What Next for Trump: War?

Photo by Gianpiero Addis | CC BY 2.0

True to his reality TV persona, Donald Trump never ceases to amaze.  Just when it seems that he couldn’t be dumber or more vile, he outdoes himself.  Arming classroom teachers is his latest gem.

“And you ain’t seen’ nothin’ yet,” as carnival barkers used to say.  Mountebanks and carnival barkers — that is the cloth from which the Donald is cut.

Even back in the days of television’s Golden Age, when the high-minded deemed the fare offered the viewing public “a vast wasteland” and when reality television wasn’t even a glint in the eyes of debased network executives, Trump was selling snake oil – not to rubes, that would come later, but to readers of tabloids and the National Enquirer.

Mountebanks and carnival barkers repeat their pitches whenever they can; they stick with whatever works.  This is why when Trump is feeling vexed because the law is closing in on him, or when he cannot block out the contempt of the peoples of the world and of two-thirds of the American electorate, he holds later-day Clinton v. Trump campaign rallies in friendly venues – letting loose with timeworn “Make American Great Again” rants.  As every sensate being on earth knows, he means: “Make America White.”

The cruder and more ridiculous Trump is, the better his sales pitch goes.  His diehard fans  lap up every slur and vulgarity he throws their way.

They are a shameless lot.   Nothing — not the rightwing media culture they wallow in, not even their justifiable contempt for the self-righteous hypocrisies of the Democratic Party’s nomenklatura — excuses their complicity.

They are stubborn too.  With the Trump era now in its second year, anyone who has not already jumped ship probably never will.

Thus the “Trump base,” as it is euphemistically calle, has become a force to be reckoned with in the impending midterm elections and in the years ahead.  It comprises roughly a third of the electorate.

It has already enabled the dunce who brought them together to hijack the Republican Party lock, stock, and barrel.  It may also be able to prevent Trump from being removed from office, regardless how many “high crimes and misdemeanors” Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team conclude they could establish beyond a reasonable doubt.

Needless to say, no one with a temperament anything like Trump’s should be Commander-in-Chief of anything, much less America’s bloated armed forces.  The very idea that he is allowed anywhere near the nuclear codes, that he could unleash a nuclear holocaust in a fit of pique, is horrifying and absurd.  Getting him out of the White House is a matter of the utmost urgency.

Even so, what would then follow would be no panacea.  Were Trump to cut and run, as was his way when his businesses failed, or were he to be removed involuntarily from office, the miscreants his election empowered would still be around, still working overtime to reverse decades of social and economic progress.

Vice President Mike Pence would take Trump’s place.  Unlike Trump, who has no settled convictions, only opportunistic instincts and mean spirited attitudes, Pence is a theocrat and a bona fide old school Republican reactionary.  Having no discernible personality, he is also bland enough not to scare people off.  If only for that reason, he would likely do a better job advancing hard right causes than Trump.

Why then was the mood at the recently concluded CPAC gathering so ardently pro-Trump?

The kindest explanation is that  “conservatives” have concluded that Trump is good enough and that there is no point in taking on the turbulence that would inevitably follow were they and less ideological Trump diehards to part ways.

A less kind but sounder explanation is that, like Trump himself (according to Rex Tillerson), they are “fucking morons.”

And so, for the foreseeable future, it looks like Trump and his minions will be the ones leading the country to ruin; not Pence and his.  They will do it as best they can – in the ways and at the levels they currently are – provided, of course, that they don’t destroy the world first.

With Trump desperate to divert attention away from the dirt Mueller is digging up, destroying the world first is a distinct possibility.

The problem, of course, is not Russian meddling in 2016 and in the upcoming midterm elections.  Notwithstanding the ardent Cold War revivalism of nearly all Democrats, including the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the repeated assurances of “liberal” pundits, Russian “collusion” with the Trump campaign is very likely the red herring Trump says it is.

The dirt that is almost certainly there to be found by anyone looking doggedly enough pertains instead to the involvement of the Trump Organization with Russian money laundering and other shady financial shenanigans.

But fear of prosecution is not the only reason why the world is more imperiled now than it was in the pre-Trump era.  A deeper problem is that, for Trump the egotist and for the ideologues who are using him to advance their causes, what the Trump administration has accomplished so far, and what it is able to do in the circumstances that now obtain, just isn’t enough.

Beyond undermining nearly every socially useful thing the government does, beyond “deconstructing the administrative state,” as the currently out-of-favor Steve Bannon put it, they want to make a more positive mark — as they did when they got their fiscally reckless tax cuts for the hyper-rich enacted into law or as they have been doing by stacking the federal judiciary with pernicious rightwing jurists.  Neil Gorsuch is only the most heralded example; there are many more down the line.

With that ambition in mind, and with Mueller closing in, it could hardly have failed to occur to Trump and the others that “a splendid little war” might be just the thing they need.

Wars seldom turn out well; but in the short run, they can be a government’s best friend.

This is a lesson that could be learned from books.  Trump doesn’t read, but a few Republican ideologues do; they fancy themselves intellectuals make quite a show of it.  It is far from clear, however, what wisdom they get from the reading they do; for all practical purposes, they might be better off being more like Trump, more conspicuously anti-intellectual.

He and they do log a lot of cable news time, however.  They therefore could not help but notice how, in the public mind, the otherwise hapless George W. Bush was transformed after 9/11 from a bumbling nincompoop into a world historical figure (for a brief while, before reality sunk in).   All it took was a war of revenge against Afghanistan and a war of choice against Iraq.

It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold; perhaps, but as an instrument of foreign policy or domestic politics, it is an uncivilized and gratuitous evil.

Moreover, if Bush really did think that the thing to do after 9/11 was to shock and awe a Muslim country and bomb its cities to smithereens, Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, would have been a more appropriate target.  But, of course, Bush and the Saudis were thick as thieves, and Afghanistan seemed easy prey.  More than a decade and a half later, Americans are still killing and being killed there with no end in sight.

The Iraq War was more obviously uncalled for and unwise than Bush’s Afghanistan War; even Barack Obama thought it “dumb.” The murder, mayhem, and geopolitical havoc it set in motion also continue to this day.

But, at the time, thanks to the hard work of servile media pundits and White House scribes, it turned Bush and Dick Cheney, his éminence grise, and other leading administration figures, even Donald Rumsfeld, into heroes.

In time, however, Americans wised up.  They would have wised up even more had Obama not been quite so determined “to look forward” by giving Bush and Cheney and  other war criminals involved in prosecuting that war open ended get-out-of-jail-free cards.  His feigned magnanimity allowed him to broaden and deepen their war against the historically Muslim world.

He did it, however, in a less hysterical way.  He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, after all.

At a time when Bush era officials are installed as founts of wisdom on liberal cable networks, it seems almost churlish to object to the fact that liberal public opinion continues to cut Obama complete and total slack on Afghanistan and Iraq.   At least part of the blame for this lies with Trump.  In comparison with him and his people, nearly everything, no matter how awful, looks good.

Trump would surely like to replicate the boost in popularity and esteem that the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars provided Bush – at first.   How else could he salvage his presidency?  Strategic thinking is hardly his forte, but it is not beyond his ken to figure out that what was good for the last numbskull Republican president who couldn’t get any respect could work for him as well.

Bottom of the barrel “deplorables” may be enough to keep his presidency afloat, but even Trump has to know that his marks are useless for conferring upon him the kind of respect he craves but has never received.  Surely, he realizes too that everyone who is not in his base despises him now more than ever.

Is he therefore hoping for another 9/11?  If so, he had better do nothing more than wait patiently.  Trump doesn’t have the wits to conspire; he may not even have the wits to collude.

To be sure, he is doing his best to discredit the intelligence services that are supposed to defend “the homeland” against terrorists.  But that is about saving himself from their investigations of him, not about making the world safer for the political heirs of Osama Bin Laden; and, in any case, the CIA and the others are not about to let their guard down just because a “fucking moron” casts dispersions on their honesty and competence.

In any case, if he is hoping to be as lucky as George W was, he is almost certainly hoping in vain.  Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, it is extremely unlikely that anyone outside the Trump base would even think to rally around the Donald.

When 9/11 came along, the jury was still out on Bush.  The situation didn’t look promising, but the daggers weren’t drawn; Bush was not intensely hated.  The consensus view among right-thinking people was that he was a likeable but laughable nitwit, not a clear and present danger.

This is not the case now with Trump.  He is hated implacably by two-thirds of all politically cognizant Americans, and considered untrustworthy by many more.

In these circumstances, it is hard to imagine how he could sell anybody on a war of revenge, much less a war of choice.  Were he to try, he would do himself more harm than good.

He should also be careful what he wishes for.  Despite what Hegel and Marx famously said, tragic historical events don’t always repeat themselves as farces.  They sometimes repeat themselves as greater tragedies still.

Were Trump to start a war now, he would likely find himself mired in one of those times, his fate and fortune shot to hell.


With the Bush-Cheney wars continuing, and with the several wars and quasi-wars initiated by Obama proceeding on course, it is not even clear against whom another war could be launched.

It is no longer even possible to say precisely where and against whom the United States is already at war.  What is clear is just that the Greater Middle East has been all but picked clean.  There is no low-lying fruit left.

Trump could escalate American involvement in Syria, but the shifting alliances involved there are too hard to navigate, and thanks to Turkey, Russia, and Iran, the Syrian civil war is now rapidly winding down – after a fashion.

Not long ago, North Korea seemed a likely target.

However, even if a war there could be contained, the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire Korean peninsula, for tens of thousands of American soldiers and civilians in the area, and for a major node in the global economy.  Trump, along with his advisors and generals, may not care much about what they destroy, but they do care about that.

Moreover, the diplomatic skills that would be needed to contain a revived Korean War plainly lie beyond Trump’s ken, and probably also exceed the capacity of anyone else associated with his administration, including the generals he loves so much.  Even were nuclear weapons not deployed, Japan, China and Russia would almost certainly become involved at some level.

It is relevant too that in reaction to Trump’s bluster, and thanks to the intelligence of North and South Korean diplomats, the “indispensable nation” of Madeleine Albright’s imagination has become more dispensable than it used to be.  The two Koreas, with China’s help – and also Russia’s and Japan’s — are hard at work defusing tensions.  Trump and Pence still want to exacerbate them, but the principals no longer seem to care.

Trump could still cause a lot of trouble in Korea, but, as matters now stand, if he wants a  war badly enough, he would probably look elsewhere to have it.

Elsewhere would most likely be Iran.

Part of the appeal there is that, unlike North Korea, Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons.

This is unlikely to change any time soon thanks to the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration’s finest diplomatic achievement.

That is part of the problem, however; in Trump’s mind, Obama’s role in bringing that agreement about is reason enough to quash it.

No doubt, his generals are telling Trump that were America to go to war against Iran, the consequences would be worse by far than the consequences of the Bush-Cheney-Obama war against Iraq.

There would be casualties galore, not all of them Iranian, and the consequences for regional stability and for virtually every aspect of commerce that depends on oil would be catastrophic.  Nowadays, nearly all the world’s commerce depends on oil to some extent.

Does Trump understand this?  Probably not.  He knows little and thinks less.

Were he a more normal president, trusted international leaders and the foreign policy establishments of all Western nations, our own especially, would surely dissuade him.  But Trump is not normal; the only opinion he values is his own.

He does listen to his generals, however.  How pathetic that those masters of war are the peace party’s best hope!

Meanwhile, though, Saudi Arabia is pulling hard, along with the government of Israel, in the opposite direction.  This is bad news indeed.  The de facto Salafi-Zionist alliance that has sprung up in recent years is easily as worrisome a development as North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The Saudis are in it because their semi-feudal leaders want to keep the money flowing into their coffers and because they want the country they rule to become the unchallenged regional hegemon.

Thanks to their oil money, and the extent to which American and European death merchants depend on selling them weapons, the theocrats in Riyadh figure they are pretty much there already.  They would like to keep it that way.  Therefore, the more harm they can visit upon their competition, the better.

The United States has long encouraged them in this endeavor not because they think that the Saudi theocracy is less noxious than Iran’s – they don’t, and it probably isn’t – but because the Saudis have learned over the years how to use the avariciousness of Western capitalists to their advantage.

Meanwhile, for the past three and a half decades, Iran has resisted the empire’s predations as well or better than any country on earth.  Our bipartisan elites do not like this one bit; and while America may be, as Gore Vidal once said, the United States of Amnesia, the stewards of the empire do have difficulty letting go of grudges.  In their minds, the humiliation the United States suffered in the hostage crisis three and a half decades ago still rankles.

But even were they to let that go, and even without pressure from Saudi Arabia, the Israelis would still be there, doing their best to stir up hostilities between the United States and Iran.

They have something even more potent than Saudi money to work with — homegrown American billionaires like Sheldon Adelson.  And they have the Israel lobby.

As lobbies go, only the (currently embattled) NRA rivals it.

Both propagandize actively, but AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and its sister organizations benefit from a narrower focus, mainly targeting younger American Jews (a demographic in which automatic support for the ethnocratic settler state is rapidly declining) and Christian Zionists.  The NRA, on the other hand, focuses on everybody actually or potentially besotted with guns.

Also, the NRA has State Houses all over the country to intimidate and control, not just Congress and the White House.  AIPAC can deploy its carrots and sticks on Congress and the White House alone.

Of late, the Israel lobby is more than usually motivated to do precisely that – not just because, in the face of Palestinian resistance, Israel has effectively exhausted what little moral capital it could convince liberal Zionists it had left, but also because the Netanyahu government is tottering under the weight of its own turpitude and corruption.

As much or more than Trump, Netanyahu could use a war – to strengthen his own position and to bring wavering American and European Jews into line.

His problem, though, is that were the vaunted IDF to take on Iran – either directly or through proxies – without substantial American aid, it would soon find itself in such desperate straits that the very idea of Israeli invincibility would cease to be a factor in the politics of the region.

The solution is clear: goad America to do to Iran what Trump was not long ago declaring he would do to North Korea.

Obama had a gift for backing off when situations threatened to get out of hand.  In that respect, Trump could not be more different.

Combine his mindless instability with the Russophobic paranoia that the Democratic Party has taken to cultivating and the likelihood of bumbling into a war to end all wars, along with everything else, is alarmingly high.

Trump will only listen to reason when his brand and bottom line are endangered; he could care less about anything else.  Our Constitution makes it extremely difficult to get rid of him, and all but impossible to undo the consequences of the 2016 election.   But an outraged citizenry can affect his bottom line and the reputation of his brand.  There is power in that, if only it is marshaled and put to use.

But efforts are better spent persuading Democrats than persuading Trump or the leaders and rank-and-file of the more odious of our two semi-established political parties. They are, or at least ought to be, more susceptible to rational arguments and to pressure from below.  Sadly, however, in the struggle against Cold War revivalism, they have shown no sign of this so far.

Democrats who are progressive on domestic issues, but whose decency stops at the water’s edge, have been with us seemingly forever.

Even now, they are no better than Obama or Bill and Hillary Clinton.  Witness their positions on Israel-Palestine, or the myriad ways they support environmental depredations in distant lands that suit the interests of what one of the best of them, Sanders, calls “the donor class.”

However, fanning dying Cold War embers, a quarter century after the “evil Empire” imploded, is many times worse than the rest of what they do – not just for its recklessness, but also for its detrimental effects on free expression and public discourse.  It seemed that we had gotten beyond all that a generation ago; evidently, we had not.

And so, we degrade our politics in the old familiar way, imperiling the entire world in the process.

We should not write off the handful of ostensibly progressive Democrats just yet, however.  Of all the perpetrators of the circumstances that have brought the present situation to fruition, they are likely the most persuadable.  It is therefore upon them that maximal pressure should be put.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).