"Bromance of the Autocrats": A Look at Trump's World Order

Panel discussion with Jillian Schwegler, Medea Benjamin, Vijay Prasad, Ingar Solty

I attended a panel discussion yesterday on "A Trump World Order: What To Expect From US Foreign Policy", sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung at the Asian-American Writers Workshop in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. I found a packed crowd of nearly 100 attendees in a tight physical space. The concerned and defiant expressions on many faces in the room suggested that we believed our planet to be in a tight physical space too.

It's good news that anti-Trump events in New York City are drawing packed standing-room-only crowds (I experienced the same thing a few days earlier in Brooklyn), and often the greatest challenge at these angry gatherings is how to focus our outrage regarding Trump's plans for America. Should we talk about the illegal Russia-hacked election? Or about Steve Bannon's vile racism, or about Mike Pence's antique politics of gender repression, or about Paul Ryan's Ayn-Rand inspired plans to funnel more wealth to the tax-avoiding 1% by stealing from us middle-classers who actually pay taxes? How can we possibly choose which outrage to scream about first?

I was glad to find a panel discussion focusing on foreign policy, as I believe the potential global horrors of a Trump administration influenced by Michael Flynn, John Bolton, Dick Cheney and Erik Prince to be among the most astoundingly urgent dangers we currently face. I was hoping to find a group of panelists as fired up and angry as I've been. But there are many different ways to read our current situation, and I immediately felt frustrated during panelist Ingar Solty's opening remarks when he placidly suggested that Trump might turn out to be an isolationist.

Ingar Solty of Germany's Das Argument is a sharp observer of international events, and it was generally a privilege to hear his well-informed thoughts about the Donald Trump phenomenon. But it was perhaps because Solty had just flown in from Europe for this event that his tone did not seem to reflect the incredible urgency and rage that many Americans feel in the face of Trump's assaults on truth. Will Trump turn out to be an isolationist? We should only be so lucky. Trump is masterful at using contradiction and blatant mistruth to obscure his agenda. His claim to have opposed the Iraq War in 2003 appears to be nothing but a classic Trump head-fake, and so is his tease at isolationism. I was sorry to hear even one of this event's panelists taking these falsehoods on face value instead of giving them the derision they deserve.

It's obvious that Trump aspires to be a meddling bully like Putin on the global stage, and we should never waste a minute indulging his nonsense about ever opposing an American war. The only objection Trump has ever stated to Bush's war in Iraq in 2003 is that Bush was "not tough enough" and failed to maximize the use of torture and domestic anti-Muslim laws. The fact that Trump surrounds himself with Islamophobic hawks like Michael Flynn, John Bolton, James Mattis and Dick Cheney makes it clear that he intends to double down on Bush's mistakes in the Middle East, to "do it right this time". We should take Trump at his word when he pledges to "take their oil". This is hardly what an isolationist ever says.

It was probably a sign of my own peaked over-intensity regarding the war crimes Trump is obviously planning that I felt so upset at Ingar Solty's calm demeanor regarding the future Trump World Order. It was also a sign that I was attending an event designed to feature economic experts rather than peace activists, because a variety of political attitudes hung in the air in this small room, and I began to sense that many devoted economic theorists were only slowly adjusting their well-trained world-views to make room for the new presence of Donald Trump as the most powerful man on earth.

The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations author Vijay Prashad spoke persuasively about the past mistakes by well-meaning honest leftists that had resulted in the devastating disaster of Trump's rise to power, and about the failures of leadership and strategy that left us stranded on our lonely desert island with a sociopathic con-man holding all the weapons. It was a privilege to hear Prashad share his thoughts, as it had been with Solty, and yet I again felt disappointed that he was more interested in dissecting mistakes of the past than in leading a charge to stop the damage that appears to be about to begin. I particularly did not understand why both Prashad and Solty seemed to think we would have lots more time in the future to hash out and eventually correct the various moral and tactical missteps of well-meaning leftists, as if Trump's presidency would be just another bump in our long road towards a better world. I felt this when we began a gratuitous discussion of what the term "peasant" could mean in the age of Trump, and I felt it again when a couple of panelists compared Trump's assault on the left to Ronald Reagan's assault on the left in 1980, rather than to Hitler's assault on the left in 1933. I would have expected panelists invited by an organization named for Rosa Luxemburg to see the seriousness of the present moment and make the further leap.

Of the four panelists, it was author and professor Jillian Schwedler whose judgement of our current crisis most matched my own when she suggested that an Islamophobic "Clash of Civilizations" mindset has always been central to Trump's appeal to American voters, and that we should feel very concerned about the likelihood that Trump will act on his threats to transform our strategic position in the Middle East by kicking off a new buildup to war. Schwedler aptly parsed the different foreign policy platforms Trump's administration will have to juggle, particularly involving the various standoffs between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and ISIS, and guessed that ISIS would be the most likely focus of Trump's adventurism.

Jillian Schwedler also came up with the best phrase of the event, describing Trump's global foreign policy position as basically a "Bromance of the Autocrats". Her words inspired me deeply, as did those of the one panelist I had heard of before arriving at this event, the plucky and courageous peace activist Medea Benjamin. Of course, being inspired by Medea Benjamin is a no-brainer for me (I would follow her lead anywhere), but I was most gratified when she spent several minutes emphasizing the great importance of the recent successful campaign of nonviolent resistance in Standing Rock led by Dave Archambault (whose lead I would also gladly follow in any struggle to come).

Medea Benjamin pointed out that even though the fragile victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline will have to be fought again if Trump takes office, these small victories are critical for our cause. Every action we engage in keeps activists connected, and draws new activists in. When we protest, we remind our fellow Americans of the importance of grassroots popular action over passive submission to elected officials who may or may not bother to represent what matters most to us. Most importantly, Benjamin pointed out, civil disobedience campaigns create alternative "woke" subcultures that can significantly enrich and fortify our entire society. Benjamin's words on this topic filled my heart with hope, and provided some of the sense of urgency that I felt missing in the surrounding conversations about class division and long-term electoral strategies.

This excellent panel event held the attention of a packed room for more than three hours — another indication of the anger and hunger for action that many Americans are feeling right now. Moderator Albert Scharenberg led a vibrant question-and-answer session in which we talked about the environment, about Africa (a topic which, one questioner pointed out, none of the panelists had mentioned at all) and about whether or not Trump's white nationalism really departed from the American norm at all. When one audience member declared that he did not see Trump as significantly different in any way from current President Barack Obama, a tone of familiar cynicism momentarily swept the room ... but I felt gratified when moderator Scharenberg and a couple of other panelists pointed out that they actually do consider Trump much more dangerous than Obama ever was. The idea that Obama is so corrupted that no other politician can possibly be worse appears to be the kind of dusty notion from the past that we really have no time for after November 2016.

There were a hundred of us in this tight midtown Manhattan upstairs room: a hundred people grappling with the fact that a powerful new wave of fascism is suddenly sweeping the world from Russia to England to the Philippines to the USA in 2016. Either we fight against fascism or we lose our freedom. Some people in the room seemed to get it — others seemed to have their heads stuck in the past. Either way, the fight against those who would enslave us is now here. We must fight it with wisdom, with nonviolence, with courage, and with everything we've got.

I heard Solty say Trump's positioning himself as a "sometimes isolationist, sometimes interventionist."

Prashad's discussion of the emiseration of peasants was offered as a supplement to the suffering of the "working class"--those devastated by the destruction of family farms overwhelmed by corporate agribusiness are distinct from urban workers. Not gratuitous at all.

Schwedler offered the common wisdom; the economic arguments are more salient in my view; war is about profiteering (just ask Halliburton who got $37 billion from W's Iraq War). Islamaphobia/Clash of Civilizations rhetoric is the trick the rulers use to get the poor bastards to go steal the oil, and to kill, maim, die and be maimed in the process.

I agree that Standing Rock has a lot to offer as a model of resistance. Perhaps next time Medea could reach out to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz or Nick Estes of The Red Nation. Indigenous scholar/activists have a lot of insight to bring to bear on foreign policy, especially regarding the "settler colonial" mindset which Trump has incorporated into his business practices.

Fascism in America is not in fact new. When Michael Bloomberg overturned term limits in NYC and bought himself a third term, that was pretty damned fascistic. Stop and Frisk, vastly expanded under his mayoralty, was also pretty damned fascistic. Kettling protesters at the RNC and disappearing them for a week or two, ditto. After staging that bogus election Bloomberg earned more money in the ensuing year than anyone else in the whole world. Which is why I can't believe he's letting Trump take the presidential spoils. I wouldn't be surprised if we look up on January 20th and it's him standing there instead of Trump. But either one, it's the gangs of New York. You want to call that Hitlerian. It's on a continuum, I guess. Trump's throwing ideological bones, so he can take the steak itself. America is in decline becasue its treasury is emptied out into billionaires' like Bloomberg and Trump's pockets. Like Hillary Clinton snatching the antiques on the way out of the White House door, Trump's going for far bigger booty. He's got $3.7 billion to Bloomberg's $42 billion. If he makes it to the presidency and gets even a small cut of the oil and gas, education privatizing and military contracts, he could leapfrog over Bloomberg in no time.

Thanks for this response, Frances, and thanks also for posting the same comment on Facebook. I responded to you there and you responded back. This is important stuff, so I thought I'd link to that discussion here. Here is my initial response to what you said above:

"Frances, it was great to see you there! And always great to compare notes. And, well, yes I do still feel disappointed that any politically engaged leftists are taking a "wait and see" attitude towards Trump. You are pointing out ways in which, for instance, New York's former mayor Bloomberg acted like a fascist. Yes, we see many metaphors for fascism in our normal rounds. But I want to emphasize the difference that Bloomberg was never commander in chief of a powerful military, which is why his "fascism" was always merely a metaphor. What makes Trump a dangerous fascist is the power he is about to have. I think that's what this crowd was there to hear about at this event. I'm glad a few of the speakers at this panel did seem to understand the seriousness of the moment. The "let's give Trump a chance" or "we've seen it all before" attitude is beyond me to understand."

Rest of the conversation here.