Trump Heads Back to the Future

By Andrej Mrevlje |

The election of Donald Trump for president of the United States is not just insane (as many liberals might say); painful (in Michelle Obama’s words); unpredictable (Nate Silver); desirable (Vladimir Putin); or threatening (China). It’s more — Trump is revenge against human ignorance, a boomerang that has returned to those who thought that his election would be like a Martian being elected president of the United States. And who on Earth would ever expect that a Slovenian immigrant would become a resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

With Trump’s appearance on the national political scene, America is discovering a new genre of writing — Trumpology. Serious effort has been put into trying to figure out something that is virtually incomprehensible and undefinable.

Trump is a self-loving person who, when a mirror is not available, says whatever he heard from the last person he talked to. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why access to the golden tower in the middle of Manhattan is so well protected and sealed off from the public. And why Donald Trump shows so little interest in settling down in the White House. Not because the White House lodgings are that much smaller or less shiny than his two-floor private headquarters in the Fifth Avenue tower in Manhattan, but because his privacy will be much less protected in the White House than in his own fortress.

In the end, all of these musings and gut feelings — whether they’re individual or collective — can never explain the whole picture. But one thing is certain: with Trump’s appearance on the political stage, the world has been turned upside down and is now marching backward.

It feels like we’re back 40 years ago when the world cards had been reshuffled and China was pulled out of the cold. Then the arms race started. The paranoid Soviet Union jumped on Afghanistan and got involved in a war that sucked out its last economic resources. The 70-year-old socialist fortress started cracking and finally crumbled. The ruins of the Soviet Empire paved the way for world domination by the United States. Alone at the top, America got drunk off of the victory and started to plant new military bases and missile shields around the world, expanding the borders of NATO while exporting democracy with the bombs.

Eventually, such arrogance made the Bush administration and the Halliburton corporation think that regime change in Baghdad would bring more oil to American pipelines. It was wrong and ignorant to expect that in the midst of a remote land surrounded by thousands of miles of hostile territory, Washington’s soldiers could survive — much less govern — a strange country. It was greedy and bullying to think that way.

Vietnam was a long and ugly war, too. It started for no good reason — if not purely for a personal hatred and cold war ideology that inspired the Dulles brothers to lead America into conflicts like Vietnam, Stephen Kinzer says in his book on the subject.

Will it take another bizarre president of whom America is not proud to pull the country out of its military troubles? In 1971, Richard Nixon engaged China and, with Mao Zedong’s help, managed to untangle the United States from the ugly war in Vietnam. Will Donald Trump — this unpredictable reality showman – engage the Russians to get America out of its troubles in the Middle East? We are in the very early stages of this hypothesis. We do not know yet which way this president-elect will head when he finally gets into office. But it is also because of Trump’s unpredictability that a better and stronger relationship between the U.S. and Russia is possible down the road.

And there are other hints at what Trump’s presidency will mean for America’s international relations — like his phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, followed by Beijing’s angry reaction that ended with China capturing an American underwater drone close to the Philippine coast.

The Chinese seem to be seriously worried about Trump — especially after the president-elect nominated Rex Tillerson, a long-standing friend of Putin, to be his secretary of state. Is he just poking us, or is it something more? the Chinese are asking themselves. Is Trump thinking of doing the reverse of what Nixon did in the ’70s? Could Rex Tillerson become Donald Trump’s Henry Kissinger?

On December 2, the president-elect was sitting in his office on the 26th floor of his tower. He was not happy — he had yet to choose a secretary of state. Trump’s transition team had already vetted candidates like the former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, Senator Bob Corker and retired general David Petraeus, but the president-elect was not convinced about any of them.

But according to the Washington Post:

Then, by happenstance, Trump welcomed into his office a man who has served presidents of both parties, Robert M. Gates. Trump asked his guest, a former CIA director and former defense secretary, what he thought of the four candidates. After Gates ran through his thoughts, it seemed that Trump was “looking for a way out,” a person familiar with the session said.Trump asked whether there was someone else to consider.

“I recommend Rex,” Gates told Trump, referring to Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil.

A few days later, Politico reported:

When Trump and Tillerson met in Trump Tower on Dec. 6, “they hit it off” immediately, as one transition official put it — two men who have made billion-dollar deals and boast the bona fides of having run multinational companies.

“He’s totally the Trump M.O.,” this official said. “Strong guy. … As soon as he met him, he told people that Tillerson is the kind of guy that walks in a room and commands respect. Liked Romney. Liked Rudy. But Tillerson was a stronger guy. He liked his strength.

Trump is all about strength. During the primaries and the general election, he called his opponents weaklings — presidential candidates without the necessary stamina to lead the country.

Trump’s obsession with strength began in 1990, when — as I’ve noted before — he praised the Chinese government for showing strength when they killed hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square.

To have strength today is to build a wall on the Mexican border, expel millions of illegal immigrants who live in the U.S., and poke China… or whoever tries to stop America from becoming “great again.”

Aside from the strength that he embodies, Tillerson is also in the perfect position to make peace with Putin’s Russia. Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, who published a book on Exxon four years ago, describes Exxon and Tillerson as one body:

Of all the companies that were born out of the breakup of Standard Oil, Exxon is culturally the most direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic giant, which was organized on principles of ruthless capitalism and Protestant faith. Exxon today is an unusually cloistered corporation that promotes virtually all of its top executives from within. Former executives I interviewed mentioned that as recently as the nineteen-seventies, it was not unusual to start company meetings with a prayer. When Tillerson finally won a competition for the top job, in 2004, he directed substantial time and charitable activity toward the Boy Scouts. In public appearances, he comes across as sophisticated, yet his life is rooted in environments that are fundamentally nostalgic for imagined midcentury virtues and for the days when burning fossil fuels did not threaten to trigger catastrophic climate change. Tillerson once listed his favorite book as “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel that has become a touchstone for libertarians and promoters of unbridled capitalism. Compared to the records of some of the other people around Trump, Tillerson’s is at least one of professional integrity; Exxon is a ruthless and unusually aggressive corporation, but it is also rule-bound, has built up a relatively strong safety record, and has avoided problems such as prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even though it operates in many countries that are rife with corruption.   

Calling Exxon “ruthless and unusually aggressive corporation” makes the company sound like a group of medieval crusaders, especially with the fact that its employees used to start their meeting with a prayer — as if praying to God will free them from the sins that they commit while depleting this planet of its resources.

And Exxon as a “rule-bound” corporation? Nobody can claim that the templars’ and crusaders’ missions were not rule-bound. Every mission with a goal to conquer and convert has rules. Both Exxon and Trump’s future government have a mission.

So if Tillerson gets confirmed by Congress, his first mission will be to lift the sanctions that are blocking the $500 billion oil deal that America signed with Russia and that later on got blocked because of the sanctions placed after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. The sanctions not only put Exxon at risk, as the Wall Street Journal reported, but prevented Russia from moving in a new historical trajectory. So there are two parties who are interested in lifting those sanctions.

Doing so and establishing friendly relations could also create the conditions for joint moves in the Middle East policy — a further step in a strategic shift in U.S. foreign policy. The nominations of retired general Mike Flynn for national security advisor and retired general James Mattis for secretary of defense suggest that Trump’s administration will focus more on the Middle East and the challenges of Islamist extremism, according to Elizabeth C. Economy.

“For this reason, China — which feels threatened by the new president-elect — will be left alone for a while, at least. As Economy puts it, “China, which sees the rebalancing efforts in the Asia Pacific as destabilizing and a threat to its successful rise, a relaxed hands-off U.S. approach to the region and China’s role within it would be greatly welcomed.”

There is no doubt that Trump — the master of the deal, as he sees himself — will try to negotiate and take as much as he can from all sides. But as some colleagues, diplomats and officials have told me, the president-elect intends to build his own country. Will it be more Trump towers or more bridges and highways? We will have to wait and see. But one thing is certain: with Trump, America will get richer for a while. There is no doubt that wealth will grow and the country will seem to get stronger. Poking rival countries in the eye is a tool to obtain maximum concessions for the American economy. “Pollute, deregulate and get richer” is, in my estimation, the forthcoming American business model that will define the Trump era.

It will be followed, no doubt, by an increasing deficit of democracy. Just look at the profile of the people that Trump has picked so far for White House jobs. Billionaires and generals do not typically like to discuss their options. They are men of action. They are people who represent the interests of corporations — not the people’s will. So even if Trump likes Putin, the new American administration will more likely look at the more efficient Chinese model that appeared after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Will somebody call Beijing and tell them this?  

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