Monday, 25 July 2016

Whither the Trump Insurgency? Where it came from and where it’s headed

The American political system remains a mystery to most outsiders and, well, most Americans too. It’s perhaps not quite the Soviet Union which Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, but one question that’s still common, even in the midst of the Republican party convention’s endorsement of Donald Trump, is how to explain where Trump’s popularity suddenly came from and, equally, where it might be headed. Wherever that may be, Trump appears to leave chaos, anger, and division in his wake. That might be his legacy.

C.D Jackson, President Dwight Eisenhower’s special assistant for psychological warfare, and former publisher of Fortune magazine, during the height of McCarthyism, noted that the American political system threw up characters like Joseph McCarthy, much to the bewilderment of America’s allies who feared for their alliance with so erratic a superpower.

“We are bound to get this kind of supercharged emotional freak from time to time,” Jackson commented. When a senator goes on the rampage, he opined, there is no party discipline to stop him. “Whether McCarthy dies by an assassin’s bullet or is eliminated in the normal American way of getting rid of boils on the body politic… by our next meeting he will be gone from the American scene.” He was reassuring European political and business elites at a Bilderberg conference at McCarthyism’s height that American power was safe for the world and could manage such “supercharged emotional freaks”.

The key issue is whether Donald Trump represents a tendency that will crash and burn or leave a longer term imprint on America’s political future. There is a deep anti-establishment strain in American history open to exploitation for personal ends at times of crisis. The political opportunism that harnesses that anti-elitist populism may be worked from the Left or Right but it should not be dismissed: there is something very deep at the root of the phenomenon which real leaders and politics must, ultimately, reckon with. What makes demagogues so effective is that they identify and work to crystallise and harness a widespread sense of something being wrong with the ‘system’ – a rigged system run by and for fat-cats and high ups at the expense of ordinary hard-working Americans. And at least some of those demagogue-led movements have left an indelible mark on American political life, for better or worse.

Joe McCarthy’s apprentice?
Donald Trump’s rhetoric about enemies at the gates, or within the fortress itself – Mexicans, Muslims – echoes McCarthyite exaggerations of the influence of communists in all walks of American life, including among the pin-striped elite at the State Department. Communists, like minorities etc…, it was claimed, were eating away at America, ‘taking over the country’ and subverting its values. Yet, there was a lot more to McCarthyism than opposition to ‘communism’ per se – it was also, more specifically, a Republican movement aimed at extirpating the programmes of the New Deal – a programme of massive state intervention due to the 1930s depression – and the increased power of organised labour and the left more generally. Communism was the rhetorical enemy – the effective political enemy was left-liberalism which, by the late 1940s, also embraced the civil rights agenda – racial equality.

Trump’s taken McCarthyism and its techniques to a new level. Not only is Trump a more effective orator than McCarthy, he is also a master of modern media manipulation methods, part of which he owes to his years of hosting The Apprentice. In addition to his short attention span, and off-hand outbursts that seem to divert right-wing media, he also owes a debt of gratitude to McCarthy’s political aide, the late Roy Cohn, a brusque New York City lawyer. According to Cohn’s lover, Trump was Cohn’s apprentice: “I hear Roy in the things he says quite clearly,” said Peter Fraser: “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.” Cohn also taught Trump how to keep himself in the media’s gaze by constantly making headlines with exaggerated claims and refusing publicly to back down. And, like McCarthy, Trump argues that the enemies of the American people reside at the very pinnacle of power – in the person of President Obama, the ultimate liberal, minority un-American.

A Barry Goldwater ‘Extremist’?
Unlike McCarthy, who soared in the US Senate for a few years but plummeted once he attacked the integrity of the American military, and brought anti-communism into disrepute, Trump is the Republican nominee for president. In that regard, perhaps a better comparison might be Barry Goldwater? A right-wing conservative, Goldwater, who opposed civil rights legislation, went down to spectacular defeat to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 – with the latter winning 61% of the votes and 486 electoral college votes (of a possible 538). He also divided opinion in the GOP establishment. Republican ‘moderate’ Nelson Rockefeller, like Ted Cruz with Donald Trump, refused to endorse the nomination of Goldwater.

Current opinion polls – for what they’re worth - suggest Donald Trump losing to Hillary Clinton in November 2016. But as conservative commentator George Will put it, “Barry Goldwater lost 44 states but won the future”. Within a few years, the Goldwater brand of conservatism became the battering ram that put an end to the liberal New Deal era and inspired Reaganomics as well as the politics of the George W. Bush administrations. And Goldwater championed a form of straight talk that Trump practices: “I think a guy running for office who says exactly what he really thinks would astound a hell of a lot of people around the country.” And Goldwater uttered the lines that ultimately condemned him as too dangerous to be in control of America’s nuclear weapons: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” The extremist label stuck and brought down Goldwater in 1964 but future Republicans crafted a new politics as a result of lessons learned. Trump’s convention speech suggested extremism in the defence of US interests is acceptable.

And therein lies a key lesson: Goldwater won five southern states on a conservative platform attacking racial equality that led to the development of a winning ‘southern strategy’ under Richard Nixon. Despite likely defeat in November 2016, could Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, male chauvinism and appeal to sections of a disenfranchised white working class provide a model for a future Republican ascendancy?

A George Wallace-Style One Man Wall?
Donald Trump employs a mixture of McCarthyite smears, Goldwater’s straight-talk, and pro-segregationist George Wallace-style xenophobia. Wallace ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968. A firm believer in racial segregation and law and order, Wallace’s America First foreign policy has echoes in Trump’s rhetoric: Wallace promised to take US troops out of Vietnam if the war was unwinnable within 90 days of his taking office. He also declared foreign-aid money “poured down a rat hole” and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their own defence. At home, he stood as a one-man wall, barring the doors of the University of Alabama to black students: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," was his rallying cry.

Trump: Doing a Deal with Party Elites?
Unlike some other maverick candidates, however, Trump, who’s secured the Republican nomination for the presidency, appears willing to build bridges to party elites, and the feeling is broadly (though not exclusively) mutual. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s choice of vice presidential running mate signals the way back into the good books of GOP elites. “Someone respected by the establishment and liked by the establishment would be good for unification,” Trump commented. “I do like unification of the Republican Party,” despite a campaign of vilification of practically everything for which party elites stand for. Pence tried to illegally ban Syrian refugees from settling in Indiana, is a staunch defender of the pro-gun lobby, voted against healthcare reform, supported tax cuts to the wealthy and large corporations, capped the minimum wage for the low paid, is an enthusiastic union buster. In short, he’s a darling of the Republican elite, a label Trump now desires for himself. But GOP grandees like the Bushes have refused to attend the convention, while several delegations refused to endorse Trump’s nomination.

The danger for Trump is that he’s got to where he is by defying party leaders, and rejecting the conservative model associated with smaller government and lower taxes: something that his white working class base roundly rejected in the primaries. Pence is a tea partier, hardcore social conservative who’s religious freedom bill would have permitted bosses from refusing employment to gays. The ‘rigged system’ that Trump has railed against has just worked its magic and lured the maverick into the GOP’s embrace. Trump desires power more than he cares for the views of the voters who propelled him to presumptive nominee. He’s doing a deal. The betrayal of his political base has already begun, whatever he may say about reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act to split investment from savings’ banks.
Newt Gingrich, arch-conservative former speaker of the House of Representatives, suggests that Trump is unique in the annals of American politics. “Donald Trump has been in politics now for slightly over 12 months. It’s unbelievable.” That may be true but, like George Wallace, Trump’s popularity seems to be the spasm of a dying movement and demographic, the death throes of a racial system that has an uncertain future. The demographics of America, heading towards a white minority nation, and of the ‘racial’ re-distribution of world power, condemns Trump, and Trumpism, to a slow but lingering death. But it can still exert real influence as the passion, alienation, inequality, and revenge that fuels it is unlikely fully to be extinguished.
It is not another boil that can be removed from the American body politic but the remnants of a racialized white identity politics driven by the deeply felt loss of “their” country. It may never be more than an angry and vociferous minority but it will remain a force in the political fabric of American politics and, possibly, the basis of a new political organisation of the white radical right. Even more dangerous is the prospect of this newly-empowered faction’s permanent installation in the upper echelons of the Republican Party.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

“UK foreign policy since 1940 is as much to blame for Iraq as Blair”

The Chilcot report on the Iraq War has rightly criticised former UK prime minister Tony Blair for misrepresentations on a consistent basis. Blair exaggerated threat levels of non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), backed the United States’ war plans regardless of diplomatic initiatives seeking peaceful outcomes, and improperly equipped British troops once the occupation began. This has led to the denunciation of the war as neo-colonial by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and renewed calls for Blair to be charged with war crimes or crimes against peace by others.

While Tony Blair was pivotal in British decisionmaking that led to aggression against Iraq in March, 2003, he was hardly alone in promoting close alliance with the United States and the case for outright military intervention for regime change. Not only did the then Tory opposition support war on Iraq, Conservative leader David Cameron endorsed violent regime change. Indeed, apart from Robin Cook, who resigned as Leader of the House of Commons in opposition to the ‘false prospectus’ on which the Labour Government pinned its strategy, support for the war was strong throughout the political and state elite – military, intelligence, and other. And Iraq was hardly the first time that Britain had hitched its war machine to the United States.

Indeed, if we place Iraq in the sweep of post-1945 history, and in the context of a powerful British foreign policy establishment that sprang from the imperial era and became allied with US power elites after 1940, Blair appears as another example of Conservative and Labour leaders’ attempts to hang on to global influence through a one-sided ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Far from being exceptional, as Chilcot claims, the Iraq War stands in a long line of Anglo-American imperial violence in the global south in increasingly desperate bids to maintain Western supremacy. We need only to think of the Korean War, Vietnam (in which Labour leader Harold Wilson provided diplomatic and other support to the US), the first Gulf War, and support for repressive regimes the world over, including the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and ensuing chaos in Libya since 2011, to see that the Iraq war and Tony Blair are part of a broader pattern of Anglo-American military violence. Focusing on Blair alone obscures the bigger picture and makes impossible, by venting against one man alone, a truly illuminating understanding of British foreign policy.    

"The UK's commitment of resources - financial, military, diplomatic - in support of US global priorities remains unparalleled", according to a (Wiki) leaked US state department cable. Britain, it went on, is able and willing to fight wars in faraway lands alongside the United States and mobilising allies. This makes Britain almost indispensable to the US. To former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague, America was the "essential" nation to which Britain turned. The Anglo-Saxon powers had broadly shared interests in the global order which, after all, they had constructed during and after the Second World War – Bretton Woods, United Nations, IMF, World Bank, Marshall Plan, NATO, among others. While these arrangements suited the West, global poverty in the ‘Third World’ continued apace. 

The foundations of the post-1945 order were laid during World War II. According to Cabinet papers, the key decisions were made in 1944 over whether to pursue a pro-empire or pro-American foreign policy. Choosing the empire “will be regarded by the Americans as a Declaration of War…” at a time when the empire itself was disintegrating and its parts leaning towards the USA. And the USA would “certainly make economic war upon us. So much has been made clear to us. And the armoury of the United States is a very powerful one.” Britain signed up to the US-dominated Bretton Woods system because it seemed the best means to preserve its global influence as its imperial power waned.

This is why ‘socialist’ Labour leader Clement Attlee sent to Korea thousands of British servicemen despite the military chiefs of staff indicating that Korea was of little economic or strategic value to British interests. The war – waged under the banner of the fledgling United Nations – lasted three years and led to over 3 million Korean and Chinese deaths, tens of thousands of American and British fatalities. It ended in stalemate – a cease-fire remains in place today dividing the north from south. Using the precise words used by Tony Blair in 2003, Attlee announced that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder,” with the US; wherever the Stars and Stripes flew, the Union Jack would be alongside it.

Two imperial powers – one in denial about its decline, the other hubristic, inexperienced imperial masters of the universe – trying to order the world to maintain a ‘liberal order’ through unrestrained violence – featuring napalm and relentless aerial bombing of a rural country with rudimentary weapons – teaching the communists a lesson, and repeating the same thing in Vietnam a few short years later.

Decades later, not much had changed. Concluding his unofficial enquiry into the first Gulf War, former US attorney general, Ramsay Clark, declared the Anglo-American bombing campaign as “the most sophisticated and violent air assault in history against a virtually defenceless people.”

Chilcot’s narrowness of vision is probably understandable – one could hardly expect it to look at a broader pattern of history or the place of Iraq in the world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But on that basis to declare the Iraq war exceptional and therefore no source of lessons for the future, and for the media to focus so intently on the person of Tony Blair, pivotal though he was, is a major flaw both practically and for our understanding of the dynamics of Anglo-American power. It renders Iraq unique, and places blame on one man, when it is plain to see that Blair’s behaviour fits a long historical pattern within an imperial world view that continues to saturate the British foreign policy establishment.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Britain’s Brexit Vote – One Kingdom, Divisible and Decayed

Britain’s Brexit Vote – One Kingdom, Divisible and Decayed
A version of this article was published in The Wire, 11 July 2016:  

Britain’s narrow vote to ‘Brexit’ – leave the European Union (EU) – has sent shock waves through the country, Europe and the wider world, except among some of the most right wing leaders such as Donald Trump and France’s fascist leader, Marine Le Pen. It signals continuing fragmentation and disunity at home as well as the general unravelling of the European project inaugurated by the Marshall Plan in 1948, a key building block of the US-led international order after the bloodbath of two world wars within a generation. There is a political legitimacy crisis deep in the heart of liberal democracies – such as the United States and Britain – manifest as a revolt against established political elites and big business. The political right in Britain, however, has mobilised, harnessed – and pandered to - better than any other force the anger, disappointment and alienation from the status quo that the EU referendum has brought to the surface, encouraging some of the most xenophobic elements of British society who reject “immigrants” and “refugees” as taking jobs, homes, and school places. The killing by a right-wing extremist of the pro-Remain (in the EU) Labour MP, Jo Cox, was the most extreme symptom of a rise of the right that now constitutes a threat to the national body politic. Racist attacks in general have increased in the wake of the Brexit votes.

The EU referendum was Prime Minister Cameron’s way of resolving the split in the Conservative Party, and heading off the challenge of the UK Independence Party, by making it a national and European question, and has had disastrous consequences. Brexit has consumed Cameron’s leadership because he spear-headed the defeated Remain campaign – he will leave office by the autumn; has severely dented the leadership of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn as almost a third of Labour voters supported Brexit, and given another excuse for the Blairite majority in parliament to challenge his leadership; laid low the leadership hopes of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne; tarnished the reputations of pro-Leave leaders Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, bringing to a grinding halt Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions. Johnson famously attacked President Obama’s intervention in the EU referendum campaign by suggesting that the American leader was ‘half Kenyan’ with a grudge against British colonialism, echoing Donald Trump. The only party leader who’s come out more credible, but has now resigned due to his mission being accomplished, is UK Independence Party head Nigel Farage who promoted a poster falsely depicting a line of Syrian refugees clamouring to get into Britain. UKIP, as much as the Johnson-Gove Leave campaign, conflated and crystallised the threat posed by the outsider, the immigrant, the refugee, with the suspected suicide bomber dispatched by Islamic State to destroy British freedom and security. But there will be no end to the migration or refugee crisis with a Brexit.

Brexit cuts off Britain from the European Union but also divides the ‘United’ Kingdom - pro-Remain London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland from pro-Leave England and Wales. It threatens to inaugurate another referendum on Scottish independence and undermines improved economic and political relations with the lowering of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. English nationalism is rising even as the country fragments and cosmopolitan London becomes isolated from its national hinterland and looks to Europe and the wider world. And it has encouraged the right in Europe to demand referenda on EU membership across the continent. The forces of European right wing nationalism and chauvinism are on the march again while European elites try to manage Britain’s shock exit.  Britain needs a fresh constitutional convention and a written constitution for a federal UK to go forward into the twenty-first century. But given the debased character of its political elite – fully displayed for the world to see – anything of this sort is unlikely.

For all the identity politics that marred the referendum campaign, there is a hidden politics of growing class inequality and a race to the bottom. The immigrant, as ever, is accused of taking working class jobs and homes, working for less pay, undercutting British workers. Poorly paid British workers with falling living standards and declining public services – largely the result of the corporate colonisation of the British state since the Thatcherite 1980s and the Blairite ‘third way’ – were set against relatively low paid EU migrants taking scarce hospital beds and welfare benefits while corporate elites amass ever greater shares of national income and wealth, bleeding into corridors of political power. Owen Jones’s The Establishment – and How They Get Away With It – sums it up: “Behind our democracy lurks a powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge profits in the process...” Exposing the revolving doors that link these worlds, and the vested interests that bind them together, Jones shows how elites represent the biggest threat to democracy while wrapping themselves up in the emblems of freedom and people power.

Under the guise of identity politics, the prevention of a change in the fabric of British culture and values, and the promise of more funds for public services once the Brussels drain is removed, there is in preparation an even more draconian offensive against workers’ rights protected by the EU. There has been an unseemly retreat from the promise – plastered all over the Leave campaign bus - to channel to the National Health Service the weekly £350 million pounds allegedly flowing from London to Brussels.

Divide and rule did not only (try to) hold together an empire on which the sun never set – it remains the basis of national politics in Britain’s class divided society. And in such societies, election promises are like pie crusts – made to be broken. The EU referendum, rather than making Britain great again or taking our country back to some mythical golden age, has exposed a shallow and decaying elite political culture at the heart of what once was a mighty empire where post-truth politics rules, and sowing division and promoting and exploiting fear represent normal politics.