Donald Trump; Theresa May; Vladimir Putin (AP/Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Donald Trump, Brexit and the Russians: A dangerous turning point in "World War IV"

Trump's week of grand spectacle wasn't as crazy as it looked: Once again, he's trying to lure his foes into a trap


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Andrew O'Hehir
July 14, 2018 4:00PM (UTC)

Perhaps the most vivid description of President Trump’s histrionic performance at the NATO summit earlier this week in Brussels came from a foreign-policy analyst named Philipp Liesenhoff, who quoted a German folk saying to reporters for the Daily Beast: “A blind chicken finds corn once in a while.”

It’s a marvelous metaphor. But I’m afraid it’s deceptive. Here’s a word of advice to the Trump-loathing defenders of the liberal-democratic order, whether in Europe or Britain or at home in the United States: Beware the blind chicken. His other senses have become finely tuned. Mock him at your peril. If you believe for a second that he will be easy to capture or contain or defeat, then you have learned nothing from the last three years of political chaos across the Western world. In years to come, as a servile flunky on the lowest tiers of the Forever-Existing Blind Chicken Empire, you will have time to repent of your arrogance.

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I have previously suggested that Donald Trump is an important figure in “World War IV,” that being the self-destructive struggle within the Western world that philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified as beginning with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Baudrillard did not live to see the rise of Trump and Trumpism (which may have been merciful), but it certainly fits with his prediction of a system-wide “gigantic abreaction” to Islamic terrorism, a “moral and psychological downturn” in which the Western world’s “ideology of freedom,” which also represented its claim to moral authority, would corrupt itself into “a police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on ‘law-and-order’ measures.”

With Donald Trump’s current trip to Europe — and his apparent effort to troll NATO into destroying itself, undermine an already unstable British government and form who knows what sort of alliance with Vladimir Putin — we have arrived, I believe, at a dangerous turning point in the largely invisible history of World War IV. Those of us who imagine a more democratic and egalitarian future are at great moral risk.

Opposing the authoritarian, racist and nationalist tendencies represented by Trump and his ilk is the easy part. But what is the path forward? How do we avoid trapping ourselves in systems or ideologies that are only slightly less bad, and furthermore now seem doomed? Do liberals and leftists really want to ally themselves with figures like Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, who conspicuously represent the failed politics of the past that Trump has rejected? Those questions do not have easy answers.

In context, Liesenhoff’s blind-chicken joke clearly referred to Trump’s striking knack for identifying the weak spots and contradictions in the positions of his adversaries, despite his (shall we say) limited understanding of policy or history or much of anything else. He has done this so often, and so effectively, that it cannot be viewed as a matter of luck or accident. It is his one great political skill: He consistently wrong-foots his enemies, putting them on the defensive and making them look like hypocrites — arguably the one thing Trump himself isn’t. (You can’t be a hypocrite if you don’t believe in anything except your own greatness, and don’t even pretend to.)

Trump did this in Brussels, confronting the other member nations about their defense budgets and hurling wild accusations at German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her Russian gas deal — two issues he clearly doesn’t really understand and probably doesn’t care about. Then he moved on to London and did it again, inflicting an extraordinary humiliation on Prime Minister Theresa May with a tabloid interview in which he said that May had thoroughly bungled Britain’s departure from the European Union, and suggested that former foreign minister Boris Johnson — a porcine, upper-class Trump wannabe — would do a better job at 10 Downing Street.

By Friday morning, Trump had officially made up with May, and even suggested that this interview with The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, was somehow “fake news,” despite the existence of an audio recording. The prime minister had no choice but to stand next to the so-called leader of the so-called free world and mouth homilies about the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S., and the amazing bilateral trade deal that was sure to follow Brexit. Perhaps May wished she could cut Trump’s liver out with a rusty kitchen scissors, or regretted her long-ago decision to go into politics instead of becoming headmistress of a mediocre girls’ school. As you have sown, so shall you reap, Theresa. You’ve been Trumped.

None of these incidents is all that significant in itself, probably. But if we take even half a step backward, the larger pattern that begins to be visible is extremely dangerous. All the drama in Brussels and London this week carried the shadow of an event that has yet to occur — Trump’s upcoming private tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, reportedly with no American aides or interpreters present. That too is Trumpian stagecraft at its finest: The entire Western world is concern-trolling itself over something that hasn’t happened.

Is Trump likely to strike a deal with Putin for worldwide nuclear disarmament, as he has hinted? Certainly not, but here again the president is putting his foes on the defensive. Perhaps the worst single contradiction of the anti-Trump “resistance” is the marriage of convenience between genuine liberals and progressives, on one hand, and Cold War-style national security hawks on the other.

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Yes, it now appears certain that Russian agents meddled in the 2016 presidential election on an unusual scale — and in a sharply polarized situation, may even have tipped the balance. Yes, President Trump has a long and tangled history of shady business deals with Russian oligarchs, which may well account for his oddly smoochy relationship with Putin. Yes, Putin himself is a venal and corrupt autocrat with an atrocious human rights record.

Those things are important, but they do not come close to creating a good reason for the so-called left to align itself with paleo-conservative warmongers who believe that the best way to unite American society is through militant paranoia directed at an outside enemy. If you wanted to write a script that might allow Trump to win the Nobel Peace Prize (for real this time), and then sweep to re-election by depicting the Democrats as small-minded prisoners of old thinking, you could hardly do it better.

READ MORE: Russian bots are back: #WalkAway attack on Democrats is a likely Kremlin operation

In this and other ways, I suspect that Trump is once again luring his enemies into the political equivalent of a Heffalump trap — that is, a trap constructed to catch him, but in which we trap ourselves — as he did repeatedly during the 2016 presidential campaign. He is just smart enough to understand that he has no actual policies or ideology, and cannot survive any contest fought on that ground. But he might be able to win a second term and destroy democracy and become chicken-emperor for life and all the rest of it if he can persuade his enemies to sabotage themselves.

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How would they (or we) do that? Mostly by reflexively resisting Trump without any semblance of a positive vision for the future, and trying to claw our way back to the pre-2016 past, when it wasn’t yet obvious that liberal democracy was collapsing. Does that sound an awful lot like the dominant strategy of the Democratic Party? You tell me!

Effectively, it’s a dumber version of the “let’s kill Hitler” time-travel scenario: If we can recreate the conditions that made Trump possible — a world of grotesque inequality, permanent culture war and political paralysis, permanently ruled by neoliberal technocrats like Merkel and David Cameron and Barack Obama — maybe he won’t happen this time!

How do we avoid that? A good place to start is by facing the nature of the blind-chicken paradox. Trump often acts as a scouring agent who reveals truths below the surface of conventional politics, even if he doesn’t understand them or uses them in the worst possible ways. Trump is at least a little bit right about NATO defense spending, even if he has no idea how the policy is supposed to work and most of the things he said about it weren’t true. He also has a point on Merkel’s pipeline deal with Russia. In both cases, Trump seized on those issues not because he actually understood them or cared about them, but because they are sore spots in the NATO alliance that put the other leaders on the defensive.

It’s ludicrous to suggest that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia” because Merkel is buying a backup supply of cheap Russian gas from Gazprom, the giant company closely tied to the Putin oligarchy. But that deal has been a massive embarrassment in Europe: It was poorly timed and halfway swept under the carpet and has made the German chancellor look simultaneously clueless and hypocritical. In case you haven’t noticed, with Donald Trump the facts don’t much matter, but appearance is everything. Tactics and optics and inflated rhetoric and fanciful, paranoid narratives — that’s his terrain, and on that ground he remains undefeated.

Is Trump destroying democracy?

Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt explains that democracies can die slowly, and at the hands of voters.

Furthermore, Trump is 100 percent right that Theresa May has made a total botch of Brexit — mostly because she never supported pulling Britain out of the EU in the first place and knows there is no elegant or painless way to do it, but is now the prisoner of bad promises the Conservative Party made to its voters. It’s highly doubtful that Trump’s pal Boris Johnson could do better, but a reckless “hard Brexit” might crash the British economy and make the UK even more of an American client state than it is now, which would suit the president just fine.

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Even more to the point, Trump has revealed the contradictions in both NATO and the EU, a pair of problematic institutions that stand in the way of his campaign to fragment the liberal-democratic order and consolidate authoritarian power. (I have no idea whether he actually thinks in those terms, but some of his advisers do.) NATO is a military and strategic alliance that has had no clear adversary since 1991; any suggestion that Russia actually presents a military threat to Europe is ludicrous. To a large degree, its continuing existence is mysterious. Why, exactly, should Belgium and Spain increase their defense budgets to 4 percent of GDP? Who are they going to invade?

The EU is a far more complicated story, and I can’t hope to summarize its pros and cons accurately in this space. I think it’s fair to say that its promise, its failures and its unknown future are key battlegrounds of World War IV. If the EU is a glorified free-trade zone that tried to turn itself into a technocratic, humanitarian, social-democratic superstate, it never quite got there, and the question of whether the whole project was worth doing remains unanswered. It has been a bonanza for finance capital and high-tech manufacturing, and has unquestionably brought economic development to some of Europe’s poorer nations, but has also pretty much dumped its formerly grand Enlightenment social vision in the era of neoliberalism.

Is the EU’s survival in doubt, after British voters’ impulsive (and self-destructive) decision to bail out? Not yet, but stay tuned: With right-wing or anti-immigrant governments now in power in Italy, Hungary and Poland, and Merkel clearly near the end of her tenure in Germany, Europe’s identity crisis is real. Too many European citizens now perceive the EU as a bloodless, bureaucratic abstraction that seeks to uproot or destroy national or regional identity. The same question applies in Europe that reportedly tormented Barack Obama after the election of Trump: “What if we were wrong? … Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

Many people across the political spectrum and on both sides of the Atlantic view this new tribalism as a dangerous phenomenon that carries troubling echoes of the past. That’s the easy part. But is forging a common front between the left, the center and the responsible right really the effective or necessary path of resistance? Can such a front really be led by Establishment politicians like Merkel or May or Macron (or, for that matter, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer), simply because they seem like sane and rational people compared to the alternatives?

I don’t really know, but I suspect that’s the Heffalump trap: Those people are, at best, transitional figures between the failed politics of the past and the emerging politics of the future. At worst, they are steering the ship of trans-Atlantic democracy straight into the iceberg. I’m not here to preach the gospel of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to all people in all places; there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. But if you believe in a future of greater democracy, greater freedom and greater equality, and you have somehow convinced yourself that Theresa May and Angela Merkel are your friends, then a long, dark road lies ahead. With a blind chicken leading the way.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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