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The Weirdness of Now

Photo by owlin aolin | CC BY 2.0

It is a frightening historical moment, fraught with dangers and possibilities.

The big picture, in my view: the U.S. ruling class (in general) screwed up badly last year, and in the last (rigged as always) presidential election, mishandled this particular rigged election. It bungled the normal rigging process. So the candidate backed by the corporate media, academia, and Wall Street, the candidate who got the majority of votes, lost. The buffoon that had been offered as foil to the “most experienced” candidate—a woman finally poised to break that glass ceiling, fated to do so—actually won.

This is when many, in that tiny stratum comprising the U.S. ruling class, started recalling this old Bee Gees number around Nov. 9:

The bourgeois media immediately responded with shock and horror (what the hell just happened?). Increasingly, news anchors ridicule Donald Trump who keeps shooting himself in the foot through his 4:00 am tweets.  The antics of daughter Ivanka and Jared Kushner have been criticized, and now Kushner is central to the “investigation into Russian ties.”

On this Russia thing: in fact, the January 6 report from the Director of National Intelligence, indicating evidence for Russian interference in the U.S. election, was entirely unconvincing. (It rested on the claim that the DNC and Podesta Wikileaks came via Vladimir Putin, and that their content—basically, the revelation that the Democratic primary process had been rigged against Sanders, and that the Dems had wanted the media to promote Trump, who’d be an easy opponent for Hillary). But watch the unfolding story of the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich, who Wikileaks has implied was the origin of the leak…

But I think the report indicated an intention, by some forces within the “Deep State,” the injured and enraged Democratic Party leadership, the mainstream media and elements of the Republican Party to bring down the newly elected president on charges of illegal or inappropriate Russia ties. (Since these ties can include those of friends, campaign staffers or former staffers, with Russian businessmen or even “officials” who may or may not have some security ties. The net is wide.) The point seems to be to so intimidate Trump with accusations that he hesitates to deliver on his pledge to improve U.S.-Russia ties.

The entire political establishment is pledged to the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and anxious about Trump’s occasional declarations that the alliance—which is surely in essence an anti-Russian alliance—is “obsolete.” His growling demand that NATO do more in the joint fight against terrorism, and his failure to publicly pledge support for Article 5 of the NATO agreement, surely troubles both U.S. and European establishments.

The new U.S. president  has alienated key European allies, not so much because of his policies (which remain unclear and subject to sudden change), but due to his rudeness and unhinged personality. After the G7 summit Angela Merkel said Europe “can no longer rely” on the U.S.—specifically on the topic of climate change but by implication in general.

Relations between the EU and U.S., weakened by the UK’s withdrawal from the union (in which it advocated for Washington on such matters as Russia sanctions), will likely fray further while Europe seeks better ties with Russia. That much is good.

Having pledged during the campaign to avoid foreign wars, and having repeatedly advocated cooperation with Russia against ISIL in Syria, Trump established his presidential manhood April 7 with a missile attack on a Syrian government base. Fareed Zakaria said “he became president” by doing so. Brian Williams cheered the attack (probably based on another lie), citing (unforgivably) Leonard Cohen’s lyric about being “guided by the beauty of our weapons.” As though: Thank God, the man’s finally seeing reason and doing what presidents are supposed to do.

Trump’s first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, where he avoided any criticism of human rights, told his hosts what they wanted to hear, and negotiated a $110 billion arms deal (which will, of course, provide jobs in the U.S.). But Congress may well fight the deal, particularly as it affects the murderous Saudi aggression in Yemen. Meanwhile I imagine some Trump supporters are scratching their heads about his Saudi trip. And about that visit with Chinese president Xi Jinping, and Trump’s announcement that China isn’t manipulating currency as he’d charged throughout the campaign.

The new regime, so young, has suffered embarrassing setbacks on the “Muslim ban” issue and obtained a reputation as a house in disorder. So many chief figures seem cartoonish. Ridicule is a powerful political force, and the Trump administration is being savagely ridiculed in popular culture. But then, the 35% still with Trump might not watch Saturday Night Live.

Trump does not have the intellect and discipline to head up a “fascist” regime. He has no coherent ideology other than the deep conviction that the universe revolves around his ego and the world longs to hear his wise tweets. He does not have a united party behind him. He does not openly advocate military conquests, as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese military leaders did in the 1930s.  He has a military dominated but divided cabinet. He is strangely dependent on his daughter Ivanka (35) and her husband Jared (36), whom he keeps by as comfort blankets during his meetings with foreign leaders. But these are Kim Jung-Uns: young, dumb and dangerous.

One can only imagine what Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Marcon talked about in Paris Monday. I imagine there was some discussion of the nature of the new U.S. leadership. Maybe even some traded thoughts on how the very weirdness and unpredictability of Trump force Europe to deal more independently with Russia. And what happens when Xi and Putin talk, or Putin and Shinzo Abe? They know the world is changing. The U.S. GDP as a proportion of the world’s total continues to decline. China’s GDP will soon exceed that of the U.S.; within decades the per capita income could exceed that of this country (as Japanese per capita income exceeded the U.S. figure ca. 1990). Chinese-Russian infrastructure cooperation will produce a Eurasian common market within the foreseeable future, and Washington can do little to stop this.

Trump presides (I think, briefly) over a period of general U.S. ruling-class confusion and decline, in which its inability to resolve the contradictions of capitalism—stop job flight, revive manufacturing, and give any hope to a generation condemned to low-paying service jobs while paying off school debt and living with their parents, etc.—plus its inability to shape the world as it was able to do for a brief period following the Cold War (boasting of the “end of history,” the final triumph of capitalism over socialism, the attainment of “full spectrum dominance”) given the rise of competitive powers, most notably China, has become clear.

He can “make deals” with any number of foreign officials that can be triumphantly announced as U.S. job creation. But he won’t get China to stop South China Sea island construction, or Russia to withdraw from Crimea. He certainly won’t get Mexico to pay for any wall. I doubt that h’ell will be able to, or know how to, impede the expansion of Eurasian trade relations.

He is thrashing around, wondering how to give all these speeches, annoyed by his schedule, upset by his own staff, suspicious of cabinet members for disloyalty in leaking their details about a White House in disarray, worried about what may come of this “fake news” Russia investigation now focusing on his beloved and invaluable son-in-law.

My bet is that, while the Russia connections will prove to be quite insubstantial (to the normal person not predisposed to Cold War Russophobia), investigations of them will one way or the other lead to Trump’s impeachment or resignation and replacement with Pence (an even worse prospect). Pence, an homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical surrounded by all those generals, is more frightening than Trump. But whomever in the White House will have to deal with a world and alliances more divided than in decades, and despite the size of the its juggernaut, the U.S. is probably a shrinking paper tiger.

On the other hand, Trump is president, and if he feels cornered politically, could do something crazy to change the subject. He may crave Fareed Zakaria’s praise once again, and do something truly “presidential” by showing off the “beauty of our weapons” on the Korean peninsula. Therapists’ schedules are overloaded since the election.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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