BUENOS AIRES — The United States and the world should ask themselves at some point whether Donald Trump, like the disastrous George W. Bush two terms before him, is an anomaly or a direct consequence of the nation's troubled history.
The question isn't as simple as it seems. And it will remain pertinent even after the upcoming U.S. presidential elections — regardless of who wins — because of how increasingly isolated the country has become during these notable past four years, as the influential, establishment review Foreign Affairs recently observed.
The first possible response is more reassuring. If Trump is an accident that only happened because of a momentary coincidence of conditions, this may be rectified with a change of president. Things can go back to their natural order, in other words, and continue as before. This is more or less the superficial message that his Democratic challenger,Joseph Biden, is giving his audiences as he seeks to boost his campaign and its slogan of Build Back Better.
The second option is more delicate. If Trump is no accident but the result of history and of events unfolding in his country and the world, then his presence has a graver meaning. He would be the superlative and visible symptom of the system in its present state, and the result of past crises that have prompted changes, including radical ones. Change is not always a sign of progress. Regression is change, for example.
The 1970s may have presaged this evolution, with President Richard Nixon's decision to break with the gold standard and an incipient deregulation of financial markets that led, ultimately, to the economic collapse that occurred on George Bush Jr.'s watch.
Change is not always a sign of progress.
That failure of a president was a consequence of history, not an accident. Recall too that Bush's first term produced two of capitalism's biggest crashes, first of the energy firm Enron and then of the telecoms firm WorldCom, both through unprecedented fraudulence backed by some "creative accounting" and both with the complicity of Arthur Andersen, one of the world's biggest auditors.
The tone of the time, which saw fraud as ingenious and quite distinct from criminal activity, later led to the fall of Lehman Brothers, in September 2008. After working for more than a century, the banking giant sank in a bog of worthless mortgages that had been given triple A ratings. The rating agencies couldn't be punished in the economic calamity as their activity is protected in the United States under the First Amendment on free speech. But the financial crisis had millions of victims in the United States and abroad and will forever be associated with Bush's second term.
Former president George W. Bush and his wife greeting Trump in 2018 — Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Pool/CNP/ZUMA
Social debts tend to be overlooked until they entail a political cost — which is to spit out leaders as radical as the frustrations of their voters. Since processes reveal their true identities once they end, as Walter Benjamin might say, Trump's campaign is a telling illustration of the social deterioration and disgust at politics that raised him to power.
His latest adventure has been to praise supporters of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, which the FBI describes as a potential terrorist threat. Trump praises them because they back his racist policies and diatribes against Democrat-run cities that have seen extensive race protests. QAnon's ideas include claims that Satan-worshipping politicians, along with A-list celebrities and foreign governments, are running a global pedophilia ring. It also warns about a plot by the so-called "deep state" to destroy Trump, and insists that 5G technology is spreading the coronavirus.
Like the emperor Caligula who also ruled for four years and reputedly believed he could do anything to anyone, Trump seemingly has abandoned all self-control or interest in winning over moderate voters. This has foreign policy consequences, as Foreign Affairs pointed out, and is affecting the country's international standing and leadership. The review believes Trump's conduct has weakened U.S. allies and strengthened enemies like North Korea, China, socialist Venezuela or the Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad.
Iran has resumed its nuclear program with the U.S. withdrawal from the Vienna accord. The Middle East has become more disorderly. And a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine seems shelved now. Also, in reversing Barack Obama's renewal of ties with Cuba, the United States has lost the opportunity to weaken backing for the Venezuelan regime.
Like Caligula, Trump seemingly has abandoned all self-control.
One of the keys in international affairs is to prevent your adversaries from joining forces. Iran, for example, is about to forge a strategic pact with China that will shape their economic policies and trade ties until 2045. The two have been negotiating for five years now, and the pact includes Iran selling China oil at competitive prices in exchange for $400 billion worth of investments.
The pact will strengthen China's regional position and plans for a new Silk Road, and help turn the harshest U.S. sanctions into a worthless scrap of paper. The worst effect of Western diplomacy here has been to weaken moderates in Iran in favor of hawks. President Hassan Rouhani, who had negotiated a détente with Obama, is now threatened with dismissal, which could give power to fanatics in a country that is crucial to regional stability.
These are not just Trump's clumsy decisions, but choices the United States has made these past four years. And understanding this may help answer the accident or consequence conundrum.
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