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The New Trump Era

By Jonathan Cristol

At 8:55 am on July 26, 2017 President Donald Trump tweeted, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow......” My assumption at the time was that the most likely conclusion to the tweet would be “... North Korea to develop nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Or, possibly, “... radical Muslim terrorists from reaching our shores.” It was, in fact, about the grave danger and expense of transgender troops serving in the U.S. military. In the New Trump Era, things are always worse than you think, and new problems can and will be created where none exist. The president’s unexpected, discriminatory decision took the Pentagon by surprise and has been condemned both by generals and politicians of all political persuasions.

The United States is not yet a dystopian hellscape, but Trump is doing his best to send the country in that direction. He has directed immigration and customs enforcement to hunt down people living in the U.S. illegally without regard to individuals’ criminal record or payment of taxes, or the families broken up by deportations. He has recounted his electoral triumph and lambasted his predecessor in front of thousands of children at a Boy Scouts jamboree, which he was "accused of turning … into [a] Nazi style rally.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it easier for the police to fill their own coffers with money and possessions stolen from citizens. Yet now many are praying that Sessions isn’t fired, because without him Trump might be able to shut down the special counsel investigation into his campaign’s relationship with the Russian government.

Trump has insulted over 350 people, places, and things on Twitter (and confirmed the existence of one classified covert CIA program). Russian President Vladimir Putin is not among the 350. Trump’s transatlantic crush on the Russian dictator is well documented, and Trump’s continued unwillingness to blame Russia for attacks on the U.S. election continues to shock and appall. Putin knows an easily manipulable man when he sees one, and Putin is not the only one to see it. The Atlantic ran a memorable headline stating, “Foreign Leaders Have Realized That Trump Is a Pushover.” Love of Putin extends to Russian Order of Friendship honoree and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has refused to spend $80 million in allocated funding to battle Russian (and Islamic State) propaganda, for fear of  "anger[ing] Moscow."

French President Emmanuel Macron knew that the way to Trump’s heart was to invite him to a "super-duper" parade with cool planes, just as Saudi Arabia knew it could get whatever concessions it wanted from the U.S. leader if it rolled out the gold and diamond-studded carpet. Trump made much of the $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but the real news to come of the visit was the lifting of Obama-era restrictions on weapons that could be used to target civilians, not to mention Jared Kushner’s personal intervention to get Riyadh a better deal from American company Lockheed Martin.

Riyadh certainly got its money’s worth later on when it launched a coordinated diplomatic and economic assault on Qatar, a military partner of the U.S. Trump quickly sided with Saudi Arabia, against the recommendations of his Defense and State Departments. Trump tweeted, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.” In these tweets Trump both acknowledged the link between his visit to Saudi Arabia and the anti-Qatar action by Gulf countries, and laughably suggested that isolating Qatar was vital to the elimination of global terrorism. Qatar is a wealthy country, one of two that ascribes to the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, and there is no doubt support among some people for terrorism, just as there is in every country in the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council crisis would be easier for the U.S. to manage if it had a fully staffed State Department. But as of Aug. 2, there was no permanent Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, nor are there ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates. In fact, there are 93 vacant appointed positions in the State Department, and hundreds across all government agencies. Tillerson seems to be on a mission to destroy the State Department. As Max Bergmann wrote in Politico, “State’s growing policy irrelevance and Tillerson’s total aversion to the experts in his midst is prompting the department’s rising stars to search for the exits.” There is no discernible effort being made to replace those who have left or to fill the empty political appointments.

And yet, things can always be worse—Tillerson and/or National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster could resign or be forced out, and be replaced by a radical interventionist like John Bolton. The progressively more likely possibility that Trump will withdraw from the Iran deal this October would become a near-certainty. The response of the administration to any perceived aggressive Iranian action would be to press for war—and war with Iran would be so long and bloody that it would make the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan seem like the 21-day-long 1983 invasion of Grenada.

The New Trump Era presents the possibility of war not only with Iran, but also with North Korea. The latter conflict would ostensibly arise in an attempt to prevent North Korea from obtaining ICBMs that could carry nuclear warheads to the continental United States. But deciding to go to war on this basis would be rooted in the faulty assumption that Kim Jong-un is a madman. None of Kim’s actions suggest he has any interest in suicide. To the contrary, his nuclear program is an insurance policy that prevents from happening to him what happened to Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi, and Ukraine. This argument also ignores Kim’s existing capacity to attack U.S. citizens in Guam and East Asia at any time, along with our allies in South Korea and Japan.

But of course Trump has no respect for treaties. Nor does he have respect for anyone who isn’t a rich white man, and even then he is willing to denigrate and humiliate his racial and socioeconomic compatriots when it suits his purposes.

We’re only six months into the Trump administration and there’s plenty of room for our relationship with the world to fall into deeper disorder. Luckily, things aren’t all bad. Game of Thrones is back, The Defenders comes out on Aug. 18, and the new Stranger Things trailer is amazing. Unfortunately, television isn’t everything—even if the president was a game show host. 

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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol.

[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore]

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