America’s summer of discontent

Trump's detractors say that he is this summer’s fling for angry and alienated Republican voters who will repent in the cold days

Hisham Melhem

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The op-ed page of the Washington Post on Friday was fully occupied by columns about Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for the Presidency who has dominated the race since he made his entry two months ago with characteristic bang, labeling members of the political class in Washington as ‘stupid’ and accusing Mexico of sending its refuse of mostly rapists, criminals and drug users to America. This was the most dangerous appeal to nativism by a presidential candidate in recent memory. The day before, Trump a narcissist’s narcissist, graced the cover of Time Magazine, with a screaming headline: Deal with it. To make the event worthy of the supposedly richest man to ever contemplate occupying the White House, Time flew a 27-year-old bald eagle -America’s emblem- named Uncle Sam from Texas to New York to be photographed with the man who wants to ‘make America great again’. It was political kitsch par excellence.

Trump Nation

In recent election cycles we briefly encountered the quick rise and the quicker fall of the candidate-de-jour phenomenon, particularly on the Republican side, represented by an assortment of eccentric, colorful, narcissistic, scoundrel, usually charismatic, attractive and articulate men and women who control the early stages of the race by sheer aplomb and character. Think of Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich in 2012.These self-appointed saviors of Western Civilization always cast themselves as the outsiders holding the keys to quick fixes, or having the divine vision to deliver us from the political wilderness and put us on the righteous path. Never mind that most of them are the creation of the same political culture and the very economic system that they supposedly abjure. In America of late, every politician denounces ‘Washington’, while barely hiding his/her yearning to embrace it.

Trump is now one of them. His detractors say that he is this summer’s fling for angry and alienated Republican voters who will repent in the cold days leading to the first Republican Caucus in Iowa on February 1, 2016. It is very unlikely that Trump will be the next Republican nominee, but surely he has more staying power, than the previous shooting-star candidates because of his wealth, celebrity and his so far, masterful exploitation of the visceral fears that are weighing heavily on many Americans; a seemingly insoluble immigration problem resulting in more than eleven million undocumented immigrants, almost 15 years of unending wars abroad, rising racial tension and small scale riots in American cities that could turn into major ones , and what many see as America’s retrenchment in the world in the face of a rising China and the bloodiest terrorist entity in the modern world, the so-called ‘Islamic State’, a new threat driven by apocalyptic visions of End Time. Trump also is benefitting from the disillusionment of many voters over widening income inequality, stagnant salaries, and the disappearance of many jobs in the new economy, not to mention the squabbling professional politicians and a dysfunctional government in Washington and an election cycle that seemed only few weeks ago destined to be dominated by two candidates representing two political dynasties.

The art of the scheme

Enter Donald John Trump, once again. Americans have known Trump for decades. You could not ignore him even if you wanted to. He is loud, crass, bombastic, a mendacious swashbuckling tycoon and a misogynistic man who mastered the art of the scheme. This is the man who bragged that he used the laws of the land to amass huge sums of monies in tax breaks to finance his real estate holdings ( a whopping $163.775 million on Trump Tower, in New York according to a recent report in the National Review) The man, who wants to fix a broken wasteful government in Washington, has reneged on paying his debts because of the way he engineered four corporate bankruptcies, and he lived to brag about it. He tweeted recently ‘Stop saying I went bankrupt. I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage—smart!’

Trump's detractors say that he is this summer’s fling for angry and alienated Republican voters who will repent in the cold days

Hisham Melhem

Of all the ‘outsiders’ and the career politicians who set their eyes on the prize of the White House in recent years, Trump, maybe because of his brusque and brash style, his celebrity status and wealth has the most formidable built-in immune system against blunders, gaffs and doublespeak. Any other candidate committing a fraction of the slips, half-truths and the outrageous answers born out of ignorance and arrogance, committed by Trump in the last few weeks, would have been history by now. Consider this: when the man who would be the Commander-in-Chief of the American Armed Forces was asked by veteran reporter and anchor of the Meet the Press program on NBC television network ,’Who do you talk to for military advice right now?’ Trump had no coherent answer, but he quickly recouped and blurted out,’ well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great—you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals and you have certain people that you like.’ However, when Todd pressed him gently ‘but is there a go-to for you?’, Trump began to fall apart and obfuscate claiming that there are two to three such advisors, including John Bolton, a well-known civilian neoconservative, who talks like a tough General, but he is certainly not one.

Then, maybe to please Todd, Trump mentioned retired Army Colonel Jack Jacobs, a highly decorated officer and one of NBC’s best military analysts. Trump, with a straight face continued ‘Colonel Jack Jacobs is a good guy, and I see him on occasion.’ The problem with this tale is that it is tall. Colonel Jacobs told David Corn of Mother Jones magazine that the claim is not true. ‘He may have said the first person who came to mind, I know him. But I'm not a consultant. I'm not certain if he has a national security group of people. I don't know if he does or if he doesn't. If he does, I'm not one of them.’

Grunts, one-liners and elusive victories

Candidate Trump, in his own mind and in the collective imagination of his supporters is the American equivalent of the awaited Mahdi, the restorer of American greatness and righteousness. The problem is that Trump is not the politically pure outsider destined to lead the nation out of the desert; he is in fact the quintessential insider, the very privileged product of the political-economic structure that he pretends to be railing against. Trump’s crass and intimidating persona has fortified him against serious and tough questioning not only from most of his rivals, but also from most journalists who are in a stampede to interview the pretender-performer-cum-candidate as if he is the sage of these bad times. Trump has yet to propose anything serious to increase American economic growth and narrow the income gap, or how to fight the Islamic State better than Obama’s limited war, or how to deal with China’s belligerence in the South China sea, or how to break down barriers preventing better trade deals with China and Japan or how to deal with an irredentist Russia.

Trump so far has given us one liners such as: If I am elected, I will beat China and Japan on trade, I will build a huge 2000 mile wall on the border with Mexico to be as huge and imposing as the great wall of China, chiming at once that ‘it will be known as the Trump Wall’, while he is forcibly deporting millions of ‘illegal immigrants’ but without telling us how. Trump, as President, will literally steal oil from Iraq as he told Chuck Todd ‘and I said you take away their wealth, that you go and knock the hell out of the oil, take back the oil. We take over the oil, which we should have done in the first place.’ And as president, he says he will demand protection money from Saudi Arabia vowing that ‘they should pay us.’ Trump thinks, that such foreign policy demands and grunts will achieve the elusive victories of a bygone era that he and his supporters yearn for, ‘we have no victories. I mean, we just don't have victories anymore. As a country, we don't have victories anymore’. I am hoping that during the next debate, one of Trumps competitors could muster enough courage and be able to memorize a simple question to be directed to the American people ‘do you trust a man like Donald Trump to be the next Commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces?’

A deeper malaise

The Obama years have been lean years of hyper-partisanship domestically and internationally. The fight over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has bloodied both sides. The Republicans were opposed to it in principle, and their ‘proposals’ were ephemeral and pro-forma and an aloof President Obama did not seriously engage or challenge them to deliver. In Foreign policy, there were no victories as Trump said, but that was true of both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The Bush administration signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Maliki government in Iraq, and both American Presidents tolerated the outrageous sectarian machinations of Maliki for 8 long years, that almost destroyed Iraq. One could argue that the United States would not be in the current predicament in Iraq, had the Obama administration been more robust in pushing for a residual force in Iraq after the withdrawal of American forces in 2011.The reality today, is that there is no bipartisan policy on Iraq or Syria or on how to really degrade and ultimately destroy the ‘Islamic State’. But it should be said that the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Syrian people to the chemical weapons and the barrel bombs of the Assad regime, by far the most effective, systematic killing machine in that tortured and pulverized land, has been the single most disastrous failure of the Obama administration. But with the exception of few important Republican voices in congress such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham calling for effectively arming and equipping the Syrian armed opposition from the beginning of the conflict (as opposed to the tentative moves by the Obama administration) there is no massive Republican support for a greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. A year into the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the Republican controlled congress has yet to authorize the war.

It is expected that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the P-5 plus one nuclear deal with Iran) will survive any veto override by the Republican congress. Regardless of the merits of the agreement, and there are many legitimate criticisms leveled against it by non-partisan analysts, now is the time for the critics of the agreement to demand greater scrutiny and stringent inspections by the IAEA. The Republican senators did not help their case or show their seriousness in seeking a rigorous debate with the Obama administration, on the nuclear deal when they engaged in petty stunts such as writing an open letter to the Iranian leadership lecturing them about the intricacies of the American constitution and system of government. Also the ill-advised invitation to the Prime Minister of Israel Benyamin Netanyahu to address the congress, about the pitfalls of the agreement and how to stand up to Islamist threats without even consulting the President of the United States, showed petulance, and unprecedented lack of good judgment.

Now is the time to remind the Iranian regime that the military sword can still be unsheathed in case of serious breaches, regardless of what the rest of the signatories say or do. Now is the time to correct, the stunning failure of the Obama administration in linking the nuclear negotiations to Iran’s deplorable human rights record and its regional depredations.

During the long cold war with the Soviet Union, both Democratic and Republican administrations while pursuing and signing nuclear deals with the Communists in Moscow, never lessened their support for human rights in Russia and always maintained support for the dissident movement, as well as actively checking and in fact at times rolling back Soviet aggression in Africa and Afghanistan. The abject silence of the Obama administration during the ‘Green Movement’ in Iran in 2009, when the Islamic regime violently crushed the peaceful protests following the rigging of elections, was very telling about the Obama administration’s willingness, even eagerness to work with the Islamic Republic.

Not your father’s Republican Party

It is not an exaggeration to say that the current large field of Republican candidates is shockingly weak particularly on foreign policy. Their first debate exposed their limitations and lack of experience. There were those like Senator Ted Cruz and governor Bobby Jindal who criticized President Obama because he talks about violent extremism but not ’radical Islamic terrorism.’ Jeb Bush continued to struggle with the war in Iraq, still unable to extricate himself from his brother’s war. He is still his brother’s keeper. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, supposedly a healer, defended waterboarding. There were the usual ritualistic and obligatory lines about U.S. support to Israel, and Trump, was well, Trump. There were no serious proposals about any outstanding foreign policy challenge, from Iran, to Russia, to the Islamic State. No wonder the Republican candidates are in such disarray on national security issues.

This is not your father’s Republican Party. In the wake of the Tea Party and the rise of such luminaries like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, this is no longer the home of George Herbert Walker Bush, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker or Colin Powell. It is doubtful that Ronald Reagan would be welcomed by the current custodians of conservatism. Dwight Eisenhower need not apply. The old healthy skepticism of Republicans and others of centralized Federal powers, has given way to very corrosive antipathy and even hostility to ‘government’ in general.

Early on after I hit the Eastern shores of the United States as a perplexed student in the early 1970’s who was fascinated, amused and baffled by America’s political and social paradoxes , I was introduced to the concept of the political tent. There was a big Democratic tent that was the home for labor unions, minorities (Jews and Blacks) and yes a liberal like Senator Ted Kennedy and a fiery segregationist like Governor George Wallace. There was a smaller Republican tent, that included hard core conservative groups like the John Birch Society, Southern and Western conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans in the Northeast, and yes a moderate like Nelson Rockefeller and an arch conservative like Barry Goldwater. Talk about the need for a guide to the poor perplexed Lebanese. Both tents have changed in subsequent decades, but the Republican tent has all but disappeared, and the handful moderate Republicans if they are still around are currently politically homeless.

The Democrats, and their front runner, Hillary Clinton, have their own set of problems and angst. Hillary Clinton, who lacks her husband’s finesse, and incredible talent to connect with people, is currently in an obfuscating mode and a deep hole of her own making. Her e-mail server saga gets weirder and more dangerous by the day. She seems unable to answer simple questions about how, when and who did erase the server before it was handed to the FBI. Barring a major violation of the law, Clinton will likely get the nomination of her party. She has yet to traverse a long journey, to get the nomination and already she is wobbly. By the time she gets to the convention, she maybe wounded. But that demands another article.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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