I see a lot of angry and depressed liberals these days despairing about what has happened to their world. The promised coronation of the Queen of Chaos was cancelled and we got (insert insulting nickname of choice) instead. Just the other day I saw a spokesperson from Resist Fascism! or some similarly named group screaming at Fox News viewers that Trump is not only Hitler (old news) but that he will in fact be worse than Hitler. Worse than Hitler? Do we even have a threat level color for that?
As I puzzle to make sense of the daily media hyperventilating, I think back a few years to the relatively tranquil Republican primaries of 2008 and 2012. At the time I was not making myself many friends. I’d harangue anyone who would listen that we had a unique occasion to – if we could just get together, man! – put someone in the White House who would permanently dismantle the American War Machine. I’m talking of course about perennial libertarian hopeful, Ron Paul. In his 2012 primary run in particular Paul made some astonishing promises that I’m pretty sure he meant to at least try to keep. For one, he was going to slash the US military budget in half. Along with that, no more unnecessary wars. For icing on the cake he was going to shutter the CIA’s entire operations wing, making The Company nothing more than an intelligence gathering analytical department. And NSA mass surveillance would soon be a thing of the past.
In other words, Paul was planning to kill off the Deep State. Nobody knew this term then but almost everyone does now. While the original meaning was a bit more precise, the people who run the government from the shadows and have recently been hard at work making up stories about peeing Russian prostitutes while plotting a neocon-backed coup.
There were a few on the left receptive to Dr. Paul’s message. My support for him increased when I attended one of his rallies on my campus and noticed that his crowd was far more diverse than very fake news had led me to believe. Tailoring his message to the college students in attendance, Paul explained that his highest priority was ending US military intervention abroad. He said that while he had a dim view of entitlements (no surprise there) he had no plans to suddenly cut them. In fact he said that would be cruel, or something along those lines, showing more compassion for the poor than libertarians are normally known for or than neoliberal Democrats actually have.
But the vast majority of people I talked to just couldn’t make this leap of faith. First of all, he was a Republican and obviously the Democratic party inspires such rapturous devotion that it is impossible to even contemplate not voting for whoever’s turn it this time round. Second, those entitlements. I explained that Paul said he wasn’t going to cut them, at least not right away, but that didn’t matter because he was going to cut them right away according to the always accurate corporate news media and DailyKos. Third, and most importantly, the racist newsletters.
Some twenty years prior someone associated with then Congressman Paul had put out some newsletters with racist content in his name. Paul didn’t write them but likely approved them, despite later disavowing their content. The Democrats, fearing Paul poaching voters from the left enthused about his support for legalizing drugs and ending daily drone attacks, ran with this story as hard as they could. Before long, I was being told with authority that Ron Paul was literally a Nazi. (Fortunately people weren’t being encouraged to punch anyone the media called a Nazi yet since Ron Paul is rather old and frail). He is also in fact white, much like Hitler. So of course at the end of the day his main objective must be to kill Jews and blacks, possibly by cutting the Departments of Education and Energy. When I would protest this narrative I started getting righteous rejoinders, like “what are you, a (Jewish) Nazi? Paul is an old white guy from Texas. He may have racist thoughts in his head! The fact his policies might prevent wars that cost millions of non-white lives doesn’t change that fact, man.”
So, despite kind words and hints of cooperation from Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich and a bit of consideration from consistently anti-war publications such as Counterpunch, few Democrats crossed over and supported him and Paul was trounced in the primary both times. All according to liberal plans. And the rest is history. With the aid of the redoubtable Ms. Clinton, President Obama destroyed Libya and sponsored a coup in Honduras in his first term. Then he helped further destroy Syria and helped launch a coup in Ukraine in his second.
And the destruction of Syria and Libya and subsequent chaos led to the beginning of the ongoing refugee crisis and the growth and consolidation of territory by ISIS, who according to Wikileaks were funded by our good friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the direct knowledge of Secretary Clinton and President Obama, if not by the US directly. Which caused untold deaths and an enormous human rights catastrophe fueling even more of an exodus.
As the genuinely shell-shocked war refugees poured into European countries ill-prepared to absorb them, economic migrants and perhaps some opportunists blended in. Europe’s problems integrating immigrant Muslim populations weren’t new, but the sheer numbers created a host of new tensions throughout the continent, and the increased Islamist attacks related to ISIS in France, Germany, Turkey, Switzerland, Belgium, and elsewhere didn’t help. Predictably, the cumulative effect of these fairly enormous changes increased the popularity of far right movements all over the continent. And helped the rise of one Donald J Trump.
Why is Trump now president? One would need to write books about all that happened in the campaign but the prevailing narratives of “Russian hacking”, FBI interference, or the Great Meme War and deplorable power of Kek don’t tell the entire story (though those are all entertaining fake news stories to be sure). The real underlying causes lie in the enormous geopolitical consequences of the Obama presidency’s disastrous foreign policy, and Bush’s before them.
Imagine a Paul presidency. If Syria is not subjected to a vicious, interminable civil war, with the US funding “moderate rebels” like Al Qaeda, Syrian refugees don’t pour out of the country into Europe. Nativism stays around previous levels. ISIS may still exist but as a smaller regional terror army, and European jihadi attacks would be fewer and farther between. As Gaddafi told the world, Libya was the bulwark stopping mass population movements and jihadists across the Mediterranean into Europe. If Libya had not been destabilized, the refugee crisis would have either not occurred or been significantly smaller in scope.
Trump’s campaign success was built in large part around his talk about immigration and terrorism, and to a lesser extent, American interventionism. Trump brutally and frankly expressed fears about what was happening in Europe and promised the public that only he would make sure it never happened here. Whatever us educated types think about the complex relationship between Middle East conflict, mass Muslim immigration, and terrorism matters less than what the electorate thinks. And they think that these things are related to each other and thus the less we have of each of them the better off we will be.
Trump was only able to leverage that message into victory because of what was happening on the ground in Europe and the Mideast. Each bone-chilling new ISIS video reinforced his message, and he invoked them consistently. Each news story about no-go zones or mass sexual assaults in Europe raised his numbers in the polls. Each major terrorist attack in Europe or the US brought his campaign back from the edge of defeat. Throw in what looked like honest questioning of the insanity of our foreign policies in the Middle East and an espousal of anti-interventionism , particularly in regards to Russia, whom Americans generally couldn’t care less about and would really prefer not to engage in a nuclear exchange with, and he started to look like the saner of the two candidates. Given Trump’s personality, this was a remarkable achievement. But at least here was someone who seemed to realize what a mess had been made by our Middle East policies, running against one of the architects of the mess herself.
So if you’re angry or scared about Trump right now, or praying for a Deep State coup that would destroy American democracy for once and for all, please remember that you had not one but two chances to put partisanship aside and join a movement to elect the most major party anti-war candidate in decades. And none of this would have happened.
But I forgot. Newsletters.
Jonathan Taylor is professor of Geography at California State University, Fullerton.