Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski
Donald Trump shifted US policy towards the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

The funeral service for the late senator John McCain, which was held at Washington’s National Cathedral on September 1, was notable not so much because of the 2,500 mourners in attendance but because of the conspicuous absence of US President Donald Trump.

The mourners paying their respects to the veteran conservative politician, who died on August 25 aged 81, included former US presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos, comedian Jay Leno, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and former vice-presidents Dick Cheney and Al Gore. While the latter two were possibly as far apart politically as can be and ultimately represented the opposite bookends of the American political arena, they were still part of a political continuum that included the whole spectrum of the American power Establishment.

That Trump was absent from this assembly was not a passing trivial occurrence. Those that had assembled to pay their last respects to one of their own was the American political Establishment. Trump’s absence was simply a brazen reminder that he was not one of them.

What stands for the Establishment in the United States is an extemporaneous conglomerate comprising the two main political parties, Congress, all branches of government, the intelligence agencies, the military, the foundations, think tanks and NGOs that have gelled together into an amorphous overreaching mass. Within the ecosystem, there are no fundamental ideological divides, only policy fluctuations, which are kept to a minimum by an overreaching system geared to maintain stability. Ultimately, the system operates as one under the leveling effect of its own gravity. Within this overall setting administrations come and go but their thrust remains basically constant.

Granted, when one administration replaces another there are major personnel shifts among the mid and upper reaches of the bureaucracy, with the outgoing human resources generally finding refuge either in the private sector or, more commonly, in academia, the foundations or the NGOs. There they will sit out their exile from power until the next change in administration upon which they can resume their careers in government. Over time the two groups, which generally come from the same universities, intermingle in a web of pervasive personal contacts.

The end result is that in terms of substance, there is little to distinguish George W Bush’s foray into Iraq from Obama’s proxy foray against Syria; both are based on the assumption that the United States is the dominant world power and has a God-given right to intervene in the affairs of other nations. And the nation that gave the world the Monroe Doctrine goes into spasms of righteous indignation when a resurgent Russia endeavors to reaffirm its security interest in its geographical sphere of influence. Likewise, after having systematically intervened in other nations’ electoral processes throughout the world, the fact that Russia has allegedly done likewise to the United States is perceived as the pinnacle of unacceptability.

The cement that binds together this multifaceted enterprise is essentially metaphysical and results from a Manichean vision of the world that it perceives as a struggle between absolute good and total evil. Bending this vision to suit America’s political interests is only an occasional subterfuge that makes policy an exercise in religious fervor that demands that all allies and proxies be sugarcoated with the attribute of free and hence of “good,” while all enemies are by definition the incarnation of “evil.”
Within this context, the immense reservoir of knowledge that the establishment has access to is rarely put to full use because it rarely conforms to a world vision based on moral absolutes and on an imagined struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Thus the establishment could, for decades preceded on the assumption that Taiwan rather than Beijing represented China or that the Vietnam War was a winning proposition.

The problem is, if anything, compounded by naivety. The Establishment is basically insensitive to plots, manipulations and the labyrinths of hidden motives and concealed agendas that dot the international scene and proved easy to manipulate by the likes of Chiang Kai-shek, Nguyen Van-Thieu, not to say Hamid Karzai.

The Establishment is basically insensitive to plots, manipulations and the labyrinths of hidden motives and concealed agendas that dot the international scene

What gives the Establishment a degree of power unrivaled throughout the world is its resources. The tax base on which it rests, namely the private sector, is so wide and deep that, combined with an astute management of the national budget deficit, it provides the Establishment with resources which permit it to embark with little fear of consequences in ventures which bear no relation to cost-effectiveness. From the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq to the continued US presence in Afghanistan, cost has never been a major consideration of the Establishment.

But a massive and secure financial base is not enough to anchor the overall authority of the Establishment in the society over which it holds sway. In order to ensure its comprehensive reach, it needs one more component – legitimacy. A system of government is legitimate as long as those it rules feel that it is. Be it the “mandate of heaven” in ancient China, “divine right” in western monarchies or the “will of the people” as expressed by a constitutional document, legitimacy is essentially derived from the acquiescence or the respect that those who are ruled hold towards those who rule them. The recognized assumption is that a government is “legitimate” when it represents the will of the majority and that this will has freely expressed itself through elections.

Conversely, elections do not always reflect the will of the people but the fact that they don’t does not necessarily disqualify a government from being “legitimate.” Thus, in the 1974 British general elections, the Conservatives obtained 11,872,180 votes while Labour obtained 11,645,616 votes. However, the electoral districts were so designed that the conservatives got 297 seats in Parliament while Labour got 301. In the eyes of the British population, this did not make the Conservative government illegitimate for essentially one reason: the differences between Labour and Conservative were not substantive enough to make the victory of one unacceptable to the other.

The same set of rules applied to the American political system; through the electoral process the pendulum could swing from one party to the other but the range of the swing did not put in question the ascendency of the Establishment.

The Founding Fathers of the American republic belonged to a white, wealthy educated elite of Anglo-Saxon descent. They proclaimed that “all men are born equal,” but they did not fully trust the masses to make an educated judgment where the affairs of state were concerned. To this effect, they provided that the president of the United States would be elected not so much directly by the people but by an electoral college. Though elected by a popular vote, members of this college retained, at least nominally, the prerogative to elect a president of their choosing and thus were in a position to restrain any possible aberration resulting from the popular vote. By and large, the system worked until November 8, 2016.

What passes for the United States of America is for all practical purposes two countries

What passes for the United States of America is for all practical purposes two countries. The government, the major universities, the foundations, the health centers and the fountainheads of the arts and the great urban centers are overwhelmingly located in a strip of land that extends some 100 kilometers inland from both coasts. Beyond those 100 kilometers exists another America, overlooked, ignored and which increasingly marches to its own drum.

Middle America, if it can so be termed, is inward looking not to say isolationist. Hard working, God fearing and patriotic, it cherishes its right to own guns and while not avowedly racist it is more at ease with white Americans of European descent than with their non-white compatriots. It also has little empathy for the rights of women. Essentially uneducated and largely ignored by the Establishment, it bore the brunt of the cost of free trade and globalization. In 2008 it acquiesced to a black American becoming president. Eight years later it was the turn of a woman to be the front-runner. For Middle America, it was just too much to stomach and it turned to the one man that promised to make America, their America that is, “great” again. The hour of Donald Trump had come.

Politically, Trump came from nowhere. Unlike most of his predecessors, he had never served as a senator, a governor or even a vice president and had no experience whatsoever in the management of power. This lack of experience was compounded by the fact that, not having risen up the echelons of the political process over the years, he did not have a close retinue of loyal followers whose career prospects were tied to his.

On paper Trump was a Republican. Actually, though, he had hijacked the Republican Party and once elected had no alternative but to select his team from those whom he felt were the closest to him, namely the conservative ultra-right. However, these people felt no personal loyalty to him and they proved difficult to consolidate into one team. The end result was government by fits and starts and a constant change of personnel in the upper echelons of the administration. Conversely, literally hundreds of positions at the lower levels, normally occupied by political appointees, remained unfilled as there was no one to select the incumbents.

While the resulting chaos unleashed the righteous indignation of the traditional political establishment, Trump’s political base remained unconcerned. They either did not know or did not care. Ultimately, what the Establishment considers his faults are qualities for his electoral base and even his wealth plays in his favor; it is the loud, vulgar, ostentatious newly acquired wealth to which they all aspire rather than the discreet patrician wealth derived from inheritance.

There is little doubt that American foreign policy over the last 20 years, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya to Syria has been essentially government-by-misjudgment. To this, Trump has substituted government-by-instinct, albeit a set of spur-of-the-moment, uncoordinated and visibly un-thought-out decisions.

That what appear to be instinctive decisions are, at times, on the mark, should not come as a surprise. No one becomes president of the United States without having demonstrated having some degree of political intuition. Thus, he has made greater progress with North Korea than any of his predecessors. Likewise, that China has shown little respect for international intellectual property rights or that Germany does not contribute its full dues to NATO is a given.

Conversely, while suspending US funding to the Palestinian refugee agency can be justified – the US gets nothing in exchange – such a move only makes sense if it part of an overall strategy aimed at finding some sort of solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. However, not only is there no evidence that Trump has such a plan but even if he did, with the traditional diplomatic apparatus having been literarily emasculated there would be no one to negotiate it.

Ultimately, Trump is an aberration on the American political scene

Ultimately, Trump is an aberration on the American political scene. At heart neither a Democrat nor a Republican, he prevailed by hijacking the Republican primaries and touching the nerve of the white, marginalized Middle America that the Establishment had for so long taken for granted. That he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a margin of 2 million should have ensured that a person of his ilk would never be elected president. This would have been a given had it not been for the majority that he gained in the Electoral College; and it was the very college that America’s Founding Fathers had created with the express purpose of preventing the emergence of a Donald Trump that ensured his election.

As Trump soldiers on, to the horror of the Establishment, the American economy is thriving and some 35% of the electorate, impervious to his eccentricities, is solidly behind him. How long this will last is anyone’s guess but as long as it does it will make for interesting times.

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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