Waking up after the long hangover of the Trump era

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Election night 2016. I won’t forget it. It began in downtown Jerusalem at a bar called Mike’s Place where the Republicans in Israel had gathered. I was living in Israel so we watched the returns come in here. They were despondent and sure that Donald Trump, the seventy-year-old property developer celebrity New York showman turned reality television star, would lose. It must have been after midnight when some results showed that he wasn’t losing, in fact he was winning key states. I had believed major media that was saying Hilary Clinton had up to a 98% chance of winning just days before. Now she was losing. The Republicans were in a shocked trance. Celebrating.

Hours later on election night 2016 I went over to what was supposed to be a celebration for the Democrats on Radak street in Jerusalem. At the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies the food had been laid out and the banners unfurled for the Clinton victory. It was “pant suit nation” and she would be the first female president. But by the time my friend Noa and I got there the mood was depressing. They knew. Clinton had lost. There would be no pant suit nation. Instead, Trump, the man who was caught on tape bragging about “grab ‘em by the pussy” and said he could shoot someone and still win, would be President.

Now, four years later, I woke up on November 8, 2020 with a sense of relief. The day before, major media had declared Joe Biden, born in 1942, the president-elect. Trump is contesting the decision. He is ranting on Twitter, his favorite medium. But his tweets about “I won the election” are now being either censored or fact checked by social media. It’s over.

Gerald Ford said in August 1974 that “our long, national nightmare is over.” On September 8, 1974 Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as president. Joe Biden has called for a time of healing. He has pushed this tone since election day. On November 4 he said:

“So once the selection is finalized and behind us, it’ll be time for us to do what we’ve always done as Americans, to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to one another, to hear each other again, and respect and care for one another, to unite, to heal, to come together as a nation. I know this won’t be easy. I’m not naive. Neither of us are. I know how deep and hard the opposing views are in our country on so many things. But I also know this as well. To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies. What brings us together as Americans is so much stronger than anything that can tear us apart. So let me be clear. I, we, are campaigning as a Democrats, but I will govern as an American president.”

This is an important message. Already the major media, which focused on one Trump statement after another for four years, with crises every day, has become more positive. The question is whether we are waking up from the hangover or just beginning to recover.

No one believed it at the time

Let’s go back to 2016. When Trump was elected it was a shock to the United States and the world. It was unclear if he even wanted to be president. He had run before. He appeared to do it for celebrity reasons. It didn’t seem serious. His campaign had already been the center of numerous scandals. A sense of how Trump might govern was already in the air. The “quiet fixer” his son-in-law Jared Kushner had become central to the campaign in July 2016. Trump advisors appeared to have trouble staying with the campaign. Carter Page, brought on in March 2016, left under a cloud in September as accusations of Russian attempts to infiltrate the campaign grew. More departures would follow and the FBI would be brought in by the Obama administration, in its last months, to try to figure out if the Trump campaign had been compromised. This formed the essence of a toxic discussion in the US about Russian “spying” and manipulation of the US system. Later this would be characterized as a “Russia hoax” by defenders of Trump.

There was a brief window for Trump to be a normal president in 2016. He vowed to be a president for “all Americans” in November and President Barack Obama gave him the benefit of the doubt. Clinton had also called to concede quickly. There would be a smooth transition of power.

But there was a problem. Trump had never prepared to win or to become president. He choose to run the presidency the same way he had run the campaign. This looked more like a reality show and Twitter presidency, than a normal government leader. Despite claims that Trump was bringing fresh ideas to “drain the swamp” and “fight the deep state” using his business background and unorthodox style, he never seemed to attempt to govern.

Election night, 2016

For starters he didn’t consult with intelligence agencies. Some will argue that these agencies had it in for him. One only has to look at a few tweets by former US intelligence experts who vowed that Trump would end his days in prison, to understand why. The investigation into Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn illustrated that Trump would have a problem with those professional officials and former Obama holdovers who staffed the administration. Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador and was at the heart of questions about the last days of the Obama administration’s attempt to go after Russia and also to push through a UN resolution on Israel. Later Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller would be brought in to look into aspects of the Trump administration and foreign interference. From May 2017 to March 2019 this would be a focus of Trump tweets and anger. Mueller’s team would charge at least seven Americans, including George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Flynn and Michael Cohen. Roger Stone would also be arrested by the FBI in 2019 and his sentence commuted by Trump in July 2020. Flynn’s trial and investigation would go on for years. There was a sense that this was revenge for the Trump victory. Throughout Trump’s administration there was a cloud hanging over those who served it, that their time would come.

Early failures of the Trump administration also indicated how his lack of government experience and tendency to govern like an authoritarian, without bothering to understand the process of democratic consensus government, would lead to lack of progress on all fronts. He failed to get rid of Obama’s centerpiece health care reform in March 2017. That mostly ended the attempt to do anything legislative. Republicans would lose seats in the 2018 midterms, further eroding his ability to do much in Congress.

What then began in the spring of 2017 and fall was a series of crises. Trump sought out foreign leaders, a place he felt more comfortable dealing man-to-man. One leader he particularly liked was Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An authoritarian like Trump who was going after his own “deep state” and conjuring up conspiracies against media and liberals in Turkey, his flattery appealed to Trump. When Erdogan came to Washington in May 2017 protesters arrived at the Turkish embassy. Turkish security beat the peaceful protesters on US soil, knowing there would be no repercussions and that the White House had their back. Indeed it did.  Soon the State Department and others had moved to make sure nothing would happen.

Trump believed that personal relationships and transactions would make America “great again.” He waned to work closely with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, even going to North Korea briefly in June 2019. On Israel Trump held frequent calls with the King of Jordan, initially one of the few foreign leaders to enjoy such good access. On Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Trump pushed massive arms deals worth hundreds of billions, bringing posters to meetings with the Gulf monarchs to show off how much the Saudi Crown Prince would be buying. Trump mused aloud, according to reports, about getting South Korea and other US allies, such as NATO, to pay more. What are we doing and why are we doing it, was a favorite question.

Initially Trump leaned on his generals, appearing to give Defense Secretary James Mattis a wide berth to do whatever the Pentagon wanted. Several former Marines served in the US administration, including John Kelly. But they would all later say they found Trump deeply flawed. H.R McMaster was an exception, he believed he could counsel the president, and he tried during his tenure as National Security Advisor from 2017 to 2018. John Bolton did less well, having a falling out with Trump in 2019. Others came and went. Rex Tillerson was unable to forestall a Gulf crises as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi broke relations with Doha in 2017. This crises was fueled by Trump’s May 2017 summit in Riyadh with Arab and Muslim leaders. Although Trump was derided for his “Muslim ban,” many foreign Muslim leaders believed they could work with him. Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and those around him blamed the Obama administration for supposedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh blamed Obama for working with the Iranians. Trump was different, they believed. He wanted transactions, and he was willing to use power. Trump ordered airstrikes twice on Syria, in 2017 and 2018. He claimed to redraw Obama’s redlines, even as he wrapped up US support for Syrian rebels, let Turkey co-opt them, and failed to keep a ceasefire brokered with Russia in southern Syria.

The generals, Mattis, McMaster and Kelly, came and went by the end of 2018. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria angered some, and other inconsistencies with US allies and partners angered others. Trump even planned a secret Camp David meeting with the Taliban that shocked his own officials. He said he would withdraw from Syria in 2017, then again in December 2018 after a call from Erdogan, and again in October 2018, leading to chaos and a Turkish invasion. He didn’t even consult US allies such as the UK and France that had troops in Syria, or consult US partners in the SDF or CENTCOM and State Department officials. The betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies, first in Kirkuk in October 2017 and then in October 2019, angered many. It also made no sense. Why did the US administration that later ordered an airstrike on IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani, let Soleimani and his allies in Iraq, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, walk into Kirkuk in 2017, only o kill Soleimani and Mujhandis in January 2020. Bolton writes in his book tha Trump didn’t care for the Kurds much. This was in line with the general theme of Trump’s administration. It truly was “America first.”

Many didn’t fully believe Trump when he came into office. They wanted to find parallels with Andrew Jackson or Richard Nixon, populist or paranoid presidents of the past. But there was no parallel here. Trump didn’t cynically abandon eastern Syria the way the Nixon administration wanted to get out of Vietnam, it just didn’t care about US friends on the ground. It didn’t care about Hevrin Khalaf, the young woman who was leading a political party in eastern Syria and believed the US would help guarantee rights and freedoms. It wasn’t clear if Trump cared at all about America’s history of at least paying lip service to democracy and freedom. He had been born when FDR was president and grew up under Kennedy and others who had this view. So it’s unclear why he was so totally cynical.

However, his statements provide a window into his true beliefs. The US would leave Syria and maybe even Iraq, he indicated. Syria was just “sand and death” even though in fact it was a successful military campaign against ISIS where there were almost no US casualties. He told West Point’s graduating class in June 2020 that he would not send US soldiers to faraway places no one had ever heard of. One would have to go back to the 1920s to find such strong statements for total isolationism. 

Trump liked doing things in office that were entirely unilateral. No consultation with Congress or advisors or allies abroad. In June 2017 Trump said the US would leave the Paris climate change accord, and in January 2017 left the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and left UNESCO in December 2018, as well as ending funding to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority in September 2018. The US also left the Iran Deal or JCPOA in May 2018. Trump launched a trade war with China and sought to browbeat US allies into avoiding China’s Huawei and 5G networks.

The unilateral approach dovetailed well with changes that Trump and his team wanted to make in relations with Israel. Trump approached foreign policy not only as a personal mission and with transactions, but also with a tendency to want to do the opposite of what former administrations had done, as if to say “I can do what they didn’t.” He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel and sought to remake US policy on the West Bank. He also successfully pushed peace deals between Israel and the Gulf. This approach, however empowered other regimes to do the same as China changed its laws for Hong Kong, India cracked down on Kashmir, and Turkey invaded Afrin and other parts of northern Syria, causing hundreds of thousands to flee. Once the US had said the unilateralism was back with impunity, others followed suit. Countries like Israel that followed Trump’s lead in leaving UNESCO may now find the policy was shortsighted. Others, like Azerbaijan deciding to retake Nagorna-Karabkah, may have gambled successfully. Iran also gambled, with its attack on Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia in 2019 and showed it could do as it wanted. This is a more unstable world with reduced US rule and less of the liberal world order that was already cracked when Trump came into office.

Trump governed on fear. His officials would seek to please him, upbraiding colleagues and subordinates to show off. One slammed a US aircraft commander to please his boss, another fired excellent, and new leadership, at MBN and VOA apparently just to show off. Foreign leaders were taught to kow-tow and also to grovel. Trump put Netanyahu on a speaker phone as a stunt to show is obedience just prior to the election. Gulf monarchies thought they could buy influence. Instead of competent statesman, there were family members to go to, a personal lawyer and calls to Ukraine to “do me a favor.” It read more like the script from the Godfather than a policy-making government. Because he refused to govern. Personal. Transactional. Vengeful. Fear. He fired people on social media and then bashed them when they were gone. From Bolton to Mattis, they got the “treatment.” And others who remained feared it. No one grew in this administration, many reputations were harmed. It was an isolated administration, increasingly feudal and like a family business, punctuated with the 300 days of golf played out of four years in office.

Then came Covid-19. The Trump administration had jettisoned US global leadership and sent the message that NATO, the EU and others were mostly on their own. A virus that began in late 2019 and was soon spreading rapidly from China to other countries in February caught the world at the worst possible time, given this US decision to exit its role as global leader that had been laid down by George H.W Bush in the 1990s. China and other countries, such as Russia, Iran and Turkey had been muscling onto the world stage rapidly entering the US vacuum. But a group of authoritarian countries don’t deal with global health policy well. What was needed was more clear leadership from countries linked to the Five Eyes intelligence network, and coordinated policies. However the UK was moving away from the EU, and the health disaster struck at the worst time, a Black Swan even for western democracies, the global south and the world in general. A kind of Hobbesian chaos resulted of every country for itself. The result is that Europe and the US have no managed the pandemic well, while Asian states such as South Korea, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Japan and others have.

Trump should have known better. In the 1980s when my grandfather had a nice apartment on East 72nd street in Manhattan, near the 200 block, I would sit in his study where the golf game was often on and admire his collection of books about the rise of Asian economies. He was a real estate developer as well. He had grown up in the same mileu as Trump’s father. By the 1940s my grandfather was a successful businessman. By the 1980s when Trump was famous in New York, my grandfather styled himself a bit similar, a big brash man with a swagger, the kind New York produced in those days. But we never gloried in ignorance in our family. Trump appeared to glory in some aspects of ignorance. When it comes to a global health crisis why did the administration not try to learn from Asian countries that were the first hit? Why did it flip-flop around in aspects of denial? America was not made great in the crisis, this isolationism didn’t help America. One can critique the waste of funds that the US has plowed into foreign causes over the years. The Reagan administration surely would have critiqued how the US tended to appease enemies and be tough on friends. Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote an essay about that. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others would surely have understood the need to be clear with friends and adversaries. But rejecting entirely god sense and advise and going it alone during a global pandemic and throwing up one’s hands in the face of the tidal wave, was a bad moment in US history.

In the end Trump didn’t lose the election by that much. He received 70 million votes, which was some 8 million more than in 2016. This was not an unpopular president. Major media had depicted him as unpopular, but polls didn’t tell the whole story. Trump was popular and Trumpism, his doctrine if it may be called one, was popular. One can’t fully explain the popularity. It’s a mix of things. In 2016 we were told that it was mostly white men out of touch with multi-culturalism and globalization. But that is more like the 20 percent that vote for far right parties in Europe. The US doesn’t have a real white nationalist party, despite the claims of some media about the rise of white supremacy and the voices on the far-right or alt-right.

The support for Trump was complex. It was made up of people who feel that they were left behind by rising health care and tuition costs, and wealth inequality. They know the Clintons got $153 million in speaking fees from big banks, while their salaries didn’t increase. They see that “elites” or “coastal elites” ignore them and that social mobility has been eroded. Media commentators all seem to go to the same schools and come from the same zip codes and have relatives in and out government. This is the “deep state,” a network of elites in and out of government who push narratives. On social media they also feel they are persecuted, their views are “fact checked” but far-left views attacking “white people” are not. That is part of what fueled support for Trump. There was also a cult-like element. His son-in-law, daughter, and other sons and daughters all speaking at the Republican National Convention made the US Republican party look like a family business. Indeed the use of Trump gold courses, where Trump golfed for 300 days of his presidency, and Trump hotels, all became part of the brand Trump on the White House. But some people seemed to like that. They hungered for a dear leader. Just like those in Turkey or those who voted for Mussolini, there are those who see uncertainty and want a big brash man as a leader, no matter how flawed. That is why news of Trump not paying taxes for years didn’t damage him. Trump helped grow a Republican party that had lost the conservative revolutionary ideas of the Reagan era and had become lethargic. But his poison brand also engulfed the party with a populist wave that fed ignorance. That is a thin line that keeps democracies afloat. You have to win elections but you don’t want to erode institutions by hating your enemies. Politics is war, but democracy survives best in peacetime.

Trump’s place in US history is unclear

Trump gained power on grievances and anger. He injected his own style, mocking and humorous at times, but dark and cynical, into US politics. He was thriving on the anger of the 1990s against the Clintons and the later bizarro world of the “birthers” and Tea Party and other movements. He was very much an antithesis to the neo-conservatives of Bush’s election in 2000. Unsurprisingly a large number of them became “Never Trumpers.” That has all come full circle now because those like Max Boot or Bill Kristol and David Frum, or Tom Nicols and those around the Lincoln Project, can all celebrate that they held out for four years and Trump will leave office. But this leaves many questions unanswered about the future of the Republican party and also the future of the far left that has been radicalized under Trump. Racial divisions in the US continue to be a factor in US elections and anger on the streets over police brutality. There is a major divide out there and rumors of “civil war” and talk about post-election violence are real concerns. That is because there are demons that were unleashed in the last decades in the US that have torn at the fabric of America.

America used to believe that despite its flaws in the Republic, such as slavery, it could become a better country and still adhere to its values as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. This was largely a country built on colonists from Europe, and the questions at the heart of America has been what the country will be, will it be a unique country very different than Europe or is it trending towards becoming more like its southern neighbor or Europe with issues of immigration and more social policies. There is lack of clarity about US hegemony in the world and a sense that the country wants to abandon many of its responsibilities. There is also a hunger, seen during the celebrations for the Biden victory, for a renewed United States.

Trump was an accidental president. He posed as a throwback wanting to make the country great again, but like many of those right wing voices of the 1920s he also wanted a revolution, not a conservative movement. As America appears trending towards a very different kind of country than the one I grew up in during the 1980s, for instance removing most of its Confederate Civil War statues and seeing much of US history as a form of white supremacy, as opposed to a work in progress, Trump appears more as the last pagan emperor was to Rome, the last gasp of something that comes from the 1950s or 1980s, but is only a kind of caricature of that era. He was a caricature because reality television and his career had been much an act and this was the latest act. Too often America in the last four years looked more like the Daily Show than it looked like a serious program. That doesn’t mean people like Mike Pompeo or Brian Hook didn’t take it seriously in US foreign policy. But they were some of the few, and the many were more like the Trump family and the sense that US policy was mortgaged for a family business. It was a form of charlatanism, mocking the very electorate who believed in Trump, with Mussolini-like production values.

On the world stage the empowerment of authoritarians has progressed rapidly. The undermining of US allies and partners abroad and sense that the US will not be leading has made many realize they need to cut deals with Iran, Russia, China or Turkey. The EU knows that it has no American horse riding to the rescue. They long mocked Trump and Bush and others, but in their hearts they also relied on the US. There is a sense of relief there that Biden is coming. But he isn’t bringing some new American century with him. What he might bring is less crises, more responsible US media coverage and more multilateralism. But when it comes to China, Turkey, Iran and Russia, they know they can carve up the spoils in many places. That leaves many other countries to work things out together, including Israel, the UAE, Greece, Cyprus, India, South Korea and countries that are all around the periphery of that powerful authoritarian juggernaut that links China to Russia, Iran and Turkey. There was once a book called The Pentagon’s New Map, one of those formative books like the Clash of Civilizations, that looked at America’s place in the world in the 2000s. We are not moving beyond that to a new map, one that is part of the hangover from the Trump years. It is not clear how that future will begin or end, but it is clear that for now the long malaise, the kind of dream world of nightmare of the last four years, the drunken debauch, is over.

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