Trump's reversal on Afghanistan heightens the contradictions — his and ours

Trump's abrupt embrace of the disastrous elite consensus on Afghanistan reflects the deep divisions of our era

Published August 27, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Jim Watson/AP/Alex Brandon)
(Getty/Jim Watson/AP/Alex Brandon)

Donald Trump's Aug, 21 reversal on Afghanistan — after years of calling for a pullout, he has flipped to an ill-defined "plan" to stay in — again reveals the contradiction between Trump's broad promises and his complete inability to fulfill them. "I alone can fix it," he told voters. But his health care plan is nonexistent, as are his tax reform scheme, his infrastructure spending plan and his secret plan to defeat ISIS. 

Behind all these particulars, Trump's core claim was that he would "make America great again," and here his contradictions collide with America's as well — such as expecting the military to heal our wounds. In his speech Trump said:

The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

This is pretty astonishing coming from the divider-in-chief, who makes Richard Nixon seem like Garrison Keillor. Still, despite Trump's personal villainy, it's true. Historically, nations routinely win wars, expand their influence and command the ability to shape conditions for peace when they are internally unified, during what's been identified as the “integrative phase” in repeating “secular cycles” of integration and disintegration. Thes have been studied across dozens of different examples from ancient Rome to modern America, from China to Great Britain. In contrast, nations routinely lose wars and the power to shape terms for peace when they are in the “disintegrative phase,” as the U.S. has been since roughly the 1960s.

Trump's speech reversing his promise to get out of Afghanistan won kudos from establishment voices happy to hear him singing their song. but the very fact that he was singing it proves how hollow it is, because he's precisely the sort of divisive figure who appears characteristically as the disintegrative phase moves toward crisis. We'll return to the folly of this elite consensus below. But first, the reality of his divisiveness — vividly on display the next day in Phoenix — remains front and center.

This speech was not about unity, despite his insistence that his 'movement was built on love," the Arizona Republic noted. “It was about retrenching. It was about blaming others. It was about feeding the paranoia of his passionate followers.” The fact that he'd just abandoned his base with respect to Afghanistan only intensified his need to lash out at others. But Trump's visceral divisiveness is not just an indictment of him. It's also a prime indicator of the state of our nation that such a destructive divider holds so much power. Focusing on Trump's contradictions alone merely distracts us from the more fundamental contradictions which brought him to power in the first place.

Those contradictions emerge from the previously mentioned secular cycle of integration and disintegration that was first identified, described and explained (as a product of both demographic and structural factors) by historian Jack Goldstone in his 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World." It was then adapted and tested more widely by evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin in books like "Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall," "Secular Cycles" (with Sergey Nefedov) and, most recently, "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History" (Salon review here.)

At first, societies grow stronger and more prosperous as their populations grow, up to a point where unacknowledged costs start to overwhelm gains. They first stagnate, then start to disintegrate as demographic changes outstrip the capacity of their institutional structures to adapt to shifting demands, producing mass immiseration, followed by an unsustainable growth in elite wealth and numbers (known as “elite overproduction”) and by fiscal crises. The decay of cooperative norms also plays a significant role.

“If a society is torn apart by an internal war, it is hardly in position to prosecute a successful external war,” Turchin observed in a 2012 blog post. “This is why there is an empirical pattern that most territorial expansion due to conquest is usually accomplished by societies who are in their integrative secular phases, and they often tend to lose territory while in disintegrative phase.”

For example, the two most dramatic periods of expanded American power corresponded with the most vital periods of two consecutive integrative phases, when internal conflicts were minimized, as Turchin went on to note. The first spanned the period from 1775 to 1842, marked by “recurrent conflicts between European Americans and American Indians,” who were perceived as a foreign enemy, the second was “World War II, when Americans again were attacked on their own soil,” although in the relatively remote territory of Hawaii. These were both periods of “national consolidation which contributed to the decrease of internal instability,” he wrote: 

Note that these two periods were also when the United States dramatically expanded its geopolitical reach. It became the continental power between 1776 and 1848 (the only other major addition was Alaska), and it became a world hegemonic power in the post-1945 period.

Understanding these patterns as rooted in complex historical dynamics, it should be obvious that no single person — not even an hereditary king or emperor, assumed to have a divine mandate — could wave some magic wand and turn the clock back a generation or more. Indeed, Trump's “I alone can fix it” is itself a symptom of the historical phase we're in, as disintegration intensifies to the point of crisis. Typically, nothing can be done to fix it — at least in recorded history. States break down into chaos and conflict, often resulting in civil war, and remain mired in dysfunction until demographic pressures subside, both among the general population and among elites. The conflicts between different factions seeking to impose their solutions on one another only further inflame the situation, even in exceptional cases where one faction advances a much more equitable approach.

For example, in "Secular Cycles," Turchin and Nefedov cite the Roman history of two brothers who played roles similar to what Trump can only pretend to promise, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. Unlike Trump, they actually had a concrete political program to redress rampant inequality. Both were killed (along with many followers) because of it. Before discussing these events, Turchin and Nefedov write:

Peasant rebellions rarely succeeded in agrarian societies when they were confronted by unified elites, and slave revolts in late Republican Rome were not an exception to this rule. A much more dangerous threat to the state arises when the elites become splintered, and certain factions begin to mobilize popular support to be used in their quest for power.

This is the level at which the Gracchus brothers are similar to Trump. They were members of the elite at odds with the dominant faction in power, critical of their rule, and willing to mobilize popular resentments into a political movement. As tribune, Tiberius Gracchus introduced a law to break up big estates created out of public lands. “The death of Tiberius Gracchus [together with 300 followers] formalized the split of the Roman elites into the factions of populares [populists] and optimates ['the best ones'], and the struggle between the two groups eventually plunged Italy into bitter civil war,” the authors write. Gaius Gracchus became the leader of the populares, and continued administering his brother's law after his death, adding a program of subsidized grain distribution, only to be murdered as well — along with 3,000 of his followers.

The Gracchus brothers had concrete policies, not a “secret plan” or vague promises of “winning” with the “best deal.” They were arguably closer to Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump. But the problem, as Goldstone and Turchin explain it, was deeper and more intransigent than their solution could address. Cooperative norms had eroded such that simply trying to restore a more equitable balance of wealth distribution proved deeply divisive, when the original balance had been unifying. The same can be said today about the notion of restoring pre-Reagan tax levels for top income-earners, corporations and wealth-holders. Ideas that George H.W. Bush denounced as “voodoo economics” are now seen as sacrosanct, not just in today's GOP elites, but among much of the Democratic Party donor class as well.

The very fact that an opportunistic outsider like Trump was elected president is proof positive, without even the pretense of a real plan, suggests that America lacks the political cohesion necessary to fulfill the role he imagined in the opening of his Afghanistan speech. It's not just because Trump is such a petty, vengeful figure himself, who's never shown the slightest interest in getting along with anyone except to exploit them, whether sexually, financially or politically. Beyond that, Trump got where he is because of elite fragmentation — the 17-person GOP primary field speaks volumes on this point, but only reflects one aspect of it.

Elite fragmentation is a result of elite overproduction, the unsustainable growth in elite wealth and numbers. Those seeds were planted in the 1970s but the process began in earnest under Reagan in the 1980s. Elites first gain a larger share of national wealth as mass incomes stagnate or even decline, but elite numbers also grow, intensifying intra-elite competition. Reagan's “trickle-down” tax cuts put this whole process on steroids.

Turning back to Trump's Afghanistan speech, it was notable for echoing elite consensus views, which themselves have been impervious to decades of failure, not just in Afghanistan, funding the Mujahadeen starting in 1979, helping to trigger the Soviet invasion, but in neighboring Iran as well, dating back to our engineering of the 1953 coup overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. On "Democracy Now!", Matthew Hoh — a former Marine who resigned from the State Department in protest of Obama's Afghanistan escalation in 2009 — pointed out the profound contradictions and confusion involving Trump's “grown-up” advisers, mostly the current and former generals, John Kelly, Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, who embody the failures America's elites have routinely ignored for decades.

Hoh drew his own Roman connections, via a book by T.R. Fehrenbach, "This Kind of War," which all Marine officers are required to read. “Fehrenbach connects the Marine Corps and its legacy to the legionnaires of the Roman Empire,” Hoh said. 

If you look at how Kelly and Mattis describe themselves and carry themselves, they see themselves as modern-day legionnaires. And it’s particularly Kelly, if you see how he talks, you can see Kelly’s description of this war as a war for our way of life and how we must do anything. And also to Kelly’s speeches when he was in charge of Southern Command about how we don’t need to understand the enemy, we only need to kill him. And this goes very much in line with President Trump’s rhetoric. How we don’t need to understand the enemy, we only need to kill them.

McMaster, Hoh notes, adds a further tragic dimension to the unfolding absurdity:

H.R. McMaster ... is the national security adviser who 20 years ago wrote a book called "Dereliction of Duty" [about] how the generals in the Vietnam War failed their soldiers and the American public by betraying their principles and not acknowledging that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and immoral, that it was built on lies, just as the Afghan war is unwinnable immoral, and built on lies. And so, General McMaster is also this Greek tragedy of a persona because 20 years after he publishes this book, he himself is this character.

These are the “grown-ups” who political elites regard not just as sane and sober checks on Trump's irrationalism, but also as bulwarks of American democracy!

Stepping back for a big-picture view, it's worth noting that World War II came in the midst of our last integrative phase, at a time when “American values” could credibly (if imperfectly) be aligned with our foreign policy objectives and with gaining widespread support worldwide. For instance, the African-American press adopted the “Double V” campaign during the war to capitalize on this moment of congruence, partly validated afterwards by Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces in 1948. Subsequently, Cold War competition with the Soviet Union for international influence propelled elites in both parties to at least reluctant support for racial integration.

But that moment in history is long gone, with the turning point coming in 1960s as the integrative phase reached its end. Even earlier, with the aforementioned Iranian coup in 1953, American interference with other countries' democratic self-determination increasingly clashed with our founding principles, which had strongly infused our World War II efforts, even while creating tensions with our colonial power allies Britain and France. That interference and its profound inconsistency with our professed values is a long-standing contradiction of American empire which elites have continually ignored, denied or minimized. Now, with Russia's interference in our own elections to help elect Donald Trump, we are finally being forced to confront that contradiction, at the same time we confront Trump's contradictions and the societal fragmentation that made his election possible in the first place.

The capacity for elite consensus pushing back against Trump's blame “both sides” Charlottesville response after the murder of Heather Heyer — The Anne Frank Center, Trump's own CEO advisers, his military Joint Chiefs, and his Committee on Arts and Humanities, major charities, etc. — highlights precisely the sort of political climate and capacity that's needed more broadly across multiple issue areas. Trump was even forced to abandon his planned infrastructure advisory council, signature showcase. But generalizing this surprising show of unity across issue areas would face enormous hurdles. Trump's violation of American values and norms of conduct was unbelievably striking, as explained in a press statement from the Anne Frank Center:

“Though the president finally mentioned, after long, painful three days, the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, again he insisted on saying ‘others’,” said Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.

“And the president made it worse. He said we should all be united, but there’s no way on God’s earth will we ever unite with Nazis. That is not what the Greatest Generation fought and died for.

“Finally, what planet has the president been living on when he just said we all salute the same flag? We don’t salute the Nazi flag as the White Supremacists in Charlottesville do. He is delusional.”


The fact that such a wide range of elite voices echoed this sense of outrage reminds us of what's generally missing in our public life today, amid the fragmentation and loss of social cohesion of a disintegrative phase. We must cherish that reminder, even as we must face the enormous difficulty of recreating that cohesion more widely. Trump tried his hand at counterfeiting that cohesion, picking up on the Joint Chiefs' expression of intolerance for racism. This is where Trump's phony call for unity in his Afghanistan speech came from, echoed as well in an earlier passage:

The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission and one shared sense of purpose.

They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed and color to serve together and sacrifice together in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all service members are brothers and sisters. They are all part of the same family. It’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag and live according to the same law.

Yet within days, Trump's actions showed just how hollow those words were to him. His administration signaled its intention to move forward with his military transgender ban — a direct contradiction of those same lofty words Trump used to maliciously identify himself with the spirit of national unity, shared purpose and shared family.

Focusing only on Trump's contradictions -- which spray forth like a firehose, drenching everyone in sight — dangerously distracts us from the more fundamental contradictions riddling our nation as a whole, contradictions that brought him to power in the first place. The incoherence of our involvement in Afghanistan — and the decades of recklessly interfering in the region before that — offer one example of the contradictions we've repeatedly refused to face. Those are the contradictions we need to face as a nation, or risk falling further into chaos. History provides no blueprint for how to escape that danger. But it can help us recognize the folly of false promises flooding us today. Wisdom begins with the recognition of folly — in ourselves, as well as others.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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