25. Trump, a retrospective

While some liberals want to portray it as an error, the rise and fall of Trump was amongst the most significant political events of the past decade. In this essay I will reflect on his leadership and legacy, and ultimately defend a rather orthodox stance that the world is better off without him at the wheel.

For better or worse, we have a tendency to want to see the good side of people of seemingly bad character (for example The Joker), just like we want to find flaws in those who seem to mean well. In 2019 and early 2020 many people around the world started to give Trump a second look. The initial shock at the chaos of his first years settled down – whether that was because it became less chaotic or because we got used to it – and he turned out not to be a Russian asset. The latter allowed him to don the anti-hero costume again and masterfully play opposition and government at the same time.

     Amongst those doubters are various young people on the Mexican Left (and right), who didn’t know who to cheer for after Biden defeated the global hope a.k.a. Bernie Sanders. Besides employing an enemy-of-my-enemy logic, they had good reasons to do so. After all, 2019/2020 Trump had some redeemable qualities. First of all, he turned out to be a lot more respectful towards Mexico than originally anticipated. While unimpressed by handsome stand-in Peña Nieto, Trump and his representatives (including the best ambassador we had in decades) were surprisingly respectful towards our  progressive government and president. While he aggressively pursued his interests, Trump never made it personal. During Mexico’s state visit Trump openly and repeatedly praised Mexican Americans as good people, marking a complete 180° turn from his initial campaign.

    But it goes deeper than this. From an international perspective, Trump was not the worst republican president of this century. While Bush destroyed the Middle East and consequentially destabilized Europe (ending many progressive governments around the continent), Trump did not engage in major new military conflicts. Many of his obvious flaws he shared with Bush: Trump retreated from the Paris Climate Agreement, Bush blew up the Kyoto one; Trump funded a tax cut by reducing social programs, so did Bush; Trump was a clown, but Bush was (considerably) less intelligent. Furthermore, in terms of trade policy Trump’s nationalist approach often made him the most ‘Left’ U.S. president on that matter of the 21st century, outflanking Obama’s neoliberal trade and foreign affairs secretaries. He revamped the discussion on the benefits and costs of free trade, and his opposition to China and in a lesser degree to Big Tech was appreciated by many – including your servant. All of these reflections happened on the background of the unfolding realization (which will continue unfolding as time goes on) that Obama achieved fairly little, and even less for the Left.

Yet in the remainder of this essay I will argue that regretting his defeat is ultimately a mistake. Note that I will mainly address this issue from an outsider perspective, not that of an American. For internal policies that affect Americans the things that I worry about most as a poverty researcher are often things that will only become visible on the long term. Such as the massive cuts on inner city development and housing. Neither will I spend much time on arguing against the positives I listed previously. Just two short notes: first, it is sufficient to say that those statements are positive for an American president. Things like not starting wars are not exactly remarkable achievements for the average national leader. Second, those on the (Latin) Left should not forget that is was the Trump administration that sponsored the Guido debacle in Venezuela, and more importantly the outrageous coup against the Morales government in Bolivia. Luckily, the people overcame in the latter case.

Yet the real problem with Trump is not in his policies. After all, just like Obama he didn’t get that much done. Ultimately, the historical significance of Trump is political: the 21st century comeback of Fascism to this continent. Well, Neo Fascism, or the ‘Alt-Right’ as sensitive kids want to call it these days[1]. The significance here is not in the ideology itself in a history-of-thought manner, since like all bad things both fascism and neo-fascism were first introduced in Europe. And, I might add, appeal for sometimes understandable reasons to many. The problem is in the quasi-unrepairable damage Trump (and his Brazilian offspring) did to worldwide democratic politics through his frontal attack on objective truth itself.

Let us slowly build towards that claim. While problematic for those living the in U.S., the historical issue with Trump was not his neoliberal policies such as tax- and social spending cuts. And while equally problematic for U.S. residents, his endorsement or racism, sexism and general xenophobia is neither in the core of the issue. The real Fascist trick consists of using the latter for the former: he used stigmatization and hate to gain the political momentum to push through changes that further benefitted capitalist elites like himself. He never truly cared about Mexicans (as his behavior in the last year showed), but he knew they would make a handy target.

    Fascism historically resolves around lies and is fundamentally two-faced, with the added twist that one of the faces (the social one) is a mask. One will promise things that will appeal to the working class (healthcare for all, bringing jobs back, building a wall) and particular industrial elite (deregulation, tax cuts, etc.), but only achieve the latter. The failure of the former can always be blamed on minorities, real or imagined foreign threats and of course socialists and communists. But this isn’t always possible, like all politicians, Fascists do get cornered. Unlike other politicians, Fascists will often not stick to a single lie or even a web of lies, but frontally attack objective truth as a category. The trick is not to (just) lie about the success of one’s response, but to lie about the problem itself.

A recent example of this is the handling of Trump and his followers of the corona virus. While the U.S. has been failing in rather spectacular ways to control this problem, they are not the only country to struggle. Yet rather than defending the response like other troubled leaders did, many people on the Alt Right cope with this by questioning the reality of the epidemic itself. Trump led the charge, by sowing confusion on the nature and gravity of the virus, as well as the measures best taken to stop it. This includes both the floating of fake cures and the absurd politization of face masks as a symbol of resistance. A similar response was seen in Brazil, where the non-response policy was given a more distinctly fascist survival-of-the-fittest flavor. Even after he will have lost power, ripple effects of this conspiracy theory will slow down recovery all over the world.

    An older but clearer example is his engagement with climate change. While most of the world by the year 2016 was ready to move towards a sustainable future, Trump singlehandedly threw us  back decades. Not so much because he dropped out of the Paris Agreement (that makes him conservative, not Fascist), but for his ridiculing of climate change itself and environmentalism at large. This includes literal Don Quixote fashion attacks on windmills. Not only did he took a slew of measures that damage the environmental, he convinced millions of people that there is no such thing as damaging the environment. Clean coal, remember? Given this lead to predictable counter-attacks from environmentalists, scientists, and rational people at large, the very idea of ‘green’ now became politicized and a slur for many Americans on the Right.

    A last example I won’t elaborate on is how Trump has convinced over half of republicans that he actually won the presidential elections, and the Biden government is illegitimate. While the latter is mainly their own problem, we must further analyze the gravity of these issue.

    Fascists don’t just tell lies (many people do), but try to attack the very notion of non-political truth or science head on. The entire eco system of fake news surrounding him plays an important role in this. So much confusion is sowed that one can rightfully say ‘I don’t know what to believe anymore’ and use that as an excuse for doubling down on what is ideologically convenient. I took the unpleasant effort of looking into some of this alt-right media (not memes, but actual publications), and can honestly say I have never seen worse journalism coming from any other political stable. The consequence of all this is that those who got dragged along in this rhetoric are irreversibly lost – unless they would turn away from the fascist politicians themselves. This is because Trump attacked science as such (or the credibility of any group he targets), therefore destroying in his followers any basis for refuting false beliefs, since evidence itself is considered fake or a mere opinion. Given U.S. is at the center of global media attention, the tentacles of these utterly reckless lies reach far, and will do damage for decades to come.

What makes Trump’s passage in the political sphere so tragic is the emptiness of it all. The reasons behind Trump’s lie campaigns go back to either personal ego, or the short term protection of certain economic elites. While there might exist a bigger utopian plan of a return to national strength in the heads of some of his followers, many of the positions taken ban Trump and his Alt Right underbosses are taken for opportunistic reasons. Racial tensions, climate change, the handling of the pandemic and the damaging of faith in democracy are just collateral damage. While correctly pointing out the failures of liberalism from which it is born, the historical tragedy of fascism is wasting the trust of the working class.

To conclude, while his passage on the world stage was interesting and sparked some useful discussions (on the role of China in the world economy, for example), Trump will not be missed. Unfortunately, he won’t give us the chance to miss him, since his exit will only set in motion the next chaotic campaign. Getting him out of the White House is only a temporal victory: we only took away his biggest microphone.

[1] Before any of those kids cry about unfair imaginary Hitler-comparisons: calm down, all you need to do to be a Fascist (or socialist, liberal, etc.) is to think like a Fascist (or socialist, liberal, etc.). No genocides required.