Diary from Trumpland

Trump plays victim

Print edition : January 17, 2020

President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on December 19. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presides over the impeachment process against President Trump, in Washington, D.C., on December 18. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

The sum total of U.S. President Donald Trump’s feverish defence against the impeachment inquiry is that the elites and the socialists are out to get him. It is also a part of his manifesto for re-election, which the House Democrats inexplicably seem to be aiding by supporting his military spending, and trade and social policies.

On December 18, 2019, Donald Trump became the third President to be impeached in the United States House of Representatives. The two previous Presidents were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. (Richard Nixon faced impeachment but resigned before the House could act.) The articles of impeachment now move to the Senate, where a trial will be held to determine whether Trump should be removed from office. The House vote was along party lines (230 Democrats to 197 Republicans). Republicans control the Senate (53 to 47), and if the vote is on party lines, the impeachment motion against Trump will fail. This is what happened in the case of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. So far, no U.S. President has been removed from office by congressional action. It is unlikely that Trump will be the first to be ejected from the post.

The Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House produced a 658-page report, which made the case for the impeachment of Trump. The main accusation in it is that he attempted to make a quid pro quo deal with the newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump, the evidence suggests, told Zelensky that he wanted an investigation of corruption into the activities of Hunter Biden, son of former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, in Ukraine. Joe Biden is running in the Democratic primaries to face Trump in the November 2020 presidential election. Trump, it appeared, wanted to damage his prospects.

At around the same time, the U.S. government withheld military aid to Ukraine. The entire impeachment allegation hinges on the evidence that the U.S. military aid was being used as leverage to get Zelensky to provide Trump with an advantage for his re-election. If this was the case, then there was a quid pro quo; if Trump gained materially from his exercise of power, then he would be guilty of corruption (“Trial and error”, Frontline, December 20, 2019).

Basic argument

The preface of the Judiciary Committee report lays out the basic argument. It says that Trump “personally and acting through agents within and outside the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his re-election”. Trump, it says, told Zelensky to conduct “politically-motivated investigations”. “In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.”

Trump and the Republicans refuted this charge. The House Republicans released their report, which was much shorter. The report argued that the Democratic impeachment process was politically motivated. The evidence put together against Trump, it said, was gathered from “unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with President Trump’s policy initiatives and processes”. The report offered no substantial argument against the quid pro quo accusation. It simply suggested that the State Department officials who complained about Trump’s phone call with Zelensky on July 25, 2019, were themselves acting politically and not on the basis of any legal objection to Trump’s actions.

Trump himself offered no rational defence. He merely dismissed the entire investigation and process as a “witch-hunt”. In a statement, he said he had been “denied the most fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution”. “More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem witch trials”, he wrote. The Salem witch trials in the 17th century took place in Salem, Massachusetts, where religious extremists accused women and men of witchcraft and killed 19 people. After reading Trump’s statement, the current Mayor of Salem, Kim Driscoll, asked the President to “learn some history”. In Salem, she tweeted, there was an “absence of evidence + powerless, innocent victims were hanged or pressed to death”. With Trump, there is “ample evidence, admissions of wrongdoing + perpetrators are among the most powerful + privileged”.

Cult of victimisation

Within the grammar of fascism lies the curious cult of victimisation. Adolph Hitler fashioned himself as a victim in the service of the German people. George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 1940 and noticed this tendency of Hitler to make himself the “martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds”. Then comes Orwell’s acerbic wit: “If he were killing a mouse, he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.”

Trump’s rally speeches and his twitter account are saturated with this delusional cult of victimisation. It is he who stands for America and it is he who is the victim of all kinds of conspiracies. It is Trump alone who will save America, who will make America great again. He will build the wall; he will stand up to China; he will break the chains on the animal spirits and bring jobs back to the U.S. It is because of his self-sacrifice for the people that the elites gather around to defeat him. His defeat is preordained; he cannot win. Like Christ, he is to be crucified. That is the tragedy of the Trump myth. His defeat is part of his allure; it is what draws people who think they have been defeated to his ranks, and it is they who are his most loyal troops.

So it is that the impeachment feeds into the Trump rhetoric, unlocks the harsh grammar of fascism. Out of this nasty soup appeared Trump’s six-page letter to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (Democrat from California). Trump accused Nancy Pelosi of being part of a “Democratic conspiracy” that had—and here is the dangerous rhetoric—declared “open war on American democracy”. One can almost imagine Trump at his desk in the White House, weeping in self-pity, clutching a portrait of Ronald Reagan, and writing this declaration of civil war. Such dangerous rhetoric is a nudge to his already agitated base to become more belligerent.

Nothing is more attractive to Trump’s base and nothing is cleverer than to portray Democrats as captive to socialism. “Your Speakership and your party are held hostage by your most deranged and radical representatives of the far left,” he wrote. “Each of your members lives in fear of a socialist primary challenger—this is what is driving impeachment.”

The elites are after him but so are the socialists. The whole world is out to get him. It is not just that Trump wants to build a wall; he is the wall. This is the sum total of his feverish defence against the impeachment inquiry. It is also his manifesto for re-election.

Ukraine

What were the terms of the impeachment accusation against Trump? It had to do with asking the Ukraine government to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The accusation mirrors what Trump had been accused of earlier: conspiring with Russia to ensure his election in 2016. It was said that Trump’s team had been in direct contact with the government in Russia and with WikiLeaks to undermine the campaign of the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The Special Counsel investigation conducted by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller could not prove any direct collusion between Trump’s campaign team and Russia. Just when that inquiry fizzled out, Trump provided evidence that he wanted Ukraine to do something to improve his re-election prospects.

Both the Russia and Ukraine accusations rest on a fundamental debate in Washington, D.C., around U.S. foreign policy. For the past 20 years, intelligence and strategic analysts in the U.S. have debated over a possible strategy regarding the return of Russia to the world stage and the emergence of China as an economic superpower. Most analysts suggested that the U.S. should generate a rift between China and Russia, befriend one of these powers and then isolate and weaken the other. If China and Russia became strategic allies, they would obviously become the powerhouse in Eurasia; this would debilitate the ambitions of the U.S. to remain the only superpower in the world. The divide-and-rule strategy fell apart during the presidency of Barack Obama. His government sought to isolate both countries, extending the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) right up to Russia’s borders and putting pressure on China by asserting U.S. control along the Pacific Rim. It was this immense U.S. pressure that brought China and Russia (not natural allies given their many rifts over the past century) closer (Frontline, July 19, 2019). Now, both countries share economic, military and strategic ties, and both have made it clear that they will not tolerate any U.S. attempt to assert its authority in the region.

In 1972, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made the case for the U.S. to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to befriend China against the Soviet Union. To that end, President Nixon went to China and met Chairman Mao Zedong. Since Trump entered the Republican contest for the presidency, Kissinger has made the case to him for a “Reverse Nixon China strategy”; he counselled Trump to get close to Moscow in order to isolate Beijing. Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon concurred, but from a different perspective. Bannon argued that Trump needed to consolidate a Christian axis against non-Christians, which meant taking advantage of Russia’s Christian heritage. In the U.S. right wing, the seam of Christian white supremacy is considerable, and this pivot would be designed to attract that section.

Towards that end, Trump began his outreach to Moscow. But it was designed to fail on many counts. Firstly, Russia had already been drawn into China’s economic engine, and whatever would be lost from the European market was gained in multiples from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Secondly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been suspicious about overtures from the U.S. He is an old intelligence hand and he knows that the U.S.’ outreach is not altruistic; nor is China’s outreach, but it is clear that China’s desire for economic relations is reciprocated by Russia’s business community.

Geopolitical vision

The Democratic Party leadership’s geopolitical vision is that the U.S. can prevail over both Russia and China. When Trump began his trade war against China, Democrats did not question the war, only the tempo. Democrats are as shrill against China as Republicans. On Russia, Democrats have been perhaps as, if not more, belligerent than most of the Republican leadership. Obama’s State Department official Victoria Nuland was caught on tape talking to U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt about whom to select for a pro-U.S. government in Ukraine after the fall of Viktor Yanukovich. This played into accusations that the U.S. had funded the rebels in Ukraine and that it had interfered to remove Yanukovich and put into place the pro-U.S. economist Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The Democratic Party’s leadership developed a strong anti-Russia position, from which it has not been able to shift. When Trump said that he would withhold arms to the current Ukrainian government, Democrats, who want to arm Ukraine to fight against the pro-Russian militias in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, were outraged.

Beneath this impeachment drama lies the question of Eurasia and the role of the U.S. This has, however, not become a central part of the discussion. “Ukraine”, in the discussions, has become a phantom, a name into which is placed all the things that make Trump a truly dangerous person. But he is not being impeached for all that, for his racist and sexist policies, for the concentration camps he has built on the U.S.-Mexico border, for his tax cuts to the wealthy, for his cuts to basic services. He is being impeached for “Ukraine”.

Arms, Walls, Trade

On policy matters, it appears that the Democratic Party has little dispute with either Trump or the Republicans. During the very days of the impeachment vote, the Democratic majority in the House passed Trump’s entire legislative agenda without a fight. The federal appropriations passed by the House totalled over $1.3 trillion, a record-breaking $738 billion military budget and a $632 billion domestic budget. The House also approved a new North American trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

The military budget is obscene, almost $100 billion more than the 2018 spending on the military. The U.S. currently spends more than the eight next large military spenders. Nothing that the anti-war Democrats in the House wanted remained in the military appropriation. This budget allows Trump to arm Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen and it will allow the military to build weapons that violate most of the arms control treaties passed in the past decades. One small compromise shows how narrow the gap is between the two major parties. Democrats, despite all the noise about opposing Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, allowed $1.4 billion of military funds for wall construction. In order to get this, Republicans agreed to reduce their demand for $72 million towards the new Space Force; instead, they got $40 million, which was enough for Trump to announce with great fanfare the creation of this new sixth branch of the U.S. military. Trump has already begun to campaign on the wall and on the Space Force. This was a gift from Democrats. On the domestic side, Democrats allowed Trump’s budget to halve public spending to Puerto Rico’s medical programme, and it did nothing to address the deep cuts to social spending that have taken place over the past decade. It says a lot that the military budget is significantly bigger than the domestic budget and that, whereas the Army won a 3.1 per cent raise in wages, nothing similar was on the table for civilians.

A day after the impeachment vote, the Democratic-controlled House passed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement. The new trade deal yokes Canada and Mexico to the U.S. economy. The text says that the U.S. has the power to veto any trade deal that Canada or Mexico make with a “non-market economy”. This is direct U.S. interference in the Canadian and Mexican sovereignty. No one is mystified by the term “non-market economy”, which refers directly to China. Trump’s National Economic Council head Larry Kudlow said that this agreement was designed “to send a message to China that they’ve got to shape up and start behaving like a citizen in the new world of trading”. Democrats, in fact, told the U.S. Trade Representative Ralph Lighthizer to strengthen these anti-China measures. They provide the U.S. with the foundation through which it will now return to the table with China over the trade wars. It is likely that the U.S.-Britain trade deal will have a similar caveat.

The Republican majority in the Senate is a firewall against Trump’s removal from office. He is going to use the fact of the impeachment process as a way to make the case to his base that he is being victimised.

Meanwhile, Democrats, seemingly eager to remove Trump from office, delivered him his entire legislative agenda on military spending, trade and social policy. There was no challenge, not even posturing, from Democrats on these issues. With his Space Force and his trade deals, Trump is already on the road making the case for his re-election. The impeachment process, rather than weakening Trump, might just strengthen his case to remain in power.

 

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