President Donald Trump has served his first week in office, forcing the world to recognise what many had previously refused to accept – that he will, in fact, be the most powerful person on the planet for the four years ahead. Needless to say, this is a terrifying prospect. For those who have tried to downplay the significance of his victory, Trump’s inaugural address (and his first days in the White House) should serve as a wake-up call.
For newly-elected American leaders, the inaugural address provides an opportunity to transition from campaign mode to the reality of government, and to set the tone for their presidency. In his now-famous speech in 1961, John F. Kennedy declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”, and outlined an idealist vision of global peace, democracy and freedom. Ronald Reagan used his 1981 address to announce the era of small government and supply-side economics. In 2009 Barack Obama, in a soaring speech which few will have forgotten, delivered a message of hope and unity to a country reeling from the global financial crisis and years of misadventure in Iraq.
Donald Trump’s first speech after taking the oath of office was equally clear, but altogether more troubling than any of its predecessors. “America First!” was his central refrain, his address a prolonged lament of the apparently dire state of the country he now leads. Indeed, Trump’s 16 minutes at the podium offered a fascinating (and deeply disturbing) glimpse into the mind of the man who now occupies the Oval Office. In Donald Trump’s eyes, the United States is a country in crisis – mass unemployment is the norm, jobs are hemorrhaging to China and Mexico and immigrants are streaming across the border to wreak havoc on the economy. This despite recent statistics which show unemployment to be at its lowest level in 10 years (i.e. lower than the year prior to the 2008 financial crisis), with consistent job growth over a record 75 consecutive months and a jobless rate close to what economists consider as full employment.
He claims that the United States has “made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon”. From the slums of Johannesburg and Jakarta, the sweatshops of Mumbai and Manila, the rest of the world listens in puzzlement; for has the United States not prospered in excess for seven decades? Trump’s vision of dark dystopia is completely divorced from reality, and his portrayal of the United States as a victim of global exploitation is quite literally opposite to the fact. Indeed, Trump and his followers seem almost to be suffering a psychiatric condition, some kind of national-scale eating disorder. They look in the mirror and see a grotesque reflection of themselves, all ugliness and despair. They freak out. They become enraged.
Modern history has revealed the danger posed by a society in decline. Fear and desperation make people receptive to the assurances of a strongman, the comfort and security that authoritarianism seems to provide, the control it might bring to chaos. Indeed, fascism relies on two key tactics to exploit these emotions: creating an enemy at which to direct popular anger, and promising to restore the nation’s former glory. Scapegoating and appeals to nostalgia for a bygone era are the potent currency of fascists.
And what else has Donald Trump’s inaugural address given us? Foreigners and other nations are to blame for American poverty, and the Trump administration will make America great again. In case this is not yet clear, Donald Trump is a fascist. While he lacks the military totalitarianism of Hitler or Mussolini – any direct comparisons are foolish – the essential features of fascism are nevertheless evident in his politics. The key difference in this instance, of course, is that the United States is not actually in decline, and yet perceives itself to be so. Although it can be argued that the country is relatively less powerful today than it used to be, in part due to the rise of China, its military power remains overwhelmingly dominant and its economy is resurgent. Yet many white Americans understand that the world around them is changing, feel that their own power is threatened by this change, and so project their anxieties onto the country and the world outside. This adds an additional layer of complexity to the situation, and makes this new American fascism more difficult to combat or explain. For the way to respond to an economic decline is to promote economic recovery – but how does one respond to a perceived decline that does not, in fact, exist?
Another important difference is that this time, a fascist has been elected president of the most powerful country in the world. Not just that, but a country which to date has underwritten global security and created and funded the architecture of the international system. The United States has not always been a force for good – one need only mention Iraq or Vietnam to disprove this claim – but it has, on the whole, advanced a liberal international order and felt some obligation towards the rest of the world (indeed, it has sacrificed much in pursuit of these ideals). Absent any real alternative, the world needs a United States that is actively engaged, that promotes and strengthens multilateral institutions, supports human rights, funds development and assists in emergencies. The rise of Trump, however, threatens all of this. His inaugural address made three things clear:
Previous presidents have disagreed widely on issues of domestic and international policy, but they have always had one thing in common – a commitment to active engagement in the world. Trump is the first American leader since World War II to break with this tradition, to the extent that American protectionism and isolationism were the essential and recurring theme of his inaugural address. His first executive order was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signalling a rejection of multilateral trade in favour of bilateral deals in which the United States can exercise greater control and more closely protect its own interests. His team has prepared further orders to reduce the United States’ funding of international organisations by 40% overall, and to review its ratification of multilateral treaties (an attached explanatory note singles out the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child). Trump’s message to the world is quite simple: “We will do everything in our power to screw you over, and take what we can for ourselves.” Compare this to the sweeping vision of Barack Obama, who insisted on the importance of multilateral engagement and the advance of liberal democracy, and you get a good sense of where we’re heading.
This does not mean that the United States is likely to disengage completely from the rest of the world and turn resolutely inwards (which, at this point, might be a preferable alternative). Instead, the new administration will continue to engage – but in a completely different way. As Trump’s childish diplomatic spat with Mexico suggests, he will take a bullying approach in his interactions with other states. Rather than being guided by a higher conception of the common good, by notions of mutual respect, or by a commitment to democracy and human rights, the involvement of the United States in international politics will be informed by a narrow, myopic concern for its own needs, an extreme, absolutist form of self-interest.
In Syria, for example, the difference in approach will be acute. Where the Obama administration was actively opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and to Russian support thereof (even if it failed utterly to prevent this), the Trump administration simply couldn’t care less. Trump’s only concern in Syria will be to fight ISIS, ostensibly to defend America’s own security. The abject brutality of the dictatorship has no immediate bearing on this, and so will not register on Trump’s radar. Why not then collaborate with Russia, abandon the rebels and concentrate on ISIS targets? A similar logic applied to a myriad other situations in the world at present will have serious and long-lasting implications.
In order to understand Trump’s actions so far, it is necessary to appreciate their context – and, most important, the mentality that informs them. Trump and his supporters are thinking like an animal in distress; their sense of vulnerability and danger fuels a visceral anger and a desire to take urgent, radical action to protect themselves. Of course, some might try to reassure themselves that Trump’s actions will fall short of his rhetoric, that he will be forced to moderate his positions, that his mind will change, or that he will be constrained by the government’s checks and balances. But this is wishful thinking. Trump’s commitment to following through on his grotesque promises has been made clear in his first week: in just a few days, he has withdrawn from the TPP, reinstated the Mexico City Rule, authorised the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, placed a gag order on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ordered the construction of a border wall with Mexico (which he insists the latter will somehow pay for) and restricted federal funding for cities which try to protect undocumented immigrants, among other actions.
By the time of going to print, many further actions will undoubtedly have been taken.
What many seem to forget is that Trump is not alone in the White House – while there are no doubt some good people sprinkled around the administration, the majority of his team comprises far-right-wing advisors and operatives (including Stephen Bannon, author of the inaugural address) who represent a toxic blend of populist nationalism and traditional conservatism. With no experience in office, Trump will be easily manipulated and controlled by this band of bigots, who still can’t quite believe their luck to be wielding the levers of power. Moreover, with control of both houses of Congress and a majority on the Supreme Court, there are few mechanisms of external or institutional accountability to constrain the marauding executive. None of this bodes well for the world outside the United States’ borders.
It is not hyperbole to claim that the world as we know it has ended. The decades of Pax Americana are coming to an abrupt close. We will no longer be able to rely on American assistance or intervention, on the international leadership of a liberal power, to underwrite global stability. If nothing else, the election of Donald Trump has exposed the precarity of a world order that depends on American benevolence, the vulnerability and fragility it creates for everybody else. In its place, we will need to devise a new system – one in which multilateralism is the norm, in which international institutions lead the way, and in which no one nation holds a preponderance of power.
The question is, can this be done? As more and more nations swallow the poison of populism, the answer is increasingly uncertain. DM
Saul Musker is the Machel-Mandela Fellow at the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg. He is also a Rhodes Scholar and a student of international relations, and will pursue graduate studies at the University of Oxford in 2017. He is a winner of the Deon Hofmeyr Prize for Poetry, and his first novel was shortlisted for the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. He writes in his personal capacity.