Donald Trump remains blinded — willfully or not I cannot say — by his absurd narrative of America as an aggrieved nation. It’s a narrative that will stimulate the growth, rather than the diminution, of government power.
As he told this week’s national prayer breakfast, “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually.” He repeated this claim several times at a later photo op at the White House. It of course was the dominant theme of his presidential campaign: the United States is the 99-pound weakling into whose eyes everyone kicks sand. The only way to stop this abuse, we were told, is to elect Donald Trump. Now that he has assumed power, he says, he will keep his promise and restore respect to the United States.
His opening days as president have been marked by Trump’s idea of getting tough with allies and adversaries and cracking down on would-be immigrants and refugees who happen to have been born in the wrong Muslim-majority countries.
At the prayer breakfast he pledged to fix the world: “The world is in trouble, but we can straighten it out, okay? That’s what I do — I fix things.” Straightening out the entire world hardly signals a radical rethinking of postwar U.S. foreign policy and a switch to something more modest for the sake of “America First” — quite the contrary. Even if Trump’s objective were possible, it would take a far more powerful, more militaristic, more intrusive, and more expensive government than the one we labor under at present. So would his aim to “eradicate [“radical Islamic terrorism] completely from the face of the Earth,” as he promised in his inaugural address.
But in fact the theme that unifies most of Trump’s policy positions is wrong: America is not the aggrieved party. It is not everyone’s chump. It’s the abuser and the bully. Trump either doesn’t know this or he does but realizes that no one never won power by telling the public, “Elect me and we still stop victimizing the world.”
One can see Trump’s aggrieved-nation shtick in nearly everything he says. America, according to Trump, has been abused by Muslims, by trade partners (especially Mexico and China), by free-loading allies, and more. Weak leadership made this possible, he says. Strong leadership — the kind only he can provide — is the cure.
But in every case the story is the opposite of the one Trump tells. Violence against American noncombatants — unjustified as it is — has been a response to decades of direct and indirect U.S. government violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Islamists from Osama bin Laden on down have said it. (They don’t say they hate us for our freedom.) Even American officials have acknowledged this, though they rarely say it outright in public. After World War I the Arab world (like others) hoped the United States would block the European colonial powers’ designs on the region. Instead the U.S. government acquiesced in England’s and France’s plans even as some Americans looked to supplant the old imperialist powers as the dominant force in the Middle East. In the ensuing years, Arab hope turned to ashes as America sided with corrupt autocrats, cynically used secular and religious elements as expedient, and backed Israel’s ethnic cleansing and land confiscation in Palestine.
Trump shows no sign of understanding the U.S. government’s century of provocation; on the contrary, he promises to double down on the so-called “war on terror,” pledging to those assembled at the prayer breakfast his war “may not be pretty for a little while…. All nations have a duty to work together to confront it [‘radical Islamic terrorism’] and to confront it viciously, if we have to.” The first special-forces operation on Trump’s watch just took place in Yemen, resulting in the deaths of women and children, including the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen and cleric killed by a drone strike in Yemen ordered by President Obama, and sister of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an American teenager also killed by a drone strike in Yemen. (Needless to say, none of these victims were accorded due process.) Trump honored the one American military Navy SEAL killed in the badly planned operation, but did not acknowledge the deaths of noncombatants. Yemen, by the way, is where the U.S. government is helping Saudi Arabia wage a genocidal war, benefiting al-Qaeda in the process. Obama initiated the policy, but Trump has yet to mention, much less terminate, it. He’s not likely to do so because the Saudi targets, the Houthis, are said (erroneously) to be agents of Iran, which Trump has in his sights.
Trump would say, no doubt, that attacks on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are justified, no matter how ferocious, because they intend to harm Americans. But since they intend to do harm to Americans because of what the U.S. government has done to their societies, this answer is invalid. Moreover, it is self-defeating because U.S. attacks, especially the deaths of noncombatants, will likely provoke further terrorism against Americans. Trump, who presents himself as an out-of-the-box thinker, has yet to question the establishment story and understand what Ron Paul pointed out in his 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination: “They’re over here because we’re over there.” (Paul was referring to the 9/11 attacks. Since 2001 the few terrorist acts in the United States were committed by U.S. citizens said to be inspired by Islamist groups. Terrorists have not infiltrated the United States, although Trump would have you believe otherwise.)
As William T. Cavanaugh discusses in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, blaming terrorism on Islam (even “radical Islam”) blinds Americans to the political roots of violence, specifically, U.S. neo-imperialism in the Middle East. How comforting it is to dismiss a large group of people as under the spell of a barbaric medieval religion rather than own up to the cruelty of one’s own government. Of course for Trump, evading the truth better fits the aggrieved-nation narrative.
Trump’s narrative is reinforced by Steve Bannon, perhaps his closest adviser. Bannon, whom Trump has named to the National Security Council, has often said that the West is in a war with Islam. USA Today reports that in a January 2016 interview, Bannon said, “To be brutally frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise.” The year before he said, “Some of these situations may get a little unpleasant. But you know what, we’re in a war. We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.” (Also in 2016 he said, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? There’s no doubt about that.” Trump also has an animus toward China, which is bolstered by his top economic adviser, Peter Navarro.) Like his boss, Bannon’s got a thing for war. (Also see this.)
In Trump’s worldview, it’s not only terrorists who menace us. The foreigners with whom Americans trade also take advantage of America, especially but not limited to Mexico and China. But as has been said many times in response, trade yields expected net benefits to both parties or it does not take place. So Trump’s take on trade is based on a blatant fallacy. (Again, who knows if he really believes his own nonsense or he if says it because he knows few people understand even the most basic economics?) Suffice it say that China and Mexico are not “raping” us, as Trump would have us believe. That he would equate voluntary transactions with rape should have won him only ridicule on day one of his campaign. That it did not speaks volumes. If anyone is harmed in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements it is the countries on which the U.S. government imposes draconian, unlibertarian intellectual-“property” restrictions that prevent indigenous competition with American corporations.
Even when Trump has a valid target — NATO — he gets the story wrong because he cannot let anything detract from his aggrieved-nation shtick. NATO is not a collection of countries enjoying U.S. protection while free-riding off American taxpayers. Rather, it’s a multilateral facade for unilateral American foreign military and political intervention, that is, a tool of the American empire. NATO, particularly its inclusion of former Soviet republics and allies, also has been key in provoking Russia, something Trump doesn’t mention. Again, America is not the aggrieved party. (See more here.) We should note also that Trump has backed off his criticism of NATO and that even if he withdrew, American military spending would not go down. Trump plans to increase the military budget.
Finally, immigration. Trump thinks that people who come to the United States (unless they’re the “right” kind of people) do us harm. This is belied by every study. Immigrants (whether or not they have government papers — a matter that should not concern libertarians) make society better in all sorts of ways. But that is not the ultimate justification for freedom of movement. The ultimate justification is the natural right of the people to move in search of better lives. Trump doesn’t know or care about that, so he’s sticking to his promise to build a wall near the Mexican border. While he’ll be violating the rights of individuals who wish to move to the United States, he’ll also violate the rights of American landowners along the border. Trump’s wall cannot be built without eminent domain (land theft), which he is long on record as favoring. He has tried to get government to take private land for his own enterprises, and he applauded the Supreme Court’s Kelo ruling, which said takings for private use were constitutional.
As one can see, Trump’s aggrieved-nation narrative is a call for more powerful government across a range of issues. Those who were hoping that Trump would make the state a smaller presence in our lives should now realize how wrong they were.