standard to judge a man than the one set by himself.
He wrapped himself round this populist slogan to exploit the historical memory of America’s great past as he had nothing new to take or give from the future to add to its past. It was bruited as a vague concept that was left open, without clarifying it with a clear-cut definition, for his loyal base to embrace it freely with meanings that would suit their fancies.
It was also romanticized and packaged as a palatable pill that could be digested readily by America poised nervously on the edge of decline, as perceived by the informed commentariat. His theme of “making America great again (the operative word is again) too was designed to underline the fact that America is in decline.
His emphasis was not in lifting America to greater heights from where it is now. He was not going to build on what has been achieved so far by his predecessors. That would be an admission of the fact that America has not lost its greatness. He clearly underscored the fact that America has declined and that his mission was to make America great again.
It lacked the grandeur and the soaring hopes of the Founding Fathers who had clear and positive vision of America’s future and destiny. It was sheer sloganeering to grab as many votes as he could get to make him great.
His slogan was meant to raise the hopes of the discombobulated electorate swirling in a vortex of uncertainties. It was a time when America felt disoriented and even alienated by the rise of challenging forces threatening its supremacy, both at home and abroad.
Trump emerged, beating all other conventional contenders by assuring the American electorate the restoration of the known certainties of the past. The past was great. And he implied that America can be made great again only by returning to a romanticized past. He also surfaced at a time when President Obama, weighed down by the Nobel Peace Prize hanging round his neck, was dithering between unmanageable wars and unwinnable peace.
Caught in a disorderly world spinning out of the Cold War
Trump was caught in a disorderly world spinning out of the Cold War. Trump is yet to find his feet in the multi-polar world. The multiple centers of power is too confusing for him to handle. Trump’s slogan of “America First” surfaced as a safety net to disengage from the confusing complexities which baffles him.
Multilateralism is viewed as an inimical force to American interests. Trump’s solution, each time he faces a crisis, is either to disengage from the world (Example: exit from TPP, Trans Pacific Partnership), or to seek refuge in the garrison-mentality of the pioneers who withdrew into walled fortresses when they were surrounded by the hostile Indians. (Example: Mexican Wall).
Vindictive reprisals against nations who refuse to fall in line with him is another part of his counter-productive foreign policy. (Example: Cutting aid to those who refused to vote for shifting the capital of Israel to Jerusalem!)
At the end of his first year in office he has gone only deeper and deeper into his own politico-economic swamp and expecting him to change is a bit too rich. Having no constructive alternative, he will continue to stick to his tried and tested strategy of playing up to his base. He has nothing but contempt for anything above his base because there are no votes for him at the higher level.
One of the main characteristics of his controversial victory was that it distanced itself from the open-ended optimism that flowed from the iconic Founding Fathers. Unlike in the period of pioneering Enlightenment, the dreamtime of America, the underlying theme operating right now is to close the doors opened by the Founding Fathers to make America great again.
He rode into power selling this theme of putting America on reverse gear which was mistakenly taken to be a progressive step in the right direction. His electoral mission was carefully crafted to turn his populist slogans into a cult – a cult that would revolve round him.
“Putting America first” – “Putting Donald Trump first”
“Putting America first” was another way of saying “putting Donald Trump first”. Both were intertwined and inseparable. He identified himself as the messiah who had come to save America in peril and he was seeking a mandate to put him first to fulfill his mission.
The hidden side of this populist cult was to legitimize a monolithic political culture which would unfailingly obey his orders. His messianic arrogance was aimed at making America march to his drum beat.
The simmering crises in the internal affairs of the White House stem from Donald Trump’s urge to override the tried and tested principles, laws, and norms. The new recruits to the White House find that the chances of standing straight on the Titanic, without losing their footing and future, were much greater and foreseeable than balancing on Trump’s keeling deck.
For instance, not even his Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, knows his future because he refuses to be the obedient bandmaster playing the music according to score dictated by him. Obama at least had the knack of masking his use of power with sophisticated and theoretical verbalizations.
Trump has reduced his justifications of the abuse of power to snappy tweets in a daily exchange of fire with the media. His verbal crassness bursts out from time to time like his “toilet talk” which, incidentally, was recorded in the tapes of Billy Bush, the NBC host. Referring to his dealings with women he told Bush: “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they (women) let you do it. You can do anything…..Grab them by the pussy! You can do anything!” (p.13. Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff.)
This summarizes the raw essence of the unvarnished man. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between his grab for power and his other tendency “to grab pussies”. Once you attain a position power, as he says, you can do anything. Even grab pussies! Twenty women have complained on record about his sexual misconduct.
The image of America is fast turning out to be like that of Trump: its crumbling down daily. The scandal of Stormy Daniels, the porn star who was paid $130,000 to silence her affair with Donald Trump, has thrown the White House into the latest storm.
In every sense Trump has been the outsider who barged in promising to redefine America’s identity in the new world, breaking away from the heights attained in the post-WWII decades. The role of the outsider suited his authoritarian personality to act arbitrarily dismissing with contempt traditions, conventions, precedents, norms if any of them obstructed his path.
He cultivated with disdain an attitude of disrespecting and dispensing of tradition to make it easy for him to impose his erratic and unpredictable will. Tradition was cramping his style. Obama’s departure marked the end of the era that was striving to maintain the respectability attached to the office of the President.
Obama struggled strenuously to draw lines that would make him look as if he was standing on the right side of history. With almost missionary zeal he spent considerable time in defining the morality of the day. Though controversial he wrestled in his own way to clear any ambiguity about morality. His morality was aimed at maintaining the dignity of the “indispensable nation”.
Whether accepted or not, America was actively engaged in playing the role of a moral leader, taking great pride in “American values”. Whatever happened to those American values after Trump took over the Oval Office? Quite brazenly, he touts “America First” as his trade mark in foreign policy, dismissing all other values as irrelevant to making America great again.
In a practical sense, which other country will put “America first” sacrificing their interests? The intricately meshed international order, dependent on each other despite pursuing individual interests, can survive and thrive only on a fine balance that is mutually beneficial.
Unilateral action, disregarding consequences, has the potential to unhinge the connected parts and send them spinning in a free fall. His latest decision to raise the tariff of steel and aluminum, putting “America first”, is not going down well with the rest. Feeling the hostile reaction he is now wriggling to tone down his arbitrary decision.
The world outside an extension of Trump Tower
This is typical of his style of decision-making: he treats the world outside as an extension of his Trump Tower, expecting them to follow his orders. In his decision-making he has shown an extraordinary talent to create new enemies out of old allies. He began with the Mexican Wall, expecting them to pay for the wall he plans to put up for his own protection. It is this erratic behavior that questions his fitness to be President of America.
His favourite pastime has been to pick fights with anyone who does not fit into his agenda. He is at his best when he sanitizes words dropped in the toilet for common use in headlines. His stubbornness, his limited experience in handling complex international affairs rooted in a tangled past, and his obsession with his own greatness often have landed him in his own “shitholes”.
His excremental vision of the world is not likely to take him or America into heights of greatness. On the contrary, the moral settings that elevated America to adulatory peaks have been shattered daily by the unprincipled politics of a short-sighted President who is yet to discover whether he is Donald or Trump.
The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in the end of the history that gripped the post-colonial period dominated by Cold War ideologies. The universality of Marxism was displaced by the fragmentation of the world into narrow domestic walls. Communalism proved to be far more forceful than communism. The working class cut loose from the global brotherhood and realigned as ethnic entities.
Western Liberalism congregated around its new broad church of economic blocs. As usual, history refusing to lie low in ideological jackets, produced the miracle of lifting 300 million Chinese from poverty for the first time in history not on Marxist principles but through capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
Communist commissars of China surprisingly turned Marxism on its head and stunned the capitalists by teaching them how to make money within a communist framework. Simultaneously, America, the shining symbol of capitalism, went into decline. The specter of class war that haunted the 20th century disappeared into the theoretical bookshelves from where it came.
The digital generation of the Fourth Revolution, no longer confined to Dickensian factories, was in search of a new ideology which went briefly in the direction of human rights. But it was soon hijacked by big powers who used it as a tool to impose neo-colonialism. The new age needed a new messiah with a new message.
He stepped into political stage at a time when America too was seething with anger against the new currents sweeping inland from the intrusive world, disturbing their familiar universe. His idiosyncratic behaviour, together with his abrasive language but surely, appealed to the introverted American base that was withdrawing from the broad-based, inclusive culture.
Exhausted by unwinnable wars America too was withdrawing slowly but surely. In an unmanageable world, slipping out of its hands, America was casting around, looking for a new compass. Most of all, America was running around looking for new ideological moorings to locate its next phase in history. Marie le Pen and Nigel Farage in UK were surfacing as the claimants to the new leadership.
They knew how to exploit the fears of a dying past but not to produce the solutions for peaceful co-existence in the new world. The bewildered world was spinning without dependable certainties. The feeling of insecurity was pervasive. The ambience was open for messianic figures to triumph with inward-looking populism.
Stepping into the vacuum
Trump stepped into the vacuum. Trump marketed himself successfully as the light at the end of the tunnel. He stepped in posing as the flaxen-haired Moses in a lengthy tie that dropped below his belt. It signified his aggressive style. In the run up to the election, he demolished his rivals in the arena with below-the-belt blows.
Overnight he became the master of the ring. He was putting on a show “the like of which America had not seen before.” Its novelty swept the mesmerized Americans off their feet. In the prevailing mood of the time, Trump breezed in as a wave of fresh air that was needed to clean up the cobwebs in decaying America.
In 2016 the American base voted for what they thought he would be in their minds and not for what he stood for in reality. In fact, in 2016 he too was a bewildered candidate who was neither trained nor qualified to hold the White House job.
Without any solid grip of the tasks ahead of him he could only mouth bland generalizations like “We shall start winning wars again” to “make America great again”. He has yet to keep his promise. Right now, he is sinking deeper in the longest of American wars – the 17-yearold war in Afghanistan.
On the Inauguration Day he was fit only to savour the flavor of the occasion. He is yet to show any signs of being Presidential. His White House has gone beyond the limits of white lies. “The Washington Post reported that Donald Trump passed a milestone that none of his predecessors is known to have attained: just short of the anniversary of his first anniversary in office, he told his two thousandth lie.” (The New York Review of Books, Feruary. 22, 2018).
Besides, under the Trumpocracy proxy wars continue unabated in the Middle East and at the UN. Oddly enough, he has blurred the Cold War lines by embracing Putin. So far he has been gingerly backing off any serious confrontations with Putin, though to keep up appearances he drops a bomb or two in Syria which is Putin’s backyard.
Of course, Trump also makes appropriate noises at the Security Council against Putin which are akin to the noises made by prostitutes imitating a fake orgasm. The decibel level of his anti-Kim Jong-Un has been far more threatening than his toned-down rhetoric against Putin.
He is also never happy unless he is fighting with someone. Provoking women, media, minorities, his own White House staff, etc., has been a part of his daily routine. An aggressive tweet a day helps him to stay awake for the rest of the day.
Trump is totally lost when it comes to dealing with the “bigly” world that overwhelms him. Not knowing how to handle the world outside he plans to hide behind walls despite the prophetic warning that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,/And spills the upper boulders in the sun”. (Robert Frost).
Seeking refuge in building political and economic walls
In his world there are no reds under his bed now. There are only Feds. And he raves and rants against the sacred institutions that had served America’s best interests at all times. In his eyes the enemy within is seen as an inimical force greater than those outside.
He seeks refuge in building political and economic walls. Each time he sees America coming apart he blames it all on foreigners. His xenophobia borders on paranoia. Amidst this despair he believes he is the only one who is doing great things to make America great!
He is now claiming greatness even before he could complete his first term. Like any other Abominable Showman he is wont to writing cheap advertisements for his own glory. He believes that he has fulfilled a messianic role that surpasses that of all other presidents. He fancies himself as the new American Moses.
In the past messiahs came out of the deserts of despair to lead their people into new worlds of promise. Moses, for instance, brought forth a whole new political and moral culture to hold the derelict Jews together. His power and glory was in imposing the new morality.
He was the commander of a new morality. He derived his authority from the values contained in the God-given laws. The greater the universality of the law the greater the power of the morality to command acceptance and obedience.
Once upon a time America’s boast was that it exports great American values. Does anyone know what is left of America’s values that are available for export? After the arrival of Trump does anyone know even what those values are?
How great can America be after President Trump is booed not by the usual raucous claque in the streets but by a section of the most respected elite gathered at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos?
How great is America when India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, gets a standing ovation at the World Economic Forum and not Donald Trump? How great is America when its mighty destructive forces, “the like of which the world has never seen”, are knocked into a cocked hat in Afghanistan?
How great has been Trump’s power to impose his will on the world to establish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? How great is America when it wins only Israel and loses the rest of the world? When the 11 members of TP) – a 500 million market worth $14 trillion – thumbed its nose and continued to function as if nothing has happened after Trump’s withdrawal from the multilateral trade agreement, hasn’t the world proved that America is no longer up there, holding the coveted status of being “the indispensable nation”?
Doesn’t Trump’s sham show of power to a tin-pot dictator in N. Korea make him the Great Pretender on the world stage? Most of all, how great is the man who claims to possess the code to destroy the world in a flash but does not have the power to prevent a 19-year-old mentally disturbed from walking into a shop in Florida and buy a gun that led to the latest mass massacres in his America? Doesn’t each mass massacre expose the powerlessness of America than its greatness?
His egotistic braggadocio reveals his powerlessness in the post-Obama age to reconstruct the world according to his image. The least he should have done was to give hope and momentum to enhance the credibility, viability and the reliability of American leadership.
Global Gulliver thrown to the ground by an Asian Lilliputian
Instead the Global Gulliver has been thrown to the ground by an Asian Lilliputian and is lying paralyzed, pinned down by the impotency of his counter-productive missiles. Of course, in the prevailing balance of terror, no one is going to come out as winner.
Nevertheless, the balance of terror is tilting in favour of N. Korea with Trump holding the superior weapons and means of destruction without having the power and consent to press the pulverizing button. He will have to strike at multiple targets to eliminate the total nuclear armory in N. Korea without leaving a second chance for Kim to strike back. Kim Jon Un has only to hit one target to make his point and humiliate America – a unique foreign blow which has never hit America in its history
In any likely flare-up N. Korea cannot win. That is given. When a little fellow fights a big fellow the outcome is always a foregone conclusion. However, the little fellow fights not to win but to humiliate the big fellow. Leaving even one single black eye is a victory. Leaving even one single nuclear black hole on American soil is a victory for N. Korea.
Trump’s arrogant attempts to impose his greatness on the world are challenged instantly by a hostile global reaction that tends to isolate America and leave him out in the cold. His egotistic arrogance, which he mistakes for greatness, is making America increasingly irrelevant in the emerging world order.
The world that voted against him in the UN, refusing to walk with him into Jerusalem, has not crumbled because he cut off aid to the pro-Palestinian nations. It was a childish reaction of a peeved imp who had lost his marbles in the kindergarten.
So far the greatness he claims has not gone beyond the shock he gave America and the world when he won the presidential election which the best of leading pundits thought he could not win.
Shift from the tiny Trump Tower to the “bigly” White House
His volcanic rise from the bottom layers of the American depths has shaken the very foundations of the vaunted American values, leading directly to question the future of the American way of life. Most of all, his rise to power has divided America into two entrenched camps. His shift from the tiny Trump Tower to the “bigly” White House has traumatized the best and the brightest of America.
So far the major political and economic actions of Trump has thrown America, one of the most stable nations, off balance. Ever since his rise to power the main focus of American politics has been to find ways and means of coping with the chaos created by Trump.
Baffled by the overwhelming post-Trumpis(s)t phenomenon, which is yet to find its meaning, definition and direction, American is left with only theoretical guesswork and speculation. It is so gassy and incoherent that not even the President’s men and women assigned to explain his policies to the public do not know for certain today of what he has said and done yesterday.
In broad outline, leaving aside the diurnal details, the unfolding drama at the White House could not have been scripted by the best of Kafkesque writers. As far as the search for meaning goes he stands out as the sole representative marking the beginning of the end of the traditional way of American politics.
Obama seems to be the last of the best in the American tradition. The world will have to wait a long time to recapture the rapture of the American style, substance, and the spirit if, by any sad chance, crude Trumpis(s)m catches on as the new normal in America.
Already there is an opening for a Trumpis(s)t dynasty to succeed him. The greater danger is in Trumpis(s)m gathering momentum and putting down roots at the base as the new political force in the American landscape. That would be the time when
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”
But that can happen only if
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” (The Second Coming – W. B. Yeats)
*H.L.D. Mahindapala is a senior Sri Lankan journalist residing in Australia.