By Farhang Jahanpour
Last year’s U.S. presidential election campaign was the most acrimonious in recent history. The debates were personal and bad-tempered. Some email leaks from the Democratic National Committee showed that the committee had been actively trying to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in favor of his rival Hillary Clinton, which deprived both of them of victory in the election.
On the Republican side, most candidates engaged in crude personal attacks against each other. Senator Marco Rubio hit an extreme low by referring to Donald Trump’s small hands, and Trump retorted that Rubio had “really large ears” and gave him the nickname of “Little Marco”.
Trump called Senator Ted Cruz “the single biggest liar” and threatened that “he would spill the beans” on his wife. Trump also constantly referred to his Democratic rival as “Crooked Hillary”, with the crowds chanting: “lock her up”.
The campaign manifested a level of vulgarity that has been unprecedented in American politics. Based on Trump’s comments about women, blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, etc. many American commentators have described him as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and narcissistic.
However, alongside those controversial remarks, Trump also gave the impression that if he were elected his presidency would mark a major break with the past and would usher in a more peaceful world and a more constructive relationship with Russia.
Trump strongly criticized the invasion of Iraq, the trillions of dollars that were spent on it and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. He hinted that his administration would not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and would concentrate on “making America great again”.
Donald Trump won the election on the basis of Electoral College votes, yet his victory was far from impressive. Some 40% of registered voters didn’t vote. Of the 60% who voted, Trump got a little more than 28% of the vote. His 62 million votes constituted 18% of America’s 340 million people, and Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more popular votes than Trump did.
So, although technically Trump won, he certainly has no decisive mandate. He is also the only president to have come to office with no previous elected post and no public or military service, even at a junior level, and not even having the support of leading Republicans.
An administration filled with generals and millionaires
President Trump formed a cabinet of generals and millionaires, basically to boost his own ego, because he feels strong in the company of generals and rich people. The American military is the biggest symbol of US strength and is normally well regarded by most Americans. He appointed Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster as the national security adviser to replace General Michael Flynn who was forced to resign after lying about his secret contacts with the Russian ambassador.
He chose Marine Corps General James Mattis as Defense Secretary, and Marine Corps General John F. Kelly as Homeland Security Secretary. This creates a team of generals all of whom have served in Iraq.
In addition, CIA Director Mike Pompeo is a West Point graduate and former Army tank officer. Even White House adviser Steve Bannon had served as a naval officer and piloted a destroyer in the Gulf of Oman trailing the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz that carried the helicopters used in the Carter administration’s botched 1980 attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran.
As troubles mount for Trump there is every danger that he will use America’s powerful military to distract attention from his domestic woes and to prove his toughness as the commander-in-chief. Trump has made many warlike noises towards China, North Korea and Iran, and many American analysts have stipulated that a war with Iran is quite likely.
“American carnage” combined with increased militarism and “America First”
Many people were hoping that Trump’s more extreme statements were just campaign rhetoric and that when he assumed the responsibilities of office he would adopt a much more measured and moderate course. But his inaugural address was anything but conventional. He painted a very bleak picture of America, and in front of his Republican and Democratic predecessors he accused them of having enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary Americans.
He coined the term “American carnage” to describe the current situation in America. He portrayed a country afflicted by crime, drug addiction, poverty, unemployment, and a landscape of rusted factories like tombstones, adding, “politicians prospered, but the nation did not share in its wealth… The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” He promised that “the American carnage stops right here, right now”, without explaining how he was going to implement that edict. (1)
He argued that America provided financial help to other countries while they plundered America (despite the fact that America has exploited the wealth of other countries, such as oil and mineral resources, more than any other country), that other countries have been responsible for the loss of jobs in America (which has been mainly due to automation and globalization and the fact that other developing countries have risen up and are now competing for jobs), etc.
On the military front, he complained that America had “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” (despite a military budget that is larger than that of the next 14 biggest military powers combined). The US military budget for the fiscal year 2017 is $773.5 billion. (2)
If we add the budgets of the CIA and 16 other intelligence agencies to the military budget, the United States spends close to one trillion dollars a year on military-related issues, nearly half of the total global military expenditure. In comparison, Russia’s total military spending is less than 14% of America’s military budget and less than 8% of NATO’s spending. Yet Trump seeks $54 billion increase in military spending to “rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America.”
Furthermore, America is by far the biggest exporter of military weapons and services to the rest of the world. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, in 2015 the United States accounted for more than half of all arms transfers worldwide. America exported $89 billion worth of arms in 2014 and $80 billion in 2015. France finished 2015 a very distant second with agreements totaling $15.3 billion, followed by Russia at $7.2 billion. Sadly, most of those exports go to unstable regimes in the war-torn Middle East. During the past eight years the GCC countries have spent a record $350 billion on U.S. weaponry, killing hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen and Syria and causing massive destruction in those two countries.
Trump’s only solution for reversing the “American carnage” was: “From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first.” This narrow vision of America is contrary to America’s claim to be a refuge for the needy and dispossessed throughout the world, as an advocate of democracy and human rights and as the leader of the free world.
Clearly most Americans, including many of those who voted for him, were not very impressed by that gloom-laden speech. As a result, he has had the lowest approval rating of any former American president at the beginning of his term, hovering between 35 and 40 per cent. Meanwhile, his administration has begun to unravel in the first few weeks of his term.
Muslim ban, Iran-hatred and the Deep State
In order to implement some of his campaign promises he issued a large number of executive orders, hastily revoking some of President Obama’s landmark achievements, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (nicknamed Obamacare). He reversed the regulations aimed at protecting waterways, and the decisions on the construction of two controversial pipelines – the Keystone XL and Dakota Access. He cancelled U.S participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and pledged to build a “really beautiful wall” between the United States and Mexico. He has also promised to shred the landmark nuclear deal that six global powers reached with Iran.
He has moved very fast to implement his anti-Muslim policies. Those measures included suspension of the refugee programme for 120 days, an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, and a ban on anyone arriving from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Despite Trump’s assertion that his ban on Muslim immigrants was not based on religion, there is no doubt that it was a Muslim ban. On the campaign trail, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
After the election, a Trump surrogate, Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, led the cat out of the bag. On live TV he explained: “I’ll tell you the whole history of it: When he first announced it, he said ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up, he said, ‘Put a commission together, show me the right way to do it legally.’”
Trump stressed that the only people allowed into the country from those seven nations would be religious minorities, such as Christians, but not Muslims. So, it is clear that it was a Muslim ban and thus it violated the US Constitution that prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.
American courts that are still valiantly safeguarding their independence, moved quickly to block Trump’s executive order. It is important to note that no one has ever been killed as the result of any terrorist act in the United States by anyone from any of those seven countries. Meanwhile, countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt whose citizens were involved in the worst terrorist atrocity on 9/11 have not been included in the ban. So the ban really has nothing to do with security, but with Trump’s intense hostility towards some Muslim countries.
Trump has issued a revised Executive Order taking Iraq out of the list of the seven countries and making some minor amendments regarding those who already hold US visas or green cards. However, it is clear that the new ban is also based on religion, and has again been blocked by U.S. courts.
It seems that the ban was especially aimed against Iran and the countries that Trump imagines to be aligned with Iran.
Iran has the largest population of any of the seven countries and sends the largest number of students and visitors to the United States. There are about one million US citizens of Iranian origin who lead peaceful lives and contribute to their adopted country as professors, doctors, engineers, artists, businessmen, etc. Above all, Iran negotiated a landmark deal with the United States and five other world powers and has carried out all her commitments under that deal.
During his short time in office, President Trump has fallen out with the American intelligence agencies, comparing them to the Nazis. He has attacked most of the media as “being the greatest enemy of the people” and producing fake news. He has attacked the “so-called judges” who blocked his unconstitutional executive orders banning Muslims from coming to America. He has rejected the views of the overwhelming majority of scientists on climate change and global warming.
Trump has also accused President Obama, without producing any evidence, of orchestrating the demonstrations against him, comparing it to a “silent coup”. In his other tweets, he has accused his predecessor, again without any evidence, of illegally wiretapping his phones prior to the election, adding: “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” FBI Director James B. Comey and the NSA Chief Michael S. Rogers, in their testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, emphatically rejected those claims as nonsense by. One also has to remember Trump’s earlier “birther myth” about President Obama that he rode as far as it would go.
There seems to be no end to the leaks about covert contacts between members of Trump’s team and Russian officials. For instance, it was revealed that Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General, had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, but had failed to disclose these to senators during his confirmation hearing. Democrats have called for his resignation for committing perjury, which he has described as a “total witch hunt”, but he has been forced to recuse himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with US officials having contacts with their Russian counterparts or trying to mend relations with Russia. However, it is one thing to have legitimate relations with Russia and it is quite another to have covert relations with Russian officials before having assumed power, and then lying about it.
Why have there been so many covert meetings with Russian officials? What was the Russian ambassador doing visiting General Michael Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in Trump Tower before Trump’s inauguration? At least six members of Mr Trump’s team – including Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Michael Cohen – have allegedly had undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. (3)
The U.S. today and Germany then – differences
Given the new President’s populist and authoritarian tendencies, many American politicians and activists have warned of alarming signs of fascism and have called for resistance. (4)
Many have even compared the current state in the United States with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, comparing Trump’s ban on Muslims to Hitler’s ban on Jews. Even Pope Francis has warned against populism and has cited Hitler. (5)
However, it is important to stress that present day America is not 1930s Germany, and besides, no two situations are identical.
There are at least six important factors that distinguish America from pre-war Germany and, for that matter, from many other countries.
The first one is a written constitution, with a clear separation of powers and checks and balances.
The second important distinction is freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the constitution as the First Amendment.
Thirdly, the United States has a strong and vibrant civil society.
Fourthly, there is a tradition of popular activism through demonstrating and protesting when some fundamental rights are endangered, as we have been witnessing during the past few weeks.
Fifthly, people’s access to social media and access to the latest news reports makes them much more informed of what is going on than was the case in the past.
May be, above all, the most important difference is the example of Nazi Germany and Communist totalitarianism that we can draw upon, and our experience of the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism as represented by pre-war Germany, Italy and Spain.
But then there are very good reasons to worry
Having said all that, there are some worrying signs that need to be watched.
Recently, I came across the translation of a speech Hitler delivered in February 1940 about the inferior qualities of former officials and how he was going to rescue the masses from that devastation. Hitler said: “Only inferior personalities were at the helm at that time. The German people had nothing to do with their failure. If at that time I as the representative of a new political idea appeared in this hall I did so as representative of these millions of individual Germans who had not broken down the old parties and the old political forms.”
This shows an uncanny resemblance to Trump’s “American carnage”, blaming others for all of America’s alleged ills, and portraying himself as the only person who can save America.
We should bear in mind that Germany was perhaps the most advanced literary, cultural, technological and scientific society in Europe. In literature, Germany had produced Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and many more great literary geniuses. In philosophy, Germany and Austria had produced some of the greatest European philosophers, including Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and many more.
In music, no other country could compare with Germany and Austria, with some of the greatest composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn, etc. Germany was also a leading industrial and technological power and had contributed many great scientists to the world.
Yet, despite this brilliant record, it fell victim to Nazism.
The mood in 1930s Germany was dark. It was emerging from the humiliating defeat of the First World War, similar to President Bush’s failed wars in the Middle East at the cost of trillions of dollars, and the burden of debt and reparation that victorious powers had imposed on her.
The country had been hit hard by a global economic recession, much worse than the economic crash of 2008-9. There was mass poverty and unemployment. In the midst of all these problems, people looked for a strong leader.
1. Hitler was portrayed as a messiah-like figure who could offer strong authoritarian leadership.
2. He appealed to the people to develop a unifying idea.
3. He made use of German nationalism as a rallying call.
4. He used Marxists and Jews as scapegoats for all the ills that Germany suffered.
Similarly, America is the world’s foremost technological country and also excels in arts and sciences. There are millions of decent, educated Americans who are great advocates of democracy and human rights.
Although Trump greatly exaggerates the extent of “American carnage”, nevertheless, he has sown the seeds of fear and dissatisfaction in the minds of many workers who have been left behind by globalisation.
It is interesting to note that Trump’s only foreign policy reference in many of his speeches has been to unite the civilized world against “radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the earth.” Islamist terrorism is certainly a major nuisance, mainly for people in the Middle East and Europe, but hardly an existential threat to the United States.
We should also not forget that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the destruction of Iraqi civil society, the purging of all government employees who had been affiliated with the Ba’th Party that was necessary for employment under Saddam Hussein, and the disbanding of the army under the US Administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, were some of the most important contributing factors to the rise of ISIS.
Without wishing to equate present-day America with pre-war Germany in any way, I believe that there are some worrying signs indicating that we are at the beginning of a slippery slope.
Self-deception and hate by fake news
It is time for Americans to make use of all the above-mentioned advantages that they possess to make sure that the slide towards authoritarianism, chauvinism, protectionism and militarism will be nipped in the bud.
Trump’s rise to power has been based on populism, scapegoating of foreigners and religious and ethnic minorities, and a tendency to deny facts. His press conferences are often described as surreal. Facts can be replaced by “alternative facts” when it suits his purpose. As a result, we live in a period of post-truth politics.
Despite Trump’s criticism of fake news in the media, nobody has invented more “alternative facts” than Trump’s Counsellor Kellyanne Conway, such as the invention of the “Bowling Green Massacre”, which she used as a justification for a travel and immigration ban from some Muslim countries. Such a massacre never occurred, and later she said that she meant to refer to the 2011 arrest of two Iraqi refugees for allegedly attempting to provide support to terrorists in Iraq.
On 29 January 2017, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that Islamic terrorists had perpetrated a terrorist attack in Atlanta, although there had been no such attack.
There had been two terrorist attacks in Atlanta, the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which was carried out by domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph, and the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple bombing that occurred on October 12, 1958, which was allegedly carried out by the American Nazi Party.
The same applies to Trump’s story about having seen thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11, the terrible things that had happened in Sweden the day before he spoke, President Obama’s wiretapping his conversations, etc.
The problem with such “fake news” is that it incites the same hatred against minorities that was aroused against the Jews in Germany. There have already been many attacks on minority groups based on Trump’s hateful speech. Since Trump entered the White House, mosques have been vandalised and even set on fire, and Muslim university students have been attacked and subjected to physical and verbal assaults.
Two Indian engineers were shot down in Kansas by a far-right terrorist, who boasted that he had killed two Iranians. There was a shooting in a mosque in Quebec, killing six and injuring eight, by a far-right student who had expressed support for Trump and the French far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. (6) There has also been an unprecedented spike in anti-Jewish crimes.
Furthermore, Trump’s attacks on the media are dangerous not just because they undermine public trust in the establishment, but because they undermine relations between the majority of Americans and many law-abiding Muslims, blacks and Latinos by portraying them as terrorists, rapists, drug dealers, etc.
Therefore, Trump and his aides are not merely at war with the media, the intelligence services, the judiciary and the scientific community, but they are at war with truth and with the rule of law.
Europe must take new responsibilities and think on its own
Many Americans regard Trump as an aberration, but whether he will last long or not, the fact remains that America is passing through a very dark and dangerous period.
We have had many periods of upheavals and the rise of hateful ideologies in Europe, such as Nazism and Fascism, when America helped Europe to overcome those dark periods. It is time for Europe to wake up and realize that America under Trump is not the “leader of the free world”, but a real danger to Europe and to the rest of the world as was stated by the President of European Council Donald Tusk.
Americans will not put up with the current regime for long, but until they can restore their democracy there is a need for all the people of goodwill throughout the world to carry the burden of safeguarding democracy, human rights, international law and preventing unnecessary wars.
Brexit has unfortunately weakened European unity, and there are some dark clouds in the rest of Europe with the rise of some far-right and xenophobic movements, although the latest elections in Holland show that extremism may have peaked in Europe.
Nevertheless, the international situation is so grave at the moment that European leaders should set aside their minor squabbles and should try to rescue humanity from a dark and unpredictable future. They should engage in dialog with China, Russia and the rest of the world, especially the turbulent Middle East, and create a new basis for international cooperation and world peace.
At a time when some elected leaders are acting as despots and turning their democracies into elected dictatorships, it is more necessary than ever to stress the importance of the United Nations and Human Rights Charter as the bases for international relations.
There is an urgent need for blocking the path to war, building bridges instead of walls, and safeguarding the future of humanity in a multipolar world, based on mutual respect, equality, the rule of law, global security agreements, and the gradual elimination of nuclear weapons. We should no longer allow an unbalanced leader of any country to have the power to endanger international peace and security. It is time for sanity, collective action and cooperation for the common good.
1. The Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017
2. See Kimberly Amadeo, “U.S. Military Budget: Components, Challenges, Growth”, The Balance, October 26, 2016 https://www.thebalance.com/u-s-military-budget-components-challenges-growth-3306320
3. Harriet Agerholm, “All Donald Trump’s team members are alleged to have had undisclosed contact with Russia officials”, Independent, 2 March 2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-team-members-campaign-russia-links-contact-officials-jeff-sessions-michael-flynn-a7607876.html
4. Jamil Smith, “Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist”, New Republic https://newrepublic.com/minutes/124205/yes-donald-trump-fascist
Also see: Isaac Chotiner, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist: Yes and No”, Slate, February 10, 2017.
5. “Pope Francis warns against populism, citing Hitler” Aljazeera, 22 January 2017 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/pope-francis-warns-populism-citing-hitler-170122151148535.html
6. “Quebec Mosque Shooting” The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/30/quebec-mosque-shooting-two-students-arrested-gun-attack-mosque/
Farhang Jahanpour is board member of TFF and a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. He is a part-time tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford