When in 2016 Donald Trump mugged the bipartisan political establishment in the United States, there were three issues that put him beyond the pale:
- Rejection of the globalist meddling, mindless confrontation with Russia, and interventionist wars of Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, Bush Jr., and Barack Obama in favor of aAmerica First nationalism – which critics equated with phony memes of “isolationism” and even flirtation with Nazism;
- Restructuring America’s trade relations to favor American workers and producers, not international corporations keen to dump their costly domestic employees and relocate abroad, sending in their products tariff-free; and
- Stopping the migration invasion of the US, symbolized above all by building The Wall on the Mexican border – and making Mexico pay for it.
As Trump’s first year in office comes to a close, where do we stand?
War and Foreign Policy
The neoconservatives who have made a disaster of American policy for almost three decades are exultant that Trump is dancing to their tune. In the Middle East, “America First” has turned into “Israel and Saudi Arabia First” and a vendetta against Iran. While Trump has taken credit for the possible outbreak of peace between the two Koreas, that is a byproduct of the intransigence and bluster coming from Washington – which may resume as soon as the Olympics are over.
With respect to Russia, the picture is dreary and the trend worrisome. The absurdly named “Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” passed last year with a bipartisan, veto-proof supermajority, stripped Trump of his constitutional authority to make policy toward Russia. A new round of legislatively mandated sanctions designed to block any possible outreach to Moscow by criminalizing contact with any Russian within screaming distance of the Kremlin is imminent. Early hopes of US-Russia cooperation in Syria against jihad terrorist have given way to a continued (illegal) US military presence east of the Euphrates, talk of a “New Syrian Army” (recycled Daesh and al-Qaeda terrorists, with a push to turn the CIA aid spigot back on), plausible Russian suggestions of a US hand in a drone attack on Russian personnel, and back to square one with “Assad must go!” Providing lethal weapons to Ukraine – which could entail American advisers on the ground near the conflict line in the Donbas – moves us closer to military confrontation.
All that said, there is a school of thought that says Trump is in so precarious a position vis-à-vis a Deep State working overtime to remove him (and if pushed too hard, might just “JFK” him), that he has no choice but to adopt a “rope-a-dope” strategy. Patrick Armstrong thinks that Trump is purposely undermining the imperial order bit by bit by degrading the narcissistic notion of US global “leadership.” This means Trump’s seeming to go along with his ubiquitous adversaries’ bellicose agenda to the Nth degree but in the process making the US less and less relevant.
Korea may be an example: bluster and threaten, so the panicked South reached out to the North. Recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: the US is no longer the mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and we defund the Palestinian Authority and the UN to boot. Threaten to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal: nervous Europeans distance themselves from Washington and cozy up to Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran, which may in turn lead to a diminished US enthusiasm for defending “disloyal” NATO allies. Double down on the failed Afghanistan non-strategy: blame Pakistan and cut off their money. Impose economic and financial sanctions with reckless abandon: an alternative international finance system is in the works.
In any case, among Trump’s three populist heresies from the bipartisan Swamp’s agenda, this is the least well articulated and least important to his base in Flyover Country, many of whom reflexively if ignorantly respond positively to anything that sounds “tough” and militaristic (“Support our troops!” – so how about we stop getting them killed and crippled in unnecessary missions?). Whatever Trump thinks he’s doing, as long as he doesn’t stumble us into a war somewhere like Korea, Iran, Ukraine, or Syria, things are still better than if Hillary had won.
- Verdict after one year: Let’s call it a wash. But there’s still reason to worry.
Not much can be said about trade at this time. Maybe that’s good. There are solid America First people in the administration, such as U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Peter Navarro, who heads the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, backed up by speechwriter Stephen Miller, the main nationalist-populist left in the Trump inner circle. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is generally counted in this camp. Perhaps a low decibel level means quiet progress.
Or not. The trade nationalists are at daggers drawn with the globalists and generals: National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The former two are ideological free traders and advocates for global corporations and banks. The latter favor the tried-and-failed decades-long policy of buying geopolitical and strategic advantage by taking it out of the hide of American workers and producers: we give our satellites like Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc., etc., free, non-reciprocal access to our domestic market, they hand over their sovereignty. What a deal!
Who will come out on top is unclear. Pulling out of TPP was a positive sign. What Trump does about NAFTA will be a critical, which is why the usual suspects are in full-throated hysteria over his threat to insist Canada and Mexico renegotiate it or to pull the US out. With respect to the 800-pound gorilla of America’s trade woes, an America First pitch to China ought to be getting us out of Korea and the South China Sea while rebalancing our enormously one-sided trade relationship. Unfortunately, the globalists and general would rather do the opposite: keep sacrificing Americans’ economic wellbeing in an effort to “contain” China strategically.
Trade won’t matter much in the November elections amid happy-news perceptions of improved job creation, stock market record highs (though how much of that represents real economic growth and how much a ballooning investment bubble is open to debate), and higher consumer confidence. But over the long term, if this opportunity is lost to put Americans’ interests ahead of those of transnational corporations it might not come again.
- Verdict after one year: It could go either way.
Of the three Trumpish heresies from bipartisan orthodoxy, this is the most important. While for the establishment it ranks with foreign policy and is closely tied to it (“Invade the world, invite the world”), for Trump’s base is it head and shoulders above the other two. If not for his pledge to build The Wall and make Mexico pay for it, Trump never would have been the Republican nominee and won the presidency.
For the past week the American media and political class have been in a tizzy over precisely what scatological term Trump may have used in a closed-door White House meeting over DACA (“Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals,” Obama’s so-called “Dreamers”) and immigration policy generally, including funds to build The Wall. (There evidently is some question of whether the second syllable was “hole” or “house.”) Is this the worst word ever uttered in a non-public meeting in the Oval Office? At least nobody claims Trump said whatever it was he said like Lyndon Johnson, perched on the presidential throne.
Trump’s real offense was less the word itself than its implication that certain Countries ABCD are horrible places to live, while other Countries WXYZ are quite the opposite. And since Countries ABCD are pretty much full of black and brown people, and Countries WXYZ are almost exclusively the abodes of white and yellow people, he’s a racist for noticing the difference. Hence, the media and Trump’s critics’ frenzied repetition of the R-word word, as though it were a sort of magical incantation that at some point will cause him to crumble into dust.
There are over seven and a half billion people inhabiting this orb of woe. Probably somewhere in the range of 90 percent of them would dramatically improve their lives if they left where they are and moved to the United States. Aside from the clear benefit to the Democratic Party in welcoming spanking new voters, how does it profit the American nation to import mobs of impoverished and uneducated people to drag down wages, especially in low-paying job categories, and to consume a disproportionate share of public benefits?
Keep in mind too that because a very high proportion of migrants in this category would be considered “minorities” under US law, they and their progeny would immediately qualify upon arrival for affirmative action status in hiring and education. What kind of idiot country imports foreigners and then discriminates in their favor against the natives? For what purpose – to offset historical wrongs to which the newcomers were never victim?
Conversely, the President’s defenders suggest that what’s really needed is to switch from a country-of-origin and family-reunification basis for our immigration system to a merit-based system. Let’s take only the best and the brightest, from whatever place they hail.
A supposed merit-based system is a bad idea too. First off – let’s show a little altruism here – it would make the plight of the horrible countries worse. I am not generally a fan of Pope Francis with respect to his views on migration, but he has a point when he says, like Pope John Paul II before him, that a “brain drain” from Third World countries robs them of much of their best talent and hope for improving their own homelands.
However, to note that is not to suggest that importing cherry-picked high-achievers into the US is such a blessing for us. Just as we don’t need a migrant underclass, neither do we need an imported overlord class taking the best jobs from American kids who have busted their hump getting through school and in many cases gone heavily into debt.
This is a particular problem in high-tech and IT, where massive companies with near-monopoly market control – and consequently almost total obsequy from the bipartisan political class – demand the importation of ever more foreign talent, particular in STEM fields. This is despite serious uncertainty as to whether there are enough jobs even for Americans trained in those disciplines.
A special area of concern is pushback against the Trump Administration’s modest effort to trim the much-abused H-1B program for supposedly “temporary” workers, a transgression against both the left’s multiculturalism and corporate plutocrats’ demand for cheap, docile indentured labor. There exists a kind of reverse-nativism, according to which America needs a vital “transfusion of fresh blood” from lots and lots of bright, energetic foreigners. You see, American-born people are just too lazy and stupid to succeed on their own and deserve to be replaced. If you or your offspring lose out to an “insourced” immigrant or H-1B via-holder, maybe one who can trump you on an affirmative action preference, too bad for you.
Here’s a suggestion. Let’s nix both imported underclass and overclass and have a long (if not permanent) immigration timeout like we had from the end of the first Great Wave of immigration in the mid-1920s until the current wave was set off by the 1965 immigration act. For almost half a century, those who entered in that previous wave (such as all four of this writer’s Spartan grandparents) and their progeny had time to assimilate and become Americans. Unless and until those who arrived in the past few decades have likewise Americanized (are we allowed to say that?) to the extent possible – and the millions now here illegally have been repatriated – entry should be cut down to the absolute minimum. That should be not much more than spousal visas, and those should be strictly scrutinized for fraud.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s language, whatever it was, will translate into good policy. In the wake of “S-Gate,” he’s in a strong position. Republicans can move a clean federal government funding bill and dare the Democrats to block it and shut down the government of the whole country because it doesn’t save the “Dreamers.” But never underestimate the potential for panic among Congressional Republicans and their ability to throw away a winning hand.
That’s where the risk for Trump is. If he falls for a chump’s deal on immigration, where he yields on DACA in exchange for promises and gestures the way Ronald Reagan got suckered on the last big amnesty in 1986, his base – which indeed wouldn’t care if he gunned down someone in the middle of 5th Avenue – might not be so forgiving. They can overlook a lot, but not that. And if his base stays home this November, we’re looking at a Democratic Congress, impeachment, and President Mike Pence.
- Verdict after one year: Trump’s rough talk and the hateful reaction to it increase the chances he will stand his ground. But it still could go either way. This is the one to watch.