How did we get here?
There are several factors that have brought the United States to its current situation, none of which will be resolved completely by a Biden win of the White House. All of these factors have been sweltering in the country for many years, if not decades. In fact, even the Civil War can be described as a root cause of our current crisis.
Shorter-term, I would trace 9/11 as the beginning of the end for politics as usual in the United States — if such politics ever existed. Once the US committed to wars in Iraq and regime change elsewhere, the country had to enter into what Dick Cheney referred to as working with the ‘dark side.’ This effort, however, ultimately disenchanted many people of all political persuasions. While his claims are disputed, Mr. Trump did tell Fox News in 2019 that he never supported the (now) unpopular war:
“Look, we should have never been in Iraq. I’ve said that from day one and I was a civilian and it was covered but it was — you know, I was a civilian so who cares, right? But I said from day one, we should not go to Iraq.”
Trump, the ‘peace candidate’ of 2016, put together a coalition of the concerned and the disgruntled that sought to look inward and deal with pressing issues at home, including an immigration crisis and disintegrating middle class. That winning coalition has now apparently disintegrated.
An analysis of the 2020 Trump electoral wins clearly paints a picture of a United States divided between the East and West coast, with Trump’s base arising primarily from the middle of the country, in combination with the South in a way that eerily reflects a North-South divide and mirrors the Civil War — all with racial overtones. After the Civil War, a feeling of distrust and even hatred of the federal government lingered for many years, and it is understandable such biases against the ‘Yankees’ survive generationally to this day.
According to the New York Times:
“Spend some time in Southern museums, and it becomes clear that what seems evident up North is here clouded and contested. And if, in the North, the war seems part of a continuum of history, here it remains a cataclysm. The war was not a continuation of Southern history; it was a break in it. And that is still, for the South, the problem.”
The Civil War, still referred to as the war of the ‘Northern Agressor’ by many in the South, saw the Federal Government out of Washington DC as the enemy. Now, with the rise of the Internet and alternative (and often fake and/or intellectually lazy) news, the Federal government has again been pictured as an evil that needed to be rectified with a savior. Enter the outsider, Donald Trump.
Former President Barack Obama theorizes that it was his presidency that may have triggered latent racism that also led to Trump’s rise, and again point to sentiments and outright hatred tracing itself back to Lincoln. Obama writes in his new memoir:
“It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted,” Obama writes. “Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president.”
The irony is, of course, is that our recent history has buttressed the perception of the Federal Government as a bad actor. Certainly, since the Vietnam War, the United States has at times been looked at as an imperialistic war-monger.
Stated bluntly, the litany of illegal, dishonest, misleading, and hypocritical activity, mostly created as an attempt to wield foreign policy as a way to stave off a variety of enemies and support other long term policy goals, has forced many in the United States either into a state of willful ignorance or disgust, even if the purported goals of the US were, on paper, justified. Our enemies have historically included both fascism and communism, while policy goals have included fighting the ‘Global War on Terror,’ regime change in the Middle East, NATO expansion, and containment of Russian and China.
To do this, the United States has created a military machine that is unrivaled, but expensive to maintain. This bloated military also exists at the expense of social programs that are considered the norm in other advanced countries.
This vaunted military machine was thrust into the Middle East in a very aggressive way, and many would argue failed to produce the intended goals of a democratic region that provided an opportunity for its people.
Rather, we created vassal states, perpetual war, and hundreds of thousands killed and displaced through migration; in short, an unmitigated failure. According to John Glaser at the Cato Institute:
“Far from serving a stabilizing role, U.S. policy has rather plainly destabilized the region. The Iraq War upended the Middle East, empowered Iran, and fueled a new generation of jihadist terrorists. Washington bungled a series of changes in the Egyptian regime and helped (along with other external actors) fuel Syria’s civil war. The Obama administration’s Libya war created anarchy and new refugee flows. And our longstanding support for Saudi Arabia as a balance to Iran has not only failed to roll back Iran’s regional activity, but it has also emboldened Riyadh to act aggressively and pick fights with several of its neighbors.”
It is no wonder that American voters brought in Mr.Trump in 2016 on his firm message to stop this downward spiral of foreign intervention that saw no end.
But Trump did not deliver as expected.
Rather, Mr. Trump exploited internal rifts in the North-South divide, creating an incredibly toxic domestic political environment that incompetently dealt with problems both internal and external alike. In short, Trump essentially abrogated any positive role the US government might play in the world. He was too busy firing and rotating leadership in a way that destroyed his ability to build a cohesive set of policies that could be executed on.
Rather than questioning foreign policy failures of the United States and trying to correct course in a meaningful way, Trump has rather sought to distract from his personal and policy shortcomings with a divide and conquer strategy that pits ‘patriots’ against ‘socialists and communists’ — often with racial and exclusionary overtones.
In a sense, our post-WWII enemies have been internalized, and the left finds itself longing for the ‘stability’ of the Obama administration, itself rife with hypocrisy and poor leadership on foreign policy (read Hillary Clinton) in a way that neo-conservatives nevertheless loved. Fast forward to today: you know there’s a problem in US politics when the left will wistfully listen to neo-cons such as Karl Rove and John Bolten rail against Mr. Trump.
Speaking of neo-cons, in looking back on 2016, when Americans mulled over the prospects of a Hillary Clinton presidency and more of the same in the Middle East, they chose a different path. For many who voted for Trump, Clinton was viewed as a potential warmonger. According to Micah Zenko:
“Though she has opposed uses of force that she believed was a bad idea, she has consistently endorsed starting new wars and expanding others. By any reasonable measure, Clinton qualifies as a hawk, if a nuanced one.”
Again, we have with Trumpism an understandable reaction to the United States’ failed policies and a desire to retreat from them. Moreover, the Federal Government's ‘ deep state’ was seen by many as needed to be uprooted so that long-term, entrenched, and seemingly unstoppable foreign interventions from the United States could be halted.
That said, instead of meaningfully dealing with any of this reality, Mr. Trump essentially threw the baby out with the bathwater by denuding any effective use of the United States government in a positive sense, conflating (for example) well-intentioned civil servants with the ‘deep state’. He disempowered the high-minded people running agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and other arms of the Federal Government designed to dissuade the private sector from abuses.
At the end of the day, he revealed his biggest concern and desire was to cut taxes for the investor class and wealthy. In other words, to support the people he truly represents.
As for shifting the US away from a war stance, Trump did nothing to move us away from the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower railed against — and the war machine remains intact. In fairness, he did at least keep American adventurism reigned in, while at the same time hinting we should really dial back our domestic vision to something akin to Calvin Coolidge and the 1920s.
While I don’t want to dive into a history lesson in this short essay, suffice it to say that we don’t want to return to the era of monopolistic robber barons and laissez-faire economics that preceded Roosevelt’s new deal. FDR’s very activist attempt to reshape the government did not rise out of a vacuum, and with COVID-19 decimating the economy, we may in fact need a return to the spirit of FDR in order to move forward.
But Mr. Trump did not have us on that path — and in fact, he was criticized for taking steps to cut Social Security and Medicare. Instead of defeating the ‘deep state’ Mr. Trump sought to truncate any good the government might do because he and his followers are unable to parse government activity in an intelligent way and separate the wheat from the chaff. Instead, his approach was slash and burn.
Moreover, while he did notably keep the country out of any large scale foreign war, he instead created internal enemies that now have the potential to tear the country apart. The entrenched distrust and hated of the North-South divide raises its ugly head yet again.
It’s time to come together and heal. Hopefully, Mr. Biden will truly lead us in that direction and restore the idea that the government can actually be a beneficial thing. It simply needs to be steered in an intelligent way that recognizes our foreign policy blunders, continues to keep us out of unnecessary conflicts, insists on racial justice, takes whatever good ideas and lessons learned that rose out of the Trump regime (by either using and/or acknowledging them), lets the progressives have strong input, and gets back to the work of helping the American people.
D.R. Thompson is a film producer and essayist. His essays have appeared in The Potomac Journal, SolPix Webzine, Life as a Human, Utne Online, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), and other blogs. Films produced and/or supported by Thompson have garnered international acclaim at festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, and Berlin. His book of essays A World Without War is available on Amazon here.
Hillary the Hawk: A History by Micah Zenko — Foreign Policy News
Let’s Face It: US Policy in the Middle East Has Failed by John Glase — CATO Institute
America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East: Losing Iraq and the Gulf by Anthony H. Cordesman — Center for Strategic and International Studies
Fact check: Trump falsely claims, again, to have opposed the invasion of Iraq by Daniel Dale, CNN
Not Forgotten by Edward Rothstein: — The New York Times