Obama … Trump.
Could there be a bigger contrast — in attitude, style, comportment, philosophy? What irony that the two names are now linked in history: Donald Trump forever the successor to Barack Obama, forever the orange-haired blot on his legacy, forever the surrealistic next chapter of the American narrative.
At the superficial level of news and understanding, this is never going to compute. And the way the Trump presidency has begun — white nationalism cozying up with the generals and Wall Street — seems to raise the worst fears possible.
Before this contrast disappears completely into the global chaos the Trump presidency seems bent on creating (that is to say, the new normal), I have a small, cautious observation to make: Maybe Trump is just what we need.
I say this in spite of what he stands for and who he is — in spite of his lies, his racism, his lack of impulse control, his nutball tweets — not because of them. He’s a dangerous egotist occupying the most powerful position on the planet. His value lies pretty much completely in the fact that his incompetence is so obvious that, in spite of himself, he winds up exposing problems much deeper than the ones he manifests. And the opposition that swirls around him can only become increasingly aware of the need not simply to stand up to Trump but to rebuild much of America’s political infrastructure.
“In the splurge of ‘news,’ media-bashing, and Bannonism that’s been Donald Trump’s domestic version of a shock-and-awe campaign, it’s easy to forget just how much of what the new president and his administration have done so far is simply an intensification of trends long underway,” William Hartung wrote recently. “Those who already pine for the age of Obama — a president who was smart, well read, and not a global embarrassment — need to acknowledge the ways in which, particularly in the military arena, Obama’s years helped set the stage for our current predicament.”
And of course this goes much deeper than Obama. The country’s current state of endless war goes back to the end of World War II and the evolving of what Dwight Eisenhower called — as he left office — the military-industrial complex. War as a policy, especially perpetual war, isn’t simply one individual’s reasoned decision, but a state of existence flowing from the consensus of governing institutions.
When that consensus exists in the dark, free of public input or scrutiny, the motivating factors of that consensus are likely to be something other than the euphemism known as “the public good.”
For instance: “Given that the Soviet Union no longer exists, that China has become a capitalist economy and that the major difficulties faced abroad are ISIS … and related groups, it is deeply questionable why the congressional budget still devotes tens of billions of dollars to Cold War-era nuclear weapons,” Jonathan King and Richard Krushnic write at Truthout.
“… Where does the pressure for these wasteful and provocative programs — which almost certainly decrease national security — come from?” they ask. “While military high command and the intelligence agencies also press for nuclear weapons upgrades, corporate profits derived from nuclear weapons contracts may be the most powerful driving force, supported by members of Congress with military research and development … and production facilities in their districts.”
This begins to get at it. The ongoing development of nuclear weapons is insane by any measure, but if the ultimate driving influence is economic — cash dividends spread across the Washington consensus — it’s unclear what, if any, political or social force exists that can effectively challenge this, i.e., can undo the entrenched justifications of business as usual even if that business is leading the whole planet toward Armageddon.
Obama couldn’t do it, even though he declared, back in 2009, in his first foreign policy speech: “Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. And … as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.
“So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
What happened instead, as Hartung notes, is that Obama “oversaw the launching of a trillion dollar ‘modernization’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal (including the development of new weapons and new delivery systems). And one thing is already clear enough: President Trump will prove no non-interventionist. He is going to build on Obama’s militarization of foreign policy and most likely dramatically accelerate it.”
Indeed, “Given the way President Trump has outfitted his administration with generals, the already militarized nature of foreign policy is only likely to become more so,” Hartung goes on, adding that many of his appointees have backgrounds not only in the military but the weapons industry as well.
Back to the contrast between Obama and Trump. Obama, as he coolly articulated the politics of hope, managed to disarm not U.S. foreign policy but the antiwar public. Trump is doing the opposite — and doing it so garishly, so clumsily, that public outrage coalesces around his every executive order. And a permanent movement is very much in formation right now, composed of people who see the government acting with utter oblivion to their will and interests. They feel unrepresented.
As I pondered this, an image flickered for a moment: I saw a deck of Tarot cards, and there was Donald Trump as The Fool: the card of impulse, audacity and the pursuit of foolish adventure. This is the card that prophecies, in short, Change.
Could it be? What if the public could permanently tear open the secret state and demand accountability and openness in the conduct of its business? What if we decided to stay on permanent alert and refused to let the lesser human qualities — greed, paranoia, hatred, dominance — determine the planet’s future? What if Trump has set something into motion that can’t be stopped? You might even call it a revolution.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.