As I mentioned yesterday, one of this blog’s main ways of analyzing policy under Trump is to understand the ways the man’s own pathologies and self-image feed perfectly into the goals of those around him, who have actual goals and long-held beliefs. Steve Bannon wants to “deconstruct the administrative state” (i.e. stop having a functioning government)? Who better to do that through than a man who think that he, his kids, and that guy who married his daughter are the only ones with brains?
(By the way, “deconstructing the administrative state” has gotten a lot of press, but it’s just a scary-sounding Bannonism for what Republicans have been trying to do for decades, ever since they merged with the far right. It means destroying the idea of a self-governing nation. It’s an old game tricked out by his cheapjack revolutionary shtick. This isn’t new; it’s just now very powerful.)
This plays out in foreign policy in an interesting way as well. As we know, in terms of policy, Trump has very few beliefs. The only ones that are consistent are that “we’re getting screwed” in our deals, both economic and security, and that everyone is taking advantage of us. Part of that belief lies in some of his other unshakeable ideas: that he’s the world’s greatest deal-maker, and that the US was stupid not to have him negotiate everything. His sense of self and his limitless sense of victimization and injury have led him to believe that every deal is bad because the idiots in Washington didn’t let him do it.
And, happily, the far-right and the “alt-right” (which really aren’t different, and are essentially mainstream Republicanism), also hate all those “deals”. They hate multilateralism, as we talked about yesterday. It isn’t because of Agenda 21 or anything, though that’s good to frighten the rubes (and a frightening amount of those scared-rabbit rubes are in Congress).
It’s mostly because multi-lateral institutions were founded after WWII as a way to constrain the power of any individual nation, especially Germany. And while it is easy to say that this didn’t really work, since the US and the USSR forced every nation in the world to pick a side, they were still constrained.
Look at the terrible actions done by both sides. Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam on the US side. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Poland on the USSR. This just scratches the surface of foreign interventions, but even in those, there is a pattern. Only in Vietnam and Afghanistan (and Korea, but that was also part of WWII) was there active warfare, and even then both nations were “invited in” by governments to help fight/save Communism. The quotation marks in the last sentence obviously imply arm-twisting, but still: there was at least a hypocritical tribute to the idea of national sovereignty.
None of this was good, per se, but it observed the idea that you couldn’t just go in and plant your flag into someone else’s dirt through the skulls of the natives. I mean, the US and USSR did so, but pretended they weren’t, and weirdly, that pretending means something. It slowly shifted ideas. It isn’t absurd to think that, I don’t know, Botswana should have a say in international politics and the fate of their nation. It helped create the still-foaling idea that the “Global south” isn’t just the playground of empires, but people who have a say.
Needless to say, the right-wing hates that. One of the reason the Iraq War was supported so much on the right wasn’t any particular issue, but the idea that the US was going to do something, by god, without the UN or NATO or anyone who didn’t fall in goddamn line. That we acted without these multilaterals was not just a feature, for many, it was the whole point.
Multilateral obligations mean that you can’t just do whatever you want. Even George W. Bush recognized that the US had some obligations. But not Trump.
Remember, Trump’s entire sense of worth is wrapped up in the idea that he has the right to do whatever he wants. Businesses going bad? Declare bankruptcy and screw over his creditors. Don’t feel like paying contractors? Force them to accept pennies on the dollar or else be tied up in court for years. Woman not putting out? Move on her like a bitch. (Remember: that’s an actual quote from our President.)
This is perfect for the far right. Trump believes we’re getting screwed by these “deals” (he considers joining a global multilateral institution a “deal”, remember) and that he can get us much better ones, working country by country. And the heart of this is that, like contractors and creditors, he’s perfectly willing to screw over any country, to go back on deals, and to do whatever he needs to “win”.
And that’s perfect. That’s the US unconstrained. In theory, making numerous bilateral deals is really difficult, since you have to take into account shifting alliances, sides playing against each other, local concerns, and more. Look at how complicated Azerbijan is, and how important it is to Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and how complex their relationship is.
So, to play this right would take great diplomatic skill, or the belief that you don’t need diplomacy at all. Or, in a way, both. It takes some knowledge to negotiate, but it also takes the belief that if you don’t like what’s happening, or you have a better chance at succeeding by breaking a deal, you break the deal. You screw them over. And the willingness to do so, to break any rule for personal gain, has been the one consistent part of Donald Trump’s life.
This will make the world a far more dangerous place. As much as his ties with Russia and white supremacy, the abdication of the United States from multilateralism is how the liberal world order can collapse. Trump wants that to happen so that he can negotiate with important people who have to kiss his ass. The right wants that to happen so that the US can act unconstrained. They have found their vessel in a truly empty man, who has nothing but a skin of vanity.
It’s a perfect mix. And over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at how this plays out in the world, starting with (of course) Yemen.