Donald Trump and the new age of uncertainty
Syria will remain Trump’s most difficult problem, particularly if he wants to fight ISIS
It has been said and demonstrated repeatedly that sometimes people in democratic societies vote against their economic and political interests. Even those who believe in the primacy of economics in shaping people’s attitudes and values would have to admit that there are, particularly during hard times, other cultural, social and religious factors that are as equal or supersede economic categories. Close to 60 million citizens voted last Tuesday for Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the Republic.
A significant number of them live in quiet and not so quiet desperation in America’s heartland, mostly in economically depressed towns and neighborhoods. These are America’s forsaken people, the disinherited who are stuck and unable or unwilling to move out of zones of deprivation that were ravaged by the ill winds of globalization, automation and the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas after the clanging and humming stopped in their decaying factories forever in the new economy of high tech and services.
The unraveling of the heartland
The coastal elites, including the liberal democrats and the commentators analyzing results of opinion polls on cable television news, refer to them as the less educated whites with low income who may have dropped out of high school to work at a factory or a mine. Those less charitable, as the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said in a rare moment of honesty, describe them as the “deplorables” who supported Donald Trump. Much has been written about the plight of these communities which goes way beyond economics because what happened to these forgotten Americans is nothing short of calamitous - the social-cultural fabric of these communities and families has been slowly and tragically unraveling. The flight of jobs lead to unemployment, which led to shrinking the local tax base, which in turn eliminated human services, including health and education, and the new conditions began to break up families, leading to rising divorce rates, more violence and more children born out of wedlock. In recent years these communities were wrecked by a drug epidemic the likes of which rural America has never seen before. Years ago, many of these angry Americans gave up on the “political establishment” and the professional politicians of both the Republican and Democratic parties who appear to be living in a faraway galaxy called Washington and the greedy financial institutions running Wall Street, the same institutions that helped hasten the major economic recession of 2008.
These communities, particularly the descendants of the Scots-Irish immigrants living in the Greater Appalachia area, a mountainous region stretching from Alabama in the South to Ohio in the North have been historically and culturally conservative and religious; and they do exhibit xenophobic attitudes towards outsiders. J.D. Vance, the author of the wonderfully written book “Hillbilly Elegy; a memoir of a family and culture in crisis” describe his community thus: “we do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.” In this region “the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest.” The working-class whites inhabiting this miserable universe “are the most pessimistic group in America. More pessimistic than Latino immigrants, many of whom suffer unthinkable poverty. More pessimistic than black Americans, whose material prospects continue to lag behind those of whites.
The fake savior
One of the many paradoxes of this election season from hell was that Donald Trump, a vulgar, sexist, obtuse, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic narcissistic rich man diabolically exploited the legitimate resentments and frustrations of the dispossessed of Appalachia and other abandoned regions, claiming that he will be their voice and their agent who will “drain the swamp” in Washington. A man devoid of empathy and unmoved by moral imperatives will assume their unbridled fury and deliver it to their tormentors in Washington. The election of the 70-year-old Trump, the first president who was never elected to any previous position and never served in the armed forces, is part gamble and part Faustian deal. Those who believe that Trump will deliver on his promises – contradictory as they are - will be sorely disappointed. The coastal elites, including some of the so-called liberal Democrats involved in the Clinton campaign and some members of the professional commentariat, dismissed this group of Trump supporters as stupid and racist.
Those who believe that Trump will deliver on his promises – contradictory as they are - will be sorely disappointedHisham Melhem
It will take months, maybe years, before we fully understand the reverberations of the election of Trump, the single most powerful shock to the American body politic in modern times. Trump’s victory is not only a shock and a repudiation of “the system” that he kept labelling as “rigged,” it also upended political science and the supposedly unassailable assumptions that grew in recent decades around the election process; the infallibility of data, the sophisticated polling, the primacy of money and the enduring importance of the “ground game.” Trump will force those people who live and breathe elections to go back to the drawing board. It was ironic, that Trump, who wined and dined and cavorted with the Clintons in the past, managed in one brutal fell swoop to end the political life line of the 30-year-old Clinton dynasty.
Self-criticism after the defeat
Trump’s victory should throw the Democratic Party into a period of self-reflection in order to answer urgent questions like what went wrong and what is to be done to remain a viable competitive party. The first step in this process should be to liberate the party from the dominion of the Clintons. Another is to admit that Hillary Clinton was the worst standard bearer of the Democratic Party at this critical juncture of popular resentment of those who represented the status quo and at a time were two populists - Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right - were galvanizing mostly the same constituency of disgruntled alienated working-class whites. Hillary Clinton came to the race with many albatrosses on her neck: the not so stellar reputation of the Clinton Foundation, the secret server operating her private emails and her attempts at not telling the whole truth about it initially. Clinton’s private speeches to Wall Street institutions, in return for large fees, re-enforced the reputation of the Clintons that they are insatiable when it comes to money and luxury.
The “autopsy” that the Republicans were supposed to do following their defeat in 2012 but never did should be performed now by the Democratic Party. Trump’s shock will also force the Republican Party to change and to reflect its new master, but this will likely lead to some resistance and upheavals among the various contending groups. It is crucial for the Republicans to keep in mind that their current majority could be transient. The fact remains that since 1992, Democratic presidential nominees received more popular votes in all elections except one. The so-called Trump phenomenon could conceivably cause some political re-alignments within each party and among the two parties in the light of the stunning revelation that some of those who voted for Trump in the general election voted for Sanders in the primaries, just as they voted for Obama in 2008.
Living in a Trump world
Donald Trump is not beholden to a set of ideological imperatives and beliefs. He is politically shallow and most, but not all, of his views are grounded in opportunism and not in principles. That is why he was for the Iraq war before he became against it, the same thing he said and did on the Libyan war, and he supported a woman’s right to have an abortion before he changed his mind. That is why it is very difficult to speculate or say in any confidence that he will keep his domestic promises or honor his foreign commitments. Welcome to Donald Trump’s age of uncertainty.
The election of Trump shocked the world more so than it shocked us. Those who are still reeling from his victory are American allies and friends. With few statements during the campaign about how the NATO alliance has become “obsolete,” Trump was delivering an expensive gift to Putin. The array of serious problems awaiting Trump beyond the water’s edge would tempt one to wish to be a fly on the wall watching Trump and his national security team explaining to him the human jumble engaged in fighting itself and us to the death: Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs (Christians and Muslims), Jews, Persians, Kurds, Assyrians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Chaldeans and others. Enough to keep your head spinning around for a long time.
America’s friends and allies in Europe are deeply concerned about Trump’s commitment to NATO and to the concept of collective self-defense. In the year 2000, Trump, in a book titled “the America we deserve,” expressed critical views of NATO and military involvement in other people’s wars. He declared that “America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries…Their conflicts are not worth American lives.” Then he moves against NATO “pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous and these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” If Trump acts on these impulses, he will undermine the very foundations of the military-security architecture the US built in Europe with its allies. A move against NATO would please Russian President Putin but will enrage the Europeans as well as many lawmakers in Washington.
During the campaign, Trump issued many promises to scrap and/or renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. But for all the bluster, it is doubtful that he will commit a serious and unwarranted violation of an international agreement (with the 5 permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) that will surely isolate the United States. But Trump could allow the Republican Party in Congress to wave the threat of additional sanctions if Iran escalates its activities in the region.
Like most US candidates, Trump re-iterated his commitment to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem and one of his advisors on Israeli issues implied recently that Trump will not strongly oppose the building of new settlements on Palestinian territories. To move the embassy is to court violence and one would expect that there will be strong opposition in the US and abroad to such a reckless move.
By the time of President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, chances are that Mosul would have been liberated from the hordes of ISIS. One wonders how would President Trump, who kept calling for the hostile take-over of Iraq’s oil fields, will conduct his relationship with the Iraqi leadership.
Syria will remain Trump’s most difficult problem, particularly if he wants to fight ISIS after its removal from Iraq. Already, Trump is on the record praising Russia, the Assad regime and Iran for their war against ISIS, which is a figment of his imagination and wishful thinking. A few weeks ago Trump said “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS.” It is conceivable that Trump could be open to some sort of an understanding with President Putin regarding the Syrian conflicts where we could see military cooperation between Russia and the US against the extremists. Given his public skepticism of the importance of the Syrian opposition groups, one would expect that Trump will terminate whatever is left of Washington’s programs of training the opposition, a move which will be welcomed by the Syrian regime. Trump issued many statements regarding Syria, all of them were angry and whining, he rarely raised the plight of refugees or humanitarian aid. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate infamously asked “and what is Aleppo?” Donald Trump might as well have said he does not care about Aleppo.
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