4.2.17

Making sense from chaos: the first two weeks of the Trump presidency.

The uncertainety felt by many, in the streets and in political office, about the Trump administration, has not been helped by the fact that there is little commentariat trying to understand. Most condemn. That’s because pundits are focused on Trump as a person, his (mostly bad) manners, his personal partisan tweets, his provocations, and on each and every detail of them, losing the big picture in the process. The overall feeling is chaos. Trump and his close aides, intentionally or not, add to the chaos, Trump, particularly, by not behaving like a POTUS, not being above the crowd and letting his party do the partisan fight.

I tried to look for something coherent in this chaos.

Alastair Crooke, at Conflicts Forum, has been providing great insight by anticipating from Trump’s career and trajectory. In an article published onJanuary 28, Crooke describes Trump’s business approach as follows:

Trump’s business career was largely comprised of three core strategies 1) Leverage 2) Restructure 3) Brand … in that order. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s Trump rode a generational decline in interest rates and debt binge to purchase a range of high profile real estate projects including the Grand Hyatt (1978), Trump Tower (1983), the Plaza Hotel (1988) and the Taj Mahal (1988). In the 1990s he went through a total of 6 bankruptcies due to over-leveraged hotel and casino businesses in Atlantic City and New York. In the 2000s he pivoted to move away from debt-driven property investments to building a global brand through the “Apprentice” TV show. Trump will run the country as he ran his businesses …. He will lever, and lever, and lever, and lever … and lever … and then restructure his way to success, or whatever success is defined as, by the broadest measure of popularity at any given time. Trumponomics, if it delivers, will be a supply-side free for all: massive tax cuts, deficit spending to create jobs, financial and energy deregulation, business creation, and trade protectionism – all driving inflation. More importantly, Trump sees bankruptcy as a tool and not an obligation and will have no problem pushing the US to the limits of debt expansion. “I do play with bankruptcy laws, they’re very good to me!” he once said.”

Trump will apply the tools he developped for his businesses but not in the order Crooke mentions, and that’s for two reasons : first, because Trump is not the only driver of the policies of his administration, there is more than one interest group driving his policies, the Christian Right, The White middle class (or the middle class in general), the Neocons (yes, those sticky neocons that manage to infiltrate every administration), the elite of the Republican party, divided more than ever, and second, because the branding is not only an end result, it is also a process, and it is not unique to Trump alone. People who voted for Trump voted for the brand, which they knew in advance. Even Obama was thought of as a brand, the WH social secretary early in Obama’s first mandate, Desiree Rogers, already spoke of the ‘Obama Brand’, only to be chastised by David Axelrod who told her the president is not a brand. Presidential campaigns are based on branding. Trump came with his already established brand and he is not shy about it. This is the reason why Trump as POTUS is like Trump the candidate, with his private twitter account, staying in the fray, commenting publicly on anything that crosses his mind. Those who voted for him and hailed him as CiC voted for this. It is populist, not representative, democracy, it reminds of the early days of the French revolution (ideals aside), when everybody spoke in the assemblies and not one voice rose above the others. Trump is taking these voices who elected him to the Oval office. French revolutionary assemblies achieved little else aside from eliminating the enemies. Trump’s leverage phase, if successful, could achieve only this, eliminating the opposition to his agenda, and little else. But the time when democracies used to achieve anything is gone. Trump’s agenda will create a fighting field where he will be the wrestler in chief.

The leveraging started as soon as Trump took to the oval office. It is being done through executive orders and actions, mostly negative, bans and abolitions of agreements and policies. The leveraging also means destroying, which will be inevitably followed by ‘restructuring’. It serves some purposes : create a social pressure cooker, energise the base, and erect a smokescreen. Take for example the contested ban. Trump’s administration rationale, to make America safe, doesn’t hold scrutiny. The ban applies to countries who are fighting terrorism and know it from the inside, that they may produce refugees-cum-terrorists who may infiltrate the US homeland, because they are occupied in part by these terrorists and have security issues, is possible, but so is the possiblity that terrorists will come from a ‘quiet’ place not targeted by the ban. Saudi Arabia, not targeted by the ban, has some 80000 students in US universities. And this is where most of the 911 terrorists came from. Should Trump anger Saudis, they have pressure means on him. Saudi Arabia is not a quiet place, it has an insurgency in the east, it is fighting an unwinnable war against Yemen with the help of al Qaeda and it is the place where Islamist terrorism struck first, before being exported to the world. Also the Muslim countries not targeted by the ban are known by US officials as main vehicles and financial supporters of terrorism.

It is inconceivable that the US will slap a ban on its ally Saudi Arabia, so it does it for the weakest countries, those who absolutely have no means of pressure on the US. The ban does not serve any security purpose but it serves to cut refugee applications and to please those who voted for Trump thinking that foreigners were taking their jobs, and those who fear terrorism without knowing the what and why of terrorism. It also serves as an attraction against which most opposition to Trump will focus and come to lose its energy on, fighting a ban in courts and in the streets, amid chaos and unrest. Chaos is part of the leveraging, it drains the efforts of the opposition internally, and it puts targeted countries ‘on notice’, externally. To consolidate the ban in the eyes of the Muslim world, Trump sought & obtained the collaboration of Saudi Arabia not condemning the ban, in exchange for the US administration not using JASTA against the kingdom for political purpose.

This is how Trump leverages, by setting goals and using any means, acceptable or not, narrow or wide, that may help him achieve his goals.

The Restructuring. It comes during and after the leveraging and destruction phase. Trump’s leveraging is destructive because it doesn’t respect anything that might amount to an obstacle between him and his goals. It is unprincipled, it is chaotic, it does not fit well with democratic institutions. Eventually, if the leveraging and destruction process is successful, there will be a restructuring and a rebranding of America according, this time, to the Trump brand. Every presidency is tranformative. But Trump’s will be nothing like others’. It is driven by nostalgia and resentement, both powerful emotions carried by a population who feel cheated by its leaders. Other secondary considerations will drive Trump’s agenda, implementing some basic Republican core ideological policies to keep them happy, like deregulation, but nothing that may constitute an obstacle to Trump’s goals. Well, actually deregulation might constitute an obstacle to Trump’s goal to revive the middle class, it is not the program of the fringe of the republican party, the Tea Party was definitely against Wall Street and the bankers. But in a global economy where growth is proving elusive, protectionnism coupled with deregulation can have the effect of redirecting wealth, not redistributing wealth. Kick the can of worms and see what happens.

We now come to the fringe of the American public who hailed Trump to the presidency, ‘the deplorables’. We have a ‘basket’ here made of the fringe of the Republican party betrayed by Bush and of the fringe of the Democratic party betrayed by Obama. What do these people want ? Some want good paying jobs, some want less government, some want both. But it is not what they want that is important, it is what they do not want, what they resent and fear. They resent the multiracial society, US wars abroad, the global corporations, the free trade agreements and the flight of capital as causes in the economic decline, and they are not completely wrong in their analysis of the situation. That’s because in the absence of growth, the cake they have to share is becoming smaller and smaller. So they will get protectionnist economic policies regardless whether these policies work or not. Opinions diverge on this.

On the social side, Trump will try to deliver the policies for which the religious Right got behind him in the first place. These are the disillusioned of the GW Bush administration. Their estimation is that Bush did little for them. They feel they have been used as Bush got busy waging wars on behalf of Israel and the Neocons without fully implementing their agenda. This is where the religious Right drives a wedge between them and the Neocons in the Trump administration, and this is why I believe Trump will do Bush in reverse, he will use the Neocons to serve the religious Right, although this has never been his personal agenda. How Trump will use the Neocons? I’m afraid by letting them wage a war against Iran to advance the most radical items on the agenda of the religious Right. Iran will rally the majority of the Republican party behind Trump, something he can use but only if he feels that he needs it. Let’s pray this won’t happen.

The religious Right has been already served well by Trump. The proposed nomination to the Supreme court of Neil Gorsuch will come with a pro-Life agenda for the disenchanted of social liberalism and its excesses. Listen to Australian philosopher John Finnis with whom Gorsuch studied. He explains how the anti-discrimination and egalitarian agenda of liberals is contrary to real equality of Humanity when it comes to life and death issues, and let me tell you, he is damn right. You may not agree with him but he uncontestably brings to light important and deep human issues that are simply shelved and left undiscussed by liberals, all in the name of political correctness, egalitarianism and anti-discrimination. I have the feeling Trump will deliver for the religious Right, not by conviction, but it will be part of his leveraging of the political field, part of the rebranding too, and also because it is part of one of his closest adviser’s agenda. Karl Rove used the religious Right for the Neocons’ agenda, Steve Bannon and his movement come from the religious Right, they are in the WH now.

The rebranding. Trump will try to reverse the branding of the US by Obama as a liberal post racial society. America will be rebranded as a chauvinistic, traditionalist, illiberal and less multicultural society. I chose chauvinistic instead of White Christian because I think that the program of the fringe is not against Black African Americans, it is mostly against recent non Christian immigration (Muslims), but it targets Blacks insofar as they identify with Muslims and other immigrants. However, we must accept that American chauvinism cannot encompass African Americans because the integration of Blacks as full citizens in US society coincided with an influx in non-European immigration and this integration benefited other races too. In fact, the White founders of the US and the Black founders, their slaves, never gave themselves the chance to forge a national identity encompassing the two races because as soon as they found each other as equals by law, they had to contend with other races. And it is only natural that most Blacks identify with other races than the race of those who oppressed them. Anti-Black racism resurgence might be seen also as a reaction to the transformation of the US into a multiracial society by new immigration. That isn’t to say that there is no racism between non-White races (read the recent 'American Muslims, divided by race').

Foreign Policy. We see in Trump’s foreign policy agenda two concurrent tendencies : to close a deal in Palestine and to attack Iran. The Trump administration surprised everyone when it asked Israel to stop settlement activity recently, while making it clear it does not condemn past settlements. How is that possible ? It will be through Egypt, Saudi and Arab Gulf countries. Surprisingly, Egypt is not on Trump’s ban list despite the recent terrorist attacks on Russian civilians in Egypt and ongoing terrorist activity in the Sinai. This is part of the leveraging, Trump needs Egypt.

Another important element is that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries are already doing business with Israel and they see the non resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as a hurdle to their business interests. Recently, relations between Egypt and Hamas have been improving. To be sure, any deal for a two state solution will be bad for the Palestinians, but the Palestinian leadership has a history of betraying its people and listening to their Arab backers. Is carving up a two state solution difficult ? Certainely, in the mess that’s the West Bank and Gaza today with their territorial discontinuity, but Israel is about illegal real estate and Trump with his real estate mogul son-in-law intend to close a deal between Netanyahu and the Palestinians or their Arab sponsors. However mediocre and bad the solution might be, and it will be, approaching it from a real estate perspective can be helpful.

This is where things may get touchy with Iran. The Trump administration has ‘put Iran on notice’, whatever this might mean. I do not think the Trump administration is irresponsible to go to war on Iran on a whim, but it will do it, in a way or another, in two cases: First to thank the Saudi for delivering a deal with the Palestinians, second, to distract from its highly radical domestic agenda. It is highly unlikely that Trump will attack Iran. However, he will slap sanctions and try to isolate Iran again. You can say Hello to the return of AhmadiNejad.

Russia. Everybody is hyping about Russia and Trump. But there are many factors that will prevent the Trump administration from being hostile to Russia, let alone going to war against Russia. Trump needs Russia to fight ISIS. Trump also needs Russia because his administration is under attack from the inside and the outside. He already has more than half the world unhappy about him. Trump will need Russia too to close a deal in Israel-Palestine. One thing should be clear : Trump doesn’t care about Europe, he doesn’t care about NATO, he doesn’t care about Ukraine. So far, so good for Russia. However, Trump’s belligerance toward Iran and China, Russia’s close allies, may put Russia in a difficult position, will it trade these alliances for a détente with the US on Europe? This will depend on Europe too. This is something that will be of concern for a second Trump mandate, if there is one, not for the first. So we can sit and watch the neocons hired by Trump to serve in his administration fiddle and busy themselves in destroying Ukraine to get Trump’s attention.

Oh, and Trump is not interested in latin America. Latin America is not in the US sphere anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. The revival of the Latin American Right, here and there, in Honduras and Venezuela, won’t change this. Trump essentially sees Latin America as originator of potential immigration and trade problems, nothing more.

There will be no more regime change military operations abroad by the US under Trump and he will leave Syria for Russia. But we can’t exclude the usual Bush and Obama eras' secret ops, extraordinary renditions, black ops, drones, and so on. Trump want to make the CIA happy, and this is what they do best. What is not clear, up to now, is how Trump intends to fight ISIS. He asked his generals to come up with a plan. We shall see.

As for China, it is among the countries 'put on notice' by the Trump administration, but we don't know what this means yet.  The dispute with China will be mostly about trade.  Trump's agenda is focused mostly on trade, on bringing back to the US the big pie of globalisation and keeping it in.

Will Trump change the US if successful ? Probably more than any other president. Will he be successful ? Too early to tell. Will the world be a better place ? With the US busy changing itself from the inside, and not changing regimes and creating security vaccum in other countries, the world will get to breath better.

Update 1 (Sunday Feb 5, 00:05 a.m): Trump administration is signaling it is willing to work with Saudi Arabia. Latest news from Yemen point to an escalation.  Yemen war was launched before the Iran deal was signed to drag Iran in a regional war.  It seems that Trump aims to put more pressure on Iran to drag it into Yemen war.  Iran won't budge.  The people of Yemen and the country will pay for this reckless war.  It is a crime against the people of Yemen.  And t will be the second time the US tries to drag the Islamic Republic of Iran in a useless war.  The Iran Iraq war was done for a similar aim and produced nothing but misery.  But all these collateral wars to get at Iran confirm at least that the US won't attack Iran directly, at least not before exhausting Yemen.

Update 2 (Tuesday Feb 7, 22:24 p.m): Following events lead me to think Saudi Arabia wants a quick exit from the Yemen mess and is trying to leverage Trump into doing the job for them by invoking Iran.

On Jan 29, US conducts  special ground op in Yemen targeting alQaeda.

On Jan 30, Houthis torpedo a Saudi frigate.  Saudi refuse to acknowledge it was a torpedo.

On Feb 5, Houthis launch a ballistic Borkan-1 SCUD missile on Saudi military outpost near Riyadh.

On Feb 7, Saudi backed Yemen ambassador to the US implicitly states that the US is in the know about the presence of alQaeda among forces fighting Houthis in Yemen and that Saudi backed Yemen gov sees fighting Iran and Houthis as a priority, not alQaeda.

On Feb 7, Saudi Backed Yemen gov withdraws permission for US to use ground troops in special anti terror ops in Yemen.

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