Political Castration of State: Militarization of Government

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Poor Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, presiding over what had until now been the crown jewel of the president’s cabinet, and reduced instead under Trump practically to a footnote on the organization charts. This appears deliberate. State historically had been identified, correctly or not, with the pursuit of peace in international relations. Actually, market penetration and the negotiation of alliances, usually with military implications and geostrategic planning, are more like it. But however involved in the dynamics of realpolitik, and hence, hardly a pacific agency as such, State nevertheless was equidistant to outright militarism, which, via the Pentagon etc., already had ample representation in government. This demotion of State (Tillerson wielded more power in foreign affairs as CEO of Exxon Mobil than presently), beneath both cabinet departments and the armed services, signifies the Rightward thrust characterizing—this early—the new administration.

State in addition to policy formation had always set the ideological tone of government. Now, no longer, on either count, a dramatic upheaval bringing America closer to a permanent state of war psychology, self-appointed to act unilaterally in the role of world leadership. Eclipse of a normalized position in power politics (disturbing as that is), in favor of guardianship of global capitalism, speaks volumes about a qualitative transformation of structural-ideological mission, counterrevolutionary in its very essence. We see, then, the projection of US power and identity into a new realm, long in maturation (start conveniently with the Alien and Sedition Acts two centuries and more ago), the pace quickening in recent years, as the 21st century expression of fascism.

Until this moment, I was satisfied, in thinking about fascism specifically as applied to America, to focus on the structural dynamics of interpenetration: the movement toward integration of business and government, which gradually disavowed government’s moral obligation to serve foremost the needs and aspirations of the people, and, closing all loopholes, the perhaps more generic integration, that between capitalism and the state. The paradigm works, whether or not historical reference is made to the gas chamber and concentration camp, because a public sector has been rendered meaningless, an imposed passivity typifies the popular response, and class, wealth, and privilege enjoy the protection of government, affording a degree of stability to the entire social order (ideally, frozen into place).

But if the paradigm of interpenetration works, it is not enough—or rather, neither brute force nor social regimentation has sufficient explanatory value in describing the fascist phenomenon, especially under Trump. (From Truman on, with greater acceleration and substance beginning with Reagan through Obama, it is more than adequate in helping to fill out the context of a co-partnership between capitalism and the state.) But something has now happened to shift the paradigm in a more aggressive direction. No, America has not discovered or re-discovered its moral soul; rather, it has politicized the moral perception into its hardened, uncompromising opposite: from moral to ideological, to foster a self-justifying imperative of hegemony. And even then, only a part of that imperative is opportunistic. Much of post-interpenetration thinking and analysis has given way to what the modern generation is loath to admit or simply doesn’t see: a core of irrationality governing behavior and decision-making.

In the past, even irrationality possessed a rational guise, whether as self-interest, patriotism, or clearly articulated goals of power and conquest. Now suddenly it is as though government has become unhinged from its traditional functions and goals (however rational in appearance, the case can be made for their irrationality) and made subject to weakening lest it serve a useful purpose and thus strengthen the bonds of moral obligation. Trump is physician and patient alike, creating, as with mass deportation, or constructing the wall, a policy nightmare and then waking in a cold sweat over how to realize his policies. He feels nothing in the process which can touch his conscience (supposing it exists), but only malaise and the search for ego-inflation. If we return to Tillerson here, we have encapsulated an administration veering toward fascism, beyond the structural properties of interpenetration, to reflect an irrational component of fear masked over by certitude and the promptings of conquest.

I begin with Carol Morello and Anne Gearan’s article in the Washington Post, “In first month of Trump presidency, State Department has been sidelined,” 2-22-17, informative background on the re-prioritizing of government responsibilities and functions. The opening lines indicate the Department’s fall from grace, including the Secretary’s relative downgrading (quite unheard of, on both counts, in previous administrations, whether Hull, Acheson, Dulles, or Kerry): “The Trump administration in its first month [the time-frame is important in establishing precedents] has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.”

The atmosphere of closure can be seen in the details, e.g., “the month-long lack of daily press briefings,” which, since Dulles in the 1950s, had been “a fixture,” and which raises the issue of “accountability” that comes from “having a government spokesman available to domestic and foreign press almost every day without fail.” Too, the Secretary has “been notably absent from White House meetings with foreign leaders,” here, Trudeau and Abe (even missing Netanyahu, sent off instead to Bonn for a Group 20 meeting). The impression is one of “disarray” and the sending of “mixed signals on key issues,” yet, I surmise, more is involved, a sea-change itself in foreign policy wherein, the manifest creation of a partial vacuum, other departments, agencies, and military appointments stand ready, able, and willing to fill in the widening emptiness. This does not mean that foreign policy is to be downgraded or neglected under Trump, but only that its very assertiveness is best thought left to those of proven hawkish persuasion.

Nor can the Secretary’s visit, as I write, to Mexico, alter the discussion of loss of power and prestige, for timing is everything—a flaunting of superciliousness in that Tillerson arrives the day after Trump announces his plan to step up the deportation of illegal immigrants. (Kelly, of Homeland Security, has joined Tillerson on the mission.) The reporters take the easy way out, suggesting that “confusing lines of communication and authority to the White House,” rather than a power shift, helps explain State’s relative—perhaps absolute—decline, and still further, in the same direction of nonstructural analysis, “Trump’s inclination to farm out elements of foreign policy to a kitchen Cabinet of close advisers.” He, of course, chose those advisers and defined the boundaries of policy and discussion, a self-fulfilling framework where little is left to chance (including alleged disarray).

Indeed, Tillerson seems more a figurehead, or at best caretaker, a deliberate institutional sign of subordination in White House counsels than the customary preeminence assigned the role, still less an independent and when necessary overriding voice. On the contrary, [u]nlike in previous administrations, the State Department has not always made brief accounts [of his diplomatic] conversations public.” “So far,” Marello and Gearan write, “most of Tillerson’s diplomacy has been conducted out of sight”—or perhaps not at all. After he met with EU’s head of foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, “the State Department said nothing while [she] held a detailed on-the-record briefing for reporters.” He “has maintained an extremely low profile,” and even “suffered a public embarrassment just a week into the job when Trump rejected his choice of a deputy [Elliott Abrams, for which one is thankful and which shows that Tillerson is far from being a maverick] … as insufficiently loyal to Trump.”

This penchant for anonymity, whether under orders or fitting his comfort zone, he, unlike his predecessors, “has not taken the usual complement of beat reporters with him on either of his foreign trips so far, opting instead for small ‘pools’ that send reports to others.” If this were a lesser Cabinet post, one might not notice or care. But this is State, which in Trump’s own mind is thought less tractable and must be reined in, a veritable hodgepodge of paranoia on his part that is duplicated by his fear of and contempt for the press. He took to Twitter to proclaim “the news media ‘the enemy of the American people.’” Key positions in the administration may be still unfilled, even left that way until the appointee’s convincing assurance of absolute loyalty to the Leader, but there is no question about the nature of the regime, a close-to-the-chest mode of governance denuding government while elevating militarism and privatization, a zesty brew preparing the way for the advent of fascism.


I should like to explore further State’s eclipse of power under Trump, using Tillerson as a case study marking the institutional pivot to a more systemic military orientation in the furtherance of America’s hegemonic purposes. To complement the preceding material I turn then to the New York Times, Gardiner Harris and Kirk Semple’s article, “Rex Tillerson Arrives in Mexico Facing Twin Threats to Relations,“ 2-22-17, once more containing useful information about an aggressive United States policy directed to the hitherto unthinkable: massive deportations of Mexican citizens joined to the construction of a wall the length of the border between the two countries, but also a sharpened harshness in defining commercial relations affecting trade, foreign investment, manufacturing, agricultural markets, etc., a restoration of neocolonialism without (thus far) the headache of a total breakdown in diplomatic relations, a comprehensive sanctions policy, or, perish the thought, armed intervention.

As it is, US Mexican policy–in these short weeks—has taken a qualitative turn for the worse, “twin threats” hanging over “the frayed relationship between the two nations,” i.e., “Trump’s new orders to round up and deport [illegal] immigrants,” and “a separate effort to take a hard look at all American aid to Mexico,” the threat being to use it “to pay for a border wall instead.” This is hard ball, without provocation from the other side about projected hostilities. At this moment, US officials “are required to finish calculating all the money and grants” America is providing Mexico, “a task that Mr. Trump first demanded in the executive order he signed last month directing the construction of a border wall.” Everything comes back to the wall, itself inseparable from the deportation of aliens—a policy decision from the start, and not Trump in a pique (like with the Australian PM) based on injured sensibilities. “Fortress America” was not merely a campaign shibboleth, but advanced notice of hegemonic intent, be it economic, or political, or both.

The deadline for calculating the money and grants, set in a State Department memo, did not say why the review was ordered, “[b]ut its inclusion in the executive order mandating that a wall be built,” shows, in Trump’s thinking, the linkage between “the two issues,” deportation and wall (with Mexico paying the bill). In understatement, the reporters note, “The timing adds to the deep tensions between the two countries.” Was this—the administration “calls the visit a step toward mutual understanding, a way to move the relationship forward”—a good-faith effort to bring about reconciliation? Tillerson’s arrival, with Kelly, is “only a day after the Trump administration released documents ordering a crackdown on immigration in the United States.” Nothing is meant to be achieved, the very indecisiveness of Tillorson in conducting the mission (lack of definite instructions) only rubs salt in the wound. As Harris and Semple report: “there have been few signs that [Tillerson] plays a pivotal role in setting the administration’s foreign policy agenda. He has largely been absent from important White House meetings with foreign leaders, has uttered few words in public since his confirmation and was not even allowed his choice of a top deputy [Abrams].” Muzzled? Hardly. Shy, and learning the ropes? Hardly. We see the faithful execution of policy, provocative in nature, fascistic in substance. Expulsion and walls do not make for a democratic polity.

Tillerson’s assignment is “to tidy up the confrontations” Trump has had “with longtime allies” [as with Mexico, deeper and more far-reaching than that], as for example, his visit to Germany “to reassure his counterparts that Mr. Trump valued” NATO and the EU, despite his statements to the contrary. The reporters acknowledge, however, that Trump’s “rift with Mexico is not only deeper, but also is likely to worsen.” For Mexicans, “the meetings will be an important step toward deciding whether to battle or appease an administration that has consistently excoriated their country.” Rapists at the border crashing in—an altogether unsavory portrayal to which Harris and Semple, not to say Trump, might recur as a reminder of the latter’s depth of hostility (also his quick-trigger pronouncements). Like Mexico, Japan and China, with Trump’s extreme nativism, have to decide whether to battle or appease the administration, although the situation does not appear as dire.

Trump is playing with fire. Mexicans use “a combination of outreach and complaint that has so far proved ineffective, as the twin blows [deportation and provision for the wall] this week demonstrated.” The Merida Initiative, “a bilateral partnership begun in 2007,” provides $1B in unallocated funds for focusing on “fighting organized criminal groups, re-engineering the judicial system, modernizing the border between the two countries,” etc., a diversion of which, spiteful and punitive at best, may hurt both countries, nonetheless is seen as the application of real pressure for Mexico to comply with Trump’s initiatives. Even then, Trump is adamant that Mexico pay for the wall, and, hiring 10,000 new border personnel, that deportation be done on a vast scale. This also hurts (more perhaps than a boycott or blockade) in that the deportation, beyond a living human tragedy, of millions of Mexicans from the US affects what happens at home: Those with “settled lives and jobs” in America “provide most of the nearly $25 billion in remittance payments to Mexican families each year.” Suffering seems of little consequence in Washington, even though a next-door neighbor. I’ll let Luis Videgar, Mexico’s foreign minister, have the last word. He said, on 2-22, “’I want to make clear, and in the most emphatic way, that the Mexican government and the Mexican people do not have to accept orders that a government seeks to impose unilaterally on another.’”


Bravo, Videgar. The day following, 2-23, had an interesting contretemps, Trump bulldozing and arrogant as ever, if not more so, threatening the military enforcement of mass deportation, Mexico’s leaders bristling with indignation, and Tillerson and Kelly somewhat caught in the middle, trying to calm things down. But the elephant in the room remains Trump; even Kelly, who shouldered the discussion in Mexico, downplayed the military’s role, yet could not give assurances regarding deportation. Trump for working purposes reverses the David-Goliath relation, America the victim, preyed upon by Mexico. Referring to his order “to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants,” he stated (reporters’ summary, here Azam Ahmed, Harris, and Ron Nixon) before invited corporate CEOs that “the days of being treated unfairly by Mexico—on trade, on immigration, on crime—were over.” And in his own words: “’You see what’s happening at the border: All of a sudden, for the first time, we’re getting gang members out. And it’s a military operation.’”

In the wider context, Kelly’s assurances were not reassuring; he is paraphrased by the reporters that he “was saying the opposite [of Trump], trying to damp down fears of a military operation and to assure the public that American soldiers would not be used to police the border.” Kelly himself: “’I repeat: There will be no use of military in this [the “this” being, deportation still stands as directed].’” Throughout these differences, which have seldom arisen thus far, Trump has kept a firm hand on the tiller—his “penchant for dropping unwelcome surprises during visits between the United States and Mexico.” The first day of Videgar’s Washington visit last month, Trump “signed an executive order to build a wall between the two countries,” and just this week, timed for Tillerson and Kelly’s arrival, “his administration released policies that vastly expanded the potential for deportation of undocumented immigrants.” A welcoming force in the Family of Nations? With Trump as president it is hard to see that there will ever be peace, in the hemisphere or the world. Ahmed et. al. write that Trump’s “actions and disparaging remarks about Mexico have helped push relations between the two countries to their lowest point in decades.”

This was different from previous visits by American diplomats: “Four officials,” two from each country, “walked into a large ballroom with grim faces and made carefully worded comments without taking any questions…. No one suggested that a breakthrough had been made.” Nor was there one. Here Tillerson can be relied on to say the vacuous, the meaningless: “’Two strong sovereign countries from time to time will have differences.” He offers little else, as Trump, in full operational mode, continues to vilify, to threaten, to act, using the full weight of government—almost as forgetting capitalism for the moment—to mobilize the society tightly fisted to take on all comers, many reluctant to engage, in reaching for world dominance. For it to be Mexico as the pin cushion, rather than, as a product of the Cold War, traditional enemies, is partly to follow the policies and activities of his predecessors (Obama, on a smaller scale, also engaged in deportations), but partly as well to follow his own xenophobic instincts, having little rhyme or reason in a world of orderly capitalist development. The destinations may be similar, but one holds out the prospects of war as an integral historical course.

In summary, the US, Trump in the official lead, ignores the vital role Mexico plays in America’s well-being, from helping to curb drug trafficking, and checking the flow of immigrants from the countries of Central America (and further south), to being the leading purchaser of American agricultural products, the while fully compliant in not seeking to revamp its subordinate status. But with Trump, Mexico is fighting back, doing the work, in the significant area of hegemonic neocolonialism that one would have hoped the American working class, fostering its own anti-imperialist credentials, would have undertaken, yet thus far has not. Sometimes an authentic David, rather than a bloated Goliath, wins out, or in self-protective mode, manages to hold out. America has fewer and fewer allies in the world; at this writing, America needs Mexico more than Mexico needs it, although sheer differences in power disguise this fact. Trump shows us as we really are, or, strictly speaking, as we are presently becoming. Fascism is no longer a word or frame of mind of the past. It is with us today, Mexico only the latest example of how it translates into practice.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.