trump wings
While he was campaigning, it was wise to refrain from coming to any definite conclusions about Trump's character or intentions. Much of what a presidential candidate says before election day is rhetoric, marketing and bluff, designed to attract as many votes as possible.

As a general rule, the words of a politician, particularly one who is facing an election, rarely translate into actual policy. Actions and results are what count, not discourse or style. Not following this rule is what made America's anti-Bush, anti-war 'dissident left' fall for Obama's deception, and conversely, engage in anti-Trump campaigns before he got into office.

The rule still applies now that Trump has become president, although his words carry more weight because they are now a signature away from becoming executive orders. Someone in his position understands that inconsistency in word and deed risks eroding his authority.

Let's start by putting aside some of the common stereotypical ideas about Trump currently floating around. Let's assume that Trump is neither 'a new Hitler' (see this blog post for a reasonable criticism of that theme), nor a fascist, nor racist. Let's also reject the idea that Trump is just like his predecessors. Until now, every US president followed very similar policies characterized by imperial adventures and covert or overt interference in other nations and the perpetuation of a domestic economic system that feeds corporations and the banking and financial sectors at the expense of the population. Sure, George Bush could barely string a coherent sentence together, and Obama was so polished and 'charming', but if their actions and resulting figures are compared, was there such a big difference?

And this just goes to show that, historically, US presidents have not been in charge - at least not since Kennedy - they have simply been the Public Relations face of the government, carrying forward an agenda dictated by the 'deep state'. That is, the conglomerate of unelected bureaucracy (notably intelligence and security agencies), financial and corporate powers, the Military-Industrial Complex which together form a structure of power that is almost impossible for elected officials to change.

Anti-Trump Protest,Farbrevolution USA
© AFP 2016/Josh Edelson/AFP
But is Trump just another 'Washington insider'? Some might cite his promises to 'bring back jobs' and stop 'regime changing' countries that don't follow America's lead as evidence of his independence, but promises can be broken. Much more convincing evidence that Trump at least intends to be more than just another establishment politician is the extent of the media attacks he has received, both before and after the election, which led to massive demonstrations, many of them violent and some of dubious legitimacy given that people were paid to protest.

With hysteria rising in the US, Vladimir Putin pointed out that the social climate there is not unlike what happened in the lead up to Ukraine's 'EuroMaidan' and violent coup d'état. Media pundits and celebrities have openly suggested that Trump be assassinated, or the White House bombed in a military takeover. Can you imagine such sentiments being publicly expressed during Obama's administrations? Not without mass condemnation and prompt visits from the Department of Homeland Security or the Secret Service! The Establishment seems to be signalling to the people that Trump is no friend of theirs, and thus should be ostracized and vilified by the public.

Who is 'The Donald'?

But if Trump is not like any of his predecessors, who is he? First and foremost, he's a businessman who fully believes in an entrepreneurial ethos of success in all of his endeavors. One could say that he sees the USA as his new business project and, in his own way, wants to make it a successful one. To Trump, the country itself is like a business that needs to be run efficiently in order to impress a 'board of directors', i.e. voters. From this point of view, the masses of Americans are human capital, and countries like Mexico or China are competing businesses, and they are 'cutting into profits' by taking jobs away from Americans. You intimidate them into doing business your way because that is what powerful corporations do (or try to do) with their competitors. Hence Trump's "wall".

Trump china china
Ironically, placing "America first" in these business-like terms results in a protectionist economic strategy which rejects multilateral free-trade 'super-treaties' like the TTP or NAFTA (the latter he intends to renegotiate), and instead focuses on developing the domestic economy via investment in public infrastructure and the creation of jobs. These are moves we would normally associate with classic socialist models - certainly not with the neoliberal framework that has given us globalization!

But there are pitfalls to the 'benevolent CEO' approach. For starters, anything that gets in the way of "making America great again" is deemed an obstruction. The environment, diplomacy and human rights come to mind. Who has time for such when there's a business to run? Furthermore, Trump has, let's say, an inflated ego; it is him, after all, who is going to put things right by making bold moves that no one dared to make before. This is a problem, because a big ego makes him arrogant and a bad listener, and arrogant bad listeners tend to piss people off. Was he aware of the ramifications when he recently called Chelsea Manning "a traitor" and threatened Iran on Twitter? Or when he told an ABC News interviewer that "torture works"? To put it politely, he may be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dilbert cartoonist and pro-Trump blogger Scott Adams recently wrote about an interesting way to understand one of Trump's most controversial actions so far, the temporary immigration 'ban' from seven Muslim countries. He argues:
Half the country thinks President Trump is well on his way to becoming a Hitler-like dictator. But many other Americans think Trump is an effective business person with good intentions. They can't both be right. [...]

The Hitler filter [i.e., Trump-as-Hitler] clearly isn't making people happy. The people watching that movie are protesting in the streets. Meanwhile, the people who see Trump as a good negotiator looking out for the country are quite happy with the job he has done so far. The Persuasion Filter [i.e., Trump-as-negotiator] says Trump opens with a big first offer and negotiates back to something reasonable. If you don't recognize the method, it looks crazy, random, and racist. [...]

The left sees Trump's executive orders on immigration as pure Hitler behavior. That gives him plenty of room to negotiate to the middle. The initial orders are too broad, and clearly target too many of the wrong people. As he fixes those special cases he will be moving away from the Hitler model toward the middle. And people are more influenced by the DIRECTION of things than the absolute position of things. As long as he is moving away from the Hitler analogy, people will chill out, even if they think he was too close to that position before. Direction matters.

Trump's temporary immigration ban set a mental anchor in your brain that is frankly shocking. It will make his eventual permanent immigration plan ("extreme vetting") look tame by comparison. The Persuasion Filter says that's his strategy. Because that's ALWAYS his strategy. He acts the same way every time. He wrote a book about it. He talks about it publicly. Then he does it right in front of us, over and over. And no matter how many times he does it, half the country still thinks the opening offer is the real one.
Adams' argument explains a lot about Trump's behavior so far, and confirms the view that he is a businessman at heart. For example, seen through the Persuasion Filter, Trump's proposal of the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, along with his remarks about Mexico paying for it, perhaps through a 20% tax for Mexican goods crossing the border, constitute the big and shocking opening offer intended to soften Mexico into negotiating trade agreements on Trump's terms. Even the richest man in Mexico, telecom tycoon Carlos Slim, went in front of Mexican media to explain that Trump was "not Terminator but a negotiator."

This makes sense and soothes some concerns because it means that there is reason behind the apparent madness. There is a strategy and the man is not just shooting left and right on a whim. However, the problem of negative consequences I pointed out above still applies - even more so because he is president. The global political and social scene is not the same as an executive boardroom. In international politics, other variables are at work: diplomacy, patriotic myths and fears, cultural differences, etc.

In the case of Mexico, most Mexicans are feeling humiliated by Trump. Historical grievances with the US have been resurrected. If Trump is 'just negotiating', that isn't how millions of people south of the border have interpreted it. Does Trump realize that it can be dangerous to take things too far? And would the Mexican government risk provoking Mexicans' anger if they concede to Trump? They could, for example, spin 'hard-right' themselves, reject Trump's terms and go down the route of a trade war (which risks developing into actual war). Does Trump really want that with his neighbor, one of the US' biggest trading partners? Similar problems may develop with China and Iran.

I am sure the reader can think of many other examples in which Trump's 'Art of the Deal' approach can result in unintended chaos. Many social and political demons may awaken. In fact, some already have.

Steve Bannon and a remake of the Clash of Civilizations

Following the business-president model, we might expect to see a Trump who prefers negotiating with other countries, or competing with them on a commercial basis, rather then threatening them or actually going to war with them. Of concern though is that many members of his cabinet and advisers have a decidedly hawkish background. Indeed, in the last few days the rhetoric against Iran has grown louder, partly for reasons we will explore below.

Steve Bannon, former head of right-wing news website Breitbart, now Trump's adviser and chief strategist at the White House, is in a position to exert a lot of influence on the direction a Trump presidency takes. The ideas of a single presidential adviser would normally not cause much concern, except that much of Bannon's worldview is reflected in the positions Trump has taken so far, especially in regards to foreign policy. It's also disconcerting that Bannon made the impressive leap from being editor of a news website to White House chief strategist, suggesting that he (and his ideas) are very much valued by his new boss.

Bannon, in contrast to Trump, is a political ideologue. His main concern, as he has expressed it, seems to be the "crisis" of Judeo-Christian Western values and capitalism. Capitalism, he says, has ceased to be the 'enlightened' engine of wealth that it used to be. Together with the secularization of society, the loss of Judeo-Christian values has brought the West to a major "crisis". Additionally, the West now faces a global confrontation with 'jihadist Islamic fascism'. Bannon says:
I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that's already global. It's going global in scale, and today's technology, today's media, today's access to weapons of mass destruction, it's going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn't act [unintelligible]. [...] I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that's fine.
If Bannon means dealing with the likes of ISIS, then few will disagree with him, but notice how he skips over "the causes of the current drive to the caliphate" and then makes it about a global confrontation against "radical Islam".

The fact is that there would not be any "ISIS" (or al-Qaeda, for the matter) without ongoing support from Gulf State countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar; from Israel; from the CIA itself and more generally from the US and its NATO allies. If left to their own devices, those radical jihadists would have never grown in strength and would have faded into obscurity as quickly as they arose. Radical interpretations of Islam would not be a problem and secular governments would be ruling in Muslim countries that are not 'failed states'.

But if Bannon were to recognize this, what then would become of his 'apocalyptic global conflict' between 'the Judeo-Christian and Muslims realms'?

Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News, in a Machiavellian stare.

Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News, in a Machiavellian stare.
We've seen this all before with the neocons that surrounded Bush and who brought us America's wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. One of their ideological inspirations, you may remember, was Samuel P. Huntington's thesis of the Clash of Civilizations, which argues that cultural and religious identities would be the main source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. It turns out that not only Bannon, but National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and new CIA Director Michael Pompeo have expressed views that are also in line with Huntington's.

Huntington predicted, back in the 90s, that global conflict would arise, and that the main dividing line would be that between Muslims and non-Muslims. Here we are a quarter-century later; we've had 9/11, the War on TerrorTM and, lo and behold! the "prophecy has come true". A hard look at the facts of how it all came about, however, leaves us with the impression that Huntington, Bannon and others basically invented a theory that 'fit' with, or covered for, American imperial ambitions. Huntington, by the way, tacked on a number of clauses, not least to beware "the Sino-Islamic connection." Sure enough, Bannon himself has coupled China and Islam into one gargantuan 'threat':
"We're going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years," he said in March 2016. "There's no doubt about that. They're taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face - and you understand how important face is - and say it's an ancient territorial sea." [...]

"You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They're arrogant. They're on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian west is on the retreat," Bannon said during a February 2016 radio show. [...]

"The one thing the Chinese fear more than America ... they fear Christianity more than anything," he said. [...]

"Some of these situations may get a little unpleasant," Bannon said in November 2015. "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."
If that sounds like George W Bush's "crusade" all over again, it is. Yes, China is building bases in the South China Sea, but that's in the context of about 400 US military installations already ringing China, and thus is legitimately framed by the Chinese as a defensive maneuver. As for 'the Caliphate', only radical Muslims seek such, radical Muslims that are nothing without covert Western support.

Seen through Bannon's eyes, it's easier to understand why Trump appears friendly towards Russia and Israel but confrontational with China and Iran. Putin should beware, however, as the friendship may not last forever. Bannon says:
You know, Putin's been quite an interesting character. He's also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you're facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I'm not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.
In other words, let's take care of the Chinese and Muslims first, and we'll worry about Russia later.

Like Huntington's, Bannon's views are made up of broad, unrefined, black-or-white ideas, leaving little-to-no room for the complexities and subtleties of reality. There's a flavor of schizoidal psychopathy to them, as described in Political Ponerology:
Carriers of this anomaly are hypersensitive and distrustful, while, at the same time, pay little attention to the feelings of others. They tend to assume extreme positions, and are eager to retaliate for minor offenses. Sometimes they are eccentric and odd. Their poor sense of psychological situation and reality leads them to superimpose erroneous, pejorative interpretations upon other people's intentions. They easily become involved in activities which are ostensibly moral, but which actually inflict damage upon themselves and others. Their impoverished psychological worldview makes them typically pessimistic regarding human nature. We frequently find expressions of their characteristic attitudes in their statements and writings: "Human nature is so bad that order in human society can only be maintained by a strong power created by highly qualified individuals in the name of some higher idea." Let us call this typical expression the "schizoid declaration". [...]

[T]heir ponerogenic role can have macrosocial implications if their attitude toward human reality and their tendency to invent great doctrines are put to paper and duplicated in large editions. [...]

An analysis of the role played by Karl Marx's works easily reveals all the above-mentioned types of apperception and the social reactions which engendered animosity between large groups of people. When reading any of those disturbingly divisive works, we should examine them carefully for any of these characteristic deficits, or even an openly formulated schizoid declaration.

[Andrew M. Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology, p. 123 - 125.]
Indeed, Marxism, with its 'Grand Theory of History', in which arbitrarily delineated groups (proletariat vs bourgeoisie) are destined for eternity to fight each other, share a similarly schizoidal declaration to the 'Judeo-Christian Westerners vs Muslims (plus the Chinese)' scenario envisioned in the 'Clash of Civilizations'. They both claim to be defining objective reality, but are they really just engendering subjective animosity between large groups of people.

If he wasn't in such a key position of power, Bannon would be harmless. But not only is he there, if we take him at his word, he seems to have Donald Trump in his pocket. Last summer, during the election campaign, Vanity Fair interviewed Bannon:
On the surface, Bannon at least has the benefit of being politically sympathetic with Trump; Breitbart, under his leadership, after all, has become "Trump Pravda," as one former staffer described it to me. But when I talked with Bannon, he expressed a wariness about the political genuineness of the Trump campaign persona. Trump is a "blunt instrument for us," he told me earlier this summer. "I don't know whether he really gets it or not." It is likely that Bannon's political calculus here, if not Trump's, will be less about winning an election that seems a bit out of hand and more about cementing an American nationalist movement.
Bannon the ideologue manipulating Trump, the ego-driven entrepreneur so that he can realize his vision. Given his history as both Republican, Democrat and Independent, Trump likely sees himself as a man of action with little time for ideologies or political theories. So, is he paying Bannon to take care of all that?

Self-fulfilling prophecies

Steve Bannon may not want a confrontation with Islam or China, but his certainty about its inevitability, and the fact that he is in a position to influence global events, may turn his vision into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don't think Bannon is aware that things don't have to play out that way. It would take someone smarter, like Putin, to see beyond the 'inevitability' of that scenario. Remember how many times the US/NATO sought to corner Putin into escalating tensions between Russia and Europe, yet he has time and again maneuvered his way out of it. Unfortunately, nothing we have seen of Trump thus far suggests that, when put in similar positions, he could avoid falling into the trap. Indeed, as I suggested earlier, his particular 'extreme negotiating style' could make things worse.

Then there is the liberal left (what is 'left' these days anyway?) that is so unhappy about Trump. Do they realize that they too are partaking in a self-fulfilling prophecy? Trump probably has no personal reasons to become a new 'Hitler', but if lefty demonstrations become riots and the riots become persistent insurrection, how is someone like Trump going to react, if not by showing who is the boss and restoring order with an iron fist? Scott Adams makes the same point:
But lately I get the feeling that Trump's critics have evolved from expecting Trump to be Hitler to preferring it. Obviously they don't prefer it in a conscious way. But the alternative to Trump becoming Hitler is that they have to live out the rest of their lives as confirmed morons. No one wants to be a confirmed moron. And certainly not after announcing their Trump opinions in public and demonstrating in the streets. It would be a total embarrassment for the anti-Trumpers to learn that Trump is just trying to do a good job for America. It's a threat to their egos. A big one.

And this gets me to my point. When millions of Americans want the same thing, and they want it badly, the odds of it happening go way up. You can call it the power of positive thinking. It is also the principle behind affirmations. When humans focus on a desired future, events start to conspire to make it happen.

I'm not talking about any new-age magic. I'm talking about ordinary people doing ordinary things to turn Trump into an actual Hitler. For example, if protesters start getting violent, you could expect forceful reactions eventually. And that makes Trump look more like Hitler. I can think of dozens of ways the protesters could cause the thing they are trying to prevent. In other words, they can wish it into reality even though it is the very thing they are protesting.
Trump has not been in power for long and there are many unknowns, so it's hard to say what we can expect from him. However, based on the few issues we've covered here, I think we can be fairly sure that increasing chaos, in one form of another, will be the order of the day.