Peter Englund: With Donald Trump the US has acquired its most dangerous leader ever
UPPDATERAD 11:49 PUBLICERAD IGÅR
With Donald Trump the US has acquired its most dangerous leader ever. Swedish author and historian Peter Englund looks for the story of the president in a time that is characterized by modern media's incessant flow.
All stories are written in retrospect. Not only does that mean that in retrospect events can get a different meaning than they had to begin with, it also has the simple but frustrating consequence that stories cannot be written until what they want to tell has already come to an end. The alternative is the chronicle, in its original form: The on-going reporting of occurrences, great and small, where unfortunately a lot of details will appear irrelevant, while other matters, which in hindsight appear crucial, were never even recorded.
With modern media we find ourselves in that kind of flow, and it is stronger and more confusing than ever before. While we are living through things in chronicles we interpret them in stories. And as no stories have been made yet, we look for parallels, analogies. This is not an infallible way of going about things. Parallels can be shallow, analogies wrongly chosen. The randomness or unpredictability, which is inherent in all that is human, can throw even the most well informed prognosis. But a lot of the time we have no choice. Also: what would otherwise be the point of the story?
With Donald Trump, the US has acquired its most dangerous leader ever. Could he become Hitler? That is questionable, for the US in 2017 is not Germany in 1933, and ”the Donald” lacks the destructive intelligence of ”der Führer”. But he does have other things. Trump has the aggressiveness of Hitler and also the same lack of interest in the practical side of politics. He has the self-control of Mussolini, the truthfulness of Stalin, Kaddafi’s modesty, Mugabe’s disinterest in money. He has Mao Zedong’s burning greed for facts and Homer Simpson’s concentration span. It is rewarding to talk about the new president’s vices. Mockery can only be welcomed, as something is obviously seriously wrong with him. But at the same time it is crucial to go beyond. People found it hard to take Hitler seriously when he began propagating on Germany’s political stage.
Historical analogies are often only meaningful in their detail. Many have pointed to the risk of a ”Reichstag fire” on American soil, meaning an extraordinary event, like a terrorist attack, which Trump the demagogue – just like Hitler in 1933 – would use to restrict those democratic principles that he has already shown a distracted interest in. The reactions to 9/11 show how such an event can short-circuit reason in people – if at some point in this age we have experienced anything like the hysteria of August 1914 it was in connection with 9/11. Such an event could help Trump circumvent what is and remains his most serious weakness: the fact that the base of his power is so fragile. The popularity he enjoys is a kilometre wide and five centimetres deep. Trump’s TV-personality is a fraud. All those who thought they voted for the smart and talented businessman in ”The apprentice” have instead found themselves with a Twitter troll lumbering around in a bath robe, firing one confused decree after another. Even if his fans in the working community are still on his side, one might question whether in the long run they will continue to cheer further tax cuts for the very rich, a government swarming with billionaires and the dismantling of what is left of social security in the US. They turned to him as a saviour, just like many Germans did to Hitler in 1933, but contrary to Hitler, he will not be able to give them a fraction of what they hope for.
Except for a ”Reichstag fire” there is one other event that could cement the power of Trump, which is already wavering, and elevate him to the status of national saviour. That event is an international conflict. There is a big risk that we could see a great war during the next four years. Several paths lead that way.
If Trump is serious about his isolationism, the danger is that we might experience a parallel to what happened the last time the US withdrew from the stage of world politics, during the 20’s and 30’s. Then the path was cleared for great wars in both Europe and Asia. The fact that we can also forebode the horrendous contours of a new Ribbentrop pact, where Trump, helped by the power of Putin, the murderer and crypto fascist, gives his benefactor the go ahead to fulfil his plan of taking back parts of the former Soviet union ”heim ins Reich”. In that case darkness is upon us here in Scandinavia.
What frightens me even more is that it is entirely possible to couple passivity in Europe, over for example a Russian blitzkrieg, with the contrary in Asia. It’s no secret that the new administration, while praising Russia and showing contempt for international cooperation founded on anything but club law, has drastically raised its tone against China.
Trump’s left hemisphere and evil genius, Steve Bannon, is, as we all know, an extreme right-wing apocalyptic, who beside his Islamophobic hallucinations fantasises about a war with China. (Bannon seems corroded by the same whims that contaminated so many people in Europe prior to 1914, namely the belief in war as a cathartic power). The fact that Trump has given a major post to a Sinophobe by the name of Peter Navarro, might be less known. The new president reads no books, he barely reads anything – he has ordered summaries not to be longer than a page, and with no more than nine bullet points. But one piece he has really familiarised himself with, and publicly cited, is Navarro’s alarmist ”The Coming China War” from 2006, where the view on trade is close to feudal. A picture where one either wins or loses – and where a global confrontation over commodities is pictured as more or less inevitable. This brings us back to 1914, or 1941, where similar ideas about interests that could not be paired, helped to ignite great wars.
It is important to note that the dictatorship of China is neither Serbia nor Poland, a little country stuck between super powers. It is a super power in its own right, the second largest economy in the world. And the people in power in Beijing have, for the last few years, behaved more and more aggressively. This has been shown by their provocative behaviour in the South China Sea, where not only have they hijacked an ever bigger part of the area but also started to build artificial weapon strewn islands. If a shooting war between the US and China starts it will probably start there. (Here we oversee a totally different threat, the one from North Korea, where the megalomaniac Kim Jong-Un continues his deadly game with nuclear weapons.)
The previously mentioned fact, that Trump will not be able to fulfil his vague and generous promises from the campaign, could be an aggravating circumstance. We want to believe that the disappointment will lead to his supporters turning their backs on him. (His ratings are down to 40 per cent already, which is an all time low: it took another unsuccessful president, Richard Nixon, four years of fumbling to reach the same ratings). At the same time history has taught us that this type of frustration can also be transformed into a hunt for scapegoats, internal or foreign. These dark energies will always find an outlet.
Maybe there won’t be a confrontation with aircraft carriers and robots ”Live on CNN”, but ”merely” a trade war? Trump’s whim – putting penalty customs of 45 per cent on Chinese goods – could definitely start one. And then the risk is particularly high of a downward spiral for international trade, as was the case when the protectionist reptile brain impulses of the 30’s were allowed to govern. This resulted in a world depression. But maybe we can put our faith in the Chinese leaders? Compared to Trump and his aides they are close to wonders of competence and ability: and with all of their villainy they have shown themselves capable of understanding what a catastrophe any of the events mentioned above would be.
The main brake for the adventures with external policy can be found in the US, in the form of an ever-growing opposition both inside and outside of the political and bureaucratic system. We must also remember that Trump’s party is not really his. (Again in sharp contrast with you-know-who in 1933). Republicans both in the Congress and in the Senate, now caught in their own cynicism and cowardice, will stand by him as long as he is useful and keeps the stock market value somewhat intact, but many of them despise him deeply. And when he threatens to pull them down with him in his own Armageddon – he will be sacrificed. Sticking to Germany-analogy: just as the elites of Germany did with their emperor in 1918.
All stories are written in retrospect. How the story of Donald Trump’s time in the Oval office will be formed we obviously cannot know. But we do know that it will end badly, in some way. Either for him: maybe we will be saved by the many vices of the new president, which could make his time in office short. (Such a development would also be a setback for right wing populists in other countries.) Or for the world: The new administration’s unique combination of incompetence, impulsivity, aggressiveness and ideological blindness does point in that direction.